Reading Down Under

Neon Pilgrim by Lisa Dempster

Japan frequently holds a strange reputation in the world as a country where the old and new exist in a delicate balance. This is a lie, as both the old and the new are frequently stepping into each other’s territory, as Lisa Dempster’s “Neon Pilgrim” reveals.
Lisa decides to walk the famous hirogichi pilgrimage, traveling to 88 temples one after the other, she does this as a personal quest to get healthier both mentally and physically. She walks without using hotels (sleeping rough most nights) and she carries everything she needs on her back. What this results in is a shocking journey of self discovery through one of Japan’s most famous treks.
Now, the most important element of this book for people who know little to nothing about Japan is that every naunce and fact is quickly and effectively described. You learn about the pilgrimage and Japanese society without even realizing it, a fact that makes the unfamiliar lands she walks through flow past without the alienation you would expect for the reader. We’re there with her when the country surprises her and also when it manages to diappoint. Dempster does not pick and choose what she focuses on, refreshing us on tales of the Dominchi with only slightly less importance being given to explaining love hotels. She is completely open and honest about her reasons for the journey and allows us a frank window into her mind no matter how unflattering it may be. Hollywood would produce a far different story where the depressed heroin finds her feet and slogs through, gaining confidence and ease with every temple. While it is clear that Dempster does grow in ability this is a far more realistic story and she does not shy away from presenting her failings even towards the end of the pilgrimage. That makes this a thoughtful piece of travel fiction, where her biggest enemy in places is clearly her mind.
This may be a strange critique to give to this book but I feel that Dempster did not manage to put as much of her personality into this book as I would have wanted. Dempster is the first Aussie author I have met personally and it was great seeing her talk about this incredible journey. I would have liked to have seen her put more of herself into some chapters as at times it can feel like she is merely recanting diary entries of her journey rather than taking us their as well. This only happens a few times, I would stress to add, particularly in the third quarter of the novel were she begins to cope better with her walking. I hope she didn’t feel that her story would become less interesting once she stopped suffering for our amusement!
“Neon Pilgrim” is a short book with a lot hidden within. A woman on a journey of reflection, following the footsteps of a monk from a thousand years ago through a Japan that tourists rarely see. It can seem a bit repetitive at times, (through no fault of the author because I bet the journey got repetitive for HER as well!) but it’s wealth of knowledge and thoughtful anecdotes are worth every page.

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