AKITA, JAPAN – Foreign pilgrims are flocking in their thousands to a remote Catholic convent chapel here in far northern Japan to see a statue of the Madonna that once shed tears.

“We are often asked how to reach the Handmaids of the Eucharist,” said a staff member at the tourist information center in JR Akita Station.

The wooden statue is said to have shed tears on 101 occasions, the last time being in 1981. Astoundingly, cotton swabs of the tear drops that were analyzed by Akita University and Gifu University were verified as of “human origin,” according to church.

The Motherhouse of the Institute of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist stands atop a hill away from residential homes. It is located about seven kilometers north of Akita Station, which takes about six hours to reach from Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture, a major gateway into Japan, using express and bullet trains.

“I have long wanted to come here all the way to see her,” said a visibly excited Roselyn Manus, a 48-year-old doctor from Washington D.C. “We all felt that we are very blessed, and we felt happy from the inside. I would definitely recommend here to my friends.”

She was part of a 15-strong group visiting in July that included her 78-year-old father Aldrico and 77-year-old mother Rosie, who live in the Philippines, along with other relatives.

The statue was created in 1963 by Saburo Wakasa, a sculptor based in Akita.

In 1975, the statue suddenly shed tears for the first time. News of the “miracle” put the isolated convent in this part of Japan’s snow country on the map.

More than 2,000 people have witnessed the statue weeping.

In October 2013, an Italian TV broadcaster aired a live program that connected marian shrines around the world, and Our Lady of Akita was selected as one of 10 pilgrimage destinations, along with more widely-known Lourdes in southwestern France, famed for its miraculous grotto water, and the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth of Israel.

The program transformed the already famous convent into a major tourist destination.

“We receive about 7,000 pilgrims a year, and I think about two-thirds of them are from overseas,” said Keiko Ogawa, the Mother Superior.

Although 36 years have passed since the last crying episode, pilgrims, both individuals and groups from across the world, continue to throng to Akita to see the statue. Many of the faithful are from Southeast Asia.

The institute of Handmaids of the Eucharist was founded after Sumako Sugawara settled in the city in 1946. Now, 14 nuns live at the convent.

The chapel building was rebuilt in 2002 in the style of traditional Japanese wooden architecture by carpenters who work on temples.

It has been a tradition for the institution to build in Japanese style in the hope that “Catholicism takes root in Japanese spirituality.”