The Liminality of Craig Mod – Chicago Review of Books


There’s perhaps no adage more cliche than the phrase, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” We can hear this, but so very few of us have actually taken it to heart; maybe we’ve simply reached our saturation point with it. Walking has taken on something of a new color in the quarantine year, so maybe we’re more ready than ever to embrace the journey. Maybe a few-hours hike doesn’t sound like pain; and perhaps it even sounds like pleasure. But what does a long walk mean to you? An hour or two, looping around your neighborhood? Even with an increased appetite for movement, not many of us could stomach a walk lasting for days, weeks, bordering on a month or more—like Craig Mod.

Part writer, part photographer, part explorer, Mod—an American immigrant living in Japan—now undertakes walks on the month-long scale once-yearly or more, covering distances that most would consider traversable only by shinkansen, or bullet train. A recent long walk of his, starting at his home in Kamakura and ending in Kyoto some 900-plus kilometers away, is the focus of his latest book, Kissa by Kissa. Kissa is an affectionate name for the mid-century Japanese cafes called Kissaten, which are something of a dying breed in an increasingly urban-centric Japan. Traversing the Japanese countryside from one kissa to the next, Mod captured not only their images but also their essence, by collecting the stories held by those who tend their counters and those who frequent their booths.

I’ve been an admirer of Mod and his work for several years now, perhaps becoming first acquainted with him through his wide-ranging essays on topics from publishing and ebooks to photography, or as an early writer quick to embrace the newsletter form with zeal. Mod has long managed to create and explore across a wide range of interests and mediums, and it’s this zeal for iteration I think I admire most in him. He seems to be continually striving, continually experimenting, and it’s through this relentless pursuit he’s managed to hone in his various practices.

I recently had a chance to speak with Mod via Zoom—only days before he set out on another country-spanning walk—about his book, his work, and walking.

Mod moved to Japan to attend university over 20 years ago, and has called it home ever since. Japan, for all it’s beauty and wonder, is a country where one who wasn’t born there can never truly become a part of it. Notoriously isolationist, in Japan an outsider will always remain an outsider. He acknowledges this in one of his newsletters, writing: “It’s the country that makes the most sense to me even though it will never fully accept me as part of it. I am forever on the outside and yet willingly choose to stay here. I am adopted. The sensation of unbelonging — the tenuousness of connection without blood — permeates the life of an adopted person, and so perhaps having lived that allows me to feel a kind of comfort in the distance of life here.” (Ridgeline, 55). 

Mod—stretched between countries, mediums, languages—has often occupied this sort of between-space, a liminality. He’s always journeying, always improving. Destinations are reached, but he never settles; before long, he strives to hit the road anew.

In Kissa by Kissa, Mod turns this focus towards a distinctly-Japanese sense of liminality, the kissaten. As he notes in the book, the kissaten across the country came to prominence in the midst of a major transitional period in Japan, the Showa era. They reached their peak in Japan after the end of World War II, and have been on a slow decline ever since. Many of the kissaten owners Mod spoke to describe opening them as a near last-ditch business effort, and, as their children have moved to the cities (following the wishes of their parents), kissaten across the country have begun to shut their doors for good.

It’s a partially anthropological aim Mod has, in documenting these communal gathering places and their inhabitants. Additionally, kissaten often serves pizza toast, itself a food stretching between cultures. In the book, Mod describes it as “what you imagine it to be: the using of toast to approximate pizza,” though of course this comes with its own Japanese twist, being served on thick Japanese shokupan bread, with toppings subject to the owner’s whims. Perhaps it’s this now-familiar blurring of lines that interests Mod, as he first wrote about pizza toast in an essay for Eater magazine.

Mod spoke to me about how one of his newsletters, Ridgeline, precipitated this walk. Originally started in December 2018, Mod has written nearly a hundred weekly missives since then, primarily focused on the act of walking. “The big walk last year was really in some ways an outcropping of starting the newsletter, and going ‘Oh wow, there’s an interest.’” Mod was no stranger to walking, undertaking his first big walk over six years ago, but he describes how the newsletter became an opportunity to expand this aim: “If I have this weekly thing to work on, even if I go for six weeks on this big walk, you know, there’s kind of work to be done.”

While he was undertaking this walk, Mod was engaged with a new sort of experiment in direct audience feedback, which he calls the SMS experiment. In short, he offered the option for readers to join a text-message list, where they would receive a text a day from Mod. In these messages, he wrote about some of the kilometers covered that day, along with sharing an image taken during the day’s trek. Readers were able to reply, but their replies weren’t sent to Mod; at least not at first. Instead, they were all collected, and condensed down into a single book, which was delivered to Mod upon his return home.

“When I got home and I had that book, it was so powerful to me, the impact of an object and collecting this, kind of putting edges around this walk, that it really made me think, ‘Okay, I should be doing more of these. Why am I not [making] more books?’

Publishing is one of Mod’s areas of expertise, having spent his twenties as a Japan-based art director for a Seattle publisher. But like many of us, his work has increasingly moved into the digital realm. However, the joy of having a physical object in his hands brought print back to the front of his mind, and he set out to make another book as quickly as possible. 

Initially, Mod intended to turn his pizza toast article from Eater into a book, but soon thereafter decided to take another approach. Instead, he went back to the source, all the notes and photographs he made during the walk, and decided to re-imagine it as an expanded, definitive edition.

“A lot of times we’ll publish things and we’ll think that’s the end of it. When really there’s this other level you can take it to. And this book to me is this total refinement of the walk and a distillation of kind of the experience of the walk,” Mod says.

It’s a beautiful experience Mod leads us through. He leads us not only through his words and the words of the people he encounters, proprietor and patron alike; but through his rich photographs as well. In his photographs, the light is always sublime. The frames are a sort of heightened documentary style, somewhere between National Geographic and Magnum. He favors 35mm lenses, and seems to shoot most often from eye-level, which leads to a naturalistic perspective, though more perfect: closer to how you remember a place than how it is. The book also contains portraits of some of the people he came across. They tend to be looking either into the lens, or just off frame, as if they too are caught in a thought.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that I cannot photograph if I’m with someone,” Mod says. “It’s just really, really difficult […] to be present if I’m not alone. Being in that solitude and the mind space of solitude, almost [like] a mantra, like a meditative space of it, is critical for me to photograph in the way that that excites me or that feels true to it.” He cites Wim Wenders’ Written in the West‘s opening essay, in which Wenders mentions being able to tell which photographs were taken when he was with someone, and which were taken when he was alone.

This meditative space Mod references is far from the only religious connotation associated with his  walks. Indeed, he’s no stranger to this aspect, as his first major walk was the Kumano Kodō, a pilgrimage that’s one of only two UNESCO World Heritage walks. “A lot of the pilgrimage walks are connected with nature walks, except they’re nature walks with this incredible rich history,” Mod says. “In a country like Japan, which still has a deep connection to deep animism from thousands of years ago, a lot of the mountain walks that you can do here, it’s not just walking in the mountain, you know; it’s like, you can read about it. You can read poems from hundreds of years ago about the same walk. And so there’s just this richness, that’s exciting.”

Mod takes this even a step further, fully embracing the monastic aspect to the walks, and harnessing it for his own creativity.“A walk is a framework. It’s a platform for running experiments and observing the world more closely and connecting with the culture and connecting with history in a much more intentional way.” He likens a long walk like this to something akin to a meditation retreat, an event whose true power is revealed through steady, diligent practice. “Having this A to B, day after day after day, baked into the schedule, I find is this incredible machine for generating ideas and getting the mind moving and being creative.”

Beyond just being essential for Mod, it’s something he wants to offer to others, an alternative to the always-connected lifestyle so many of us find ourselves almost unwittingly immersed in. 

“Part of the writing and the creative output is the attempt to kind of show that to people and go, If you do this, you will have your own positive discoveries too. I’m sure of it. It’s like getting people to believe in this faith of walking, almost,” Mod says.

A long walk like this is meant to be something many can do, with the right preparation and resources. To those ends, Mod has advice: “Try to make it a big walk. Don’t just do like a day or two. […] Try to do two weeks of walking, and have it be this everyday thing of doing 20 kilometers. It’s that repetition, that’s when you really start to see the value. It’s when you’re committing to something longer than a couple of days. That’s what flips you out of your everyday day-to-day modes of being, and into this kind of more interesting other space of mindfulness and creative capacity.”

In a year in which walking remains one of the few means in which we can find solace, why not take it a step further? Lose the map, and find the territory. There’s perhaps no better way to engage with your environment and the present moment than step by step, one foot in front of the other. Mod says as much himself: “If you want to know the story of a place, walk it.”

Kissa by Kissa
By Craig Mod


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