Jan. 23, 2001 -- In the remote mountains of northern Japan sits a strange little town with an even stranger story.
It’s a story of Jesus Christ, and it goes a little something like this: Jesus didn’t die up on his cross at Golgotha. That was his brother. Christ himself fled across Siberia and, after a brief detour through Alaska, landed in Japan — where he got married and raised a family.
The town, Shingo, calls itself Kirisuto no Sato: Hometown of Christ.
Not many burgs outside of Bethlehem make that claim.
Today, Shingo is known more for its garlic farms (they even make garlic ice cream there) and apple orchards than the Tomb of Christ — that is, if it were to be known for anything at all (it’s not).
The site itself, a few minutes’ drive from the town’s tiny commercial district, is rather unspectacular. Two 8-foot-high wooden crosses surrounded by a white picket fence sit on a bluff in the woods overlooking a gravel parking lot. A small museum sits at the other side of the parking lot.
On a typical day, dozens of people wander through. Some leave a small offering — five-yen coins, considered lucky, are common — in a basket at the gravesite. Some even pray.
The idea of Jesus visiting, much less settling down in, Japan’s equivalent of the Ozarks may sound patently absurd. Even many locals doubt the tale. But some residents of Shingo say it’s entirely plausible that the man many call Messiah came here, and claim they can prove it.
An Ancient Scroll and a Remarkable Tale
In the years leading up to World War II, ancient scrolls turned up in the hands of a Shinto priest just outside of Tokyo. They pertained to two small, forgotten graves in the remote mountains of northern Honshu, the main island of Japan
The scrolls — written in a Japanese so archaic that only experts can read it — recount the unlikely tale of Christ’s escape from death, and were purportedly written — or at least dictated — by Jesus himself as his last will and testament. Call it the Last Testament.
When the priest realized what he had uncovered, he summoned Banzan Toya, an artist/researcher specializing in ancient Japanese history. Together, they located two graves in a bamboo grove on the ancestral land of the Sawaguchi family, whose tradition held that the burial site remain undisturbed, but did not explain why.
According to the scrolls, one tomb holds the ears of Jesus’ brother, Isukiri, and a lock of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s hair, while Christ himself rests in the one directly opposite.
The scrolls talk of Christ’s “lost” years, during which, they say, he traveled to Japan for spiritual training. Years later, when he was condemned to die in Judea, he escaped to his adopted hometown.
In Shingo, locals held him in awe as the “long-nosed goblin.” Christ supposedly changed his name to Daitenku Taro Jurai, sired a biblical three daughters and lived to the ripe old age of 106.
A Dubious Character and His Hunt for Pyramids
The original scrolls were lost in the war, but a copy survives, and is on display — in a glass case — at a museum on the Tomb of Christ grounds.
There are some obvious problems with this tale. First, if true it would undermine the entire basis for the Christian faith: for the religion to be valid, Jesus had to die on the cross. It also contradicts the Bible, which details his crucifixion.
The scroll was discovered in the intensely nationalistic climate of the prewar years; similar “discoveries” document Moses’ trip to Japan, where the divine emperor gave him the Ten Commandments and the Hebrew language, not to mention the Star of David.
Toya himself was a bit of a dubious character; he traveled Japan in search of seven ancient pyramids, far older than those of Egypt. The day after he uncovered the Tomb of Christ, Toya “found” one of the pyramids nearby — a strange collection of rocks atop a small hill and a large, flat slab he claimed was a fallen monolith.
A surreal road sign near the tomb of Christ today features notations in English and Japanese denoting the locations of “Tomb of Christ” and “pyramid.” This just before the chapel-shaped Tomb of Christ bus stop, where nearby ads would lead a passing tourist to believe the site was in some way sponsored or recognized by Coca-Cola.
But the tale cannot be dismissed offhand. It is very likely the someone — or something — is buried in the tomb below. Locals say archaeologists have confirmed that a very old crypt does, in fact, exist beneath the gravesite, and the town claims some interesting customs that predate the modern “rediscovery” of the tomb.
Until recently, for example, newborn children in Shingo were decorated with a black cross on the forehead.
Locals Make a Living Off the Jesus Legend
Even if they don’t quite believe the story, the people of Shingo know a good thing when they see it.
“It’s just a way of attracting tourists, making money,” said Father Marcel Poliquin, a Roman Catholic priest in Towada, about 45 miles from Shingo.
At local gift shops, believers and nonbelievers alike can buy Jesus coasters, Jesus thermometers, Jesus telephone cards and more.
One shop even sells “Kirisuto no Sato” sake.
Visitors to the tomb also inevitably pony up a few hundred yen to visit the museum, and the town’s big annual draw is a festival at the gravesite. There, local dancers march around the graves banging drums and singing in a language no one understands — but some say is derivative of ancient Hebrew.
“Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not,” says one friendly local in a neighborhood bar. “It’s a legend.”
A schoolgirl who lives in a nearby town says she’s never been to the gravesite.
“But it’s probably a lie,” she adds.
Father Marcel tries to see the humor in the heresy.
“I say it as a joke: ‘Christ died in my parish.’”
So who, if anyone, is buried in the Tomb of Christ?
Some speculate that it was an early leader of Japan’s indigenous Ainu population. Some say an ancient wise man. Others believe that an early Christian missionary rests below.
Or, perhaps, nothing at all.