Review: The 1918 Shikoku Pilgrimage of Takamure Itsue

Translator: Susan Tennant
Title: The 1918 Pilgrimage of Takamure Itsue: An English Translation of “Musume Junreiki”
Format/Source: Paperback/library 
Published: 2010
Publisher: Bowen Publishing
Length: 268 pages
Genre: Non-fiction journal(ism)
Why I Read: Personal experience
Read If You’re: Want to/have completed the Shikoku Henro
Quote: “So I became elated and thought, ‘If you want to save people, be ambiguous. Ambiguity is obscurity. Obscurity is mystery; mystery excites divine inspiration; divine inspiration creates faith.'” (55).
Rating:  ★★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound | Amazon

A young woman of 24 set off alone in 1918 to walk the 1400 kilometre pilgrimage route around the island of Shikoku. Her dream of a solitary journey ended when an old man of 73 met early on her journey insisted that he accompany her as servant and protector because he believed that she was an attendant of Kannon Bosatsu. This book is her account of their extraordinary experiences during the five month journey. The 105 newspaper articles that she wrote while making her pilgrimage made her a celebrity in Japan. In later years the woman, Takamure Itsue, became well known in Japan as a poet, intellectual, scholar, historian, feminist and anarchist.

The 1918 Shikoku Pilgrimage of Takamure Itsue resonated with me in new way. I completed the pilgrimage a few months ago, the same age as Takamure, nearly 100 years after her (though I did it in pieces via a mixture of walking and driving). For these reasons I found Takamure highly relatable. I read the bulk of this book just two months after completing the pilgrimage, but I had already begun to feel nostalgic for the experience. This book renewed my journey by allowing me to see the pilgrimage through another young woman’s eyes.

This book does not contain information on the pilgrimage. If you’re unfamiliar with the pilgrimage, this may not be the best book to start with. In these articles, one finds a chronicle of a young woman’s growth over the course of the pilgrimage. I recommend this book if you’re planning to or have already undertaken the pilgrimage (or are currently doing so!). Takamure writes more about her personal experience than the pilgrimage itself. Her voice gives a strong flavour to her writing, which is easily readable in this translation (there are places where you can clearly feel the Japanese style of writing). Takamure can be very sassy and very real. Her opinions and attitudes bring her journey to life.

However, there is one thing I can say: nearly one hundred percent of people do not understand the person that I am. I don’t care. If they hae doubts about me, it doesn’t matter. However, it’s annoying that problems arise because of their doubts. So what if I’m young? So what if I’m a woman? So what if I’m traveling alone? (29)

I felt just a little bit discouraged. To the tell the truth, my wallet is already almost empty. Never mind, I have an idea: I will spend all the money I have in Beppu and go around Shikoku without any. That’s it – that’s what I will do. Living and dying will be up to Divine Providence. (33)

I did not expect to find so much humour in her narration. I laughed out loud many times. One of my favourite anecdotes:

 [Some women come to Takamure seeking healing.] “We’ve heard that you’re not an ordinary person.” I wondered what on earth I should do. Every time they said this and that, I was downhearted and felt like crying. In the first place, although I explained to them “I’m not that kind of person,” they just wouldn’t accept what I said. There was nothing I could do, so I immediately pretend to be the God of Boils and said, “It is important for people to have faith. As soon as you return home tonight say three times ‘Get better, boil!’ and pray to the gods then go to bed. Never doubt my words. Also, consult a doctor in your neighbourhood. This too is a revelation from the God of Boils.” Although I did not say that in so many words, I at least told them something to that effect, blushing and turning pale many times. But thank heavens, they prostrated themselves like flat spiders, completely submissive. Ah, unexpectedly I have gained on profession! After I return to Kumamoto, I shall immediately become the God of Boils. (51)

If I say it myself, that was witty, but when I looked behind me, guess what! The little girl was innocently sleeping. (142)

At times Takamure can be melodramatic, at other times poignant. Her relationship with the old man injects some heartfelt emotion into her tale and best illustrates her maturation over the course of this journey. I sometimes forgot she wrote this one hundred years ago. That she wrote these articles at such a young age… I’d like to know what she got up to later in life!

The long dream-like trip is finally over. I expect the world that is soon to come to be more severe, more pressing, and more distressing. However, no matter what kind of scenes I encounter, no matter what kind of threats I receive, no matter what kind of scorn I meet with, once more I make a solemn vow to heaven to absolutely never lose this quiet, sincere, reverent, pure feeling or my integrity. Also, I will continue to embrace everything with warm affection. I will go! I will go! I must go to my majestic battleground. Even if I am smeared and dyed in blood, I must walk the path of virtue, the serious, pure, pious path of virtue. (199)

The translator’s notes provide excellent support to the articles. Susan Tennant writes clear explanations on nuances particular to the time and locations where Takamure was writing. I wouldn’t have even known to think “What’s Takamure talking about here?” were it not for Tennant’s notes. For example, a man says, “I’m sure that America is a substantial country because it’s on the gold standard. Japan is insignificant because it’s on the silver standard.” (48). Takamure is unimpressed. The footnote explains that “Both US and Japan were on the gold standard at that time.” There are also notes on translation. One example: Takamure writes, “In Shikoku there are many whom local people call corrupt pilgrims…” (49). The footnote shares that “She uses ぐれ [gure], from ぐれる [gureru], to do wrong.” Additional segments at the end of the book include a map of the pilgrimage, a few pages about it, and over 20 pages biographical information on Takamure and the significance of her undertaking the pilgrimage. This book is not a basic translation of Takamure’s writings. Tennant’s work gives greater meaning to Takamure’s work, explaining and clarifying the contexts in which she wrote.

A couple of personal notes now. Takamure disappointed me when she glossed over her travels between Temples 19 and 1, the temples nearest to where I lived. That was the bit I was most looking forward to! I still enjoyed her writing, though, so that didn’t spoil the book for me. Reading this book made me yearn to return to Shikoku. Many people return to complete the pilgrimage multiple times. I want to do it again, this time completely by walking. I hope to improve my Japanese by that time so I can better converse with fellow travellers.

 The Bottom Line: A collection of newspaper articles unlike anything I’ve encountered before, The 1918 Shikoku Pilgrimage of Takamure Itsue makes for a compelling yet easy read driven by the voice of a bright young woman. A must-read for anyone interested in completing the Shikoku Pilgrimage.

Further Reading: 

Dishes from Quick and Easy Thai

Back in May, I reviewed Nancie McDermott’s Quick and Easy Thai. Now that I’m back at home, I’ve made a few meals from this book using a new wok (how did I ever cook without one?!). Here are some snapshots of the recipes I’ve made. I usually forget to take pictures until I’ve already started to eat so some of them aren’t as nicely staged as they might have been 😛 

 Green curry chicken with zucchini (gaeng kio wahn gai): The first recipe I made in the wok, and also my first Thai curry from scratch. I followed the recipe pretty closely because of that. I found the curry thinner than I like, so after a bit of Googling I think next time I’ll try heating the coconut milk longer or straining a bit off. I used regular eggplant, but next time I want to try the Thai eggplants (green and golfball sized). Zucchini and eggplant make for a great green curry.
 Rice soup with chicken, cilantro, and crispy garlic (kao tome gai): McDermott knew just how to appeal to me when she described this recipe – “Simply delicious and simple to make, this is Thai-style comfort food. […] It’s the first choice when Thais cook for someone who’s under the weather, but I make it whenever we need a quick and hearty one-dish supper that satisfies us all.” I loved this soup. The cilantro adds a flavour I don’t usually have in my home cooking. My parents also like to mix in some Thai sweet chili sauce. I’m making this for lunch after I finish this post!
 Chicken with cashews and chilies (gai paht meht mamuang himapahn): I made this dish last weekend. I stopped by a Chinese market to pick up the chilies. I’d never been to one of the markets in Chinatown before (Chinatown being a very small part of my city), but I think I’ll be shopping there more often in the future! I love the spicy chilies. I don’t much like hot sauce (ex. Tabasco) but I love the flavour of spicy Thai food.

All of these recipes were indeed quick and easy. The only time needed is the time it takes to cook the rice! The ingredients may be simple but they all pack that flavourful punch I love in Thai food. I realize now that I should maybe try some recipes without chicken… I would certainly recommend this cookbook for beginning Thai chefs.

Response: Understanding Éowyn, Part Three

Part One (Éowyn’s grief) | Part Two (Éowyn as a war bride)

In this series, I respond to articles about Éowyn in order to develop a more nuanced view of Éowyn, so I can better inform my opinion of her and understand her role in Middle-Earth. Ultimately, I’d like to settle whether I can successfully argue Éowyn is a feminist icon (or conclude that that’s an unwinnable debate) through examining various facets of her character.

Hatcher, Melissa McCrory. “Finding Women’s Role in The Lord of the Rings.” Mythlore 25.3/4 (Spring/Summer 2007): 43 – 54. Mythopoeic Society. Web.

  • Hatcher’s perspective: Éowyn is “a complete individual” (53) who best embodies “Tolkien’s highest ideal: a fierce commitment to peace” (43).
  • I appreciate Hatcher’s caution that we (Tolkien apologists) cannot fall back on presentism, as it neither “adequately explains Tolkien’s own sexism” nor does it “take seriously the powerful female characters in The Lord of the Rings” (44). Hatcher and I agree that Tolkien’s work and characters “should be judged on their own internal merit, without considering the biography of its the author” (44).
  • Hatcher draws many comparisons between Éowyn and Sam, arguing that while the two embody many of the same ideas, Éowyn “enacts in brief what Sam epitomizes throughout the entire work” (45). Hatcher sharply observes that critics view Sam’s transformation as heroic but Éowyn’s as submissive. 
    • Both exemplify all six of Gregory Bassham’s “keys to happiness in Middle-Earth”, where few other characters do (44).
    • Both have the goal of preserving Middle-Earth’s cultural memory. (45)
      • “In fighting both to participate in and to recount the story, Éowyn embodies the persistent struggle of women in the West to assert their voices and presence, to avoid erasure, and to figure in history (and in fiction) as they do in life” (45).
    • Éowyn’s shadow (vanity, love of glory) and transformation distinguishes her from Sam and makes her a more intriguing character. Hatcher writes, “Sam becomes stronger and wiser, but Éowyn conquers an evil within herself that is not present in Sam…” (51). Personally, Éowyn’s distinguishing complexity is what I appreciate most about her.
  • Now, despite all my talk about separating the writing from the author, I cannot help but think, “Look, Tolkien wrote this! He understands Éowyn’s struggle.”  when I read this retort from Éowyn: “All your words are but to say: you are a women and your part is in the house” (qtd. 47). Éowyn fears “being put in a cage of conventional female submissiveness”; therefore Tolkien recognized on some level this is something some women may fear. (‘How did he reconcile Éowyn’s character with his personal beliefs about women?’ is something I probably shouldn’t think about too much. XP).
  • Hatcher addresses arguments that Éowyn could only be a warrior when she became a ‘man’ by illustrating that Éowyn was portrayed as a warrior from her introduction in the story (49). Additionally, she succeeds at being a warrior because she is a woman, not because she is disguised as a man. 
    • Hatcher’s further exploration of that pivotal scene acknowledges that, through Merry and Éowyn, the reader sees “the presumably weak and ignored as heroes”.
    • Hatcher makes a key statement in this segment: “This defeat of evil in Middle-earth reinforces the idea that women and hobbits can be as valiant at arms at their male compeers, but they – unlike one-dimensional characters such as Boromir or Gimli – are well-equipped to pursue what is essential: peace, preservation, and cultural memory.” 
  • Hatcher addresses Éowyn’s relationship with Faramir, concluding that he wants her to overcome her weaknesses and that he does not oppress her because he understand her as an equal (51). Hatcher also highlights a quote from Jane Chance, who claims the healing of Middle-Earth is embodied by the healing of the two ‘stewards’, Faramir and Éowyn.
  • In one paragraph Hatcher suddenly speaks of the Christian ideal of marriage and Éowyn and Faramir embody that. It seemed out of place and unnecessary.
  • There are a few slips where Hatcher does a poor job at defending Éowyn in greater story context. Hatcher states (as I quoted above) that The Lord of the Ring’s characters should be judged on their own merit. Later on she writes (a sentiment I agree with), “We should not read Éowyn as the ‘only’ female character that is given any significance, but rather, the character Tolkien chose to fulfill his theme of peace” (53).  However, at times Hatcher throws in statements comparing Éowyn to other females in the story, which highlights problematic aspects of Éowyn that Hatcher does not, in my opinion, adequately address.
    • A statement in the very first paragraph best illustrates this: “While a number of critics have accused Tolkien of subsuming his female characters in a sea of powerful men, one heroine, Éowyn, the White Lady of Rohan, is given a full character arc in the novel. ” (emphasis mine) 
    • Hatcher claims Éowyn’s role is central to The Lord of the Rings’ message, as “Éowyn has more speaking lines and appears in more scenes than any other woman [in LotR]” (46). That’s not difficult to do… =.= 
    • One character does not a feminist work make. These statements are not totally relevant to the argument Hatcher is making, and I think her intended argument  (that Éowyn best embodies Tolkien’s ideal of peace) would be stronger without statements that distract to a different argument. 

Hatcher clearly articulates a number of points in arguing Éowyn’s strength and contribution to The Lord of the Rings. While at times Hatcher drifts away from her argument, I think this article has been the best of the three I’ve read so far in that it helps me to understand Éowyn’s role in context of the greater story.

Brief Thoughts: In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

This book had been on the corner of my interest for some time. Once I discovered the movie release date (December 2015), I decided to prioritize it in the TBR queue. Page numbers given refer to my large font Overdrive ebook…not very helpful but I felt strange not including them!

  • In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
  • Rating: ★★★★
  • A compelling yet gruesome story (not recommended for the faint of heart) constructed from historical documents and first hand journals
  • Whales scare me because they’re way too big! Can you imagine being attacked by not just a sperm whale, but an abnormally huge sperm whale ?? Nope nope nope. But, I like reading about wooden ships and coastal towns and spectacular voyages. 
  • I love the settings and the Nantucket atmosphere. I liked to read about life in the bustling little village (and the accents!).
  • I tried to keep in perspective the ages of those on the Essex, finding it difficult to remember that the Captain was younger than most of my friends (28 years old) and the First Mate was, at 22 years old, younger than me (56). 
  • I didn’t like the actual description of the whale killing. Gory and intense, I can’t imagine how anyone could pull it off. One young sailor wrote, “It is painful to witness the death of the smallest of God’s created beings, much more, one in which life is so vigorously maintained as the Whale! And when I saw this, the largest and most terrible of all created animals bleeding, quivering, dying a victim to the cunning of man, my feelings were indeed peculiar!” (107)
  • Something else I have trouble visualizing is the size of these ships. I couldn’t believe they had tortoises from Galapagos roaming the decks – “They also collected another hundred tortoises” (137)!
  • At one point Captain Bligh of The Bounty‘s story is mentioned. I wonder if there any good books about him?
  • Though numerous astounding moments comprise this book, the incident with the whale will keep you on the edge of your seat. I knew generally what happened, but reading it play out I remained astonished. My note was, “YAH FREAKING SERIOUS, WHALE?!” (151)
  • I think I spoke too quickly when I said to my sister, “I’d totally watch this movie!” Not because of my fear of whales but because of the cannibalism…it’s difficult enough to read about (I’m not usually a queasy person but I couldn’t read those bits even when just eating toast at breakfast). How will those scenes translate to film? I definitely don’t need to see them visualized.
    • The practice of drawing lots, of killing your fellow sailor to consume him. I cannot imagine that. I like to think I would rather cast myself into the sea instead, but that’s practically the selfish option. (284)

Have you read any compelling non-fiction books about whaling? Would you read this one?

Library’s 10th Anniversary Celebration

Yesterday my Dad and I visited my favourite place in the city – the downtown library! Ten years ago the library underwent a major renovation and expansion, becoming the anchor of downtown it is today. The birthday celebration included stroy-telling and music in the children’s area, a naming ceremony for the Aboriginal areas, a writers-in-residence reunion, and a Maker Faire.

The Maker Faire featured ten stations for “creating, experimenting and collaborating” throughout the library. At one station I played piano notes via celery sticks using a Makey Makey (“An invention kit for the 21st century. Turn everyday objects into touch pads and combine them with the Internet.” – there’s a Christmas gift idea!). Other stations included button making, squishy circuits (creating electronics via PlayDoh), and Arduino programming. My dad was impressed by all the cool things you can do in a library nowadays. He realized libraries can still thrive today when they’re less about books and more about information. Even I was impressed – while I’d learnt a bit about Maker Spaces and interactivity in my BA practicum, I’d never heard of a lot of the science projects they had on hand.

Recently, the Local History room moved and expanded into a large space on the fourth floor (home to non-fiction and my favourite places to read quietly). Dad and I spent sometime browsing intriguing books and ephemera about the city. He found newspaper clippings about when his company changed his name. I flipped through huge tomes of directories, looking for my parents and grandparents. These directories, printed until 1999, strove to contain the name, address, occupation and marital status of every adult living in the city. I tracked my grandparent’s addresses and places of work, browsing the directories from a number of years including 1968 and 1997. I also flipped through the Municipal Manuals, a tiny booklet published from 1907 to 2007 containing facts and figures about the city. Certainly you could spend a day in that room experiencing bits of your city’s own history you never knew about!

Of course, we browsed lots of books as well. Dad and I both picked up a few books from the New and Noted section. The top three books are Dad’s; the bottom four are mine (I signed out three books I didn’t plan to read this year, even after resisting four books and instead adding them to my TBR).

Have you visited your local library? Did you discover anything new?