This morning I bought a notebook at Family Mart to empty my confused mind onto. The confusion started again pretty quickly. I have spent the last couple of weeks in huge woods and forests in rural Japan, over two thirds of Japan is covered with surplus wood. Yet my notebook had ‘Made in Indonesia’ printed on it, even the wooden bowls on sale in Muji had ‘Made in Philippines’ stamped on them.
Family Mart and Muji were station-side stores in the coastal town of Iwaki in Fukushima. I have come here get myself fit again after a long spell of work. Tokyo’s concrete forest is no place to recover.
Autumn colours line the pavement on Iwaki’s Ginza road. On closer inspection, the red leaves are made of paper and are stuck to brown branches made of plastic. Well, it looks like autumn if you squint. If Ginza road isn’t a glamorous enough name, the street also calls itself Princess Avenue, there are even small statues of Cinderella, Snow White and Princess Kaguya.
I took my notebook into Break cafe. It has two stories, a fake brick panels outside and fake wooden flooring inside. The menus are works of art, shoppers and schoolgirls crammed over it like pigs at a trough, “piza oishisou!” (the pizza looks tasty) – yes, if you squint hard enough. Cream is the cafe’s big attraction: creamy coffee, creamy crepes and even cream on ice-cream.
Next to me, two schoolgirls were telling tales of a recent school-trip to Kyoto, Nara and Himeji. School trips in Japan seem to be a coming of age event, a way of informing children they are part of a nation not just part of a town. The whole of Japan seems to have visited Kiyomizu-dera at some point, normally as a teenager.
The waitress came over to refill my water glass. She did it with a smile and a flourish. She was taking real pride in her job. This reminded me of a conversation back in Brighton between an English man and a Tokyo man. The Englishman was looking for a job, a job that “helps people, something useful”. He was not having any luck. The Tokyo man said the Englishman should not categorise jobs in that way. All jobs are useful. All jobs are meeting a need and worth doing. It was an interesting point.
Speaking of mundane jobs, in the film Gakko, there is a moving scene when the night-school teacher recites a poem about a toilet cleaner who takes immense pride in scrubbing the bowl spotlessly clean. I can’t remember either the poet or the poem, but the image of this proud and diligent toilet cleaner has lingered in my mind, a frequent inspiration and encouragement, and not just for cleaning the toilet better.