Instead of being cooped up at home because of the pandemic — and driven by the urge to share the Nembutsu with America — Rev. Jerry Hirano decided to take a road trip.
But this wouldn’t be any simple, ordinary road trip — it would cover all 48 states in the continental United States.
In all, it was a 38-day, 14,000-mile trek that began Sept. 23 and ended Oct. 30 at Rev. Hirano’s home in Bountiful, Utah, with his 26-foot-long Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Motorhome.
Rev. Hirano’s companion as a road warrior was his longtime friend and IBS roommate who went through Tokudo with him in 1986 — Rev. Ken Yamada, the retired minister of the Berkeley Higashi Hongwanji Temple and current editor of the Shinshu Center of America.
“Since we had gotten along through these rather intense situations, I thought we might be able to get along for this trip,” said Rev. Hirano, Resident Minister of the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple. “Plus, he is a fourth- or fifth-degree black belt in karate, so he could protect me.”
Before embarking on the long road trip, Rev. Hirano reflected on some of his preconceived thoughts and opinions.
“Having been a part of the BCA national leadership, at many of the meetings, I definitely heard a liberal bias in much of what people considered the United States to be,” he said. “I was born and raised in Utah and my temples (Salt Lake, Ogden and Honeyville) are all outside of California. The politics in the United States is very diverse, yet BCA has a very liberal bias.
“Although I am quite liberal politically, my temples are not necessarily the same,” he continued. “As I felt critical of the BCA, I had to look at my own bias and I realized that I had very little knowledge of the United States outside of the Western viewpoint. I had not even been to many states outside of the Western United States. I thought I should begin to see what the United States physically looked like. I knew I couldn’t really visit with people, but environment does affect the humans living in those situations, so I would get a bit of understanding by physically seeing the United States.”
Rev. Yamada wrote on the Higashi Hongwanji USA website: “Before the trip, friends worried we’d encounter racism and discrimination, especially in the South. On the contrary, people were friendly and nice. We saw different responses to the pandemic, from strict protocols to business as usual. Almost everywhere, we felt the importance of religion, primarily Christianity. In this election year, signs of division were strong and loud.”
Of course, the pandemic was a dominant factor in the trip — the ministers, for the most part, decided against visiting many temples and churches and couldn’t stop in and chat with local residents at restaurants. They mostly kept to themselves and their faces were covered with masks.
They ended up staying in RV parks and four different motels. In Mississippi, there was a sign warning about alligators in a lake near a RV park.
Along the way, they encountered weather ranging from the intense heat, humidity and mosquitos in Arkansas to snow and temperatures down to 6 degrees Fahrenheit.
First Stop: Wakamatsu Farm
Rev. Hirano began the trip on Sept. 23 by driving to the Bay Area to pick up Rev. Yamada. The first stop for the ministers was the Wakamatsu Farm at the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony in Placerville in Northern California. It’s the site of the first settlement of Japanese immigrants in 1869, the first child born as Japanese American, as well as the first Japanese grave on U.S. soil of 19-year-old Okei Ito, who was only 16 when she arrived.
“As a Japanese American, I wanted to somehow pay tribute to the first Japanese who planned on actually living in the United States, not just make money and return to Japan,” said Rev. Hirano, who performed a simple Buddhist service before the grave. “It was this spirit that was the foundation for Japanese Americans.”
They also stopped at the Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley and the BCA Headquarters in San Francisco. COVID-19 precautions were taken, so as they walked into the JSC, they were sprayed with disinfectant fog and their temperatures were checked.
Other BCA visits included the Orange County Buddhist Church, where they met with Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada and Rev. Jon Turner in the parking lot, and the Denver Buddhist Temple, where they met with Rev. Noritaka Imada and held an outdoor service in front of the statue of Shinran Shonin. And they visited Rev. Hirano’s temples in Utah — Salt Lake, Ogden and Honeyville. Rev. Hirano is also the Supervising Minister of the Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple in Ontario, Oregon.
In addition, the Higashi temples in Berkeley and Los Angeles invited them to visit and hold a service.
Rohwer ‘Eye Opening’
The ministers also visited several former detention camps that imprisoned Japanese Americans during World War II — the Santa Fe Concentration Camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the Minidoka National Historic Site in Jerome, Idaho; and the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Park County, Wyoming.
“However, of all the Japanese American sites, the Rohwer, Arkansas, (internment) site was very eye opening,” Rev. Hirano said. “I couldn’t imagine living there, even in 2020 with the swamps, humidity and heat. I felt haunted seeing the site and imagining living conditions there. It really made me realize how much the Issei and Nisei suffered and how much the current stay-at-home orders are nothing compared to what they went through.”
The trip, in no particular order, also included stops at: Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah; Epcot Center in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida; Niagara Falls in New York; Kennebunkport, Maine; Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota; and the Salem Witch Trials Memorial in Salem, Massachusetts. The memorial marks the infamous witch trials of 1692-93, when women and men were accused of practicing witchcraft and were executed.
“This was our country’s early history of mass hysteria caused by isolationism and religious extremism, serving as a lesson for current times,” Rev Yamada wrote.
“Of course, we had to stop in Memphis, Tennessee, to see Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, well … just for fun,” Rev Yamada continued. “We did pause before Elvis’s grave in the backyard and recited the Nembutsu, ‘Namu Amida Butsu.’ “
Visiting Civil Rights Sites
As for the non-Japanese American sites they visited, the list included the Black Wall Street massacre monument in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the Muhammad Ali Center, a multicultural center in Louisville, Kentucky, in honor of Breonna Taylor, who was killed inside her home during a police raid gone wrong; George Floyd’s murder site in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge. The bridge in Selma, Alabama, was the site of the conflict of Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, when police attacked Civil Rights Movement demonstrators as they were attempting to march to the state capital of Montgomery.
“Having short services at each of these areas gave me a sense of understanding the sacrifice of so many for my civil rights,” Rev. Hirano said. “My personal reason in becoming a priest was after being involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1970s.
“This initial phase of my growing up made me realize that before I became critical of the larger U.S. political and human rights violations, I should first understand my own ego-centered mind and how my life is a part of those atrocities. Holding services at those sites helped me to somewhat come full circle. It’s easy to talk about civil rights or Black Lives Matter. It is extremely difficult to actually make a difference.
“I really had the feeling of people who believed and supported President Trump were racist, uneducated fools,” he continued. “When I saw what the landscape of the United States was like, I realized how our country can have many viewpoints.”
‘We’re All Connected’
Rev. Yamada said, “Buddhism teaches we’re all connected and tied together. Throughout the country, people try to live the best they can, make a living and live in peace. We have more in common than differences.
“The Buddha diagnosed the problem long ago. We live in a world of interdependence, but our ignorance blinds us. Truly our lives are tied to our country, community, and each other. Looking back at the trip, I’m amazed at this country’s natural beauty, various communities, but also its painful history. My hope is that we’ll finally come together and realize the great Oneness of our lives.”
Rev. Hirano said the road trip reinforced his personal beliefs, both politically and religiously.
“Having been born and raised in Salt Lake City, my need to see both sides of the political spectrum is essential to stay balanced,” Rev. Hirano said. “I have very good friends on the conservative right and many on the liberal left …. My trip helped me better understand that all people are both good and evil. It is the causes and conditions in our lives that have allowed us the viewpoints we hold dear.”