Otagi: Where Music and Buddhism Collide

Spring has finally sprung in Japan. The season is already in full force as cherry blossoms bloomed much earlier than usual this year. Kyoto's sudden burst of seasonal greenery is a time to rejoice and begin the seasonal cycle anew. There are a number of celebrations at this time of year, but some are more unique than others...

Last weekend, I headed up into the hills of western Kyoto to attend a small spring festival at Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple in Arashiyama. This is one of my favorite spots in Kyoto, and I've previously shared one of their other special events on this blog. This spring gathering was a new one for me, and it proved every bit as eclectic and special as I was expecting.

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Officially called the Hana Matsuri (flower festival), this event is a mishmash of spring renewal celebration, music appreciation, and the birthday of Buddha. They've been holding this festival at Otagi Nenbutsuji for decades now, as part of the revitalization efforts of former head priest and famous artist Kocho Nishimura since he took over here in 1955. Nishimura was already a renowned restorer of Buddhist statues and an accomplished artist in his own right. Knowing that this isolated spot in Arashiyama would draw few visitors, the priest undertook a number of creative projects to boost the artistic profile of the temple. In the 1990s, the Hana Matsuri here had a distinctly Indian vibe. Nishimura family members would dress up in Indian sari costumes and perform traditional dances, with the temple grounds festooned with flowers. As indebted to the Indian origins of Buddha as Japanese Buddhism is, this sort of display is rarely found at temples nowadays. Kocho Nishimura was certainly a visionary who knew how to engage and challenge his audience in new ways.

This tied in nicely with the birthday of the historical Buddha in India, which is celebrated in Japan on April 8th and called Kanbutsue. A popular ritual for this holiday is using tiny ladles to sprinkle sweet ama-cha tea made from hydrangeas over a small statue of Buddha. The figure depicts Buddha at the moment of his birth when he emerged from his mother, pointed towards the sky and the ground and shouted, "I am honored in both Heaven and Earth." Upon this proclamation, all of nature started exploding into life around the Buddha and his mother, flowers blossoming and animals crying. The sweet tea shower is symbolic of this uplifting moment.

Otagi Nenbutsji still sets up a small shrine to perform this ritual at their Hana Matsuri, but the event as a whole has taken a turn towards another unique direction. The current head priest here - the son of the Indian-inspired originator of the festival - is a musician. Koei Nishimura creates fascinating electronic music using a blend of new age synth sounds and classical harmonies to create vivid soundscapes. For him, the music is a parallel to his father's painting and sculptures, with his compositions based on Buddhist imagery both real and imaginary. Just like how his father brought Buddhas out of rocks through his carving tools, Koei's music brings forth a primordial force that was lying in wait for the artist to channel it. "The music is a message," he explains. "It's all around us like air that we don't notice it until we realize that we are breathing." When he plays a piece inspired by a Buddhist mandala visualized in his head during composition, the spiritual message is transferred to the listener. This is not the usual way of transmitting Buddhist teachings, but after dozens of albums, the self-taught Koei has perfected a special way of inviting listeners look inside themselves and find their deepest heart simply through music. It's a remarkably effective way of pushing the envelope in a traditionally rigid religion that discourages new methods and rituals.

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Under the direction of Koei Nishimura, the spring celebration here has become all about music, and this year was no exception. In keeping with the tradition of surprising visitors, the opening act was a folklorico music group called Esperanza. Ever seen a band comprised of four middle-aged Japanese women in colorful costumes playing traditional South American instruments and singing in Spanish inside a Buddhist temple? Yeah, me neither. But just like the soprano opera singer that headlined their autumn festival last year, the performance just worked really well and felt right. Esperanza played a mix of Spanish compositions, instrumental pieces, and Japanese songs rearranged with a Latin feel. The joy of the musicians and the crowd created a great vibe that was appropriate for a spring celebration. I'm sure the 13th century sculptor of the temple's main Buddha statue would never have imagined that his work would have a front row seat for that kind of performance.

Next up was a break for a more traditional interlude of Buddhist chants with Koei Nishimura and his son Kosho. Otagi Nenbutsuji is the only Tendai sect temple that uses a large drum during sutra chanting, and Kosho's rhythmic playing gave the intimate setting a grander sense of scale as the beats echoed through the wooden hall. Audience members raised their voices to join along with the chanting, as Koei performed elaborate mudra hand gestures of blessing through clouds of incense. But then something remarkable happened as the priest transitioned from a 13th century altar to a modern one.

The diminutive priest falls silent, puts down his ritual tools, and places his fingers on his Korg keyboards. Choruses of violins, angelic choirs, and loops of spacey magic flow from the mind of a Buddhist priest as he seeks to convey the complex divine mandala in his mind. As the music unfolds, so does nature. The moment of Buddha's birth is within reach through the music that fills this ancient wooden building surrounded by forest. The priest in his orange robes closes his eyes and plays from memory, from his heart directly into our heart, a passionate message best conveyed through music. Bereft of repeating melody, the meandering composition is nonetheless structured to take us on a journey into the complexities of ourselves. Intricate patterns of mandalas transmitted from the mind of a Buddhist priest to his listeners. How to interpret them is up to us, but the notes are a mirror into ourselves that we can gaze into if we so choose.

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"Temples used to be about art," says Koei Nishimura. By reviving this emphasis on music and art at their temple, the Nishimura family has given us a fresh key to unlock the teachings of Buddha. The Hana Matsuri at Otagi Nenbutsji is an experiment in transmitting the essence of Buddhism through art. And if the smiles of understanding on the festival goers were any indication, it seems to be succeeding greatly.

Grand father: Kocho Nishimura

Son: Koei Nishimura

Grand Son: Kosho Nishimura

Otagi Nenbutsuji is part of KyoTours Japan's half day Arashiyama Backroads Tour.