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Life & Arts

Buddhism with a backbeat strikes a chord in Japan

A guitar-wielding priest and techno-nun take pop into the temple

Kanho Yakushiji performs at Seiganji Temple in Kyoto. (Photo by Tetsuo Oshiro)

KYOTO, Japan For many Japanese, particularly younger ones, Buddhist temples are a place for funerals and periodic family gatherings to remember deceased relatives, and little else.

Some Buddhist priests and nuns are trying to change that by making the holy places a little more fun.

On a Saturday night in April, the estate of Seiganji Temple in central Kyoto was packed with people waiting for folk duo Kissaquo to play. The hundred seats set up for the event were full.

Idol-bosatsu is a Buddhist nun and pop singer. (Courtesy of Idol-bosatsu)

Sayuri Somatori, a 57-year-old local, got two seats front and center for herself and her younger sister. "We support them," Somatori said. "It's just like love for a son." She was sporting a Kissaquo T-shirt sold exclusively at the concert. She has collected a lot of the duo's merchandise, from CDs to postcards.

MUSICAL MESSAGE The pair consists of Kanho Yakushiji, a priest, and Satoshi Yamamoto, who describes himself as an "ordinary man."

The two singers began their performance by bowing to the large statue of Buddha sitting behind them. Their simple but powerful songs, along with the sound of acoustic guitars and harmonica, moved the crowd. Between numbers, Yakushiji entertained fans with priestly anecdotes: "I used to have fuller hair," he said of his shaved head. "The priest outfit is comfortable to play a guitar in, except that it's hot."

Yakushiji is the deputy chief priest of a temple in Ehime Prefecture. (Courtesy of Kanho Yakushiji)

In addition to performing 14 songs during the two-hour concert, the duo also led the audience in a Buddhist chant.

After the show, the singers took photos with fans. It is an opportunity to promote the group to a wider audience. "You can tweet that two singers, one with hair and another without, were performing," Yamamoto said with a smile.

Yakushiji and Yamamoto formed Kissaquo more than 10 years ago. As professional artists, they have mostly played in small clubs. Three years ago Yakushiji became a priest, as he plans to eventually take over the temple run by his family. Kissaquo has since also held concerts at temples, mainly in Kyoto and Yakushiji's hometown in Ehime Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku.

Kissaquo CDs (Courtesy of Kanho Yakushiji)

According to Yakushiji, temple halls, with their high ceilings and excellent acoustics, are ideal concert venues. Sitting on a zabuton cushion rather than a chair enhances the feeling that one is in a temple. The calm, reverent atmosphere seems to help visitors communicate with each other in a friendlier way. "I want people to enjoy meeting those they would not otherwise know," Yakushiji said.

Itaru Sanno, a 53-year-old office worker, became a fan of Kissaquo after he saw the duo's clips on YouTube. "This is the first time I have seen a live performance at a temple," said Sanno. "It shattered my image of temples as gloomy places."

He traveled from neighboring Hyogo Prefecture for the event.

Mai Hayashi, a 25-year-old Kyoto resident, came to the show after work. She usually listens to standard pop music, but she likes Kissaquo's songs. "They are calm, but gripping, and somehow nostalgic," she said. "I felt hesitant to enter a temple, but not anymore."

Kissaquo is not the only Buddhist-flavored musical act doing the rounds in Japan. A nun who goes by the stage name "Idol-bosatsu" is trying to bring younger people into temples. At her performances, she dresses in a costume that evokes the image of a bosatsu, a Buddhist saint. Framed against an electric nimbus, she sings techno-pop tunes created by professional songwriters.

CHILDHOOD DREAM Idol-bosatsu, 35, is the daughter of the chief priest of a temple. As a little girl, she dreamed of being a pop star, later taking voice lessons. At first she hid her artistic endeavors from her father, thinking he would not approve, but he was supportive when he learned what she was up to. "He felt my music could help young people feel a stronger connection to Buddhism," she said.

After her concerts, Idol-bosatsu said, young people began visiting her temple, chatting frankly with her about Buddhism and their everyday worries.

The singer said she has accomplished what she initially set out to do: draw people's attention with an eye-catching look. "I no longer have to do that," she said.

She will soon change her stage name to her proper Buddhist name and perform in the clothing of a traditional nun. "I want to strive to do good as my real self from now on," said the singer.

One person who welcomes these creative initiatives is Tadato Wakabayashi, a priest who runs a Buddhist magazine that introduces unique activities by priests and nuns. Wakabayashi sees these concerts as a way of overcoming a fundamental challenge that many of Japan's temples face: a dearth of visitors.

"I hope the efforts of younger priests can help people feel closer to Buddhism," he said.

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