Tuesday, May 16, 2006



JAPAN ON FOOT 2001/2002

SHIKOKU IS a walkers’ paradise, with most people coming here as pilgrims to follow the mandala-like circuit of the eighty-eight temples that are dedicated to the island’s famous son, Kobo Daishi. The ninth-century monk spent years wandering the mountains and forests of this island before reaching enlightenment in a cave on the island’s southeastern tip. Today, thousands of pilgrims follow in the footsteps of Kobo Daishi (a.k.a. Kukai), founder of the Shingon Buddhist sect, but how many people who visit the temples and shrines of Shikoku have heard that another great religious leader came here bearing the treasures of King Solomon, and that the Ark of the Covenant lies buried under a shrine in Tokushima prefecture? According to a former councilor of Kamiyama town, the Old Testament prophet Elijah came to Shikoku with members of an ancient Hebrew tribe, bearing the Ark of the Covenant, as well as such treasures as the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s rod and the gold pot of manna that is said to have provided sustenance to the Israelites during their forty years of walking through the Sinai. Kamiyama, or "Mountain of the Gods," is undoubtedly an idyllic place but could this be the original Garden of Eden? Mr. Takashi Chinaka believes that this is the land of Adam and Eve, as introduced in Genesis in the Bible. The Shingon Buddhist also maintains that Kamiyama is where Elijah, known locally as Inai, built a second Jerusalem and buried the treasures of the king who lived almost one thousand years prior to the birth of Christ. Etsuko and I had traipsed out to this remote part of Shikoku to hear more about what Mr. Chinaka maintains is the roots of the Japanese. The seventy-three-year-old is very serious about his subject and has penned two books on Solomon’s treasures and how the people of Kamiyama, including himself, are descendants of the Ebisu tribe that came to this area in ancient times bearing treasures that they "were instructed to take as far away from the Holy Land as possible." The Ark of the Covenant was the ultimate treasure in the Tabernacle, renowned for its mysterious powers against the enemies of Israel. "I’m certain that the Ark of the Covenant is buried under Kami-Ichinomiya shrine, and that the other treasures of King Solomon can be found in this area too. Once these treasures are found, peace will be restored to the world," Mr. Chinaka told us, explaining where we could find the shrine. So, who were the Ebisu people? I asked. Mr. Chinaka maintains that the Shinto god, Ebisu, who is linked to labor and the sea, is named after the ancient Hebrew tribe that came here from Jerusalem. Apparently, the "Ebisu-jin" and Inai built a second City of David in Kamiyama and later, Inai (Elijah) helped Emperor Jimmu build a third Jerusalem in Kashihara (present-day Nara prefecture). "Japan’s first Emperor had Jewish roots," Mr. Chinaka said, "and Shinto is derived from the polytheistic faith of ancient Hebrew tribes." "What you have to remember is that the ancient Hebrews worshiped many gods; not just the one that is prayed to today," he continued. "The gods of Shinto are the gods that the Ebisu people brought with them from Israel," added the man who espouses no Christian or Jewish beliefs. So, what do the people of Kamiyama think about all this? Certainly, we heard a few guffaws and groans in nearby shops and restaurants when we mentioned the subject but, on the other hand, local people also chipped in financially so that Mr. Chinaka could build a shrine dedicated to Inai (Elijah) on his land. Etsuko and I strolled up the mountain path to view the shrine at which Mr. Chinaka and other local people pray. A huge Star of David and the chrysanthemum crest of Japan’s imperial line mark the entrance to Inai’s shrine. Nearby stands a three-legged torii gate that, according to Mr. Chinaka, is a replica of the rocket launcher used by Elijah and the Ebisu people when they "flew from Jerusalem to Ethiopia."
Two frescoes also stand at the site, with one bearing a picture of Inai in true Biblical attire while the other depicts the boat by which the treasures of King Solomon were reputedly brought to Japan. Kamiyama has yet another conundrum to be unraveled. An ancient script has been found in the area that bears no resemblance to kanji. To the illiterate eye "Kamiyama moji" looks like hangul, Korean script, but Mr. Chinaka maintains it is derived from Hebrew. Etsuko and I strolled out to the hamlet of Jinryo (God’s Territory).
A sign near Jingu temple claims a visit to this sacred place will prevent or cure senility, but we were more interested in the neighboring Shinto shrine. Sitting at what Mr. Chinaka claims was the centre of the City of David, Kami-Ichinomiya shrine is where the Ark of the Covenant is reputedly buried. We rang the shrine’s bell, clapped our hands twice and bowed. With palms together, we offered a short prayer before hitting the road once more, walking away from the Garden of Eden.



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. 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 twenty 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 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 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, 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 four million yen 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 Yonaguni Island, the island where my grandmother is from, We’ve now walked more than five-thousand kilometres 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.


IN LATE March we left Kagawa prefecture, 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 six thousand-kilometre mark, Etsuko and I are just relieved to have made it so far unscathed. 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 Yonaguni Island, 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 gobsmacked 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—fifty 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.



YOU KNOW that you are in the Realm of Entering Nirvana (Kagawa prefecture) when you can contemplate putting your posterior on a twenty-fourkarat, solid gold loo. A ferry from Fukuyama city, in Hiroshima 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 eighty eighth temple on the island dedicated to the Buddhist saint, Kobo Daishi, 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-metre-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 some sixty million yen--on which, unfortunately, you are not allowed to sit, let alone "spend a penny." Toilet slippers—also twenty-four-karat gold and worth five million yen--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 Tokiharu Usami, 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.



AN ELDERLY 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 eighty-eight temples. "This is the second time I have walked the eighty-eight temples," the fellow explained to us in the grounds of Okubo-ji temple, which for most pilgrims is the final temple on the pilgrimage that is dedicated to the Buddhist saint, Kobo Daishi. "Tomorrow, I will walk back into Tokushima prefecture and revisit Ryozen-ji temple," he added, referring to what is usually the first temple visited by pilgrims and occasionally the one at which some pilgrims 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 eighty-eighth temple in Nagao town, Kanagawa prefecture. 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 pilgrim 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 prayer plaques. "Subete wa gensou desu (Everything is illusion)," I told him, quoting one of my favourite 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.



The Rock Gardener


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 fifteen-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 yet at the same time 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 speciality; 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 shamanesses and clairvoyants, as well as her own experiences with studying palmistry. Apparently, she was a born natural, according to her 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 shamanesses, 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 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 Festival of the Dead; it’s dangerous to be traveling when the dead are walking around,” she warned. We sailed for Miyako Island, where I hoped to meet with a man who has devoted twenty 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.” Mr. Sadakichi Shinjo was not in the best of spirits when we met him. He was annoyed because we had turned up five minutes early while the eighty-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, Mr. 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. Mr. 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 grey 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 was 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 ten tons?alone. “Do you use some kind of digger,” I asked. Mr. Shinjo was now well and truly miffed by us. “This strength was given to me. It came after a dream when I was forty-seven. 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 Island, 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Island, Japan’s southernmost inhabited point.



Monday, May 15, 2006



The last leg of our walk saw us walking from Motobu Port, at the north of the main Okinawa Island down to Shuri City, near Naha. From here, we then sailed to a number of Okinawa's Island. We touched down and walked around Miyako Island, Toyotomi Island, Ishigaki Island, Hateruma Island (Japan's southernmost inhabited island), and then finally reached the shores of Yonaguni Island.It is off the shores of Yonaguni Island that the mysterious underwater "ruins" lie. Some believe that these are the ruins of Mu, which is Asia's equivalent of Atlantis.



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Leg Three, Leg Four and Leg Five of our walk

From Wakayama (on Honshu), we crossed over to Shikoku Island. We walked a zigzag through Tokushima Prefecture, and then covered Kochi Prefecture and walked up to Ehime Prefecture. From Ehime Prefecture crossed the Shimanami Kaido bridges that link various islands in the Seto Inland Sea. We walked over the bridge and then sailed a short way to Onomichi City, Hiroshima Prefecture (which is back on Honshu). We then walked up to Fukayama City, and from there crossed by ferry back to Kagawa Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku.

Once we had finished walking Shikoku, we crossed again to Honshu Island by ferry (to Okayama Prefecture) and from there we walked on through the Chugoku Region (Okayama, Tottori, Shimane and Yamaguchi prefectures).

From Shimonoseki City, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, we crossed under the Kanmon Tunnel to Kyushu Island, on which we walked Fukuoka Prefecture, Saga Prefecture, Nagasaki Prefecture, Kumamoto Prefecture and Kagoshima Prefecture. From Kagoshima city, we then sailed for our final prefecture, Okinawa.


The second leg of our walk took us from Cape Oma, the northernmost point on Honshu Island, in Aomori Prefecture down through to Wakayama Prefecture.

Our route covered Aomori Prefecture, Iwate Prefecture, Akita Prefecture, Yamagata Prefecture, Niigata Prefecture, Toyama Prefecture, Ishikawa Prefecture, Fukui Prefecture, Shiga Prefecture, Mie Prefecture, Nara Prefecture, and Wakayama Prefecture.

From Wakayama City, we crossed over to the island of Shikoku.



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The first leg of our walk was through the island of Hokkaido, from Japan's northernmost point, Cape Soya. We spent about four months traipsing around Hokkaido, finishing at Hakodate, from where we sailed across the Tsugaru Straits to northern Honshu (Cape Oma, in Aomori Prefecture).

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Sunday, May 14, 2006


I WAS born in London in 1961 and trained as a reporter and press photographer in Britain. After working as a journalist in Britain for several years, I got bitten by the travel bug and headed off to the Middle East. There, I continued my work as a photojournalist in Jerusalem and Cairo. In 1986, at the height of reports of famine in sub-Saharan Africa, I worked as a volunteer in the feeding/hygiene centre on the Wad Sharife Refugee Camp, in Sudan. Since coming to Japan in 1988, I have worked on the editorial staff of The Japan Times, The Daily Yomiuri and Asahi Evening News. I was the Travel Page Editor at the Asahi Evening News for several years. I continue to specialise as a travel writer and photographer, and I am trying to get cracking on a second book, tentatively called “Japan on Bum: Sitting to Mu,” which is about my experiences of Zen training at a temple in Japan.

ETSUKO SHIMABUKURO was born in Okinawa in 1964 and studied archaeology at university in Tokyo. Later, she won a scholarship to study computer science at university in the United States. In 1991, Etsuko returned to Japan to take up the reins of her career at European and U.S. investment banks. Currently, she is working as a senior consultant for an IT venture company in Tokyo. During the Japan on Foot project, Etsuko planned the walking route and took most of the digital photographs. She also maintained the original Japan on Foot website in both English and Japanese and, with Mary, organised charity events for HELP. In April, 2006, Etsuko Shimabukuro was one of 18 Japanese to take part in a one-week marathon through the Sahara Desert.


Part 5: KYUSHU

*Please note that the Japan on Foot book and the Japan on Foot blog are *not* the same. The book is far better.

A Man Called Adams

Y JAPAN ON FOOT 2001/2002

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 prefecture) on April 19th, 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. 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 he 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 eighty-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, 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. He was fifty-seven. Hirado specialities such as gobomochi and kasudosu cakes, as well as elegantly wrapped rice crackers are the delights being traded these days at Cake Shop William, a popular 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 four hundredth 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."

Grave Concerns


A BENT-OVER old woman was tending to graves at Neshiko cemetery, arranging colourful 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 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 Christian 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 Saint Mary. 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 Hidden Christian 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 Christian 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 Hidden Christians now lived on Hirado. "I believe only Ikitsuki Island has any Hidden Christians these days. Certainly, people in Neshiko won’t talk about it, they’re a tightlipped bunch here. Not even Shusaku Endo could find out anything when researching Hidden Christian 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 Hidden Christians still do exist on Hirado, and mainly out near Neshiko. The curator had blushed when I had inquired how many Hidden Christians might still exist on the island. “I think only the town hall could tell you that, but it might be a problem revealing such figures. We have a dowa problem here,” she added, referring to the buraku, a segment of Japanese society who have long suffered prejudice and continue to fight for equal rights to this very day. But, as regards the Hidden Christians, it had been to the chagrin of the Roman Catholic Church that many had 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 Hidden Christians 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 Hidden Christian 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 Hidden Christians 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 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 eighty-year-old Mrs. Kuni Tsuji lives with her son and daughter-in-law. There was nothing to suggest that the family had once been Christian, but it turned out that Mrs. 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 Hidden Christian community, Mrs. 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. Mrs. Tsuji explained that she herself was not familiar with the prayers or rituals. "Women weren’t allowed to see them. Apparently, once a bride from outside the village had discovered that the family she married into here was praying to Saint Mary. 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 Christian items. "We no longer have the takaramono (treasures). Only my son, the carpenter and me know where the treasure 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 Mrs. 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 treasure has been in my family for many generations; it was 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 defence. "What is your treasure?" I asked, realizing that whatever it was, it still held incredible power over the old woman’s mind. Mrs. 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 treasure a Saint Mary?" 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 treasure 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 Hidden Christians 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.
Mrs. 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 Hidden Christians, 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 Christians here 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 Christians 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.

Ave Maria


FROM HIRADO we sailed on to Kuroshima, an island of one thousand souls where, we were told by a Japanese Catholic nun, the population is eighty per cent 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. 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 four hundred 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
thirty-five to eighty million yen. 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 prefecture, eyes glazed over in wonderment. "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 Shusaku Endo, 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 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 Christians 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.

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 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 prefecture, from where she intended us to take the leap from Kyushu to Okinawa prefecture. But I had another plan in store. 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 prefecture, I continued, we could mosey down the coastline and then zigzag back west to Kagoshima prefecture. 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 kilometres—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 Professor Kazufumi Goto 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 the “Mammoth Man.” 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. Professor 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 eleven thousand years ago. Preyed upon by lions, wolves, sabre-toothed tigers and our ancestors, the Ice Age proved to be the ultimate death knell for this big grazer. Running a kindergarten must be a mammoth project on its own, I pondered as Professor 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. Professor 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, Professor 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. Professor 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 fifty-one-year-old scientist as youngsters tugged at his sleeve to draw attention to their morning’s paintings. Etsuko and I were both impressed that Professor Goto had agreed to meet with us, but he said that he was excited to learn more about our project too. After reading a report on our walk in the Kumamoto Shimbun newspaper, 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. Professor Goto has been pursuing his mammoth project for more than ten 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," Professor Goto laughed after explaining that Russian scientists have spent fourteen 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, Professor 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," he enthused. Professor 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 fifty per cent 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 metres and weighed up to four tons, could be created," explained Professor 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 one hundred 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 ten thousand 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 Professor 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," he concluded.

Valley of the Gods


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 thirty-six 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 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 Cty, also in Miyazaki prefecture, we strolled out through an area that is dotted with more than three hundred 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 seven thousand kilometres, 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 one thousand 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 kilometres 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 speciality 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.

Onwards to Okinawa


YAKUSHIMA MARKED the end of our walk through Kyushu. This island that lies off the southern tip of Kagoshima 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. 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 metres. 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 metres 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—twenty-four 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 fourteen-month mark and a foot-slog of more than 7,300 kilometres 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 Island. 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 Motobu town. The gregarious strumming of an Okinawan sanshin drifted towards us from afar, as if carried by a messenger on the early evening breeze.