Title: Neon Pilgrim
Author: Lisa Dempster
Publication Year: 2009
Publisher: Aduki Independent Press
According to her own description of herself, Lisa Dempster was an overweight and depressed woman approaching thirty when she decided to walk the Shikoku pilgrimage route between eighty-eighty temples. I am currently an overweight and depressed woman who just turned thirty, and I have dreamed of visiting Shikoku ever since I read Kafka on the Shore as a college senior. Since I moved to the Midwest this past fall, I’ve been mostly confined to my car as the snow piles grow ever higher in the frigid air outside my windows. How lovely it would be, I keep thinking, to be able to walk the Shikoku pilgrimage. Failing that, how lovely it would be to read someone else’s account of traveling, exploring, and walking across a region known for its beautiful mountains and lush tropical beaches.
Neon Pilgrim is just such an account, but what I love about Dempster’s narration of her pilgrimage is that she is completely upfront about how difficult it is to complete the pilgrimage on foot, especially while doing nojuku, or sleeping out in the open. At the beginning of her journey, she is in almost constant pain. It’s summer, and it’s unbearably hot and humid. Her thighs are chafing, there are blisters on her feet, and her skin is breaking out in all sorts of embarrassing places. During the first two weeks of the pilgrimage, the physical strain causes her to throw up at least once a day. People that she meets along the road jovially tease her about how slow she is, and she does indeed move too slowly to have regular walking companions. When all she wants is to sit down in the air conditioning and have something to eat, she has trouble explaining what she means by “vegetarian.”
As Dempster passes through the mountains, she worries about snakes and inoshishi. As she walks along the side of roads and highways, she worries about the lack of shade and places to stop and rest. At one point, she has to deal with a (possibly good intentioned?) stalker who doesn’t understand that she doesn’t want to get in his car or go out to dinner with him. Temple offices keep strict hours, and the rudimentary lodgings they sometimes provide for pilgrims can fill up, so she worries about making good time and not getting lost as well. Although nothing truly frightening or terrible happens to her, Dempster makes it clear that walking all day every day without a guidebook, a smartphone, or any clearly defined itinerary is not as fun and spiritually liberating as one might imagine it to be. After all, sleeping under the stars isn’t as romantic as it’s cracked up to be, as illustrated by Dempster’s attempt to spend the night in a building housing a public restroom:
I turned my attention to the toilet. As promised, it was clean and new, and with lovely stones and polished wood. Two wings of toilets led off from a small undercover vestibule – ladies to the right, men to the left. The vestibule would be the best place to sleep; at least I wouldn’t actually be in the toilet. It was weird but ok. I already felt more secure here than I had back at the road station.
Putting my bag down, I went to use the facilities. Pushing the door to the cubicle open, I screamed. There was an enormous black spider on the wall! If there’s one thing I’m scared of, more than bears and snakes, even more than inoshishi, it’s spiders. Even thinking about them makes me shake. I know it’s wussy but fear is irrational like that.
The door slammed as I jumped back in fright, and the bang of the door sent the spider scurrying over it. I backed up some more. Hang on, that wasn’t the same spider. It was big and black, sure, but it was a decidedly different size. Everything suddenly came into sharp focus – like those stupid Magic Eye pictures – and I realized that the place was riddled with spiders. I counted seven of them. All big. All black. All waiting to suck my brains out of my nose while I slept.
Although Dempster doesn’t marginalize the difficulties of the pilgrimage, she doesn’t whine about them either. For the most part, Neon Pilgrim is an account of interesting experiences and unique interactions with cool people met along the way. When these experiences, interactions, and people are painful, ridiculous, or creepy, Dempster handles them with a light touch so that they become amusing to the reader. What her narration of her difficulties does is to move the story forward and make it compelling to the reader. Will she make it through the whole pilgrimage? Will she give up and go home? Is she going to be okay? How is she going to get out of whatever bizarre situation she’s currently found herself in?
Despite the author’s concerns over her state of mind and the physical hardships she experiences, her account of the Shikoku pilgrimage glitters with tiny gems of natural splendor, as in this description of her ascent to the sixtieth temple in the pilgrimage, Yokomineji:
Everything was green and mossy, glistening with moisture. It was very calm and the dark, cloudy atmosphere made me think again of the pilgrims who had gone before. It had an amazing kind of energy. There were many sets of steps, hewn into the mountain, or constructed from stone now smooth from millions of feet. The path was slippery and precarious and I picked my way up slowly and gingerly, stopping to catch my breath and gaze with amazement at the view around me.
Every now and then a little wooden bridge, strung together with rope, would cross over a mountain stream. They were the slipperiest bits of all, and yet I didn’t care that the weather was bad or the climb was an arduous three kilometers. I had fallen under the spell of the ancient mountain.
Another thing I appreciate about Neon Pilgrim is that it contains a minimum of editorializing about Japanese society. Sometimes tourists from other parts of Japan gawk and make strange comments about the gaijin, but the people who actually live along the pilgrimage route are mostly friendly and treat the author like a normal human being. The students partying on the beach and other pilgrims also treat her normally and offer her whatever food and alcohol they have at their disposal. Since Dempster can speak Japanese, the interactions she describes have nothing to do with “the Japanese character,” or any sort of related silliness, but are instead exchanges between individuals, some of whom are quite eccentric (one of my favorites is the charmingly filthy and half-blind old man who drives the author to the foot of the mountain path described in the previously quoted passage). Occasionally, however, Dempster will wander into an interesting cultural experience, such as when she arrives in Kochi right in the middle of the city’s famous Yosakoi festival:
I had, completely unwittingly, wandered into the Yosakoi matsuri, an annual dance festival that takes place during the height of summer, and a crazy one at that.
Dancers in the festival use a traditional Japanese instrument, the naruko. Known as ‘clackers’ to the rest of the world, the one function of the instrument is to make noise. Wood slaps noisily on wood, and with several thousand dancers clutching a naruko in each hand, the noise is deafening.
The teams, which can be as big as several hundred people, each have their own costumes and moves. Some teams go for traditional kimono and hairdos, others modern and funky. The dance teams weave through the long streets and shopping malls in town, dancing the whole way, each booming their own music, each clacking their naruko. It’s a riot of noise and color.
Like most Japanese festivals, for spectators the usual schedule is about six minutes of watching dancers followed by six hours of drinking. Kochi is known for its love of alcohol, and at festival time it’s fairly safe to say the whole city gets incredibly drunk.
Even if you can’t visit Shikoku in person, it’s an incredible experience to follow Dempster on her pilgrimage while sharing her defeats and triumphs. The chapters of Neon Pilgrim are short, generally around ten pages or so, which makes it easy to put down the book and pick it back up again whenever the spirit moves you. Because there’s no sort of introduction or afterword that provides a broader perspective on the author’s pilgrimage, I have no idea how she took down or edited her notes, but her narrative flows smoothly without any backtracking or inconsistencies. Although the reader can turn the process of reading Neon Pilgrim into a sort of daily practice, I personally found it difficult to stop reading the book – I always wanted to find out what lay around the next corner on the path to the next temple. The author’s good humor is infectious, and she’s a perfect companion for the journey.
Neon Pilgrim is published by Aduki Independent Press in Australia, and it’s almost impossible to get a physical copy of the book (trust me, I tried). A digital copy can be had for five USD from Smashwords, however, so it’s worth checking out. I read the mobi version of the book on my Kindle app, and it was beautifully formatted and functioned flawlessly.