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 comp