Tuesday 23 March
Is anyone home ?
From my hotel window, I can see a big golden roof in the hills above Takayama. If I hadn’t read my guide book, I would guess this is the town’s main tourist draw. (I’m a sucker for scale.) But it’s not on bus routes, receives only the briefest of mentions on tourist literature. What the hell is it?
It’s a ten-minute walk downhill from Takayama’s excellent Hida no Sato village, from where it looks immense, so I go take a look.
Turns out that this is the HQ and ‘World Shrine’ of Sukyo Mahikari. A typical sect / cult depending on your perspective: banned in some countries, a registered charity in others; lifting at will from the world religions which it claims to supersede; a desire to unite but itself driven to schism by internecine succession battles; picked apart for its nonsense and hypocrisy on the websites of those converts who managed to escape.
The leaflet I pick up tells me that followers of Sukyo Mahikari practise ‘purification by divine light’ (“the revival of a practice performed by Buddha and Jesus”) and even extend its application to farming methods. Their World Shrine “is the source of divine light for the world”. It is, I am informed, “a second Noah’s Ark”.
I enter the cherry-topped complex (that red thing is actually 'Munadama, Symbol of the Presence of God' according to the pamphlet) via ‘The Gate of Hoshu’ ('Golden Arches' was already trademarked) . There are Swastikas on the columns (I mean 'Towers of Light'). Bling minarets. And the place is empty. This is no living, breathing Auroville.
It all feels a lot like walking around a stadium on a non-match day – immense parking bays and huge washrooms and, literally, I’m the lone visitor. OK, I’m outnumbered by the two whitecloaked curators (or are they acolytes?) but that’s all. As David Vine might say, it’s not a Mecca for tourists. My guess is that it has never even been half-full. (No photographic evidence of congregations or services, neither at the building itself nor on-line.)
Why did they choose the town of Takayama, located in the Japanese Alps, for a location? Perhaps it's just harder to escape from here once you've taken the trouble to arrive.
The 'Great Hall of Worship', where I wish I were allowed to take photos, is peaceful. Red velvety floor and a long aquamarine blue fish tank which runs the full length of the immense front altar, well above head height. Above that, behind a screen, an immense golden ark in a garden of Eden. It feels both luxurious and tacky, and clearly its founders / designers / furnishers can reasonably be accused of bypassing good taste in achieving it. If the villain in a James Bond film were to come from a religious cult, the producers could rent this place as a set. Then it might fill up. It even has a ‘balcony for the Spiritual Leader'. (There is also an International Conference Room and Lecture Hall.)
I leave somehow impressed by this grandiose monstrosity. Someone has had to pay for it though: most likely it was built on the subscriptions of the international brainwashed. An experience similar to visiting a Ceascescu vanity project in Bucharest, yet this place has pretensions to holiness to go with the founder's megalomania.
Until today, the most absurd building I had seen in Japan was the ‘UFO Museum’ in Fukui, an imposing but kitsch extraterrestrial Millennium Dome, in a sleepy town on the Noto Hanto without any notable UFO history.
But the World Shrine, where I sense there is equally little chance of a Second Coming, has the edge.