|From June 22 to June 30, 2003, West Covina Buddhist Temple's successful Lotus Band traveled to and performed in the cities of Kyoto and Gujo-Hachiman, Japan, as part of Higashi Honganji's regular YBA Youth Tour Program. The five members of Lotusvocalists Allison Haraguchi and Lindsay Ogino, saxophonist Amy Sakaue, guitarists Kevin Hata and Kyle Kagawaplus myself as band director, and Rev. Ken Kawawata (as tour guide, translator, photographer, "roadie" and of course, sensei), were part of a larger group of youths from two other of Higashi's American temples, one in Downtown Los Angeles and the other in Berkeley, California. Together, we began our Japan experiences with a religious retreat at the Higashi worldwide headquarters in Kyoto, Japan. Studying the Buddhist teachings at the Honzan (i.e., headquarters), under the guidance of Rev. Peter Lait, was a memorable experience for everyone, but not only because of the insights gained into the teachings themselves. Experiencing firsthand such elements of Japanese culture as sleeping on futons, Japanese baths (communal baths), real Japanese food (as opposed to the more "Japanese-American" food we find in the U.S.), and the hustle and bustle of city life in Japan, proved to be extremely interesting for all of us. Generationally speaking, all of the band's members are fourth-generation Japanese-Americans except for Amy, who is second-generation, and myself, a third-generation Japanese-American.
After the retreat, the Lotus Band split off from the others and embarked on their musical performance tour. It should be noted that, as far as I am aware, this is the very first time a Jodo Shinshu youth band from America has ever performed in Japan, so it was a truly historic occasion. But even here in America, the Lotus Band is quite unique. While there may be several Buddhist temple-sponsored taiko drum bands here, Lotus is the only temple band that performs what we might term "contemporary Buddhistic music," popular music that young people in America listen to. And, in preparing for their tour of Japan, Lotus actually learned several new Buddhistic songs, such as Leann Womack's hit song, I Hope You Dance, which reminds us to live life fully because "Time is a wheel that keeps on turning, moving us along," Everything Must Change, a haunting tune by Quincy Jones which movingly communicates both the negative and positive aspects of impermanence, Landslide, the tune sung by both Fleetwood Mac and the Dixie Chicks, in which "landslide" is used poetically as a metaphor for impermanence, and Bodhisattva, the catchy Steely Dan tune which arguably captures the most essential spirit of Buddhismthe desire to become a Buddha or awakened person ourselvesand does this over an infectious 1950's-style rock beat!
Of course, though we've often performed to enthusiastic response here in the States, we were not quite sure of how our music would be received in Japan. However, all doubts and fears we may have had were dispelled by the great experience we had at the Backbeat Live House in downtown Kyoto. To a packed, standing-room-only crowd, Lotus performed all their new songs, plus several of their older standbys, such as Colors of the Wind, I Want It That Way, The Game of Love, and Never Had a Dream Come True. As an example of the over-the-top reception the group received, in Never Had a Dream Come True, when Lindsay's and Allison's voices soared in perfect unison in the melodic chorus of that song, the crowd, which was already standing, started swaying and waiving their outstretched arms in unison. But that was just the start, because when the dual, punchy rock power chords of Kevins and Kyles guitars kicked-in at the climactic bridge and Lindsay belted out the emotional lyrics, the crowd went wild and actually started screaming in delight! After the last song, the aforementioned rocking Bodhisattva, the crowd wanted more and demanded an encore. Lotus delivered an outstanding rendition of another of their classic Buddhistic tunes, Green Day's great Time of Your Life. Watching Lotus energetically perform this song, and the crowd swaying and dancing to it, it was clear that everyone was indeed having the "time of their life."
Another of their memorable performances came in Gujo-Hachiman, a picturesque city in Gifu Prefecture of Japan. This area is known as one of the prime tourist and vacation spots in Japan due to its natural beauty. Lotus was extremely fortunate to stay here at the Shomyo-ji Temple with Rev. Wada and his wonderful family for three days. We were also delighted to be accompanied in Gujo-Hachiman by the friendly and enthusiastic Ryoko Osa, a youthful assistant who works at the Honzan, and who was assigned to help Lotus through their Shomyo-ji temple stay. Upon arriving here at the temple, we all marveled at not only the beautiful and lush surroundings, but at the temple itself, which is an outstanding example of Japanese architecture, specifically in its elegant simplicity and precision woodworking. However, Shomyo-ji temple is also the home of the outstanding Shoseikai Choir, which is comprised of about a dozen singers ranging in age from teens up through adult.
On the second day of their stay, Lotus participated in a concert for the Gujo-Hachiman community put on by the temple. The evening began with a set by Lotus, which again gave strong performances of many of the songs in their repertoire. Besides the songs they performed at the Kyoto club, they also performed impressive instrumentals such as jazz saxophonist Jeff Kashiwa's melodic Hyde Park, and the cinematic Weekend in Monaco, by the popular jazz-fusion group, The Rippingtons, which feature Amy Sakaue's impressive sax playing and Kevin and Kyle's guitar playing.
Following Shinran Sama, there was a joint performance of a famous Japanese folk song, Akatombo, one of the most beautiful melodies of all time. The choir, which in the joint performances, included Lindsay and Allison of course, sounded fantastic. But also very melodic, perhaps even haunting in their beauty, were the featured flute and saxophone solos of Kevin and Amy. Kyle held everything together on rhythm guitar. Next, the combined groups performed a wonderful tune called, Bara bara de i sho, a kind of Japanese version of We Are the World, which expresses the Buddhist appreciation of the oneness of all life, and that we need to learn to live together in harmony. Interestingly, this is a tune which Lotus had only just learned that afternoon! However, thanks to their already substantial musicianship skills, it was really no problem for them to learn this song quickly. Furthermore, the Lotus guitarists, and Amy on soprano saxophone, were able to play creative, original parts that perfectly complemented this tune. Then the final tune was the ever-popular Sukiyaki, a tune which really everyone knows in Japan (and which was a number hit in the U.S. in the 1950s). For the occasion of this joint performance, the Lotus singers, which up to this time had been performing Sukiyaki in our part-Japanese/part-English version, learned the entire Japanese lyrics to the song. Also, the Lotus version is an updated arrangement which rhythmically features a danceable hip-hop beat, as well as a melodic and sophisticated sax solo by Amy. The Shomyo-ji Temple audience loved it, and during the song, everyone in the audienceincluding many ladies dressed in their traditional kimonosbegan singing along and clapping in unison to the beat!
Well, the Lotus Band's 2003 Japan Tour proved to be terrific success. The band members, including myself and Rev. Ken, not only had a great time together, but Lotus definitely broke new ground, not only in terms of exposing for the first time to a Japanese audience, their artistic and appealing presentation of the Buddhist teachings through contemporary popular music, but also in terms of establishing a new musical connection between our Japanese and American Shin Buddhist temples. Whether Lotus, or perhaps other future bands, can follow up on and strengthen these ties remains to be seen, but we all certainly hope so. There is much to be gained on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Despite our substantial language and cultural differences, what the Lotus Band and I ultimately discovered was that we are really all the same, and all share the same interconnected and interdependent reality. This is also of course, the core message of Buddhism itself. In our admittedly biased opinion, it is a message which often finds its most beautiful, powerful and universal expression through the vehicle of music.
Namu Amida Butsu
left to right, Kevin Hata, Lotus Director Mr. Peter Hata, Amy Sakaue, Kyle Kagawa, Allison Haraguchi and Lindsay Ogino pose while waiting to catch a Kyoto subway enroute to their club gig