Sean Thomas was invited to join one of Japan's many thriving sects
I FIRST came across the Japanese cult of Yamagichism when I was travelling on the Trans-Siberian express to Vladivostok last year. On the train I met an east German water engineer called Udo Heinz; he was in his mid-twenties. Udo and I got talking: in halting English he explained that he was on his way to Japan to join a new religion. His blue eyes were bright with hope. Yamagichism, he said, was a faith that would sweep the world, a third way between the failures of communism and the decadence of the West.

When I reached Japan I decided to take up Udo's earnest offer and visit the Yamagichi for a day or two. In the end I stayed a fortnight. Their headquarters is in Toyosato, a thriving town set amidst the rainy, hilly farmlands of the Kii peninsula, in western Honshu. Toyosato is where the first Yamagichi hamlet was founded after the war by an idealistic Osaka businessman who gave his surname to the group. His beliefs involved a rejection of modern, urban values in favour of free-spirited, free-thinking quasi-anarchistic Nature-worship. Since those early days, the commune has become a bustling settlement of 1,400 men, women and children.

This growth has not benefitted the town aesthetically. Toyosato looks like one big concrete factory. Perhaps that's not so surprising; this single settlement contains a Yamagichi chicken farm, a Yamagichi stockyard, a Yamagichi bacon factory, a Yamagichi orange-juice complex, even a Yamagichi software maker. Over the years, the Yamagichi brand name has become quite famous: their organic fruit is said by some to be the best in Japan, quite a testimonial in the land of the 50-quid melon.

On my first morning in Toyosato I was woken before dawn, and asked if I would like to help Udo and his colleagues to wash and milk the cows. Blearily I obeyed: climbing out of bed, I let myself be led to a large communal wardrobe, where I was to choose some clothes for the day. It was here that one startling fact about Yamagichism sank in. No one owns anything. No one has any personal possessions. From clothes to cars, books to bath towels, everything is held in common.

If such communality smacks of monasticism or kibbutzism, so it should. Yamagichism is a proselytising agrarian movement that uses the free market to sell its products, making enough money to fund new communes round the globe. The Yamagichi have been remarkably successful; there are now Yamagichi settlements in Taiwan, Germany, America, Switzerland, Australia and Korea, aside from the dozens in Japan itself. In Toyosato there was an extraordinary social mix. I met ex-office workers and ex- airforce pilots, former industrialists and reformed heroin addicts; a few Europeans and Asians, but mainly Japanese. All of them were friendly, keen and enthusiastic and ever so slightly opaque.

Their enthusiasm for agricultural labour was astonishing. While I was in Toyosato, I saw people singing as they cleaned cowsheds at six in the morning, and whistling as they shovelled pigshit in a freezing monsoon. I watched Yamagichi children climb off a school bus after they had spent eight hours in the Yamagichi classroom, and gleefully run towards the fields where they were scheduled to spend two hours picking turnips. These happy children had probably been born into the movement. Their parents would have joined by undergoing an induction known as tokko. As I walked the beanfields and computer rooms of Toyosato, I began to grasp the significance of tokko. It's a kind of week-long group therapy session, chaired by more experienced group members, during which you immerse yourself in self-analysis or kansen; through kansen, built-up anger, or okoru, is relinquished. Only then are you ready to give up the pride and acquisitiveness of normal life. One thing I noticed about Toyosato was the complete absence of mirrors. Vanity simply does not exist.

After two surreal but invigorating weeks, I was politely asked by Udo and his friends whether I would like to undergo tokko. I declined. My suspicion of anything remotely like brainwashing - even an inculcation as gentle as Yamagichism's - was enough to make me refuse. The next day I left, on good terms, for Tokyo.

Since then I have had mixed feelings about the experience. Recent events in Tokyo have only heightened my confusion about the new religious cults of Japan. On the other hand, the harmoniousness of Yamagichism, its tranquillity and the absence of an obvious heirarchy, made a great impression on me. I met many very happy people in Toyosato; and I can't deny that for two weeks I was happy there, too.