"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
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My girlfriend, Kaori, and I are preparing for a day trip to the Noto Peninsula on the northern coast of Japan when the man we are traveling to see calls with a friendly piece of advice about our visit. “Don’t stay out too late tonight,” says Johsen Takano. “Aliens will abduct you.” He’s only half joking.
Then Kaori fields another call, this one from a concerned friend. “Don’t stay out there too late,” she says. “North Koreans will abduct you.” She’s absolutely serious.
The Noto Peninsula is one spooky piece of turf — Japan’s Alien Central, in at least three different ways. For one, China’s people smugglers, known as snakeheads, have made the Noto a favorite dumping ground, loosing a tide of desperate illegals onto its remote ocean beaches.
And hysterical friends aside, residents of the Noto do indeed cast worried looks to the sea as twilight falls — the fishing boats plying the waters off this northern spit are not always what they seem. Just over the empty horizon lies North Korea. Like visitors from a hostile galaxy, spy boats from this planet’s most isolated society bristle with bogus trawling gear as they electronically probe the Noto — a region North Koreans (unlike most Japanese) consider highly significant. Japanese news programs have reported cases of Noto residents snatched from local beaches after stumbling upon paranoid North Korean operatives. These particular alien abductions are very real.
But neither commie spies nor refugees made the Noto a magnet for space cases from all over Japan and beyond. Johsen Takano did that. In July 1996, this Buddhist priest/engineer/Porsche racer distilled the Noto’s timeless tradition of strange visitors into a single $50 million edifice. In the little beachfront town of Hakui City, about an hour north of Kanazawa, Takano created Cosmo Isle. The unrevealing name conceals a very singular tourist attraction: the world’s biggest self-described “UFO science center and Habitable Zone.” Never mind the bus tours — Takano is aiming for the intergalactic cruise ship trade. “Some people do say it looks like a landing strip,” he says with a shy smile.
Twenty-five years ago, Takano was writing science fiction scripts for Japanese TV when he first became interested in extraterrestrials. “I translated books on the UFO phenomenon,” he says, naming George Adamski’s “UFOs Have Landed” as the first to grab his interest. It’s not as though Takano was stuck for career prospects. With an engineering degree from one of Japan’s top universities, a flourishing TV writing career and his position as a priest at his family’s Buddhist temple, Takano hardly needed the aggravation involved in pioneering a rather unorthodox educational center. Besides, he admits, “I have never seen a UFO.” No matter. These kinds of crusades take faith.
The highway to Hakui City runs along property that would make Donald Trump weep — long, sandy oceanfront strands that cry out for overdevelopment. Yet, despite the reasonably warm May weather and the fact that this is Golden Week — the national furlough when most of this workaholic country drops tools for an orgy of travel and tourism — the beaches are empty save for a scattering of families wading for clams.
As we drive, Kaori assures me that the Japanese like a sand castle as much as the next dude. Still, you get the impression this part of the country does not share the North American worship of sand and surf. Lift the Noto Peninsula into a mother ship, drop it so it sits off the New York coast and you’d have the summer headquarters of every Manhattanite important enough to screen calls. But here — well, gaze out over the mostly empty sand and you’d be forgiven for assuming Noto is Japanese for “Godforsaken.”
This worked to Takano’s advantage when he set out to realize his dream. He began pitching the project around 1989, and eventually found his efforts dovetailing with a government program designed to rain development cash on disadvantaged areas. Apparently, a UFO museum and a landing pad are just what your average Japanese bureaucrat wants to see in a public works project. Cosmo Isle, which opened in July 1996, ended up costing 52 billion of the taxpayer’s yen — a little shy of $50 million.
Takano’s pet idea was not the only supernatural scheme afoot in the Noto area. In the nearby town of Oshimizu, farmer Hiroshi Koshino was already guiding tourists to a spot on his property that, he insists, is the burial place of Moses. You can commemorate your visit with a souvenir jar of Moses pomegranate jam, and maybe a Hello Kitty pencil case.
Traditions of weirdness notwithstanding, not all the Hakui City locals were farsighted enough to recognize the benefits of Takano’s state-of-the-art tourist attraction. When pressed, Takano reluctantly admits that anonymous opponents spread unspecified “ugly rumors” about him and his team during the planning and construction of Cosmo Isle. Now, though, local support is as evident as the giant saucer that sits above the UFO Pachinko Parlor on the road into town. Cosmo Isle has put Hakui City on the map.
UFO sightings are pretty common in Hakui City these days. We drive past plenty of shops and businesses sporting alien-derived names and a big, bubble-domed ship perched atop a stolid-looking building that I take to be a hotel. Kaori informs me it’s probably a clinic.
Armed with a little hand-drawn map, we head down a few deserted side streets until we find a modest little corner shack with a smiling cartoon alien flying across a bright orange sky. It’s not the museum. Fifty-two billion yen may not get you Alex Rodriguez, but the exchange rate isn’t that drastic yet. No, this is the home of UFO Ramen. Takano tipped us off about this restaurant, which serves the popular noodles-and-broth dish that has gradually become Japan’s favorite light meal. Back home in Vancouver, British Columbia, ramen is considered Japanese fare. But tell that to the natives here and they’re shocked — to the Japanese, ramen is definitely alien food. It came from China.
Chef Satoru Kawara is a wiry, balding little bantam whose father started the restaurant 50 years ago. It wasn’t UFO Ramen back then, of course — Cosmo Isle, which gave rise to so many other opportunistic UFO-themed businesses, has been around for only five years. Through Kaori, I ask Satoru when he changed the little diner’s name. When the answer finally winds its way back, I assume there’s been a mistranslation. But there’s no mistake. Satoru tells us that UFO Ramen has been so called for 15 years. And now I begin to discover why Cosmo Isle’s location on the Noto Peninsula was not merely a matter of government caprice.
Long before Johsen Takano conceived the edifice that would cement its otherworldly reputation, Hakui City was already UFO Town. Satoru produces a leaflet telling of Keta Taisha, an ancient shrine located about 10 minutes away, where a 1,200-year-old manuscript speaks of fiery flying objects heading slowly across the sky from east to west — “souhachibon.” A souhachi is a Buddhist altarpiece that resembles a cymbal or a straw hat; bon means tray or platter. An accompanying illustration of a strange being is thought by many to represent an alien visitor. (Even the Moses connection is otherworldly — Hiroshi Koshino cites a 1930s-era book claiming that the biblical prophet was conveyed to his patch of farmland on a “heavenly floating ship.”)
In another long-established local tradition, generations of Noto parents have warned their children (as Kaori and I were warned) not to stay out too late for fear that “nabe huri” — roughly, flying pots — would descend and carry them away. Satoru renamed his restaurant after hearing many friends speak of UFO sightings. Although he had not seen a UFO himself at the time, Satoru claims he has since seen two. “One February I saw one in the sky. It raced up quickly,” he tells Kaori. “I cried out to my wife, but it disappeared.”
Soon Satoru brings out the UFO ramen itself. This being Japan, where attention to detail is crucial, the chef hasn’t slapped a UFO moniker on any old bowl of noodles — Satoru’s creation is a miniature Spielbergian epic in a bowl. Every item in the broth represents some aspect of an alien visitation: That large clam is the ship; the baby squid, the alien. A slice of egg is the moon; ribbons of seaweed, the dark night. Even the little sprouts are blades of grass blown back by the spaceship’s mighty engines. (Those would be the fish cakes with the pink swirls.) All this for a reasonable price, and damned tasty too. Satoru obligingly poses for our photos in front of the shop, and then we head out to find the main attraction.
In a field near the edge of town stands a towering Redstone booster rocket, the type that sent Mercury capsules into space. Behind it squats the Cosmo Isle museum — saucer-shaped, of course (although a pork barrel design would also have worked).
Once inside, you’d have to say the government got its money’s worth. Takano’s facility has drawn tens of thousands to Hakui City to take in its canny blend of legitimate space exploration displays and full-on, Mulder-style extraterrestrial theorizing. Among other items, NASA coughed up a spare lunar module, a lunar rover, a Mercury capsule and the spacesuit of Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon. The Russians contributed a Luna 24 probe of the type that retrieved samples of moon dust and, most impressively, a spherical Vostok capsule that actually took a cosmonaut beyond the surly bonds of Earth in 1967. “I have many friends in NASA,” Takano says by way of explanation, “and a friend who was in the KGB.” He must know somebody in Hollywood, too — Cosmo Isle boasts Tom Hanks’ prop spacesuit trunk from “Apollo 13.”
All well and good for the human exhibits. But the conspiracy demographic is interested in different species. Takano has that covered, too. Visitors can peruse an actual FBI X-file and a thick binder of declassified CIA reports on saucer sightings and their possible security implications. Other Cosmo Isle displays feature the scientific work of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
Takano’s engineering background is evident in the dry video loops of eminent professors who analyze UFO photos or postulate on the unlikelihood of ball lightning being mistaken for flying saucers. Here the museum takes on the earnest tone of the zealot who buttonholes you at a party to expound on Area 51 — at least, until you get into the elevator. As the doors slide shut the lights suddenly snap off, replaced by black light that reveals bright galaxies on the elevator walls. For an engineer, Takano’s a fun guy.
Lively, too. Between his role as museum director and whatever duties his priesthood might impose, Takano has found time to climb into a Porsche and careen around Motegi Racetrack near Tokyo. So far his best finish is seventh. “I need more training,” he mutters.
At Kanazawa University, Takano lectures on scientific history. “My specialty is the relationship between science and political power,” he says. And the UFO stuff? “Maybe a little,” he smiles. Takano seems to understand the proper limits of his enthusiasm, but make no mistake — he wants to believe. When I ask about alien abduction stories, he takes my question very seriously. “Some of those stories are based on birth trauma,” he suggests, “but some are real.”
Takano clearly wants to keep Cosmo Isle free from the taint of Fox Network-style sensationalism. In this field, though, you unavoidably end up under the tent with some odd characters. He once appeared on a Kanazawa TV station with Raël, the Frenchman who states that aliens wrote the Bible and whose Raëlian cult is dedicated to free sex, cloning experiments and a plan to build its own alien embassy and landing strip. “He’s just crazy,” Takano says simply.
Not that Takano would mind the landing strip competition. “This museum is just one example of what could be done,” he says. “In the near future, within 50 years, we will realize we are not alone. This is not just an issue for one country. It should be a matter for the United Nations.”
As we head back to the parking lot, we pass a little attraction we managed to miss on the way in. Most visitors will. Sitting unobtrusively beside the front walkway is a young apple tree. Although small, its pedigree is impressive; this particular specimen was a cutting that originated in Isaac Newton’s garden. And it’s no bogus Moses, either: “You can check the DNA,” Takano insists.
An apple tree from the garden of the man who invented modern physics? Yes, perhaps even a clone of the tree that once dropped an apple onto the noggin that would discover gravity, as told in that famous story. A story that happens to be bullshit.
Takano laughs. “Of course it wasn’t true,” he says of the Newton legend. He says goodbye, and we are left to contemplate his slyest exhibit. The perfect symbol of Cosmo Isle — a living slice of genetic history, taken from the very place where scientific discovery bleeds into myth.
Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.More Steve Burgess.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)