Program Spotlight: Japanese Religions and Art

Crystal GwizdalaIn 2015, JCMU teamed up with Visiting Scholar Doug Sjoquist (Professor from Michigan State University’s Department of Religious Studies) to offer the Japanese Religions and Art May short course. The program’s purpose was to provide students with an opportunity to enhance their understanding of Japanese culture through an examination of Buddhist and Shinto traditions and an analysis of their relationship to various art forms including painting, sculpture, and architecture. Participants had the rare opportunity to stay at Saikyo-ji, a temple located in the foothills of Mt. Hiei in Otsu City. The isolated temple serves as the headquarters of the Shinsei sect of Tendai Buddhism. It is famous for its Basho haiku stone, paintings by Kano Eitoku, and Akechi Mitsuhide’s tomb.

Following the program’s completion, Professor Sjoquist compiled the following report detailing the course’s success:


Christopher Symons (1)The Japanese Religions and Art students returned in June from their 17-day stay at Saikyo-ji – a Buddhist temple in the foothills of Mt. Hiei.  The isolated temple is approximately 1.2 miles from the nearest train station and serves as the headquarters of the Tendai Shinsei Sect. The Shinsei Sect specializes in nembutsu practice under the Tendai umbrella and was founded by the Tendai priest, Shinsei (1443-1495) who established his headquarters at Saikyo-ji. The temple is famous for its Amida Nyorai devotion, a Basho haiku stone, paintings by Kano Eitoku, and Akechi Mitsuhide’s tomb.

For all the temple (Saikyo-ji) has done for us, taught us, and provided for us, it’s hard to think I received a more fulfilling experience elsewhere. Not only does Saikyo-ji have an endearing and aesthetically pleasing complex, but those who work for Saikyo-ji play a large part in shaping its beauty as well. I doubt I will be fortunate enough to receive the same kindness and hospitality in other countries as I have at Saikyo-ji. – Shelby Douglas (2015 MSU student at Saikyo-ji)

The daily routine was highly structured and concentrated. There was no free time outside the academic parameters and living arrangements at the temple. That did not diminish the enthusiasm students had for the program, however.

This group distinguished itself by getting up every morning around 5 AM to do their laundry, write in their journals, and take photographs of the temple and sunrises. They were disciplined, compliant, and passionate about the program and living at the temple from day 1. The temple staff remarked that this group possessed the greatest temple etiquette of all the groups. That’s an emotionally satisfying compliment! – Professor Sjoquist

Christopher Symons (2)
In the mornings, students anxiously waited for Toyama-san – a novice monk at the temple – to ring the temple’s bell at 6 AM signaling it’s time to put away the futons and get ready for the chanting service called “otsutome.” The otsutome includes a call to prayer, recitations from the Lotus Sutra, nembutsu chanting, an invocation to nyorai, bosatsu and teachers associated with Saikyo-ji, and finally a recitation of the Heart Sutra. On Thursdays after otsutome students engaged in zazen practice. Breakfast was always served in the dining hall at 7:30 AM and students enthusiastically welcomed their tofu, miso soup, salad, the assortment of condiments, tea, and rice. Classes began at 9 AM every day, seven days a week, and ended at 11 AM. Everyone had about one hour to get ready for field trips to various Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in the Otsu area including Hiyoshi Taisha Jinja, Takebe Taisha Jinja, Mii-dera, and Ukimi-do. It was not uncommon for students to have walked 5-8 miles a day with no complaints. On one occasion, all students were led down Mt. Hiei by their sensei from Enryaku-ji on old mountain trails used by monks and hikers alike to Saikyo-ji – a total of 8.09 miles!

Walking every day until my feet were sore, up and down mountains, to temples and shrines, ancient islands and forests, I do not believe I ever stopped smiling because I was continually being overwhelmed by the adventure I was experiencing. What an unbelievable experience. What an incredible way to spend a month! – Christopher Symons (2015 MSU student at Saikyo-ji)

After dinner at 5:30 PM, students enjoyed some “down time” before the temple was locked and the lights were out at about 8 PM. Occasionally, the evening included visits from guests like the 87-year-old Imai-sensei – who was officially adopted by the students as a grandparent – and readings from Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain) from the temple’s cemetery.
Emma Pittsley
Students visited numerous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples as part of their course. Many of these shrines and temples played a role in Japan’s political and cultural history and to this day still play an active role in Japan’s religious life. While on the field trips students were introduced to not only Japan’s religious traditions but also Japan’s literature, poetry, and art, as well. On their schedule were visits to Karasaki Jinja, Mii-dera, Ishiyama-dera, and Ukimi-do, for example, and these four sites are integral to the region’s Omi Hak’kei (Eight Views of Omi) series memorialized by artists like Hiroshige. On the Ishiyama-dera field trip, students read Chapter 20 from Tales of Genji since Ishiyama-dera is the temple where Murasaki supposedly wrote the tales. On a field trip to Gichu-ji, students read many haiku from the famous poet, Basho. Students enjoyed experiencing this intersection of Japan’s art, literature, poetry, and religion that the course offered.

The program was not easy, but it was gratifying. As Emma Pittsley, an MSU student on the 2015 program, commented,

The trip was demanding, with seven-mile hikes every day. But that made the experience all the more rewarding. Walking everywhere we got to observe every little detail of the countryside, the mountain forests, the suburbs, and the city streets. Every single temple and shrine was beautiful and it was amazing to see this preserved antiquity mixed in with urban development. 

For anyone interested in experiencing what it’s like living at a Buddhist temple while learning about Japanese culture and religion contact JCMU (jcmu@isp.msu.edu) or Professor Sjoquist (sjoquis2@msu.edu).


Every year, JCMU offers unique short study abroad courses in May to provide a greater variety of students the opportunity to study a unique topic of interest while in Japan. These programs change on an annual basis to allow for various scholars and students alike to participate in unique courses every year. In 2016, we will be offering three May short courses:

We encourage all students to consider participating in one of our May short programs!

Christopher Symons (3)

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