Aduki Independent Press
I have never met Lisa Dempster, nor spoken to her. I’ve never written her an email and only recently subscribed to her blog. But I know Lisa Dempster very well because I just traveled 1200 kilometres with her through the mountains of Japan. Such is the intimacy of Neon Pilgrim, Lisa Dempster’s account of her pilgrimage along the henro michi, visiting 88 temples in the footsteps of Kobo Daishi, a ninth-century Buddhist monk.
A ‘severely depressed, socially withdrawn, overweight, on the dole, living with mum’ 28-year-old, Lisa needed something to snap her out of the rut her life had happened into. By chance a library book reminds her of the famed pilgrimage that she had heard so much about as a 15-year-old exchange student in Shikoku. The sign was clear; she needed to get back to Japan. Undaunted by the seemingly insurmountable 1200 kilometres of mountainous terrain in the middle of the Japanese summer and having never completed a multi-day hike, this was something she needed to do.
Neon Pilgrim is not a movie with inspirational fanfares and a quick flash montage as Lisa starts slow but ends by taking three steps at a time up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art; it is an honest step by arduous step account of the grueling trek. Dempster doesn’t hold back. The pages are filled with images of vomit and blisters, sleeping in cockroach infested huts or public toilets, thoughts of the futility of the endeavour, distance calculations and dread of inoshishi (wild boars).
But a legend quickly builds around the crazy Aussie chick walking the henro in summer that precedes her as she drags from temple to temple; the gaijin (foreigner) walking in stifling heat, where many pilgrims now drive or take the tourist bus, and sleeping nojuku (effectively homeless). It is this tenacity that is the true inspiration to be taken from the journey; through all the pain and loneliness a depressed, overweight, unemployed woman from Melbourne kept going.
Dempster’s writing style is straightforward and factual, just enough description given to allow the reader to experience the torture and delight of the journey. She doesn’t labour too long in one place but keeps the account moving through cities and villages, checking off temples in a stamp book, and meeting the quirky characters along the trail. My favourite is the old man who pesters Lisa for ‘favours’ in return for a short lift. After she refuses (repeatedly), the man invites her to come to his house where his wife would happily make dinner for her.
Neon Pilgrim is categorised as ‘travel’ but the story is much wider than a simple recount of how to go from temple 1 to 88. It is an instruction on how to pick yourself up when you feel penned in and trapped by your own circumstances, and how to completely obliterate any comfort zone that you might have developed. If you’re feeling up, read this as an enjoyable account of the Shikoku people; if you’re feeling down, read this and then do something about your situation. As I said, you will not sprint up the Rocky steps and bounce with arms raised high (life is not a movie) – much better, you will break whatever mould is forming around you.