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Kamakura stationery store starts exchange diary relay around Japan amid pandemic

This photo shows Kyoko Hidaka, who launched the exchange diary project, in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, on March 5, 2021. (Mainichi/Tsumuki Nakamura)

KAMAKURA, Kanagawa -- A stationary store here has started an exchange diary project where strangers write their thoughts in a notebook in a relay format in the hope that handwritten letters will warm the hearts of people who tend to feel down during the coronavirus pandemic.

    In today's world of social media, the idea of handwriting in a notebook is rather new, and the project has been receiving positive feedback, including from one participant who said "it was soothing." When recipients open the A5 size notebook, colorful letters and illustrations jump out. The contents written on the pages vary depending on the participant and reflects their personality including their hobbies, what they've been up to, where they live and their favorite stationery store.

    Many of them have written positive messages, as if they are trying to cheer themselves up amid the coronavirus pandemic, such as, "I hope the situation will settle down soon and we can have a bright future that combines the best parts of our old and new lifestyles. Every day I keep saying, 'When the coronavirus is over,' but we only have to be patient for a little while longer. Let's all do our best!!"

    A spread page written by Ayumi Sakai is seen in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, on March 5, 2021. (Mainichi/Tsumuki Nakamura)

    A different participant recalled, "I used to keep an exchange diary with my friends every day in elementary and junior high school. It feels nostalgic," and wrote memories of being kicked out of class in high school when the teacher found the writer and a friend passing around a letter during class.

    Another wrote humorously about the weeding they became immersed in amid the pandemic, "I felt so good when I pulled out the weeds at my feet. Like a bulldozer, I pulled them out. My cloudy mood lifted."

    The idea came from Kyoko Hidaka, an illustrator and co-owner of Kotori, a stationery store in the city of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. The roughly 12-square-meter store, located on the first floor of a private house, is filled with colorful and charming stationery. The store is very popular, attracting many customers even from outside the prefecture.

    This year marks the 10th anniversary of the store, but the number of customers has dropped by half due to the voluntary restraint from going out due to the coronavirus. Even so, Hidaka planned to liven up this special year and came up with an idea for the project after thinking about "something interesting that people who can't visit the store can participate in, that feels extraordinary and exciting."

    Around September of last year, she started inviting participants through the store's website and on social media, and received applications one after another from all over Japan. Within about a week, 60 men and women, exceeding the planned number of 50 participants, had signed up. A lot of people who had never been to the store before also expressed their willingness to participate.

    For the project, the store first mails a participant a notebook. The recipient writes freely within four pages and returns the notebook to the store in about one week to 10 days. The store then sends the returned notebook to the next participant. There are currently two notebooks going around at the same time. The project started in October last year, and about eight people per month have been writing in the notebooks.

    Ayumi Sakai of Aichi Prefecture received the notebook in early January. She moved from Chiba Prefecture last fall after getting married and changing jobs, but because she works in the service industry, there were many days when she could not go to work because of the pandemic.

    "The anxiety of a new life and the impatience to get used to a new place were piling up at the time (I received the diary). The handwritten letters gave me a glimpse into the personality and circumstances of the writer, and I was relieved to be able to feel the person's warmth, which I could not feel through a mask or an online screen," Sakai said.

    She thought that the exchange diary, which she soon passed on, is "like a once-in-a-lifetime encounter," and she filled the pages with brightly colored entries, hoping that those who come after her will also feel a sense of cheerfulness.

    A separate woman living in Tokyo, 47, who works in the medical field, said, "It was fun to get away from my stressful job, and a good change of pace."

    Michi Tsuruo of Kanazawa, Ishikawa prefecture, who works for a publishing company and spends a lot of time by herself working from home, recalled, "I was feeling almost depressed due to stress, but the handwritten text was warm and soothing."

    The notebooks returned to the store are decorated with stickers and stamps on the front and back covers, showing that the participants were having fun in their own way. According to Hidaka, all the participants are scheduled to receive the notebooks by summer, and after that, the diaries will be displayed in the store. The day may come when the participants meet each other for the first time in the store.

    "Handwritten letters have warmth and can express the atmosphere of the time. It's fun just to look at a heartfelt diary. I hope people will come and see the diaries in the store after the coronavirus has settled down," Hidaka said.

    (Japanese original by Tsumuki Nakamura, Yokohama Bureau)

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