Neon Pilgrim

Lisa Dempster

Neon Pilgrim
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Neon Pilgrim

Lisa Dempster

During a culture-shocked exchange year in Japan, fifteen-year-old Lisa Dempster’s imagination is ignited by the story of the henro michi, an arduous 1200 kilometre Buddhist pilgrimage through the mountains of Japan. Perfectly suiting the romantic view of herself as a dusty, travel-worn explorer (well, one day), she promises to return to Japan and walk the henro michi, one way or another, as soon as humanely possible.

Fast-forward thirteen years, and Lisa’s life is vastly different to what she pictured it would be. Severely depressed, socially withdrawn, overweight, on the dole and living with her mum, she is 28 and miserable.

And then, completely by chance, the henro michi comes back into her life, through a book at her local library. It’s a sign. She decides then and there to go back to Japan almost immediately: to walk the henro michi, and walk herself back to health.

Brushing aside the barriers that other people might find daunting - the 1200km of mountainous terrain, the sweltering Japanese summer, the fact she has no money and has never done a multi-day hike before - Lisa is determined to walk the pilgrimage, or die trying.


Written long before she became director of the Melbourne Writers Festival, Neon Pilgrim is an often humorous, brutally honest record of a walking expedition taken when Dempster was 28 years old and needed a dramatic change in her life. Even back then, Dempster was not one to shy away from a challenge: so she embarks on a truly daunting 1200km walking trek around the island of Shikoku, Japan.

This is the famous 88 Temple Pilgrimage, performed in honour of the ninth-century monk who brought Buddhism to Japan. Dempster is not after enlightenment as such, but rather an opportunity to invigorate her life. Simply, she wants to come to an understanding of who she is and why, and in the process, to shake the despair that has overtaken her life. In an interview, she says that she took the journey because she was depressed. She also finished the journey depressed, and in the end, it was the writing of the book that helped. Dempster deals well with the issues around mental health. I am grateful that she doesn’t hide behind a sense of bravado, or fixate on her trek being a solution. I also appreciate that she doesn’t recount every step she takes on her ‘spiritual’ journey in great detail, but rather she records conversations, bathrooms, drunken haircuts, beers and meals shared with strangers. Thankfully, Dempster’s honesty means that this is neither sentimental nor saccharine.

Consider this book the Japanese version of Robyn Davidson’s Tracks. It will appeal to anyone who feels as if they’re standing at the crossroads of life, to lovers of Japanese culture, and to those who still want to believe anything is possible if you can simply take some time to think it through.

Chris Gordon is the Events Manager for Readings.

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