Lot for UFOs
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.
An obscure Japanese town puts out the welcome mat for extraterrestrials
By SACHIKO SAKAMAKI Hakui
Art: Kanazawa, Japan
Japan's Noto Peninsula, a knuckle of terraced rice paddies jutting into
the Sea of Japan, may seem an entirely obscure placebut 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 backcountryand the
answer to that is wholly terrestrial, distinctly political and very
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 1993half
from the Ministry of Home Affairs in Tokyo and the rest from the city's
coffersand 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 heythat wouldn't be bad for
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