Theater of Cruelty

Sharing the rhythm of each step

How to get to Nirvana without dying first
Forfatter: Kari Gjæver Pedersen og Christine Istad
Forlag: (Arneberg Forlag)
A different travelogue about two Norwegian women embarking on a monumental pilgrimage in Japan. On their way to 88 Shingon temples, they will let go of one and one mental blockage – the goal is redemption.


A subject shrouded in grey-blue fog hides in the photograph. The mood is gripping first, the interpretation of the tangible comes long afterwards. I find myself resting in the subject, soaking in a close and strong presence: the smell of fish fillets on the grill, damp, mossy, ancient stone steps leading upwards. A tired scrubbed back vulnerablely sunk in a hot Japanese spring, smiling welcoming faces, wrinkled as smooth. The photographs are picturesque, with an inner common rhythm and tonality. They have an exceptionally sensitive and open eye for telling details.

Behind the words. The movement of the body during meditation is one of the paths to nirvana. The duo from Norway, writer Kari Gjæver Pedersen and photographer and visual artist Christine Istad, have created a book of their exercises in coping during a seven-week trip to Japan. But it's not the words that get me, it's all the unsaid, everything between the lines. It is the pictures in the book that draw me in and inspire me.

It is not the words, but the pictures in the book that draw me in and inspire me.

The travelogue is written by map readers who get lost, who hold democratic general meetings before moving on together at random. A web of impressions from the pilgrimage has been collected. The text's account is in fragments, it is like a diary kept in the pen of someone who was too tired from physical hardships and powerful impressions to bear writing down more than brief key words. I find that I cannot access the author's personal account. The close-ups are like crumbs, and do not satisfy the hunger from the expectation I had of being able to join the redemption journey. Are facts given so much space because of fear of becoming too private?

[ihc-hide-content ihc_mb_type = ”show” ihc_mb_who = ”1,2,4,7,9,10,11,12,13 ″ ihc_mb_template =” 1 ″]

Still, something seeps through the text; an intensity that piques curiosity at this climbing journey exposed to the elements and wind, in corrosive heat and humidity among incomprehensible written characters, and with a map that hides the distances. The journey seems almost as unpredictable as a polar journey, and the personal achievement is complete when they set the stake at the end point. It is true that there are Japanese temple paths, forests and villages instead of ice sea sweetness and snow – but backpacks, poles and Norwegian conquest mentality are included. Anoraks have been replaced by headbands and white pilgrim jackets, which are stamped at each temple gate.

The pilgrimage of just over 1400 kilometers on the island of Shikoku leads to nirvana, but modern Japanese pilgrims take a bus, taxi or train to the temples, and teach the Norwegian women that not everything has to be done by the sweat of their own brow. The journey is confronted with one's own demands to do the right things, to pack for temple trekking in Japan rather than hiking in Norwegian mountain villages.

Bliss along the way. Heaven is a cool drink from a vending machine in a tin shed. The bliss overwhelms not only in the temple rooms, but also in the generosity and consideration of the people they meet on the road. Also the miracle set or – gifts to the white-clad pilgrims they pass in various forms. Like the three Japanese wives who every Saturday serve free rice balls, fruit and vitamin drinks.

How to get to Nirvana without dying first is an account of more than cultural differences in script, language and customs. You meet yourself as you walk. These white-clad Norwegian women walk for so long in sweaty, gnawing silence that the uphills eventually become easy – the grinding, heavy thoughts change. They walk so that the chafing wounds become familiar, and the steady movement foot after foot, hour after hour, day after day eases pain thresholds in mind and body.

The bliss overwhelms not only in the temple rooms, but also in the generosity and consideration of the people they meet on the road.

Mosaic of stories. I experience an account of silence in a country where no one wears shoes indoors, but paws and subs in socks or slippers. It's also a story of the absence of silence as busloads of Japanese spill out on their charter pilgrimages and waltz into the shrines – as contented as the women who have walked for over eight tough hours in hiking boots made for Norwegian hikes and not for 70 percent humidity .

It is a drama about the struggle for silence, for the person in the traveling party who has to insist, yell and fight to get half an hour off from endless chatter. There are reflections about our self-critical monologue in the head, the depressing one – and about what an inner and outer journey can do with it. And it is a tribute to the synergy between the body in motion and the thought material that escapes.

The pilgrimage is also a prayer for a loved one to recover, for self-sacrifice and renunciation, and relief in hot springs – and the beer they treat themselves to at the end.

There is also a story that 1000-year-old wooden houses smell the same, and that the Japanese like to pave the path all the way forward and replace the towering ancient tree trunks with faithful replicas of concrete – so that the well-directed calm in the forest until the next temple is not disturbed by falling, rotten trees. It is also the recognition that everything above the tree line is reminiscent of Finnmark. And it's about the joy of suddenly feeling so at home in the temple garden's unruly knolls and weather-beaten natural terrain, that you break out of the pilgrim rhythm and climb steep mountains while terrified Japanese pilgrims stand back speechless – with no asphalt in sight.

Goes in step, is out of step. It's about the meeting with the setbacks when the impressions become too many and the experiences of what went before feel too harsh. About meeting the wall together with another, and about the experience of sharing the rhythm of each step.

The afterthought is that the completion of the journey was too hectic – the lack of depiction of closeness in the account speaks for itself. It's about wanting to get over too much, when you should have let go.

[/ ihc-hide-content]
Ellen Lande
Ellen Lande
Lande is a film writer and director and a regular writer for Ny Tid.

You may also like