Some notes on Lisa Dempster's book Neon Pilgrim (Aduki Press, 2009)
Although talking to her online and at a couple of launches, and hearing her speak at EWF, makes me feel that I know Lisa Dempster a little, it is only in reading her first, tough little book, this travelogue called Neon Pilgrim, that I feel several layers of her lie uncovered to all comers, in much the same way she slept out in the open in rudimentary shelters during most of her 1200 kilometre trek around Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands of Japan.
I feel a bit shy offering this reading, too, as Aduki kindly offered me a copy and I completely forgot how rarely I read contemporary travel writing - it is hardly fair to compare a work like Neon Pilgrim to In Patagonia, and I hope I'm not doing that unconsciously here.Taking her cue from a seminal English-language account of the 88 Temple Pilgrimage, Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler, which she picked up in a small community library in the midst of a bout of depression and social withdrawal, Dempster returned to the island she had spent her sixteenth year in as an exchange student to take up a pilgrim's staff, don a white vest and walk herself back to health. This spiritual and physical exercise not only caused her to lose ten kilos in fifty-odd days but clearly changed her life as well. There is naturally a strong emphasis on physical struggle in this book, and that is part of its rugged charm.
I confess I'm not naturally drawn to accounts of physical struggle - my son's carer sounded very interested after I told her about this book, telling me she has reread Jesse Martin's book several times. I am not sure I'm that kind of travel reader: if art or spirituality has some focal point in the narrative, I may pick such a book up, but not if it is a quest for purely physical purposes, as in Martin's case - to be the first to sail, well, whoopee, says me, in the majority of cases I'd rather see the video, thanks.
So I suppose it was the cultural focus of Dempster's pilgrimage (henro michi), along with her position as a foreigner doing the trip and sleeping rough, and at that, a foreigner who has lived in the country as a teenager, which kept me reading.
The difficulties of Dempster's trip are highlighted very early on when we hear that due to the heat and some other factors, she is throwing up most of the food she eats, every day, for the first twelve days. One becomes alarmed, naturally, and persists mainly in the hope that this ceases quickly, and is alarmed further when it does not. In the process, one is irreversibly hooked on 'the beauty of the way, and the goodness of the wayfarers'.
The 88 Temple pilgrimage is undertaken in honour of the 9th century Buddhist monk, Kōbō-Daishi, who introduced Japan to Shingon Buddhism. The history of this pilgrimage alone makes fascinating reading, as all who live along the way are encouraged to give offerings to the Daishi by providing food and gifts for the pilgrims.
Among the many moving things in Neon Pilgrim are the numerous encounters with locals who seem constantly available with food, occasionally with lifts, a few with warm baths and showers, and on one or two occasions overnight stays in cool houses in the height of a humid Japanese summer.Water - the lack of it, or its natural or supplied abundance - is something of a main character given that this pilgrim took the walk in summertime, when most pilgrims are riding bikes or travelling in cars, and staying in hotels along the way instead of sleeping rough in pilgrim shelters as she is. I was rather ashamed to find myself expecting deeper spiritual reflections underpinning the action, not realising immediately that the myriad details of the pilgrim's physical travails provide that very opportunity.
Of course it is the true grit of the journey that provides the opportunity for deeper connection, not just poetry. The United Mine Workers were right - step by step the longest march can be won.
There is the risk that in pitching this account to a younger audience by adopting a rapid fire, almost breezy tone at times, older readers may be less involved in her walk back to well-being, which I think might be something of a lost opportunity. I would also have loved a few photographs, even some more about the beauty of the way. However, Dempster's fluency in Japanese ensures that we are party to many fascinating conversations between travellers, and her knowledge of the island provides for some incisive social commentary at times. It is astonishing to read that pilgrims repeat this long journey many times for spiritual enrichment, though not always walking.
There are some very raw, deeply humane moments in this highly personalised, vigorous account of Dempster's first henro michi, which offers some intriguing questions to its readers: why we put ourselves in the way of such challenges, and whether we can afford to avoid them. This account left me deeply moved and hoping that it finds readers of all ages.