Back in April, my first task as the new Head Trainer for my branch of was to run training with a dozen new ALTs in Kyoto. I nabbed D., a great guy from Kamloops who also happens to be an excellent elementary school teacher, and invited him to share in my horrible, unspeakable suffering.
Each night after training we would head out for dinner and get back sometime after midnight, because we would invariably be drawn, quite literally like little gaijin moths, to the source of a massive pillar of white light that pierced the night sky like a reverse Finger of God.
I had seen Kiyomizu-dera a few times during the day, and was always a little puzzled as to why it was listed among the two or three premier temples of Kyoto. It’s not particularly old, nor is it notably large or beautiful. It has a unique balcony from which people used to like to throw themselves, but that’s about it.
At night during Hanami, the few short weeks in spring when the cherry blossoms are blooming, the place is simply a nocturnal vision of wonder. The reds are vivid, the blacks glow, and the giant beam of light presides over everything, silently blasting away at the heavens like the ship-annihilating cannon on the Macross. I was so impressed that I brought A. back three days later.
In one corner of Kiyomizu-dera I encountered a little building I’d never noticed before. I blithely paid 100 yen and took off my shoes in order to descend a staircase into what turned out to be absolute, total, pitch darkness. I fumbled around blindly and eventually found a handrail, which I followed cautiously through a winding passage, crouched down with my shoes resolutely held above my head in anticipation of the moment when I discovered that I’d just paid 100 yen for the Penitent’s Midnight Walk of Low-Hanging Obstacles. But instead, at the end of the passage there was an illuminated stone that was supposed to grant a wish when you touched it, while the preceding walk was apparently representative of your spiritual “rebirth” as you fought your inner demons on the way to enlightenment.
I emerged to find that one of the trainees had run back out the entrance, leading to the general conclusion that her demons had probably won.
Further on, Maruyama Koen, which I’d previously ignored as just another park, was a single, massive ongoing party. At 10:30 on a weeknight the place was full of revellers drinking and buying food from a vast array of festival stalls, and I arrived in time to find one particularly zealous group of university students trying to convince D. to join in the endless fun of beating their nearly-naked friend’s buttock with a wooden flute. They wouldn’t let D. back out until I clarified that he was a teacher, at which they immediately let it drop as a fait accompli.
The blessing and curse of being a teacher in Japan is that you are a model of society, both on the clock and off. When educators are caught doing anything worse than speeding, it becomes national news.