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Archive for the ‘Cemetery’ Category

Like many other countries, Japan struggled with religion and its negative attending ills many times. In 794 the capital was moved from Nara to Heian-kyo, modern day Kyoto, when Buddhist clergy became too powerful and the Imperial household decided to break free from its influence. In the early 17th century Tokugawa Hidetada and Tokugawa Iemitsu struggled with Christian merchants and missionaries so much, that the Sakoku Edict of 1639 turned pre-modern Japan into North Korea 0.9 – more than 200 years later, religious freedom was restored, the total power of an absolute leader was abolished and the country opened again for modernization, trade and travelling. Since World War 2 a more moderate country in many ways, Japan had to dispel only two religious groups for criminal activities in the past 70 years: Aum Shinrikyu after their sarin gas attack at the Tokyo subway in 1995… and Ibaraki’s Myokaku temple for financial fraud – welcome to the Japanese Gold Cult!

The whole story started back in 1984, at the same time when Aum Shinrikyu was founded. The superintendent priest of the Myokaku Temple in Chiba prefecture established a company that sold aborted fetus bodhisattva. In 1987 he established a religious enterprise called Hongaku Temple and started to sell all over Kanto, before becoming an independent temple in 1988. Soon after, the Consumer Affairs Agency started to receive complaints and temporarily shut down business. Unimpressed, the gold cult bought the Myokaku Temple on Mount Koya in Wakayama prefecture to expand its business to Kansai – which at that point included spiritual consultations for 3000 Yen and performing memorial services for 1 million Yen (back then and currently more than 9000 USD!) as well as selling overpriced item like marble vases and items made from gold. Center of the scam were the ihai, spirit tablets believed to hold the souls of deceased people – the cult took care of thousands of them and placed them in two special buildings at the Myokaku temple; but obviously they didn’t take of them in a proper way, hence the fraud accusations. In December 1999 a Wakayama district court finally followed the Agency for Cultural Affairs request to dissolve Myokaku / Hongaku Temple – the organization subsequently lost a legal battle for survival in front of the Supreme Court.
Sadly and surprisingly I couldn’t find anything about the case in English or German, so I had to piece together above information from various very complicated Japanese sources; please feel free to correct me if I misunderstood something! (My knowledge about Buddhism is limited, so I tried to avoid specialized terminology when possible… and I still don’t know what happened to Mount Koya’s Myokaku temple.)

After hiking through the mountainous Japanese countryside for about an hour on a hot, sunny spring day I finally reached the headquarters of the former Japanese Gold Cult:  a cluster of about half a dozen buildings – and after climbing a rather long and steep flight of stairs I reached a regular looking building that probably was used for meetings and as living quarters. To the right, past a pond and a collapsed gate, there was a comparatively small storage house – nothing of interest. Up another small flight of stairs I found the main hall, which was hard to miss at it was by far the biggest building. Almost as good as new, with lots of dark corners and significantly colder than the outside, it felt kind of strange being there. Solo explorations are always a lot more nerve-wrecking than group explorations… but this location had a spiritual / religious component to it, obviously. I don’t believe in ghosts and I am not religious at all, nevertheless there is some awe-inspiring element to a lot of those institutions – graveyards like the Okunoin, cathedrals like the Kölner Dom… and abandoned fake temples like this one.
The main reason though why explorers from all over Japan travel to the middle of nowhere are two small buildings behind the main hall, in which the Japanese Cold Cult stored all the ihai – and the bling-bling of gold and black lacquer was indeed quite impressive and worth the long trip from Kansai!
I just had entered an official looking, administrative building, probably the one where visitors were welcomed, when I saw somebody outside through a window – so I left through the back without taking any video material or interesting photos. The parts I saw were small offices and a main room full of boxes and random items, not of interest.
The last building looked like a big, chaotic family home and was probably used for meditation. Since it was pretty much busted open, nature was taking over again and parts of the floor were rather soft and brittle. Again, items were scattered all over the place, as if somebody was looking for valuables without finding anything.

Three hours after my arrival I left with a heavy heart as I had an afternoon flight to catch. Exploring the headquarters of the Japanese Gold Cult was a weird and unique experience. On the one hand I felt a bit uneasy as I was exploring a crime scene solo, and the garden there wasn’t out of control (which means that somebody still had an eye on it), on the other hand it was such a tranquil and beautiful place, the peaceful atmosphere disrupted only once in a while by farmers tilling their nearby fields. The Japanese Gold Cult had been kept a secret for about a year or two – now that Japanese explorers gave away too many hints and its exact location kind of became common knowledge, I really hope that people will keep respecting it. Not because it’s a (fake) sacred site, but because it’s a beautiful and unique abandoned place that deserves respect!

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The Revolutionary Martyrs‘ Cemetery (just down the road of the *Kumsusan Palace*) was one of those locations I thought I took dozens of photos and several videos of – and when I looked at the stuff I shot it was barely a dozen photos and no video… Nevertheless the location is way too important to be cut from this travel report, so here we go!
If the United States and North Korea have one thing in common then it’s their love for the military and their appreciation for the people who gave their lives for the greater good. (Sadly their definitions of “greater good” couldn’t be more different…) So it isn’t a surprise that Pyongyang has not only one, but two cemeteries for… not just soldiers… but martyrs.

The Patriotic Martyrs’ Cemetery in the north of Pyongyang is dedicated to the people who fought in the Fatherland Liberation War (usually known as the Korean War) or contributed to the Korean society after the armistice in 1953. We didn’t visit that one, probably because the people buried there are not as well known and the location itself isn’t that spectacular.
The Revolutionary Martyrs‘ Cemetery on the other hand is beautifully located on a gentle slope of Mount Taesong, overlooking Pyongyang so the people buried there can witness the rise of the country to beauty and wealth through the busts on top of their graves. (Impolite individuals would have pointed out that they still wait to witness that… None in our group did, at least not while the guides were present.) This cemetery is dedicated to those who contributed to the liberation of the country and the socialist construction – in other words: People who fought against the Japanese during the occupation and helped organizing the country after World War 2. The most famous people buried there are General Kim Ch’aek, Kim Il-sung’s mother Kang Pan-sok and his first wife Kim Jong-suk.
(BTW: As of 2013-05-29 Wikipedia gets that wrong – the amateur writer collective claims it’s the other way round, which doesn’t make sense at all since Kang Pan-sok and Kim Jong-suk both died before the Korean War even started. Always question your sources, especially the simple and convenient ones! And those with bad reputations… 😉 Interestingly enough the source they refer to gets it right.)

Being equal parts cemetery and memorial the Revolutionary Martyrs‘ Cemetery is quite a tranquil place. Most locals start through a Korean style gate at the bottom of Mount Taesong, but being lazy tourists with a limited amount of time we drove halfway up and saved a couple of dozen steps. (Which is only fair since we didn’t arrive by subway, like most local visitors… Rakwon Station, to be specific, also used to get to the Pyongyang Zoo and the Taesongsan Park & Fun Fair.) But we walked the rest up the hill, past two gigantic sculptures depicting the struggle of the armed forces and through the sea of bronze busts of the fallen heroes. Well, not all of them fell during the occupation. Some of them actually lived till the 1980s. Details, I guess… Another interesting detail though is the fact that the busts were staggered, so they don’t block each other’s view at Pyongyang. It’s amazing how much thought goes into some things, while blatantly obvious things are completely ignored.
At the highest point of the cemetery, past most of the graves and busts, is a final monument, featuring a huge revolutionary flag made of red granite and five more graves / busts. At the center is Kim Jong-suk’s bust, not only Kim Jong-il’s mother, but generally referred to as the “Mother of Korea”; at least by our guides. And what do you do with mothers? You show respect! In this case: bowing and laying down flowers. (As for the laying down flowers thing in general: When this was expected to follow local customs our western guide Sarah did it in place of the whole group, although additional individual signs of respect were appreciated. I’m not sure if it was on purpose or coincidence, but one group member actually bough flowers and since he only had a 5er he got enough so half of the group could lay down some individually, much to the joy of our guides. Also: I don’t think I ever saw somebody laying down real flowers. The “flowers” you lay down in North Korea are artificial ones and look more like draped strings of cloth – makes it easier to sell them again to the next visitor group…)

So much text, so few pictures – so look forward to the Tower of the Juche Idea, there I took some great photos of Pyongyang’s city center!

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