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The looniest place in the middle of nowhere

Our intrepid travelers venture into a region of endless apple trees, ancient pyramids, ghastly smells and what some claim is the tomb of Jesus Christ.
(IHT/Asahi: Friday,October 19,2001)

Special to The Asahi Shimbun

Our route through Aomori Prefecture was set to continue south out of Kizukuri town for the castle city of Hirosaki before swinging out east again, this time to Misawa. From there, Etsuko and I planned to walk to what must be the looniest place in Japan.

Shingo village, formerly known as Herai, epitomizes the middle of nowhere with its sprinkling of scraggly garlic fields and patchwork of rice paddies that glow golden in the early autumn sun. Few tourists ever visit the place, but those who do are usually coming to see pyramids reputed to predate those of Egypt, as well as the "Tomb of Christ." According to local legend, Jesus lived to the ripe old age of 106 in Herai.

Shingo village resident Chikako Tazawa at Christ’s Tomb
Perhaps more serious and fascinating is that many of the customs of this nation, including songs, dances and rituals of Shingo village, are said to reveal that some of the lost tribes of Israel settled in ancient Japan. While most people are quick to scoff at ideas that don't accord with school history books, a number of noted academics, historians and theologians--both Japanese and foreign--claim that ancient Judaic-Christian links with Japan are beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, a former rabbi of Tokyo Synagogue, said in an interview three years ago that he discounts talk of Jesus having ever lived in Japan, but he is convinced that many of today's Japanese are descendants of Hebrew tribes. And, the world's leading expert on the lost tribes of Israel, Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, is planning to travel from Jerusalem to Tokyo this year to look into the matter further.

Should the Orthodox Jewish rabbi be convinced that Hebrews did settle in ancient Japan, it will open much more than a new chapter on the origins of the Japanese and most of this country's history and culture. It could mean that some Japanese would even be able to make aliyah (right of return), with Israel becoming their home.

Etsuko and I were both excited about visiting Shingo again. We were looking forward to catching up on stories with our old friends, Yukie and Yoshiteru Ogasawara, at Nobara Pension, and once more we planned to venture out to the two mound tombs, marked with large wooden crosses, that look down from the top of a small hill.

The Juraizuka tomb claims to hold the body of Christ, while the Judaibo tomb--reputed to be the tomb of Christ's brother Isukiri--is believed to hold locks of hair of the Virgin Mary as well as an ear of Isukiri. According to the Legend of Daitenku Taro Jurai, Jesus escaped crucifixion and it was Isukiri who died on the cross.

* * *

Aomori Prefecture is renowned throughout Japan for its production of apple.
The road to Hirosaki led us past endless orchards where we saw farmers picking and packing the first huge, red Tsugaru apples of the season. Aomori Prefecture is renowned throughout Japan for its production of the fruit and in the hamlet of Kashiwa, we stopped by to view what is said to be the nation's oldest apple tree.

An elderly woman, who became the umpteenth person to foist more apples upon us than we could ever hope to eat or carry, had pointed out the way to the 123-year-old tree, which stood with gnarled branches manically twisting out in all directions, bursting with apples about to ripen.

Mount Iwaki floated way beyond the orchards in a sea of thick, gray clouds as we entered the outskirts of Hirosaki, and by the time we plodded past the moat of the three-level donjon, originally built in the 16th century, the heavens had already opened.

We were soaked to the skin, our boots squelching with dirty rainwater, as we checked into our hotel with little more to look forward to than an evening of major laundry.

* * *

A most obnoxious smell wafted my way, only to be quickly followed by another, as first the face of Osama bin Laden flickered on the television screen, followed by U.S. President George Bush. The ojii-chan (grandpa) sitting next to me in the communal area at Sukayu Onsen obviously wasn't interested in news about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Yet another foul odor permeated the air. The old chap got up and quickly switched channels to a baseball game, then returning to his seat, picked up his sports newspaper to continue ogling pictures of women's breasts. Another disgusting aroma reached my nostrils and I gave the old chap a filthy look. The obaa-chan (granny) sitting nearby started to giggle, which only got me wondering: was the cute, little grandma the perpetrator of the SBD (silentbut-deadly) farts or the old fellow sitting right next to me?

Unsure of whom to label as my prime suspect, I tried to lose myself in a book, but was once again overcome by the most offensive stink. Oba-chan tittered again and I threw her a daggered look, which only seemed to entertain her more, provoking a fit of chuckles behind a Kitty-chan handkerchief.

Oji-chan observed me over his newspaper and giggled too. Were they both in on the farting together? I mulled as a bleached-blond youth trotted over, smirked at me and then switched the television channel back to reports on the devastation in New York. The most offensive smell of the evening suddenly hung like an atomic bomb in the air, which set me wondering about the food at this sprawling ryokan, on the road to Mount Hakkoda that is famed for its senninburo (bath that can hold 1,000 people).

Etsuko tapped me on the shoulder to ask if I was ready for our evening dip in the huge wooden baths. "This place is weird," I told her. "Everyone is constantly farting and then laughing about it. The food must be iffy." She too burst out laughing as I rose from my chair holding my nose. "Don't be daft," she said.

"It's just the onsen you can smell. And, yes, everyone probably thinks its amusing that the gaijin is wearing her yukata insideout," she guffawed. I blushed with embarrassment. Infinite justice had been served.

* * *

Toyoji Sawaguchi, an elderly garlic farmer, is not convinced that he or any other members of his family are descendants of Christ.

"I'm not a Christian. I've never been to church or read the Bible, and Christmas means nothing to me," he told me when I first visited Shingo village three years ago. "Somehow, I just can't picture Jesus, a great man, as my ancestor. All I know is that the tombs are said to be of my ancestors and my family has always cared for them," he said of the two mounds that sit within the grounds of the Christ Village Legend Museum.

Local historian Shoji Kosaka says that most villagers do not believe Christ lies in the tomb, but that another foreigner, who settled in Herai, does.

"Those tombs are ancient and the identity of who truly lies there will probably always remain a mystery. Many people do believe it is a foreigner though, and there is a very old legend of a Western woman who settled here and helped the poor of this area. The tomb may be linked to her," Kosaka told us.

"Some people believe it was a Russian who settled here," Kosaka explained when I asked him about the fact that some villagers--including the father of Sawaguchi--had blue eyes. "There's also theories that it is an Ainu's tomb," added Kosaka, batting more possibilities our way.

We asked the old chap if he had any thoughts on the theories that ancient Hebrew tribes settled in Japan. "I don't know if Hebrew tribes settled here, but certainly there's no reason why they would not have been able to come to Japan in ancient times.

"Of course, the Judaic-Christian customs of Shingo could be connected to the kakure Kirishitan (hidden Christians). Some may have settled here during the 17th century after Christianity was outlawed by the (Tokugawa) shogunate. In fact, I picked up a Buddha statue in Ninohe, near here, and was later told by a Buddhist monk that it is, in fact, a kirishitan relic," Kosaka, a keen antique collector explained before pointing out the three crosses marked on the crown of the black statue that sits in his living room.

Out at the Oishigami Pyramids--which look nothing like the pyramids of Egypt or Mexico--Etsuko and I met up with Mitsuru Takahashi, a local fellow who makes his living selling "Christ Village Sake."

"These stones aren't local to this area," he explained, waving his arms around. "They were definitely moved here and it's thought that this site was used in ancient times for sun worship," Takahashi told us as we stood on the Mirror Stone and peered up at the small Shinto shrine that sits on Constellation Stone.

"We get a few eccentrics out here. Some people want to sleep on the stones at night, which is foolish as there are bears roaming this area. The police keep an eye on the place as well as the tombs because some years ago the crosses on the tombs were destroyed. The culprits have yet to be caught," he added.

Takahashi explained that Shingo gets flak from Christians who perceive the village's legend as making a mockery of their religion. "Shingo was just an ordinary little village until the Takenouchi documents turned up in 1935," Takahashi said of the "ancient writings" in Japanese--since proved fake--that were reputed to be not only Christ's "last will and testament" but proof that he once lived in Japan.

At press time, Mary King and Etsuko Shimabukuro had walked 2,724 kilometers of their trek to Okinawa’s Yonaguni Island.

The Japan on Foot walkers hope to raise awareness and donations for HELP, a Japanbased charity that aids victims of domestic violence. For details on how you can help, see