One man’s extraordinary travel odyssey from a Cold War bomb shelter bedroom to the far reaches of the earth on a mysterious mission of peace
“Nearly six years had passed since I had first heard of the Sword of Heaven. Six years, five continents, and several trips to Japan,” writes Mikkel Aaland in his extraordinary memoir.
A powerful combination of adventure travel and spiritual memoir, THE SWORD OF HEAVEN: A Five Continent Odyssey to Save the World (Travelers’ Tales; October, 1999; Hardcover) recounts the strange events that turned a skeptic son of a scientist into a committed journeyman who carried mysterious stones to eight far-flung countries in search of world peace.
“My Livermore classmates and I accepted the idea of nuclear annihilation the same way that other generations accepted plagues, famine, and economic calamity.”
Like many baby boomers, Mikkel Aaland grew up in the 1950s and ’60s with the nuclear bomb and the Cold War as a constant backdrop, but circumstances made his fear a bit more palpable: his father was a scientist who worked at the Livermore National Lab in California, a major U.S. nuclear weapons research facility. A sign on the outskirts of town read: Livermore, the Atomic City. For eight years until he left for college, Mikkel’s bedroom was the family bomb shelter his father built during the Cuban missile crisis.
“The idea that a lone man with magical powers in a far off land could affect this situation seemed far-fetched. Nonetheless, through the years of accumulated despair, a faint hope stirred in my heart.”
In 1982, age 30 and working in San Francisco as a photojournalist, Aaland heard an intriguing story involving Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion, whose followers believe that evil results when nature and one’s ancestors are not properly worshipped. Shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagaski, a Shinto priest had a vision of how to battle the evil that engulfed the world. He broke an ancient Shinto relic, a holy sword, into 108 pieces. Each piece was enclosed in stone. Followers of the priest began to place the stone gods in a protective ring around the world.
“‘The Body of Shinto God Five Peaces Cased in Stone Box,’ read the customs declaration. The package weighed 8.8 kilograms. Gods on my porch? A baby would have been less confusing.”
When Aaland encountered the story, only 34 of the gods had been placed. Unsolicited, he received his first stone while visiting his family in Norway. After deliberation, Aaland threw the stone in a nearby lake and returned home to write a newspaper article about the project. Then, again unexpectedly, ten more heavy stones landed on his doorstep. A year and a half passed before he would place another. Despite several failed attempts, he was thwarted by fear and discomfort and plagued with prolonged illness and death threats. What had started as a reluctant exploration of a far-fetched peace project became much more for Aaland and eventually forced him to confront both the core of his Western beliefs and long-forgotten childhood nightmares. “Too confused and too broke to place gods myself,” Aaland sent them off with friends to other parts of the world including Kenya, Egypt, Morocco, and China.
“As I passed through foreign customs, ‘God’ in a heavy cardboard box might look a bit suspicious. I could show the inspectors that the parcel was not full of drugs or explosives, but I’d still have to spend time explaining what would surely sound like a crazy story.”
Written against the backdrop of the Star Wars initiative, and increasing antinuclear arms protests in Europe and the United States in the early ’80s, Aaland’s reluctant and unmapped journey eventually takes him to the Phillipines, Japan, Puerto Rico, Brazil Iceland, Berlin, South Africa, and the Baltic Sea. What leads him to these particular countries and what happens as a result provides a captivating read.
THE SWORD OF HEAVEN offers a fresh and poignant memoir of growing up with the commonplace fear of the Cold War and a fascinating glimpse into the complex world of Shinto, a religion that is understood by very few people, Japanese or foreign.
Chapter headings feature photographs Aaland took throughout his travels placing the stone gods.
THE SWORD OF HEAVEN is the second book published under the new Travelers’ Tales imprint, Footsteps: The Soul of Travel, devoted to powerful personal travel narratives.
THE SWORD OF HEAVEN:
A Five Continent Odyssey to Save the World
By Mikkel Aaland
Published by Travelers’ Tales
Publication date: October, 1999
Hardcover; $24.00 U.S., $36.00 Canada
262 pages; 24 black-and-white photographs
Available from bookstores, 1-800-998-9938, or www.travelerstales.com