Reflections on Japan – May Term 2007

by Benjamin M. Brown ‘10

(At Kegon Fall – left to right, first row, sitting – Ben Brown ’10, David Bowen ’09 Second row, crouching – Andrew Wolfe ’08, Wes Julian ’08, Richard Shelby ’08, Cory Cutler ’08, Warren Beth ’09 Third row, standing – Clay Behl ’08, John Rothgeb ’08, Anson Bird ’08, Christian L’Heureux ’08, Alex Modny ’08, Matthew Dubroff, Eric Dinmore)

On a particularly dark night in May, twelve students embarked on a journey from Hampden-Sydney to the Land of the Rising Sun.  With Professors Eric Dinmore and Matthew Dubroff leading this procession through Japan, a land of dragons, samurai heritage, and timeless tradition, the group departed from America and landed a day later at Kansai Airport. We arrived with high expectations and anticipation of the sites to be seen.

From the airport in Osaka our journey began in Kyoto, a city where old ways meet the innovation of the present. The beauty and spiritual depth of Japan was revealed through encounters with the Golden and Silver Pavilions, ornate shrines, inspiring temples, and the many art forms that a person can spend a lifetime mastering.  One almost felt as if he were dreaming when wandering through the culture that defines traditional Japan.  Yet, everyone was reawakened periodically by the harsh reality that this trip was also an academic program, and reading, studying, and presentations broke the rhythm of an otherwise ebon flow.  This responsibility to maintain academic awareness amidst so many awe-inspiring wonders and unbelievable opportunities in fact exemplifies the concept of giri-ninjo, or duty versus desire, a theme expressed in traditional Japanese arts.

Not forgetting that the traditional side of Japan coexists with a contemporary hustle and bustle that stops only when halted by a red crosswalk signal, the group conversed with locals and explored the restaurants and nightlife with wide eyes and a true Hampden-Sydney curiosity. This was especially true in Tokyo, where the present actually moves toward a wondrous and ever-evolving future.  If ever there were a place that could be called a futuristic metropolis, Tokyo is that place.  Few have ever witnessed such awareness of fashion, technology, and activity as the group came upon while in the city.  In fact, by the time of the yakatabune harbor cruise and dinner that marked the end of the group’s visit to Japan, each member, including the professors, could call claim to a very personal superlative accompanied by a memorable trinket and story to tell.

From start to finish, there were many firsts on this journey.  For some, this trip meant their first ride on an airplane, train, or subway.  For others, it was an indulgence in new cuisines and countless new drinks from the many vending machines that lined the streets.  For yet others, it was their first time simply reflecting internally and documenting their evolution as they reevaluated themselves throughout the journey.  And further still, some took the true cultural plunge, from accidentally buying traditional undergarments, to singing uninhibited karaoke, to sumo wrestling in the subway, to getting lost on purpose simply to find themselves.  But whatever the memory, the consensus in our culturally enlightened group is undoubtedly that this journey through Japan was unforgettable.

Mt. Fuji from the air: photgraph takem by Richard Shelby

Buddhist Studies in Japan

by William J. Kawaihae ’04

at right in front of the Japanese Diet (parliament) Building

In the fall semester of 2002-2003, I participated in the Buddhist Studies in Japan program through Antioch College. I chose this program for many reasons: I have an interest in the Buddhist religion and Japanese culture and a desire to travel to Japan and see everything that the country has to offer. However, the main reason I participated was to make a connection with my ancestral Japanese roots.

First, I would like to tell students – if you are thinking about participating in this program – to make sure that you have an interest in learning about and practicing various forms of Buddhism, not just Zen. Also, you must be prepared to live in Buddhist temples and monasteries, be able to rise at 4:30 AM, to sleep on the floor, to eat only vegetarian food, and you should have an interest in learning about Japanese culture. If you have an adventuresome spirit, then this is the program for you.

The program involved a great deal of traveling, with the other program participants and alone. There were three main temples where we stayed for up to three weeks while in Japan and various other places where we only visited for a night or two. During the extended stays, we studied the various form of Buddhism. The Antioch program begins in California at a place called Zen Mountain Center where we stayed for several days of orientation. We learned  temple etiquette, Japanese customs, basic meditation forms, and had a chance to learn about other people in the group. Then we were off to Japan for three months where we traveled to Kyoto, Koyasan, Nara, the island of Shikoku, Hiroshima, Sakamoto, Tokyo, and many small villages.

I found that many people had problems, in the beginning, with the food. It was strictly vegetarian, which means a lot of rice and tofu. Also, many of the group did not know how to use hoshi (chopsticks), which were the only eating utensils available. A basic meal would consist of rice, tofu and shoshu (soy sauce), miso soup, and some type of vegetable. For the most part, the food was good, and I learned to like Japanese food very much. However, if you did not like tofu, too bad because you had to get use to it!  The sleeping arrangements were not that bad. Most of the time there would be two or three people in a room, but sometimes there would be up to six. The bedding consisted of a pillow filled with beans, a comforter, a sheet, and a futon; it actually was rather comfortable.

The program had many highlights. My favorite experience was the Shikoku Pilgrimage, where we backpacked around the island of Shikoku hiking sometimes long distances to various temples. Another, highlight was going to Hiroshima for a few days. We visited the Peace Park, toured the museum, and talked with a survivor of the A-Bomb.

At the end of the program, we had a two-week research period. We each received a rail pass, which allowed us ride on all JR (Japan Rails) rail lines for free, so we had the opportunity to travel around Japan on our own. I traveled to Misawa, Kyoto, Tokyo and Kyushu on the Bullet Train. Leaving Japan, the group traveled to Hawaii where we completed our research and made individual presentations to the group.

 In addition to the wonderful travel opportunities, the program offered many benefits, such as the Antioch leaders and teachers, fellow students, the monks, and the Japanese people as a whole. This was a great program to go on: an experience like no other, but it will only be memorable if you make the most of every situation. I would be glad to talk to any students interested in joining the Buddhist Studies Program in Japan in a future semester.