I have to confess here that I have ulterior motives for reading this book. I’ve never been a big reader of travel literature, mostly because it makes me bitter that I am not there with them. I’ve read some, like Sarah Turnbull’s Almost French, which I enjoyed (despite wanting the author to break up with her French boyfriend who seemed like a pain), and Peter Carey’s Wrong About Japan, which should be called Wrong About Thinking This Was Interesting Enough To Be Published. Otherwise, it just upsets me, thinking of all these people with their abilities to a) save enough to travel, b) deal with unexpected circumstances, c) learn life lessons and d) not get murdered. Full disclosure: I have been to Japan myself for three weeks and had an absolute blast, and I did bang on about it in my blog and to anyone who walked near me even years afterwards, but not enough happened to write an entire book about. Unless you all want to read about all the different vending machine locations we found Dr Pepper in, or how many arcade games we played while waiting for the torrential rain to stop.
Back to my motivation: Lisa Dempster, the author of Neon Pilgrim, is a friend of a friend of a friend, and she is closely involved with independent publishers. So through local-author karma, interest in helping out a pal (of a pal of a pal), and the fact I’d actually been to the country she was talking about, I thought I’d break my anti-travel-lit stance and read it.
Lisa travels to Japan in need of a change of health and harmony, to take on the henro michi, a 1200 hike through southern Japan and to the 88 temples that a ninth century Buddhist monk and all-round awesome dude named Kobo Daishi traipsed back in the day. Determined to get all the pilgrimage has to offer, Lisa goes on foot and nojuku—which basically means sleeping rough. Instead of staying in the hotels, ryokans and the like, she intends to sleep at temples or wherever she can find. At the first temple, stocked up with all of the accruements of a pilgrim: white vest, incense, name slips, and the staff (an embodiment of the Daishi himself), she begins.
It’s a vivid journey, and she doesn’t spare us any of its beauty or horror. The heat is oppressive, the landscape glorious, the blisters numerous and the mochi tasty. We learn how to thread blisters and how many times you could throw up in one day from hiking alone; we learn how wonderful the top of a mountain can feel and the astonishing generosity of the people. That affected me more than anything, the amount of everyday Japanese people willing to give settai, gifts to pilgrims without any expectation of return. People offer Lisa rides and food, drinks and advice, anything they can. They drive by and pass a cucumber through the window, wave and take off. It’s incredible, and completely unlike anything I could imagine happening here. The people Lisa meets along the hike, as well, are a varied and fascinating bunch; veterans who spend their time looping the circuit and have almost too much advice to offer, gaijin (foreigners) like Lisa, young attractive Japanese men whose casual confidence makes me—ahem, Lisa—weak at the knees.
Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t go as planned for Lisa. It’s a tough hike, and it wears her down, and leaves her alone with her thoughts. Her physical endurance is amazing, along with her bravery in sleeping alone on benches and in temples, even though she does occasionally find herself in need of proper accommodation to gather her thoughts and health. Not that I’m not in awe of what she did, as you wouldn’t find me hiking a) alone, b) with nowt but a sleeping mat as a bed, or c) at all. She fears bears and boars and her own capabilities, and what made me enjoy the book was how honest it is. She doesn’t fake enlightenment when it doesn’t happen, but she admits to her cynical self feeling astonished at how spiritual some places made her feel. We are there when her feet hurt and the stars shine brightly, when she makes good decisions or bad ones, when she refuses assistance or accepts it. And we are there, with her, at the end. Except not physically, obviously. Some people travel the henro michi by helicopter, and that sounds just dandy to me.