In the school cafe, Japanese students face and eat in silence

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Daniel Mulcahy is from Galway and has a BA from NUIG in English and Creative Writing. Since 2019 he lives in Kyoto and works through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET), which promotes international trade with other nations. He is an English teacher at Kyoto City High School and says life there makes him constantly grateful and constantly perplexed.

Throughout the summer vacation it rained – a second monsoon. The sky was swollen and we hung our laundry inside like I did in Galway. Unusual weather. Previous years have seen long stretches of bright sunshine as we packed canvas bags with sushi and beer and took the train through the mountains to Lake Biwa. There we mingled with the Brazilians of Shiga, who lined the shores with barbecues and laughter.

Daniel Mulchay in Kyoto. Photography: Lane Diko

This year has been a wash. My girlfriend and I only broke the official stay-at-home request once, sneaking up on one Saturday when the rains briefly stopped. We found the beaches crowded. I can’t let the good sun go to waste.

We also took advantage of a weekend at the end of July to visit Ise, the living heart of Shintoism, the endemic animism of Japan. Not quite a religion, the deep forests mark the border of Naigu and Gegu, the shrines themselves discreet, almost an afterthought. The trees that surround and sometimes interrupt the paths are the main event, living gods, their peaks lost to sight. People are invading their bases, making pilgrimages as they have done for centuries. The small shopping district at the entrance of Naigu was crowded all day.

The Japanese constitution guarantees certain personal freedoms that prohibit a nationwide lockdown. I read that the government feared that such a top-down imposition of bureaucratic will would foster resentment

The holidays ended with the Obon festival, a time to pay homage to those who died, a parallel to Samhain or the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Obon culminates in Daimonji – the synchronized lighting of several huge bonfires arranged over the hills of Kyoto, each of them spelling out a different Chinese character. This year, like the previous year, the celebrations were cut short, the crowds gathered at Demachiyanagi were invited to move on by armies of volunteers with glowing chopsticks. Nestled in the shadow of the delta, we welcomed the eponymous Dai, a character who symbolizes greatness.

Kiyomizu-dera in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto

We saw five points of the hill, barely visible in the darkness above the lights of the buildings, set ablaze for about half an hour, then sink into darkness. Crowds of students surrounded us in thick groups, taking TikTok videos, playing with bongos, lighting fireworks.

The Japanese constitution guarantees certain personal freedoms that prohibit a nationwide lockdown. I have read that the government is concerned that such a top-down imposition of bureaucratic will will fuel resentment. Instead, they relied on requests or orders (the Japanese term is ambiguous) for people to limit their travel and for some businesses to close earlier or refrain from selling alcohol. Small change really. The main tactic has been to build on the Confucian ideals of harmony and group responsibility that underpin an orderly society – the hope that shame or embarrassment (again, a single word conveys both meaning) will keep people in check.

Somehow it feels like it didn’t work out. A local restaurateur sold us beer with a wink and a non-alcoholic prop bottle. I returned to work to find that 10 students had been isolated to contain a Covid cluster.

Despite the state of emergency and a record peak in Covid cases, the two high schools where I teach were planning to hold their annual cultural festival, but with reduced capacity. In a regular year, this is a staple in the calendar where kids can put on shows, play music, and organize games and exhibits. Given the circumstances, no outside visitors would be allowed. The seats had to be socially distanced, disinfectant spray was widely available. Yet for two full days, auditoriums and hallways would be filled with exuberant teens determined to make the most of their school life.

A classroom full of balloons in one of the high schools where Daniel Mulcahy works in Kyoto - Hiyoshigaoka Municipal High School in the Higashiyama district

A classroom full of balloons in one of the high schools where Daniel Mulcahy works in Kyoto – Hiyoshigaoka Municipal High School in the Higashiyama district

I asked a colleague if he was excited about the upcoming festivities. He lowered his head and, with a surprisingly vehement whistle directed at everyone around us, asked how the local authorities could allow such stupidity to happen.

In the school cafe, students are now expected to face and eat in silence. The government calls this mokushoku, a term that shares a character with the serious practice of sitting meditation performed before martial arts training. Masks off and smiling, the students huddle together, often chatting happily behind and around the lines of plastic shields we erected when this all started.

We play videos to keep them busy. The Olympics turned out like a bad joke, so it was more of the live streams from the Paralympics. There was something beyond awesome to see the athletes perform regardless. I watch in wonder an armless Egyptian playing a blinding game of ping-pong. He hits the ball off the ground and with a head movement sends it flying with a topspin effect down the table. The game over, he knelt down to pray. I felt a weight invade the air.

Kyoto sits in a bowl of mountains, gathering clouds, moistening the summer humidity like a cup of tea. Locals say there are places in the mountains where power converges: ley lines or alien landing sites, gateways to the mystic. The austere bastion of Mount Hiei, once considered the center of Japanese Buddhism. Mount Kurama, the birthplace of the energy healing practice known as reiki, which my father does with sincerity.

The iconic Kiyomizu-dera, temple of pure waters, is within sight of our apartment. From our living room window, the ghostly shape of its pagoda reaches us every night.

As a result of recent renovations, the planks of the century-old parquet floor have been reused to build a clavichord, a musical instrument quieter and more ethereal than the piano. From the walls of the dark space that houses the instrument, the exhibition notes proudly proclaim Kiyomizu as a focal point for the hopes and wishes of thousands. In the clean air among the trees of the mountain complex, prayer beads intertwine like music, bringing healing and prosperity to the world.

That’s a beautiful story.

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