University of Virginia Press. 2013. 208 pages.
Reviewed by Clint Peters
Robert Sibley’s The Way of the 88 Temples is the author’s narrative of a trek along the 1,400-kilometer temple pilgrimage on Japan’s smallest main island, Shikoku. I have read something like two dozen books by foreigner writers traveling or living in Japan. A bit specific for a genre, but there are enough of these shrine-seeking travelogues and half-rolled treatises from the Land of the Rising Sun to weigh down a kotatsu. The lineage of gaijin traipsing through Japan with their ink goes back to Lafcadio Hearn and continues through Donald Richie, Pico Iyer, and (who can forget?) comedy icon Dave Barry.
Part of the reason I read these books is that I’m trying to write one and am on the lookout for models for successfully navigating the pratfalls of a white dude writing in East Asia. Somehow the good ones, like Richie, appropriate culture for their literary trade and come off as if not having done so. Unfortunately, most foreigner writers in Japan refrain from scribing anything they can’t either easily sneer at or cuddle like a Facebook kitten. Robert Sibley is almost, but not quite, a cut above them.
He begins in his first chapter, admitting, “I was a Westerner with all the psychological and cultural overlay of the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage, along with the resulting confusings of a modern secularist education that denied much veracity to spiritual sentiments,” (3). An obvious point maybe, but you’d be surprised. Too often writers will unconsciously project their latent, puritanical judgements on a society that just didn’t grow up hunting witches.
Sibley has done his homework and, impressively, got the blessing of Ian Reader who has written one of the most respected books on the Shikoku pilgrimage, Making Pilgrimages. Sibley offers us the obligatory and fascinating history of Kobo Daishi, the Buddhist monk who helped bring Buddhism to Japan and is the central figure of the 88-temple circuit.
But at times, Sibley’s facts feel cobbled from Lonely Planet guides. Too much of the research takes shape as uncoordinated info dumps. And “Domo Arigatou” gets translated just in case you missed the eighties. More distracting, to me at least, is the reoccurring and antiquated phrasing, usually involving descriptions of “the Japanese.” For example, “Unlike North Americans, the Japanese don’t readily pour out their private lives to strangers” (19). And, “My pre-pilgrimage research had indicated the Japanese rarely invite foreigners into their homes” (156). And so on, like a meteorologist appraising his forecast.
Sure, we can’t hope to know anything about each other in this global village if we don’t elbow our way through the thorniness of approximate truisms. But to pretend like a cultural observation is handed down from God and not gathered like leaves from the composts of anthropology is to miss out on the complexity of the West’s reoccurring essentialism of the East. Not only is the narrative sometimes galling, it seems like Sibley missed the postcolonial studies bus.
Part of this review will seem like a heat-seeking missile directed at an unarmed, unassuming guy on a walk. I’m sure Sibley is a decent man, and the University of Virginia Press isn’t a colonizing force. Also, Sibley’s travels in Asia aren’t as blatantly proving ground for his enlightenment seeking (thus commodification of the East) as in, say, Eat, Pray, Love. Sibley, after all, has written another book on a long, spiritual-oriented walks in a foreign country, The Way of the Stars: Journeys on the Camino de Santiago, and he seems to be turning pilgrimage, no matter in what cultural context, into franchise. There’s nothing strictly wrong with that, I guess, but my problems also come with the writing.
Sibley has a bag of gold for material with his trek, but also with his characters, including a father-and-autistic-son duo who follow Sibley and who contribute to the gut-punchingly tragic ending. Some of Sibley’s description is meditatively striking, and, even at times causes me to pause. But equally so, he is guilty of too-plain language, bad puns and unnecessary end-paragraph wrap-ups. He also, most annoyingly, feels the need to translate all the pithy phrases that every first-time learner of a language picks up.
“‘Ikaga desu ka?’ ‘How are you doing?’ Niwano-san asked.
‘Hai.’ ‘Okay,’ I said.
Would you like biru?’
‘Domo arigato’ ‘Thanks very much.’”
Here he sometimes seems like a beaming boy scout awaiting his merit badge.
And too often Sibley’s prose seems more focussed on the standard, unpleasant TMI stuff that happens on long hikes. Namely, the size, shape and measurement of Sibley’s blisters, which feature as a central character. Way too much space is spent griping and cataloguing his woes.
A more engaging read would have Sibley as an emotional character on the page. He mentions early on that his spiritual ambivalences were awakened on his journey across Shikoku. Which, though spiritual awakening is overworked, would at least give me something to root for. Except that for the entire length of the book, Sibley offers only cursory references to himself. For instance, I found buried in a paragraph and not until page 42 the fact that he has a wife and son. What did they think about him taking off for two months?
There’s nothing at stake yet, except that maybe this journalist, after two months and 1,400 kilometers, won’t get his story. I want to know who he is, and what’s in it for me to follow this guy around as he laces up his too-small shoes and bows to a spirit that he’s not sure he believes in. I feel like I’m following a ghost. A phantom narrator who needs to always wear more than one layer of socks.