We love photos of people in natural, unposed situations because they capture a moment at which a person or people were simply living their lives, however active or inactive they were. Errol Morris notes that a posed picture can be just as real and fascinating, and he’s right, but there’s something immediately intriguing about a good picture of someone who’s unaware they’re being photographed. Almost all of us privileged enough to have had access to a camera have tried to take some of these good pictures, and certainly all of us have admired them on the walls of an art gallery or in somebody else’s photo album.

Today I went down to Yuigahama beach, alone, to sit and read a book. (Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide, if you must know.) It was reasonably busy – nothing like summer, of course, but it’s getting warmer now and there would’ve been a good couple of hundred people out walking, playing and sitting. After sitting on the sand for about half an hour, a man came up to me and cheerfully asked, “Shashin o totte mo ii desu ka?” Is it all right if I take a photo? I quickly replied with an affirmative “Hai, douzo!” and returned to my book to read.

Usually it’s me taking photos of somebody else, not the other way round. I’ve never really felt particularly comfortable in front of the camera, but I like to observe, to see things in others that most people wouldn’t notice, and to capture that moment. I’m usually too shy to actually ask someone if I can photograph them, though, so I just end up observing and feeling satisfied that I saw something special. When somebody does want to take photos of me, there’s almost always somebody else there in the frame too, so I never think of it as a photo of me – more a photo of us, and the other person or people probably look way more interesting than I do.

So, for somebody to want to photograph me and me alone was something unusual. I imagine people who get asked a lot are able to immediately return to what they were doing and continue being natural to some degree, but for me, the words on the page of my book were immediately replaced with stacks of self-conscious thought. I was completely aware that in front of me, just out of my lowered field of vision, this guy was snapping away. This wasn’t a bad feeling at all, nor did I feel inadequate or anything like that; I just wasn’t used to it and didn’t really know how to remain natural.

I’d be interested to see how the photos turn out, because I’ll bet that my intense self-awareness will show through in some way. Does that make it any less natural of a photo, though? That’s how I reacted at that point of my life to that situation, and there’s no other way it could’ve been. Nothing wrong with it. Not exactly how I’d like it to be, and it might not make for an immediately appealing photograph, but it’s still a reflection of reality. It’s interesting, though, that despite the fact that I am stared at blatantly on a daily basis – usually on the trains – someone with a camera felt so much more intense than just a pair of eyes. It should really be the other way round, I think: staring is often a product of shock or surprise, whereas someone with a camera, like this guy, is genuinely made curious by your appearance and would like to capture an image because he or she thinks it might be memorable. It’s more innocuous. I’ll spend more time on the beach and see if I get used to it.


Personal living space matters differently to different people. I think its importance to an individual depends on how much time they spend in it – if you prefer to be out of the house, you tend not to mind coming home to a little box with a bed and a chest of drawers, while if you spend a lot of time in your home, you value having a space that you’re happy to occupy. I belong in the second camp, given as I am to reading on the interwebs, watching films and TV series, and playing the odd game. My legs are slowly turning to jelly through lack of exercise, but I’m enjoying myself, and I’m going to start running the day after tomorrow so screw you.

For the vast majority of my life, my living space has been perfectly acceptable. Except maybe that year without a door on my room, or the first two years at school in a dormitory with 14 other boys. Even my last flat in Christchurch, a particularly small place by NZ standards, was acceptable – while my room was tiny, it had a separate lounge and kitchen, so I could waste time in them without feeling hemmed in.

When it came to light that I was going to move to Japan, I had this picture in my head of me in a traditional Japanese room with tatami mats, sliding doors, and a futon that I pack away each morning. That wasn’t what I got. Instead, I was given a room that, subtracting the bed, desk, clothes rack and chest of drawers from the equation, only had about 1.5 square metres of floor space. Not only that, but there was no real lounge to speak of, just an austere kitchen/dining area. I was happy to be in Japan, of course, but it kind of sucked coming home each night to such an unwelcoming space. Students told me it was small even by Japanese standards. And as for bringing other people round, fuggedaboudit.

My relentlessly pragmatic brain didn’t get upset, though. It just said ‘right, we must find a new space where we can make rays of sunshine and pink unicorn’s tails’ – to wit, a new, better place. Rather than putting any sort of plan into action, however, I half-heartedly performed online searches and sent off a sum total of 0 inquiries. Then, a little over two weeks ago, a gentleman brought an advertisement for his small guest house to one of the schools I teach at. It told of a place in beautiful Kamakura with a big, traditional room in a decent location. I fired off an email and went to check it out.

Of course it was just like the picture I had in my head. Why wouldn’t it be? I was lucky in getting my job, lucky in meeting certain people here, now exceedingly lucky to have something like my dream living space fall into my lap. I took it, and moved in last Friday. Now I live in one of my favourite places I’ve visited, in a space I adore, with wonderful people for landlords and a month-to-month contract (should something else miraculously turn up). You never appreciate things until they’re gone, and now that I’ve gone a few months of preferring not to go home to my tiny cupboard of a room, by golly, I’m appreciative of this.


I only live about a half hour by train from Kamakura, which is referred to by some as the Kyoto of Eastern Japan, which is to say there are a lot of splendid temples to be seen there. It being summer vacation and all, I woke up on another beautiful morning yesterday and decided I’d go and check it out.

I arrived there around midday. MISTAKE. It was about 33°C with ~80% humidity, so it felt like 40°, and I was melting. Cleverly, I had stopped at Shop99 on the way and bought some face and body refresher towelettes – portable showers, basically – but I could see that they would only provide fleeting relief. As I walked through the Shopping Town, I would hear someone say ‘atsui’ (hot) about every five seconds, so it wasn’t just me with my New Zealand-accustomed body.

I also arrived wearing $3 jandals from the Warehouse. Again… MISTAKE. When choosing my wardrobe for the excursion, I didn’t really consider the possibility of walking for about 10km on stony roads and steps, but I figured I was stuck with them. In case you’re wondering, Ma, I also forgot to put on sunscreen, and no, I won’t do that again. Although it would’ve been much worse under New Zealand’s cleaner skies.

Enough of that, though, because it was a really great day out. I set out from the station amid hordes of holidaymakers, armed with my DK guidebook and a willingness to beat less travelled paths. What most people do is head straight for Hachimangu, which is quite close to the station, but I decided I wanted to get away from the noise and bustle of crowds. So, when I got near it, I hung a right and struck out in the direction of Zuisen-ji, renowned for its Zen garden. On the way I stopped briefly at Hokai-ji, a small, quiet, rather poorly maintained temple. Not much to see there apart from a poorly concealed corrugated iron shed and a bunch of kids possibly up to no good, so I carried on.

If I wanted to escape noise, I was kidding myself, because I was truly in the Land of Enormous, Incredibly Loud Cicadas. It’s not like I haven’t seen or heard them before, but man, not like this. It’s a generally uniform sound though, unlike crowds talking, so it eventually becomes part of the wallpaper. Which makes it better. Right? I mean, it’s more peaceful, more natural. And as I got closer to Zuisen-ji and further away from the main drag, the cars and motorbikes thinned out and the serenity began to take over.

Zuisen-ji wasn’t quite what I was expecting. They had the most detailed information leaflet, complete with a detailed explanation of the place and its philosophy and an impressive old-style map which made the water garden seem enormous. However, when I eventually I got there I found it wasn’t any bigger than my apartment. Quiet and peaceful, certainly, but it didn’t seem like there was really a lot of beauty about it. The temple itself was not open to the public, so you could only peer into small sections of it from behind a barrier. The history was all there, but it was almost like it was protected from the prying eyes of visitors.

I pressed on to Sugimoto-dera, which was the greatest delight of the day. Where Zuisen-ji was prohibitive and unwelcoming, Sugimoto-dera was informal and open. There were places where you obviously weren’t supposed to go, but they didn’t throw up KEEP OFF THE GRASS signs everywhere; instead, they leave it to you to figure it out. The temple itself was compact but impressive. I spent a good ten minutes in there just looking at statues, smelling the incense and enjoying the calm atmosphere. The rewards of this place weren’t spelled out for you, but they weren’t sheltered behind poles of bamboo. Perfect.

By this time my feet were really bloody sore, so I headed back to Hachimangu to see what all the fuss was about. I must confess, it was a really cool place, and the crowds were actually one of the best things about it. I realised that I was wrong: the sounds of nature aren’t superior to those of humans, they’re just a different type of deal. Here you could revel in the energy and fascination of others and feed off that, not to mention simply being able to watch people do interesting things. Like the pilgrims throwing coins into a shrine and praying briefly, before running off to get their children under control or charf some shaved ice.

I wondered, is there more holiness in the lives of these pilgrims than there is in mine (if there is any)? They throw in their coin, put their hands together and bow their heads for a few seconds, and presumably recite what they’ve been taught. To my secular thinking, that doesn’t constitute being holy; it’s just a procedure. But then, some are more diligent than others. One guy took ten minutes to get through it, while another couple was done in fifteen seconds. Just like Christianity I suppose, there are varying levels of diligence, of faith and adherence.

My thing is that I came to these places and I greatly admired what they stood for, without actually believing in it. I soaked up the atmosphere and took several moments of pause (especially at Sugimoto-dera) to reflect on why I was here, and none of the reasons were religious. Is my way of thinking less appropriate for these stunning locations than that of those pilgrims? I mean, it’s not going to keep me awake at night, but I just wonder if it really matters. It’s easy to say no, it doesn’t matter at all, and that’s probably what I think, but I’m not going to commit to that without at least considering the idea that I may not be doing it right. After all, those who know me will tell you that I’m not at all an arrogant, elitist, selfish prick. Not in the slightest.