My bookshelf is mostly taken up by Lonely Planet guides and books filled with bucket list inspirations. However, thanks to a recent university assignment the travel section on my shelf is growing and now includes a few travel writing books; Neon Pilgrim by Lisa Dempster is one of them.
People travel for many reasons. To find yourself during a gap year, jumping on an opportunity to experience cultures different to your own’ or perhaps to tick off seeing the Seven Wonders of the World. But how often do you hear of someone travelling to improve their health? Lisa Dempster, artistic director and CEO of the Melbourne Writers Festival, sees travel as being an internal journey as much as an external one.
At 28, Dempster realised that her life was in a misery-ridden rut. Severely depressed, socially withdrawn, overweight, on the dole and living with [her] mum,” she decides to “walk herself back to health” by completing the henro michi.
First introduced to the henro michi, a 12,000 kilometre Buddhist pilgrimage on Japan’s southwest island of Shikoku, during school exchange as a 15-year-old, she saw it as “adventure on an epic scale” and made a mental note to go back and walk it one day.
Thirteen years passed before the pilgrimage came back into her life.
Her travel memoir Neon Pilgrim documents her endeavour to complete the relentless hike, or die trying.
Although it is mostly her memoir, the book flows with such ease between being a travel guide and a personal journal of Dempster’s quest to seek wellness as well.
Neon Pilgrim teaches readers’ things like the history behind the pilgrimage, which exists to venerate ninth century Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi. You even pick up a few Japanese words along the way: henro (pilgrim), minshuku (Japanese style B&B), tsūyadō (a free place to stay).
As the reader,you instantly feel like you are walking alongside her, and when you’re unsure of whether she will complete her journey or not, you find yourself mentally ushering her on.
Despite never having completed a multi-day hike before, or knowing anything about hiking for that matter, being overweight, relatively unfit, oh and let’s not forget that she undertakes this adventure in the middle of the Japanese summer, Dempster doesn’t let any of the barriers stop her from trying to achieve her goal.
Nor does she hold back on the personal struggles faced along the way. A vivid image of “long strips of white noodles pour out of [her] mouth into the gutter beside the road” as she throws up her lunch, on numerous occasions. She tells it how it is.
Putting the idea of chafed thighs and pus-filled blisters aside, every now and then you stop mid-page and quietly consider the idea of packing your bags and heading off on a similar journey and questioning whether it would solve your own life problems too.