2019 Student-Faculty Fellows: Coastal Carolina University

Experiencing Virtual Sacred Spaces:
Designing an immersive virtual exploration platform for the Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japan

Mentors: Ronald S. Green, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Susan Bergeron, Associate Professor of Geography
Students: Jacob Brine, Shonte Clement, Luke Rutherford, Anna Varick Clayton, Kasey Charette and Wyatt Beard

Project Video

Project Website

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Project Abstract

The Virtual Shikoku Pilgrimage project is focused on the design and development of a prototype immersive virtual landscape exploration platform that seeks to digitally recreate the landscapes and experiences of the Buddhist pilgrimage in Shikoku, Japan. This project is a unique digital heritage project that fits within an important current issue globally, and in Asia: the documentation, preservation, and presentation of cultural heritage through digital technologies. The Shikoku Pilgrimage, its temples and other associated sacred and cultural features are recognized as an important part of the heritage of Buddhism and of Japan. Pilgrims from many parts of the world travel to Shikoku to participate in the pilgrimage, and discussions related to the nomination of the pilgrimage for UNESCO World Heritage status have been underway for some time.

The main focus of the Virtual Shikoku Pilgrimage project is the design and development of an immersive virtual landscape exploration platform that will use state-of-the-art 3D digital technologies to recreate the cultural and natural landscapes of the temples and surroundings that make up the Buddhist Shikoku Pilgrimage on the island of Shikoku, Japan. Embedded within this virtual platform are digital stories and media elements that will allow users who explore the platform on their computers to delve into the experience of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, through images and words of those who take part in the pilgrimage, the local residents who live and work within the landscape of the temples and pilgrimage routes, and the scholars who have studied the pilgrimage and its importance.

Project team members traveled to Japan in May 2019 where they researched aspects of the pilgrimage through visits to archives, places related to the life of Kūkai, and experienced a portion of the Shikoku pilgrimage itself. Faculty mentors and students met with scholars of the pilgrimage while in Japan, interviewed and shared experiences with other pilgrims, local residents and the priests and temple workers. Throughout their time in Japan, students worked closely with faculty mentors as they learned field research skills, interacted formally and informally with local Shikoku residents, pilgrims, and temple workers, and contributed to design discussions and data collection along portions of the pilgrimage.

The students’ individual research projects have been an integral part of the first phase of the Virtual Shikoku Pilgrimage project, and focused on content development for the virtual platform and development of design elements and technical functionality based on their experiences in the real landscapes of Shikoku. Upon completion of the research trip to Japan, student team members processed and analyzed data and media collected for their respective research projects during Summer 2019, and work on the development of the technical prototype began during the Fall 2019 semester. Development and implementation of the virtual platform was ongoing in Spring 2020, including virtual recreations of selected temples and the natural and cultural landscapes in which they are situated. Multimedia-based digital story elements were embedded within the virtual places to provide information about the Shikoku Pilgrimage and offer glimpses into the human experience of the pilgrimage. A companion website, available at http://immersivehumanities.com/virtualshikokupilgrimage, has been deployed to document the development process for the Virtual Shikoku Pilgrimage project, and will be updated regularly with web-based versions of the prototype, as well as the results of the student team members’ individual research experiences, and other information related to the project.

 Jacob Brine
Collaborative project with the faculty: “Digital documentation of a spiritual experience: embedding Shikoku henro stories in the Virtual Shikoku Pilgrimage platform”

Working on the Virtual Shikoku Pilgrimage project has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The data we gathered from experiencing the spaces of the Shikoku pilgrimage and the people passing through as henro and tourists was quite interesting. Until that time, I had never participated in a living experience of Buddhism or experienced spiritual spaces within cultural contexts such as this! Processing my field notes and the informal interviews I collected gave me new insights into representing people’s experiences of place. During spring semester, work became rather difficult due to Covid-19 and eventually we were not allowed to continue meeting on campus. Even so, we managed to get good work done including developing ideas about how to best execute everything that we planned. We decided to turn most of the data I had collected into a sway project. We also created the model for the first gate thanks largely to the professors and the great work of some of the digital heritage students who incorporated the data I collected from pilgrims. While the informal interviews I conducted while in Japan were used as a guide for developing the digital narrative elements for our prototype temple stories. The data that I gathered was valuable for referencing henro activities and perceptions of the pilgrimage, and for driving conversations about how to actualize the experience into a working prototype of the pilgrimage. One of the greatest things I learned from this project is how to turn a simple conversation into a treasure trove of experiential data. Those that I interviewed helped me so much in becoming confident in my ability to gather information in respectful and objective manners.

Wyatt Beard
Collaborative project with the faculty: “Digitally modeling and recreating the temples of the Shikoku pilgrimage in the Virtual Shikoku Pilgrimage platform”

From the second we arrived in Japan to the second we left, our every moment in the country was emotionally, intellectually, and culturally enriching. Upon arrival we very quickly acquainted ourselves with Japan’s renowned systems of public transit, primarily its subway/rail system. Before dedicating time to specific research on the Shikoku pilgrimage, we sought to get a broad sense of Japanese culture and history, and so our first expedition was to Tokyo’s Imperial Palace. Following this, we ventured to the Tokyo National Museum. Here we enjoyed exhibits featuring ancient weapons, artisanal trinkets, and antiquated ceramics. After our time in Tokyo, we took a train to Kyoto, and from there visited various Shinto shrines. This gave me an appreciation for the uniqueness of Shinto as a world religion, but also an understanding of its influences on Shingon Buddhism. From Kyoto, we travelled to Hiroshima. Our point of interest was the sole surviving building from the atomic bombing during World War II. We finally made our way to the island of Shikoku where we visited ten temples associated with the famous pilgrimage established by Kūkai. I collected massive amounts of photographic detail, paying special attention to architectural quirks, textural details, and the portions of each building that are not immediately noticeable. I also attempted to capture as much detail as possible for highly ornate features, like carvings and statues, as any such feature would require finer consideration when being recreated. After returning to the United States, I set about compiling and organizing the data I collected for easier reference. I took time to conduct further research into the architectural history behind the buildings I documented, so that as I could rebuild them digitally in a way that mimics the original in as closely as possible. I completed the bulk of my 3D modeling of temple structures using the popular Blender software application, and the skills I developed through working on the Virtual Shikoku Pilgrimage project will be invaluable for my future career aspirations in video game design.

Shonte Clement
Collaborative project with the faculty: “Virtual experiences of spiritual spaces: recreating the temple grounds and pathways of the Shikoku pilgrimage through the Virtual Shikoku Pilgrimage platform.”

My contribution to the Virtual Shikoku Pilgrimage project was mainly in creating the mock-ups of temple spaces, especially the environmental elements that blend together to create the atmosphere of the spaces. I based them on sketches I made from the pictures I took during the trip. These were rudimentary outlines that will be filled in as 3D models with greater details later. As one of the SFF Core Ideas is to view global issues within an Asian context, I find it difficult not to relate the effects of the current global pandemic to the aims of the Virtual Shikoku Pilgrimage project. My area was placed in mandatory quarantine. This circumstance and the trend of people turning to the arts in search of comfort has allowed me to realize another layer to the significance of digitizing the Shikoku Pilgrimage and other heritage sites. I understood the importance of this in terms of accessibility and class before all of this happened, but our current reality has given me a new perspective. After the project, I have an even greater fervor for viewing domestic and global issues beyond my limited western perspective. While I cannot claim to completely understand Asian, particularly East Asian, collective behavior from my limited time in Japan, I do think it had a very large impact on their response to the virus. I believe that this is in line with the second SFF Core Idea, and I am very thankful to be able to recognize that tangible difference in cultural perspective. Regarding the third and fourth SFF Core Ideas, I feel that participating in this project allowed me to practically apply professional skills I already possessed in a different cultural context. The ability to think critically becomes infinitely more valuable when one is able to change their frame of reference to one that may be completely different.

Kasey Charette
Collaborative project with the faculty: “Digital Storytelling and the Experience of Places: Embedding multimedia storytelling elements in the Virtual Shikoku Pilgrimage platform.”

This fellowship allowed me the opportunity to gain knowledge about certain aspects of the history and culture of Japan. Before going, I knew little about Buddhist practice and experiencing it firsthand through the Shikoku Pilgrimage has greatly broadened my understanding. After returning, I helped my team recreate this experience, not just the physical space, for those who are looking to gain knowledge just as I had. This digital project will provide a window for people who want to look into this cultural tradition they otherwise might not get to experience due to constraints of time, money, and now travel bans related to Covid-19.

After returning to the US, we began working on the digital prototype for the first temple. We had weekly meetings to collaborate with team members, during which we pitched new ideas, got to see the progress each team member was making, and discussed our short-term goal for the upcoming week. I focused on writing a script that included key aspects of events that take place within the temple grounds. I went through the media we collected, organized pictures, videos, and audio files to include with the script I was writings.  I also focused on formulating ideas for the user interface. Each week, I worked with Dr. Bergeron on how the user interface should look, what features should be included, and where they should be located on the screen of the prototype. Through such activities, this project has helped me develop critical thinking abilities and creative skills for representing life in a digital space. Being able to collaborate with people, having good communication skills and learning how to work as part of a team are all beneficial skills that will help me in my career and in many aspects of life. 

Luke Rutherford
Collaborative project with the faculty: “Designing a Virtual Landscape Experience: recreating the pathways and landscapes of the Shikoku pilgrimage routes in the Virtual Shikoku Pilgrimage platform”

For the Virtual Shikoku Pilgrimage project, I was primarily responsible for recreating the landscape and areas between the temples in a digital 3D format. While in Shikoku I collected photo and video data of the landscape along our treks between the temples, and also used an audio recorder to capture some of the ambient sounds of temples, including people walking on gravel, the bubbling of a water basin, and pilgrims chanting the Heart Sutra in the distance. Using these as a jumping off point for the sound of our project helps to create a more believable and natural landscape. Concerning the spaces between temples, I believe that designing and placing trees and other natural elements that are native to each location enhances the experience for anyone using our project. In conjunction with the audio recordings, hundreds of photos were taken at each temple so that we could accurately depict the grounds and what the Shikoku Pilgrimage truly is. The sound design will make the project a complete experience.

This experience in Japan and the work we did to develop the Virtual Shikoku Pilgrimage prototype strengthened my commitment to my future goal of becoming a teacher and ability to achieve it. The trip made me realize that there will be many challenges when it comes to teaching about how digital storytelling is both important and very detail oriented. Teaching people that even the sound of the gravel you walk on must be digitized in order to make the experience better is going to be tough to teach as a part of the new face of digital arts.

Overall, I am proud of my participation in the Virtual Shikoku Pilgrimage project, both the trip to Japan and the digital prototype development. I cannot believe how fortunate I am to have this experience. I am able to see how different the American culture is compared to that of Japan, even how people carry themselves when just walking around the street.