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Riding the Trains in Japan by Patrick Holland: Book Review

On Patrick Holland’s author site Riding the Trains in Japan is described as “a book of travel essays encompassing Japan, Vietnam and China”, a phrase that doesn’t do justice to his latest work.  Adding that the essays also encompass “imaginative and liminal places in-between” goes part the way toward bridging the descriptive gap between a mere collection of essays and what this work truly is: a deep and reflective collection of mini-memoir.

Certainly, it’s about travel. It is also about History.  And Geography; as well as Modernity, tradition, life lessons, philosophy, psychology (individual and collective) and a study of our sense of place and belonging.

I found myself wondering how much more fascinating and enriching the school subjects of history, geography and the social sciences would be if these essays were appended to the standard curriculum.  Instead of great tomes crammed with facts and dates for regurgitation at end of year exams, a study of Riding the Trains in Japan would no doubt spark a healthy wanderlust, while providing the cultural insight and tools to produce thoughtful, pleasant and intrepid travellers. 

There is little doubt that, for the most part, Holland is a natural and contented traveller, describing the atmosphere in transit centres as “pregnant with the possibility of striking off along any one of a thousand paths (10)”.  But later he confesses that the life of a traveller is not always as idyllic as it seems.  In the final piece ‘Coda’ the author reflects on his oft felt loneliness and isolation.

I feel panic about how little hold I have on the world, despite the fact that some part of me refuses to grasp it, and that I am often at its mercy.  To be honest, I do not know what I mean by living the way I do. (230)


A fool in a bar in Brisbane is the same fool on a mountain in Tibet, I often said to my few and diminishing friends back home who claimed to envy my travels.  The truth was I had begun to fear I was that fool (228).

I hope the author doesn’t allow despondency and melancholy to ‘cure’ him of his almost fearless sense of adventure  and that he continues to venture forth so others may travel with him from the confines and constrictions of their safe protected lives.

 I do have an aversion to frequent sequences of short sentences and I found it jarring when they surfaced.  For example,

The daily mass would begin in less than an hour.  I walked the shanty town at the edge of the basilica’s grounds.  The inhabitants were among the poorest people I had ever seen in Vietnam.  I gave money to an old beggar woman and was surrounded (56).

But elsewhere, Holland’s ability to paint minimalist canvases to mesmerise us is subtle yet perfect.  Pretty women in silk gowns move “like secrets through narrow alleyways” (35), an old woman laughs “even deeper creases into her face” (72) and, in ‘The Race for the Kingdom of Women’ (which fleetingly showcases Holland’s sense of humour), retired German merchant banker Jens, with his badly-dyed mauve hair,  wore “a gold earring in his right ear so he looked like an aging lady pirate on the wrong end of a three-day mead bender”. 

If I had to pick a favourite piece, I would choose ‘The Art of Memory: oku-no-in’ in which the cemetery – a delightfully tranquil, thoughtful and inspiring place for me – is given a starring role.

Cemeteries typically possess three beautiful negatives which, for all our acquisitions, we of the 21st Century run very short on: space, stillness and silence.  And to that triptych I would add a fourth intangible: reverence (86).

Holland understands cemeteries as being “negative images of the cities they belong to” and he feels their rhythm and poetry, his emotions conveyed perfectly in this passage:

The woman of my memory played her violin beneath the bow of a red gum.  I cannot remember what she played, perhaps I did not even hear.  But on reflection I hear Bach’s partitas (89).

And if I had to pick my least favourite, I think it would be ‘Lost Cities’ which I found a little bit too long and heavy with historical fact .  Elsewhere, Holland merely sprinkles the history grains and we take them in almost subliminally but the historical passages in ‘Lost Cities’ are large and weighty enough to take the reader away from the author’s experiences and into the realm of historical tract.

Perhaps one of the things I enjoyed most about the collection of essays penned by this Queensland ‘boy from the bush’ was Holland’s untarnished respect for women, particularly showcased in ‘The Race for the Kingdom of Women’ which concludes with a glimpse of a girl’s face that the author elects not to photograph because:

The girl’s beauty belonged to the mountains; they alone would receive it and let it pass into them, just as the beauty of the girl’s grandmothers and her great grandmothers had passed here in secret (151).

In her recent review Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers writes that the book encourages “reflection about travel, identity, memory and the absurdities of modern life”.  I concur. Since turning the last page with a sigh, I have dreamt of the “inscrutable lights on the horizon” as seen from a speeding train, the “white noise” of the desert, the strange poetry of rivers and bridges and an [almost] memory of flight (see ‘In Transit: meditations on Flight’).

Patrick Holland takes you with him, into the heart of a country and sometimes into the depths of his psyche and you feel you want to keep returning (to both) to see if there is yet more to learn; an even greater depth of understanding.

Holland, Patrick. Riding the Trains in Japan: travels in the sacred and supermodern east, Transit Lounge Publishing, Yarraville, Aust., 2011
ISBN: 978-1-921924-12-5


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