steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

In the Deep North

Although I was in time to see a fair bit of sakura in Tokyo and Osaka, the blossoms having lingered longer than usual in the unseasonably cold spring air, I wasn't able to catch them at their finest. For that I had to travel north, overtaking the ebbing sakura tide in Aomori Prefecture in the northernmost tip of Honshu - a place that has intrigued me for a while now. For this part of my trip I was joined by Mami, with whom I stayed in Gunma Prefecture last year when visiting Lockheart Castle. We began our stay in Hirosaki, where the local castle was about to begin its annual cherry blossom festival. Officially it wouldn't start until the following day, but that just meant that we were able to wander into the castle grounds without paying. It was beginning to get dark by then, but that of course is no impediment to the enjoyment of cherry blossom in Japan, where "yozakura" or "night cherry blossom viewing" is an established custom, and lights are set up to show everything to advantage.


Hirosaki is a city of maybe 200,000 people, a very comfortable number for me. We found a rather elegant place to eat: we were the only guests, in fact, so the staff were even more attentive. It was a Tuesday, so perhaps that's no surprise, but I do worry about the possible waste of food, to say nothing of the sustainability of such a business. That said, we did our best to keep them above water by ordering a nice Garnacha, which we drank with a variety of interesting accompaniments. These included a few firsts for me, notably basashi (aka, appropriately, sakuraniku/桜肉=cherry blossom meat, aka raw horse). It was a little too cold when first served, but once once it was closer to room temperature it was delicious:


Perhaps the most unusual was cream cheese tempura served with matcha salt. Not one of Japan's healthier inventions, but recommended!


The following day we breakfasted far more cheaply at a 24-hour soba place - but even that, I have to say, was a thing of beauty. Mine was tentama soba - i.e. tempura soba with a raw egg:


We returned to the castle to enjoy the cherry blossom in the daylight. We were lucky enough to encounter a pair of newly-weds posing for photos on a vermilion bridge. Don't they look serious? (Yes, we had permission.)


Careful examination of the photographic record, however, reveals that all may not be quite as dour as it seems...


Most of the lanterns along the sakura avenues had been sponsored - not by companies but by families wanting to mark some event their children's lives: here, a first birthday and entry into the first year of primary school. Adorable, no?


By daylight of course, the blossom had quite a different quality:


We could have lingered longer, but had to get on to Aomori City, the prefectural capital. Aomori's tourism is very much focused on its famous Nebuta festival, which is held in August, but the floats from former years are stored in a nearby exhibition space. Unlike the ancient floats of Takayama, which I saw in a similar exhibition two years ago, the Nebuta decorations are designed and made anew every year from paper, wood and electric light bulbs, and show garish battles of gods, heroes and demons. It's hard to think of an equivalent in Britain: Bridgwater Carnival doesn`t really cut it.


When I first hatched the plan to come to Aomori my idea had been to visit Osorezan, both a Buddhist temple set in the sulphurous fumes of a living volcano and a place of eerie pilgrimage for bereaved parents, who are said to leave little images of their dead children there. It is also the haunt of ecstatic Pythonesses who bring messages from beyond for those so afflicted. Unfortunately, it’s not open until May because of the winter weather, so I had to make do with the tomb of Jesus Christ.

That’s right - it turns out that Jesus is actually buried in a small village in the south of Aomori Prefecture, where he escaped after that unpleasant business in Jerusalem and lived out his days as a farmer, dying at the respectable age of 106. These mysteries were unveiled in the first half of the last century, in the so-called Takeuchi documents, an ancient cache of occult historical lore discovered and copied out by Mr Takeuchi. The documents prove that not only Christianity but many other important international movements and figures have their roots in Japan. These include the pyramids, naturally, and in fact it was while walking through the mountains near the village of what is now Shingou (then Herai) to visit some newly discovered proto-pyramids that Takeuchi and his friends stumbled over Christ’s burial mound. There is also a second mound raised in honour of his brother Isukiri, oddly unmentioned in the Bible, who took Jesus’ place on the cross and thus allowed him to make good his escape.

Anyway, why am I telling you all this when I can show you? Mami and I drove up and up, in the the Japanese countryside, and eventually found Shingou, where road signs gave us a clue that we were close to our goal:


Google was telling us forebodingly that the Tomb of Christ was closed, but (remembering that it was only a few days after Easter) I was hopeful of finding it open after all, and we were not disheartened. A few yards later, we encountered a Ministop convenience store, or something that looked like one - but this was subtly different:


A short walk from "Christ-stop" brought us to the twin mounds of Jesus and Isikuri, in front of which the following explanation is to be found:


There is also a friendly message in Hebrew from the Israeli ambassador, as noted in English on this marble slab:



As you can see, the tombs themselves were free to be seen (Jesus's is the one with the little note reading "Arigatou"), but the accompanying exhibit did indeed look closed, and we were were about to turn disconsolately away when an old man in wellington boots - with the same squint-and-twinkle combination I’d noticed a few days earlier in the sake master of Kobe - emerged from it, gesturing at us animatedly. Instead of shooing us away, as I’d somehow expected, he beckoned us over for a private viewing. Inside we found a good deal of historical evidence presented to support Takeuchi's case for this being the resting place of Jesus. Did the words of the Obon dance in the the village resemble Hebrew rather than Japanese? Why did Mr Sawaguchi, from one of the village's oldest families, have “blue eyes, like those of a foreigner”?


Why, most of all, did the villagers until recently practice the custom of painting young children’s foreheads with a cross, as illustrated in this weirdly creepy reproduction of the scene? It remains a mystery.


I asked the helpful old man - perhaps gardener - possibly Jesus - whether many foreign tourists came to see the tomb of Christ. Oh, many, many, he replied, and then, scratching his head for a figure, added, “Perhaps as many as 6%!”

This was some measure of how deep into the country we had come.
Tags: nippon notes, voyage to japan
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