Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 20, 2011

Riding the Trains in Japan (2010), by Patrick Holland

The Source of the Sound (Salt Modern Fiction S.)Riding the Trains in Japan: Travels in the Sacred and Supermodern EastRegular readers of this blog may remember the author of Riding the Trains in Japan, Travels in the Sacred and Supermodern East because he was featured in Meet an Aussie Author when his novel The Mary Smokes Boys was longlisted for the 2011 Miles Franklin Award.  (It was also shortlisted for the 2011 Age Book of the Year Award).

Riding the Trains in Japan is Patrick Holland’s fourth book and his second with Transit Lounge, a small independent press which punches well above its weight.  Based in Yarraville in Melbourne,  Transit Lounge is

dedicated to the publication of exciting new fiction and non-fiction…with a particular interest in creative literary publishing that explores the relationships between East and West, entertains and promotes insights into diverse cultures and encompasses diverse genres. 

They have published an extraordinary collection of terrific books, some of which have been reviewed here (including The English Class by Ouyang Yu which has just been shortlisted for the Fiction category in the 2011 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards).

Riding The Trains in Japan is a great book to be dipping into as I work my way through the longlist for the 2011 Shadow Man Asian Literary Award because it is an enriching work, not just adding to my understanding about Asia in a variety of contexts but also encouraging reflection about travel, identity, memory and the absurdities of modern life.

The piece that gives the book its title is about the time Holland arrived in Kyoto in the middle of the national holiday called O-Bon, the Japanese All Souls, when he had not made a hotel reservation and there was not a bed to be had.  So,’ comically homeless’, he ended up spending the night riding the trains.  There was not anywhere else in the city for him to go:

Here in Kyoto it seemed the homeless either did not exist or they had been expertly removed.  I did not yet appreciate the art of being homeless in Japan, an art almost as subtle and refined as the ancient art of the geisha.  (p11)

He travels bullet trains where he sees nothing but a blur and local trains where he can get off to explore, but this is not a travel book in the usual sense of it.  He meditates on that, noting that

Travel narratives abound in our time, perhaps because of the sense that travel may shortly become impossible: everywhere will be ‘here; and ‘here’ will not be anywhere in particular’. (p13)

He felt the ‘logic of journey dissolve’ because he was travelling without going anywhere, but eventually figures out how to buy a ticket to Uji, a particular place that interested him because of a book he was reading, Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji.  Here, he undertakes a literary pilgrimage like other visitors to this town which memorialises its fictional history. He considers the Heian period (9th – 12th century) contrast between precincts for frivolity and reflection and how that has been maintained today with the modern tourism and industrial precincts on the west bank of the river and the traditional buildings on the east. This is the kind of insight not found in the usual travel book.

Holland has a very interesting way of looking at the world that he discovers on his travels.  A Suburban Chinese Ghost Story recounts his time as a student at Qingdao University in China, when he was persuaded to teach English to some children in a rich family.  It is a morose piece: he did not like this dirty, archaic , antagonistic city, its fierce traffic and its appalling pollution.  He did not like having to participate in asinine drinking contests on his first night, to prove Chinese machismo.  His social conscience is clearly offended by the ‘two great rows of villas on a featureless concrete esplanade facing the water’  built by speculators for the rich who haven’t arrived yet.  And in this ‘ghost city’ which results from ‘a command economy that has come to depend on large infrastructure projects’  these sterile buildings remind him of

 ‘the concrete mock-mansions Chinese and Australians often bought in gated and planned communities in the outer suburbs of Brisbane…impressive to friends and family visiting from the bush or overseas, though they exemplified a kind of obscene and toxic urban sprawl’. (p38-40).

It is not surprising that he fails to engage with the children he is engaged to teach but he empathises with their belief that there is an alien spirit in the house…

Among the Montagnards is entirely different in style.  In Vietnam he travels off the tourist track to La Vang, an outpost of Roman Catholicism which ‘commemorates an apparition of the Blessed Virgin to terrorized local Catholics’ in 1798.   He relates the history of the Catholics in this place through periods of tolerance, oppression and martyrdom, repression and neglect under the Communists and the visit of Pope John Paul II to canonize 117 Vietnamese who died for their faith.   He visits a leper colony in Kon Tum and he meets Montagnard rebels who have been resisting the Communists for decades and have suffered vicious repression including the forced sterilisation of one thousand Montagnard women in 2003.

Holland’s meditations and reflections reveal his deeply spiritual perspective.  When he farewells an elderly Montagnard woman he is taken aback by her request that he should pray for her:

God, I thought, does she, who escorted French Jesuit missionaries here under cover of night, have any idea what we Christians of the 21st Century Western world are like?  By comparison to this woman’s, my life had been a chain of moral and spiritual failures, the pains of which were killed, at least temporarily, by material and physical comforts that I was capable of becoming addicted to and had to wrench myself from into places like this.
‘If she wants me to, I will,’ I said to Mai.  ‘But tell her please to pray for me’. (p73)

The Art of Memory explores an ancient cemetery in Japan, a place which offers space, stillness, silence and reverence, attributes which are rare in the modern world.  As a student raised on irreverence, he finds himself surprised by his own fondness for tradition.  He does not care for the advent of lawn cemeteries in Australia because ‘the lack of timber and statuary means [they] are places where people rarely walk’.  Located on city outskirts, they are places that people drive by and can happily ‘confuse with a golf course’.  (p87) This is a very thoughtful meditation on death and memory, and why and how we make memorials.

There is much more to this graceful and interesting book, which would make a lovely Christmas gift for travellers whether armchair or intrepid.   Highly recommended.

Patrick Holland has also just released a collection of short stories entitled The Source of the Sound.

Update Dec 19th 2011:
Karen Lee Thompson, a regular guest reviewer on this blog, has also read and reviewed this book.  Check out her thoughts about it here.

Author: Patrick Holland
Title: Riding the Trains in Japan
Publisher: Transit Lounge Publishing 2011
Source: Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge Publishing


Transit Lounge Online (Click here to buy direct, or for eBooks and overseas availability)
Fishpond: Riding the Trains in Japan: Travels in the Sacred and Supermodern East


  1. I loved this book. I have been both to China and Japan where Holland visits and experiences a different life. He is such a thoughtful writer. I like this style.



  2. I am close to finishing my reading Lisa and my brain is starting to scramble and remix its thought and reflections ready for a review.
    Thank you for sending it to me.


    • It’s such an interesting book, isn’t it?


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