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The Japan on Foot diary concludes with the “End of the Road” entry below. If you have enjoyed the diary, we encourage you to congratulate the walkers personally via their Web site at http://japanonfoot.tripod.co.jp , where you can also find details of how you may contribute to the walkers’ chosen charity, HELP.

A book of the walk, “Japan on Foot: You’re Too Big for My Futon,” will be published later this year by Alexandra Press. The book can be ordered through the publisher at http://www.alexandrapress.com.

The English half of the Japan on Foot team, Mary King, has now embarked on another adventure: a year-long journey of her mind in a zen temple. Mary is again writing a "diary" of her experiences for Look Japan. Listen to the sound of One Hand Clapping.


The Japan on Foot Archives begin below with the latest stories. Click here to relive the journey from the beginning of the walk.

ary King from England and Shimabukuro Etsuko from Japan embarked in May 2001 on a zigzagging walk across the Japanese archipelago. The Japan on Foot duo is writing a journal for LOOK JAPAN magazine and updating it separately for our website. We encourage readers to bookmark this page and come back every two weeks for the latest news from the team.

Japan on Foot hopes to raise awareness and donations for HELP, a Japan-based charity that aids victims of domestic violence. See http://japanonfoot.tripod.co.jp for details of how you can help. The Japan on Foot team can be contacted by email at: japanonfoot@hotmail.com; web site: http://japanonfoot.tripod.co.jp

The End of the Road

  Mary and Etsuko at the rock on Yonaguni-jima, Okinawa that marks Japan's westernmost point  

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 exciting—a huge underwater structure that he could only imagine was an ancient ruin. Some of the island’s 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 couldn’t 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 Aratake’s 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; it’s 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 Britain’s Anthony Hancock, who has written several books on his investigations to prove that a lost civilization, one much older than Egypt’s, 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 Asia’s 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 don’t believe that Mu existed. I don’t 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 Okinawan islands.
“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 Kimura.
“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 don’t 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,” he said.
Etsuko and I took a morning’s crash-course in diving, but unfortunately we didn’t 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 Aratake’s diving school. “Don’t 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 walk.
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.

Paradise Lost

  Iseki Point, off Yonaguni-jima  
  Geologist Dr. Kimura Masaaki, who maintains that Iseki Point is partially man-made  

After a 10-minute boat trip from Ishigaki-jima island, Etsuko and I alighted on yet another Okinawan Shangri-la—Taketomi-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 couldn’t 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-jima’s homes from lashing typhoon winds, and gardens flow over with an abundance of tropical flora and fauna—bougainvillea 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 Etsuko’s 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 Mu—the 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 couldn’t be present at my mother’s 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 brood.
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 world’s 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 island’s 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  

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 Etsuko’s 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 interval.
Mama-chan simply laughed and shrugged as her daughter stepped over the threshold for the first time in 10 years. Etsuko’s mother, who I had previously met at one of her son’s 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 laughed.
“Mom’s 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 (teacher).
“This line on my hand here, I’m 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 don’t have any problems to make a living,” she proffered, and then a few minutes later added, “Look, if you can’t 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. “I’m 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 mention?
“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); it’s dangerous to be traveling when the dead are walking around,” she warned.
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 and proverbs.
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. Didn’t 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 weren’t 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 rocks—some of them weighing 10 tons—alone. “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 people’s 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. Let’s move to Naha; I really don’t 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 don’t have the strength anymore to dig for rocks. The rocks no longer speak to me and it’s 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, Japan’s southernmost point.


Far From Disney

  Etsuko and Mary at Hateruma, Japan's southernmost point.  

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. Etsuko’s 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 hadn’t been gripped by such fear since a river-rafting expedition several years earlier. During the day’s 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 couldn’t even save myself, let alone try and help Etsuko who, at that time, couldn’t 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 river’s 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 rafting.
"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 couldn’t 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 river’s surface sooner. It was something that I presumed would be a natural human reflex reaction when drowning.
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.
"There’s 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. Couldn’t 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 men’s 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 weather’s 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 destination.
"We can always fly, if you want," Etsuko offered, seeing that I was badly shaken, but I didn’t 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 can’t wimp out like that, not now; we’re 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 rain—apparently, there’s invariably a downpour up in the mountains—it 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 fairy-like world.

  Tourists enter Wilson's Stump on Yakushima island, Kagoshima-ken.  

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 didn’t flinch as we approached it; instead it nonchalantly slithered past our feet. Taking tentative steps along precarious tree trunks that span the forest’s gurgling rivers and streams, we spent a day hiking up to the largest Jomon-period sugi—a 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 Wilson’s 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 Wilson’s Stump in time for a late picnic-breakfast. Named after the botanist who found it, Wilson’s 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 Japan’s shores for more than a month now, and yet another was on its way.
It was with huge relief that—24 hours later—Etsuko 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.  

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 elements—a 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 Japan’s 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 goddess’s 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 tumuli—a verdant area that is Japan’s 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. Miyazaki’s 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 pink bites.
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 England’s 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 world’s most remote inhabited island.
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 Japan’s 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.


Ave Maria

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.  

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 in Japan.
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 Nagasaki’s 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 park’s 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-man’s 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 Japan’s world of opera, she told me, and that moving to such big cities as Tokyo was not part of her mother’s agenda for her. She didn’t 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 Endo’s wife well and met with her every year in Sotome.
"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 the subject.
"So, have you read Chinmoku?" enthused Chie’s 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 wasn’t necessary as I intended to read it in English.
"Please take grandma’s 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 Kyushu’s 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 dear’s 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 for her.

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 English samurai.  

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 shop’s 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 last breath.
A short stroll from Cake Shop William brought us to what the tourist literature says is Adams’s 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 samurai’s 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 it’s 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."


Mammoth Undertaking

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, kindergarten headmaster  

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 didn’t like my idea.
"You’re 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 didn’t care if it involved adding another 350 kilometers—or even thousands more—to our walk. "What’s another three weeks? We’ve already been walking for over a year now, anyway," I challenged.
"This guy is worth the extra effort and he’s 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… "I’ve wanted to meet this professor for years. His work is mind-blowing; this man wants to resurrect the mammoth for God’s 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. "It’s 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 kindergarten’s 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 mosses.
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 life.
"Society is changing for the worse. The environment isn’t good for children these days and that’s 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 staff room.
"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 mind—a curiosity for all life around me. As a scientist I’m 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," he explained.
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 morning’s paintings.
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 our project.
"I am extremely moved by what you are doing," he announced, surprising both Etsuko and me because many people we meet can’t 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 we’re up to, some people laugh, believing we’re telling lies, or people just assume that we’re 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 life.
"First of all, I want to emphasize that the mammoth has nothing to do with dinosaurs. I’m 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.
"I’m 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 of Kumamoto-ken.
Goto believes that there is no reason why the dead sperm of a mammoth would not be able to fertilize an elephant’s egg, which would then be planted back in the elephant’s 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 elephant.
"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," explained Goto.
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?" I asked.
"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," concluded Goto.


Grave Concerns

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; it’s a lot of work but I’m 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  

Etsuko and I had been struck by this cemetery on Hirado island, as it differed from any other cemeteries we’ve 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 island’s 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 men’s 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 island’s 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 won’t talk about it, they’re 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 Christ’s 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 Japan’s hidden Christians are dying.
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 Tsuji’s ancestors had been among the first to convert to Christianity on Hirado. On hearing that my name is Mary, the old dear’s 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," she explained.
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 weren’t 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 weren’t trusted to learn anything of the religion," she said.
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 couldn’t resist laughing. Why in this day and age did Tsuji feel she had to hide the family’s 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 in defense.
"What is your takaramono?" I asked, realizing that whatever it was, it still held incredible power over the old woman’s mind. Tsuji gasped in shock at my question. "I can’t tell you that," she snapped, "it’s 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 shouldn’t ask that question ever; it’s 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.
Tsuji’s daughter-in-law, Shizue, volunteered to point out a tree we had heard bleeds the blood of Neshiko’s 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 Hirado’s 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; that’s how secretive the community was. And, it was a surprise for me to learn that my husband’s 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, I’m 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.



Ladies’ Lunch

  Mary takes a break in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi-ken. The Japan on Foot team arrived in the city at the time of the International Whaling Commission meet.  

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 hotel’s elevator doors, and inquired if we were Greenpeace members, protesting Japan’s whaling tradition. He didn’t 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 conference.

"Fancy eating whales. It’s really shocking, don’t you think?" he shuddered. Actually, I’ve 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 you’re 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.
"You’ve 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 weren’t 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 a foreigner.
"Isn’t 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 can’t afford to pay the same as Japanese," she bluntly told me. Both Etsuko and I were appalled by the restaurant’s 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 anybody’s budget. But, I was left wondering if this Japanese tendency to charge according to nationality or gender is actually legal.
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 aren’t allowed to eat this dish, you’ll have to leave,’" she recounted while dipping slivers of kujira sashimi into soy sauce.
Invariably it’s 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 Fukuoka-ken.



Fertile Imaginations

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 belly.

  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.)  

Etsuko and I were dumbstruck. What on Earth was this o-mawari-san (copper) rabbiting on about? "Well, you are pregnant, aren’t 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 delights—a 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 shrines—regardless 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 England’s 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 giant’s 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 (1603–1868) 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 persecution—and even death—if 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 and prayers.

Land of their Mothers and Fathers

Mary and Etsuko meet Morimoto Chisako, who was reunited with her Japanese father in 1988 after a lifetime displaced in China

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, I’ve 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 Chisako’s mother life was hard—especially 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  

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. Chisako’s mother followed him, leaving behind the family’s home in the Oki Shoto islands, Shimane-ken (prefecture), and heading out to the northeastern region of China that Japan colonized in 1932.
Chisako’s father would return to Japan’s 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 didn’t 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 pride.
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.
"I’m only sad that my mother didn’t 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 no avail."


The Old Woman from Nagasaki

Mary and Etsuko take refuge from the rain…

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 sunny days.

  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, Yamaguchi-ken.  

"I’ll walk through Japan, but I’m not walking through any rain," she had growled. It had led to our first tiff over the walk. "Don’t be daft," I had scolded her." You’ll have to walk in the rain, otherwise we’ll never get out of Hokkaido."
Rain, I told Megumi, was the only cultural clash I reckoned I ever had with the Japanese. "I’ve 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 couldn’t imagine they would not only walk in the rain, but sit down and have a picnic in it, too. It’s definitely an English thing—I can’t 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. I’ve always loved these flags, which are hung out to herald the coming of Children’s 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 road—somewhere. 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, don’t 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 she’s doing out here, in the middle of the boonies."
"I think she must be from Eastern Europe," said Megumi, which from the woman’s facial features I also thought to be most likely. "Her Japanese is fluent though, and she doesn’t have any accent," noted Etsuko. But, we could also detect a very subtle Japanese influence; the old woman’s 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 homogenous—although 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 didn’t think she was Japanese; wouldn’t 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 I’m 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 it’s Etsuko who has the grouse. The woman, however, appeared flattered that I was taking such interest in her. "I’m 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 be.
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 Nagasaki’s 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 Japan’s 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 monument  

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 hour—or 15 kilometers per second—before crashing through the roof of the home of the Matsumoto family in Shichirui Souzu hamlet, Mihonoseki town, Shimane-ken (prefecture).
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 kilogram meteor.
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," she added.
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 other-worldly powers.
"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," she added.
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 10.


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 islands).
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 (Hidden Christians)  

"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 times—a 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 (prefecture).
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 elements.
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 embraced Christianity.
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 children—little 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 here.
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 forever.
"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 Christians—men, women and children—were 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.


Bulls, Eyes

Mary and Etsuko take the boat to Dogo and enjoy a good old-fashioned cow joust

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  

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 time here.
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 experience.

  "We walk with all sorts."  

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.


Holy Cow

Mary and Etsuko stumble across another cow story

  Etsuko inspects a kofun burial mound decorated with 6.8 million nose rings of cows  

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.
"We’re 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, don’t 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. I’ve seen the nose-ring burial mound and think it’s 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 sun?"
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 B.C.E.–30 B.C.E.).

  Kyudo through the cherry blossoms  

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 vassals—a dog, monkey and pheasant—conquered 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 leather."
Since the early Showa period (1926–1989), the nose rings of cows have been put on the burial mound and twice a year—once in spring, and again in autumn—special ceremonies known as Chikukonsai are held to mourn the spirit of this beast.



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, you know  

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," she said.
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 barbecue lunch.
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 of seals.
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 the country.
"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 the country.
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 scare.

  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 Hokkaido’s 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.  

"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 in Europe.








Mary and Etsuko are inspired to introspection

"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, Hokkaido’s 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  

"You’e going 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 Mu—the 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 is—that it is reputed to be Asia’s 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 York’s Spanish Harlem straighten out their lives.
"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 delicious tea.
"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," Daichi-san said.
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).
It’s a demanding life for the students, but the roshi’s teachings are given with the deep compassion that is rooted in the Mahayana doctrine of all beings possessing a "clear, pure Original Buddha Mind."
"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 I’d rather discover.




Mary discusses religion with a reformed yakuza mobster

  MOTORCADE: Rightwing trucks weave through Okayama City as Mary and Etsuko return to the shores of Honshu, having sailed from the Realm of Entering Nirvana--Kagawa-ken.  

Huge, black rightwing buses, emblazoned with the Hinomaru flag of Japan, weaved through the streets of Okayama City, blasting out everyone’s eardrums with a maelstrom of manic messages. As a bit of a lark, I waved to one driver and over a megaphone a man’s voice humorously called out, "Hallo there! We’d 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 Japan’s four main islands), having sailed from the Realm of Entering Nirvana—Kagawa-ken (prefecture).
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 didn’t 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 haven’t the foggiest," I lied with the sweetest innocence.
"I’m a Christian," he confessed.
I wasn’t 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 Christian—a "reformed yakuza mobster," he explained to me while pulling out his Bible
"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.
I’ve 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, Living God"?
Fear welled up in me, but I wasn’t 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 chap.
Was Toshio a Jehovah’s 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, I’m sort of everything, I’m sort of wishy-washy," I mumbled. Toshio looked blank so I elaborated for him. "Hinduism, Buddhism, you name it, it’s 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. I’ve 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 rage.
"Ooh, yes, you are perfectly right," I quivered. I didn’t think it was wise to contradict him and point out such trivialities as that I’m 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 America’s West Coast.
"So why do you think a foreigner can like Shinto?" Toshio ranted on.
Of course, I realized that Japan’s 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.
"It’s 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…. It’s a religion that embraces all things and I think that’s quite beautiful," I stuttered, praying like hell that I was saying the right things.
Toshio’s 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 crusade.
"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 a huff.
I picked up his rumpled notes—a 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 wasn’t 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 Japan’s and South Korea’s shores.



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  

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, Kanagawa-ken.
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 desk.
"Shitsurei, ja nai (It's not rude)," I softly told the acolyte who had been busy writing calligraphy on some o-fuda (prayer plaques).
"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 rude.
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 strokes.
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 apoplectic fit.
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.




Mary and Etsuko pay a visit to a toilet museum

  FEELING FLUSH? Etsuko admires the solid gold pan  

YOU know that you are in the Realm of Entering Nirvana (Kagawa-ken) when you can contemplate putting your posterior on a 24-karat, solid gold loo.
A ferry from Fukuyama city, in Hiroshima-ken (prefecture), flushed us back onto the shores of Shikoku (the smallest of Japan’s four main islands). We had returned from the mainland to visit the 88th temple on the island dedicated to the Buddhist saint, Kobo Daishi [see previous story], as well as to drop by Charm Station: World’s Toilet Museum.
The toilet museum is situated in Utazu, right next to Gold Tower, a 158-meter-high golden bar that pierces the skyline and is a symbol of the prefecture. From the top of the tower—which recently reopened after closing last year due to huge debts—you can enjoy sweeping views of Sankaku Fuji mountain, the surrounding countryside and sea, as well as of the Seto-Ohashi bridge, which links Shikoku to Honshu.
To the tune of The Beatles’ "Penny Lane," Etsuko and I viewed the solid gold loo—worth ¥60 million ($450,000)—on which, unfortunately, you are not allowed to sit, let alone "spend a penny." Toilet slippers—also 24-karat gold and worth ¥5 million ($38,000)—rest in a glass case nearby. Visitors can slip their hands inside a hole in the glass case to get a feel of the 2.5-kilogram weight of the slippers for themselves.
Other thrones worth taking a peek at—and on which you may sit but not do anything else—include those in the Oslo Bathroom and Milan Bathroom, which are all-mod-cons and pipe out Muzak to put you in the mood, so much so, in fact, that I quite forgot myself and dropped an SBD (silent-but-deadly) fart while the guide was showing us round.
Our favorite lavvy though was the "suna-secchin," a Japanese toilet with an exquisite name that translates as "sand-snow hiding."
Designed in the sixteenth century by the great Tea Master, Sen no Rikyu, we weren’t surprised to discover that this loo reflects a distinct wabi-sabi sensibility.
Suna-secchin looks like a Zen garden—with little rocks and inspirational swirls in the gravel added here and there—and Etsuko and I could only imagine that "hiding snow" must have been quite a meditative process for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan’s great warlords for whom this particular loo was designed.
The toilet museum, we were informed, was the brainchild of Unicharm, a company that makes baby diapers and women’s toiletries, and since opening in the early 1990s it has attracted a regular trot of visitors.
"Tourists are tired of three-K toilets: kitanai, kurai and kusai (dirty, dark and deadly to the nose)," said Usami Tokiharu, a director of Gold Tower. "Unicharm aims to change the image of public lavatories for ever," he told us.
Certainly, the Gold Toilet and matching slippers changed our view of Japan’s public loos, and undoubtedly they will live on as a testament of the excesses of Japan’s "bubble" years—when Japanese earned a reputation for throwing money down the toilet.



Mary and Etsuko reflect on 12 months of hard slog

IN late March we left Kagawa-ken, Shikoku, and returned to Japan's biggest island, Honshu. Almost a year has passed since we embarked on our journey from Hokkaido's northernmost point and as our pedometers approach the 6,000-kilometer mark, Etsuko and I are just relieved to have made it so far unscathed.

  STOPS ALONG THE WAY: A yamabushi (priest) helps Mary walk on fire at the Firewalking Festival held at Sabadaishi temple, Sabase, Tokushima-ken. Mary says she suffered no blisters from this little stretch of the long road south. Etsuko puts her old cap on a Jizo statue that sits out on the road in Kagawa-ken, Shikoku. Etsuko retired her cap after many years of service around the world, including more than 5,000 kilometers of Japanese road.

We have trekked through typhoons, hailstorms and snow, and kipped down for the night in bus shelters, railway stations, on old steam trains and even slept among the dead. Dangers on the road have included bears, stray dogs, unpaved tunnels and reckless drivers.
Etsuko is still in tip-top shape while I am a physical wreck. Shin splints from footslogging along hard asphalt and repetitive strain injury in my arms caused by dragging the luggage trolley have been giving me much grief and pain.
However, we are both still determined to reach the shores of Yonagunijima, from where we will dive out to what some claim is Asia's equivalent of Atlantis—the lost civilization of Mu.
There are endless stories to tell as we have gleaned more insight into Japan and her people. For Etsuko, perhaps the biggest surprise has been discovering how so much of Japanese life is ruled by superstition and prejudice, and how most of the concepts Japanese uphold about themselves just don't always gel.
For me, surprises have included realizing how little many Japanese know about their own history and culture, as well as their sometimes staggering ignorance of other nations too.
Hailing from a country that once ruled much of the world, I'm still gob-smacked by Japanese who don't know what continent Britain is on or who can't grasp that the English speak English.
"I don't believe it," squealed a middle-aged man in a restaurant out in the wilds of Shikoku.
"Yes, they speak English like the queen of England," the owner of the restaurant informed his friend.
"The queen speaks English too?" the chap almost hit soprano in surprise. "She's recently died, hasn't she? I am so sorry," he bowed towards me.
"The queen is very much alive and kicking," I explained, "She is marking her Golden Jubilee—50 years on the throne—this year," I said, realizing he had confused Queen Elizabeth with her sister, Princess Margaret, who died earlier this year.
"I thought only Americans spoke English," the chap gasped before wolfing down some sushi.
The restaurant owner decided to give his friend a history lesson. "America is a penal colony of England; that's how come Americans speak English.
"England sends all its criminals to America," he told his mate whose eyes were bulging wider by the minute. Etsuko quickly butted in to explain that America—like Australia—"was once" a British penal colony.
"Ooh, is that so!" the chap exclaimed as he chomped on some pickled ginger. "So that's why America has so much crime and England doesn't have any police, eh?"
Etsuko and I were completely baffled.
"Only Scotland has police, right? They're called Scotland Yard," the chap continued. "It's a very odd name for a police force," he chuckled over his sake.




In which Mary and Etsuko learn that they have been leading sheltered lives

WE'VE heard some pretty wild stories since first hitting the road in May, last year, but one of the fishiest tales yet is that of a reputed mermaid.
On the outskirts of Hashimoto city in Wakayama-ken, we found Karukayado temple, which is dedicated to Ishidomaru and his parents. It was the boy's mother, Chisato, who once owned the "mermaid" mummy that now takes pride of place in a lacquer chest in the temple's main altar room.

  Mary poses with the "mermaid"  

Chisato, apparently, was also a bit of a wanderer. Travelling all around Japan during the Heian period (794-1185), the high-class tabi geinin (traveling entertainer) had carried the "mermaid" mummy as a talisman to protect her against evil. She died in 1165 and one of her tombs is situated in the grounds of this temple, which once served as the entrance to the sacred mountain of Koyasan. The mummy of the reputed mermaid, meanwhile, rests in its chest at the foot of a statue of Chisato.
Iwahashi Sofu, a Buddhist scholar and chairman of the Karukayado Temple Preservation Society, laid the wooden box that holds the skeletal remains of the "mermaid" on a table for us to view. Horror overwhelmed us as we peered at the mummy that is said to be at least 1,400 years old.
From its head to the tip of its tail, the "mermaid" measures 65 centimeters long, and weighs about 300 grams. Fine strands of hair still remain around the ears. Most of its facial features--ears, nose and eyes--appear human, as does its delicate arms and hands, the latter of which still show traces of tiny nails on the fingers.
The "mermaid's" torso is also very much human, revealing sagging breasts and nipples. Although Iwahashi informed us that not all mermaids in Japan were female, this one most definitely was. However, all human likeness ended just below the "mermaid's" waist, from where a scaly fish tail began.
Feelings of pity and loathing welled up inside of me as I scrutinized the creature. The "mermaid's" petite hands stretched upward, turning in towards the face in a gesture of acute pain and anguish while its fishlike mouth, from which sharp fangs protruded, was set in a traumatic wail.
"She takes away the pain of all who look at her; that's why she looks so anguished," explained Iwahashi, who believes that the spirit of the "mermaid" is very much alive.
The 72-year-old is adamant that mermaids once existed, and maintains that they inhabited the waters of Japan up until around the seventeenth century.
I asked Iwahashi why he didn't think that the "mermaid" mummy was the result of some bizarre experimental operation; perhaps the surgical joining of a monkey and fish. The old chap denied the possibility, telling us that a surgeon in Osaka has conducted tests on the "mermaid" and established that the top half of the mummy is definitely human and the bottom half that of a fish.
"There is nothing to show that two different creatures have been joined together," he told us.
I ventured to ask Iwahashi how he thought mermaids ever came to exist in the first place. "Well, it's quite obvious," the old fellow said matter-of-factly. "Fishermen and sailors used to make love with fish. They were bored, lonely and frustrated and would put fish down their trousers to comfort themselves," he said.
Etsuko and I curled up with laughter but had to agree that it was perhaps the most feasible answer, albeit a rather extraordinary one. Iwahashi disagreed with us: "You mean to say, you've never heard of fishermen putting fish down their trousers to satisfy themselves?"
We had to admit to leading sheltered lives. Iwahashi was flabbergasted by our ignorance. "Well, fishermen all over the world used to do it and many, I dare say, continue to do so to this day. That's why occasionally you still hear reports of sightings of mermaids somewhere out at sea," he concluded.



A red double-decker bus appeared like a mirage out on the coastal road of Yoshi Umi town, Oshima island. Surrounded by tatty vegetable allotments and with a pyramid-shaped mountain towering over it, the old London Transport bus looked like it had gone into long and happy retirement.

  What perils lay therein!  

It turned out that the bus now serves as a karaoke bar-cum-coffee shop, and feeling pangs of nostalgia for these grand queens of London that some 20 years ago used to transport me from my flat on the Abbey Road to newspaper offices down by Hammersmith Bridge, I couldn’t resist hopping on board.
"Otoko! Otoko! (Man! Man!)," a drunken fellow screamed in my face after I went upstairs to check out who was singing enka (folk songs).
"Seitenkan desu. (I’m a transsexual)," I blandly told the chap, having finally become immune during the course of this walk to Japanese inquiring about my gender.
The middle-aged chap was stunned and then turned to Etsuko to yell at. "I don’t understand the gaijin (foreigner); it’s some om-yomi (Chinese pronunciation) word. Is the gaijin a man or a woman?" he bellowed at my partner while thrusting a puny bicep under my nose.
"Ore! Boku! Ore!" he shrieked, repeatedly stabbing his nose so that I could clearly see him as he used coarser words to inform me of his maleness.
"Yes, you Tarzan," I laughed at his flabby muscle before turning on my heels and returning to the lower deck for coffee.
The owner of the bus was a middle-aged woman with long chapatsu (dyed-brown) hair, who looked delightfully decadent wearing a Stetson while rustling up refreshments in the driver’s cabin-cum-kitchen of the old London bus.
"It cost about ¥4 million ($30,000) to buy, transport to Japan from England, and then refurbish," the Cowgirl said proudly of her bus. "It’s a bit of an old banger but you can still take it for a spin," she explained.
Tarzan came over to pester us more with questions on my gender. "Onna? Otoko?" he ranted at Etsuko, who waved him away like a pesky flea and told him to address me with his queries.
"Japanese men are stupid," Cowgirl informed me in a matter-of-fact tone after I told Tarzan, yet again, that I am a transsexual.
"Is the gaijin a virgin?" he screamed in Etsuko’s face.
"I’m sorry," Cowgirl apologized and we tried to continue our conversation. Tarzan, however, was not going to be ignored and turned on Etsuko once more.
"Don’t ever trust gaijin," he scolded her. "They are bad; they will drop the bomb on you like they did in Hiroshima," he blathered.
"All gaijin are bad, especially when they don’t say what sex they are. So what about you—are you a foreigner too?" he spat. "Where are you from? What are you two up to?" he yelled.
"I’m from Okinawa, and we’re both walking from Hokkaido to Yonagunijima, the island where my grandmother is from, We’ve now walked more than 5,000 kilometers and like to take our rests in peace," Etsuko calmly replied.
"So, you’re a gaijin too, then. I knew it," snarled Tarzan. "Okinawans aren’t real Japanese. You lot once had to have passports to come to Japan," he sneered.
"And, you," he turned to me, waving a nicotine-stained finger under my nose, "are you a man or a woman?"
"I’m a man, it’s obvious," I groaned, having wearied of this greasy-faced fellow breathing whisky all over me. He was clearly begging for a good biff around the earhole.
Lurching forward, Tarzan took a lunge for my crotch and I pushed him away, clenching my fist ready to punch his lights out should he aim for my womanhood again.
The bus owner scowled at him before apologizing and bowing profusely as Etsuko and I picked up our belongings to hit the road again.
"I’m sorry," Cowgirl sighed, "Japanese men are just stupid; they’re very insecure.
"Take good care on your walk," she laughed, saluting us off with a wave of her Stetson.

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