The Lotus Band in Japan!
by Peter Hata

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 Lotus—vocalists Allison Haraguchi and Lindsay Ogino, saxophonist Amy Sakaue, guitarists Kevin Hata and Kyle Kagawa—plus 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 Buddhism—the desire to become a Buddha or awakened person ourselves—and 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 Kevin’s and Kyle’s 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 the Lotus Band's set, the Shoseikai Choir performed a wonderful set of Buddhist gathas. One of these gathas, Shinshu Shuka, is also very familiar to us in America, as it is frequently sung here at temple events such as retreats, etc. However, the choir's rendition was really special, as it featured excellent four-part harmony! Immediately following the choir's set, Lotus participated in a joint performance of four songs in Japanese with the choir. The joint performance began with Shinran Sama, a gatha usually sung in U.S. temples during Tanjo-e Service, the special annual service honoring Shinran Shonin, the founder of Shin Buddhism. The Shoseikai Choir, of course knew it very well, but the Lotus Band's version of this gatha is quite different! Unlike the slow, somber tempo the song is normally performed at, Lotus plays it at more of a "dance tempo" and also includes both a funky, dance-oriented rhythm guitar part, as well as a driving, distorted "power chord" guitar part which really propels the song into a strong groove. On top of this, Lotus' arrangement prominently features the blusey and emotional alto saxophone playing of Amy. The observed effect of these "modifications" to Shinran Sama was that, when we first rehearsed this song with the choir members earlier that day, some of their members actually jumped up off the stage in shock, upon hearing and feeling the power of the twin electric guitars and saxophone! But the great thing was, afterwards, one of the younger choir members was heard to say, "Gee, we really should add these kind of beats to our songs also." And another youthful member said, "Mom, I want to go to America right now!"

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 1950’s). 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 audience—including many ladies dressed in their traditional kimonos—began 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

Prior to "taking the stage," Peter Hata discusses the set with Lotus members.

Lotus singers Lindsay and Allison (left and center) did an impressive job on several brand new tunes, such as the powerful song, "Landslide," which included intricate two-part harmonies. Also featured on the song is Amy (at right) on soprano sax.

During one pause in the set, Amy (with mic), who also speaks Japanese, introduced the band members to the Backbeat's crowd.

The enthusiastic crowd at the Backbeat Live House really was, "standing room only!"

Above, on "I Hope You Dance," Leann Womack's wonderful tune about living life fully, Lindsay (at left) really sang her heart out on lead vocal, backed by Allison (background vocals), Amy (soprano sax) and Kyle (background vocals and guitar). Kevin also contributed background vocals and guitar on this tune.

During their afternoon rehearsal at the Shomyo-ji Temple, Lindsay, Allison and Mr. Hata study "Bara bara de i sho," the new tune they needed to learn for the joint performance that evening with the temple's choir.

Above, Lotus members Kevin, Lindsay, Allison, Amy and Kyle offer a very lively version of the jumpin rock tune, "Bodhisattva," for the Shomyo-ji audience. A "bodhisattva" is a "buddha-to-be" in Mahayana Buddhist traditions, and is ultimately the ideal held up for all of us to follow.

During their joint performance with the Shomyo-ji Temple choir, Peter Hata directs the combined groups in a stirring and memorable performance of "Shinran Sama."

On their "day off," the Lotus Band, joined by Ryoko Osa and Rev. Ken Kawawata at left, and Peter Hata at right, enjoyed a day of sightseeing in the Gujo-Hachiman area.

After the conclusion of their Japan performances, Kyle, Allison, Amy, Lindsay and Kevin show what a great time they had performing in Japan!