Sunday, 29 April 2012

Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shokyu


I'm back now from my wanderings in the Netherlands and Belgium and thanks to Tom and Gaab for inviting me to their wonderful wedding. Tom is someone who creeps up from time to time in the articles on this site as 'The Lowlander'.

More Japanese Musings this week, this time on the confusing topic of Japanese religion. The article posted today was originally written for and included in the magazine The TRAM, a Toyama-ken magazine for English teachers. Therefore, it assumes that the reader is in Japan which, I appreciate, most of you are not. However, after reading it, who knows? Maybe you'll feel like you are...?

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Series 1

Japanese Musings I: Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Japanese Musings II: O-ha!!!

Japanese Musings III: The Thin Blue Line

Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shokyu

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

Japanese Musings VI: A Bad Day

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shukyo

What does the title of this piece mean?

It means that this is all about Japanese religions.

Oh, aren’t the Japanese religions Shintō and Buddhism?

Yes, that’s right, or at least, it is for most Japanese. Approximately one per cent are Christian though.

Am I the only one who doesn’t get what’s going on with Buddhism and all the other eastern faiths?

No, you’re not the only one. That’s why we’ve included this ace article in the TRAM.

Right, so what’s the difference between Buddhism and Shintō?

There are lots of differences; they’re completely different faiths actually.

So which is more popular then?

Both. Most Japanese are Shintō and Buddhist.

How can that be right? I can’t be Christian and Jewish at the same time for example.

That’s true but the Eastern Religions are different from the Abrahamic – or Western – ones. It’s common all over the Orient to follow several faiths at the same time. In China and Vietnam for example, lots of people pray in temples that are Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist at the same time.

That’s weird! It’s like pic ‘n’ mix worship.

That’s exactly what it’s like and it’s possible because many Eastern philosophies are just that; philosophies and not religions in the Western sense of the word.

Oh right, but are the Japanese really religious?

No, not really, in fact they’re pretty secular as a rule. But the philosophies and values that not only Buddhism and Shintō, but also Confucianism preach affect their daily lives greatly.

Ok, so tell me about Buddhism. It was founded by Buddha, the jolly fat guy, right?

Well, yes and no. It was founded by Siddhartha Gautama who is generally referred to as ‘Buddha’ but he isn’t the fat guy. The fat guy is Ho Tei who was a monk in China and is now a lesser god or Bodhisattva.

Left: Buddha. Right: Ho Tei

A god! But how can a man become a god?

If you're Christian that shouldn't be a difficult one to answer. However, with these 'gods' it's a bit different. Part of it is in the translation which can be misleading. What we think of as a god – and omnipotent, perfect being – is not what the Japanese think of. Their word kami is perhaps better translated as ‘spirit’. Often their kami – and there are many – are far from perfect or omnipotent. In fact, they usually display human characteristics.

So why was the Buddha then?

He was an Indian prince who wanted to find enlightenment. He tried various religions but none really suited him. He also tried starving himself and various other extreme measures but nothing worked. Then one day he sat under a tree and boom, it happened, he was enlightened!

A bit like Sir Isaac Newton then?

Well yes, except that the Buddha didn’t have an apple land on his head.

What is this ‘enlightenment’ then? It sounds like a load of weird hippy crap to me!

Well, I don’t know exactly because I’m not enlightened, but you know born-again Christians who tell you the amazing tale of how they saw the light? Well seeing the light, that’s like Buddhist enlightenment.

Oh right, and what’s this Zen stuff then?

Zen is a sect of Buddhism, the predominant one in Japan. Buddhism has many sects. Tibetan Lamaism is another.

So the Dalai Lama has nothing to do with Buddhism in Japan?

Nothing whatsoever.

What makes Zen different from the other sects?

Zen is more about achieving personal enlightenment than worshipping deities. What’s more, Zen followers believe that, like it was with the Buddha, their enlightenment can be triggered off by a small incident, not a long, gradual process of learning as some of the other sects advocate.

What sort of incident?

That we don’t know; it’s different for everyone. Different schools of Zen recommend different ways, such as meditation or riddles.

What sort of riddles?

Ok, here’s a famous one: What’s the sound of one hand clapping?

I don’t know? What is it?

You must think about it yourself. By thinking about it you may achieve enlightenment.

You mentioned meditation. Is that all that Hare Krishna stuff that George Harrison got into?

Actually Hare Krishna is Hindu, but the two religions have a lot in common as Buddhism is based on Hindusim. Both meditate, that is sitting, often in the lotus position, and trying to clear your mind of all thoughts. Both also believe in reincarnation and karma.

Karma: is that like if you are bad you get born again in another life as an ant or something?

Something like that. Reincarnation is being born again and karma is like a goodness counter. Basically, if you are good in this life, then you get good karma in the next. And if you are bad in this life then it’s the opposite.

That sounds like the ultimate clean slate to me. I can be a complete bastard to everyone and next life I suffer when I don’t even know that it was me before.

Well yes, and I’m not too sure on it myself, but Buddhists reckon that if you are good then self isn’t important anyway so it doesn’t matter.

That sounds confusing.

It is.

You mentioned earlier that there are different schools of Zen.

Yes, there are many and in Japan there are seven important ones. The biggest is Sōtō and their HQ is Eihei-ji in Fukui-ken. Most of the others are based in Kyoto.

What’s the symbol of Buddhism?

Buddhism has many symbols but the main one’s the wheel.

Why’s that?

The wheel represents life. No beginning and no end, but living, dying, then being reborn and it all starts again for all eternity.

Is there anyway to change that, to stop being reborn and go to Heaven or something?

Yes, if you achieve buddhahood, i.e. enlightenment. Then you are not reborn and become a god.

It’s all very complicated but I think I get Buddhism now. What’s this whole Shintō thing though?

Shintō, as I said before, is a completely separate religion. In fact, it’s Japan’s native, home-grown religion.

Isn’t Buddhism Japanese?

No, as I said before, it was started by the Buddha and he was Indian. Buddhism came to Japan in the 8th century via China and Korea.

So Shintō was around before Buddhism then?

Indeed it was, a long time before. No one knows when Shintō first started, but it was before recorded history.

So who’s the main man of Shintō, like the Buddha of Buddhism or Christ of Christianity?

Main man, there isn’t one. There’s no holy book either.

No book and no guy! So what do they worship then?

Shintō followers worship kami, the gods or spirits of Japan. It’s a bit like the Pagan faiths of Europe before the Christians came along. They worship the divine in mountains, trees and rivers, that sort of thing.

Oh right. So what are the temples for?

Temples are Buddhist; the Shintō ones are called shrines. They are built in the places where they reckon the kami live. A shrine is like a home for a kami.

Are all the kami like rivers and trees and stuff?

No, there are the more usual gods as well, plus mysterious creatures like the tengu.

Tengu? Isn’t that a restaurant where one can find great food at reasonable prices?

Well yes, Tengu is a restaurant, but the word actually means ‘Heaven Dog’. A tengu is a goblin-type creature with a big nose. You can see one on the restaurant sign. Also gods from other religions are accepted as kami in Shintō, such as the Buddha and other Buddhist deities.

Which is how Japanese people can follow both religions at the same time?

Precisely. They often have the same gods or kami in the temples.

Like who?

Well, there’s the Buddha and Ho Tei, the jolly fat guy. There’s also Kanon-sama; she’s the woman goddess who sometimes holds a baby and sometimes a small vase. Then there’s Yebisu, the protector of fishermen and small businessmen.

Yebisu? Isn’t that a brand of lager.

Yes indeed. You can see Yebisu himself on the front of the cans. He holds a fishing net.

Ok, so I have another question. How can I tell the difference between a Buddhist temple and a Shintō shrine?

There are several things to look for. Firstly, there are the two guardian animals at the entrance, usually lions. Then there is a big gate (torii in Japanese) which is usually red though it can often be grey as well. Thirdly, there are bits of paper that look like lightning flashes and big tassles hanging from the gate. If the place has all of those then it’s Shintō and not Buddhist.

Oh right, that’s helpful. But what do I do inside the place? I’ve noticed Japanese people clapping and bowing and stuff but I don’t want to look stupid. What do I do and where do I do it?

Ok, well each temple or shrine is different but as a general rule at a Shintō shrine one should go up to the altar or outside the main door if it’s shut, (they usually are), and standing, clap twice and then bow twice. Plus you should remember to wash your hands first in the trough provided outside. That’s very important as it symbolises purifying yourself. For the Buddhist temples there’s no clapping, just stand in front of the altar, put your hands together like you do in school when you say “Itadakimasu!” and bow for a couple of seconds. Then you could perhaps light three sticks of incense (leave a donation) and then stick them in the big pot provided and waft the air all over you.

What’s the point of all that may I ask?

It’s meant to bring you good luck and drive evil spirits away.

Oh, I see, very good. And what’s the point of the gates, tassles and lightning paper that you mentioned earlier?

The gates and paper mark the boundaries of a holy ground, the domain of the kami. Bad spirits and evil people can’t pass through them.

That sounds like a load of crap! After all, I’ve never been struck down dead by them and I’m hardly as pure as the driven snow.

Erm, can’t answer that one. Perhaps they don’t always work?

Obviously not. However, what if I wanted to convert to Shintō or Buddhism?

Well, it’s not really a case of converting since they are cool with you following them as well as your own religion – pic ‘n’ mix as you said before – but if you really want to then Buddhism in particular is accessible in the West. There are quite a few famous Buddhists actually, like Richard Gere for example.

Hardly the best advertisement for the faith is it?

Well, no, not really I suppose. But if you wanted to introduce Buddhist elements into your life you could perhaps start by meditating, being nice to other people and popping down to the temple now and again.

What day is the service?

Unlike Christianity, Judaism and Islam, there is no set holy day and so no one mandatory weekly service.

Ok, so whenever you want but don’t expect a priest and hymns?

Something like that.

Where can I find some nice shrines and temples then?

Well they’re everywhere and everyone has different tastes. I personally find the small ones in the mountains to be the nicest but there are shrines and temples in every town and village in Japan. Most of the famous Buddhist temples are in Kyoto, although Eihei-ji in Fukui is famous and beautiful too. The most famous Shintō shrine is Ise though there are a load of important ones on Shikoku as well.

What about in Toyama-ken? Any good ones here?

Yes, check out the Buddhist temples in Inami and Takaoka; they’re famous. There’s also the Takaoka Daibutsu that’s worth a visit as well.

Daibutsu? What’s that?

Japanese for ‘Big Buddha’ and that’s what it is; a huge, copper Buddha sat in the middle of Takaoka.

Cool! Ok well, thanks for that, I really know about Japanese religion now! Just one last question though…

What’s that?

What’s the sound of one hand clapping…?

Written January, 2001, Ōsawano-machi, Japan
Revised April 2012, Smallthorne, UK

Next musing: The Sporting Life

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Japanese Musings III: The Thin Blue Line


Since the Japanese Musings are proving to be popular, here's another, an account of the time when I had a brush with the law...
Incidentally, next week there won't be an update as Uncle Travelling Matt is off on his travels, to the Netherlands to attend the wedding of the Lowlander who will be appearing on this site soon. The Lowlander is one of my oldest travelling companions and together we've visited a dozen countries, drank considerably more beers and  dissected most of the world's problems. Anyway, it's an honour to be invited to his wedding but fear not, in a fortnight's time there'll be another update.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Series 1

Japanese Musings I: Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Japanese Musings II: O-ha!!!

Japanese Musings III: The Thin Blue Line

Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shokyu

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

Japanese Musings VI: A Bad Day

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings III: The Thin Blue Line

I had a brush with the law this week. Yes, I am now a rebel against society, a mean outlaw.

Ok, well not quite, but I did get stopped by the police on my way to a Japanese lesson. Now I am not going to disagree with the fact that I deserve to be fined. I drive just a little too fast as a general rule, on occasions I absent-mindedly forget to wear my seat belt and I once stuck a stamp on upside-down, (did you know that in Britain that constitutes treason?), but my gripe this week, is what I got caught for. For I committed the heinous crime of coming to a railway level crossing, slowing down and then crossing it.

And before you ask, no the barriers were not down, and yes the coast was clear. No, here in Japan they have a law that states that you must actually stop at the level crossing, check both ways and then proceed. If you stop ON the actual crossing, well that's ok, but if you actually follow the much safer option of merely slowing down and then crossing, why 'tis forbidden. This is what I did, bad boy that I am.

Now of course, I was aware of this law, but I pretended that I was not, hoping to get a reprieve. They (surprise, surprise) did not speak English, so I had to phone up Masami (a Japanese friend), and get her explain my ignorance of such a wise and noble law to them. What did they say? I asked after she had talked to Plod-san on the mobile?

Sorry, you're still fined 9000 yen and you've got to go to the police station.

Now, as you can imagine, I was not particularly happy that my ingenious plan of ignorance had failed, so I decided instead to go to Plan B, nicknamed "Operation Genki". Firstly, I pretended to misunderstand everything he said, (not difficult to do due to our lack of a common language), but instead be really friendly to him and talk about random things.

"Passport?" he rapped.

"No here" I replied, "But look!" I pointed to my 'Matto Self-Introduction Sheet' for Primary School that was on the back seat. "This is me, I like soccer, look soccer! And here is my cat, she is called Puss! You like?"

Plod-san was unimpressed. He muttered something in Japanese and then got in the drivers seat and explained that he was to drive me first to my apartment to get passport and gaijin-card and then to Police station.

"Ok" replieth I. He started the engine, and thus unwittingly, the tape player also. "Ha, music, you like? This music is happy music, yes, no?" I danced a little in my seat, or maybe wiggled is a better description. All this time my now well-practised Tony Blair grin was glued on my face. Plod-san grunted.

"Oh, you don't like, desu ka? I'm sorry, here, Japanese music, maybe you like more, eh?!" I took out the Irish folk and inserted Morning Musume.

"Happy Summer Wedding!" quoth I, and then singing "Ruv Ruv Ruv Machine, whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa, dancing all ze night!!"

He seemed to cheer up a chotto.

We got to the apartment. "Tea?" I offered politely, "Hoto Milku Tea, you want, eh?" He got this one.

"No, eto, err, Passport!"

'Only trying to be polite, sorry', thought I, unimpressed with this man's manners. Obviously not descended from samurai.

The police station took a while. There were lots of forms to fill in, which is only right for such a terrible crime, I'm sure you'll agree. Problem was, they'd never filled them in before for gaijin, or seen an International Driving Licence before. Suits me, thought I.

"Just think, if you'd let me off we wouldn't have to go through all this shit now would we?" I told him with a smile.

"Hai" agreed he and his new friend who had joined in the fun. I christened him Fatplod-san.

Because he was fat.

Then I spied my moment.

 "Look, look!" I exclaimed, pointing at a poster on the wall. Toyama-ken police have a mascot. He is called Tateyama-san, after the local Holy Mountain, (an obvious choice for a mascot I'm sure you'll agree). Anyway, Tateyama-san is a mountain, dressed in a police uniform and topped off with a huge smile. He helps kids across the road, waves a load and enforces the law of the land is a most courteous, polite and friendly manner. [1]

Unlike Plod-san.

They looked round.

"Tateyama-san" I exclaimeth. "He is our friend, he helps all the good children! Tateyama-san is genki!" Genki means that he is basically a "jolly bloke".

 Unlike Plod-san.

 "Hai, Tateyama-san", they relied, not sharing my enthusiasm for Police mascots. Anyway, the long and short of it is, yes I still got fined, but I think maybe they were a little pissed off which compensated a small amount, (though not 9000 bloody yen). Plus, now, when they next stop me for alcohol testing, I can wave at them, smile and engage them in a conversation on Tateyama-san, who is a friend and example to all of us!

And they know my name, and where I live.


[1] Actually I made a mistake. The mascot’s name is Tateyama-kun, (‘kun’ is a kid, ‘san’ more grown-up, although being mountain-sized, he looked pretty bloody grown-up to me). I have since (2012) learnt that all of Japan’s police forces have mascots but that Toyama-ken’s is better than everyone else’s because it was designed by Fujiko Fujio, who is actually two people, Toyama-ken’s most famous residents in fact, the foremost manga artists in the world, the guys who thought up Doraemon no less. For more on Tateyama-kun and all the other wacky Japanese police mascots, check out this brilliant site.
Next musing: Nihon no Shokyu

Monday, 9 April 2012

Japanese Musings II: O-ha!!!


It's been a busy week with Holy Week taking over, but things are back to normal now and on a more secular note, here is another slice of my time in Japan, this time when my life gets invaded by a rather annoying yet catchy pop song...

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Series 1

Japanese Musings I: Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Japanese Musings II: O-ha!!!

Japanese Musings III: The Thin Blue Line

Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shokyu

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

Japanese Musings VI: A Bad Day

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings II: O-ha!!!

Just recently Japan seems to have been taken over by one of those catchy pop tunes that appear from time to time, are on everybody's lips and then disappear completely, only ever heard again at wedding discos or other such celebrations. The beautiful "Macarena" by Los del Rio and the haunting "Sugar Sugar" by the Archies are two examples of such songs. I am not sure of the precise title of the tune that is brainwashing the Japanese public at the moment, though it is known by most of the gaijin at least as, "The O-ha Song".

The formula is simple, take a member of Smap (a popular band), dress him in women's clothes, call him Shingo Mama and then get him to perform a catchy song about his addiction to mayonnaise, and give the catchy tune an equally catchy dance. You see, it is the dance, or at least parts of it, that people remember. Basically, you sing "O-haaaa!" a lot, making two 'ok' signs with your hands for the 'o' bit and then pushing both hands out in front of you, fingers stretched out, (imagine you are pushing open a heavy door with both hands), for the 'haaaa!' bit. "O-ha!" incidentally means 'good morning!' and yes, before you ask, of course I purchased this CD, (if only for the dance moves inside the sleeve).

But, alas! This is not what I intend to discuss with you this week. Instead, I shall tell you a little of myself. For several years now, I have taken to sitting in cafes and sipping sedately on cups of tea, or if that is not available, coffee. All great, famous artists and writers do this, in the cultured cities around the globe - Paris, Milan, Rome, Barcelona, Wolverhampton - whilst they muse upon their latest writings or etchings.

Now of course, I am sure that many will be quick to point out here that I am neither a famous author, or indeed remotely good at etchings, paintings, or indeed anything that requires a grand deal of effort, but hey, I like caffeine and it makes me feel more intelligent than I actually am. Now of course, many will also be quick to point out that Osawano is generally not regarded amongst the great centres of world culture, but unperturbed I persevere and continue with my vocation.
Indeed within Osawano I have found a venue where I am quite at home; it is named 'Gusto'. Now, I have to admit, that 'Gusto' is not quite a French pavement cafe with Art Nouveau Architecture and warm croissants. To form an image of 'Gusto' in your mind, think more MacDonalds with rice and a toilet with a heated seat, (I jest not). In fact, I do have several friends who tend to look down upon the humble 'Gusto' as "not being authentically Japanese enough". But, a Japanese-owned restaurant, in Japan, serving Japanese food and full of Japanese people is Japanese enough for me. So what if they serve burgers as well, in my opinion these people are either (A) On a higher cultural plane to myself, or (B) Stuck up their own cultural backsides. I am unsure which.

But, oh, let me get on with my tale. Well, sat I was in 'Gusto' the other evening, nursing my cup of tea (with milk), and musing upon the workings of the world, when the waiter came over to me and started with surprise "Matto-san! You have come from England! Yes, you teach in Osawano Junior High, and then a longer spiel recounting numerous exciting exploits of my life." Now of course, this gentleman's intimate knowledge of me did surprise me somewhat, so I asked him from whence he had garnered it.

"From the newspaper!" came his reply.

You see, this little story I just told to illustrate a new dimension of my life, that of my new role as a celebrity. The thing is I actually teach every child in Osawano from 3-15 and due to being employed by the Town Council, I have a regular newspaper column. Thus, I am fast becoming extremely well-known in the town. I cannot help but walk down the street before someone will come and "Matto-sensei, herrow!!" Now, of course this was rather pleasant at first. Achieving celebrity status is of course something that many of us dream of, and even better, to achieve it by doing absolutely nothing. But to be honest, I am finding that it begins to grate after a while.

The other day, myself and a friend were in one of the finest restaurants in the locality, (ok, small lie, it was 'Gusto'), when a group of children came in, immediately spotted me and shouted "Matto-sensei, O-haaaaa!" "O-haaa!" I did reply, complete with actions. But alas, this merely spurred the little tinkers on. Oh yes, we were on the receiving end of "O-haaas!" for the best part of half an hour. I walk along the street, and lo, out of the corner of my eye I spy a member of the Osawano youth. I hurry up, bury my head in a book, but to no avail, I am discovered and out they holler "Matto-sensei, O-haaaaa!" Of course, the good side is that if I go out of Osawano, I am once again just a normal gaijin, who does not warrant "O-haaaas", merely stares, but I do have to live here. They are "O-haaaing" me in the bank, the supermarket, the street and last Sunday, even in the onsen. I admit now that Shingo Mama is cool, he has immense musical talent, his song is great and his choreography even better, but right now, I wish he would just disappear fast.

And take his bloody "O-haaaas!" with him.

Written 2000, Osawano, Japan

Want to check out Shingo Mama and his classic 'O-ha Rock'? Click here and enjoy along with an enlightening interview (in Japanese with English subtitles).

Next musing: The Thin Blue Line

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Pilgrimages: And Those Feet Did...


Back in November you may recall me telling you that I was off on a pilgrimage to Glastonbury. Several months later and here is my account of a trip to a place in England where those feet may well have walked...

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to accounts of all my pilgrimages:

Pilgrimages: To the Holy Island

Pilgrimages: Nazareth in Norfolk

Pilgrimages: And Those Feet Did...

Pilgrimages: The Sacred Heart of Wales

Pilgrimages: Across the Sound

And those feet did…

An Account of a Pilgrimage to Glastonbury

Copyright © 2012, Matthew E. Pointon

           And did those feet in ancient time.
          Walk upon England's mountains green:
          And was the holy Lamb of God,
          On England's pleasant pastures seen!

          And did the Countenance Divine,
          Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
          And was Jerusalem builded here,
          Among these dark Satanic Mills?

William Blake (1804)


Those immortal words by William Blake are ones that have haunted and inspired me since my teenage years. Did those feet, Christ’s feet, walk upon the green fields of my own country? And can we, can I, as a Christian and as a socialist, help built Jerusalem, the city where all is as it should be, here in this country where so much is so unfair? Eighteen years after first learning them, I still have yet to find the answer.


Ever since going to pray at the Holy Sepulchre back in 2009 I had not been on a pilgrimage. A lot had happened in my life since them and my faith had waned more than waxed. I needed a time of quiet, of reflection, of peace if I were to start about building my own personal Jerusalem. After Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem following their exile in Babylon, they were led by Nehemiah. When he arrived he found a city devastated, without even walls to protect. His job is to rebuild those walls but before he sets about this holy task, he sits down, takes a moment of quiet and prays. After the tumult of my separation and subsequent divorce from my wife, I too needed that space. I needed a pilgrimage.


On my last English pilgrimage, to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, I had felt the presence of God whilst walking along the country lane from the Slipper Chapel to the Holy House. It seemed right for it reminded me of the green lanes of my childhood and those feelings were powerfully captured and expressed in a folk song in which a traveller like myself meets Joseph, Mary and the Infant Jesus whilst walking along a similar such lane. They stop there and dine together in a meadow and when the traveller asks what their purpose is, Joseph tells him:

‘We are travelling to Glastonbury through England’s green lanes,
To hear of men’s troubles and to hear of men’s pains.
We travel the whole world, o’er land and o’er sea,
For to show all the people how they might be free.’

But why, you may ask, would the composer of a folk song write about the Holy Family travelling to Glastonbury, a small Somerset market town, famous these days for its drug and money-fuelled music festival?

I wrote when I journeyed to Lindisfarne that I was travelling to the birthplace of English Christianity. In some respects, that is true: England was evangelised from the monastery on the Holy Isle in Northumbria, but in another sense it was another island, one altogether more mystical and legendary, the Isle of Avalon, that serves as the birthplace of the faith in my nation. If Lindisfarne is the historical home of English Christianity, then Glastonbury is its spiritual home.

The Four Gospels are all about the life of Jesus of Nazareth. They are what Christians of all persuasions rely on when looking for the God who was also a man that founded their faith. But those Gospels, whilst helping us immeasurably, at the same time leave us with a big problem. They talk about Christ’s birth and his childhood up to the age of twelve, but then they fall eerily quiet and the next thing that we hear of He is in His early thirties and is beginning His ministry. The question begs therefore, what happened to Him in-between? Where was He? What was He doing? How did the boy become the man that Pilate beheld? And where the documents are absent, the legends fill the gap. 

Jesus, the legends say, had a great uncle, one Joseph of Arimathea who is mentioned in the Gospels as the member of the Sanhedrin who provided a tomb for Christ after the Crucifixion. Joseph of Arimathea was a trader, a trader in tin or so the legend goes, and the Roman Empire got all of its tin from Cornwall on the Isle of Britannia. On one of his trips to Britannia Joseph took the young Jesus with him. They visited various locations in Cornwall before travelling up through Devon and Somerset to Glastonbury, at the time one of the greatest centres of Pagan religious activity in the country. They arrived by boat – Glastonbury was then an island in a marshy inland sea, an island known as ‘Avalon’, a name which is also well-known in the world of myth and legend through its associations with King Arthur – where, upon striking ground, Joseph stuck his staff into the ground and a tree called the Glastonbury Thorn sprouted up. Then, together, Joseph and the Infant Christ constructed a dwelling place where they stayed awhile before later returning to Palestine.

Years later, after the Resurrection, Christ told Jospeh to return to Glastonbury and to build a church on the spot where they had once dwelt. In AD63 Joseph did return with twelve disciples, (including, according to some accounts, Mary Magdalene). They were given twelve hides of land by the local King Arviragus and they built a wattle church on the spot already consecrated by Christ which they dedicated to the Virgin Mary, this being the first above-ground Christian church not only in England but indeed the whole of Western Europe.


Chaos, absolute chaos. The house was a mess, I had a mate kipping in the spare room, the phone was ringing, washing up needed to be done, I hadn’t packed and my head was still fuzzy from the beers of the night before.

The sensible thing to do would have been to tidy up, eat well, pack carefully, order one’s mind, then depart. But all that would’ve taken days, not hours. No, sometimes we have to listen to Christ’s admonition to Martha who was similarly concerned with housework:

‘Martha! Martha! You are worried and troubled over so many things, but just one is needed.’

Sometimes we just have to stop the world and get off. That is, after all, in many respects, what a pilgrimage is. So that is one I did and after tossing the bare minimum of clothing into a bag, I set off.

I tried to focus by singing hymns. For some reason ‘Be Thou My Vision’ came to mind, an early Irish prayer composed at a similar time to when the Abbey at Glastonbury was established. However, as I sang another voice was present. Through the grey, misty November morn it seemed to be calling “To Avalon! To Avalon!” The Pagans talk about the ‘thin places’ where the veil between the temporal and the spiritual is more transparent and I could understand them. Is not all pilgrimage a search for a thin place? And was not the isle of Avalon the most celebrated thin place of the Ancient Britons?

I stopped midway at Worcester to pray in the magnificent cathedral. Walking from the car park across the river to the great mediaeval temple I chanced upon a tiny Saxon church dedicated to St. Alban. St. Alban is another English first: our first saint and martyr. Several years previously I had visited his shrine in the city that bears his name and found it both beautiful and moving. Stopping for a moment, I prayed for his blessing on my trip.

Worcester Cathedral is associated with another ancient holy man, St. Wulstan who was once bishop there and on whose orders the building was constructed. St. Wulstan is a name that I am familiar with as there is a settlement near to my home called Wolstanton after him and he has associations with a number of places in my area, but I knew little of him. He was, it transpires, a churchman whose life spanned both the Saxon and Norman periods acting as a bridge of reconciliation and stability between the two and much loved by the people.

I went into the Jesus Chapel and prayed the rosary. It was at times difficult to concentrate due to rehearsals for an Elgar concert underway in the Nave but I persevered, recalling past pilgrimages, friends and family, my son forming the most fervent prayers.

Under the cathedral, in the glorious Norman crypt there was a fascinating exhibition on the cathedral’s history. One section discussed the Worcester Pilgrim. A grave of an unknown man was excavated in 1986 and we know that he was a pilgrim due to his attire – walking boots, woollen garments and a staff – and by the fact that he was accompanied in his grave by a cockle shell – which denotes that he had made the pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James at Santiago de Compostela in Spain – and twigs of goat willow or ‘English Palm’ indicating that he may also have journeyed to the Holy Land. What touched me most though was that his pilgrimages had all been years before his death, (he died in his sixties crippled with arthritis), and he had chosen to be buried with his pilgrim garb on, (and in the case of the boots, these had had to be slit open to fit them on his feet!), so proud was he of his past achievements. This reminded me of the great importance that pilgrimages played in the past and of the long and noble tradition that I was following in. The chance encounter with this pilgrim of yore touched me and I wondered if he too had ever journeyed to Avalon?

Worcester Cathedral


I had decided to stay in the city of Wells rather than in Glastonbury itself. The rationale behind this was two-fold. Firstly, Wells is an ancient city with a beautiful mediaeval cathedral considered by many to be the finest in England and I had long wanted to see it. My main reason though relates to a computer game that I played many years ago back in the 1980s on a Spectrum 48K. It was called ‘Hampstead’ and the aim was to get rich quick and thus be able to live in the yuppie suburb of Hampstead. I never completed the game but once I remember taking the tube to the place at which point the computer told me I’d lost the game since ‘You have reached Hampstead but not attained Hampstead’. Attainment is central to the concept of pilgrimage and I wished to attain Glastonbury rather than just reach it for the shortest route is not necessarily the best. In the old days pilgrims used to walk hundreds of miles to reach their destination, and whilst I had neither the time nor money to spend doing the same, Wells is six miles distant from Glastonbury and I could at least walk that rather than just drive straight into town.

After settling into my B&B I walked into the city and dined at an ancient pub called the City Arms that had once been the city gaol. I sampled two local beers, Cathedral City and Golden Chalice. Yes indeed, I was in holy country! To finish off I strolled down the High Street to take a look at the magnificent cathedral itself before retiring to my bed.
The Morning Eucharist Service at Wells Cathedral was well-attended with hardly a free seat in the house. The service was a pleasant one – traditional but not too heavy and with a fine sermon on the subject of endings, (it was the last Sunday in the Church Year). After taking Holy Communion, (and the customary cup of tea with the congregation and priest afterwards), I lit a candle to my endeavours and set off.

Wells Cathedral

The walk from Wells to Glastonbury is, I am afraid to say, not one of the more inspiring in England. It is on a narrow pavement aside a busy A-road and the landscape is flat and uneventful. It was certainly not the old English green lane of the folk song.

But I cared little for pilgrimages are not about sightseeing and instead I concentrated on trying to attain Glastonbury. I prayed the rosary, sang hymns and undertook various other devotions and so hardly noticed the miles roll by.

Just outside of Wells, by the side of the road was a spring. A sign informed me that this was one of the lesser known wells from which the city gets its name. Wells have long held spiritual associations and coming across this one seemed right. I splashed the water across my face as if re-baptising for this spiritual journey and then continued on my way.

Every so often, before me, in the distance, I would catch a glimpse of the Tor with the ruined tower of St. Michael on its summit. Through the mist it appeared magical and a very visible reminder of the goal of this pilgrimage. Again came the words, “To Avalon! To Avalon!” and again I sang ‘Be Thou My Vision’, the words of the 8th century Irish poet having particular resonance:

‘Thou my soul’s shelter, and thou my high tow’r
Raise thou me heav’nward, O Pow’r of my pow’r.’

There before me was the very physical embodiment of that high tower that I so sought. All I had to do was attain it.

Outside Glastonbury there is a sign. It informs motorists that the town is twinned with two other places – Lalibela in Ethiopia and the Isle of Patmos in Greece. This indeed made me stop and think for a moment for both are world-renowned holy sites, Patmos being where St. John the Revelator composed the Book of Revelation in which the New Jerusalem, (which, along with Glastonbury, inspired William Blake), is described whilst Lalibela is the site of the famous rock-hewn churches, mediaeval Ethiopia’s Second Jerusalem. I was reminded how the Faith has touched all corners of the globe and mused upon what other connections with Jerusalem that Glastonbury might hold.

Towards a New Jerusalem?


I climbed a steep hill before reaching the town itself. In the old days the flat lands that I had just walked through had been an inland sea and it was only several hundred years ago that they were drained to produce the landscape that we know today. The climb signified that I was now on the fabled Isle of Avalon itself, the goal of my pilgrimage. Drenched with sweat from the exertion of the stiff climb, I dropped down into the town itself. It was strange, for however, visualised the place for so long, it all seemed remarkably normal and everyday as I strolled down its streets. However, when I began to look closer I realised that something was amiss. There were adverts in house and shop windows for clairvoyants, shamans and healers, whilst the shops that lined the High Street sold spiritual products and boasted of being eco-friendly. There were Buddhas and pentangles, crystals and incense and, in front of the parish church, a replica of a Celtic Pagan labyrinth. The entire place reeked of faith and yet unexpectedly, here in the very birthplace and spiritual home of English Christianity, that faith was not Christian.

I called in at Labyrinth Books, an emporium of all texts spiritual, to see if they had anything that would help guide me on my pilgrimage. Half an hour later I emerged with ‘Glastonbury: Maker of Myths’ by Frances Howard, (and several other books), but more importantly, wiser following a conversation with the lady behind the till. “I’m about the most un-Pagan Pagan you’ll ever meet,” she told me. “I worship in churches, temples, anywhere, taking a bit from every tradition. But if there is one place in Glastonbury that you must see it is the Tor, you must go up the Tor. Whether it really is an ancient labyrinth like they say or just a thin place where ley lines converge I cannot say, but it is powerful, very powerful. I’ve had several experiences up there over the years; it’s impossible to describe them, put them into words, you just have to go there and experience the atmosphere and holiness of the place for yourself.”

The thing that struck me most though was how she had described herself as ‘Pagan’ as if that were normal, everyday, the standard label to use. She had expected me to think that she was a Pagan as if it is the default position yet in Britain today Pagans make up only a tiny percentage of the population and many people struggle to accept it as a ‘genuine’ religion. Yet here in Glastonbury, I was learning that paganism is the norm, the default position and that felt strange. I had journeyed here from afar because it is the birthplace and spiritual heart of Christianity in my country and here, by their very own hearth, the Christians are in the minority.

In an attempt to understand more of Glastonbury’s other major faith, I called in at one of its centres several doors down from the bookshop. Situated in a non-descript outbuilding, the Glastonbury Goddess Temple is the only temple dedicated to the Goddess in the British Isles and one of the few specifically Pagan houses of worship in Europe. Inside it was quiet and dark and, after removing my shoes, I was led through a curtain to the main sanctuary where devotees sat in silence on cushions whilst candles flickered on the altar and ambient devotional music played. I sat with them awhile and meditated, trying to make sense of it all. Here was a religion that was radically different to my own yet, unlike all other different religions, was wholly English in character. However, whilst it was in so many ways culturally familiar in one crucial aspect it was alien: this was a feminine faith, based on women and designed for and by women. Being a man it was a well-spring that I could never fully tap into. However, encountering it, the common criticism by women that the Abrahamic religions are too male became a little more comprehensible.

Glastonbury Goddess Temple

I left the Goddess Temple and made my way to the ruins of the Abbey, once the spiritual and financial heart not only Glastonbury but indeed the whole of the south-west of England. This abbey was one of the largest in the country and also England’s oldest religious foundation. It was established in 670 but was built on the site of a much earlier religious foundation which itself was based around the Old Church supposedly built by Joseph of Arimathea in AD63 only thirty years after Christ’s death. Legend tells us that he arrived from Palestine with twelve followers, going back to the place where he had stayed with the Infant Christ all those years before and was given twelve hides of land by the local King Arviragus.

Whether the legend is true or not cannot be verified but it is of great antiquity. In 166 Pope Eleutherias acknowledged that the English Church was the oldest in all of Western Europe because of Glastonbury when he sent legates to rededicate the still-extant Old Church and there are accounts of St. Bridget, St. Beon, St. David and St. Patrick at Glastonbury in addition to a horde of other early holy notables. Few places on Earth and none outside the Holy Land except perhaps Rome can boast such a distinguished Christian lineage. Strangely though, as I wandered through the leafy precincts of the once great Abbey, I felt very little. Was it because I was rushing a little or was it because Glastonbury’s spiritual focus has now shifted or was it something else entirely? I know not but after praying in St. Patrick’s Chapel – the only completely extant building remaining – I continued on to my goal.

Glastonbury Abbey where those feet may once have walked…

I had known where this pilgrimage would culminate even as I was driving down the M5 the day before. “To Avalon! To Avalon!” had been the call and an island rising out of the mist capped by a tower was the vision. As I’d walked across from Wells that same island topped by a mighty tower had enigmatically appeared, disappeared and then reappeared, calling me on. The Psalms talk of Zion, during His temptation Christ was offered all the kingdoms of the world from the top of a high peak and even today one climbs the Mount of Olives in order to survey Jerusalem. Like Moses, Abraham and Christ Himself, to meet God one must climb His Holy Hill and England’s Holy Hill is Glastonbury Tor.

I walked out of the town, past the houses of the healers and fortune tellers, past too the Chalice Well which runs red because, according to legend, the Holy Grail is buried at its source, and then I climbed up the mount itself. The climb was stiff and taxing and I was tired from my day of walking, but I persevered; this was my goal, this was my pilgrimage and eventually, sweat streaming and out of breath I stood at the summit beside the ruined tower of St. Michael.
The summit of the Tor

Laid out before me was it all: the ancient Isle of Avalon with its modern-day town clustered around the ruins of the Abbey; beyond that the flat fertile plain that had once been an inland sea which devotees had had to row across to reach this sacred, separate place, and then beyond that, on the horizon to the north, only faintly discernible, the towers of Wells Cathedral from whence I had set out that morning.

I sat down by the tower, gazed out and prayed. The sun set slowly and I watched the view both near and far. Far, the fields turned gold and the world gradually darkened whilst near others waited giving a feeling of spiritual solidarity. There were Pagans there for the sunset – two knew each other, they lived in the town and came every evening – and a man practising Tai-Chi, tourists simply enjoying the view and some local children play fighting. There on that holy hill I contemplated the Glastonbury legend. Had Christ once sat at this place also? If He had visited Glastonbury then it is inconceivable that He didn’t climb the Tor, so potent is its call, and whilst there is much doubt about the veracity of the legend, as I said before, its very antiquity makes it far more feasible than one might initially think. Deep down though, I knew that the historical actuality of the story matters little, instead it is the message: if Christ would have come to Glastonbury, why would He have come and what would He have hoped to find? And then, how can that help me – and all of us – on our journey of faith?

As the sun set, I climbed down again and walked back into town, stopping only at the White Spring to collect some holy water, before catching a bus back to Wells. The experience of the Tor though, stayed with me throughout the rest of the evening in the City Arms and my guesthouse afterwards, playing with my emotions, challenging me to understand for there was something about Glastonbury that was bugging me, something that I could not make sense of...

View from the Tor


‘And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptised.’

The next morning and it was time to go. I had plans that day, a pilgrimage of a secular kind. My father’s best friend at university and best man at his wedding lives in Axbridge, a small town only a few miles distant from Glastonbury. It was with him that my dad travelled overland from New York to Buenos Aires in the summer of 1972. Although an experienced backpacker myself, the sheer length and scope of such a journey boggles the imagination and yet he rarely talked about it and never travelled again. Had he not enjoyed the trip? Had there been problems? I could not understand how someone could experience such a journey and then never yearn for more, yet I wanted to understand my dad. But since I can no longer ask him myself, then perhaps this friend could provide some of the answers and in doing so, help me to understand my father better.

But before that there was one more place that I had to visit for my Glastonbury pilgrimage was not yet complete. I drove my car down the road that I had walked along the day before and parked it at the side of Wearyall Hill, the high ground on the far side of the town to the Tor. Then I got out and climbed up to it.

The Glastonbury Thorn is a sorry sight these days. Attacked by vandals a year before it looks almost dead and may well have to be replaced. Such a senseless act which has reduced a living tree to an almost lifeless stump is painful to witness and even harder to comprehend, but it did not upset me as much as I’d expected. The Thorn has been cut down before, during the Civil War, yet local believers lovingly salvaged the roots and grew new trees from them. And for a Christian, there is something very profound and relevant about the unwarranted death of something innocent and defenceless and its subsequent rebirth. It is at the very heart of our faith.

Legend tells us that the Thorn first sprouted when Joseph of Arimathea struck his staff into the ground upon arrival on Avalon after alighting from his boat with the Infant Jesus. Again, this is a fanciful legend that is easy to disbelieve but as with the other Glastonbury legends we should not be so quick to do so for botanists tell us that the Thorn is not a common English variety but instead a Middle Eastern variety which is to be found nowhere else in England save at Glastonbury.

And there, where Christ first set foot on the sacred Isle of Avalon, I ended my pilgrimage. I knelt down and prayed before the Thorn safe in the knowledge that, for the Christian, from death comes new life, and after doing so I turned around to view the still very much alive town with its Tor behind it, the same view that would have been seen by Christ if He did travel to that place two thousand years before.

And in doing so it all became clear. As if scales had fallen from my eyes, the enigma of Glastonbury began to make sense. Throughout my trip I’d had the feeling of déjà vu almost, that I’d been there before even though I knew full well that I hadn’t. Glastonbury reminded me of somewhere yet I did not know where. There on Wearyall Hill though, stood by the Thorn, I knew. I saw before me a town, an ancient town built around a place of worship, a place of great holiness touched by Our Lord Himself, a place of great antiquity surrounded by and immersed in legend so that one knows not where that legend ends and reality begins. Yet that town around the holy place, although bristling with churches both old and new was no longer Christian but instead perhaps the most religiously mixed town in the kingdom. Walking through her streets, in addition to the churches of a dozen denominations, I’d seen Buddhist and Hindu centres, the goddess temple, a Sufi establishment and a great deal more from the Pagan and alternative traditions. The birthplace and spiritual home of English Christianity Glastonbury may be, but Paganism and other faiths take precedence these days and for many Christians that is hard to reconcile.

But beyond that town, looming over it powerfully, is a mountain, a holy hill, that attests to the fact that even though this is where Christianity first took hold in this green and pleasant land, Avalon was holy long before that and the Pagans that throng her streets todays are merely the spiritual descendants of the Pagans who once held sway here for millennia, exiled for over a thousand years, now returned to their spiritual home.

Walsingham, this island’s other great site of Christian pilgrimage, is often referred to as England’s Nazareth, but if that is the case then what should we call Glastonbury? Stood on that windswept hillside by the Thorn, the answer was as clear as day. The Abbey is the Holy Sepulchre, home of the New and Everlasting Covenant, but all around it is a city holy to all, and just as the Jews have returned to Zion after a long exile and much persecution, so too have the original spiritual inhabitants of this city and now they, like the Jews, take precedence. Different denominations and faiths jostle for space and the streets are filled with the faithful with varying degrees of sanity in their convictions. We Christians have to learn how to share our sacred city just as we have to in Glastonbury’s more famous brother in the Middle East. For Glastonbury is England’s Jerusalem and Glastonbury Tor is Mount Zion, the hill upon which the Temple was built, a mountain once climbed by Christ, a mountain holy to an ancient faith, the Old Covenant of the land, an mountain holy to us yet in many ways surpassed by the Abbey in the town below, God now sat amongst the people, not aloof from them.

Around a hundred years ago William Blake asked us whether those feet in ancient times walked upon England’s mountains green and whether we can rebuild Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land. After visiting Glastonbury, the spiritual heart of that green and pleasant island then I can answer those questions with great surety. Those feet did walk upon England’s mountains green, perhaps literally, definitely spiritually, and indeed, they walk there still. And Jerusalem has been builded here, for I have seen her, both literally and spiritually. Glastonbury is England’s Jerusalem, but more than that, in my opinion, as one who is familiar with both cities, it far surpasses the original, for whilst, like with that great and ancient city in Israel, a myriad of faiths compete for space there, unlike that original, in England’s Jerusalem, I never once witnessed any hate or animosity between them.

And that, I know, would have gladdened the heart of the young boy who once stood where the Thorn now flowers.

‘A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.’

Written March 2012, U.K.