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Greg Girard/Contact Press Images for TIME.
HONK IF YOU'RE A MARTIAN: Aliens--international and intergalactic alike--will be warmly received by the UFO Museum.

Parking Lot for UFOs
An obscure Japanese town puts out the welcome mat for extraterrestrials—
and tourists

Living Art: Kanazawa, Japan

Japan's Noto Peninsula, a knuckle of terraced rice paddies jutting into the Sea of Japan, may seem an entirely obscure place—but just wait until the extraterrestrials arrive. For there, in the city of Hakui, a structure has been built to greet them officially. Called the Cosmo Isle Hakui, it is a large metallic dome constructed with $48 million of government money. It doesn't have an airstrip; the empty parking lot will have to do.

How will the aliens know to touch down there and not at the McDonald's down the road? Outside the center, which is technically a ufo museum and municipal library, stands a 26-m American rocket from the 1960s. Inside the dome are replicas of an Apollo command module, Rover prototypes used for practice runs of lunar and Mars projects and the actual Vostok capsule that served as the space home of a Soviet cosmonaut in 1967. There's also a prop trunk where actor Tom Hanks stored his space suit for the movie Apollo 13, in case extraterrestrials are keeping up with Hollywood. "It wouldn't hurt," says Josen Takano, 44, the museum's director, "if there's one place on earth to welcome ufos."

Take that, Roswell. Hakui may not be known as a ufo site like Machu Picchu or Devil's Mountain, but at least the city got big government money for its big ufo museum. Why Hakui? The city isn't a known magnet for ufo fanatics. A blue fireball was spotted in the sky five years ago, it's true, and this was reported in the local newspaper. But people as far away as northern Akita and eastern Mito saw the same phenomenon, later identified by astronomers as a meteorite. The better question is how such a project sprung up in Japanese backcountry—and the answer to that is wholly terrestrial, distinctly political and very Japanese.

The museum is the brainchild of Takano, an engineer by training but a jack-of-all-trades by experience, including monkhood. When he was a student at Tokyo's Waseda University, Takano wrote scripts for science programs on TV, which awakened his interest in ufos. He is also from Hakui and recounts an intriguing local legend. Back in the samurai era, a strange craft hovered above the mountains just outside town. According to the legend, it was shaped like a Buddhist monk's cymbal, or what would later be described as a flying saucer. Takano has never personally spotted a ufo, but he has gradually come to believe in extraterrestrial intelligence. In 1983, he wondered whether aliens could give life to his sleepy hometown, as its main industry, textiles, started to die. He quit his TV job in Tokyo, promoted the idea of a museum among the townsfolk and lobbied for funding. It came through in 1993—half from the Ministry of Home Affairs in Tokyo and the rest from the city's coffers—and in July 1996 the museum opened. It has been a hit: 70,000 people visit every year.

Takano's exhibits are not meant for the lunatic fringe. "This is the world's only museum that deals with ufos without being lowbrow," he insists. There's the requisite alien corpse display, of course, but one of the main exhibits is a booth with a video screen in which sober scientists describe the international effort known as seti, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Nonetheless, in a small library on the building's second floor, Takano has assembled thousands of documents, most in English, ranging from the serious to the lighthearted.

Japan has its fair share of ufo freaks. The Raelians, named after a French journalist who allegedly had contact with aliens in the 1970s, claim 4,000 adherents in Japan. (Their core belief: that human beings were created by aliens through genetic modification.) One of Takano's friends ran for the Upper House of the national parliament on the UFO party ticket in the early '90s. His platform called for opening up the globe to other planets. In the mainstream, though, Japan's belief in ufos is probably similar to that of other countries: a blend of faddishness, X-Files and the appeal of the unknown. "Many young people say they believe in ufos and other paranormal things," says Nobutaka Inoue, professor of religion at Tokyo's Kokugakuin University. "But it's just their wish for something mysterious."

In a way, a $48 million ufo welcome mat makes sense on Noto peninsula. The Hida and Haku mountains cut the area off from the rest of Honshu island. Noto folk are used to isolation, and to having strange things wash up on their shores. "People in Noto have long welcomed foreign visitors," says Tadao Kobayashi, a specialist in Noto folklore at Tokyo Kasei-gakuin University. "They have put some foreign items, like warrior helmets, in shrines. They may easily believe that something from another world would visit."

Noto peninsula, aliens, ufos: the logical connection may be tenuous, but it's not as wild as a similar project down the road. In nearby Oshimizu, you can visit the grave of Moses, the biblical prophet. Ask for a guide and Hiroshi Koshino, a 68-year-old farmer, will bring you up a hill to see a plaque at Moses' final resting place. Koshino happens to own the hill. In town you can buy Moses pomegranate wine and Moses pomegranate jam. (Pomegranates grow locally.) If you dare to ask why anyone believes that Moses is buried in Oshimizu, chapter and verse will be cited from a book printed in the 1930s asserting that the prophet departed from Mount Sinai on a "heavenly floating ship" and ended up in Oshimizu. (The same author claimed that Jesus was buried in Japan's northern Aomori prefecture. Yes, there's a Jesus visitor center.) Never mind that nobody in Oshimizu has the faintest conviction that Moses ever left the Middle East. "This is for the town's revival," says Koshino.

And that explains all of these projects. The Japanese government is an easy touch for funds that might bring business to fading areas, and Hakui is near the constituency of current Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. When you have a pork barrel as large as Japan's, the most unlikely people end up eating spare ribs. The biggest surprise would be if the ufos actually landed in Hakui. But hey—that wouldn't be bad for business either.

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