Roadtrip: Nembutsu Across America


The Bryce Canyon National Park in southwest Utah. photo by Rev. Ken Yamada

AROUND THE U.S. ­— (Clockwise, from L to R): In September 2020, the Rev. Ken Yamada (R), the former minister of Berkeley Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple and Salt Lake Buddhist Temple’s Rev. Jerry Hirano took a road trip across the 48 contiguous states. photo by Rev. Ken Yamada

Last September, Rev. Ken Yamada, the former minister of Berkeley Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple, and Rev. Jerry Hirano, minister of Salt Lake City Buddhist Temple, spent 36 days driving through the 48 contiguous states in an RV, racking up more than 13,000 miles. To view his original blog posts and see additional pictures, visit This is the first of a two-part series.

Travel across country in an RV and “spread the nembutsu,” pandemic be damned?

Was I crazy? Or maybe the crazy one was Rev. Jerry Hirano, who made the pitch. My answer: Sure!

Just what was this trip really about? Rev. Hirano recently acquired an RV to safely travel for work and pleasure. He and I first met as students 40 years ago at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley and were ordained together in Kyoto. As Buddhist ministers, we thought we could hold a service in 48 states, invoking the words, “Namu Amida Butsu,” symbolically spreading Nembutsu (reciting the Buddha’s Name). We’d wish for peace and an end to the pandemic, and visit a bunch of Buddhist sites and Japanese American historical places. Plus, it’d be an adventure. Besides, we were tired of home confinement. We pledged to be safe and responsibly practice social distancing. The RV would certainly help, especially with license plates saying “karuna” (compassion).

On September 23, Rev. Hirano, minister of Salt Lake City Buddhist Temple, drove from Utah to California. First he stopped at Wakamatsu Farm, site of the first settlement of Japanese immigrants, the first child born as Japanese American, and the first Japanese grave on American soil. He performed a simple Buddhist service before the grave.

The next day, he picked me up and we went to the nearby Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley. Following strict pandemic protocols, including a temperature check and hand sanitizing, we paid our respects, as a disinfectant mist was sprayed wherever we walked.

At Berkeley Higashi Honganji temple, Rev. Ryoko Osa met us. We dutifully wore masks and bowed before the Amida Buddha statue. (Note: we sometimes dropped our masks for a quick picture).

Crossing the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, we paid our respects at the Buddhist Churches of America headquarters, thanks to help from Rev. Michael Endo. It truly was an auspicious beginning.

After a long drive down Interstate 5, we visited Higashi Honganji Betsuin temple in Los Angeles and met with Bishop Noriaki Ito.

With a last minute call, BCA Bishop Marvin Harada met us in front of the Orange County Buddhist Church. We also said “hi” to Rev. Jon Turner.

From Los Angeles, we drove through Las Vegas, passing the empty new Raiders football stadium. I finally was able to visit Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park with its craggy red prehistoric rock formations.

The Bryce Canyon National Park in southwest Utah. photo by Rev. Ken Yamada

We stopped at Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park, light colored rock pillars viewed by looking down on them from a cliff. On the way, we also stopped briefly on the road to gassho (put our hands together) and recite Nembutsu in Arizona.

We finally arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah, where Rev. Hirano had to officiate a funeral. We visited his temple, where he showed me the altar and gift shop run by members.

After leaving Salt Lake City, we traveled upstate to Ogden Buddhist Church, south of the historic Mormon city of Brigham.

My buddy, Nishi Honganji minister Rev. Jerry Hirano, and I (Higashi Honganji minister) have embarked on a road trip across America, visiting Buddhist sites, Japanese American historical places, and other interesting sites, traveling during this time of pandemic. The trip began on Sept. 24 from California.

The Jodo Shinshu sangha in Utah began with a service in 1912 with newly arrived Japanese immigrants. They came for work picking sugar beets and working in copper mines. Many of them came from Japan’s Shizuoka and Hiroshima prefectures.

Currently there are three Jodo Shinshu temples in the state: Salt Lake City, Ogden and Honeyville, all of which once had their own resident ministers. Currently, the minister of Salt Lake City, Rev. Hirano, serves all three temples, as well as states surrounding Utah.

In recent years, Ogden has become home to an increasing number of Thai immigrants, who helped build near the Ogden temple a newly established Buddhist temple,  Wat Chaimongkolvararam, dedicated in 2017.

Driving north into Idaho state, we stopped at the site of Minidoka War Relocation Center. During World War II, the United States federal government denying U.S. citizens their civil rights, rounded up Japanese Americans on the West Coast and confined them in “internment camps” far inland in remote places.

Minidoka housed more than 9,000 residents, many of them from the Seattle area.

From Idaho, we headed north and stayed in West Yellowstone, Montana. The next morning, we drove through the famous park.

In Wyoming, we visited Heart Mountain, the site of another internment camp, which during World War II housed more than 10,000 residents.

Traveling south, we stopped in Denver, and visited the Denver Buddhist Temple. During World War II, Colorado governor Ralph Carr believed the U.S. constitution protected all American citizens, including Japanese Americans, did not incarcerate them, and instead, welcomed them. Other Japanese Americans from other states joined them and established their lives in the state, including my uncle and aunt. The Denver Buddhist Temple served this community then and now.

After a long dusty drive farther south we visited Santa Fe, New Mexico, where a smaller, but more heavily guarded facility imprisoned 4,500 Japanese Americans during World War II.

Leaving New Mexico, we drove hours through a stretch of desolate Texas before entering Oklahoma.

In Oklahoma, our first stop was Tulsa and the area known as “Black Wall Street.” It was a neighborhood of thriving Black owned businesses until a mob of white residents burned it down, killing scores and injuring hundreds of people in 1921.

After Oklahoma, we headed for the backroads of Arkansas and wondered where they were taking us, until we reached Rohwer, a tiny town in the middle of cotton fields. Some 8,000 people were forced to live at an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. We fought off mosquitos and endured humid weather in the short time we paid our respects at the site.

Of course we had to stop in Memphis, Tennessee, to see Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, well… just for fun. We did pause before Elvis’s grave in the backyard and recited the Nembutsu, “Namu Amida Butsu.”

Heading south from Memphis, we drove into Mississippi for the night, where our RV Park had this sign next to the lake. (We decided not to go swimming).

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where, on March 7, 1965, law enforcement personnel viciously attacked activists marching for civil rights on what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” photo by Rev. Ken Yamada

We also visited Selma, Alabama, where in 1965, hundreds of protesters marched across a bridge, calling for civil rights for Black Americans. Led by John Lewis, who later became a prominent U.S. congressman, the group was brutally beaten by police, a scene captured by news cameras, exposing widespread racism and systemic violence.

Afterwards a much larger group of 25,000 people marched from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King. Today, monuments mark those important events.

From Alabama, it was east to Georgia and down to Orlando, Florida, where we took a break at Disney World. At Epcot, I spotted this statue in a store. Apparently some tourists think this Buddha grants wishes in exchange for money.

It’s been three weeks and the journey continues…

Rev. Ken Yamada is editor of Shinshu Center of America, the education and publishing unit of Higashi Honganji USA. Previously he was minister of Berkeley Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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