Tsukuba is still a city under construction. The sight of huge construction cranes temporarily gracing the skyline is almost as common as the structures they have already put up. In recent months, however, two obviously unusual structures have rather suddenly appeared on the scene. One looks right at home in the Science City, while the other would appear to be from another world. Geographically and otherwise, one is in the center of Tsukuba and the other is on the fringes.
What am I referring to? The former is a giant radio telescope on the grounds of the Geographical Survey Institute that is just nearing completion, while the latter is a huge temple being constructed on the edge of Tsukuba by one of Japan's many "new religions". As large as both structures are, I was totally unaware of either of them until just recently.
Driving near the intersection of Hiratsuka Oodori and Nishi Oodori for the first time in a month or two, my attention was immediately drawn to a huge parabolic antenna that hadn't been there before. After picking my lower jaw up off my lap, I decided to go find out what the story is behind this exciting new structure. Not only was it a spectacle to behold, but its location on the Geographical Survey Institute grounds was a bit enigmatic. After all, that is the place they survey the earth and make maps. And at 32 meters in diameter, it did seem to be a bit of overkill if they just wanted to pick up CNN. So, what is the purpose of this new tourist attraction?
A quick trip into "The Science Museum of Map and Survey" revealed that the antenna is part of an expanding network of antennas especially designed for what is called "very long baseline interferometry". When used for this purpose, antennas in widely separated locations are focused on the same distant cosmic radio source and the difference in arrival times of a specific signal are carefully recorded. Technicians choose a particular quasar located billions of light years away in deep space, and carefully record the characteristics of its signal. As the source is so far away, the waves approach anyplace on earth as perfectly parallel lines. But because of the difference in distance to the antennas being compared, the signal reaches the farther one a few hundredths or thousandths of a second after it reaches the one that's closer. As the equipment can measure time down to a few hundred billionths of second, a computer can figure out the exact distance between the antenna and how that changes with time. For instance, the 26 m antenna in Kashima (pictured below) and a similar one in Hawaii are about 5700 km apart, but their exact separation can be measured down to one cm. Thus, through this measurement, it can be determined that Hawaii is moving towards Japan at about 6 cm per year. At that rate, Hawaii will be part of Japan in only 95 million years! But then, one trip to Hawaii may convince you it will happen a whole lot faster than that!
Now, to the opposite end of the spectrum. Located about 9 km west of the center of the city, the headquarters of "Hinohikari" (Light of the Sun), one of Japan's many new religions, can easily escape notice -- unless you are looking west from a vantage point high enough to see over the trees. The golden horns have already been set on the top of the 55 m high structure, a huge, glass enclosed structure that will make California's "Crystal Cathedral" look small by comparison. Inside, the main building, directly under the golden "horns", plans call for a Shinto Shrine-like temple to "the one true God of Heaven." When completed early in the 21st Century, the structure will be able to hold about 10,000 worshipers at a time. That will certainly be a spectacle to behold, and together with the world's tallest statue, the 120 m Buddha next door in Ushiku, the pair should attract quite a few tourists to the region. Presumably, many such tourists will be drawn to Tsukuba as well, though it's highly doubtful that the planners of the "Science City" could have envisioned such a strange turn of events.
Hinohikari shares the same roots with its more well-known cousin, "Mahikari" (True Light), which is famous for its followers standing outside train stations in Tokyo offering to pray for passersby while holding the palm of their hand close to the person's forehead. Hinohikari has a similar belief in purifying rays emanating from the "prayer's" hand into the heart of "prayee's" soul.
At present, worshipers convene in a temporary hall that seats about 4000. "Seats" perhaps is not the right word, as it is just one huge tatami room were people kneel on the floor, so that they can prostrate themselves before the altar in a fashion quite similar to Muslims worshipping in a mosque. This, in fact, is part of their syncretistic nature, an amalgamation of bits and pieces of numerous traditions in a uniquely Japanese style. The altar itself is Shinto style, with various fruits and other foods arranged along the several shelves as offerings to "Kamisama". One row is even lined with bottles of sake and other drinks.
The guide showing us around stressed that they worship the one true God, the Creator of the universe, and that this was to be a place of worship for all peoples. She said that Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and followers of many other faiths were already coming to worship and receive an inner cleansing from God.
While one may doubt the veracity of that statement, there is no doubting that this 38-year old religion is able to garner considerable wealth from its followers. The construction price alone for this palatial setting certainly runs into the many billions of yen.
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