Several years ago, Mikkel Aaland on a quest for peace, placed Shinto stones in South Africa, the Philippines, and Germany. Shortly thereafter, South African apartheid came to an end, President Marcos left the Philippines and the Berlin Wall came crumbling down. Mikkel admits that these events along with the Cold War ending when his peace mission was completed may well have been a coincidence. “Did my journey save the world? I don’t know,” he says. “But it did save me.”
Mikkel’s five-continent journey, which he refers to as an “unexpected trip,” began at a dinner party in San Francisco, while hearing a story involving Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion. The innocent conversation would eventually lead Mikkel to travel to the Philippines, Japan, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Iceland, Berlin, South Africa, and the Baltic Sea.
Shinto dates back to prehistoric times. Shintoists worship nature as well as their ancestors. “It’s hard to separate Shinto from the Japanese because they are so interconnected,” Mikkel said. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a Shinto priest had a vision of how to battle the evil that engulfed the world. The priest broke an ancient Shinto relic, a holy sword, into more than 100 pieces, enclosing each piece in a stone. Shintoists would later refer to these stones as gods, and began placing the stones in a protective ring around the world. Shintoists hoped that by strategically placing the stones around the world, “the forces of good would gain power over the forces of evil.”
Only 34 stones had been placed when Mikkel heard the story. And though he admits being interested enough to inquire about the peace mission, Mikkel said he certainly did not expect the Japanese group to send a stone for him to place. But they did.
Mikkel received his first stone while visiting his family in Norway. The Japanese group mailed Mikkel a package containing the stone. “It looked like a piece of granite,” Mikkel recalled. Reluctant at first, Mikkel said he was undecided about whether or not he wanted to participate with the project. After all, he had simply asked about the project but had no idea his interest would commit him to anything.”
I don’t know. I just thought it was a great story, I didn’t know it would come to this,” Mikkel writes in his recently published book, The Sword of Heaven. “The god sat in my room for a week,” but after giving it some thought, Mikkel decided to participate in the mission. “I picked up the heavy object, lay back down on the bed and found the letter that had come with it. It was brief! It said that I should not take the god into the bathroom because that was considered ‘unclean,’ and that I should place it where I wanted, but preferably in water, the source of life.”
Mikkel wasn’t quite sure where to place the stone until having a conversation with his father. “You know the lake where your great aunt owns a cabin,” Mikkel recalled his father saying. “It’s surrounded by a national forest, and fed by an underground spring. Since Shinto worships nature, put it there.”
Mikkel followed his suggestion. “I pulled back my arm, then heaved the stone god high in the air, over the granite, past the shore, and into the lake. The water that shot up in the air seemed to explode like fireworks. As each ring came toward me, the mirror image of the trees was disturbed, making the water look like an impressionist painting,” Mikkel writes.
Mikkel returned to the Bay Area shortly after, and nothing could have prepared him for what would happen next. When he arrived, he found ten more stones on his doorstep. It was clear that the Shinto peace mission would play a prominent role in his life.
First, Mikkel would have to decide where to place the stones. It was important that he placed the stones in countries where there were none. “I knew a god had been placed in the Panama Canal but none in the Caribbean,” Mikkel wrote about his decision to place a stone in Puerto Rico.
But deciding where to go was only half of the battle. Upon arriving in each country, Mikkel had to reflect on the exact placement of each god. “You couldn’t look at a tourist’s guide — and they didn’t come with instructions,” Mikkel says about the stones. It was all about, “finding the place that’s right.”
Mikkel recalls finding the perfect place for a stone at Playa Azul, a beach in Puerto Rico. “I immediately took the Shinto god from my pack and walked alone, a half mile, to where the sandy beach turned into a rocky one. I jumped into the water, carrying the god. Not more than a hundred yards from the rocks, I noticed a huge head of waving coral, which reminded me of Hanukkah candles. I dove, placed the god snugly into the head of coral and surfaced.”
Mikkel placed his last stone in 1988, “At the point where the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes meet and become the Amazon. “It seemed a fitting spot to end my involvement with the Sword of Heaven.”
The Shinto peace project completed about one year later. That’s when Mikkel began writing The Sword of Heaven. “I needed to figure out why I did this, Mikkel said about his participation in the mission. Mikkel describes writing the book as, “a self-exploration for me. It took me a long time to sort it all out — sorting out what had motivated me. I was very compelled to do it…I didn’t have much of a choice.”
It’s possible the world will never understand how a dinner conversation could turn into a five-continent odyssey to save the world. Maybe Mikkel will never sort out the mystery for himself either. But with the remarkable strides that some nations have made towards peace since Mikkel’s mission, perhaps we should just be thankful that he completed the Shinto protective ring around the world, and be hopeful of yet greater signs of peace in the future.