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: 

Quick Review: Non-fiction

Today’s quick review is of two non-fiction books I recently picked up from the library.

  • Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy by Sudhir Venkatesh
    • Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide
    • Venkatesh focuses his exploration on the sex trade in NYC and the connections formed in an underground economy, crossing dividing lines such as class and race. I liked the informal tone and the variety of people Venkatesh meets. I’m not usually too interested in books about the sex trade but I enjoyed this one because it’s a lot more about community, relationships, and a different system of economics than the actual in-and-outs of the sex industry. 
    • I was surprised at the negative reviews of this book. It seems most reviewers didn’t realize what form this book was going to take The author’s note appearing at the very end of the book would have better served the reader if it had been at the beginning. In the note, Venkatesh describes the circumstances and time period that gave rise to this book, that it is a memoir and not appropriate for academic publications, and that identities and time frames have been altered to preserve the privacy of individuals. These were all things I wondered about while reading the book. Placing the author’s note at the beginning would give the reader better context for the story ahead.
    • I’m not sure the self-exploration parts of this book are very convincing. They seemed unnecessary to me, like Venkatesh felt this was the sort of story where he should learn something about himself and not just about the people he studied, so he added some reflective passages. Thankfully, there weren’t too many of them. He does state that this is a memoir not suitable for academic publication,  yet at times it feels like a superficial memoir – like, since this isn’t an academic book he crafted it instead into a memoir rather than just leaving it as a ‘popular non-fiction’ book. 
      • This GoodReads review does a great job of outlining what’s great about this book (lives explored) and what’s not so great (author inserted as character).
    • Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen
      • Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide
      • Good introduction for beginners who think they may have an interest in practising Buddhism (AKA not a scholarly book)
      • For me, the first part of the book was a good recap while the second and third parts had some great writing on the practice and morality of Buddhism.
      • The book is further divided into 12 chapters, with many small, manageable passages.
      • I noted a few sentences as good reminders. I particularly liked the passage about a leaf falling from a tree.

    Have you read any good non-fiction recently?

    Review: Light of the Andes by J.E. Williams

    Author: J.E. Williams
    Title: Light of the Andes
    Format/Source: eBook/ARC
    Published: June 2012 (new edition released June 2014, I think)
    Publisher: Irie Books
    Length: 200 pages
    Genre: Spiritual non-fiction
    Why I Read: Browsing ‘religion and spirituality’ on NetGalley; mountain caught my eye
    Read If You’re: A mountain lover or interested in Indigenous spirituality, esp. of Peru’s Q’ero people
    Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
    I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
    Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters 

    In university I took a few courses about Indigenous spirituality, particularly that of the Cree and Inuit. I know very little about Indigenous cultures outside of Canada, so I thought this book would be a good choice to learn more about a people who live far away. The Andean setting also attracted me because I love mountains, though I live on the prairies so unfortunately mountains do not play a large role in my life. The highlight of my younger years was heading out West to camp in the Rockies. I’ve never seen any mountains as huge as those to be found in South America. That’s what I liked most about this book – how Williams captures the majesty of these grand mountains and conveys how deeply moving they can be, even for someone who has never seen them before (the photos and glossary are welcome inclusions). I loved reading about his journey up Apu Ausangate, “the spiritual ruler of [the Andes]” (preface). Williams balances a spiritual perspective and a scholarly perspective, blending his roles as immersed participant and outside scholar. These two perspectives are naturally merged in the book. While the book is about his spiritual journey up Ausangate, he also draws parallels to other religious traditions and ponders about the place of the Q’ero in the world-at-large.

    The book begins with long sentences with too many words. For example:

    A small, solid man with reddish brown sun-darkened, chestnut-colored skin, Sebastian stands on the corner of the busy city street wearing traditional Q’ero short charcoal apalaca pants and black tunic, the unku, hand wove by his wife, Filipa, from the wool sheered from his own alapacas, over which he wears a natural-colored beige poncho and on his head a multicolored knitted cap called a chu/ulhu, intricately beaded with designs representing Inti, the sun.

    I didn’t really mind this, though, because I was interested in all the information  given. I found the style manageable because I felt there was a good story caught inside all the words. If this is not your style, no worries – the prose settles into a more natural, rhythmic style about 1/4 of the way in. Here is a short excerpt from a larger passage I particularly enjoyed, as Sebastian, Williams’ friend and spiritual mentor, and Williams have reached their destination near the top of Ausangate: 

    In the shadow of the mountain, memory is intangible. Most of my experiences escape; the process of forgetting is already begun. Whatever I am is being erased by the wind, lost in clouds and snow. Where lies the prefect empty mirror? Where falls the condor feather? How silent is the snow and ice? How thin is the blue canopy of sky? Sebastian is already at work. He has chosen a place for the ceremony near the shoreline.
    A more cynical reader could easily approach this work with a heavy does of skepticism, dismissing Williams’ involvement in the Q’ero community as self-righteous or exploitative, as he is a white man publishing a book about his experiences. I can be such a reader at times, but I honestly did not feel that sort of vibe from this book. It truly seems like Willliams is doing good work with the Q’ero and is personally invested beyond getting a good story to publish. Sebastian’s role is not diminished in the book, and Williams has included a note from Sebastian at the end. Williams founded the non-profit Ayniglobal “to further his mission and honour the commitment he made with Sebastian”. The mission of Ayniglobal is to “protect and preserve traditional indigenous cultures and ancestral lands including people, animals, plants and water systems”. Williams and Sebastian are currently on a tour to share the teachings of the Q’ero. Williams does offer “sacred journey” tours, but these appear to be in  cooperation with the Q’ero and in line with Sebastian’s desire to spread the Q’ero teachings.
    The Light of the Andes is something of a sequel to The Andean Codex, which I have not yet read. I don’t think it’s necessary to read The Andean Codex first, but I think doing so would give one better background knowledge of the issues discussed in The Light of the Andes. I’ve added The Andean Codex to my TBR pile.

    The Bottom Line:  Another reader might have a more cynical attitude towards William’s involvement with the Q’ero, but he comes across as sincere in this book. A good story if you want to learn more about the Indigenous Q’ero spirituality that has grown over centuries around the Andes in Peru, or if you have a deep love of mountains.

    Further Reading: