Heat, nausea and bears: the life-changing 1200km trek

With its 88 ancient temples and breathtaking views, the 1200km pilgrims' walk around the Japanese island of Shikoku??? is meant to induce peace and enlightenment.

But in a new memoir, Melbourne Writers Festival director Lisa Dempster's personal experience of it often resembles a trip from hell.

In the book, Neon Pilgrim, Dempster details her appalling blisters, vomiting, and slogging through stifling heat and heavy rain.

She wheezes up mountains, fears attacks from wild boars, evades wild bears, is eaten by mosquitoes, and stays in spider-infested hostels.

As a blonde foreigner, or gaijin, she is gawked-at by passersby. One lecherous old man gives her a lift then pressures her to have sex with him (she declines).

And yet now, preparing to helm her fifth Melbourne Writers Festival, Dempster says the 55-day walk, in 2008, changed her life.

She had been unemployed, overweight and depressed, and at 28, was living with her mother in Bendigo.

In a local library, she stumbled on a 1983 book about the Shikoku trail called Japanese Pilgrimage, by US scholar Oliver Statler???. A severely depressed woman hiker in his book returns to health via the walk.

It was a lightbulb moment for Dempster. "I thought, 'I'm going to do that. I'm going to fix myself in the way that she fixed herself'."

In 1995, aged 15, she had been an exchange student in Shikoku. She knew of the walk, which honours eighth century Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi???.

Despite being unfit, with little camping experience, Dempster borrowed $3000 from her Mum, and six weeks later was on a plane to Japan.

She forged through the pain, with the mantra "hike, or die trying". "I thought 'even if you can't walk that far today, if you just walk a little bit, you can sleep and things might be better tomorrow'."

People were overwhelmingly kind. It's considered good luck to be generous to pilgrims, so locals showered her with drinks, food, and cash.

One stranger kindly treated her massive foot blisters.

Dempster flew home feeling confident and energetic. Writing a zine version of Neon Pilgrim in 2009 helped her to be appointed director of the Emerging Writers' Festival.

Then in 2013 Dempster was appointed Melbourne Writers Festival director.

The 2017 festival, based at Federation Square, is on from August 25 to September 3. On September 2, Dempster will co-host a talk called Travel Baggage, whose premise is: "Can travelling help us find hope during the darkest times of our lives?"

Naturally Dempster agrees, and hopes her book inspires others to be adventurous and resilient.

Thanks to the pilgrimage, today if she feels overwhelmed, "I can dig deep and think, 'oh well I've done it before', I have the emotional and energetic reserves to get through basically anything".

The Age is a festival sponsor.

This story Heat, nausea and bears: the life-changing 1200km trek first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.