Her name was Morita-san. She worked at the Kyoto Tourist Information Center. He job was, and still is, to help tourists – find lodgings for the night, give directions to the local kabuki theatre, and figure out which subway would take them to the most popular local shrines. She must have done something terrible in a past Buddhist life because she had the bad luck of being at the counter on the afternoon I first walked in.
I don’t think I asked for much that day – directions to a festival, or perhaps a cheap inn to stay the night. But she was so helpful, and I’d just spent three of the most frustrating months of my life trying to pry open the doors of a culture that was locked up like Fort Knox. I knew that if I filmed one more Buddhist temple or manicured rock garden then I was going to have the video equivalent of elevator music. So I started asking her some harder questions – "I hear there’s a mountain ascetic cult that walks on coals. Any idea when they’ll next be at it?" or "Naked Festival! That sounds like fun! Any chance I could join in? What if I wear two loincloths, top and bottom?"
Always there would be a slight pause, like a generous host whom you’ve just told you plan to stay another month. Then she’d smile and say, "Nobody has ever asked me that before. Let me see…." A day or two later I’d slink back into the Center with a few token pastries and a shamefaced smile, knowing that these questions were not a part of her job description and that she was swamped with work. She was always ready with the answers -- all of them. She’d shrug it off with a laugh and say the questions were "interesting".
And then one day she did this wonderful, terrible thing. She gave me her email address. I still have no idea why she did it. I know it was against the rules of the Information Center where she worked. I swore I wouldn’t take advantage of it, but I did. At least once a week I’d send a list of questions. I never knew how to begin those emails – "I’m sorry to bother you" – " I promise (again) to make this the last time" – I always meant it. But it was never true.
It would have been impossible without her. She made the calls, introducing me. She put herself and her organization on the line for my good behavior. She got me into monasteries and pachinko parlors and onto steam trains. One day she read my email, looked around her office and asked "does anyone know someone who is on a volunteer fire patrol in Kyoto?" Her co-workers laughed and said, "that must be a Karin question!" I wanted to dedicate the film to her, but she said she didn’t need any credit, and didn’t want to be named before her company. So here it is: Setsuko, this documentary never would have happened without you. You changed my life.