Book Review: “Neon Pilgrim” (@ventura_press)


Neon Pilgrim is Lisa Dempster’s story of walking the henro michi, the 1,200-kilometre, 88-temple pilgrimage around Japan’s Shikoku Island. It sounded romantic when she was 15, a wide-eyed exchange student from Australia who dreamed of one day becoming an experienced explorer.

But life turned out to be vastly different to what she imagined it would be. By the time Dempster turns 28, she is overweight, on the dole, socially withdrawn and severely depressed. It is now or never – she has to do something to get back to health.

Dempster is determined to walk the pilgrimage – or die trying. Her ensuing journey is full of hardship, featuring the sweltering Japanese summer, endless mountainous terrain, countless blisters and mosquito bites, and plenty of pain, sweat, rage, frustration, loneliness and tears.

As Dempster meets her challenges and problems head-on, her story is thought-provoking. A honest and courageous writer, she confesses her weaknesses without resorting to self-deprecation. In her sense of humour, we see no attempt to seek sympathy.

Instead, the author shows much respect – for the pilgrimage and its cultural and spiritual significance, for others who walk the pilgrimage for their own reasons, and especially for herself. It is a process of thinking and praying, the time for reflection. It is an individual journey towards self-affirmation, much more than self-discovery.

As Dempster walks on, she reflects on the idea of travel – do we really need to travel and learn from others, when we already have something unique in our own hearts? After reaching Temple 31, she writes: “Travel is an internal journey as much as an external one… Could I learn and grow without travel? I was seeking something tangible on the henro michi: wellness. Was that something I could have achieved at home? Do I need to be here?”

The answer seems obvious, as Dempster finds herself walking in honour of Kōbō Dashi, a ninth-century Buddhist monk and one of the most important figures in Japanese history. She discovers enlightenment in this man’s story – the realisation that whatever we are seeking, we already have; we just need to accept it, without being hindered by fear.

Another memorable part of Dempster’s journey is her reflection on the act of receiving. She learns that it is far more difficult to receive than to give, especially when one is gifted unconditionally and frequently. To accept other people’s kindness humbly and gracefully requires a fundamental belief in one’s own worthiness. It equally demands deep faith in one’s own physical, intellectual and psychological capacity to give as much as one is able to receive.

Which is why this is a book to be read alone. It is a reader’s private pilgrimage, and we all read it for our own different reasons. Whatever yours is, trust that you, too, can find that which is already in you.

Lisa Dempster’s Neon Pilgrim was published by Ventura Press in August 2017. You can find a print copy of the book in your local library.

Note: This book review was originally published under the title “Walk a pilgrim in Japan with author Lisa Dempster”, by Ranges Trader Star Mail, March 16, 2021, page 10.


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