ALL PHOTOS BY JAPAN ON FOOT 2001/2002
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 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 an 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 ten 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 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 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 Neighbour."
God, I only hoped that the forthcoming FIFA World Cup would show that loving thy neighbour 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.
JOURNEY WITHOUT MAPS
"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 City that our Japan on Foot walking project through Japan had started at Cape Soya, Japan's northernmost point.
"You’re 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 at the Rinzai sect temple where up to fifty 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 Island 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 thirty 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 fifty-six-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 twenty-five-year-old American who since August, last year, has been living at Sogen-ji undergoing training that includes sutra chanting, 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.
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 City 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 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 kilometres 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 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 shrine, which is dedicated to Kibitsuhiko-no-Mikoto, one of the Shido shogun who controlled this area during the reign of Emperor Sujin (a mythological emperor who is said to have lived 97 B.C.E. -30 B.C.E.).
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 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 Tsuyu Nakayama, 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.
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.
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'll 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.
"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 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.
ROCK OF AGES
ALL PHOTOS BY JAPAN ON FOOT
ETSUKO AND I are pretty average walkers, covering a distance of four kilometres per hour on foot. By the time we finish our walk on Yonaguni Island, we will have been traipsing Japan's roads for at least fifteen months and will have walked more than 7,300 kilometres.
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 sixty-one million years through space, averaging a speed of 54,000 kilometres per hour—or fifteen kilometres per second—before crashing through the roof of the home of the Matsumoto family in Shichirui Souzu hamlet, Mihonoseki town, Shimane prefecture.
Some seventy 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 December 10th, 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 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 shrine, with a Shinto priest, to report the occurrence," Mieko, 52, said. "Some people, however, became jealous about the rock falling through our home and grandad was angered to think that had he been asleep at the time the meteor would probably have killed him and grandma," 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 one hundred million yen, 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 prefecture 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 three hundred kilometres apart," said Mieko, who with her husband and two daughters visits the rock at the museum each year on December 10th.
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 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 Island group is the main island and just one of four that is inhabited.
In 724, Oki was designated as a place of exile for political prisoners, and approximately two thousand 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 nineteen 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 neighbouring 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 sixty-eight-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 colourful and the real tourist-pullers, mixing with men, women and children at their modest practice meet was a really enjoyable experience.
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 my week," 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 one million yen, 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 Mr. 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," Mr. 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 kilometres home down country lanes.
LAND OF THEIR MOTHERS AND FATHERS
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 eighteen 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.
Chisako Morimoto 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.
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 fifty-eight 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 islands, Shimane 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 sixty-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 eighty-three; I was forty-four 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."
KEEPING THE FAITH
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 prefecture to join us on the foot-slog into Yamaguchi prefecture, 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.
"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 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 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 six hundred 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 twenty-eight 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 one-metre 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, thirty-six 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 thirty-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.
OLD WOMAN FROM NAGASAKI
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 prefecture our last prefecture on Honshu. Narrow lanes weaved through a landscape of luscious green mountains swathed in a thick feather boa of grey 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.
"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 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 caf? 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 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 kilometre beyond the cafe 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 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.
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 City, Yamaguchi 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 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 two-thousand 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 four hundred-year-old tree is listed as a National Monument of Japan. With its main branch extending thirty-two metres across the gardens of the Wakatsuki family, the 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 City 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 Hidden Christians.
Probably it would be impossible to tell as most Christian 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.
THE INTERNATIONAL Whaling Commission meet had drawn to a close in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchii 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 IWC 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 soya 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 IWC official to the joys of eating kujira. We bid farewell to the man from Benin, and skipped out of Honshu that morning. Within fifteen minutes of entering the mouth of the 780 metre-long tunnel that runs fifty-eight metres 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 prefecture.