The End of the Road
||Mary and Etsuko at the rock
on Yonaguni-jima, Okinawa that marks
Japan's westernmost point
||PHOTO: JAPAN ON
It was in 1986 that Aratake Kihachiro
went diving off the shores of Yonaguni-jima
island. He hoped to find a new spot
to show tourist-divers hammerhead sharks.
The native islander, however, discovered
something far more excitinga huge
underwater structure that he could only
imagine was an ancient ruin. Some of
the islands fishermen had talked
of a structure that they occasionally
caught a glimpse of when just 100 meters
off shore, but Aratake found himself
exploring at close range something he
couldnt imagine to be true, and
so he decided to keep it a secret.
I was certain it was an ancient
ruin. In all my years of diving, I had
never seen anything quite like it. However,
since it became known to the academic
world many specialists, from Japan and
overseas, have dived down to study it.
Some believe it is partially man-made,
others claim it is purely natural, but
either way it is an incredible structure,
the 55-year-old diver excitedly told
us at his home on Yonaguni-jima while
pulling out photographs and slides of
the Yonaguni Submarine Pyramid for us
to view. Etsuko and I had already viewed
the structure from a glass-bottomed
boat and were aware of how impressive
it is, but Aratakes photography
had truly captured the magical essence
of this mysterious underwater world
that lies 25 meters under the ocean.
Like all the other diving points on
the island, Aratake named this one too.
I called it Iseki (Ruins) Point
because it resembles the ruins of an
old temple with a pyramidal structure.
And, now the main diving attraction
on Yonaguni-jima is not hammerhead sharks;
its Iseki Point, and my discovery
of it has ended up making me quite famous,
laughed Aratake, who over the years
has dived down with such people as the
famed French diver Jack Moyel, the radical
U.S. geologist Robert Schoch, as well
as Britains Anthony Hancock, who
has written several books on his investigations
to prove that a lost civilization, one
much older than Egypts, once existed.
But could it be possible that Iseki
Point is man-made? Is it possible that
it could date back 10,000 years and
attest to the existence of a yet unknown
civilization, one that predates ancient
Egypt? Some people argue that what lies
under the ocean at Yonaguni-jima is
the remains of Mu, a lost civilization
of mythical proportions, one that is
Asias equivalent of Atlantis.
However, one Japanese academic is adamant
that Iseki Point is man-made. A geologist
with more than 30 years experience,
and a professor at the University of
the Ryukyus on the main Okinawan island,
Dr. Kimura Masaaki maintains that Iseki
Point is man-made, probably 10,000 years
old and serves as evidence of a civilization
that he light-heartedly calls Ma.
I dont believe that Mu existed.
I dont believe that such a huge
continent ever existed in the South
Pacific, but I do believe that a huge
continent existed in the West Pacific
Ocean and that Okinawa was once part
of that continent. I call this lost
continent the West Pacific Paleo Lands,
or Ma Land for short, Dr. Kimura
told Etsuko and me when we interviewed
him prior to sailing out to the smaller
Chinese mythology refers to an
ancient civilization in the east called
Horai, meaning paradise, or utopia.
There is an ancient bell in a museum
in Shuri city that has the word Horai
engraved on it; you can also find similar
bells, marked the same way, in Taiwan.
Several ancient Chinese documents refer
to Horai and its having been submerged
under water. In Okinawa, you find the
legend of Nirai Kanai, people who are
coming from the bottom of the sea, and
in Japan, the legend of Urashima Taro
is well known but is a legend that can
also be heard in India and Tibet,
continued Kimura, who has dived out
to Iseki Point more than 100 times since
1992. During these dives he takes rock
and coral algae samples for geological
testing, takes photographs and measures
features that he maintains prove that
the structure is man-made. He has also
found tools on the seabed and rocks
bearing carved symbols, as well as rock
reliefs of various animalsÅ\from
bird and turtles, to what appears to
be a boar or cow.
Kimura showed us slides and photographs
of what he maintains are roads associated
with drainage canals, as well as tool
marks in the rock structure, flat terraces,
straight walls, pyramidal steps and
various other characteristics that he
maintains prove that the structure is,
beyond a shadow of a doubt, not simply
a natural phenomenon. Stone tools and
what Kimura says is a Moai-like rock-carving
are among other items that tend to back
up his theory.
Iseki Point seems to have been
fabricated on land and then submerged
underwater. Our surveys reveal that
the overall shape and features of Iseki
Point are greatly similar to gusuku
(castles) in ancient Okinawa, and particularly
show resemblance to Shuri and Nakagusuku
castles (on Okinawa island), explained
The gusuku has been thought to
be something like a combination of a
castle and a temple, and the remains
of gusuku look like a sort of pyramid.
The cliff steps at Iseki Point resemble
a stepped pyramid, and dating tests
I have conducted suggests that this
structure is around 10,000 years old,
Kimura told us. The professor showed
us slides of what he believes are rock
carvings of a bird and turtles, as well
as of the Moai, the canals,
tool marks and the steps of what he
has dubbed the Yonaguni Submarine Pyramid.
Certainly, to the layman he presents
striking evidence that what lies under
water must indeed be manmade. But, although
some geologists and archeologists support
his view, most insist that the structure
is nothing more than a natural freak.
Kimura is saddened by the thought that
it is more likely that Western academics
will be the first to seriously study
the structure and verify his theory,
rather than Japanese.
Japanese archeologists are very
conservative; they dont like to
work with things that they are not familiar
with and especially if it involves work
that could prove to be threatening to
the status quo and shake-up agreed on
archeological theories and history,
Etsuko and I took a mornings crash-course
in diving, but unfortunately we didnt
have what it takes to make the plunge
out to Iseki Point that same day with
a group of skilled divers that had signed
up with Aratakes diving school.
Dont worry, we have the
clearest waters in the world here,
Aratake comforted us. Just put
these goggles on and hang off the edge
of the boat while I pull you across
Iseki Point, he laughed. Huge
waves lapped over us and we gagged on
mouthfuls of water, but below us lay
a marvelous, mythical world; one whose
true mystery waits to be wholly unraveled.
It was the most unforgettable experience,
the topping on the cake of our long
On 15 August 2002, the Japan on Foot
project officially ended on Yonaguni-jima,
Okinawa, with our snorkel out over Iseki
Point, what some claim is the remains
of the lost civilization of Mu. The
project, which started 9 May 2001, from
Cape Soya, Hokkaido, involved Mary King
and Shimabukuro Etsuko walking an actual
distance of 7,494 kilometers.
|| Iseki Point, off Yonaguni-jima
||COURTESY OF ARATAKE KIHACHIRO
||Geologist Dr. Kimura Masaaki,
who maintains that Iseki Point is
||JAPAN ON FOOT
After a 10-minute boat trip from Ishigaki-jima
island, Etsuko and I alighted on yet
another Okinawan Shangri-laTaketomi-jima.
We spent two nights on this isle of
about 270 souls. With a circumference
of less than 10 kilometers, it takes
less than three hours to stroll round
it, but Etsuko and I decided not to
circumnavigate the island. Instead,
we were happy just to meander along
its country lanes, admiring the shisa
(lions-dogs) that adorn the gateposts
and beautiful red-tiled roofs of the
houses here. The shisa has long been
believed to ward off evil spirits, but
I really couldnt imagine that
anything more malevolent than poisonous
snakes could haunt this island.
Occasionally, a bull, pulling a cartload
of tourists, would mosey on past us,
giving a weary snort or throwing us
an indifferent, bleary-eyed glance.
Coral walls protect Taketomi-jimas
homes from lashing typhoon winds, and
gardens flow over with an abundance
of tropical flora and faunabougainvillea
and hibiscus flowers burst forth here
and there, while banana trees, sugar
cane and palms sway in the gentle sea
breeze. Huge butterflies in kimono of
blacks, deep reds and purple flitted
constantly passed us. Taketomi was truly
idyllic, and we were only sad that our
sojourn on this little paradise would
be so short.
The walk had really come to an emotional
ending for us once we arrived in Shuri
city, on the Okinawa mainland. But now,
as we realized that the next sea voyage
would spirit us to Yonaguni-jima, our
destination goal, Etsuko and I were
plagued by an incredible downer. We
never doubted that we could cover such
a great distance on foot, but the isle
on which Etsukos mother and grandmother
were born and raised, had for more than
a year felt like a lifetime away. In
some kind of way, neither of us ever
wanted to reach the shores of Yonaguni-jima
and explore the underwater structure
that lies off its shores that some claim
to be the ruins of Muthe Asian
equivalent of Atlantis.
Purely by coincidence we happened to
sail into Yonaguni-jima from Ishigaki-jima
on the day that my blood mother was
getting married. It had been a bit of
shock to hear that after 20 years, my
mother had ditched her boyfriend to
move in with the next-door neighbor.
Within four months, the pair had decided
to get married. It was disheartening
that I couldnt be present at my
mothers wedding ceremony in England,
but as Etsuko and I alighted at the
port on Yonaguni-jima, we were quickly
drawn into festivities that were taking
place, leaving little time for me to
Fishermen were sailing small boats into
the port to unload their catches of
billfish for the annual Billfishing
Contest. Cranes were lifting up the
carcasses of fish that weighed close
to 200 kilograms. I had never seen a
spectacle quite like it since my early
days in Tokyo when I had made a trip
down to Tsukiji Fish Market, reputed
to be the worlds biggest fish
market. Much laughter and cheering was
going on as islanders took to a set-up
stage to sing minyo (Okinawan
folk) songs and announce the weight
of the latest big catch. Etsuko and
I grabbed a couple of beers and some
fried squid at one of the nearby marquees
and sat ourselves down to absorb the
goings-on of the day, before signing
up for a trip in a glass-bottomed boat
that would take tourists out to view
the Iseki Point, the underwater structure
that had been found some years earlier
by one of the islands divers.
Just a few weeks before, we had met
with Dr. Kimura Masaaki, a geologist
and a professor at the University of
the Ryukyus, who maintains that the
structure is partially man-made and
that beyond this, it is a testament
of a lost civilization, one that predates
that of Egypt and all other known civilizations.
The Rock Gardener
||Etsuko admires one of the hundreds
of rocks that Shinjo Sadakichi has
excavated from his island garden
||PHOTO: JAPAN ON
It took four days of traipsing through
intense heat to reach Shuri city, where
Etsuko was born and raised. The muggy
heat took an incredible toll on us during
the stretch from Motobu town to Etsukos
hometown, but there was much to absorb
and enjoy en route to the city where
the Kings of Okinawa once resided. A
habu snake show, as well as walking
past U.S. military bases where planes
flew so low we would actually duck in
fear that they were about to land on
us, were just a few of the roadside
entertainments that kept us on our toes.
Sweat dripped from every pore, soaking
our clothes, and we found ourselves
stopping to grab drinks from vending
machines at virtually every 15-minute
Mama-chan simply laughed and shrugged
as her daughter stepped over the threshold
for the first time in 10 years. Etsukos
mother, who I had previously met at
one of her sons weddings in Tokyo,
backed off as I went to hug and kiss
her on the cheek. No, no, no!
she screamed, waving me off like I were
a monster while revealing she had a
mouth full of jet-black teeth. It was
my turn to be horrified. Good
God! I screeched. I had never
seen such deteriorated teeth. Etsuko
Moms rustled up an Okinawan
specialty; squid ink soup, she
tittered, leading me into the kitchen
to show off a pot full of what looked
like burning coal and petroleum.
A few hours later, we all sat around
laughing and chatting with teeth and
tongues as terrifying as those of the
Hindu goddess Kali. Mama-chan regaled
me with tales about noro (shamanesses)
and yuta (clairvoyants), as well
as her own experiences with studying
palmistry. Apparently, she was a born
natural, according to her sensei
This line on my hand here, Im
told, is very unusual. It seems that
I was [warrior leader] Tokugawa Ieyasu
in a previous life, she earnestly
told me. I shivered at the prospect.
I presented her my palm and she scrutinized
it carefully. You dont have
any problems to make a living,
she proffered, and then a few minutes
later added, Look, if you cant
sell your book, both of you can live
with me in Okinawa.
Mama-chan went on to explain that she
believes palmistry, as well as the utterings
of yuta, to be largely a load of bunkum.
Im not superstitious at
all, she insisted, but three days
later when Etsuko and I were ready to
depart for Miyako-jima island, she suddenly
presented me with a bag of salt. I was
stumped. Was this some kind of Okinawan
ritual that Etsuko had forgotten to
The salt is for protection,
Mama-chan told me, throwing another
bag at her daughter. Come back
here before O-bon (Festival of the Dead);
its dangerous to be traveling
when the dead are walking around,
We sailed for Miyako-jima, where I hoped
to meet with a man who has devoted 20
years of his life to digging up huge
rocks in his garden, apparently for
spiritual purposes. The Hiryu sailed
into the island at the unearthly hour
of 4 A.M., leaving the two of us with
no choice but to sleep out in the streets
until the island awoke and shifted into
gear for life and work. We took a bleary-eyed
breakfast at Mos Burger, in Hirara city,
where I was tickled pink to spot a handwritten
sign that announced, We are sorry,
but it will rain a lot over the next
few days. We have recently performed
our rain dance.
Shinjo Sadakichi was not in the best
of spirits when we met him. He was annoyed
because we had turned up five minutes
early while the 80-year-old was in the
midst of his lunch. Returning to his
rice and fish, the old chap left Etsuko
and me to sit in a room that was adorned
with hundreds of strange-looking, coral-like
rocks that, since 1980, he has dug up
from his garden. After his meal, Shinjo
ordered us to explore his garden on
our own, and so Etsuko and I found ourselves
clambering through a mini-jungle of
banana trees, palms and lichen-covered
rocks, until we fell upon what appeared
to be the lost city of the Incas. Rocks
of every size imaginable had been placed
in groups here and there, and I felt
both an essence of sanctity and the
hand of a great artist at work. The
coral-like stones were truly magnificent,
arranged artistically, and bearing prayers
Shinjo, however, was not impressed to
hear that I considered him an artist.
It definitely set the interview off
on a wrong footing. The scrawny man
with bushy gray hair was used to having
people treat him like a guru. Didnt
I know that people came to him, clasping
hands together and bowing in worship,
in the hope that he would bless them
and pass on his super-human strength.
Even athletes have come asking
me to give them strength, he warned
us. Perhaps he was disappointed that
neither of us were seeking out his blessings;
he obviously felt that we werent
sufficiently in awe of him.
We had seen the huge holes in his garden,
from where he digs his rocks, and I
found it rather incredible that this
small man could have lifted rockssome
of them weighing 10 tonsalone.
Do you use some kind of digger,
I asked. Shinjo was now well and truly
miffed by us.
This strength was given to me.
It came after a dream when I was 47.
I was told that I needed to teach men
about God, he told us, adding
that his inspiration had originally
been fired during early childhood, a
time when I discovered I had the ability
to see peoples souls.
My dream told me to stay on Miyako-jima,
to dig for rocks, but when I told my
wife, she said, your dreams always
come true. Lets move to Naha;
I really dont want to be involved
with this dream, he continued,
looking somewhat glum.
Etsuko and I could see that Shinjo was
actually quite lonely. His family had
moved to the main Okinawan island and
left him to pursue his dream, but it
seemed that he had become bitter. My
powers have now left me. I dont
have the strength anymore to dig for
rocks. The rocks no longer speak to
me and its no longer fun,
he snapped at us. Etsuko and I decided
it was perhaps best to leave Shinjo
to his own devices. He looked sad when
we shook his hand and bid him well,
but it was time for us to move on. Our
next stop would be Hateruma-jinja island,
Japans southernmost point.
Far From Disney
||Etsuko and Mary at Hateruma,
Japan's southernmost point.
||PHOTO: JAPAN ON
From Ishigaki-jima island, we hopped
on a crowded speedboat that leaped across
an angry sea as we headed into the eye
of a storm. My whole body stiffened
with fright and I broke out in a cold
sweat as I frantically looked around
for life jackets, only to discover there
were none. Etsukos senses were
dulled after taking the motion-sickness
tablets. She was in a zombie-like, bleary-eyed
state of half-sleep while I, in a state
of terror, clutched onto the seat in
front of me. My arms trembled as I peered
out at the two-meter-high waves that
tore at the Anei. I feared that at any
moment we would capsize.
I hadnt been gripped by such fear
since a river-rafting expedition several
years earlier. During the days
venture on the Zambezi River, renowned
as the roughest river in the world,
the raft had capsized three times on
the volatile rapids. With each dipping,
I became more resigned to the fact that
I would probably not live to see the
end of the day. The rapids had sucked
me down time and time again, churning
me in their bowels of water as if I
were some rag flung in a washing machine.
It had been an agonizing experience
to realize that it was impossible to
swim, and that the more I tried to,
the more I was sucked down into the
hungry mouths of the rapids and left
spluttering on mouthfuls of water and
gasping for air the moment I was tossed
back to the waters surface.
My whole life had flickered before my
eyes. I was completely helpless; I couldnt
even save myself, let alone try and
help Etsuko who, at that time, couldnt
swim a stroke. Two tourists had died
on the river just a month earlier; an
elderly man had a heart attack when
his raft capsized on a rapid and, on
another Zambezi expedition, a young
English woman had drowned. Apparently,
her shoelace had got caught around the
branches of a huge tree on the rivers
bottom. Parts of her body were found
a few days later, much further downstream.
"The crocodiles had eaten most
of her," our African guide had
told us before Etsuko and I had joined
up with a group of fellow backpackers
and signed up for the river adventure.
But, after the near-drowning experience
on the Zambezi, I swore I would never
participate in any water sport again.
Etsuko, however, surprised me by saying
that she would love to do it all over
again. I was deeply impressed by the
fact that she had not let her near-death
experience dampen her enthusiasm for
"I just kept wondering when I would
ever come up above water, that it was
taking such a long time to float up
to the surface and that I couldnt
see the raft or anybody else. I felt
quite calm and curious about the predicament;
that I was going to die because I reached
a point where I could no longer breathe,
and then, finally, I was spluttering
with my head above water," she
calmly told me after the incident. I
had gone into spasms on hearing that
Etsuko had not kicked one foot or pushed
herself upwards with her arms in order
to reach the rivers surface sooner.
It was something that I presumed would
be a natural human reflex reaction when
On return to Japan, Etsuko succumbed
to my nagging and took swimming lessons.
She turned out to be a much stronger
swimmer than I am, but as I peered out
of the window of the Anei, I knew that
there would be no hope for any of us
if the vessel capsized out in this raging
sea. The small vessel was hurled higher
and higher on the tails of waves and
would then come crashing down with an
almighty thump that threw passengers
and crew from their seats. Etsuko had
resigned herself to fate.
"Theres nothing that can
be done," she sleepily slurred.
She was right, of course. I only wished
that I could be more accepting of death
and face it with such calmness. Instead,
I found myself becoming irritated by
a group of young men who whooped and
cheered every time our vessel was thrown
into the air or made a precarious crash-landing.
Couldnt they appreciate the potential
danger? Why were they behaving like
we were on some roller coaster at Disney?
The crew was tense; fear was written
plainly across the three mens
faces. Perhaps they regretted not canceling
the voyage, I mused. The ticket sellers
had told us that probably all sea crossings
would be cancelled.
"The weathers not looking
so good. A typhoon is on the way. I
doubt anyone will be leaving today for
Hateruma," a middle-aged woman
had warned us just a few hours before.
Then, at the last minute, we were told
tickets were being sold; the boat would
leave for Hateruma after all.
Passengers and crew eventually staggered
off the Anei, out onto dry land. As
soon as my feet touched the asphalt,
I threw up. The thought of another sea
voyage the following day made me shudder.
We had quite a few more sea voyages
yet to make before reaching Yonaguni-jima
island. The same stretch of water would
take us back to Ishigaki-jima island,
from where another vessel would spirit
us to nearby Taketomi-jima island. And,
from Taketomi-jima we would need to
return yet again to Ishigaki-jima in
order to board the ship that would take
us even further out to sea, to our ultimate
"We can always fly, if you want,"
Etsuko offered, seeing that I was badly
shaken, but I didnt want to succumb
so easily to my fears. After all, we
had initially agreed that Japan on Foot
was a walk.
"To fly would spoil the spirit
of our walk. I just cant wimp
out like that, not now; were so
near to reaching Yonaguni-jima,"
I said. We trotted on past fields of
towering sugar cane, palms and banana
trees where goats snuffled around for
food. Finally, we found what we had
come looking for: the rock boulder that
marks Japan's southernmost point.
Onwards to Okinawa
Yakushima marked the end of our walk
through Kyushu. This island that lies
off the southern tip of Kagoshima-ken
(prefecture) has been designated a World
Heritage Site for its unique flora and
fauna. Despite threat of rainapparently,
theres invariably a downpour up
in the mountainsit turned out
to be a hot muggy day as Etsuko and
I found ourselves clambering over lichen
and moss-covered rocks out in this veritable
Wilson's Stump on Yakushima island,
||PHOTO: JAPAN ON
We spotted deer scampering and snuffling
in the bushes; groups of macaque monkeys
swung without a care through the tendril-like
branches of the great Yaku sugi
(Japanese cedar) trees for which the
island is renowned, and even a snake
didnt flinch as we approached
it; instead it nonchalantly slithered
past our feet. Taking tentative steps
along precarious tree trunks that span
the forests gurgling rivers and
streams, we spent a day hiking up to
the largest Jomon-period sugia
cedar estimated to be between 2,600
and 7,200 years old that also boasts
a whopping girth of 16.4 meters.
A late lunch was taken at Wilsons
Stump, where we observed in wonder the
grotto-like grandeur of this huge cedar
trunk, some 4.39 meters in diameter,
inside of which tourists had huddled
to peer up at the shafts of sunlight
that beamed down upon a small Shinto
shrine. With hishaku (wooden
shrine ladle) in hand, Etsuko and I
scooped sweet mountain water from a
stream that trickled through the trunk
of the tree and refreshed ourselves
before clambering on up to Takatsuka
hut, where we planned to bed down for
the night. Deer nervously twitched and
sniffed at the curry-essence air as
Etsuko and I sat under the stars, slurping
our spicy Cup Noodle dinners.
The following day, we returned to Wilsons
Stump in time for a late picnic-breakfast.
Named after the botanist who found it,
Wilsons Stump is said to be the
remains of a tree that was cut down
on the orders of the sixteenth-century
Warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Apparently,
the wood was used for the construction
of a building to house a great Buddha
statue at Hoko-ji temple in Kyoto. This
part of the forest is a truly magical
place and I was only grateful that we
had at least five minutes of it alone
to soak up its spiritual serenity before
a horde of a hundred or so camera-toting
tourists clumped on through. We packed
up and continued with our descent, leaving
the horde to continue with what looked
like a never-ending rigmarole of setting
up victory-V group shots.
The Queen Coral 8 spirited us
out through the choppy blue waters of
Kagoshima Bay. Fangs of water clawed
at the side of the ship as we rocked,
heaved and rolled out into deeper waters
until the speck that was Kyushu had
completely disappeared from view. Like
many other passengers, Etsuko and I
lay groaning and moaning on our futon,
turning green at the gills and hoping
that the motion sickness tablets would
soon knock us out. Typhoons had been
lashing Japans shores for more
than a month now, and yet another was
on its way.
It was with huge relief that24
hours laterEtsuko and I finally
staggered off the ship at Motobu Port.
We breathed in the salty, sea air and
saluted the direction of Japan. A lump
welled up in my throat and I started
to choke on tears. We were now approaching
the end of our walk; a journey that
had already surpassed the 14-month mark
and a foot-slog of more than 7,300 kilometers
that had taken us from a windy, freezing
northern outpost of Hokkaido to the
northern shores of Okinawa.
It had been an exhilarating and exhausting
adventure and it would shortly end on
Yonaguni-jima. We both felt that the
walking, freedom and challenges had
become an integral part of our daily
lives, and it had reshaped who we are
and what we value. Biting back tears,
Etsuko and I tugged our trolleys along
the asphalt road and into Mobutu town.
The gregarious sounds of an Okinawan
sanshin drifted towards us from
afar, as if carried by a messenger on
the early evening breeze.
Valley of the Gods
||What are they doing here? Moai
statues at Sun Messe Nichinan.
||PHOTO: JAPAN ON
Torrential rain pelted down as we plodded
on over mountain roads that took us
through the Aso-Kuju National Park.
As the month of June drew to its end
Etsuko and I battled on through the
elementsa mix of either typhoon
rains or days where temperatures soared
to 36 degrees centigrade.
We passed through Takachiho, where we
enjoyed a Yokagura dance performance
at Amanoiwato shrine, one of Japans
most sacred sites. The shrine is said
to be the home of all the gods from
which the Imperial line has descended.
Not far from Amanoiwato shrine, across
the Iwato-gawa river, is said to stand
the cave in which the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu,
hid after her evil brother Susanoo went
on a wild rampage, trampling and defecating
over the goddesss rice fields.
The average Joe Soap, Mary King or Shimabukuro
Etsuko is not allowed to venture out
to Amanoiwato Cave, but we did stroll
out to another cave along the same river
where it is believed all the gods gathered
to discuss how they could lure Amaterasu
from her cave and thus restore light
to the world. Apparently, the goddess
Ameno Uzume performed a lewd dance in
front of the cave, waving her genitals
at all the gods, who creased up with
mirth at the wild spectacle. Becoming
curious about the commotion, Amaterasu
peeked outside her cave only to catch
a glimpse of her face in a mirror. Takajiro,
a god of enormous strength, then pulled
back the boulder covering the mouth
of the cave and together, the gods pulled
Amaterasu back into the world.
In Saito city, also in Miyazaki-ken
(prefecture), we strolled out through
an area that is dotted with more than
300 ancient tumulia verdant area
that is Japans equivalent of the
Valley of the Kings and Queens. The
sun was a bloodshot eye as it drifted
below the horizon after we had spent
an arduous day traipsing out of Miyazaki
city. Out in Futo hamlet, Etsuko and
I found ourselves without accommodation
for the night. Kipping out on the beach
had all felt very romantic at the time.
"How lovely it would be to sleep
under the stars," Etsuko had said
to me. "Yes, indeed," I had
oozed. How idyllic to spend the night
listening to the soporific lapping of
waves and feeling the gentle sea breeze
on our faces as we lay tucked in our
sleeping bags. Surely, nothing could
be more beautiful. But neither of us
would grab more than the odd wink or
two of slumber that night. Miyazakis
mosquitoes viewed us as a potential
banquet and as they pursued their kamikaze
conquest, Etsuko and I tossed around
in misery, waving frantically to protect
ourselves from their savage attacks.
Before the sun had even risen, we were
back on the road, completely exhausted
from the nightlong battle and covered
in a mass of huge, incredibly itchy
With our pedometers having now hit just
over 7,000 kilometers, we continued
on down the coastline, stopping off
for a few hours at Sun Messe Nichinan,
a park that has not only attempted to
recreate Easter Island with its Moai
statues, but has also taken a stab at
recreating its own version of Englands
Stonehenge. The stone circle was a rather
sad affair to say the least, but the
Moai were an uncanny experience for
both of us, reminding us of the 1,000
or so statues we had seen some eight
years before out on what is reputed
to be the worlds most remote inhabited
In fact, it was during our time on Easter
Island, which lies 3,600 kilometers
away from the South American coastline
and Chile under whose jurisdiction the
island falls, that we bumped into a
Signor Martin, an elderly gentleman
who had startled us with the fact that
his grandfather hailed from Okinawa.
As we tucked into a plate of cerviche,
a delicious South American specialty
of raw tuna marinated in vinegar and
lemon, Signor Martin had been unable
to conceal his excitement on discovering
that Etsuko originates from Japans
most southern prefecture. He then went
on to regale us with the story of how
his grandfather had been swept up on
the shores of Easter Island, fairly
well on the brink of death.
"He was a tuna fisherman and with
the rest of his crew was lost at sea
for weeks, perhaps even months,"
said Signor Martin. "He was pretty
well near dead by the time he landed
on this speck of an island, but my grandfather
stayed, married a local woman and never
went back to Okinawa. He died when I
was a small child, but I remember that
he spoke with great love for his homeland,"
Signor Martin had told us, impressing
upon us the fact that no island is ever
truly an island; that nowhere in the
world has ever been isolated, unknown
or free from outside and far flung influences.
From Hirado, we sailed on to Kuroshima,
an island of 1,000 souls where, we were
told by a Japanese Catholic nun, the
population is 80 percent Catholic, and
"the rest," she said with
a shudder, "are atheist."
Etsuko and I arrived on the small island
in time for the centennial celebrations
of Kuroshima Church. Built by French
missionaries, the interior of the church
is identical to that of the original
Urakami Cathedral that had stood at
the heart of Nagasaki city until the
atomic blitzing in 1945.
||Catholics pray at Kuroshima
Church on the 100th day of its founding.
||PHOTO: JAPAN ON
After attending a service in the packed
church to which many of the congregation
had turned up in tractors, Etsuko and
I sailed forth again, this time back
to mainland Kyushu. Picking up our route
from Sasebo city, we slogged on to what
has to be one of the most surreal places
Huis Ten Bosch, named after the palace
of the Queen of Holland, is a recreation
of some of the Netherlands most
famous and glorious buildings set amidst
a canal network, windmills and some
400,000 trees and 300,000 flowers. But
this bizarre tourist attraction not
only serves as a testament to the Japanese
penchant for theme parks and of having
the knack to duplicate seventeenth-century
architectural gems, it also serves as
a tribute to the Dutch who brought Western
culture, science and technology to Nagasakis
shores some 400 years ago.
And, beyond even being a resort, Huis
Ten Bosch is also home to a good many
Japanese who have purchased Dutch-style
houses in Wassenaar, a settlement on
a hill that overlooks the park. We spent
a couple of days reveling in the theme
parks attractions and viewing
the houses in Wassenaar, which have
price tags ranging from 35 to 80 million
yen (up to 640,000 dollars). Then, we
hit the hot asphalt once more, traipsing
up and over mountain roads, in the direction
of Nagasaki city.
I was stunned by the features of the
middle-aged woman in the grocery store
in Okushi hamlet, Seihi town. I had
popped in to buy a bottle of wine for
the night, and while handing over my
money, I was struck by the fact that
she looked more southern European than
Japanese. She was a gorgeous, albeit
rather mature, Carmen who looked extraordinarily
out of place in the small, dusty shop,
which sold little more than a mix of
detergents, pink rubber gloves, clothes
pegs and an assortment of snacks that
all seemed to have passed their sell-by
date. The woman asked me my name, and
for the umpteenth time since arriving
in Nagasaki-ken (prefecture), eyes glazed
over in wonderment. "Ah, Maria,"
she sighed, before proceeding to tell
me for the second time since entering
the store that her family was Buddhist.
I wondered if, perhaps, locals were
pestered much by Christian missionaries.
Did she think for one moment that I
was an evangelist? I laughed at the
thought and was about to leave the store
when she called me back.
"You must meet my daughter,"
she said, "she studied opera in
Italy and is fluent in Italian. She
can sing Ave Maria for you,"
the woman laughed.
For an hour or so, I found myself standing
agog as her daughter, a woman who I
guessed to be no more than 30, went
through a repertoire of Italian and
French arias, filling the ramshackle
store with a voice of such ethereal
quality that I wondered what on Earth
could have brought the nightingale back
to this cultural no-mans land.
Chie said she had spent five years studying
opera at La Scala in Milan, that she
had loved Italy but that her mother
now wanted her to find a good husband
and settle down. It was too competitive
to break into Japans world of
opera, she told me, and that moving
to such big cities as Tokyo was not
part of her mothers agenda for
her. She didnt appear disappointed
about what lay in the cards for her:
a life of helping out at the family
store and one day caring for a husband
and raising children. I smiled at the
thought that she could be content with
her lot in life, disguising the incredible
sadness I truly felt for this young
woman whose talents were destined to
go to waste.
"But what brings you here?"
Chie chirped up after being well applauded
for her performance, and so I explained
about the walk, and how Etsuko and I
were now en route to the museum dedicated
to Endo Shusaku, the Christian novelist
famed for such great works as Chinmoku
(Silence). The mother rubbed her hands
in glee, telling me that she knew Endos
wife well and met with her every year
"But we are Buddhist, you understand?"
Chie emphasized again, making me wonder
if they thought I had purchased the
wine to perform some holy sacrament.
"We have a lot of problems here,"
her mother butted in. "This is
a very strange village. We have three
Buddhist temples here," she added,
biting her lip nervously. I started
to wonder if the family had once been
Kirishitan (Christian), and what
might be the problems with the temples,
but I felt it might be unwise to pursue
"So, have you read Chinmoku?"
enthused Chies mother. I explained
that I had, but more than a decade ago
and that I planned to buy another copy
in Nagasaki. On hearing this, the young
woman and her mother leaped towards
the backdoor, screaming out for grandmother.
"Grandma, bring the Chinmoku!"
they repeatedly yelled although I told
them it wasnt necessary as I intended
to read it in English.
"Please take grandmas Chinmoku,"
Chie pleaded, "it would give us
great pleasure," she continued
as a frail, old woman hobbled forth
with a copy of the novel about the persecution
of Kyushus Kirishitan and of two
Portuguese apostates. Grandma wiped
a tear from her eye as she carefully
unwrapped the novel from its silk wrappings
in a box, and took out a pink rosary.
Turning to a page in the well-thumbed
book, the old dears lips quivered
as she read a passage aloud. Silence
fell over the little shop and I only
wished that I could have understood
the part she was reading. The silver-haired
dear smiled softly when I explained
that it was better for her to keep the
book; that I would read it in English.
And then, to the strains of "Ave
Maria," I found myself waving goodbye
to Chie, her mother and grandma. Dusk
had fallen, and as I strolled back along
the narrow, dimly-lit street to the
guesthouse, I wondered what had been
the significance of the passage read
to me, and if Chie was truly content
with the life plan that her mother had
A Man Called Adams
William Adams is reported to be the
first Englishman to have set foot on
Japanese soil. The pilot of the Dutch
ship the Liefde sailed into the
eye of a storm and, his vessel disabled,
put ashore at Bungo (present-day Usaki
city, in Oita-ken [prefecture]) on 19
April 1600. Shortly afterwards, Adams
and his sick crew were incarcerated
at Osaka Castle on the orders of the
powerful warlord and soon-to-be shogun
Tokugawa Ieyasu. Portuguese priests
had spread wild allegations that Adams
was the captain of a pirates vessel.
||Etsuko looks out towards the
pseudo-tomb of William Adams, the
||PHOTO: JAPAN ON
Adams may not have got off to a good
start in Japan, but his situation improved
after lengthy questioning from his captor.
Ieyasu had tired of the petty intrigues
of the Jesuit missionaries, but was
impressed by the frankness and worldly
knowledge of the Englishman. Much to
the chagrin of the Portuguese and Spanish,
Ieyasu appointed Adams to be his diplomatic
and trade adviser.
In 1604, the shogun ordered Adams to
build a western-style sailing ship at
Ito, on the east coast of Izu peninsula.
Satisfied with the 80-ton vessel, the
shogun then ordered an even larger ship,
of 120 tons, to be constructed. Adams
was graciously rewarded for his efforts,
receiving first a large house in Edo
(now Tokyo), and then two swords that
would transform the simple Will Adams
into Miura Anjin (Miura Pilot), a samurai.
Adams was warned that he would never
be able to return to his homeland. Ieyasu
told him that Will Adams was dead; that
only Miura Anjin lived, and therefore
the marriage between Adams and his wife
in Kent was annulled. Now, with his
own fief at Hemi, within the boundaries
of present-day Yokosuka city, and a
handsome stipend, Anjin was in the position
to marry Oyuki, the daughter of a noble
samurai. His Japanese wife bore him
a son, Joseph, and a daughter, Susanna,
but Anjin found business taking him
further and further away from home as
he regularly sailed off on trade missions
to Okinawa and China. Anjin also became
preoccupied with helping the Dutch and
the British set up trading posts at
Hirado, an island off the shores of
Nagasaki. The Englishman died on Hirado
in May, 1620, at the home of Kida Yajiuemon.
He was 57.
Hirado specialties such as gobomochi
and kasudosu cakes, as well as
elegantly wrapped senbei (rice
crackers) are the delights being traded
these days at Cake Shop William, a popular
o-miyage (souvenir) store on
the English Trading Residents Street
on Hirado. Etsuko and I peered through
the shops window at the delicacies,
wondering what Adams would make of all
this, particularly the fact that the
cake shop in his name stands on the
site of the house where he drew his
A short stroll from Cake Shop William
brought us to what the tourist literature
says is Adamss tomb, but it was
only after comparing the English and
Japanese blurbs on the nearby placards
that it became clear that the actual
whereabouts of the English samurais
grave is unknown. In true Japanese spirit
the tomb we were looking at was nothing
more than a testament to the ethos that
you should never let the facts ruin
Japanese history, and certainly not
when its an excuse to construct
another tourist attraction. I wondered
how much more of the life of the romantic,
English samurai might be pure fabrication?
A plaque by Adams pseudo-tomb
explains that to commemorate his 400th
birthday, a stone had been brought from
the grave of Mary Hyn Adams, his English
wife in Kent. The stone had been placed
on his tomb so that "finally, their
two spirits could be reunited."
Planning our zigzag route through Japan
has led to a few tiffs en route. One
of the bitterest fights took place shortly
after leaving Hondo city, in Kumamoto-ken
(prefecture). Standing at a junction
out on a mountain road, Etsuko presented
her case for why we should take the
road turning south to Kagoshima-ken,
from where she intended us to take the
leap from Kyushu to Okinawa-ken. But
I had another plan in store.
||Goto Kazufumi, mammoth cloner,
||PHOTO: JAPAN ON
My route was incredibly illogical.
I wished first to head north, I explained
as gusts of wind whipped at the oversized
map I was holding, sending it flying
heavenwards like a great kite before
it came spiraling down into some bushes.
After cutting east to Miyazaki-ken,
I continued, we could mosey down the
coastline and then zigzag back west
to Kagoshima-ken. With eyes bulging
ever wider, my partner looked like she
was on the verge of apoplexy. It seemed
Etsuko really didnt like my idea.
"Youre adding at least another
three weeks to our walk in Kyushu; for
what? The weather is already unbearably
hot; Okinawa will be a blistering inferno
by the time we get there. Are you mad?"
The truth was that I was mad, quite
barmy, in fact, about meeting a particular
Japanese scientist, and I didnt
care if it involved adding another 350
kilometersor even thousands moreto
our walk. "Whats another
three weeks? Weve already been
walking for over a year now, anyway,"
"This guy is worth the extra effort
and hes worth being fried for
later on in Okinawa," I added,
knowing full well that I would probably
live and fry to regret my words. Etsuko
pouted, I pouted. I agreed that she
was right, and we both agreed that I
was an absolute idiot, but
wanted to meet this professor for years.
His work is mind-blowing; this man wants
to resurrect the mammoth for Gods
sake," I screeched.
Even if we traipsed the extra distance
I had no guarantee that Goto Kazufumi
was even in Japan, let alone available
for an interview at the kindergarten
he runs in Kumamoto city.
"We may be completely wasting our
time," Etsuko warned me. "Its
very likely that Goto-sensei is in Siberia
right now, digging for mammoth remains."
But realizing how much it meant to me
at least to try and meet him, my partner
caved in and agreed to go the extra
distance. I felt swelling pangs of guilt
well up inside of me as we hauled our
luggage trolleys up the steep mountain
pass. After three days of pounding the
asphalt we entered Kumamoto city none
the wiser as to whether we would be
able to interview Goto.
Toddlers scampered here and there. Some
chased each other around the kindergartens
playground while others clambered over
a life-size model of a woolly mammoth.
Goto had inherited the kindergarten
from his mother, Tadako, who started
the school when the scientist himself
was just a child. A kindergarten seemed
like an incongruous place to meet a
man whose life dream is to bring back
the woolly mammoth, a tusked giant whose
heyday was the Pleistocene Epoch, a
period stretching from 1.8 million years
ago to the end of the last ice age 11,000
years ago. Preyed upon by lions, wolves,
saber-toothed tigers and our early ancestors,
the Ice Age proved to be the ultimate
death knell for this big grazer that
also succumbed to a diet of low-nutrient
Running a kindergarten must be a mammoth
project on its own, I pondered as Goto
led us around classrooms where kids
were immersed in a number of activities.
Etsuko and I wondered if the scientist
had forsaken his scientific plans for
the more down-to-earth role as an educator.
Goto laughed at the idea, telling us
that plans were on the burner for a
trip to Siberia within the next three
months. He is still determined to find
the remains of a healthy mammoth carcass
that will put him on the rung to realizing
his dream. But, Goto emphasized, he
also sees his role of working with children
as the other important vocation in his
"Society is changing for the worse.
The environment isnt good for
children these days and thats
why we are seeing so many problems such
as bullying or school dropouts. Also,
very few teachers are inspired enough
to give children a dream," he said
as we sat around a table in the open
"Too many people are locked in
a frame; I want children to grow up
with imagination to have a dream. I
also wish to retain a child-like minda
curiosity for all life around me. As
a scientist Im always looking
at life and I think that I should also
be responsible for children too, as
they are our future. I want them to
learn the importance of life,"
Goto says that too many people only
want to focus attention on the fact
that he plans to resurrect the mammoth.
"The mammoth project is not only
about resurrecting the past, it is also
about learning the future. My work here
and my work as a scientist go hand-in-hand,"
emphasized the 51-year-old professor
as youngsters tugged at his sleeve to
draw attention to their mornings
Etsuko and I were both impressed that
Goto had agreed to meet with us, but
the scientist said that he was excited
to learn more about our project too.
After reading a report on our walk in
the Kumamoto shimbun, Goto had even
contacted Kumamoto TV to put them onto
"I am extremely moved by what you
are doing," he announced, surprising
both Etsuko and me because many people
we meet cant get their heads around
the idea of why anyone would choose
to walk through Japan. Most give us
blank stares or simply grunt on hearing
what were up to, some people laugh,
believing were telling lies, or
people just assume that were a
couple of female loony losers.
"I see your walk as something highly
significant. It represents the very
origins of the human race, of a time
when man branched away from the ape
and started to evolve. Man evolved through
walking; through making journeys,"
the scientist elaborated.
Goto has been pursuing his mammoth project
for more than 10 years now. Once he
has found frozen sperm or a well-preserved
frozen carcass of the beast out in the
wilds of Siberia, he will then have
acquired the key to bring it back to
"First of all, I want to emphasize
that the mammoth has nothing to do with
dinosaurs. Im not interested in
resurrecting dinosaurs or creating Jurassic
Park," Goto laughed after explaining
that Russian scientists have spent 14
years working on an Ice Age Park, "Pleistocene
Park," that is the intended habitat
of the animal once resurrected.
"Im interested in bringing
back an animal that once lived alongside
man, and this will become possible once
we find the frozen sperm or carcass,"
continued the biologist who is the first
person to have succeeded in using dead
sperm to fertilize a cow, resulting
in the birth of a healthy calf in 1990.
With dead sperm, Goto has also raised
mice and rabbits.
"This success of creating life
from dead sperm raised the huge question
of What is death? Basically,
as long as DNA is viable there can be
life and this gives huge hope for the
survival of many threatened species
on our planet," enthused the native
Goto believes that there is no reason
why the dead sperm of a mammoth would
not be able to fertilize an elephants
egg, which would then be planted back
in the elephants uterus and eventually
result in an offspring that is 50 percent
mammoth. The woolly mammoth, he says,
was about the same size as an African
"If a female half-mammoth, half-elephant
is born and reaches maturity, its egg
cells would be collected and fertilized
with mammoth sperm to produce a purer
hybrid mammoth. Over successive generations
of impregnating female hybrids, a beast
increasingly close to the original mammoth,
which stood around three meters and
weighed up to four tons, could be created,"
The scientist is undaunted by the fact
that there have been few officially
reported findings of frozen whole-body
woolly mammoths in Siberia over the
course of the past 100 years.
"There are more findings than we
hear about. I daresay many are kept
secret because people have profited
by selling the tusks for ivory. On the
other hand, there are accounts of elderly
Russians having dug up whole carcasses
for the purpose of eating the meat,"
he laughed. "Can you imagine that,
meat frozen for 10,000 years; people
eating mammoth steaks?"
The implications of a technology that
can produce life from death are mind-blowing.
"So, if you found the carcass of
a prehistoric man, it should be possible
to bring our ancestors back to life
through either using dead sperm or DNA?"
"In theory, it should be possible,"
agreed Goto. "Of course, you would
have to find women who are happy to
partake in such an experiment, and beyond
that society would raise huge ethical
barriers to it ever taking place,"
A bent-over old woman was tending to
graves at Neshiko cemetery, arranging
colorful flowers in a vase and pouring
out small cups of tea to appease the
souls of her ancestors. "I come
here every day," she told Etsuko.
"There are nine graves to look
after; its a lot of work but Im
hoping soon to have all my ancestors
put together in one tomb, in true Buddhist
tradition," she laughed.
||Etsuko talks to an elderly
lady on Hirado whose family had
been the most influential among
the Hidden Christians here
||PHOTO BY JAPAN
Etsuko and I had been struck by this
cemetery on Hirado island, as it differed
from any other cemeteries weve
seen in Japan. There were very few large
tombs; mainly humble-looking graves
covered with slate-like slabs that were
gaily decorated with an abundance of
flowers. It reminded us of cemeteries
we had seen during travels through Chile,
Bolivia and Peru, except that here not
one single cross was in sight.
We had decided to take a stroll around
Neshiko after spending the morning at
Hirado City Kirishitan Museum. There,
we had viewed various religious icons
of the islands Kakure Kirishitan
(Hidden Christian) community and it
had been explained to us that while
the statues on display might look like
Kannon Buddhas, they were, in fact,
representations of Santa Marias. A basket
of fish, we were told, symbolized Christ
as a fisherman of mens souls,
and crosses hidden on the ornaments
were obvious signs of the ornaments
having been Kirishitan icons. Crucifixes
on chains, rosaries, bronze figurines
and minute pieces of fabric tucked away
in small metal cases, as well as porcelain
bowls used for Kirishitan rituals were
among items we viewed at the museum.
Many of the artifacts had been hidden
away for generations; the Kirishitan
community ever fearful of persecutions
and long traumatized by the islands
history of martyrs who had been crucified
on the shores of Neshiko, leaving behind
a sea of blood.
The middle-aged woman working at the
Kirishitan museum denied that any Kirishitan
now lived on Hirado. "I believe
only Ikitsuki island has any Kirishitan
these days. Certainly, people in Neshiko
wont talk about it, theyre
a tightlipped bunch here. Not even Endo
Shusaku could find out anything when
researching Kirishitan history for his
book Chinmoku (Silence),"
she earnestly told us. But the previous
day, while at Hirado Tourist Museum,
we had heard that pockets of Kirishitan
still do exist on Hirado, and mainly
out near Neshiko. The curator had blushed
when I had inquired how many Kirishitan
might still exist on Hirado.
It was to the chagrin of the Roman Catholic
Church that many Kirishitan refused
to return to the fold of the mainstream
church, even well after the Christian
prohibition laws were abolished in the
mid-nineteenth century. Many of the
Kirishitan were unwilling to give up
a tradition of ancestor worship, they
also feared possible future persecution
from the Japanese government, and some
of the community simply had reservations
about a Westernized Christianity that
appeared loud and flashy to them. Those
who did not return to the fold of the
Roman Catholic Church became known as
Hanare Kirishitan (Separated Christians),
a "lost flock" that embraced
clandestine rituals, a bizarre iconography
and beliefs that blended Catholicism,
Buddhist cosmology and Japanese fables.
In their holy book, "Tenchi Hajimari
no Koto" (The Beginning of Heaven
and Earth), the Virgin Mary is portrayed
as a shamaness closely associated with
the sun. And, during Otaiya, the Kirishitan
Christmas that starts on Dec. 23, this
"lost flock" recalls a unique
nativity story, one in which Maruya
(Mary) is thrown out of her parents
home after becoming pregnant to give
birth in a country called Beren. Commonly
known as the "Tenchi," the
bible of the Kirishitan says that three
kings from Turkey, Mexico and France
visited Mary in the stable at the time
of Christs birth. However, with
the younger generation moving out to
the big cities, the influence of television
as well as all the other trappings of
modern mainstream society, the traditions
of Japans hidden Christians are
The little old lady at the Neshiko cemetery
invited Etsuko and me back to her home
for tea and a chat. A small kamidana
(Shinto shrine) adorned a corner of
the living room of the house where 80-year-old
Tsuji Kuni lives with her son and daughter-in-law.
There was nothing to suggest that the
family had once been Kirishitan, but
it turned out that Tsujis ancestors
had been among the first to convert
to Christianity on Hirado. On hearing
that my name is Mary, the old dears
eyes lit up and she gave me a tender
pat on the knee. "Maria,"
she swooned apologetically, "we
no longer keep our traditions. Twenty
years ago we became members of the local
Soto Buddhist temple, but my eldest
son, like his father became the chokata
(highest-ranking member), learning the
orassho (latin: oratio) and saying
the prayer at three of our Otaiya festivals,"
The Kirishitan community, Tsuji told
us, would meet each year for prayers
on a site just behind the Kirishitan
museum. The men would pray together
while the women prepared food. Tsuji
explained that she herself was not familiar
with the prayers or rituals. "Women
werent allowed to see them. Apparently,
once an O-yome-san (bride from
outside the village) had discovered
that the family she married into here
was praying to Santa Maria. She informed
somebody and the whole family was massacred.
After that, women werent trusted
to learn anything of the religion,"
Etsuko asked her if she still kept any
Kirishitan items. "We no longer
have the takaramono (treasures).
Only my son, the carpenter and myself
know where the takaramono is hidden,"
the old dear whispered as if divulging
snippets of the most sensitive information.
Etsuko and I couldnt resist laughing.
Why in this day and age did Tsuji feel
she had to hide the familys Kirishitan
icons? Might it not be better to hand
them over to the museum? The old woman
looked horrified at the suggestion.
"The takaramono have been in my
family for many generations; they were
given to my ancestors by European priests
who came here. In exchange, my family
would give the foreigners a cow because
they liked to eat beef," she said
"What is your takaramono?"
I asked, realizing that whatever it
was, it still held incredible power
over the old womans mind. Tsuji
gasped in shock at my question. "I
cant tell you that," she
snapped, "its a secret."
But never being one to give up so easily,
I pursued the topic. "Is your takaramono
a Santa Maria?" I gently inquired.
The old woman jumped out of her skin,
and started to tremble with fear. "You
shouldnt ask that question ever;
its takaramono," she snapped
again. "The takaramono is now hidden
and only three of us know where it is.
But the next time you visit I will tell
you more secrets of the Kirishitan in
Neshiko, as well as about the komugi-sama
(wheat god) that came from Korea,"
she proffered as she saw us off with
a little bow at the door.
Tsujis daughter-in-law, Shizue,
volunteered to point out a tree we had
heard bleeds the blood of Neshikos
Christian martyrs. As we strolled out
down a winding country lane, passing
paddies that glinted in the late afternoon
sun, Shizue, 43, told us that she had
known nothing of Hirados Kakure
Kirishitan, let alone the massacres
at Neshiko, until her child came back
from school one day and told her.
"I was never taught any of this
history when I was at school, I knew
absolutely nothing about the Kirishitan
yet I have lived in Neshiko all my life;
thats how secretive the community
was. And, it was a surprise for me to
learn that my husbands family
had been considered the most important
Kirishitan on Hirado, that they were
the ones responsible for leading prayers
and carrying out such rituals as baptism,"
she explained to us.
"As for the tree, Im not
sure what I believe about it, but one
day my son rushed home in tears, saying
that he had been tearing at the bark
with a stick when the tree had suddenly
started to bleed," Shizue added
as Etsuko and I peered up at the gnarled
boughs of the huge, old tree.
||Mary takes a break in Shimonoseki,
Yamaguchi-ken. The Japan on Foot
team arrived in the city at the
time of the International Whaling
||JAPAN ON FOOT
The International Whaling Commission
meet had drawn to a close in Shimonoseki,
Yamaguchi-ken (prefecture), and Etsuko
and I were now about to head on to Kyushu.
An African gentlemen helped me with
my luggage trolley after it got stuck
in the hotels elevator doors,
and inquired if we were Greenpeace members,
protesting Japans whaling tradition.
He didnt bat an eyelid when I
explained that Etsuko and I were walking
through Japan, and that it was no more
than coincidence that we had arrived
in the city at the time of the whaling
"Fancy eating whales. Its
really shocking, dont you think?"
he shuddered. Actually, Ive never
had any problems with eating whale myself.
Like cat and dog, I find kujira
(whale) most enjoyable and am loath
to point a finger at other nations
culinary traditions. I also trust Japanese
whalers not to hunt any of the species
to the brink of extinction.
"Ooh, I love whale," I told
the man, who said he was from Benin.
"You really should try some while
youre here," I enthused.
The gentleman observed me with a mix
of shock and intrigue. I told him that
I had eaten monkey during travels in
Zaire (now Congo) and Uganda, and was
therefore surprised that an African
would raise objections to eating something
a little unusual.
"Youve eaten whale here,
and you liked it?" He had grown
excited by the idea of sampling the
meat and so I recommended a restaurant.
The night before, Etsuko and I had enjoyed
kujira teshoku (a set dinner)
at Kujirakan, a small restaurant tucked
down a side street of the city that
claims to be "Number One in West
Japan for Old Traditional Whale Meat."
The kujira steak and slivers of sashimi
had proved to be a gastronomical orgasm.
Our only displeasure had been that,
apart from the fact that the waitresses
werent interested in taking orders
from two women, the menu had quoted
different prices for the very same meal
based on whether you were Japanese or
"Isnt it unfair that my friend
has to pay almost twice what I pay for
the same dinner?" I asked one of
the waitresses after Etsuko and I had
finally been deemed worthy of serving.
"Foreigners come from poor countries;
they cant afford to pay the same
as Japanese," she bluntly told
me. Both Etsuko and I were appalled
by the restaurants attitude, believing
it to be not only patronizing and unfair,
but incorrect too. Certainly, the foreigners
attending the IWIC meet were a well-heeled
bunch. Having flown to Japan as representatives
of their countries, these people were
staying in top-class hotels and rubbing
shoulders with all sorts. We were sure
that two or three thousand yen for dinner
at this particular restaurant would
not have been breaking anybodys
budget. But, I was left wondering if
this Japanese tendency to charge according
to nationality or gender is actually
Etsuko recalled the embarrassment she
once felt for an American colleague
who ordered the Ladies Lunch at
a top hotel in Tokyo. "The guy
has a small appetite, and he preferred
the Ladies' Lunch, but the waiter refused
to serve it to him, saying, Men
arent allowed to eat this dish,
youll have to leave,"
she recounted while dipping slivers
of kujira sashimi into soy sauce.
Invariably its the Japanese or
males who get the raw end of the deal
when establishments charge separate
prices, and it is often those accompanying
them who are made to feel patronized
by the custom.
But, Etsuko and I did feel delighted
to have at least introduced one IWIC
official to the joys of eating kujira.
We bid farewell to the man from Benin,
and skipped out of Honshu that morning.
Within 15 minutes of entering the mouth
of the 780 meter-long tunnel that runs
58 meters below sea level, we emerged
at the other end on the island of Kyushu.
The smell of the sea mingled with that
of factories as we plodded forth through
Six police officers, with terror
splashed across their faces, crowded
around Etsuko. The paunch under her
rain jacket had raised suspicions. At
first, the men simply feared that Etsuko
was about to give birth in their little
koban (police box). She had scurried
into the koban in Hofu-shi, Yamaguchi-ken
(prefecture), to ask where she could
find Chichi Yasu Kannon, the local breast
shrine. On hearing her query, a chubby
police officer promptly choked on his
tea, fumbled nervously with his spectacles
and then broke out with a left eye twitch.
"Are you sure you wouldn't prefer
the hospital? It might be wiser, you
know," the cop stammered, his eye
going into wild spasms as he observed
the balloon-like proportions of Etsuko's
||Etsuko alongside the Yin-Yang
treee near Hofu-shi. Inside the
vagina-like hole in the trunk of
one tree is a carving of what most
people believe is a Buddhist saint.
(The Japan on Foot team's hunch
is that it is probably connected
to Kakure Kirishtan history.)
||PHOTO: JAPAN ON
Etsuko and I were dumbstruck. What on
Earth was this o-mawari-san (copper)
rabbiting on about? "Well, you
are pregnant, arent you?"
he said, nodding at Etsuko's bulge.
"Ah, you mean this?" Etsuko
chortled, patting her explosion of girth,
"This isn't a baby," she told
him. The policeman chewed his bottom
lip. Suddenly, his colleagues surrounded
us, with all eyes zooming in on my partner's
paunch. Unzipping her sopping wet jacket,
Etsuko revealed that she was carrying
nothing more than an over-stuffed bum-bag
that she was protecting from the day's
heavy downpour. The cops heaved a laugh
of relief. "Thank God," they
must have been thinking, "she's
neither pregnant nor a suicide bomber."
And so, cheerily they pointed out directions
to the breast shrine and tipped us off
about another of the city's titillating
delightsa ginkgo tree that is
said to resemble a vagina. We added
it to our "must-see" list.
Etsuko has never been able to grasp
why I have an obsession with Japan's
fertility shrinesregardless of
whether they display rock phalluses,
papier-mache boobs or vegetable vaginas.
I just love them and maintain that,
apart from being tickled pink by the
very idea of such shrines, I also feel
a certain pathos in the fact that these
sacred sites give hope to couples yearning
for a child. Although mainly women pray
and give offerings at breast shrines
for a healthy baby, bountiful milk or
for a cure for breast cancer, men can
be spotted at them too. Sometimes, men
are simply escorting their wives and
girlfriends, but occasionally they'll
turn up at a fertility shrine to make
a lone offering, prayer or wish. During
a visit to O-Hanna Dai-Gongen temple,
in the wilds of Shikoku, Etsuko and
I had learned that the sex goddess,
O-Hanna, who sits on the temple's altar
surrounded by thousands of phalluses,
is popular with men either seeking a
boost to their sex-drives or a remedy
for embarrassing sexual ailments.
Fertility symbols exist in Europe too,
but are in far shorter supply than Japan.
Sadly, Christianity long ago stamped
out the "pagan" religions
of Europe with hysterical rampages of
tortures and witch burnings. But I never
cease to be amused and amazed by the
sight of such spectacles as Englands
Cerne Abbas Giant, a 2,000-year-old
chalk figure that brandishes a whopping
male member out on the Dorset Downs.
To this day, women will lie on the giants
stupendous phallus in the hope of being
able to bear a child.
Etsuko and I found Chichi Yasu Kannon
tucked away in Era hamlet, not far from
a kindergarten school. Adorned with
emma (prayer plaques) of breasts
made from balloons, bits of material
and papier-mache, we learned that women
from as far away as Tokyo and Okinawa
had journeyed here to pay their respects.
It is believed that if after praying
to the Kannon Buddha here you drop your
chopsticks in the nearby stream you
will be blessed with an abundant supply
of breast milk. Not being in the family
way ourselves, we strolled on through
the hamlet until we came to neighboring
Osaki hamlet. There, we spotted some
tourists moseying around a stupendous
matsu pine tree. Was it another
fertility shrine? I pondered. It turned
out that the 400-year-old tree is listed
as a National Monument of Japan. With
its main branch extending 32 meters
across the gardens of the Wakatsuki
family, the Garyo Matsu (Dragon Pine)
is reputed to be Japan's largest matsu
tree. It would certainly make a very
good candidate as a fertility shrine
too, I concluded.
We topped off our time in Hofu-shi with
a stroll out to Kuwano Mountain, where
we found Tatsuki Kannon. A plaque near
the yin-yang ginkgo trees claims, "only
once in your life will your wish come
true, so make your wish here."
A small plant of wild red berries adorned
the vagina-like opening of the one tree,
where a middle-aged couple had gathered.
After praying, the woman leaned over
the railings to peek inside the "vagina"
to catch a glimpse of a carving on the
tree's inside bark.
"Every day, for two years now,
we have visited this tree to pray,"
the man explained to Etsuko. "I
have been ill for many years,"
his wife added, "but since praying
at this tree, I find that each day I
gradually recover." The couple
strolled away, hand-in-hand, leaving
Etsuko and I to take our voyeuristic
turn at studying the inside of the "vagina."
The image is said to be of a Buddhist
saint, and was reputedly carved in the
mid-Edo period (16031868) by a
monk called Mokujikishonin. We were
intrigued why Mokujikishonin would have
gone to such pains to carve an image
on the inside bark, leaving it hidden
from the eyes of most. Had Mokujikishonin
been a hidden Christian, masquerading
as a Buddhist monk? We strained to see
if the image was of a Buddhist saint,
or of a Kannon Buddha holding a basket
of fish, or a child, and thus a Santa
Maria, an image that was highly revered
by the Kakure Kirishitan.
Probably it would be impossible to tell
as most Kirishitan icons were made to
look Buddhist so as not to raise suspicions
at a time when Christians faced severe
persecutionand even deathif
found practicing the outlawed faith.
Etsuko shone a torch over the carved
image; its face and hands had been completely
smoothed away over the centuries by
pilgrims who had been drawn to these
two ginkgo trees to offer blessings
Land of their Mothers
Mary and Etsuko meet Morimoto Chisako,
who was reunited with her Japanese father
in 1988 after a lifetime displaced in
I have always been moved by the newspaper
and TV reports of Chinese war-displaced
orphans who have visited Japan to see
if they can find their long-lost family.
Perhaps, Ive been particularly
touched by such reunions as I, myself,
was reunited with my birth mother some
11 years ago in Japan, having not seen
her since I was 18 months old.
My mother flew out from England to meet
her adult daughter with whom she shares
the same language and cultural background,
as half of my life was spent on British
shores. But, for the Chinese orphans
who are lucky enough to meet with parents,
brothers and sisters, there are huge
hurdles to overcome should they wish
to put down roots in Japan.
Morimoto Chisako has been lucky in some
ways, as she did not lose both of her
parents at the end of World War II.
She and her elder brother, Masahiro,
were raised by their Japanese mother
who remarried to a Chinese man. But
for Chisakos mother life was hardespecially
not knowing whether her Japanese husband
lived on and yearning to return to the
land of her birth.
||Etsuko with Morimoto Chisako and
her husband, Kunio
||PHOTO: JAPAN ON
Chisako (known as Wagui Lang in China)
struggles to find words in Japanese
to explain what it has been like for
her to start life again in Japan, having
lived in China since she was a baby.
The 58 year-old woman was just two years
old when her father was sent to Manchuria
to serve with the Japanese army during
World War II. Chisakos mother
followed him, leaving behind the familys
home in the Oki Shoto islands, Shimane-ken
(prefecture), and heading out to the
northeastern region of China that Japan
colonized in 1932.
Chisakos father would return to
Japans shores a broken man, her
mother would not survive to ever see
her beloved homeland again, and for
Chisako, and her elder brother, it would
take formidable determination and great
luck to find their father and pick up
their lives in Japan.
"The war ended when I was three
years old," Chisako told Etsuko
and I as we knelt round a table in the
small apartment on the outskirts of
Matsue city, Shimane-ken, that she shares
with her 60-year-old Chinese husband,
Kunio (formerly Chien Gochu).
"Chaos broke out with the end of
the war. My father was taken prisoner
by the Russian army and sent off to
a camp in Russia. I would never see
him again until my first visit to Japan
in 1988," said Chisako.
"The Japanese government didnt
send any ships over to China straight
away after the war to take Japanese
home. The United States sent the first
boats to help Japanese return to their
homeland and by the time Japan sent
out its own ships, it was far too late
for many of us," she explained.
"My mother remarried to a Chinese
man so that her children could eat.
My mother had nothing; we were very
poor and as a child I sold cigarettes
to make extra money for our family.
Our new father was good to us and worked
hard for the Chinese railway, but life
was hard, particularly for my mother
who spent all of her life dreaming of
returning to Japan.
"She died at the age of 83; I was
44 years old at that time, and all I
really remembered of Japan then was
a few words of a song that my mother
would sing to me as a very small child,"
added Chisako who broke into a few bars
of "Hata Popo," a nursery
song about a pigeon, and then serenaded
us with the song she said she can never
forget, "Chichi Papa."
Chisako moved out to the Chinese countryside
after she married Kunio, but she never
lost hope, she said, of one day returning
to these shores.
"I wrote a letter to Shimane Prefectural
Government to see if they could find
any trace of my father through family
registration records. They discovered
that he was living in Osaka, and we
both cried when we were reunited for
the first time in 1988. I resemble him
very much," Chisako added with
On that very first visit to Japan, Chisako
stayed with her father and his wife
at his Osaka home for three months before
she returned to China.
"It was very difficult to come
back to China. I truly felt that Japan
was my home and I knew that I had to
live here. Kunio wanted to come with
me too and since settling in Japan,
we have both become naturalized Japanese
citizens. My brother returned to Japan
too so now we are one big, happy family,"
laughed Chisako whose children have
also become naturalized Japanese citizens.
Every Sunday, children and grandchildren
gather together at the home of Chisako
and Kunio for a big family get-together.
"Im only sad that my mother
didnt live long enough to come
home. For years she had written letters
to her family, pleading for help so
that she could return to Japan but,
unfortunately for her, it was all to
The Old Woman from
Mary and Etsuko take refuge from
The heavens opened and the 800,000 gods
of Japan wept buckets from the skies
as Megumi, Etsuko and I sloshed across
the border into Yamaguchi-ken, our last
prefecture on Honshu. Narrow lanes weaved
through a landscape of luscious green
mountains swathed in a thick feather
boa of gray cloud. Megumi was surprised
to discover that Etsuko and I battle
on through such elements, and she curled
up with laughter when I recounted how,
back in Tokyo, prior to the trip, Etsuko
had insisted she would only walk on
||Megumi, a friend of Etsuko and
Mary from Tokyo, joins the Japan
on Foot walkers on the road between
Tsuwano, Shimane-ken, and Hofu City,
||PHOTO: JAPAN ON
"Ill walk through Japan,
but Im not walking through any
rain," she had growled. It had
led to our first tiff over the walk.
"Dont be daft," I had
scolded her." Youll have
to walk in the rain, otherwise well
never get out of Hokkaido."
Rain, I told Megumi, was the only cultural
clash I reckoned I ever had with the
Japanese. "Ive never experienced
such a hydrophobic nation, anywhere.
Even before it starts raining, most
people have got their umbrellas up and
are poking your eyes out with the damn
things." Megumi giggled, and began
recalling holiday experiences she has
had in the Lake District with her English
boyfriend, Steve, and his family: "I
couldnt imagine they would not
only walk in the rain, but sit down
and have a picnic in it, too. Its
definitely an English thingI cant
think of any other people in the world
who would dream of having a picnic in
the rain," she chortled as we waded
on through puddles.
Paddy fields seemed to stretch on for
infinity, and took on the curious appearance
of vast mirrors stretched out along
the roadside as we viewed the perfectly
sharp reflections of upside-down billowing
clouds, mountains, farm houses and tall
flagpoles from which flags of blue,
red and golden carp gently swayed in
the breeze. Ive always loved these
flags, which are hung out to herald
the coming of Childrens Day.
By noon, we were completely saturated
and our so-called waterproof clothing
clung tight to our bodies as if it was
too terrified to let go. We were shivering
with cold and desperate to find a restaurant
where we could warm ourselves with a
bowl of steaming hot noodles. Even my
British "stiff upper lip"
was starting to wilt and I felt the
temptation to call it quits for the
day, but we were miles away from anywhere
that could offer refuge from the spears
of silver rain. Our road came to a sudden
dead-end, and the other road leading
off it was still under construction.
We had no idea if it would lead us anywhere,
but either we took it or we trudged
back the way we came.
With the help of Megumi, we managed
to lift our heavy trolleys over the
construction barriers. Squelching in
the mud, we squeezed between diggers
that blocked our route and stumbled
over an assortment of tools left scattered
around. We followed the steep, gravelly
path that we hoped would lead us out
onto a main roadsomewhere. Our
luck proved to be in as we emerged onto
a major artery where signs pointed in
the desired direction of Yamaguchi-shi
(city). Cars and trucks sped through
the puddles without a care, sending
huge arcs of filthy water cascading
over us. Finally, we spotted a small
café on the roadside, but the
customers looked none too pleased by
our appearance when, like three drowned
rats, we scuttled inside dragging a
load of sopping wet luggage behind us.
An elderly woman at the counter sent
a young girl over with towels so that
we could mop ourselves down, and then
she came to take our orders.
"She has a very curious face, dont
you think?" I said to Etsuko and
Megumi after the woman had toddled off
to the kitchen to place our orders.
"She looks European. I wonder what
shes doing out here, in the middle
of the boonies."
"I think she must be from Eastern
Europe," said Megumi, which from
the womans facial features I also
thought to be most likely. "Her
Japanese is fluent though, and she doesnt
have any accent," noted Etsuko.
But, we could also detect a very subtle
Japanese influence; the old womans
eyes were very slightly almond shaped.
After we had finished our meal and paid
up, Etsuko prodded me to ask the woman
where she came from. I felt rather uncomfortable
about inquiring after her origins, as
it seemed that more than likely she
was, in fact, Japanese. The Japanese
are not an ethnic group or even homogenousalthough
a good number of Japanese certainly
love to think otherwise and most Western
media report likewise, too. Surely,
it would be insensitive of me to suggest
to this woman that I didnt think
she was Japanese; wouldnt it be
akin to me asking an Asian in Britain
or the United States if they are British
or American. But, then I thought "blow
it with all the PC stuff; Japanese often
presume that Im American."
And, during the course of this trip
many people have not shown an iota of
embarrassment about asking me my gender.
"Where are you from?" I asked
cheerily as if greeting another gaijin
on the road.
The woman smiled at me as if she could
read my thoughts.
"My friend thinks you look European,"
Etsuko blurted out, making sure that
only I would be considered guilty of
any faux pas if the woman took offence.
This is an agreement Etsuko and I came
to a long time ago: always let me, as
the gaijin, take the flak for not liking
the hotel room, the food, or whatever,
even if its Etsuko who has the
grouse. The woman, however, appeared
flattered that I was taking such interest
in her. "Im from Nagasaki,"
she told us in a tone that seemed to
imply she considered the Kyushu prefecture
to be quite another country, and that
perhaps we should glean our answers
from her being from Nagasaki. "I
came here many years ago, as o-yome
(a young bride)," she continued,
"but, originally I am from Hirado
island." Her voice was almost an
inaudible whisper yet the expression
in her eyes suggested that she had told
us the answer to what her roots might
We had barely walked a kilometer beyond
the café when Etsuko pointed
out a white torii gate, from where a
pathway curled through woods up a hillside.
The white torii, we have heard many
times during the course of our journey,
is one of the signs of a Kakure Kirishitan
(Hidden Christian) holy site. I wondered
about the old lady and what her roots
might be; whether her ancestors might
have come to Japan in the early days
of Meiji, a time when many of Nagasakis
Christians came out of hiding and were
then persecuted for practicing the outlawed
faith. Or, perhaps, her European blood
could be traced back even further; to
the sixteenth or seventeenth century,
when Hirado was inhabited by many of
Japans hidden Christians, as well
as a major trading port where Portuguese
and Dutch ships cast anchor.
Rock of Ages
In which Mary and Etsuko take a detour
to find a meteor
Etsuko and I are pretty average walkers,
covering a distance of four kilometers
per hour on foot. By the time we finish
our walk on Yonaguni-jima island, we
will have been traipsing Japan's roads
for at least 15 months and will have
walked more than 7,300 kilometers.
||Etsuko, Matsumoto Mieko and meteor
||PHOTO: JAPAN ON
Although many people gasp at these figures,
our travel record is an extremely modest
one, as Japan on Foot was never meant
to be a race against time. In fact,
we chose to walk through this nation
for the simple experience of being able
to absorb Japan's beauty and whimsies
step-by-step. And, much of our time
on the road has been spent interviewing
and photographing people from all walks
of life, writing stories, as well as
updating our Web site.
Certainly, our travel time records pale
in comparison to the odyssey of a meteor
that sped for 61 million years through
space, averaging a speed of 54,000 kilometers
per houror 15 kilometers per secondbefore
crashing through the roof of the home
of the Matsumoto family in Shichirui
Souzu hamlet, Mihonoseki town, Shimane-ken
Some 70 households make up the hamlet
that dots Tamayui Bay, and when Etsuko
and I strolled in on a sunny morning
back in April we figured it shouldn't
be too difficult to find the Matsumotos.
"Matsumoto," an old dear on
the road screeched on hearing the name."I'm
Matsumoto. Almost everyone in the whole
hamlet is called Matsumoto," she
laughed, scratching her head in bemusement.
On hearing that we had come looking
for the meteor, the eyes of the hunchbacked
old dear lit up. "Ah, the kami-samma
(god's) rock, you mean," she chortled
as she pointed out the direction of
the house, in front of which stands
a monument with a replica of the 6.38
It was at 9 P.M. on 10 December 1992,
during a violent thunderstorm that lashed
the shores of this picturesque bay,
that the meteor from a 4.6 billion-year-old
planet (the same age as Earth) made
its grand landing in the prefecture
that is renowned as the "Province
of the Gods."
Lightning flashed across the sky and,
all of a sudden, while Matsumoto Mieko
and her husband, Masaru, were chatting
to a friend in their kitchen an almighty
crash was heard upstairs.
"We just thought it was the storm
but later that night we found a huge
hole in the ceiling," Mieko told
us as she pointed out the hole in the
ceiling that has been preserved in the
bedroom that now serves as a mini-museum
to the memory of the meteor. "We
were just thankful that obaa-chan
and ojii-chan (grandma and grandad)
weren't in their futon at the time,"
It wasn't until the following evening
that the meteor, a shiny rock with sparkling
freckles, was found by Mieko under the
floorboards of their second-story home.
Within an hour of the space rock's discovery,
the Matsumotos were inundated with calls
from scientists and the media, as well
as from otaku (fanatics) ready
to shell out millions of yen for the
meteor that they believed possessed
"Many people viewed it as a message
of good luck from the gods as this is
Kami no Kuni, and I went to the local
shrine, Meijima-jinja, with a Shinto
priest, to report the occurrence,"
Mieko, 52, said. "Some people,
however, became jealous about the rock
falling through our home and ojii-chan
was angered to think that had he been
asleep at the time the meteor would
probably have killed him and obaa-chan,"
The Matsumoto family were inundated
with visitors who wished to see the
meteor that eventually turned a dull
gray color, and although Mieko and Masaru
considered the space rock to be a member
of their family and wanted to make it
an heirloom, they finally agreed for
it to be housed in a museum dedicated
to it in Mihonoseki town.
Insured for 100 million yen (822,000
dollars), Mihonoseki-Inseki today takes
pride of place in Meteor Plaza. "It
is thought to be part of the Nogata
Inseki meteor that broke up in space
and landed in Fukuoka-ken back in 861,"
Mieko explained. "In space time,
the 1,100 year difference between the
Heian period and 1992 is nothing, according
to scientists who have drawn the conclusion
that our rock is part of the same rock,
because they landed just 300 kilometers
apart," said Mieko, who with her
husband and two daughters visits the
rock at the museum each year on December
Keeping the Faith
Mary and Etsuko find a room at an
inn, just as a "Hidden Christians"
festival comes to town
Golden Week was approaching and its
expected annual tsunami of tourists
had left both of us fearing that we
would never find accommodation. Our
concerns were heightened because a friend
from Tokyo was busing it down to Shimane-ken
(prefecture) to join us on the foot-slog
into Yamaguchi-ken, our final prefecture
on Honshu (largest of Japan's four main
Tsuwano had originally sounded like
the perfect place for us to meet up
with Megumi, whom we hadn't seen since
heading off on our walking mission the
year before. Once famed for its old
university and Buddhist learning, Tsuwano
is loved by many today for its huge,
red and golden carp seen swimming along
narrow channels that line the streets
of charming samurai houses.
||Festival in Tsuwano, Shimane-ken,
in rememberance of the Kakure Kirishitan
||PHOTO: JAPAN ON
"I was beginning to think that
we'd all have to kip down in Tsuwano
station or out under the stars,"
Etsuko groaned after finally finding
a minshuku (inn) that could squeeze
the three of us in. "Apparently,
we are arriving at one of the town's
most chaotic timesa major Kakure
Kirishitan (Hidden Christians) festival
is due to take place and thousands of
Catholics from all over Japan are descending
on Tsuwano," she elaborated.
A hard day's slog up and over mountain
roads brought us into Tsuwano, where
we checked into our small inn and waited
for Megumi's arrival. The following
day, we congregated with the masses
outside the Catholic church for the
solemn procession of priests and the
faithful that would weave through Tsuwano
and up the valley to the Memorial Chapel
that stands on Otome Mountain Pass.
This is the site where Japanese Christians
were tormented, tortured and martyred
in the early days of the Meiji period
(1868-1912) at a time when Japan had
established relations with the West
and even granted permission for the
first church to be built, in 1865, by
French missionaries in Nagasaki, Nagasaki-ken
Father Bernard Petitjean had been overwhelmed
by the huddle of Japanese who had made
themselves known to him at Oura Church,
in Nagasaki, at a time when the religion
was still outlawed for Japanese. They
told him that they also prayed to Saint
Mary, had the "same Christian heart"
as him, and that many Japanese had secretly
retained the faith for 240 years despite
the fact that their communities had
no priests, sacraments or even a Bible.
The new Meiji government was faced with
the quandary of what to do with the
Nagasaki Christians who had come out
of hiding at a time when Buddhism had
lost government support and the age-old
religion, Shinto, was being revived
to glorify the emperor and his being
descendant from Japan's gods.
Should the Christians die by the sword
or might it be best for Japan to tolerate
a religion of a group of mainly poor,
ignorant farmers? A scholar from Tsuwano
suggested converting the Christians
to Shinto, leading to 3,500 Nagasaki
Christians being exiled to 21 places
throughout Japan for "re-education"
that would include brutal beatings,
starvation and exposure to the freezing
More than 600 Nagasaki Christians refused
to apostatize and died for their faith;
1,900 survived the traumas and returned
safely home without surrendering their
faith. Those who apostatized are said
to have later repented and once more
An old woman explained to me the ordeal
of the Meiji Christian Martyrs as we
made our way up Otome Toge, which means
"Virgin's Mountain Pass."
"In 1868, the first 28 Christians
were sent here and confined in an abandoned
temple where they were brainwashed and
tortured," she told me, tightly
clasping her hands in prayer as we watched
a procession of childrenlittle
girls donning veils casting out confetti
from small baskets and young boys, in
choirboy robes, waving flags as they
headed towards the site that is renowned
among Catholics for an apparition of
the Virgin Mary that is believed to
have appeared to one of the martyrs
The mountain pass is actually named
after a young woman who much earlier
in history had been betrothed to a prince
of Kyoto and then spurned by him. It
is said that, forlornly, she wandered
away into the mountain pass and disappeared
"The first Christian to die on
the mountain pass was a young man called
Wasaburo. He was exposed in a san-shaku-ro
(a one-meter cage) to the wintery elements
until he died on 9 October 1868,"
the old dear told me. Apparently, more
than 150 Japanese Christiansmen,
women and childrenwere exiled
on this mountain over a period of six
years. Here, 36 of them would die after
suffering tortures that included being
thrown in the ice-covered pond, held
over fire, whipped and starved.
It was in the middle of winter that
30-year-old Yasutaro was placed in a
cage and harangued for his faith. "The
other Christians were concerned about
him, and one night two of the elders
managed to escape from their prison
to see how he was coping in his cage
in the snow. Yasutaro told them not
to fear for him, that his faith only
strengthened as each night Santa Maria
would appear to him and speak words
of encouragement to him," the old
woman said, making the sign of the cross
at the altar where statues of the Virgin
Mary and Yasutaro in his cage stand
today as a testament to that painful
time for Japan's Christians.
Mary and Etsuko take the boat to
Dogo and enjoy a good old-fashioned
ETSUKO and I were mesmerized by the
old man with startling green eyes as
we waited to board the ferry that would
sweep us away to the Oki island that
lies marooned in the inky blue waters
of the Japan Sea, northeast of the coast
of Mihonoseki town, in Shimane-ken (prefecture).
During our walk, we've seen Japanese
with many types of faces, attesting
to the fact that historically many people
ventured to these shores and that Japan
is no more homogenous than many other
countries. Perhaps the old man's bloodline
could be traced back to the days of
the Silk Road, I pondered, while the
ferry swayed on the waves until we rolled
into the port on Dogo, which out of
the 180 isles that make up the Oki-shoto
group is the main island and just one
of four that is inhabited.
||Bull fight meet on
the island of Dogo, Oki-shoto, Shimane-ken
JAPAN ON FOOT
In 724, Oki was designated as a place
of exile for political prisoners, and
approximately 2,000 people were isolated
on the island up until 1867. Among those
sent to Oki were Emperor Gotoba, who
was exiled in 1221 and lived for 19
years in Genpuku-ji temple until his
death at the age of 60, and Emperor
Godaigo, who was exiled in 1331 but
escaped after just one year. While on
Oki, Godaigo lived in Kokubun-ji temple
at Saigo. It is said that the island's
famed bullfights started during his
Bull meets are also held on the neighboring
island of Dozen, where we were told
there are as many cows as people. "There
are probably no more than 100 bulls
on the Oki islands; most of them are
on this island (Dogo)," a local
shopkeeper told us when Etsuko and I
asked directions to the bull meet and
if there were likely to be many people
there. "I have no interest in bullfighting;
I prefer to watch humans fight,"
the chubby chap laughed.
Rain lashed down as Etsuko and I strolled
out to Amatate Kana Kaya-jinja shrine
to meet up with some of the island's
farmers who were gathering for their
weekly bull meet in Tsuma village. Japanese
bullfighting, it turns out, is nothing
like the sort you might see in Spain.
"I don't like the Spanish way of
bullfighting," said 68-year-old
Masayoshi Murakami, who is president
of Tsuma Village Bullfighting Association.
"I don't like to hurt or kill the
bulls. Sometimes our bulls get injured
and their intestines spill out, but
if you stitch them back up they survive,"
added the old chap as his 850 kilogram
bull, Donkai (a name that translates
as "drinking sake like the sea")
was led into the ring by a young mop-haired
fellow to pit it out with its puffing,
snorting and hoof-pounding foe.
Ushitsuki (cow jousting) is great fun
to watch, and although the main festivals
held at Dankyo shrine in the village,
as well as those held at Goka village
and Saigo town, are more colorful and
the real tourist-pullers, mixing with
men, women and children at their modest
practice meet was a really enjoyable
walk with all sorts."
JAPAN ON FOOT
Huddled around a small fire, toothless
old men laughed and knocked back sake
as bull took on bull in the dusty ring.
"It's the highlight of myweek,"
one chap laughed. "I've enjoyed
this since I was a young boy, but in
those days we used the bulls mainly
for work in the fields. Now, with machinery
we don't need the bulls but keep them
so that we can enjoy the cow jousting
as a hobby," he added.
One Oki bull, we were told, is worth
about ¥1 million ($8,400), and the
heavyweight on the day we visited was
six year-old Shoriki who weighs in at
one ton. Twenty bulls took part in the
jousts that lasted about five minutes,
but we learned from Murakami that you
need to walk the bulls for at least
two hours prior to the meet so that
the beast can build up its strength
for the fight.
"Sometimes men break
their legs and ribs if the bull falls
on them while in the ring. In the olden
days there used to be quite a few fatalities;
in my time I've seen a bull pick a man
up by the horns and throw him across
the ring," Murakami told us as
he watched a group of some eight men
run into the ring to snatch hold of
ropes to unlock the bulls' horn-grip
on each other and end the bout.
The meet seemed to finish almost as
quickly as it had started. As skies
darkened over the island and torrential
rains threatened, farmers, young and
old, dragged their beasts onto the back
of trucks and drove home, while Murakami
and his neighbor held Donkai by a thick
rope and strolled the few kilometers
home down country lanes.
Mary and Etsuko stumble across another
||Etsuko inspects a
kofun burial mound decorated with
6.8 million nose rings of cows
JAPAN ON FOOT
It was one of the most glorious days
of our walk so far. Picnickers were
drunk, and not only on great flows of
sake, but on the Champagne cascades
of cherry blossoms that poured down
the slopes of Shintozan (mountain) in
Okayama-shi and flowed into the hinterlands
of the Kibiji plain.
Hanami (cherry blossom viewing)
revelers had gathered to frolic under
the pink and white petalled cherry trees
and Etsuko and I chuckled at much of
their ongoing antics as we tugged our
trolleys up the steep mountain pass
in the searing sun.
"What cult are you with? Are you
with Fukudenkai?" a skinny old
chap swayed from side to side from the
affects of too much rice wine as he
poured out miniature cups of sake for
both of us.
On a number of occasions, people have
stopped us to ask what cult Etsuko and
I belong too, although a good many people
who spot us traipsing the roads attired
in our bright orange "road safety"
vests also mistake us for construction
workers or believe we are collecting
garbage, painting lines on the roads
or must be peace activists or kotsu
anzen (safe driving) demonstrators.
"Were walking from Hokkaido
to Okinawa," Etsuko told the old
fellow, but as with many others we meet
the concept flew right over his head.
"You worship cows, dont you?"
the toothless chap slurred, and Etsuko
and I burst into laughter as we knocked
back the dry sake.
"Cows!" I exclaimed. Why on
earth did this man think we were Hindu?
Etsuko and I plodded on and had hardly
covered another couple of kilometers
when a middle-aged woman came pouncing
away and breathlessly announced.
"Ah, you are with Fukudenkai, the
cow cult. Ive seen the nose-ring
burial mound and think its wonderful
that you honor the souls of cows, an
animal that gives so much to people,"
the woman cheerily said to us.
Was it simply the cherry blossoms, the
overflow of sake or was everyone in
Okayama simply mad about cows today?
Or was it a case of only "mad cows
and Englishwomen go out in the mid-day
Seeing our baffled expressions, the
woman went on to explain that in Takamatsu
town, not far from where we were, we
would find a temple behind Kibitsu-jinja
shrine that is dedicated to the souls
of cows, which are revered by the Fukudenkai
cult for their contribution to humanity.
Sitting at the foot of Kibi-no-Nakayama,
we found Kibitsu-jinja, which is dedicated
to Kibitsuhiko-no-Mikoto, one of the
Shido shogun who controlled this area
during the reign of Emperor Sujin (97
||Kyudo through the
JAPAN ON FOOT
Revered down the ages by the Imperial
Court as the seat of the tutelary deity
of the entire Kibi provinces (present
Okayama and Hiroshima prefectures),
the shrine is famous for its main buildings
that are registered as National Treasures,
as well as for its religious ritual
known as Narukama, and for the legendary
tale about Momotaro (Peach Boy) who,
together with his three animal vassalsa
dog, monkey and pheasantconquered
the "island of goblins."
Hanami revelers partied under the cherry
trees while a young woman, dressed in
hakama (long pleated skirt worn over
kimono), practiced kyudo (Japanese
archery) as Etsuko and I passed through
the grounds of the shrine and ventured
on to the temple that sits behind it
where we viewed a kofun (ancient
burial mound) called "hanagurizuka"
that is decorated with more than 6.8
million nose rings of cows.
The Fukudenkai cult, established in
1901 by Nakayama Tsuyu, taught that
in order to accumulate positive karma
one should pray for the souls of cows,
as "the animal spends all its life
for the people; it not only works in
the fields but, after death, its flesh
is then eaten and its skin is used for
Since the early Showa period (19261989),
the nose rings of cows have been put
on the burial mound and twice a yearonce
in spring, and again in autumnspecial
ceremonies known as Chikukonsai
are held to mourn the spirit of this
Mary and Etsuko learn never to underestimate
the talents of a bull
We get to see some pretty daft things
on the roads of Japan--everything from
signs that advertise potato golf to
police boxes that are manned by blue,
speaking devils. But one of the most
hilarious sights so far has been the
statue of a bull standing on a go table.
||NO BULL: They can really do this,
||PHOTO: JAPAN ON
Etsuko and I curled up with laughter
after we had read the sign nearby the
statue that claimed bulls out in the
area of Chiya hamlet actually can stand--all
fours--on an average-sized go table,
the surface of which is usually no bigger
than an ordinary-sized chess board.
"It's preposterous," I laughed
to Etsuko. "More likely that pigs
can fly; I'fll never believe it. It's
just one of those things that some locals
have made up; it's more likely that
one Sunday afternoon a group of tipsy
granddads had their go board stomped
on by an angry bull," I shrieked.
Etsuko agreed with me. "It's kind
of like stories of Okayama's Peach Boy
fighting off goblins. Probably, in truth,
those "goblins" were a clan
of people living in the area,"
We would both, however, get to eat our
words while also chomping on succulent
Chiya beef at Fuyusato Restaurant, further
down the road in Chiya hamlet. Through
the restaurant's back windows, huge
black bulls could be spotted in their
pens, and we would hear that not only
is Chiya Beef considered a top Japanese
beef--so good, in fact, that it is labeled
and sold as Kobe Beef--but that yes,
indeed, Chiya bulls make a habit of
standing--all fours--on go boards.
"You should visit our small museum
next to the restaurant," a middle-aged
woman told us as she served up a second
plate of raw beef for our yaki-niku
We still couldn't quite believe our
eyes after we viewed numerous photographs
in the museum--many of them old black
and white shots, with some even capturing
a visit by Emperor Showa, showing scenes
of the huge bulls proving that they
possess the circus-balancing skills
Etsuko and I plodded on our merry way
that day with plenty to chew over. Certainly,
we were both impressed by the go board
bull story, but we were both rather
unsettled to learn of beef labeling
practices in Japan, and especially in
the wake of mad cow disease reaching
"Only the Holsteins--foreign cows--have
mad cow disease. Wa-gyu (Japanese
cows) are different," the middle-aged
woman at Fuyusato Restaurant had told
us when I inquired if her business was
feeling the financial pinch since the
first case of BSE (bovine spongiform
encephalopathy) was reported in September,
last year, up in Hokkaido. The discovery
of Japan's fourth case of mad cow disease
in May, this year, supports the theory
that the disease is prevalent across
Certainly, Chiya beef is delicious,
and Wa-gyu is reportedly safe, but if
top brand beefs are using the meat of
cattle from various parts of the country,
we truly wondered about the safety regulations
of the food chain in Japan. During the
course of our walk so far, we have heard
farmers and yaki-niku restaurants both
deny and admit that they are feeling
any negative impact from the mad cow
||Fancy a round of potato golf?
Just one of many odd signs that
the Japan on Foot walkers have been
baffled by during the course of
their walk from Hokkaidos
far north to the Land of Mu, off
Yonaguni-jima, the most southwesterly
isle in the Okinawan chain. This
sign was spotted on a road in Okayama-ken.
||PHOTO: JAPAN ON
"Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow
you die," is very much the ethos
that Etsuko and I live by as do, so
obviously, many fugu (poison-bearing
blowfish)-loving folk on this nation's
shores, including grandmas and grandpas
who risk choking to death on their mochi
(glutinous rice cakes) at New Year.
However, mad cow disease is not to be
taken too lightly. This disease, which
was first discovered in Britain in the
mid-1980s, has since infected some 180,000
cows. Mad cow disease has been linked
to the deaths of more than 100 people
JOURNEY WITHOUT MAPS
Mary and Etsuko are inspired to
"Mu!" the Australian student
shreiked. All eyes were on Etsuko and
me after we explained to a group of
foreign Zen pupils at Sogen-ji temple
in Okayama-shi (city) that our Japan
on Foot walking project through Japan
had started at Soya-misaki, Hokkaidos
northermost point, and that we were
plodding on for the Land of Mu.
||Daichi-san, an American
Buddhist nun at Sogenji, a Zen temple
in Okayama-ken (prefecture), makes
tea for the Japan on Foot walkers
JAPAN ON FOOT
to Mu. Really?" a Mexican woman
gasped in wonderment. "In Japan,
there really is such a place?"
she asked, eyes opening wide with astonishment,
and Etsuko and I wondered if the huddle
of Zen students wondered whether they
were being conned by us or Master Shodo
Harada, the roshi (teacher) at
the Rinzai sect temple where up to 50
foreigners are practicing Zen in the
hope of finding Muthe void; the
enlightened space where there are no
thoughts but universal all-knowing.
Etsuko and I laughed. We were tickled
pink by their awed expressions and briefly
explained what the Land of Mu isthat
it is reputed to be Asias equivalent
of Atlantis; that under the seas surrounding
Yonaguni-jima, the most southwesterly
isle in the Okinawan chain, is a pyramidal
rock formation that some, including
a Japanese geologist, maintain are the
ruins of the lost civilization of Mu.
Daichi-san, an American nun who has
been practicing Zen in Japan for 30
years, had invited us over to Sogen-ji
temple so that we could get a glimpse
of how life is there, to chat about
our journey and experiences, as well
as to hear about her life and what brought
her to Japan and Zen.
Raised in Ithaca, New York, Priscilla
had started her working life as a bread-baking
teacher and later switched to social
work, helping girl gangs in New Yorks
Spanish Harlem straighten out their
"I had studied psychology at college,
and for many years had an interest in
Buddhism and Zen before coming to Japan
in 1972 to study pottery and take Zen
training," the 56-year-old nun
told us, as Etsuko and I sipped her
"I was married and my husband really
wanted to sail around the world, while
I really wanted to come to Japan and
study Zen. We happily went our own different
ways and continue to be very good friends,"
In 1982 Harada Roshi opened the doors
of his temple to men and women of all
backgrounds who wished to become serious
students. Since then, he has trained
students, both lay and ordained, from
all over the world. Students from Europe,
North America, Iran and other parts
of Asia have spent time at Sogen-ji
undergoing rigorous training and living
what many would consider a Spartan life.
Soryu (Teal Scott) is a 25-year-old
American who since August, last year,
has been living at Sogen-ji undergoing
training that includes sutra chanting,
zazen (seated meditation), sanzen
(private interviews with the roshi),
sussokan (breath counting) and
koan study, as well as samu (work),
sesshin (intensive retreats),
and takuhatsu (alms receiving).
Its a demanding life for the students,
but the roshis teachings are given
with the deep compassion that is rooted
in the Mahayana doctrine of all beings
possessing a "clear, pure Original
"Our training guides us to realize
the Buddha mind in each and everyone
of us," Soryu explained to us.
It was very hard to walk out of the
gates of Sogen-ji; a strong desire overcame
me to undergo Zen training at the temple.
For a long time now I have wanted to
travel more inside of myself, clear
away the cobwebs and dust, instead of
trying to find myself by traveling outside.
Etsuko and I hit the road for the Land
of Mu, but I knew there was another
Mu that Id rather discover.
LABORS OF LOVE
Mary discusses religion with a reformed
||MOTORCADE: Rightwing trucks weave
through Okayama City as Mary and
Etsuko return to the shores of Honshu,
having sailed from the Realm of
||PHOTO: JAPAN ON
Huge, black rightwing buses, emblazoned
with the Hinomaru flag of Japan, weaved
through the streets of Okayama City,
blasting out everyones eardrums
with a maelstrom of manic messages.
As a bit of a lark, I waved to one driver
and over a megaphone a mans voice
humorously called out, "Hallo there!
Wed love to stop and take you
two ladies on board." Etsuko and
I had returned once again to the hustle-bustle
of Honshu (the largest of Japans
four main islands), having sailed from
the Realm of Entering NirvanaKagawa-ken
The very next day, I was lynched by
a yakuza mobster while sipping
coffee and smoking endless Sometime
Light cigarettes. My attention was flitting
between the forthcoming FIFA Japan-Korea
World Cup Soccer reports in The Japan
Times and four skinny young women
who were gorging on a tabehodai
(all-you-can-eat) course of cream buns
and chocolate cakes.
I had felt like I was only on the verge
of a hyperglycemic spasm until the punch-permed
fellow plonked himself down at my table.
I sincerely hoped he didnt want
to discuss football. Perhaps he wanted
to invite me for a game of pachinko,
I mulled as I made a mental note that
he still had two little pinkies and
was therefore quite good at his job.
The fellow, who I estimated to be around
my age, was dripping with gold rings
and medallions, and smelled of a cologne
that made my head spin. It reminded
me of a lemon lavatory spray.
"Do you know what I am?" the
fellow asked cheerily, pulling out his
crumpled pack of Marlboro cigarettes.
"I havent the foggiest,"
I lied with the sweetest innocence.
"Im a Christian," he
I wasnt sure whether I was going
to burst into laughter or cry, and then
I became paranoid. What kind of scam
was this chap into? But, it turned out
that Toshio was, indeed, a Christiana
"reformed yakuza mobster,"
he explained to me while pulling out
"Jesus forgives all sinners. If
you open your heart, Jesus will forgive
you too," he told me in half-broken
English with a dash of Japanese. How
nice, I thought, that a yakuza mobster
was helping to pave the road for me
so that I, too, could see the "Light."
Perhaps, I had fallen off the "straight
and narrow" since settling in Japan
10 years ago.
Ive hardly stepped inside a church
during my time in Japan, but visited
endless shrines, and even walked the
rounds of numerous Buddhist temples
on Shikoku. Had I turned "pagan"?
Had I turned my back on the "One,
Fear welled up in me, but I wasnt
sure that it was purely of a Christian
nature. Why was some yakuza guy in a
tacky suit trying to convince me of
a faith that had been brought to these
shores by the Europeans in the seventeenth
century and resulted in its Japanese
converts at that time being tortured
and burned in the hells of Unzen (volcano).
"Barabbas was set free by the people
and Jesus was put on the cross,"
Toshio continued, having warmed to giving
me a religious lesson.
Toshio leaned forward eagerly, rustling
some notes he took out of his small
underarm bag. "Jesus died alongside
two thieves and yet He forgave their
sins and said, Today, you will
walk with me in the Kingdom of Heaven."
he said. "Do you believe in Christ,
the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and
the Holy Spirit?" asked the pock-faced
Was Toshio a Jehovahs Witness
or what? I wondered.
"I belong to a church of reformed
yakuza and bozozoku (youth gangs),"
was all he would let on as he pursued
my religious beliefs.
"Well, Im sort of everything,
Im sort of wishy-washy,"
I mumbled. Toshio looked blank so I
elaborated for him. "Hinduism,
Buddhism, you name it, its fine
with me. And, I like Shinto very much
too," I said.
"You like Shinto," he bellowed,
and I could feel the conversation had
taken a turn for the worse.
"Well, I like Jesus too, of course,"
I bumbled. "I was born Christian,
you know, and went to Sunday School,
and Church, and was confirmed and all
that business. Ive been to Bethlehem;
I even once lived in Jerusalem,"
I blathered, hoping to turn his angry
frown back into a smile.
"Gaijin (foreigners) cannot
like Shinto; this is a Japanese religion
for Japanese people only. I am Shinto
and Buddhist too, but you cannot be.
America is a Christian country,"
he snapped, his face reddening with
"Ooh, yes, you are perfectly right,"
I quivered. I didnt think it was
wise to contradict him and point out
such trivialities as that Im not
American, but British, or that the West
is as diverse in its religious practices
as Japan. Everything from Sikh temples,
Zen Buddhist retreats to synagogues
and bare-breasted women who howl at
the moon and worship the "Goddess"
can be found from the Royal County of
Berkshire, in England, to North Americas
"So why do you think a foreigner
can like Shinto?" Toshio ranted
Of course, I realized that Japans
native religion can mean different things
to different people, but my passions
certainly had nothing to do with emperor
worship or the myths presented as a
history by seventh-century court scribes
of the Yamato court.
"Its a nature religion; I
like the shrines, I like the matsuri
(festivals). I like the legends of Amaterasu
and the creation myths of Japan,"
I ventured. "I like the gods: Ebisu,
Daikoku, Benten, Hotei
a religion that embraces all things
and I think thats quite beautiful,"
I stuttered, praying like hell that
I was saying the right things.
Toshios scowl turned to a mocking
laugh. There was a silence, and I feared
he was about to pull out a gun or a
knife on me in the name of his own religious
"Gaijin are kind of baka
(stupid); you can never understand Japan,"
he told me pointedly. "Read your
Bible, and pray to your own God. Do
not dabble with the gods of Japan; they
will kill you, they are not for foreigners
like you. Westerners and Koreans should
be Christian," he seethed, slapping
down some of his Christian notes before
swaggering out of the coffee shop in
I picked up his rumpled notesa
scrawl of kanji with a few words of
English written by a hesitant hand.
I understood very little of what was
written except for three words in my
native tongue: "Love Thy Neighbor."
God, I only hoped that the forthcoming
FIFA World Cup would show that loving
thy neighbor wasnt so hard to
do, be it England and Argentina, Korea
and Japan or any of the other teams
and fans that are about to descend on
Japans and South Koreas
THE INKBLOT TEST
Mary and Etsuko offend a monk
(LJ July 2002 issue)
||The elderly henro makes his final
prayers at Okubo-ji temple, the
88th temple on the pilgrimage of
Shikoku's 88 temples
||PHOTO: JAPAN ON
AN elderly henro (pilgrim) had
shown us the two white tunics that he
has had stamped with the seals of temples
during the course of his pilgrimage
on foot around Shikoku's 88 temples.
"This is the second time I have
walked the 88 temples," the fellow
explained to us in the grounds of Okubo-ji,
which for most henro is the final temple
on the pilgrimage that is dedicated
to the Buddhist saint, Kobo Daishi.
"Tomorrow, I will walk back into
Tokushima-ken (prefecture) and revisit
Ryozen-ji," he added, referring
to what is usually the first temple
visited by pilgrims and occasionally
the one at which some henro choose also
to finish, thus completing a mandala-like
circuit."The one tunic I will wear
when I die and the other will lie in
my arms when I'm buried," the old
chap told us proudly as he handed over
a tunic to be stamped by one of the
monks at the 88th temple in Nagao town,
Etsuko pointed her camera, wanting to
capture the momentous occasion for the
man, who had mentioned to us that he
was sad that he had so few pictures
of himself during his pilgrimages.
"Shitsurei! (It's rude),"
the young monk barked at Etsuko as she
focused on the henro receiving his seal
from an elderly monk. We all almost
jumped out of our skin with fright.
The young monk glared at us over his
"Shitsurei, ja nai (It's not rude),"
I softly told the acolyte who had been
busy writing calligraphy on some o-fuda
"Subete wa gensou desu (Everything
is illusion)," I told him, quoting
one of my favorite Buddhist proverbs,
which I like to pull out of my hat when
dealing with people who describe me,
or some particular situation, as being
The young monk's face turned purple
with rage, his jaw muscles bunching,
and I was terrified that his knuckles
might be the next thing to bunch up
and come flying towards me. The air
felt like it had been sliced by a sword.
The monk's calligraphy brush quivered
slightly and a delicate tear of Indian
ink fell, turning into a thick black
blob on the end of one of his kanji
The monk observed me like a cat ready
to pounce on a bird. The whole world
seemed to be holding its breath for
an eternity, and I felt that the Ma--the
pregnant silence--might just suffocate
us all, but for what? A mere inkblot?
But, the inkblot, I mused, could be
viewed as a threat--it had the power
to serve as a mirror reflecting the
stain on the acolyte's mind. Or, perhaps
the young monk might interpret the blot
as his karma. If he chose to consider
it as a visual koan, then the blot had
the potential to remind him of the "Void"--the
Mu--the nothingness of everything.
I was totally confused by the blot and
what I should do next.
Guilt welled up inside of me and I felt
a need to apologize and be forgiven,
but I decided that it was, indeed, the
inkblot that had been "Shitsurei"
and not me or Etsuko. Fearing that the
monk might spew forth the wrath of Fudo
Myo (God of Fire) upon me, an urge to
run overwhelmed. But, was there anything
at all that I could possibly do or say
to make the young monk feel slightly
better--or, perhaps, even slightly worse?
"Kobo mo fude no ayamari (even
Kobo Daishi makes mistakes with his
calligraphy brush)," I spouted
from my mental stock of proverbs before
bowing at the monk. He now looked as
if he was on the verge of throwing an
I hastily retreated through the gates
of Okubo-ji, in the Realm of Entering
Nirvana, with Etsuko and the old henro
hot on my trail.