Pilgrims / 遍路

November 26, 2013 § Leave a comment


Trampers were emerging from a small path just behind where I took this picture.

They’d scrambled up 24 kilometers of ground. When they reached the parking lot at the top they high-fived one another, took off their packs, and sat down on the concrete shoulder. Koyasan choishimichi is the traditional pilgrims’ approach to  Koyasan – home of the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism; this big gate ( 大門; Daimon) marks the point of entry after the long walk up. Koyasan is where it is because the landscape is said to resemble the shape of a lotus; its energy spreads outwards across Japan – a great mandala pattern with its heart smack bang in the middle of Koyasan.

Short on time and willpower, we took the cable car up.

We checked into our temple-stay, took a stroll through town and arrived at the big gate just on time to meet a couple of keen Japanese trampers who’d recently walked the Milford Track. As we talked I secretly compared our national treasures, concluding that while they have the history, New Zealand probably wins out on scenic beauty.  The old ill-fitting boot of nationalism tightens its laces in even the most spiritual places. 

Here’s something they have that we don’t have:


(Konpon Daito)

Living in Kyoto it’s easy to forget that the old city is not like the rest of Japan. Kyoto is, in some ways, stifled and traditional and incredibly hard to navigate; it has a reputation for being the most traditional of Japanese cities and I’d say (lovingly) that like Paris or New York it’s a snobby old place with two cold shoulders. Every time I venture beyond Kyoto I meet people that are infinitely friendlier, more helpful and more forgiving. In Japan I require endless forgiveness. Unlike Kyoto, Koyasan invites you to participate in tradition but doesn’t make you feel like an unwelcome spectator to something held beyond your reach. Also, infinite forgiveness and uncompromising patience are kinda their thing up there.

There are over 100 temples up in Koyasan and over 50 of those take overnight guests for temple stays. You can book a room at a temple online and most rooms come with a vegetarian dinner and breakfast prepared and served by the monks. We stayed overnight at Saizen-in. One of the monks who brought us our dinner came from Fukushima. There was an uncomfortable moment when, with my terrible Japanese and his limited English, I mistakenly thought he was explaining that his parents had been killed by the tsunami. But no. No no no. Everything was okay, he said. They were fighting, he said. His friends and his brother and his parents are all up there in Fukushima fighting.”That’s good. Isn’t it?” I said. “That’s really good.” I didn’t have the Japanese for that one. Or probably the English either.

Everything about staying at the temple was simple and easy – except for dinner – which consisted of sets of immaculately prepared, complex and delicate dishes.  If you were the dramatic sort you might weep into your bowl and declare your life complete. We just ate and took photos of each other eating.

Here is some bad food photography to serve as proof:


This is a meal for one person. Sake and tea are served on another tray (not pictured but implied by the quality of the photograph).

Morning prayers start at 6:30 am. Be early! As with many things in life, the later you arrive the further you will sit from the heater. My prayers brought me to the conclusion that I will never be a buddhist. Despite some leanings in high-school (don’t we all experiment?) I’ve realised it’s not for me. I don’t have the kind of mind strong enough to remain focused during meditation. My thoughts went parading wholesomely back and forth from one frozen ear to the other. But they weren’t soldiers. They were more like poorly trained drum majorettes dropping their sticks and tripping all over themselves: am I doing it right? I thought. Is this right?/I should think about giving more of myself/I am a terrible person/I am sending my love to my family and my parents and my sisters and all of my aunts and uncles, and now to each of my friends individually / Oh I wonder how she is?/ that man in front of me looks like he’s pretending to know what he’s doing but he really doesn’t/ I’m gonna cough now/how long do I cough for before I should get up and leave/it must be the incense/maybe I don’t really like incense that much/eternal love eternal love eternal flame/what ever happened to the Bangles, they were a good band/they must think we are so silly pretending to understand what this is all about/my life lacks a spiritual path/ I really dislike my job/ maybe I just need more spiritual stuff/ can’t we all just read literary theory and get along?/ that trickster psychic in Central Park said I knew the spiritual way and my third eye was opening/is he done now/oh crap I never thought about each of my friends individually/eternal love eternal love.

It was no good. My own personal versions of meditation are a lot simpler: walk or read. I can’t find the Virginia Woolf quote now or remember where it’s from, but somewhere she wrote that the act of reading is the ultimate suspension of the ego. It might have been in her diaries? While reading, immersed utterly in a fictional universe, our thoughts about ourselves and our own lives cease ; our inner voices shut up. Walking too, can shut you up for a bit if you do it right.

After a communal breakfast with other guests P and I set off into the woods. We’d decided to do the Koyasan Woman’s Pilgrimage Walk, tracing the steps of old female pilgrims.  Historically women were not permitted to enter the sacred grounds of Koyasan. Devout woman would skirt the edges of the place, looking in on the important temples and making their prayers from afar. I wondered if, as in the Catholic church, there were stories of women who disguised themselves as men in order to gain access to the closely guarded secrets of their faith.


We tried to skirt the edges but we went over into a valley. We were discussing GRIT very deeply (did we have it? Why didn’t we have it?). Lost in conversation, we forgot to keep our eyes out for trail markers. What began as a two and half hour morning stroll  became a four hour ramble through unkempt forest. We were happy enough. Doesn’t every unplanned journey begin with a single misplaced step? The step might lead you to a point where your path ends abruptly, disappearing over a ledge and dissolving into a haze of pines. You might hear a chainsaw in the distance, softly calling you to commerce.

When we turned back to retrace our steps it became immediately obvious that what we’d been following didn’t actually look much like a pathway. Everything is obvious in retrospect. A lesson learned. We had flasks of coffee and each other. We wren’t too fussed.


We popped out of the woods near the gate to Okunoin – Japan’s largest and most important cemetery. Here we wondered around in the low, late light peering at tombs and looking in on things.


A woman carried a bucket of water towards a stone she’d be cleaning. People prayed and performed small rituals of their own.



It’s hard to be in a place of massive cultural significance and be disconnected from it; I couldn’t recognise the histories and lives of the religious and political figures buried or commemorated at Okunoin. That old cemetery in Paris fascinated me for hours because I know all the stories of its dead. In Okunoin I liked the trees and the light. What I’ve noticed when I travel in Japan is that stories make a landscape look more beautiful. Horses too. It’s no great surprise to learn that the more you know about a place and where it falls in a narrative, the more invested you are in it. But it’s striking to come up against this lesson over and over again.

All you need of course is one small knot to weave you into a bigger story; after the cemetery we dropped into a temple (I’m miffed that I didn’t take note of the name) exhibiting all kinds of memorabilia related to troops who served during the Japanese occupation of Myanmar (then Burma). I could easily have spent hours in there looking at the rows of black and white photographs, and poring over the letters and diaries; I was fascinated because it’s a story I know something about and it provided a link between my passion (for dusty archives created in times of occupation) and theirs.  Underneath the temple you could walk into a dark isolation corridor. You held a railing and moved along in pitch blackness. When you’d fully rounded the corner you came into a small, lit cavern and looked at a statue of the reclining Buddha. Only then, underground and alone and totally unexpected, did I feel the odd and brief sensation that I was a tiny point standing at the very centre of something much bigger than myself. There was that woman in Central Park who told me that my third eye was opening. But then, she also said one could never be forgiven for the cruelty of breaking a heart, so I chose not to trust her. After a moment the silly feeling was gone anyway, and I groped in the darkness for the handrail that would guide me to the exit.

Using My Degree: “Tuff Tug” and the “Quiz Box” of Cultural Appropriation.

November 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

One cannot be forgiven for an acute under-reading of McOmber’s text.

Published by the manufactured Family Readers Series brand with the purported desire to “teach [phonics]” this text’s very packaging can be read as a deliberate – perhaps over-stated – challenge; the text invites us from  the outset to position ourselves in relation to an artifact that declares both its intention and its audience. In so far as we cannot occupy the position of either of these readers, this over-stated ‘intention to teach’ can only alert us to the unmistakable subversive elements of McOmber’s work. Precisely what version of ‘family’ these types of ‘educational’ texts inscribe is thrown open to debate. Equally, the limited pallet and soundscape  (muted pinks, blacks and whites and an array of short vowels) are set as limits precisely to illustrate and welcome in the existence of a alternative world beyond those limits. Yet I would argue that McOmber’s subversion of the nuclear ‘family’ and her re-envisioning of a society of inclusion is here poorly executed – leaving us to consider whether what purports to act as a revolutionary text is yet another rehearsal of white-liberal guilt and cultural misappropriation.

For a better understanding of these points let us now turn to a closer consideration of the text.

A passing allusion to Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ opens our scene. The reference will assume greater intensity on a retrospective reading.


Despite a 2001 publication date, instead of gang fighting and text bullying our central characters Max, Kim and Ben busy themselves with jam, pop, and hum-bugs in jugs [4-5].


In her eagerness to mount a parade of inclusivity and forward gender politics, McOmber casts Kim as the powerful ‘planner’:


But this ‘power’ is no more than puffery (pun intended). At a structural level the power balance remains unaltered: the text has earlier quite specifically stated that Dad – the white male adult – is both the owner of the Tuff Tug and the provider of the ‘dogs and buns’ to be eaten at Kim’s ‘hop’. Mom remains shackled to the symbolic laundry tub of unpaid domestic work.

The emergence of Hal and his “quiz box” is perhaps the most strikingly unusual and uncomfortable development in the plot. Again, McOmber over-plays her hand:


The arrival of black man with a symbolic ‘quiz box’ [asking how he will function in this homogenous white society] is almost too blatant to warrant further unpacking. The over-loaded question he poses is positioned as the central “quiz question” of this text. On one account McOmber’s answer is a sorry clang of drivel: Hal removes a threesome of shining bells from his box and joins the ‘hop’, ‘tapping on the bells’ [11-12] to ring in the new wave of inclusion and tolerance. We can only see this as a re-hashing of familiar tropes: white appropriation of black music and literature during and after the Harlem Renaissance; countless MTV reality shows; the stereotypical insinuation that black people have “the rhythm”.

But on a kinder reading of McOmber’s work perhaps (and here the perhaps is very large and very generous) we can see this portrayal as self-aware. The hints are provided in two key destablising moments . The first is the aforementioned allusion to Eliot  – surely intended to alert us to a total lack of faith in the stability of the manufactured ‘hop’ (read: inclusive society) that follows.

The second is the text’s final sentence:


The fear is patent. The artificial construction of the not-so-revolutionary-after-all-hop is made unstable. The uncertainty is encapsulated in the unfamiliarity and difficulty of the new word ‘quit’ – here introduced to the reader for the first time. The word rehearses the “qui” sound of the word “quiz” – a word associated entirely with Hal.  This heavily loaded word undoes everything that has come before it, rocking the metaphorical tug with its abrupt alteration and squeezing the sound of the familiar short, sharp ‘u’ in “fun” and “run” and “tug” into the new “ui” sound. It is in this radical moment that we can see some semblance of hope for real change.

McOmber returns to the scene of the Tuff Tug on Red Rock Dock in the text’s sequel: Family Readers Set 6, Book 3: The Hop. Whether she executes the ultimate rocking of the tug will be revealed to me next Saturday when I make a five year old read it to me.

Raining Man

November 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

We went to a festival in the forest. Almost by accident.  It was somewhere past the Hiyoshi Dam. We looked at the dam from the window of the bus and I thought we could have been in Murapara or Galatea.

IMG_2675 IMG_2677

I said “is this supposed to be the politer Japanese version of Burning Man?” and P said “I don’t think so” and she was more right than I was. We were probably scammed when we got the tickets. We think the guy who sold them to P got them as comp tickets; he was performing. He charged us money for them and made a good profit. These things will happen. No matter. We said hello to him but he was in the zone and couldn’t be disturbed; he was painting a very very large anime-type portrait of a girl. All day the rain fell. His girl kept washing away. He didn’t seem happy. Here she is in the background of one of my photographs, red hair against a blue screen, being looked at by two real girls with an umbrella.



It was altogether wonderful. There was a stand where you could buy shots of tequila in small plastic cups for three hundred yen a pop. If you are old and grumpy like me, and you find yourself at a washed out festival, it’s a good idea to take one shot of tequila every hour or so; this keeps you at a good sociable level and prevents melancholy from setting in.

We met some strangers who insisted we join their team for a game. It involved wearing matching vests and travelling through an imaginary time machine powered by the energy of teamwork. Together we solved questions to pass through stages. Everything was in Kanji. We didn’t understand. I think we slowed them down. They kept half translating the questions for us and then giving up. MUZUKASHIIII NE? they said (it’s difficult, isn’t it?). MUZUKASHIIIII we said. Then we all took photographs together. We convinced the girls that in autumnal rains like this it is best to buy a hot black coffee and a shot of whiskey and mix one with the other, to stay warm. There was a stand where you could buy shots of whiskey in small plastic cups for three hundred yen a pop. OISHIII Ne? we said (it’s delicious, isn’t it). They were unconvinced. It tastes like coffee, they said. Which it did. We saw them later, soaked through and cold and we gave them some of our disposable heat pads. SAMUIII NEE? DEMO, TONOSHIIII NE? (It’s cold, isn’t it? But fun, isn’t it?).

It was fun.

The bands got better and better. And then suddenly magical. A band that played what I think is traditional Okinawa style music came on. The crowd sank down like a wave, everyone kneeling, and in the pouring rain we watched one of the most gob-smackingly haunting musical performances I’ve ever seen. There’s a video of one of their performances online but it’s not quite the same (check out from about 3 minutes into the footage). The sound bounced around in the rain and the fog and all the Taiko drummers got soaked through but kept playing. The rain flew in drops from their hair and clothes.


After the haunting part we had a beer and thought about leaving. But it was so nice out there in the hills, freezing our toes off with the rest of the hardier souls. So we stayed for the set of a really very excellent metal band called “Revenge my LOST” . We were observing how polite the mosh pit was.  A small boy guarding a pram stood patiently just behind the moshers, waiting, I suppose, for his mother or father to emerge. The man who’d been selling us drinks all day took the boy under his wing. Together they seemed happy enough.


For a while the mosh pit turned into a group of about 40 people running in a circle. P joined in. I stood at the centre holding the umbrellas, happy not to be falling over in the mud, pleased in general with my life.

We were the only people riding the courtesy bus back to the station. It rushed through the darkness and reached Sonobe  just on time to meet the departing train. The rain was hosing down as the train rattled home through the gorge. I thought of all those brave souls in tents up in the hills, trying to establish something long lasting so that next year’s festival is bigger and better. All it lacks is a large burning wicker man, and a comprehensive drug scene, and a few thousand more people.

Where Am I?

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