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Reviewed by:
  • Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan
  • Bardwell Smith (bio)
Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan. Edited by Maria Rodríguez del Alisal, Peter Ackermann, and Dolores P. Martinez. Routledge, London, 2007. xxi, 184 pages. $150.00.

While the title of this volume is accurate, it cannot suggest the wealth of material and breadth of scope represented in its 16 essays. Books on pilgrimage typically provide readers with theories about pilgrimage; historical, social, and cultural dimensions of this phenomenon; and often personal accounts of different sorts of pilgrims or seekers. Materials of that kind are important features of some chapters in this collection, such as Nathalie Kouamé's essay on the daily life of the Shikoku henro (or pilgrim) in Edo Japan, Sachiko Usui's informative piece on the possible role of the Kegon sutra in "establishing and popularizing the concept of pilgrimage in Japan" (p. 32), Sylvie Guichard-Anguis's differentiated sketch of pilgrimages over the centuries to Ise and Santiago de Compostela, and Teigo Yoshida's depiction of the pilgrim as "stranger" in village Japan. Each of these provides a brief but fresh perspective on topics seldom discussed.

Even more interesting, at least to this reviewer, are a number of essays that stretch the concept of pilgrimage in remarkable ways, relating the sense of spiritual quest to song texts and poetry, surrealist painting, a well-known film, travel ethnography, and comparative history of art. Some of these are briefly depicted in the second half of this review. In appropriate ways, all of them explore the implications of pilgrimage beyond its customary confines as a trip to a sacred place or as part of a religious discipline. Given the root meaning of "pilgrim," however, as one who travels to foreign lands or unexplored territories, these essays are not only pertinent; they are also of comparable significance.

Having been a walking, questing, fatigued, and rejuvenated pilgrim myself on the Shikoku pilgrimage (henro michi) for several weeks at a time on seven occasions from 1983 to 2002, I can readily identify with the accounts [End Page 151] provided in this book. Even as a bus pilgrim with a group of Anglicans moving slowly over a ten-day period from Bilboa to Santiago during the 1999 Holy Year, I became initiated to that route, to its wealth of tradition and culture, and especially to the drama of pilgrims packed fervently together for High Mass in the Cathedral of Santiago.

Nothing in this volume reduces pilgrimage experiences to one sort of motivation or value or series of criteria. This is part of its virtue. Instead, it acknowledges that questions about the meaning of pilgrimage arise naturally within each person as he or she travels such a path. How can travel be a form of pilgrimage? What does it mean to be on a "quest"? Need pilgrimage be religious or even "spiritual"? What are the social as well as personal dimensions of pilgrimage? Are "tourists" and "pilgrims" on a "different path"? As a response to internal questioning of this sort, the book's introduction begins by stating that "travel and pilgrimage [mean] effort and hardship, but also enjoyment and satisfaction, especially after completion of the pilgrimage" (p. xvi). One of the book's early essays asks why the number of walking pilgrims in Japan appears to be increasing these days, especially when so many of those surveyed by Eiki Hoshino seemed uncertain about what made them choose to participate in this more rugged manner. Later testimonies from these same pilgrims reveal, nevertheless, how their original motivations were "subverted" and then transformed by the experience itself. What is it that brings about a change so significant?1

Specifically, by walking such a lengthy route with its centuries of tradition, in close association with other pilgrims, and through a direct, more intimate connection with the natural world, they discovered their own larger identity in ways they had never anticipated. A surprising by-product of pilgrimage may come by discovering newfound capacities for joy, gratitude, and generosity. This does not mean, of course, that pilgrims have no interest in the potential "benefits" of this experience. This-worldly benefits (gense riyaku), such as concern for one's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1549-4721
Print ISSN
0095-6848
Pages
pp. 151-154
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-15
Open Access
No
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