Monday, 3 October 2011

New notes from Japan (3): The hermit

So what do you do, when you move to Kyoto, ancient city full of little gems? What do you do, when the soft early autumn sunlight creates ideal conditions for walking and photography? What do you do, when you live nearby some of the country's most famous temples? What do you do, when you are supposed to do ethnographic field research, and want to get rid of your text-o-centrism, at least temporarily? Exactly. You go out. You hit the road. You explore.

Yet what did I do? The exact opposite. These past seven days, I have spent five days locked up in my room. Through my window, I saw groups of tourists walking by. I saw running schoolboys, laughing schoolgirls, cool student boys, absent-minded locals, pulled rickshaws, well-dressed Tokyoites, alienated foreigners. I have a great view. Yet I did not talk to anybody. For a couple of days, my laptop was my only friend. Hikikomori, I believe they call it here.

Why? My own fault, really: I did not manage to finish my essay before leaving for Japan. I should have, but I simply did not have enough time. Hence, I had to finish it here. The deadline was today, but I managed. I spent a couple of days writing about sacred forests, ecology, environmental history and depoliticisation. I rearranged my thoughts. I raised theoretical questions I am not capable of answering myself - not yet, at least. I analysed and criticised stories about forests, I wrote my own forest story, but something was lacking as I did not have the chance to walk around a forest myself. Yet, the writing process helped me formulate some of the questions and orientations that will guide me in the next couple of months, so I guess it was helpful.

In addition to the essay, I wrote emails. I tried to get in touch with people, with shrines, with organisations. I did not manage to contact everybody I wanted to, not yet, but I did manage to make a first couple of appointments. Writing formal emails is time-consuming and requires one's full attention. Writing formal emails in Japanese is twice as complicated and time-consuming. Yet getting in touch with the right people is crucial for the success of my research. I know what it is that I want to find out, I know what it is I am interested in, but I am not quite sure how to find out where to go. It is hard to get a grasp of 'what is going on'. The only way to find out is writing to and asking as many people as possible. Even then, it is inevitable that there are things happening somewhere which are relevant to my research, yet I miss them because I don't know about them. I guess I have little choice but to accept, and hope that fate, serendipity or coincidence (whatever you call it) will guide me in an interesting direction.

Tomorrow, I will have my first interview since last March. I am excited, but slightly nervous as I will have to leave the safe environment of my room and my laptop. But it is time to hit the road, and get this snowball rolling. For the time being, I don't have to submit any writings, so I should stop being a hermit. Go out, explore the city, talk to people.


  1. Yep, go out, explore the city, talk to people, ad get some fresh air ;)The more you go, and see, the more chances for the coincidence to happen ;)

  2. You might want to listen to this on your Ipod while enjoying the scenery of Kyoto.
    Should be right up your street. Although it stops where you start...


  3. Thanks! In fact, I just listened to it a couple of days ago. :) I think they explained the history of shrines and kami worship quite well. But a pity indeed they didn't spend more time talking about contemporary issues.

  4. I think so. At least the podcast kind of helped to understand a bit more what you are working on, well, for me, the lay person. Shinto not being much, except purification and worshiping the fertility of the land. Together with the move to a more universal appeal, it makes me understand where the environmental activism comes from.
    Also found the fact that shinto is constantly incorporating parts of other religions/thoughts interesting (budhism/christianity/nationalism).