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The coldest winter, the warmest hearts

The coldest winter, the warmest hearts is a travel story featuring the rural town of Ishinomaki, in Sendai, Japan. It was created as part of the writer’s program BOUNDLESS, organised by SoSei Partners an organisation that runs rural rejuvenation programs across Japan. This story will be included 2019 Edition of Travel Stories and Highlights by Robert Fear.

Read the story below.

Two disorientating nights in Tokyo – squished like sanma in a tin can with the rush hour crowd commuting along the Yamanote line; stunned like a deer in headlights at the billboards in dizzying colours and fonts all around the Shibuya crossing; confused like a chameleon in a bag of skittles by the spiderweb of metro lines – are enough to convince me: Tokyo is not for me. Thankfully, two nights is all I have, and with a sigh of relief, I flee on the bullet train to the north-east.

Three hours later, the serenity of Ishinomaki is a welcome escape- save for a few people at the bus station, the square is completely empty; aside from the gusts of wind streaming in, there is barely a sound. The hair of my skin immediately stand at attention to the frigid air around me, a gentle reminder of how ill-equipped I am for the cold. A borrowed woollen coat the shade of wisteria in full bloom, something (if given a choice) I would never be caught dead in, becomes my most prized possession, shielding me for the next few days.

Affectionately dubbed ‘rock and roll city’, a literal translation of ‘Ishinomaki’ 石巻, the rural town lies in Miyagi Prefecture, nestled along the Sanriku coast. Most Japanese know it as the area that was hit hardest by the 2011 Tsunami and Tohoku earthquake. My trip here is a happy accident- an acquaintance introduced me to an educational tourism project, Boundless, which runs tours in rural areas. Wanting to venture somewhere off the beaten track, I jumped at the chance to visit.

During an orientation of the city, I am introduced to the concept/term ‘Inaka’ (田舎) by Dennis, a lanky Singaporean who’s the mastermind behind Boundless.

‘Inaka translates to ‘rural area’ or ‘countryside, but there is also the misconception that people here are unsophisticated or backward’, Dennis shrugs apologetically.

I nod empathetically, not giving much thought.

The initiatives I am introduced to – wake up calls from fisherman to rebrand their image in people’s minds by Yahoo and Fisherman Japan, opportunities for small restaurateurs to build their businesses by renting food trucks at a low rent at Hashidori Common, and free IT classes on software development by local start-up ITNAV – convince me that Ishinomaki is anything but backward.

An encounter during on the coldest night during my five days there, however, is what leaves a lasting impression.

Late in the evening after dusk, we alight the bus at a stop along a dimly-lit road. We shuffle in the freezing cold, my fingers numb, buried deep in my coat pockets, and my nose hidden beneath my scarf. There is a slight rancidity in the air, a byproduct of the seafood processing factories we pass along our way. I struggle to pay attention to the road, following behind Dennis blindly.

Reaching a grey-roofed warehouse, Dennis knocks on the door gently. After a brief pause, the door creaks open, and we are welcomed into the headquarters of Ishinomaki lab.

Chief marketer David, a genial bespectacled Canadian, shows us around the two-storey workspace with cream coloured walls and crimson red railings.

On the first floor, hand tools and power tools are strewn over long wooden workbenches where three craftsmen are hard at work. Huge logs of wood are stacked to the far end of the facility, and a rustic-looking heater is just behind us. I beeline for the heater, sighing in relief as my fingers thaw like frozen sausages over a campfire.

We are introduced to Chiba san, a well-built middle-aged man with smiling eyes, the creator of Ishinomaki Lab. A former sushi chef and local, he noticed that following the onslaught of the tsunami, there were hardly any common spaces for residents to come together.

‘Let’s make some simple furniture, put it in public areas and see what happens,’ he thought. This is how Ishinomaki lab was born.

As we survey their creations, my gaze lands on an AA stool, their earliest and most famous design. The peculiar shape of a logo, etched on the side of the stool, catches my eye. The words, ‘Ishinomaki lab’ are contained within a box-like square, with a small opening on the top right corner.

‘Do you know why it’s is designed this way?’ David asks.

After pondering a moment, I shake my head.

‘We intentionally left this space, to remind us to be open to new ideas and welcome perspectives from outside, always.’

At this, something stirs in me- a feeling I can’t quite put my finger on. But time is up, and we have a go at heat embossing on a small wooden block, a souvenir for our visit, before leaving. Subsequently, those words and that memory settle into the background, like how most memories do. But the thing that stirred within me never settled- in fact, it resurfaced, getting stronger each time.   The days fly by, and before I realise, I on the bus waiting to Ishinomaki, looking out the window at the town square, recalling the moment I arrived, freezing from the curt politeness and alienation of Tokyo.

Memories from past few days flood my mind: smiles and hugs from residents, locals and non-locals alike; colourful individuals, including a Kagoshima native who hunts deer, fishes and makes wooden houses from scratch, a British who is the director of the local community center, a Kanazawa native who works at the town hall – many of whom came to Ishinomaki to help with the reconstruction efforts and never left; the logo, those words from Ishinomaki lab; and the term, ‘Inaka’.

And I realise: the warmth of Inaka, this was what was stirring inside.

The bus captain gets on the bus into his seat, announcing that the time is approximately 22:10 and will departing for Tokyo. I smile, and wave a silent goodbye to the station, knowing this won’t be the last time I visit.

Because the secret of Ishinomaki is,

the warmth of Inaka welcomes you anytime.

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