by Wendy Gonyea, Delegate
Last fall, a conference in Japan sounded like a fantasy, but with the hard work of Phil Arnold, of Syracuse University and Takeshi Kimura, of the University of Tsukuba, it happened – a delegation of Haudenosaunee attended the 19th World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) March 24 – 30th in Tokyo, Japan. Scholars from all over the world came together to collaborate and exchange information and teachings in a prestigious forum to promote better understanding of ‘religions’ and how specific teachings apply to current global issues. To be invited was an honor; to be among the delegates was an experience we won’t soon forget.
Planning began in the fall of 2004, with schedules and applications for registrations, flights and visas among the enormous amount of paperwork involved in orchestrating this global event. Getting approval from the Japanese Consulate in New York City to enter their country with Haudenosaunee Passports was challenging. It required two trips to NYC, and was cutting it real close, but we finally got the okay from the consulate on Thursday afternoon-our flight out of Syracuse was at 8 the next morning. After packing all night, taking care of loose ends, we were off. The flight from Chicago to Osaka, Japan was 13 hours. Flying over the Artic Circle, we went forward in time-on the other side of the world, they are a day ahead. (Which makes for sleeping adjustment both to and from?) Our group experienced just a minor glitch at customs when Joyce King was pulled aside and asked to provide further documentation. She did, and they let her through. After landing we took taxi cabs to our hotel. The drivers sit on the right side. Cabs are clean, sometimes with white cloth seat covers. We figured out their system of money, the yen is very close to the dollar in value, but they add on one hundred, so something that costs 1000 yen is about 10 dollars. (As children do, Clay and Kroy Arnold, age 10, had this all figured out way before the adults.) We would spend five days in Kyoto, getting acquainted with Japanese culture, food and visiting many shrines and temples. We were fortunate to have two student guides who kept us on track and together as we caught trains, ordered food, and enjoyed our first few days in the orient.
Kyoto represents the older style of Japan, but with all the amenities of a modern city. There were people on bicycles everywhere, people of all ages – the parking lot at our hotel was full of bicycles. (There was a mall attached to our hotel.) The cars are much smaller; you hardly see gas guzzlers in Japan. Interspersed throughout are these beautiful temples and shrines where people go to observe religious rites, and enjoy special beautifully landscaped areas with very clean walkways. The structure of the buildings are terraced shaped rooftops, some adorned with carved figures or colorful lanterns. We noticed right away several people wear masks, like surgical masks. Our friend, Takeshi wore a mask on occasion. We were told it was a time of high allergy season, and were also told after the war, the government planted thousands of cedar trees which increased the pollens in the air. The food is an abundant variety- lots of fish and vegetables, even for breakfast. We soon had our favorite foods-like burdock root, and some were more accomplished than others using chopsticks. We tried everything that was put in front of use, sometimes we didn’t have a clue about what we were eating. We learned how to slurp noodles, drank lots of green tea, and took our shoes off at traditional style café’s. One important new experience – bathrooms for both male and female. And, particularly for women- no bathroom seat, but a toilet in the floor. As you can imagine, we laughed a lot. When you got to go, you got to go. The people were amazingly polite; they were very welcoming to us. The cherry blossoms were just beginning their bloom. You can’t get much further away than the orient, but soon we were feeling very comfortable.
In Kyoto, the anchor of our delegation, Oren Lyons, lectured at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature. Hiroko Koyama, director of the Miho Museum was in the audience and invited us to Shigaraki to visit this amazing museum. The trip in a bus on little winding roads was fun once it registered that cars coming around the bend seemingly in your lane were actually in the correct lane. The country side was lush with greenery-bamboo forests were abundant. We were further amazed upon our arrival at the Miho, we were greeted by gloved workers who handed us umbrellas and tended to our every need. We were treated like ‘royalty’ there, given lunch, a private tour of the museum-which holds priceless art and treasures from ancient Asia. We visited an agricultural project, complete with a Japanese home built without nails-thick layers of woven straw made up the roof, huge wooden beams were interlaced with bamboo and woven rope-like ties. The Miho Museum was built by word famous architect, I.M. Pei-who also is responsible for S. U.’s Newhouse and the Everson, among other highly regarded innovative structures worldwide. We traveled in electric carts over Pei’s creation, a bridge that won a prestigious “Outstanding Structure Award.” We felt like we were in another world-some futuristic movie set. The bridge led to the steps of the museum, with natural settings the centerpiece of this very modern building with a breath-taking view. We were taken to more grandeur on the grounds- another architectural wonder, Meishusama Hall-a sanctuary with seating for 5,670 people. Those doors wore opened especially for us. We enjoyed the expert Wadaiko drumming of two young men and were led in meditation by Koyama. Before our departure Koyama gave us gifts, and we reciprocated with an amethyst necklace. The unplanned visit was definitely one of the highlights of our visit to Japan.
After resting in Esa, we caught the ‘bullet train’ to Tokyo, passing mountains, rice fields and modest homes. We passed Mt. Fuji, but the visibility was poor. The green countryside gave way to businesses and development; and soon we were in our next and final destination-Tokyo. Tokyo has all the traffic and bustle of New York City, but it also has uniquely sculpted buildings, with an occasional rickshaw meandering through the streets as well. Japanese tell us of a low crime rate, which we experienced firsthand when one of our delegation inadvertently left a wallet at a shop, remembered at our next stop, went back and got it back.
After checking in to the Shinagawa Prince Hotel, we signed in for our conference materials. We had just entered the reception room when heads turned and everyone buzzed about the arrival of Prince Misaka, who was the honorary chair of the Congress. We got right in line to shake his hand. The Haudenosaunee meet the Prince-what a memorable event!
Japan was one of the founding countries of the IAHR. It is held once every five years and was held in Japan in 1958. The major religions in Japan are Shinto, Buddhism and Christianity, or a combination of these. The theme of the Congress was ‘Religions: Conflict and Peace.’
An impressive documentary film, “Kudaka Island Odyssey” featured a traditional Okinawan community as they carried on ancient ceremonies previously thought to have died out. The message, under the direction of Oshige Jun’ichiro portrayed a beautiful respect for nature and humankind’s place in it. Oren Lyons was one of the respondents on a panel to discuss continuing and maintaining traditions in a modern world. Phil Arnold presented a power point highlighting our land rights case filed March 11 He also shared the importance of bringing our Haudenosaunee delegation to Japan- with our own passports.
Haudenosaunee women presented our environmental teachings in round table workshops at the United Nations Building in Tokyo and at the IAHR. After taking the time for our Thanksgivings-and explaining its meaning, Joyce King, Mohawk and Director of the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force (HETF) presented an overview of a culturally based environmental protection process. Denise Waterman, Oneida, shared unique teaching methodologies of the Onondaga Nation School and Wendy Gonyea gave a general overview of the diversity of events in the Onondaga Nation requiring a personal balance to maintain identity and survive in today’s world. Sandy Bigtree shared perceptions on identity from a non-matrilineal point of view.
Liz Obomsawin, Oneida, attended the IAHR to film the event for an upcoming documentary project. She was assisted by Steve Thomas, 17, high school senior. We found things in common as our group spent time with other indigenous delegates and listened to their stories and presentations. During our stay in Tokyo, we were invited to the home of Etsuko, who is the woman responsible for the translation of our Thanksgiving address into Japanese. Denise spent the next day with Etsuko at a temple and met a real samurai. Joyce met other Mohawks in Tokyo-imagine that, they were also attending a meeting there. Although we did get to some tourist places, no-one went to the famed ‘Ginza’ district. At the closing banquet, some of our group participated in a Gongen-mai performance-or the dance of the sacred lion-head god who fends off fires and evil spirits.
Our days were busy and full, we were tired and ready for the trip home. Saying goodbye to new friends, somehow packing our souvenirs, we left full of memories. At the airport in Narita, we had a little delay when one of our group-this time Steven- was kept waiting while his passport and credentials were re-checked. Finally after about 45 minutes, he was let through. After another security check point, Carol had to give up a ninja souvenir that was setting off the security buzzers. After landing in Chicago, we sat through an afternoon of lightning storms that kept us grounded there until we finally got to leave at 10 p.m.-arriving home a little after midnight, March 30th-we had gained the day back.. And, we had gained so much more.