The coldest winter, the warmest hearts

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The coldest winter, the warmest hearts

By Wenlin Tan

There is a secret in the rural town of Ishinomaki: You are welcome anytime.

Two disorientating nights in Tokyo - being 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 and train lines- are enough to convince me: Tokyo is not for me. Thankfully, two nights is all have, and with a sigh of relief I flee, zooming on the bullet train to the north-east.  

Three hours later, exiting the station, the serenity of Ishinomaki is a welcome escape- save for a few people sitting 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 my body is 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.

The rural town of Ishinomaki (石巻) lies in Miyagi Prefecture of Tohoku, nestled along the Sanriku coast, where warm and cold ocean currents meet, making it a prime commercial fishing hub. Some affectionately call it ‘rock and roll city’, a literal translation of ‘Ishinomaki’. In recent years it has become known for being the area that was devastated by the Tsunami & Tohoku earthquake of 2011. My trip here is a happy accident- an acquaintance and fellow illustrator/writer introduced me to an educational tourism project, Boundless, which runs tours in rural areas such as Ishinomaki. 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 has been in Japan for over a decade, and mastermind behind Boundless.

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

I nod empathetically, not giving much thought to this initially. But over the next few days during my stay in Ishinomaki, the term would surface in my mind time and time again.

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 classes on software development by local startup ITNAV - convince me that Ishinomaki is anything but backward.

An encounter during on the coldest night during the five days in Ishinomaki, 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 buried deep in my coat pockets and my nose and cheeks hidden beneath my scarf. There is a slight rancidity in the air, a byproduct of the few fish and seafood processing factories we pass along our way. In the numbness of the cold and darkness I struggle to pay attention to the road and our surroundings, following behind Dennis blindly.

After going straight and a few turns, Dennis announces that we've reached our destination, and a wave of relief washes over me. He knocks gently on the aged-looking door of warehouse with a granite coloured roof. After a brief pause, the door opens we are welcomed into the warm, cozy 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 just behind us. I immediately beeline for the heater, and heave a sigh of 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, and the story behind his creation. A former sushi chef and local of Ishinomaki, he noticed that following the onslaught of the tsunami, there were hardly any common spaces for residents to meet and come together.

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

As we survey the various furniture pieces in their makeshift showroom on the second floor, and my gaze lands on an AA stool, one of their earliest and most famous designs. The peculiar shape of a logo, etched on the side of the school, catches my eye. The words, ‘Ishinomaki lab’ are contained within a square, like a box, but there is 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 am sitting on the bus departing Ishinomaki, looking out the window at the town square and train station, 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 I met, including a Kagoshima native who hunts deer, fishes and makes wooden houses from scratch, a British who is the director of the local community & information 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.