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the column of lasting insignificance...
—for April 9, 2016 by John Wilcock

Dear reader,

Starting next week I will be re-running weekly several of the almost 500 columns I ran on the Ojai Orange site between 2006 and 2014. These will, of course, be free as is everything on my sites, and has been for the past decade or so. But, I do request that if you find these columns interesting, that you consider sending a donation, which you could possibly write off as a gift for my birthday on August 4, when I will be 90.

Chapters from my autobiography, Manhattan Memories will continue to run on


John Wilcock
Ojai, CA 93023

Manhattan Memories

Chapter Nineteen: Travels

Tokyo: Rick Kennedy recalls
Japan on $5 a Day
About Chapbooks
Magic in South America

After I left my full time job at the New York Times, I never stopped traveling and eventually found myself spending almost half of every year, writing and revising at first Frommer books about Mexico, Greece, Yugoslavia, Japan, and then Insight Guides about the U.S., Rome, and the American West. Japan and Greece were always my favorite countries, for totally different reasons, but I soon found the first out of my reach financially even though like the others it had once been Japan on FIVE Dollars a Day. Many years later an American-born columnist in The Japan Times surprised and delighted me with his story about how my book had so endeared him to the country that he'd remained there, married a Japanese woman, brought up children, and was now celebrating his 20th wedding anniversary in the country.

When he had first arrived in the country in 1963, Rick Kennedy wrote, Japan on $5 a Day "was the only thing to go on (and although) Wilcock evidently spoke only minimal Japanese, he loved the city and was committed to poking into every odd corner he could find. He despised the mere tourist who for him was a shameless creature who lurked forlornly in the lobbies of the international hotels, who bought his gimcrack souvenirs in Ginza arcades, and who lacked all sense of adventure. Wilcock was the first backpacker".

Rick reminisced about how the yen was 360 to the dollar (it's now about 100), and so he took taxis everywhere and followed my advice to see the city by making a circular tour on the Yamanote Line and frequenting the Turkish baths and jazz coffee houses of Shinjuku, Tokyo's 'Greenwich Village'.

"Wilcock wasn't at all impressed by fancy places, noting sourly that the Okura was an elegant and rather sterile hotel (and) was much more at home with hotels and ryokan which fit into his five-buck budget”.

Calling me "an intrepid explorer" and "a great pioneer", Rick wondered where I might be now, 25 years later, and congratulated me on all my hard work adding that I'd obviously enjoyed myself. Murray Sayle mailed me the column, and after I exchanged letters with Rick, I went back to Japan for my first visit since 1980 and found it just as delightful as ever. I love that country, but the language is too hard for me to master. Even the signs are meaningless unless you know the kanji alphabet.

What made researching a book in a country where I didn’t know the language (i.e. all of them) much easier was my habit of hiring as guides and translators young ladies right out of college who wanted to improve their vocabulary. Japanese women were very much more reserved in those days than they are today, and until I trained them a little they would rarely volunteer information. What’s that? What does that headline say? Who’s that man? Why are we waiting here? Was my constant refrain, subjecting my guide to a nonstop barrage of questions. Eventually, it usually paid off. “That sign up there” remarked Yuriko one day, “is rubber”. Rubber? I asked. “Yes, is for Bridgestone tires”…Ah yes, I nodded. “But man’s name is Ishi-bashii, stone bridge, and he changed it around to be like your Firestone”.

She was witty, too. While at the Ryoanji Temple we joined a reverential crowd to admire the serene setting of stones, set among raked sand and hillocks in the garden at the back. But moments later, as I waited for her to rejoin me in the lobby I studied the glass-enclosed model of the garden with interest. “Yuriko” I said, “there were 15 rocks in the garden, but the miniature here only shows 14?” After a moment’s pause, Yuriko smiled: “Nothing’s perfect” she said.

On another visit to Japan I had endured three laborious changes on the Kinketsu Line to reach Iga-Ueno, the birthplace of Matsuo Basho, the revered 17th century poet who is often said to be the father of haiku, and this time as I left Kyoto, I felt a strange compulsion to make a pilgrimage to his grave. The journey to the nondescript town of Otsu, near Lake Biwa took almost the whole day and it was dusk when I found the quiet street on which his tomb, marked with a curiously shaped stone, sat alone in a railed off enclosure. There was nobody else in sight as I leaned against the rail and contemplated Another year is gone/A traveler’s shade upon my head/Straw sandals at my feet.

basho statue
Basho statue at Hiraizumi
Basho's Grave at Otsu

The concept of haiku—5-7-5 syllables in three Japanese lines, different if translated—has spread all over the world but, sadly, has often been banalized. Usually missing from imitation haiku is the essential kigo, or “season word” which, in the original, ties the haiku to nature. The word haiku itself arrived only in the 19th century but the style existed for centuries before the wandering monk Basho became a revered teacher. In an era when travel could not have been easy, he spent months on the road between instructing his pupils back in Edo. Each day is a journey and the journey itself home, he wrote.

"Basho considered life as travel (which) was not a process but life itself", wrote Kunyama Richij, a Japanese historian. “To think traveling as an abode is impossible in worldly life. However, when you see the essence of life as constantly changing, journey is nothing but the form of life". An early influence on the wandering poet was the 12th century warrior monk Saigyo who had written, "We maybe rescue best the self, by throwing it away.” And Basho's viewpoint was shaped further by the Chinese philosopher Chang-tzu who emphasized the importance of looking at nature without making judgments, the "just-so-ness" of things.

Studying zen koans—short riddles which aimed to provide an instant insight—Basho strove for spare, lonely beauty, something he called sabi, his poems being, said one observer, "a rare example of one word being worth a thousand pictures".

"Moon and sun are passing figures of countless generations”, Basho wrote in 1694, “and years coming and going wanderers, too”.

Lafcadio Hearn

My final stop was Matsue which had grown into a sizeable town since my visit 20 years earlier. But many of the lovely traditional houses, their rooms measured by the number of tatami mats, were unchanged and in one of them, in the 1890s, lived author Lafcadio Hearn, Greek-born but a reporter for newspapers in Cincinatti and New Orleans before his arrival in Japan. Becoming a citizen, he changed his name to Yakumo Koizumi, married the daughter of a samurai and taught and wrote until his death in 1904, aged 54. The garden, replete with “heavily mossed stones, fantastic stone basins for holding water and stone lamps, green with years”, is the same as he described it, and the furnished house, too, remains as he left it, a poignant museum displaying his hat, spectacles and writings.

When I had first visited Japan, demolition crews were dismantling Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel. It had opened in August 1923 on the very day that the country’s worst earthquake struck, leveling almost everything in Tokyo and nearby Yokohama, but had stood undamaged—just as FLW predicted it would. Now, 23 years later, it was being pulled down, ironically because of its alleged ‘instability although it had originally been built to roll like a ship instead of being anchored to rock bed. Critics of its destruction were probably closer to the mark when they explained (accurately as it turned out) that the owners felt that its spacious rooms, set along corridors of porous volcanic rock were a waste of space and that building a 17-story hotel to replace it would be financially more rewarding.

The hotel’s 80-year-old owner Tetsuzo Inumaro was something of a legend in hotel circles, having graduated from jobs as a kitchen skivvy in Shanghai, a window cleaner in London, a potato peeler in Paris, and a cook at New York’s Waldorf Astoria. The original (pre FLW) Imperial had been built to accommodate Western visitors to Japan, and on one occasion, when a dinner was gate-crashed by protesting right-wing nationalists, Inumaro had the orchestra play the Japanese national anthem, Kimigayo, whereupon the intruders stood to attention and then quietly left.

IT’S NOT A SUBJECT to which people give much thought but, as I have remarked before, there are two kinds of travel writers, hacks like myself who collect all the facts a tourist needs—hotel prices and ratings, restaurants, bus routes, nightlife, out of town etc—and the polished essayists who rave about places with flattering text that doesn’t always match the reality.

The Encyclopedia Britannica’s rather snide comment that “the literature of travel has declined in quality in an age when travel has become most common” seems a bit surprising in view of some of today’s heavily-praised writers.

As an editor of guidebooks, I was constantly caught between trying to retain style while finding room for substance, in other words how to find space to insert all the necessary facts without excising too much of the author’s deathless prose. Insight Guides (for which I worked) are strictly formatted and you can’t get a quart into a pint pot etc., etc. So, as a general rule, travel books and travel guides are antithetical to each other.

Discounting the ancient Greeks and Marco Polo, early travel books, (as the Britannica points out) were written by the likes of Goethe, Casanova, Balzac, and Ivan Goncharov—affluent gentlemen writing for those of similar income and inclination.

But even when those big name writers were in their heyday, in fact as early as the 16th century, the travel guide compilers were also at work. The days of mass travel were far ahead but there were plenty of customers for “road books” the travelers’ companions or almanacs in demand by chapmen who endlessly traversed the highways of Europe peddling their wares.

The origin of “chapmen” is uncertain but probably derived from the old English ceap meaning ‘trade’. The Chapman traveled the country bearing news, gossip, medicines, and ballads with a bag around his neck containing simple items such as needles, scissors, thimbles, and combs. For many rural people who never saw a shop, these were the only merchants. The chapman also carried cheap chapbooks, which, by the late 17th century, had become the principal reading matter of the poor.

chapbook cover 1823
Chapbook Cover 1823

An early example, The City and Countrye Chapman’s Almanack for the Year of our Lord 1687, published in London, contained a list of fairs and markets in England and Wales, their dates and times, information about post roads “with other things useful for all sorts of Traders or Chapmen whatsoever”. Alas, we can give no byline to the anonymous author but his task in an era when travel meant enduring mud, flea-filled straw mattresses, indifferent if not inedible food, and the depredations of surly innkeepers and irascible coachmen, it could not have been easy. Obviously the compiler of this and similar guides must have been a penurious chapman himself; it is unlikely he was traveling on a FAM trip or even an expense account.

Chapbooks were usually printed on one sheet which when folded would provide a booklet of eight to 24 pages depending on the size of the sheet. It was often sold in this fashion and left to the purchaser to fold, cut and pin or sew the pages together. It measured about 6” x 4” and was illustrated with crude, lively woodcuts, usually selling for one penny.

Most chapbooks were undated so they could be sold indefintely. Histories of notorious highwaymen, pirates, murderers, robbers, trials, executions, dying behavior, dreadful warnings, and memoirs of infamous and famous characters—the tabloid horror stories of their day—were natural chapbooks, but equally of interest were superstitions and beliefs in charms, fortune telling, and witchcraft. The highwayman Dick Turpin was a favorite subject as was the notorious burglar Jack Sheppard, who became the subject of a pantomime and comic opera. Sometimes dreams, which led to the discovery of the victim’s body, were related and there were many books offering dream interpretations.

In the 18th century books like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels had their abridged chapbook version not too long after publication. Works by Oliver Goldsmith and Benjamin Franklin were popular. The Copyright Act of 1709 didn’t do much to prevent plagiarism, and anyway most of the subjects were traditional.

And, 13 years before Thomas Cooke initiated mass travel with his temperance group tours, the travel book finally appeared as a chapbook. In 1828 at Dunfermline, John Miller published

Awful Phenomena of Nature! Boiling Fountains in Iceland: A Visit to the Cataract of Niagara (the greatest water-fall in the world). A late ascent to Mount Blanc (the highest mountain in Europe) and, State of London during the Plague.

Everywhere I went in the world I handed over, in lieu of a name card, copies of my own chapbooks, matchbook-sized minimags (usually full of timeless quotes) and pasted tiny stickers promoting my travel guides in the bathrooms of Japanese onsens or on restaurant menus in Mexican cafes. Once I handed over a minimag to passengers on a neighboring donkey we passed while trekking in Kashmir, and a New York friend recounted going into the ladies room on a beach in Greece and finding a sticker on the mirror that proclaimed; The best book on Greece is Greece on $5 a Day.

In the early editions of the books, I urged readers to place a copy prominently on the table in a foreign restaurant to attract the attention of other readers and hopefully make new friends along the way. When I first went to Japan it even became possible to match readers up with local residents who would give them advice and answer their questions. One early helper was Cid Corman, whom I suggested that readers meet and greet at his regular Tokyo coffee shop, and was a renowned poet who once translated a book, put out an edition of 250 and allowed only people he knew to buy it.


In the initial phases of being a guidebook writer, what one has to master is the ability to not only compile an accurate list of such boring details as hotels, restaurants, bus routes and schedules, and local activities, etc., but to write them up in a manner that is both useful and interesting. (Later in one’s career this is a task to turn over to some intern at the local newspaper).

What I found helpful in this task, was to take as a model the witty brevity of the New Yorker’s upfront listings which may be, word for word, the most engaging sentences in current reportage. It also helped to get stoned beforehand, which made it easier to add that little twist that brought an otherwise dull item to life.

SOUTH AMERICA WAS the next logical subject for An Occult Guide, following the similar books I had written about Britain and about the magical sites of European countries. Thus, I found myself in Latin America, spending time in libraries and bookshops. My sponsor, Richard Rubinstein, had allocated a satisfactory budget of $7,500 for my trip but I was always pressed for time, rushing from one country to the next before the money ran out. And because it was to be a book about “magic” rather than a conventional guide book, it was important to concentrate on the spiritual aspects. I would discover what looked like occult books (in Spanish) in local bookstores and airmail them back to Rona, my assistant, to translate what appeared to be the significant parts to await my return.

My first stop was Brazil, well known for the dozens of mystic cults which had evolved from its earlier pagan beliefs, these mingled with a curiously tolerant Catholic church which had incorporated many of its rituals. Touch down was at Manaus where the Amazon visibly begins, as the inky black Rio Negro marries the rushing red currents of the Solimões. Fortunes were made from the worldwide rubber trade in Manaus, and its legacy was the majestic Amazonas opera house where Caruso sang on opening night in 1899.

But Brazil’s spiritual center is to the southeast at Salvador, capital of Bahia state. Here two-thirds of the population is of African descent and the original settlers brought their rituals and religion along with them. Since most of Brazil’s early records and files of the slave traffic were destroyed in the 1890s after the birth of the Brazilian Republic, you might say that candomblé, that pagan/Christian fusion, is a scarce link to the past.

Almost a century ago there were complaints about the way that candomblé was encroaching on Salvador’s day-to-day life. A letter in A Tarde newspaper on Dec 5, 1935 said: “Now the African cult is to be seen even in the best residential areas”. But it wasn’t long before candomblé sessions were being touted as tourist attractions, although the nightclubs that offered a taste of this esoteric religion usually also offered demonstrations of the more entertaining capoeria, the distinctive foot-fighting that the slaves originally brought with them from Africa.

And, in general, the cult’s appeal is the poorer and less sophisticated members of the black community. “All this low stuff ought to be done away with” the nephew of a prominent babalo (cult leader) told author Donald Pierson. “It’s a sign of a very backward people. It has even disappeared in Africa. Only in Bahia do these old customs hang on”.

What you’ll see at the sort of performance visited by tourists such as myself, is mostly ritualistic dancing to the sound of incessant drumming. It’s not exactly exciting.

Before leaving Salvador, all tourists visit Laziness Street, ironically named because it was here the manacled slaves could pause for a 10-minute drink of water. A few visitors take the boat ride across to Itaparica (the third point of what’s known as an “esoteric triangle”.) There’s a temple here built by Brazil’s Theosophical Society in 1967.

Rio’s equivalent of candomblé is macumba, sometimes defined by the much-misused term voodoo, although the word voodoo itself is nothing more than a derivative of Vodu, the Dahomey word for God. In any case, according to the Brazilian sociologist Arthur Ramos, in Rio’s macumbas “possession by the spirits rarely attains that violent form which marks the candomblés of Bahia. There is more artificiality and considerably less spontaneity. (They) are little more than séances of elemental spiritism, interspersed with a few elements derived from the African cults”.

An Occult Guide to South America
by John Wilcock

Some claim that there are more than several million spiritualists in today’s Brazil, with those at the top preoccupied with extra sensory perception; the ones in the middle devoted to “the gospel according to Kardec”; and the remainder patronizing the mediums claiming to be possessed by African gods or American Indian spirits. Allan Kardec was the French author in 1856 of The Book Of Spirits which is said to have given respectability to what had been a jumble of animistic fetishes.

The combination of mountains, tropical forest, and sea which forms its backdrop, makes Rio de Janeiro one of the most stunning cities in the world, but my next stop outdid even that in spectacle.

This was the dazzling Iguaçu Falls where the borders of two other countries, Uraguay and Paraguay, meet up with that of Brazil. Discovered by a Spanish explorer in 1541, this “swirling boiling mass, …a chaos of forces” as José Vasconcelos described it, had always been revered by the native Guaraní and Tupinamba tribes, some of whom evoke the name of a revered water spirit as they set off on their daily fishing.

We encounter the Guaraní once more in neighboring Argentina in which the tribe’s earliest members lived on islands at the mouth of the Parana river where it joins the Rio de Plata. They ritually sacrificed their enemies, practicing cannibalism, and as they spread into the Chaco, swampy plains between what are now four countries, they were targeted in the 16th century by the invading Spaniards in search of gold and silver.

Common to the Chaco tribes was a belief in the evil spirit, anacua or gualichu, which was supposed to bring sickness and death and could be countered only by the shamans who “fired their spirits with abundant libations of chichi, shouting, grimacing, going into contortions like one possessed” (wrote Daniel Granada in 1896), “imitating the roaring of tigers and terrifying cries of other animals”.

A seven hundred-mile road crosses the undulating pampas to Chile. Here begin the fabled Andes and the territory of the Araucanians whose own shamans were uniquely women, although sometimes berdaches, i.e. men with effeminate characteristics. From Chile comes a 600-page book by Enrique Oblitas Poblete with its collection of remedies based on the herbal knowledge of these ancient tribes who were said to have inherited the medical secrets of the Incas.

Machu Piccu
Machu Picchu
credit: Foto Corbacho

Seeing as the Incas had no system of writing, what is known about the five centuries they ruled until the arrival of the Spanish, comes from oral tradition and the artifacts they left behind. By far the most dramatic of these is the ruined mountaintop city of Machu Picchu, discovered in 1811 by Dr. Hiram Bingham. To visit required a 12-hour train trip from Cuzco up into the Andes, with occasional stops at tiny villages where wizened natives clustered offering items of wool and fur.

Memorable as 7,350ft Machu Picchu is, however, it would be hard to rank it over another stop on my journey—Easter Island. Getting there took some planning, specifically booking a seat on the solitary daily flight out of Santiago which landed on the 14-mile long island after five hours crossing an empty sea. There was nothing to do after arriving and there were only two hotels on the island at the time. I stayed at the cheaper one, the main memory of which is that the waiter kept appearing at dinner time and apologizing: “Sorry folks; weather kept the plane from coming again today and so you’ll have to have lobster again”. Nobody has satisfactorily explained the mysterious statues, so I won’t even try.

There were other stops on my South American tour, in Bolivia and Ecuador, and I explored the ancient Indian customs as thoroughly as I was able via research in the libraries and visits to ethnic museums. But after seeing Easter Island they all seemed a bit anti-climactic.


Chapter Nineteen—Travels (continued)

Amsterdam on foot
Two English islands


Manhattan Memories is available at

An updated A Guide to Occult Britain, complete with new illustrations, is also available at


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A Guide to Occult Britain

Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook on

Manhattan MemoriesManhattan Memories
An Autobiography
by John Wilcock

“A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego.”

-From the preface of Manhattan Memories, by Martin Gardner