RAoK #10 Buskers

This is what more than 400 5p coins looks like:

5ps

For some time now I’ve been wanting to give something to the many buskers around London. I wanted to do it more systematically than just drop money in here and there and I decided I wanted to give something to every busker I passed. I originally said I wouldn’t do any RAoKs that cost money, but when I found myself with these left after a project, it seemed the perfect opportunity. Far better than changing them back or spending them piecemeal! So, from now on, I shall be wandering around with a few of these ready in my pockets, I’ll let you know how long it takes me to get rid of them all.

In other course-related news, I won the fellowship I applied for (see me here. You have to scroll to the right to find me, but click on my face and you can watch my application video) and passed my first year exam. On to year two!

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RAoKs #7-9

It’s patently obvious that I haven’t been writing about my RAoKs lately, but the good news is, I have still been doing them. Not at the rate I’d hoped, but they are occurring.

#7: I stand up to let allow someone else have a seat regularly whilst on the tube.

#8: Checking on a homeless man. On an errand for college, I walked past a homeless man sitting up on a bench, under a tarpaulin and apparently asleep. 5 hours later, I walked past the man again in the opposite direction and he was sitting in the identical position: he didn’t appear to have moved at all. The cup of tea someone had left him earlier was still there, untouched by his side. Concerned, I decided to check he was just sleeping. He was, fortunately. I’m fairly sure he didn’t want to be checked on, actually, so does this really count as a RAoK? All in all, though, I think it’s probably better to very slightly interrupt a man’s sleep than to leave him if he needs help. I hope he at least got some comfort from knowing that he wasn’t entirely invisible to the crowds streaming past.

#9: On a visit to the Design Museum I took a seat in a gallery of various pictures collected over the years by Paul Smith. I’d been there a few minutes when a blind man was seated next to me by his wife, who then went off to look at the pictures. I offered to describe the pictures to him, and we chatted for a few minutes about the various pieces there were there and then more general things.

As if you hadn’t guessed, the course doesn’t leave much time for things outside, and I am mostly doing little RAoKs when the opportunities present themselves, but I haven’t forgotten or given up on doing some larger pre-planned ones!

 

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RAoK #6 Pens

The other day, whilst loitering next to a student noticeboard with a friend, we were asked by someone for a pen. Lightning fast, I went for my bag, but too slow! My friend got to hers first. So close ><

I trundled home, mildly miffed at the loss of this minor RAoK to someone else, but I needn’t have feared. I had barely rested my backside against the little padded backside rest some tube trains have instead of seating in some areas when the man next to me asked me if I had a pen he could borrow. Delighted at this second opportunity, my pen was out and in his hand in under a second. He then proceeded to tear a stip of paper off the newspaper of the woman next to him and to write what looked a lot like his name and phone number on it. He then returned my pen and sat, slip of paper clenched hotly in hand looking exceedingly nervous and manifestly did not give it to any of the many eligible people surrounding him.

I’ll never know exactly what his plan was for that slip of paper, but I do wish I’d asked him: I may have been able to encourage him into gathering his courage and giving to whoever he had in mind.

I couldn’t really take a photo of the poor guy, so here is a stock image of a pen instead:

Power of Words

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RAoK #5: Litter Picking (again).

The last time I wrote one of these was seven and half weeks ago, and what a seven and a half weeks! It was just two days before I moved out of my old apartment in Tokyo into the temporary accommodation that was donated to me for my last few weeks in Japan, and it marked the end of all my old habits and the start of the transition period. It will still be some time before I settle into a new routine.

It is true that I have been incredibly busy for all of that time, and I could certainly point to plenty of stress and anxiety as reasons why I have not done any RAoKs since then, but no excuses! Acts of kindness are not things that should be put on hold when we are too busy and there are always small things we can find to do, however full our diaries. This is something I was reminded of rather sharply last week by an old lady on the bus whose husband I had failed to notice and stand up for. So, with that in mind, here is my inaugural RAoK on UK soil and a promise to do better from now on.

On an overcast and chilly September afternoon, my little friend and I went for a walk to pick some sloes and blackberries from the hedgerows and, while we were at it, we also filled this large bag with assorted cans, till receipts, discarded jumpers and bits of fishing line. The fishing line in particular made me very angry, but my companion was more concerned with all the slugs that were inside the discarded beer can we found. Empirical evidence that slugs really do like beer enough to drown themselves in it. Silly slugs.

LitterPicker

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RAoK #4: Lost Tourists

With nearly 4 million passengers passing through per day, Shinjuku station is by far the busiest transport hub in the world. Not only is it busy, it is also huge. The station serves 12 lines and has 36 platforms, but the lines are run by four different train companies, which means it’s more like an agglomeration of four different stations. There is also a huge underground arcade that extends to several nearby smaller stations close enough to be reached on foot. It has well over 200 exits and both exits and railway lines are generally only signed if you are already in vaguely the right area of the station complex[1]. It’s quite common to see tourists wandering around clutching useless Lonely Planet guides and looking confused, frustrated and quite possibly tearful. I have lost hours of my life in that place trying to find where I was supposed to be and, having lived just 4 minutes away for nearly three years, I still only have a passing familiarity with how to get around it.

Given all the above, Shinjuku Station seemed the perfect place to stage RAoK number 4: Helping Lost Tourists Find Their Way. And so, on a hot and fuggy Saturday afternoon[2], a friend and I ventured out to try and help some lost souls to become found.

It turns out that finding lost tourists in amongst the millions of not-lost other people was a little harder than I expected, and the first half hour or so was spent meandering fruitlessly through the vaults. After a while, we decided to try outside instead and a little trial and error demonstrated that next to the municipal maps that can be found around the place is the best hunting ground. It was next to one of these that we found Peter. Peter was in Tokyo briefly to do some lecturing and was already running pretty late for his gig. He was delighted to be offered help, and very happy to be escorted through the tunnels to the line he was searching for:

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I don’t feel finished with this RAoK yet. We spent too much time working out how to find people and not enough sending them on their way. I think this one will be back in the future.

Thanks to Peter for conveniently getting lost for us, and for letting me publish his picture and tell the world about how he was late for his appointment.

1. VERY complex.
2. There is no other kind in Tokyo at this time of year.
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RAoK #3: Insect Repellent

**Wondering what this “RAoK” malarky is all about? Click here**

I went hiking at the weekend through the gorgeous forest that surrounds Lake Chuzenji in Nikko: it’s a pretty fabulous place to go and escape the swelter of a Tokyo summer.

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The narrow track is carved into the steep slope down to the water and as I walked through the dappled shade of the trees, fat rain fell occasionally out of the apparently clear sky and thunder rolled around the surrounding mountains. It’s the sort of place that could inspire a struggling single mother to write the sorts of stories that sell 450 million copies*. It is, however, by a large body of water, which means mosquitos.

I had finished my walk and was making my way back to the small town at the foot of the lake when I met a woman and her grown up daughter (I’m assuming: the resemblance was strong) going in the opposite direction. The elder of the two was fighting a losing battle to waft away the encroaching insects and complaining vociferously so I, now always primed for an opportunity to fit in a quick RAoK, leapt forward to proffer my trusty DEET. My Japanese is far from good enough to explain what I was offering, but a short mime seemed to do the trick and they (slightly amused) accepted straight away.

RAoKs are not always easy to commit: people default to saying “no”, very often before they have even understood what is going on. I think I have become fairly proficient at figuring out when a “no” is one of these knee-jerk responses from someone who really wants to say yes and when it genuinely means no, but on this occasion there was no need to worry. It may have been a very small RAoK but, as they disappeared into the trees, I had a feeling that rescuing their quality time from becoming a bug-infested swat-a-thon had been very welcome.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books#At_least_100_million_copies

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RAoK #2: Second Harvest Japan

**Wondering what this “RAoK” malarky is all about? Click here**

Second Harvest Japan (2hj) is a food bank. They take food donated by organisations and individuals and distribute it to those in need around Japan. Last Saturday I volunteered on their morning shift where we helped prepare for the soup kitchen later that day and filled baskets with emergency groceries for families.

Cleaning up the kitchen after preparing a hot meal for between 300 and 500 homeless people in Ueno park later that afternoon:

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Sharing mugs of hot soup after the cleanup. お疲れ様でした:

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A staggering 15% of the population of Japan is considered below the poverty line, including, according to official figures, 50% of single parents. For these people and families, 2hj’s Harvest Pantry provides emergency groceries, but this is a service of last resort, and can only be used four times a year. Each applicant must supply ID and evidence of how many people are in their household and be logged to ensure they don’t overuse the service. For this they receive one shopping basket of produce:

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Filling the baskets was my main activity of the morning and I was shocked by the limited nature of the groceries on offer. If you are desperate then I suppose anything is welcome but, as we divided up bottles of fizzy drinks, crisps and sweets, I couldn’t help thinking that, if I were to receive one of these baskets, I would be disappointed. The few small tins of soup, corned beef and tomato sauce would not have made much of a meal and the nutritional content of most of the produce on offer was appalling. This is, of course, not the fault of 2hj: the strict regulations on food banks mean much food waste cannot be used and 2hj can only distribute what they receive.

As well as the soup kitchen and pantry, 2hj also distributes food to 300 agencies throughout Japan, including disaster shelters, orphanages and women’s refuges. Much of it is stuff donated by large manufactures that has failed quality control for some tiny reason (such as misaligned printing on the packaging) but is still fit for human consumption. Damage to just one tray on a pallet is enough to consign the whole pallet to waste, and misprinting need not be on the product itself – a problem with the printing on the outer packaging will also see the entire pallet discarded. Such is the cost of labour, that it is cheaper for companies to discard such produce by the tonne rather than sort and repack it, so they donate it for the warm fuzzy glow instead. 2hj warehouses this food for distribution:

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All in all, it was an eye opening and somewhat frustrating experience. It’s nice to know that 2hj are doing something to divert some of this profligacy to places it is needed, but so far this year they have distributed 1300 tons, a number that sounds large until you compare it to the 5 – 8 million tons of food wasted in Japan each year. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could stop wasting it at all and get it to the people in need before they are desperate instead?

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RAoK #1: Litter Pick

**Wondering what this “RAoK” malarky is all about? Click here**

I’ve been really touched by the positive response to my fundraising efforts and am off to a great start (only 10 days in, and already I have raised almost £1000!). Thanks so much to everyone who has donated and to those who have offered kind words of support.

As well as cash donations, I have also been offered a place to stay rent free for my last 6 weeks in Japan and one incredibly generous friend has promised regular donations once my course starts in order to keep me going a bit longer. The saving in rent is equivalent to a donation of about £690, and will be paid forwards on that basis, while the regular sums will be paid forward piecemeal. I haven’t decided how yet, but the prospect of a regular donation raises the possibility of a regular volunteering commitment, which gives me the opportunity to build lasting community relationships.

I had originally planned to increase the time investment based on the size of the donation, however the sums I have received have been far larger than I expected and I don’t think it’s possible to do that and also fit in the requirements of my studies (and, for now, job). With that in mind, I have struck on a new idea: the larger the donation the more random the RAoK. I am quite looking forward to finding something suitably out there with which to pay forwards the rent-equivalent donation.

In the meantime, here is a photo of the alleyway very close to my apartment in Tokyo. The city is generally very clean and tidy and litter pickers are often to be seen cleaning up after those comparatively rare individuals who fail to clean up after themselves. For some reason, however, this alley seems to get missed and it is a little corner of grime in an otherwise remarkably well-kempt city. This morning I ventured out into the summer swelter and filled a plastic bag with assorted fag packets, plastic bottles, sweet wrappers and other detritus. Thanks to one of my many anonymous donors (I know who you are, you retiring types, but I appreciate your wishes not to flaunt your considerable generosity). You may now consider yourself RAoKed!

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Designs on an education in kindness

Welcome to my blog giving some background information about my gofundme page, where I am raising money to cover the fees for a design masters.  I have pledged to pay forwards every donation I receive with a random act of kindness and this is the place you can follow my progress.

Five years ago I realised I quite fancied being a designer[1]. More specifically, that I wanted to use the tools of product design and innovation to help solve social problems. Stuff like global warming and poverty. You know: the low-hanging fruit.

As a biochemist, I have absolutely no background in design, so I decided the only course that I was interested in applying for was Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) at the Royal College of Art in London - one of the best design courses in the world. Perfectly reasonable!

As it happens, the course providers thought so too. They were interested in my background in bionanomaterials and they offered me a place. Unfortunately, the British Government recently withdrew funding for students embarking upon an equivalent- or lower-level qualification to one they already hold. Because I hold a PhD, that means my fees are £54,000. A daunting sum of money that I am required to pay because of a qualification without which I could not have been accepted onto the course I am so desperate to complete. Joseph Heller, anyone?

I know there are plenty of inspirational people just as deserving, or more, than I but if I am to do this, I need a little help[2]. In return, I pledge to pay forwards every donation I receive with a random act of kindness.

My hope is that, for every donation I receive, I will be able to increase the amount of awesome in the world by a little bit and spread the goodwill further than the bank account of the RCA. I will blog about the acts of kindness I commit here, so you can see my progress and exactly what I am doing to ensure I merit your generosity at least a little bit.

To kick things off, I have made 55 origami cranes, each saying “平和な一日になりますように”, which means “may your day be peaceful”, which I will drop into the letter boxes of 55 of my neighbours. Why 55? One for each £1000 I need to raise, plus one extra, because when I told a colleague about my idea for this blog, she handed me ¥100. Here they are:

54b

And the extra one, in honor of my first donation and my first official paying forwards:

55

If you have any questions, please get in touch and I will do my best to answer them.

Oh, and please go fund me!

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough: they’re there to stop the other people” – Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

1. This is British understatement: when I close my eyes at night, images of tables littered with sticky-back plastic dance across my mind and post-it notes with ideas scrawled on them leap over fences. I get design textbooks as birthday gifts and I read them cover to cover. I see examples of good and bad design everywhere I look and my friends and family have developed glazed “she’s on about problem-solving techniques again” expressions. I’ve started to use words like “passion”, “dream”, “drive” and “calling”, and it bugs me that they are clichés and there are no non-clichéd words to describe how much this subject excites me. I think I may be a design nerd.
2. This is also British understatement.
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A Goodbye to Tohoku

In three short months I shall be reversing my bearhunt and heading the 6000 miles back to the UK. If not for good, then certainly for the foreseeable future. Before leaving I wanted to visit Tohoku one last time, to get sweaty and dirty and to say my farewells. This time to Minamisanriku (南三陸) with OGA for Aid. OGA for Aid are a small non-profit organisation who are trying to set up a farm in order to provide employment opportunities for local people. In particular single Mums, who struggle to find work elsewhere because of their childcare commitments. Turning fallow and virgin plots donated by locals who can’t work them into productive farmland is an incredibly labour-intensive job, but until they are able to turn a profit, they can’t afford to employ any workers. A catch 22 that volunteers are helping to break.

Today, though, I didn’t work on the farm and instead I headed into Minamisanriku on foot to see the area close up. I have visited many towns and villages along the North East coast of Japan, both as a volunteer and as a tourist. Over the two years since the earthquake and tsunami I have seen rescue give way to clearing streets, give way to clearing and cleaning buildings, give way to demolishing unrepairable structures, give way to, finally, rebuilding. But always there are things that shock and two years since I first visited the region I still struggle to make sense of the power and the scale: this trip is no different.

I’m not sure, but I think this is what remains of the town’s tsunami defenses:

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And this is what remains of the town:

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The structure still standing is the town’s disaster-readiness center. It is famous for Jin Sato, the mayor of Minamisanriku, who survived by clinging to the mast as wave after wave overtopped it. 30 people were on the roof when the first wave came in, only 10 were left when the water subsided. The site is now a centre of pilgrimage, and I sat there for half an hour or so to collect my thoughts:

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In front of the old entrance is a makeshift shrine. The piles of flowers next to it are fresh and there is a constant stream of cars and busses pulling into the car park to take pictures and pay respects. I sat amongst the clover that now carpets the entire town and thought about Miki Endo, who sat at her post in that building broadcasting evacuation warnings until the water cut her off. Her body wasn’t found until April 23rd.

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I’ve never noticed that clover has a smell before, but sitting there surrounded by acres of the stuff, all in full bloom, the scent was intoxicating. I picked a flower and added it to the pile. The centre must once have had an attractive formal garden and it, together with the clover, throw the level of destruction here into particularly stark relief. There are only a handful of houses left of what was once a thriving fishing town:

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On my way back, I stopped to take a closer look at some strange standing structures and mounds. I couldn’t for the life of me work out what there were, and then it clicked, this is what remains of the train line that ran through the town!

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I climbed up onto the mound and looked along its length, gazing through half-closed eyes to try and see the tracks that were once there. It didn’t work. So little remains that I couldn’t imagine it in its former state:

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Under what was once the railway bridge I saw some uncleared debris, now home to a thriving colony of mussels. It brought home to me the time that has passed since this happened. Minamisanriku exists now in name only; the main streets have been repaired, the traffic lights work, but the only visitors are people like me who have come, yet again, to try and understand what happened here. There is through-traffic, one petrol station, a single demountable convenience store and a constant stream of trucks carrying out reconstruction work. But they are passing through too, the demolition here was complete: there is nothing to reconstruct.

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I turned for home and left the inundation zone. The walk back was lined with wisteria, azaleas and irises, all in full bloom.

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I don’t know what will happen to Minamisanriku: it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to come back and live here. Unlike Ishinomaki, where I have volunteered before, rebuilding seems pointless. I wondered for a moment why I was here at all, rather than somewhere where I could do more good. Then I passed an automated rice-polishing machine. These crop up all over rural Japan and they are there for the families with enough land to grow their own rice to bring and polish it into the perfect grains Japan is so famous for. There are still plenty families in this region who are completely self-sufficient.

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This is why I am here, helping to set up a farm to employ local people who have lost everything. Minamisanriku may never be rebuilt, but the way of life that existed here can be. Jobs can be created that allow the people who have lost everything to stay, so they are not forced to the cities in order to survive, and so that they can continue to grow and polish their own rice on their own land.

Goodbye Tohoku, I will miss you, and good luck.

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