The view out to the green mountains dripping with mist was the perfect scene in which to contemplate Descartes, Plato or anyone else from my Introduction to Philosophy textbook. The only sound at Kurama-dera temple was the cheep and pip of birds in the trees. The tang of burning incense floated on the air. I’d put on a long swishy skirt that morning so I could better drift about philosophising up in Kyoto’s mountains. I leant against one of the lanterns that looked like a little red birdhouse, stared across the mountains and thought about the meaning of it all.
Click, whirr, clunk, click. My mum’s ancient camera broke the tranquility.
“Lovely view,” she crowed at me.
Click, whirr. She poked the camera in my face.
“Urgh, mum, you broke my train of thought,” I said. “Get a picture of me philosophising over here instead.”
I swanned over to the pagoda-style temple, leaned against the paper sliding doors and put on my best pondering face. Leaning is the key to being deep and thoughtful. My mum was busy beetling around taking pictures of the lanterns.
“Mu-um! Take a picture!” I wheedled, tranquility well and truly broken.
A man in a navy uniform and white gloves scuttled over to my mum as if she was raising a gun, not a camera.
“Please, no photo!” he said, bowing.
My mum bowed back and I flushed scarlet.
“Right,” my Dad said in his train announcer voice, “shall we press on?”
He didn’t have time for drifting around or cultural emersion. ‘Shall we see if we can get to Kibune over that ridge?’ became ‘we must get to Kibune as fast as possible.’
I hadn’t even got a picture of me next to the temple and, if there wasn’t a picture, how would people know I was even there?
My dad strode off into the ancient trees, nose in the detailed map he’d carried with him everywhere like a security blanket. At the dinner table he would unfold it across little plates of sushi. The rustle of paper would attract the attention of Japanese people who came over to help pore over the map, as if my dad was lost in the seating plan of the restaurant. I was mortified when he sounded out Japanese words to the smiles and delight of everyone around.
Click, whirr, clunk. A snap of golden sunlight falling across exposed roots, withered like old ladies’ hands.
“Konichiwa!” my mum said, ten decibels louder than I’d heard anyone speak in Japan. A Japanese man in a business suit beamed back at her. I looked at the ground. Why couldn’t my parents just float through this country like me, without making a scene everywhere? I saw a huddle of stones bearing neat Japanese script that looked like something out of Spirited Away.
“Mum! Take a picture of me here!” I said, leaning against the tree and looking wistfully away from the camera.
“Ok,” she said. “Smile!”
I slouched and slumped my way up more stone steps. My dad stalked on ahead, my mum wandering, clicking and clunking with her camera behind him. She snapped pictures of me staring at the ground, my mouth a straight line of sulk while I wished I was there by myself. I was 18, an adult, too old for stupid family holidays.
At Kibune we stopped for tea and sushi at one of the restaurants perched on wooden decks over the river, the rush of a small waterfall at our feet. My dad got his beloved map out again and attracted a group of locals like butterflies to a buddleia. An elderly man with a kind face broke into laughter at the table opposite us. He was watching my mum fail to pick up her sushi with her chopsticks. I put my head in my hands. The elderly man caught my mum’s eye and, in a flourished gesture, abandoned his chopsticks and popped a bit of sushi in his mouth with his hands before smiling at her and miming ‘photo?’
“Oh! Arigato!” my mum laughed, and gestured for me to give the man my camera. He shook his head and pointed at my mum’s old clunker.
“Smile!” he said. He must have been looking at me.
The sun began to set and, in the dusk, paper lanterns were lit all around the village. I tried to snap some photos of the scene with my fancy digital SLR, but everything just came out as blurry tracks of light, like the erratic scribbles of a toddler. Click, whirr, click.
We flicked through my mum’s photographs back home, freshly developed with that slightly sticky feel to them. My blurry attempts at art and creativity had already been loaded to a hard drive and forgotten about.
The ones she had snapped of me sulking through the forest painted me as the pensive philosopher, contemplating the roots of trees worn smooth with footsteps. The final picture of the three of us smiling away in that restaurant, the only one where I genuinely looked pleased to be there, is the only one I’ve kept and framed.