"Everything which would ordinarily go into the waste paper basket after use"

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Japanese ephemera

Japanese rail ticket

To visit Japan is to enter a world of ephemera. From the first moment of arrival and the initial purchase of a train ticket, every transaction that follows serves to generate a seemingly endless supply of chits and vouchers, invoices and receipts, pamphlets, brochures and information sheets.

It’s like a flashback to a time, and a culture, when paper still played the dominant role as a carrier of information, when even the simplest of interactions involved the transfer of paper of some kind.

It’s not just the volume either. Many of the items are attractively produced, usually in colour, and it’s rare to see a slip of paper which doesn’t incorporate some sort of graphic component. Even the humble till receipts often include a design element, however simple, or perhaps a QR code which is maybe not so appealing but nevertheless eye-catching.

And when there isn’t anything specific, graphically, the bills still manage to look intriguing not least because of their ability to include tweeny-weeny text, barely legible and yet still figuring as marks on a page. I’ve written previously about the skill of the Japanese to print really tiny text very precisely and crisply.

Of course, there is a long tradition of Japanese calligraphy in which the brush stroke becomes a performance in its own right, indicative of a certain feeling and state of mind. It’s not unusual to see a till receipt echo this tradition with an imitation of hand-written lettering lending it a fake authenticity.

Japanese till receipt
Japanese till receipt

Maybe it is just the foreign-ness of the script itself which makes these scraps of paper appear more like mini-artworks than mundane notes, at least to my eyes.

Museums and temples are a great source of paper ephemera since the entry fee usually includes a distinctive ticket and an information leaflet. Some of these are very nicely produced indeed, as if every element of a visitor’s stay must be in harmony and executed to perfection, even for something instantly disposable.

This attention to detail and an uncompromising focus on standards is very much part of the Japanese character. In that sense, the print is no different to, say, an idyllic garden or a flawless bowl of noodles.

What it also highlights though is how irrelevant paper has become for many transactions in Western culture and how public institutions and companies are missing out on creating a positive experience for visitors and customers by ignoring it.

shredded paper

The supermarket receipt

Supermarket receipt

Another day and another scrap of paper where it doesn’t really belong on the banks of a local river.

To be fair, there is far more plastic than paper blighting this stretch of the river and, in theory, posing more of an environmental menace in terms of life-span and biodegradability. One decent rainstorm and this little docket would be little more than pulp.

But that’s not the point is it?

It’s also true that if this was a map or something more intriguing than a humble supermarket receipt, then perhaps I wouldn’t be looking at it quite so askance.

But it isn’t, and I am.

I guess I just don’t understand how something like this came to be somewhere like here.

Was somebody just walking along beside the river with their supermarket shopping and decided they desperately needed to rid themselves of any evidence as to how much they had spent? GET AWAY receipt.

Or did it find itself liberated in the car park of the local supermarket and then carried by the prevailing winds, undamaged, until it came to be lodged in the branches of this little bush?

What is it doing here?

OK, so it’s only a little slip of paper, something so inconsequential as to be barely worth worrying about – let’s get our priorities right – but then again maybe this is a case of being able to see a world in a grain of sand. This little coloured chit, unloved and in the wrong place, represents a microcosm of the paper world.

You can’t have all the nice ephemera – coolphemera – without the nasties too. However incongruous this item may seem, it’s not unique – and that’s the problem.

shredded paper

The origami sanbo

Origami sanbo

Welcome to the fold.

A tiny origami sanbo, a Japanese paper box traditionally used for offerings. These days they are made to hold sweets or nibbles.

I made this one in my Japanese class. You can learn how to make one here.


shredded paper


The Yellow Pages tree

Yellow Pages tree

What to do with old Yellow Pages (or even new ones…)? This year’s Sculpture by the Sea at Tamarama beach revealed one solution – turn them into art. This is let your palm do the walking by Tom Blake, a fake palm tree created from Yellow Pages. The title is a play on the old Yellow Pages ad line to “let your fingers do the walking” instead of traipsing around shops, except it’s a palm but not the palm of your hand but… look, do I have to explain everything?

It’s a neat joke. The pages are recycled and, in a kind of reverse engineering, used to create a new type of tree – still dead but nevertheless emblematic of what went into creating the pages. Not palm trees, obviously, but trees nonetheless, ones which, according to Sensis, come from “responsibly managed forestry sources”.

Yellow Pages tree

It’s important too that the tree is obviously fake – there’s something kitschy and slightly tacky about a fake palm, in keeping perhaps with its beachside location. It’s creating something fun out of an iconic print product which has seen better days, giving it new life, albeit shredded and rearranged. The Yellow Pages are rendered more useless – which is how many people regard them anyway – but, in a cute twist, made decidely more intriguing and eye-catching.

shredded paper

The washed-up map

The map

How strong is paper? Some people will go to ridiculous lengths to demonstrate the hardy qualities of paper, such as this small boat made out of paper which was used to sail across the North Sea. Experience tell us that paper will start to disintegrate on contact with water, reverting to its primal state of pulp, but there’s no reason why, properly reinforced and water-proofed, it can’t be used to build all sorts of things. After all, it is basically just wood, albeit in a refined form.

What about a single sheet of 90gsm though? Not just immersed in water but washed about in a salty maelstrom and subjected to the pounding forces of an angry sea. It wouldn’t stand a chance, would it?

Not so long ago, walking along a storm-tossed beach I came across this fragment of a map lying caught in the driftwood and assorted debris. This was in the wake, so to speak, of one of the biggest storms in recent years with huge tides surging up the beach. The amount of detritus flung above the high water mark was astonishing; mountains of wood, most of which had been swept out to sea from the nearby river which was in flood, as well as the usual collection of plastic rubbish – drink bottles, flip flops, polystyrene sculpted into rock-like formations, and endless discarded cigarette lighters, one Bic per metre.

And there, in amongst all the rusted and rotting debris, was this scrap of paper, a torn and ragged sliver of print, crushed and creased.

There is a frisson of excitement in discovering a fragment of paper on a beach. Perhaps it is a message from a far-off place, a plea for help from a lost castaway? And how much more exciting if it turns out to be a map. Treasure, of course! A map suggests a location, a point of origin from which a journey can be extrapolated. Possibly it is a destination too.

In this case, the map is of the Crowdy Bay National Park in NSW just down the coast from the beach where the fragment was found. It shows some of the camping areas in the park, in fact places where I’ve actually camped. It’s possible that the paper floated up the coast from Crowdy Bay before being swept onto the beach, which is nevertheless quite a journey for a piece of paper. Or maybe it came from somebody living locally and only had to travel a short distance.

Either way it’s remarkable it survived at all, considering how smashed up and broken some of the wood, metal and plastic items had become. It shouldn’t even exist at all.

And yet it does. Tough stuff, this paper.

shredded paper