Tuesday, 27 September 2011

New notes from Japan (2): Getting started

I did not book an apartment in advance. I considered doing so; before coming to Japan, I spent two days looking at websites of housing agencies, getting sneak previews of apartments, comparing apples and oranges and sending email inquiries, only to reach the obvious conclusion that images on websites are not necessarily reliable or complete. Hence, I booked three nights in a lovely small Japanese-style guesthouse, aptly named 'Bon', and decided to spend my first couple of days looking for a place to spend the next three months.

Staying at 'Bon' was a good choice, and not only because of the nearby public baths and Zen temples. The friendly owner gave me lots of advice, as well as a delicious nashi pear. He also lent me a bicycle, so I could get around easily. The first place I visited was a room in a shared house, wonderfully located near the Ginkaku-ji temple and Philosopher's Path, fairly basic but with a desk and a nice view. It was very different from the apartment I visited later; undeniably cheap and, unlike the first room, including a private bathroom and tiny kitchenette, yet old and inconveniently located in the faraway north. A shared kitchen may not be that bad after all, I realised, for it means I will have much more space to cook than in a small private apartment.

Mr. Bon made another suggestion. He knew an old monk, the proprietor of a subtemple in a famous nearby temple complex, who needed somebody to live with him and do some manual labour in the garden. His current helper was soon to return to his home country, so there might be place in the temple, and as I was interested in religion I might be the right person, he thought. I was not completely sure whether I would be able to wake up every morning at five in order to clean the grass and sweep the floor - in fact, I was pretty sure I would not really enjoy it - yet the prospect of getting an insider's view of life in a famous Zen temple naturally appealed to me, so we went to visit him. The monk, however, seemed somewhat reluctant to have another student stay at his place; he grumpily complained that students were always too busy doing other stuff, and did not work hard enough in the temple. I realised my research aims were not compatible with his expectations. Nevertheless, he kindly invited me to come and join the zazen meditation class, the next morning at 7am. I gratefully accepted. The next morning, however, I did not manage to wake up in time. I blamed my jetlag, in stead of facing the inconvenient truth - that I am too lazy to be a good Buddhist.

On Saturday, I visited a number of other apartments and guesthouses, and continued comparing apples and oranges. One was centrally located and large, yet old and expensive. One was affordable and well-furnished, yet noisy and far away. One was beautifully located in a traditional, old house in the city centre, yet dark and somewhat claustrophobic. One was fairly cheap, centrally located and new, yet empty and characterless, and with shared facilities - I realised that, if I was going to opt for a shared guesthouse in stead of a private apartment, I preferred the place I had visited first.

So I chose. As I am an incurable romanticist, I could not resist the temptation to spend three months in the vicinity of Philosopher's Path. On Sunday, I moved into the guesthouse. I installed myself in my room, met some of my new flatmates, walked around to get to know the neighbourhood and went to the supermarket. For dinner, I made fried horse mackerel, steamed rice, and stir-fried eggplant, bean sprouts, onion and tomato, spiced up with chili, garlic and, crucially, yuzu ponzu. Recommended.

On Monday, I went to Katsura, where my research institute is located. Frankly, it is not really my research institute - I am not officially affiliated - but they kindly allow me to use their library every now and then. As the main purpose of this research trip is the acquisition of, first, ethnographic data, and second, spatial and ecological knowledge, I do not intend to spend many days in libraries; however, it is important to have access to a place where I can look up things every now and then, and collect additional source materials if necessary. The research institute is somewhat inconveniently located in the western outskirts of the city, but it has a beautiful and bright modern building, and an excellent research library. Moreover, the professor who gives me advice while I am in Japan has his work place there. We had a nice conversation and lunch together, before I spent the afternoon skimming through recent shrine publications.

Today, I went for another walk. I visited the nearby Yoshida Shrine, ignored by my guidebook, but well worth a visit. It is nicely located on a quiet, forested hill in the eastern part of the city. It is also of great historical importance. It was already an important shrine in the Heian period (794-1185), founded and controlled by the powerful Fujiwara clan. Later, in the fifteenth century, it was at this shrine that Yoshida Kanetomo founded and developed a new religious movement (Yoshida or Yuiitsu Shinto) that would exercise profound influence on the construction of Shinto as an 'ancient Japanese' tradition in subsequent centuries. These days, I don't think most visitors are aware of the historical significance of the place; nevertheless, they enjoy the natural surroundings, and pray to the deities for good fortune.

Next, I passed by Kyoto University. Its campus is large, and a nice place for a walk. The atmosphere reminded me of my time as an exchange student in Tokyo, seven years ago. Seven years...? Dear God, tell me, why do the years go by so fast? And why do they seem to be going faster all the time? I feel nostalgic for those days, and wonder whether I am still the same person as I was back then. It feels like yesterday, the day I celebrated my twenty-first birthday with a group of fellow exchange students in an all-you-can-eat Italian restaurant. Now I am about to celebrate my twenty-eighth. There they are, mono no aware, melancholy, panta rhei - the whole package. Happy birthday.

Enough contemplation, time for action. As my room was still unnaturally empty, I visited one of those great Japanese institutions: a 100 yen shop. As the name suggests, every item in these shops costs 100 yen (approximately one euro). Most products are mass-produced by poorly paid factory workers in the greater Guangzhou-Shenzen area; they are not sustainable, and their quality is so-so. Worst of all, they embody hyperconsumerism, the practical ideology serving the interests of this planet's capitalist elites, which teaches consumers to constantly purchase products they don't need and constantly throw away previously purchased products in order to make space for new ones. Indeed, whenever you visit a 100 yen shop to buy two or three things you need, you end up spending twenty euros on a variety of products that at the time of buying seem useful yet often end up in a drawer, unopened and forgotten. Be that as it may, in a country with such high prices, the 100 yen shop saves one from spending tens if not hundreds of euros on random household items, so whenever I have the chance I unscrupulously take advantage. Where else could I possibly buy folders for my articles, baskets for my socks, towels, tea, dried herbs and spices, miso soup, scissors, tape, envelopes, a notebook, wrapping paper, incense, coat hangers, a lighter and even underwear, for only one euro per item...?

And so I walked home, my backpack filled with cheap products. The streets of East Kyoto were quiet. It is the end of September, but autumn is nowhere to be seen; today, it was 27 degrees, and wonderfully sunny. It is hard to imagine a better place for a city walk.

I am ready. Time to get started.

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