I was very fortunate to receive a review copy of Lisa Dempster’s Neon Pilgrim, a story recounting step-by-step (literally!) her walk of the Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japan. You know what they say, don’t judge a book by its cover, and in this case they couldn’t be more right: this book has a terrible cover and an even worse title.
But it was probably the best ‘travelogue’ I’ve read all year.
I don’t normally read travelogues because I travel so much myself, so it’s nice to read about something else for a change of pace. But I wouldn’t put Neon Pilgrim into the category of travelogue; it’s so much more of an emotional journey, where the travel and location is purely a coincidental backdrop for a much more intense internal journey happening inside.
Lisa is unfit. She’s depressed and fallen into a deep emotional well. However, due to circumstances of serendipity, she’s chosen to return to a place she’s been before: Shikoku Island, in Japan. Her goal is to walk the Shikoku Pilgrimage, a Buddhist spiritual quest to visit 88 temples associated with Japanese Monk K?kai, founder of the Shingdon School of Japanese Buddhism.
Pilgrims of this journey, known as henro, have a number of options for making their way: cars, buses, taxis. But Lisa has chosen to go on foot, the most difficult option, especially given her condition.
Pilgrims also have many options of accommodation on their stay, from plush hotels to simple inns. Lisa chooses to only accept free or inexpensive accommodation, known as tsuyado or Henro houses. This doesn’t always go to plan, as Lisa describes.
Lisa gives us a bit of brief introduction, then drops us at the beginning of the pilgrimage route. She gathers her necessary supplies, and sets out. Encountering trouble from the get-go, things go pretty poorly for the first couple of days. Then, things get worse, with Lisa at the point of hysterics and the reader wondering what the next 100 pages are going to be about, because she’s never going to make it.
Lisa picks herself up off the ground (again, literally and figuratively) and continues the struggle. But it gets worse. A whole lot worse. Thankfully, after about temple 25 or so, Lisa does manage to get into her stride before hitting an emotional wall that looks pretty insurmountable.
It’s not for me to tell you the ending — how unfair would that be? — but it would be safe to say that Lisa did make it back to the mainland to at least tell us the story. And what an incredible story; I feel as if I myself have been on the Shikoku Pilgrimage, walked into the temples and had my book signed. I could feel the searing heat of the Japanese summer, and feel the cool breeze of the ocean shore. Well edited and beautifully crafted, I can’t imagine any better way of experiencing the 88 Temples except, of course, in person.
There’s lots of techno-jargon when it comes to Buddhist pilgrimages in Japan, apparently — I feel that after reading this book, I have a whole new set of vocabulary. But Lisa basically puts us on her shoulder and slowly and carefully walks us through the whole learning process — for better or worse!
So, look past the cover and the title on this one — I don’t know what it means anyway — and join Lisa on her perilous, humorous, and sometimes just bizarre tour around Shikoku Island. As I said, this is not a travelogue — it’s a spiritual journey. And a damn good one. Walk with care.