Jesus in Japan

Jesus' supposed resting place

Jesus' supposed resting place
Photos by Mary King

Mary King hunts down the Messiah in the small village of Herai in the wilds of northern Japan.

Church bells will ring out louder this year as millions of Christians across the world join in songs of praise for Jesus Christ's 2000th birthday. While most turn their thoughts to Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem, few know of the important role some claim Japan played in the life of Christ.

There are probably very few Christians who have even heard of the small village of Herai that lies tucked away in the northern reaches of Aomori Prefecture, but some here maintain this to be the place where Jesus settled, married and died at the ripe old age of 106. Although it's commonly held that Jesus grew up as a carpenter in the Galilee town of Nazareth, according to the legend of Herai, or Shingo as it's now known, the 11 "missing years" of Christ's life not accounted for in the New Testament of the Bible were spent in Japan.

According to the local legend, Christ first came to Japan, aged 21, during the reign of the 11th emperor, Suinin, and landed at the port of Hashidate on the Japan Sea coast. Apparently, he settled in Etchu province where, under the tutelage of a great master, he studied Japanese language, literature and various other subjects. The Legend of Daitenku Taro Jurai (Daitenku Taro Jurai was the name Christ is said to have later taken) claims that at the end of his 11-year stay, Christ returned to Judea, aged 33, where he taught about the "sacred land" of Japan. But, unfortunately, "Christ's teachings about Japan were considered too radical," and he was condemned to death.

The New Testament teaches Jesus was crucified at Golgotha, rose from the dead after three days and later ascended into Heaven. However, according to the legend of Herai, Jesus escaped this fate, and instead his brother Isukiri was nailed to the cross and died. Christ, meanwhile, fled with his disciples and went into hiding, carrying locks of the Virgin Mary's hair and his brother's ear. After an arduous journey across Siberia, Christ finally returned to Japan and settled in Herai where he changed his name, married a Japanese woman called Miyuko, fathered three daughters and lived to the age of 106.

Devout Christians may insist that the Garden Tomb, which lies not far from Damascus Gate outside the Old City of Jerusalem, is Jesus' true burial site, but the people of Herai have another story to tell-marked by a large wooden cross, Jesus' tomb (Juraizuka) sits alongside his brother's (Judaibo) in Herai. Isukiri's tomb holds his ear and locks of the Virgin Mary's hair.

It's hard to imagine anyone, let alone Christ, would have schlepped out to one of the remotest parts of northern Japan in days of old, as even today it demands a great deal of effort to reach the village. Herai epitomizes the middle of nowhere. The place is little more than a lonely grocery store, a sprinkling of farmhouses and scraggly garlic fields and rice paddies blanketed with snow at this time of year. Most tourists either already know about the tombs, as well as the "pyramids" said to predate those of Egypt, or are so intrigued by the wild talk they hear of Herai while trekking out near Towadako Lake they can't resist coming to check it out.

Remains of the Mirror Stone pyramid
Remains of the Mirror Stone pyramid

Pyramid scheme
The first pyramid of the "O-Ishigami Pyramid" circle, we are told, was discovered in August, 1935 on Mt Towari, exactly one day after the discovery of Christ's tomb in the village. According to the "history of the Divine Age" found in the documents of the Takenouchi family, there are seven pyramids in Japan, dating back tens of thousands of years and older than the Egyptian pyramids. Legend has it that the largest of these "pyramids," the Mirror Stone, used to stand upright and had writing engraved on it, but fell over during an earthquake in 1857 and became embedded in the ground. Disappointingly, not one of the rocks slightly resembles a pyramid in the Egyptian or Mexican sense, but apparently Japanese pyramids are different from those found elsewhere. They were triangular rocks situated on the top of mountains and used for sun-worship in ancient times.

A local standing by what may be Jesus' grave
A local standing by what may be Jesus' grave

Tomb of the unknown Savior
The "pyramids" are a five-minute drive from the Kirisuto no Sato Denshokan (Village of Christ Legend Museum; Tel: 0178-78-3741), where you can read about the history and customs of Herai, and catch the audio-visual show of the Kirisuto Matsuri (Christ Festival) held in the early summer. The museum is open from April to October. Contact the Shingo Business and Tourist Section at Shingo Village Office (Tel: 0178-78-2111) for visits during other times of the year.

The present museum, open for the past five years, also records the uncanny circumstances surrounding the tombs of "Christ and his brother Isukiri" as well as old folk songs and customs that resemble ancient Judaic-Christian ones and various theories that either support or quash links between the Japanese and Christians of Jewish descent. Even the name of the village, Herai, is said to be derived from the word Hebrai (Hebrew).

It sounds like a tall tale, but no stranger than stories of burning bushes, the parting of the Red Sea and water being turned into wine. For the people of Herai too, the revelation that Christ is buried in their village came as a shock when documents claiming Jesus had resided in Japan were discovered in Ibaraki Prefecture in 1935. Said to be Christ's will and testament and the proof that he had lived and died in Japan, the "Takenouchi documents" later proved to be fake. For years, many villagers felt that the shroud of mystery surrounding the large ancient tombs in a bamboo thicket had finally been lifted. The documents explained some of the village's customs, such as marking a cross on the forehead of a child when it first leaves the home and why Sanjiro Sawaguchi, a village elder, had "blue eyes like a foreigner."

The museum explains mysterious local customs
The museum explains mysterious local customs

The tombs are located close to the Kirisuto no Sato Denshokan, marked by two large wooden crosses and are sitting on a small hill overlooking those of the Sawaguchi family-local garlic farmers who are said to be the descendants of Christ and who, to this day, care for their great ancestor's tombs.

"Somebody special lies there but I don't really believe it's the tomb of Christ. It's probably the tomb of a foreigner who settled in the village at some point. It's certainly interesting that some of the old customs in this village are said to be similar to those of ancient Judea, and it may explain why some people in the village have blue eyes. But this village has always been Buddhist and the Shinto shrine in the village is more than 1000 years old, so I really don't think that there are any ancient links between Japanese and Jews or Christians of Jewish descent," said Yoshiteru Ogasawara, who runs Nobara Pension (Tel: 0178-78-2484). Regardless of what you believe, Herai makes an interesting-if somewhat barren-destination, and you're guaranteed a great travel story to share with friends.

aomorimap.gif (5270 bytes)Getting there:
From JR Ueno stn, take the Tohoku shinkansen to Morioka stn and change to the express train for Hachinohe. From Hachinohe, take a bus to Gonohe, where you can change to a bus for Shingo (Herai). For information on the local bus service, contact the tourist section of the Shingo Village Office (Tel: 0178-78-2111; Fax: 0178-78-2118).

Getting around:
Those seriously thinking of venturing out to this part of the world to see the tombs and the "pyramids" should consider hiring a car or taxi from Hachinohe or Gonohe as the local bus service is irregular, and getting around Herai on foot is nigh-on impossible, especially during the winter months.

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