I began my studies of religion in Japan as an undergrad in Kyoto. What started with a fascination with festivals turned into months of interviews with Shinto priests and participants in Gion Festival (one of Japan’s oldest and most famous festivals). My MA research continued my interest in Gion Festival, and for my PhD I did more interviews and designed and administered a survey of over 300 people to investigate possible links between religion and health in Japan.
This present class was created to give students at Ball State the opportunity to experience and witness first-hand what religion (practices, beliefs, symbols, etc.) is like in Japan. We will also do some work in Second Life (a virtual world) and build a Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple. When it’s done we’ll let you know!
I hope these blogs will help other students who are studying about Japan and religion in Japan get a look at what happens when American college students move way beyond their comfort zones to study religion in Japan. Enjoy!
(Important Footnote: A heartfelt thanks to Ball State’s Provost Immersive Learning Grant, which made this class possible!)
7/29 We returned to the States 2 days ago, but with a combination of bad jet lag, household chores, and a general getting-things-back-in-order, I haven’t had time to blog.
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), the trip was fantastic. We were able to see and do all I wanted to see and do, and more. A few unexpected surprises were spending time at the Buddhist bar and with the Buddhist hip-hopping monk. I knew I wanted to try to see them, but it took a little searching. Another surprise was seeing the Outer Shrine at Ise. Ise has two main shrine areas, Inner and Outer. I had never been to the Outer shrine, but because I booked our hotel in Ise City we started our tour of the shrines with the Outer shrine (this was an accident; I meant to stay where the Inner shrine is). It was nice, a bit smaller and definitely less crowded. One of the students made a point of completing the ritual tossing of coins, 2 bows, 2 claps, and one bow at at all the shrines in the Outer shrine area. He explained his experience at Ise as feeling close to something. We also discovered a tree with a great opening at the base. One adventurous student stuck half his body in and took a picture. Turns out he was inches from some of the largest (and scariest) grasshoppers we’d ever seen. And there were dozens of them. It was an eery shot.
Our tour of Yasaka Shrine (22nd) was also a bit more than I expected. We spoke with a friend and former informant of mine, Mr. Tsuji–a Shinto priest of 30+ years, for quite a while. Then he took us on a tour of the main shrine buildings. We got to go behind the main worship hall on the inside and stand in the spot “closest to the kami”, as Tsuji explained. I had never been to that part of the shrine before, so it was a special treat for us all.
Perhaps the most exciting surprise was seeing my old friend and the man who originally got me started in studying Japanese religions and Gion Festival, the head priest of Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine Dr. Mayumi. I first met him 15 years ago, and he was in his mid- to late-80s, I believe. I saw him again in 2003 or 2005 while I was doing research, but I never imagined he was still working at Sumiyoshi in Osaka (he was promoted there from Yasaka in Kyoto about 10 years ago). In any case, when we got to the shrine, I asked one of the miko (in this case a young woman who accepts fixed “donations” in exchange for shrine goods such as amulets and fortunes) if Dr. Mayumi was still there. (Honestly, I didn’t even think he was alive anymore.) When she said he was still there, she must have seen my genuine excitement because when I gave her my business card and asked if she would just pass it along to him and tell him I said hello, she asked me to wait. She came back about a minute later and said he could see us.
We spent about 45 minutes talking with him (the students asked him some good questions), then he took his picture with us outside. It was a fantastic way to end our trip. I think the students picked up on my own excitement and seemed to enjoy our time with him.
On that day (the 26th) we saw one of Japan’s oldest shrines (first built in 211 CE), Sumiyoshi, visited with one of Japan’s oldest Shinto priests (I think Mayumi is in his mid- to upper 90s!), then saw one of Japan’s oldest temples (Shitennoji in 598CE). Finally, after heading back to our hotel for our luggage, we took one of the longest trips home. OK, so the trip home wasn’t too long, it just felt like that. I’m still getting over jet lag….
So, what next? Well, the students have begun working on the web site, and a shrine and temple will soon be updated on the BSU island in Second Life. There’s lots to do! Fortunately, I continue this class with (mostly) a new group of students in the fall, so we’ll have time to add to the web site and SL stuff soon.
I commend these 6 students for staying with me on our journey. We were active everyday, all day long. They were troopers, and as a result they experienced some amazing things in Japan. Hopefully, at least a few of these memories are ones they’ll cherish for the rest of their lives. Every time I go to Japan (this trip was #8), I add to my list of unforgettables.
7/25 I’m very behind, I know. My bad. I suppose I don’t really feel guilty about not leaving time for us to blog because the main point of this trip was to experience Japan. Anyway, Osaka has been great. This evening we saw another one of the largest festivals in Japan (though I still prefer Gion). The students will point out many of the differences between this festival and some of the others we’ve seen, but it was certainly very exciting and very lively. The firework spectacle at the end was also exciting but tiring (we had to stand in a tightly packed crowd for several hours). We all survived, though, and now I’m typing this little bit before I head to bed. We have to pay for internet usage in this hotel (major bummer), so we’re all sharing one computer in the boys’ room and one in the girls’. I opted out.
This blog will be continued when we return to the States–we’ll build a web site with some of the 1000s of pics we’ve taken. Despite the fact that my camera broke halfway through the trip, Jade lent me hers and the others have also taken many, many pics and videos. Hopefully, we’ll have those up soon!
Tomorrow, we’ll see Sumiyoshi Shrine and Shitennoji (temple), then we head home. Remember, family and friends, we don’t arrive in the US til Tuesday (7/27 5:25AM).
7/22 Briefly, Tayln, Mindy, and I went to Kiyomizudera this morning while the others slept, relaxed, or used their computers. It’s a massive Buddhist temple on the side of a hill. Afterwords my friends, the Yoshida family, treated us to a special traditional Kyoto style meal–complete with 7 (8?) courses, most with a Gion festival theme. It was fantastic! Then, we headed to Yasaka Shrine, where we got to talk with a Shinto priest (a former informant of mine from previous research) for about 1.5 hours. He also gave us a tour of the main shrine–even I got to see places and hear things I’d never seen or heard before. I think it was a great opportunity for the students to get so much one-on-one time with a veteran priest (30+ years). After that we headed downtown to see the mikoshi (portable shrines). As part of Gion Festival, the mikoshi will sit in this temporary spot on the main drag of downtown Kyoto for 7 days–as a way for the kami (11 in all in this case) to be closer to the people. Then, we shopped. That took way longer than expected because most of us (I’m guilty too!) kept darting in to shops to look at all sorts of odds and ins. For dinner, we had yakiniku (BBQ beef–you grill it yourself on a hibachi of sorts). It was Mindy’s idea (ironic considering she’s vegetarian), but she enjoyed the veggies.
Tomorrow, we leave early to get a private lesson on Zen, and we’ll get to do a little meditation (or “quiet time”). After that, it’s on to more temples and shrines (of course!)
7/21 I’m exhausted. My feet hurt. Otherwise, another great day (subway, train, walk, temple flea market, walk, train, subway, another subway, tour of Doshisha University, fancy lunch with friends, bus, walk, get a little lost, see a shrine, heal Mindy’s feet, walk, bus, tour of a shrine with Dr. Breen–a foremost scholar on Shinto, beer, dinner, and conversation with Dr. Breen, bus, talk with Buddhist priest, tour of his temple, car ride to another temple, Q&A with “normal” Japanese (all older men) and several Buddhist priests, car ride home, plan for tomorrow, up too late, blog, sleep….)
7/20 Very briefly (’cause again it’s late) today we began the morning (after our usual trip to the convenience store for breakfast) getting turned around in the massive Kyoto station. But, finally we made it to my former host family’s house. I lived with them for 11 months 15 years ago. The students got to see a typical Japanese home, and my host mother did two kinds of common household rituals: one at the kamidana (a Shinto altar) and the other at the butsudan (ancestor altar). Of course we have plenty of pictures and video, but those will have to wait a little before we get a chance to upload them.
After visiting with her we headed to Nara to see THE LARGEST WOODEN STRUCTURE IN THE WORLD (Todaiji). It’s a massive Buddhist temple that was originally built in the 700s CE. What we saw was built in the 1700s (wars and fires destroyed it), and it was about 30% smaller than its original structure. Amazing stuff. Of course, perhaps the most memorable experience was our encounter with the wild deer that roam the area. I got bit twice by one persnickety deer. Andrew, Collin, and Mindy had fun(?) feeding some. (until we upload that video, check out the students feeding pigeons at a major temple in Kyoto–see the Media page and scroll down).
After that we had some ramen (sorry, Kathy but it was tonkotsu) and headed back to the hotel. We spent a lot of time just uploading our pictures and videos, and I had to figure out routes for all the places we’re going tomorrow (5 subway rides, 2 train rides, 2 bus rides, and plenty of walking in between those!)
The major downer of the day was that my camera (the one I bought w/ the BSU grant money for this trip died this AM). No idea what happened, but it’s useless….
Still, the students took some great pics and videos, and I borrowed Jade’s to get my photo fix for the day.
Tomorrow, we head to a temple bazaar in the AM, lunch at Doshisha University with some students and the professor I worked with here 3 years ago, a tour of Yoshida Shrine w/ Professor John Breen, and a Q&A with several Buddhist priests. Whew! You can bet we’ll be tired tomorrow too.
7/19 As I write this (though it was poster later) we are on an express train headed back to Kyoto.
For those who’ve had trouble keeping up, here’s our schedule again:
13–arrived in Tokyo (late)
14–Tokyo (Yasukuni Shinto shrine, Asakusa Buddhist temple; local festival at Buddhist temple)
15–Studio Ghibli Museum (Japan’s version of Pixar–only better), Meiji shrine, Harajuku, Akiharaba, sushi dinner#1, Buddhist bar
16–Brief meeting with hip-hop Buddhist priest in Tokyo, then to Kyoto (Yoi Yama–part of Gion Festival) [see for CNN article on these priests: http://www.cnngo.com/tokyo/drink/monks-gone-wild-988405 ]
17–Gion Festival’s main parade of float-carts (some towering over 70 feet and weighing up to 9 tons) and the parade of mikoshi (portable shrines–Yasaka shrine has 3) in the evening
A haiku for you
Pushing our way up
We stop, float-carts pass us by.
Crowds disperse, we breathe.
18–AM head to Ise to see the Outer and Inner shrines. Ise Grand Shrine is home to one of Japan’s most historically important kami, Amaterasu (the Sun Goddess).
19–After we got back to Kyoto, we ate, took that LONG series of escalators to the top of the station and looked around Kyoto, visited Higashi Honganji, an enormous Budddhist temple in Kyoto, then we went to meet a grad student who I’ve been working with (via emails) for the past year+. He contacted me out of the blue a while back, seeking some advice on his own research. I was very interested in what he was thinking of doing and offered a few words of advice. Since then, we’ve been corresponding on and off, talking about his research on religious traditions in southern Ethiopia.
After that we shopped in Teramachi (a popular covered shopping mall). We decided to cut the shopping short and head back to the hotel to gather our stuff. A friend of mine helped transport our luggage (and Mindy) in his car, and when we got here I think we were all very pleasantly surprised by this hotel. It’s quite nice. Everyone has their own bed, and it’s a brand new hotel.
For dinner, we had rotating sushi (it rotates around the restaurant and you choose what you want as it rolls by). After that we walked around some of the areas that young couples, etc like to go in the evenings. Some of the neighborhoods have been there since the 1600s, entertaining guests on the river banks!
My friend (the grad student) met up with us again and introduced us to a little bar in the area. It was good to share some more time with him and his friend. Now, we’re back at the hotel. No doubt several have crashed.
……….Some of the best experiences for me so far have been the laughs shared by the students, the quiet moments of reflection, the relief after ducking out of some of the crowds, and the chance to share all this with these students. They are a great group, and I’m very happy to be here with them. To their parents, thanks for trusting them with me (for the most part they trust me too. 😉
The plan for tomorrow is to visit my host family’s house (where I lived for 11 months as a junior in college), then head to Nara to see some of Japan’s oldest temples and one of the largest Buddha statues in Japan. We’ll also see deer. Saw some at Ise yesterday, but there’s a park in Nara with deer roaming around all over the place. 15 years ago I found one in the bathroom. He was standing outside a stall chewing on a long roll of toilet paper, pulling it from the dispenser as he gnawed…perhaps we’ll see the same.
Other possible destinations for the next few days: Yasaka shrine, Sanjusangendo, Kinkakuji (golden pavilion), Ryoanji, Toji, Fushimi Inari… Google them to find out more before we blog about them. 🙂
We’ll also get a tour of a Kyoto university, get a tour of Yoshida Shrine from one of the foremost Shinto scholars, and spend time with some Buddhist priests on the 21st. Lots to do before we head to Osaka on the 24-26….
7/18 Well, I couldn’t get a good internet connection from the place we stayed, so I’m behind. I just uploaded some of my pictures from 7/15-16 on the MEDIA page.
So…what have you missed since we’ve been without a solid internet connection? Why, only some incredible sites and the best festival in the world (in my humble opinion).
We got in a little later than expected to Kyoto on the 16th, mainly because we paid a visit to (perhaps) Japan’s only hip-hopping Buddhist priest. I saw a CNN article on him and the Buddhist bar (Vowz) a while back and looked them up. We dropped into the Buddhist bar the 15th and met the hip-hopping monk on the 16th. Both experiences were great–not just for the novelty of meeting such unique priests.
In case you’re wondering, both priests explained that they chose to break from the norm because they wanted to find a new way to bring Buddhism in touch with the people of Japan. The Buddhist bar was opened 10 years ago by a young (24 at the time) new priest from the True Land sect of Buddhism (Jodo-shu). He hopes that the relaxed atmosphere of this bar (which he now co-owns with another priest) will invite patrons to talk about their troubles with him or to learn more about Buddhism in an approachable way. He told us that many patrons have become much more interested in Buddhism and that some have even become priests.
The hip-hop priest began rapping for several reasons. One, he explained that Buddhist sutras are still written in a language that is incomprehensible to most Japanese. So, first he translates the sutras into common Japanese. Then, as he explained, because chanting of sutras has a steady rhythm to it, he thought it only natural that hip hop become the modern style for reciting sutras.
Most days and by most accounts, he is a “typical” Japanese Buddhist priest from the Nichiren sect. Once a year, though, he holds a concert in which he and others perform sutras hip hop style–complete with a background beat-boxer, tap dancing, and other forms of entertainment, all aimed at bringing Buddhism closer to the people.
I’ll add more tomorrow (hopefully!) about 7/16 and 17. Those days were spent at Gion Festival, one of Japan’s top 3 festivals (we’ll see one other of that top 3 in Osaka next weekend–2 out of 3 ain’t bad, especially since the other one’s in April). Today we went to one of Japan’s most historically important shrines, Ise Grand Shrine. More on those in the near future!
7/15 Who’s in charge of this trip anyway?!! Whoever it is got us up and out of the hotel by 9:30 after we didn’t get back the night before until after 12:30AM. Then, he had us walk to a station, take a train, get off, walk about a bajillion stairs all over the station, get on another train, get off, wander around trying to find Japan’s only hip-hop Buddhist monk (oh yeah, that part was awesome), then we had to repeat the train steps again, go back to the hotel to get our luggage, get back on a train, and stand around while he bought us tickets for Kyoto.
After all that, we rode one of the world’s fastest trains (bullet train, shinkansen), saw one of the world’s longest escalators, then became part of one of the world’s biggest festivals. By ‘became part of’ I mean, we went to watch it but it was so crowded that we had no choice but to move along with everyone else. Oh yeah, the food was pretty good too.
Now it’s midnight, we’re just getting back and this guy expects us to work on our blogs???! (and says we leave tomorrow at 8AM to see some kid cut a rope??)
The next few days will be just like that. Hopefully, you’ll be able to read more from the others soon (and catch up on the hundreds of pictures we’ve taken!–we’ll get some posted soon!)
7/14. Another very busy day. Today I think we walked 20 miles. Ok, not really, but we’re all pretty warn out and our feet are sore.
First thing this morning was a visit to a local grocery store (check the students’ blogs for some pics). Surprisingly, no one wanted raw whole squid for breakfast. The next stop was to the bank, but on our way we were distracted by a small Buddhist temple. We wandered around there taking pictures of the temple and Shinto shrine buildings (yes, it is very common to have shrines on temple grounds and visa versa–such syncretism is centuries old), and we also meandered around in the temple’s cemetery.
The other cool thing about discovering that temple is that they had a festival this evening. So, after we visited Yasukuni Shrine and toured its (in)famous war museum and walked around Asakusa Temple (home to one of the top 3 festivals in Japan–in April (that’s the 1 of the top 3 we won’t see this time)), we headed for that festival. Amakusa and Yasukuni are also having festivals this week. Too much to see and do…, but we all decided to see the small, temple community one. They will get their fill of massive crowds at Gion and Tenjin festivals (coming up!)
Check out the Media page to see some of the sites we saw. The students are also posting pics they took. It was our first full day, and we’ve already taken enough pictures and video clips to fill this entire blog! Hope you can enjoy these!
7/13. We made it! We’re all in our hotel in Shinjuku (part if the sprawl that is Tokyo).
The students were absolute troopers. Having not been to Tokyo in a very long time (and trying to keep costs down), I had them walking from train to train, standing up in the trains, until we finally made it here. We had some food, took a subway to our hotel, I believe Andrew passed out, and I’m sure the rest of us will soon follow.
Tomorrow begins our REAL adventures (See MEDIA for more pics)…