FUKUOKA – Buddhist temples in western Japan are becoming unlikely sites for entertainment, putting on 1970s and ’80s disco music and planetarium shows to attract young people and regain their status as places for community gatherings.
On a recent weeknight a huge glitter ball spun while emitting a bright white light on the ceiling of Kosenji temple in central Fukuoka.
Together with a pair of glitter balls on the floor flashing red, blue and purple lights, a discolike atmosphere was created inside the otherwise solemn main hall. It was an innovative effort by chief priest Koji Jo, 55, to get people in his community thinking of temples as part of secular life.
“Things have changed from the days when people would attend temple schools to learn writing. People don’t come to temples unless there is a funeral or other memorial service,” Jo said.
Young women who gather at the temple clasp their hands together in prayer in the main hall before they join a dance exercise class as the disco music pulsates under the glistening lights.
The temple began holding the dance classes several years ago and installed the glitter balls, associated with the halo of Buddha, when the main hall was remodeled in January this year. The disco balls are also used for other musical events, and many people have said they brighten the atmosphere of the temple, according to Jo.
Ideally, Jo would like people who visit the temple to feel comfortable returning to discuss their personal problems, he said.
The Bodaiji temple, also in Fukuoka, uses astronomy to lure people out.
By putting on planetarium shows at its main hall free of charge, the temple has attracted over 1,000 people since acquiring a projector and other equipment, including reclining chairs, with an investment of about ¥17 million in 2011.
The dome-shaped ceiling of the temple, which has a diameter of about eight meters, is illuminated with signs of the zodiac, while people lounge in their chairs.
Shinji Tsubaki, a former officer with the Kyoto Prefectural Police who became the temple’s head priest 20 years ago, said he decided to create a planetarium where people would come out to stargaze after learning about a temple in Tokyo that had done so.
“In 10 years, it’s said that 20 to 30 percent of the temples nationwide will” close, the 66-year-old Tsubaki said, adding he hopes to make his temple a place where people gather to forge strong bonds of friendship.
Outenin temple in Osaka, which set up a theater in its main hall for training young people to perform about 20 years ago, attracts some 30,000 visitors annually.
“A temple has an interesting potential as a social hub,” said chief priest Mitsuhiko Akita, 62. “Temples should not be transitory but contribute to society by connecting people and broadening their perspective,” he said.