Did Jesus Christ live and die in northern Japan?
Most people would expect the foundations of a global religion like Christianity to be undermined only in blockbuster style by secret hidden codes, Vatican cover-ups, the mysterious Illuminati or the like.
Not in the quiet, understated and actually very peaceful style in which “Christ’s Grave” does it in one of the remotest parts of northern Japan.
For if it’s true that Jesus Christ is buried as claimed just outside Shingo Village in Aomori Prefecture, then he obviously didn't die on the cross, rise again promising eternal life through his dad and, ultimately, give the world Christianity.
Even if it's not true, it's still a pretty neat story.
In fact, Christ chose a very nice spot in which to live and die. (I’ll skip the purportedlys and allegedlys or we’ll be here all night.)
The graves -- plural because his brother, Isukiri, is also buried there -- are on a sheltered rise near where Jesus lived out his final and otherwise-unrecorded years.
This is truly rural Japan, and in spring and summer the area is as green and lush as it's possible to be: Just try counting the myriad shades of green. Aside from the largely unassuming village of Shingo itself, it’s entirely forest surrounding farms.
Aomori’s countryside is beautiful, and there are many worse places for eternal rest. Except, I suppose, to the minds of your two billion followers, for whom your eternal rest gives the lie to your eternal life.
There are local idiosyncrasies to back up the story. To cite just two examples: Shingo’s previous name was Herai -- only one phoneme away from the Japanese word for Hebrew, Heburai -- and a local traditional song contains no obvious Japanese words but does have words similar in sound to Hebrew.
Yes, of course you have to be careful with word (and historical) derivations based on things that only seem similar, but please, no counter arguments that the documentary evidence for the accepted history of Jesus also happens to be very thin on the ground.
Whether this is history (a local Shinto priest came across the “evidence” now housed in the museum in 1935) or entertainment, neither is done with disrespect, show or glibness.
The graves and the accompanying museum are housed in a calm grove where the trees filter the summer sun and are very well tended by people who largely follow Shinto beliefs, if anything. Within view of the graves is a small non-Christian burial area.
But how did Christ actually get there? And, more immediately, how do you get there?
Getting to Christ’s Grave (in Japanese, Kirisuto-no-haka) as a visitor is a lot easier than Jesus’ own convoluted voyage but not necessarily that easy if you are without your own transport.
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First, though, Jesus’ trip: how did he end up in Aomori apple-growing country? The legend, explained -- mostly in Japanese -- in the compact museum, is that his arrival was actually his second trip to Japan. So much for a visit to Japan being the “trip of a lifetime.”
The historically lost middle years of Christ were spent west of Tokyo before he returned to the Middle East and to religious and political turmoil -- and the rest of the story.
The traditional narrative includes his crucifixion, of course, which in the Shingo version he avoided when his brother selflessly substituted himself for Jesus.
Carrying some of his brother’s remains, Christ travelled from Jerusalem via Siberia and Alaska before ending up in the northern Japanese port of Hachinohe and finally inland to what is now Shingo.
After such a voyage he deserved to settle down, marry a local woman and father children, which is exactly what he did, inadvertently creating a possible bloodline. He finally died a natural death aged an average-busting 106 years.
Why he took the long way round via Alaska, rather than keeping it simple is undocumented, but the how of the route was confirmed in a testament left in Shingo by Christ himself.
Tracing his footsteps
So, how do you get there? The Shinkansen from Tokyo stops at the same port city where Christ arrived -- Hachinohe.
It takes about three hours from Tokyo and you then connect to a local train for Sannohe, which is the nearest station to the graves, although still about 12 kilometers away.
In my first visit, in 1998, I took a taxi from there to the graves, where the driver waited for me, before driving me back and treating me to a rendition of that non-Japanese traditional song along the way.
Assume a presumably negotiable cost of perhaps ¥10,000 -- for the taxi not the song.
I visited again in the summer of 2011, this time by private car, which does make it a lot more accessible.
There is also a bus from Gonohe, although there isn’t a train station to get you to Gonohe, which is a few kilometers from Keniyoshi, a couple of stops before Sannohe if you’re following this.
However, while this isn’t the back of beyond, it is decidedly rural and buses are few and not dedicated to a tourist trip. Christ, I guess, just walked.
If that all sounds a bit out of the way for a one-off dedicated visit, the graves are also roughly 30 kilometers from the beautiful Lake Towada, from where there’s a popular, scenic route following the Oirase River and taking in various impressive waterfalls.
You could, then, make a visit to Christ’s Grave an offshoot of a trip to Towada.
A couple of things changed between my visits of 1998 and 2011. In 2004, the Israeli Ambassador to Japan dedicated a stone with a message proclaiming the friendship between the city of Jerusalem and Shingo.
This neatly suggests a historical connection -- conveniently, without actually claiming one, of course.
And the Kiristo-no-haka public-phone card that I bought in 1998 would now be hard to come by. We can blame relentless technological progress for that.
However, apart from a few souvenirs available in the museum, in Shingo you can still buy some Kiristo-no-haka sake -- a novel alcoholic addition to Christ’s known water-transforming skills.
Keepsakes aside, will we have to rethink the story of Jesus because of this? A kind of J-Christ addition to the likes of the J-League and J-Pop?
Given the obvious sensitivities in play, I’d hate to prescribe anything on that front, but any visit to Shingo should make it abundantly clear that the locals, at least, have more than enough faith to go around.
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