When Dai Hirota decided to be baptized a member of the Church 10 years ago, he knew he was taking a big step.
Not only would he be the only member in his family, but he also lived in Kyoto, the cultural and religious center of Japan where traditions are deeply rooted in the Buddhist faith."When I decided to be baptized, it was complicated, but something very important," he explained. "I never believed in Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father before. Many, many missionaries came to my home. When I decided to believe in God, everything became clear to me and there was no question in my mind."
Now serving as a high councilor in the Osaka Japan North Stake, Brother Hirota, 48, was introduced to the Church by a business friend from the United States. "I so appreciate my friends. If I could not meet them, I would never feel such delightfulness," he said in broken English.
Brother Hirota's experience and attitude is indicative of members in the Kyoto Rakuhoku Ward in the Osaka Japan North Stake.
Kyoto, located about 27 miles inland from Osaka, served as Japan's capital from A.D. 794 until 1868 when it was replaced by Tokyo. The city, where the traditional blends with the modern, is one of the largest cities in Japan with a population of almost 1.5 million.
Kyoto – the only major Japanese city to escape bombing during World War II – is the location of many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines with one dating back to the 1300s.
"Because temples were not destroyed, there are strong religious ties here," remarked Bishop Yoskiaki Tsutsumi. "To bring up a new religion is difficult."
But the ward is finding success in its missionary endeavors, even if it comes in bits and pieces. Ward leaders are hoping a stake will be established in Kyoto soon. At the last stake conference, held in Osaka, the Kyoto ward had 150 percent attendance, boosted by non-members who came to the meeting. Two branches located on the outskirts of Kyoto are also growing.
Missionary work is a common theme in the Kyoto ward, often the topic for Church meetings and gatherings.
Sakae Itatani, ward mission leader, said the ward is doing missionary work two ways – by working with the neighbors of member families and by reaching out to single people in the city.
"As the traditional capital of Japan, people from Kyoto are set in their ways and tied to traditions," Brother Itatani added. "More often younger people are converted.
"But our focus is on families. We hope to build up enough in the future to start a solid Young Men program and keep prospective missionaries in the Church.
"Member families are a living example of the gospel," he continued. "Sometimes parents are hard to reach because of traditions, but hopefully we can enter through the children and go to the parents from there."
Full-time missionaries teach English conversation classes and hold service projects in neighborhoods to introduce people to the Church. Many young singles, living in Kyoto to attend one of many institutions of higher education, are introduced to the gospel through English classes.
English is taught for one hour and is followed by a 20-minute spiritual message. Those attending can leave or stay, but many stay and listen to the message, according to missionaries serving in the city.
There are three zones in Kyoto and 32 missionaries covering the one ward and two branches. Ten full-time missionaries from one zone are assigned to the Kyoto ward.
"We become friends first and then share the discussions," said Elder Joe Dunn, a missionary from Blackfoot, Idaho. "The retention is higher that way. Members also go to the English classes to help newcomers feel comfortable coming into the group."
"Our relationship with the members is really good. We have a lot of joint lessons with them and that is helpful."
Elder Stephen Fluckiger, who recently returned home to Star Valley, Wyo., said the main focus with contacts in Kyoto was to help them believe in God. "Some really grasp on to it. If we find someone who is really sincere and has a strong desire to learn, they usually grow in their testimony and are baptized."
Elder Tad Judd, from Tremonton, Utah, served in Kyoto for six months. "A lot is happening there because it is a big city and some people are willing to listen and accept new things. But others try to keep with the cultural traditions of Kyoto and are closed-minded."
Bishop Tsutsumi, who has been bishop in Kyoto for four years, described members as strong and devoted. There are about 80 active members in the ward, but because of missionary efforts, attendance is above average at meetings.
"There is a good spiritual feeling in our ward. We have a lot of college students and many times the meetings are very quiet."
About 70 percent of ward members hold temple recommends. The ward encourages temple attendance by chartering a bus to travel to the Tokyo Temple. The temple trip, an eight-hour ride that costs about $100, is usually a monthly outing. It is faster to take the Shinkansen, Japan's bullet train, but it costs twice as much.
Ward leaders also work hard to reactivate members who have drifted away.
"We really want to boost attendance of less-active members," the bishop explained. "As some people join the Church, their relatives oppose it and make it difficult for them to be active. But we have a lot of experience and strive to keep the new members active in the Church."
Mauni Hayakawa shared her testimony during a recent sacrament meeting. She had been less-active for six years, but came back to Church activity a year ago.
Each month her visiting teachers would call or visit her and made her feel accepted. "If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be standing here," she said.
Junko Ueda, Relief Society president, said the sisters in the ward are responsible and diligent in what they do. They have achieved 100 percent visiting teaching in recent months, the only ward in the stake to do so.
The Relief Society presidency emphasizes the importance of obeying the commandments and works hard to give support to the single sisters in the ward, Sister Ueda said.
"We really get a lot of enjoyment in helping the sisters progress. The gospel brings many blessings in life."
Ward sisters are often busy making meals for missionary zone conferences, helping members with newborn infants, helping older sisters and serving in the community as individuals.
Learning the proper way to wear a kimono and serve a traditional Japanese meal were some lessons taught in recent homemaking meetings.
Bishop Tsutsumi said ward leaders hope to increase the number of strong priesthood holders in member families to help the Church grow in Kyoto. They are eager to see more meetinghouses built near the homes of members.
Many families have to travel long distances to attend Church in the Kyoto meetinghouse, often an expensive and difficult task for some.
"We don't want to have just one Church (meetinghouse) here, but buildings where the members live," the bishop said. "We want to grow here so we can meet our goal and build a stake here."