These are very common in Japan because of the great importance placed on good penmanship. I do so wish more importance was placed on penmanship in the West as well. As a teacher I cannot describe the handwriting I see today. Bad handwriting is not as problematic for me as people who, quite simply, cannot write. They are so out of practice that they battle to put pen to paper.
In Japan, Shitajiki – also called pencil boards or writing mats – are very common. They give a nice firm surface on which to write and are also invaluable when writing on thin paper (such as Tomoe River paper) as they prevent pressure marks on the pages underneath from your pen. This is fantastic for lefties like myself who hold their pens more tightly and press harder on paper than righties. This is largely from the way we were taught to write.
In Japan the most common size is B5 which is bigger than A5 and smaller than A4. So most Shitajiki are B5. Though you can find A5 ones on the Nanami Paper site (look for ‘writing mat’), and A6 ones on the Hobonichi site (look for ‘pencil board’). You can also find A5 ones on eBay if you look for ‘mini’ or check the size specifications in the description. A5 size is 210mm x 148mm (21cm x 14.8cm). You can also often choose between hard and soft, and matte and smooth. I like soft matte as it has give and does not impede my writing.
I prefer clear ones but you can see some of my printed ones above. This type of Shitajiki is often printed with artwork, promotional slogans and anime/manga. They generally are very collectible as they are done in single runs. I get mine from eBay seller tsumujikaze-hsik as they are cheap, quick and have many to choose from in A5 size. Make sure of the size before you buy.
These are very useful if you use thin paper or press hard when you write. You put them a page or a few pages beneath the writing paper and they provide a nice surface upon which to write. They prevent your pen or pencil from leaving pressure marks on the pages beneath and really make writing look nice. They are also useful to put under your hand as you reach the bottom of the page of a book. This prevents your hand slipping awkwardly off the edge of the writing area.
Looking at this picture, on top left is a Hobonichi A6 pencil board, a Nanami Paper soft green A5 writing mat and a Nanami Paper A5 hard clear writing mat. On the bottom are three thinner shitajikis from eBay. All of these are available in different sizes and can be cut down to size. The bottom three are very thin and light can be punched to form a dashboard or writing board for a Filofax without taking up too much space. I have not bought from this seller but he or she sells clear writing boards in all colours. The A6 writing board would work for paper larger than A6 as you just move it down as you write lower on the page.
I also have pencil boards for my Traveler’s notebooks from Tarokoshop on Etsy. He does A4, Regular and personal size.
Of all my writing mats, this one is my absolute favourite. From Nanami paper, it is a thick soft matte green one with a gel like feel. It is absolute heaven to write on. I have the A5 size but you can get several sizes and of course you can always cut them down to size.