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Shikoku shrines: journey through a lost world

by David Cozy

Itsue Takamure, born in 1894, grew up to become a remarkable woman: a pioneering feminist scholar — one whose work remains controversial — and an anarchist, though her progressive thinking did not prevent her from collaborating with Japan’s militarist government during World War II.

THE 1918 SHIKOKU PILGRIMAGE OF TAKAMURE ITSUE: An English Translation of Musume Junreiki, by Itsue Takamure. Translated by Susan Tennant. Bowen Publishing, 268 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Before she became that remarkable woman, when she was just 24, she set out, as people still do, on a pilgrimage to 88 of Shikoku’s temples.

That she had the gumption to do this suggests that Takamure was a brave and independent young woman, but in many other ways she seems to have been no more impressive than any other well-read, hypersensitive, self-conscious young person. Like such young people, her memoir is at times charming, and at times tiresome.

The most enjoyable thing about the book for nonspecialists will be getting to know Takamure. The experience of reading the journal — published originally as a series of newspaper articles — is a bit like reading a novel featuring an unreliable narrator: As we move through the book we come to feel certain that we know the main character better than she knows herself.

Takamure affects throughout, for example, to be an ardent Buddhist, and there is evidence that she was.

The pilgrimage on which she sets out, for example, was an act of devotion a good deal more arduous than it is now, when one can glide from temple to temple on paved roads and in the comfort of a car.

That the desire to escape a complicated love life may have played into her reasons for doing the Shikoku circuit in no way negates the magnitude of the task she had set herself, or the real passion she shows for Buddhist philosophy, poetry and hymns.

The infinite mercy and loving kindness that characterize Buddhism at its best, however, are only intermittently in evidence. Wittingly or unwittingly, Takamure reveals herself, for example, to be a snob. Recounting a time when she was approached by a family of beggars, for example, she describes her reaction thus: “Afraid that they might speak to me, I shrank back and narrowly avoided the danger.” Sailing second-class from Kyushu to Shikoku, she grumbles about “how much worse it must be in third class.”

Of those who couldn’t scrape together the second-class fare, she remarks, “It is almost no different from a group of wild animals living together.”

Add to this her self-righteousness — she’s pretty sure she’s the only one around who’s properly Buddhist — coupled with an adolescent romanticism that gives rise to outbursts as florid as “I am young; I want to poeticize; I want to weep; I want to burn madly!” And one begins to suspect that she is not quite as impressive a figure as she takes herself to be — and will, in fact, become.

When a novelist creates an unreliable narrator we know that it’s the narrator, not the novelist, who lacks self-awareness.

When the narrator and author are identical, as in a memoir, it’s more difficult to judge whether the naivete is a reality, or merely a device.

That, according to translator Susan Tennant, “Takamure herself thought her writing in these articles immature and did not want them republished,” suggests that it was no device: The 24-year-old author actually was unaware that the figure she cut in these pages might, in the future, be an embarrassment to an older and wiser version of herself.

As fascinating as it is to get to know this young author (perhaps better than she knew herself), what keeps one turning pages are the people Takamure meets — “fortune tellers and priests . . . a man who replaces stems on tobacco pipes, a tinker, and so on” — and the lost world through which they move. That this world comes alive for us owes as much to the copious research Susan Tennant has done, and her skill in imparting it in the voluminous and illuminating notes.

She has informed herself, and ably informs us, about matters as diverse as women’s hairstyles, the puns contained in the hymns associated with different temples, the conditions under which those with Hansen’s disease were forced to suffer, botany and . . . the list could go on. All of that is in addition to the detailed information she gives about the pilgrimage: what the walkers wore, what they ate, where they slept and so on.

As is often the case with notes, however, one is sometimes uncertain for whom they are being written.

Certainly anyone with a scholarly enough interest in things Japanese to care who Zen priest and author Doken Takada was would know, for example, that harakiri is “suicide by disembowelment,” but it is easy enough to skip the notes one doesn’t need, and lose oneself in the fascinating details of the world Tennant has given us.