By Emily Millar
What is it about Japan that freaks you? Is it the yakuza? Boozy-breath perverts on trains? Raw fish? The ever-present threat of earthquakes? In this modern age, Japan still appears relatively safe when compared to some other places. I, for one, have few qualms about walking alone in the city at night, or riding my bike along dimly-lit streets in the early morning hours. I can even look a table-bound live squid in the eye without staging an impromptu dirty protest. Nope, not much scares me during my everyday Japanese experience.
But when it comes to other-worldly, paranormal activities – well, that stuff gives me the heebie-jeebies. Nope, it’s not the prospect of crossing paths with a tattooed gangster brandishing a samurai sword that scares the shit out of me – it’s something far more sinister…
The Japanese have taken their ghost stories very seriously for centuries, and this predilection to spooking carries over into modern urban legend. Stories that were once about a lowly samurai morph into creepy tales about an unfortunate salaryman who meets a sticky end courtesy of a vengeful onry?. Places of extreme tragedy and suffering, such as ancient battlegrounds and execution fields remain imbued with a sinister force long after being built upon by high-rise buildings.
Ever your courageous guide to all things fucked, Japanzine bravely investigated some of the more freaky and mysterious places celebrated in folklore. Whether you’re foolhardy enough to visit them for yourself is up to you, of course. We accept no responsibility for ‘mishaps’ as a result of any encounters with territorial yurei. You have been warned.
Osore-Zan, Aomori Prefecture
Remember the first time you saw those concrete statues of children with the bright-red bibs, and thought, “aw, how cute”, and then found out that they were actually monuments commemorating the souls of dead infants? It’s probably an unpleasant shock for most, but if you were undeterred by this gruesome spectacle, Aomori Prefecture’s Osore-Zan might be the perfect holiday spot for you.
Osore (??) literally means ‘fear’, and one look at the place might convince you you’ve arrived in an earthly Hell. A desolate landscape of barren peaks, stinky sulphuric hot springs, and a lake that’s so uninhabitable most fish can’t survive, Osore-Zan reputedly provides the link between this life and the next. And the best way to do it? Why, you enlist the help of a blind medium, of course. Old shamanistic women known as itako go into a trance-like state and try to initiate contact with a dead soul via freakish chanting, relaying information if she manages to retrieve any.
Osore-zan plays host to the Osorezan Jizo Festival in July. Jizo is the guardian of dead children, and during this time many people leave gifts to lost loved ones at the feet of the statues, to aid him in helping children having difficulty reaching the next world. How lovely.
Sunshine 60, Ikebukuro, Tokyo
Once upon a time the tallest building in Asia, bustlin’ ‘Bukuro’s Sunshine 60 Department ‘City’ may seem rather innocuous now amongst the blaring music, garish neon and countless other high-rises in the area. But, in fact, the building and surrounding parkland stand on the very site where seven notorious Japanese war criminals where executed in the post-war years, including the war-time prime minister.
Building a 60 storey building on top of an execution site is bound to piss off those unfortunate enough to be killed there, and naturally, construction of the building was plagued by many troubling incidents (it was also delayed for many years by construction companies refusing to partake in such an ‘unlucky’ contract). Workers copped injuries, spotted strange apparitions, and one or two even ended up being institutionalised. Since construction was completed, no major incidents have occurred, although some people spotted unexplained fireballs floating around the building’s open area. Fireballs are thought to symbolise the dead, and they are occasionally still seen hovering about Sunshine 60. Not that you’d have much chance of seeing any fireballs nowadays, considering the equally sinister smog that floats above Tokyo’s skyline.
Suzugamori Execution Grounds, Shinagawa
Rent’s rather expensive in Japan, right? But if you’re planning a move, you can pick up a very reasonably priced apartment in Shinagawa. I hear they’ve lowered the rent to attract more people to the area. Whether or not they implicitly stipulate in the lease that you’ll be living in a place where around one hundred thousand people were tortured, beheaded, crucified and burned at the stake during the Edo period is another matter, but just so you know, there’s a reason your apartment appeared too good to be true on paper.
The Living Mummified Monks, Asahi, Yamagata Prefecture
Everyone knows the Egyptians loved to mummify themselves, but – sensibly – this tended to happen after death. In Yamagata Prefecture, some seriously ascetic monks took mummification to a whole new level by actually mummifying themselves while still alive.
This rigorous self-denial of meat, rice, and eventually water, led to the body shrinking and drying out, and the monk would hopefully die seated in his chosen holy spot as a ‘living mummy’. While a few were ‘lucky’ enough to achieve this state, many failed, and it’s said that the ghosts of these failed monks remain in the temple, haunting residents and causing spooky things to happen.
You can come face-to-face with a living mummy in Churenji Temple, should you wish to look into the sunken eye-sockets of a grinning monk who achieved his macabre goal.
The Vengeful Head of Taira no Masakado, Otemachi, Tokyo
You wouldn’t have wanted to cross rebel samurai Taira no Masakado in his day, bastard that he was. Yet most Japanese fear crossing him now, despite the fact that he was killed over 1000 years ago, his head and body going their separate ways after he was dispatched for arrogantly assuming power as Emperor in his own right. His head was taken to Kyoto and put on display, but people started to freak out when Masakado’s facial expression began to change, looking decidedly cranky (as you would be if you’d just been be-headed). After many years of unrest, the head finally settled in what is now the business district of Otemachi, near the Imperial Palace.
Across the centuries, his defiance of power during his lifetime appeared to carry on long after his death. The nearby Finance Ministry has borne the wrath of Masakado numerous times, having caught fire or burnt down completely, with employees either routinely falling ill, becoming injured, or, er, committing suicide. During periods where his tomb has fallen into disrepair, Masakado has shown his disapproval by causing the odd disaster and creating problems for construction workers or businessmen and women who work in the offices surrounding the tomb.
The regularity of such occurrences has spooked people enough to ensure that the head is regularly appeased by rigorous maintenance of the site, offerings by local businesses and solemn prayers whenever new construction is undertaken or film crews visit. Wouldn’t want to piss off a severed head anymore than you have to, right? Visit the site at Tokyo Station – exit C5. It seems Masakado’s been laying low for quite a while, so see if you can’t stir him up.
Okiku’s Well, Himeji Castle
Katsushita Hokusai, while creating those woodblock prints of Fuji and the like, was actually a pretty twisted dude. While considerably less well-known, his prints of infamous Japanese ghost tales are definitely nightmarish stuff. One such depiction is the tragic story of Okiku, a lowly servant girl who got blamed for breaking a valuable plate belonging to her mega-rich master. This being the age of men, she didn’t just get a slap on the wrist, or even fired – she was thrown down a well.
The grim well resides in the grounds of Himeji Castle, where you can apparently hear her counting from one to nine – the number of plates that remain in the priceless set of ten. Stopping at nine, she begins screaming. It’s enough to drive anyone mad, and apparently it did her boss’s head in. Nowadays the well is probably better known for its tenuous connection to a certain well in a certain Japanese horror film. Just don’t peer too far into the murky depths – you never know what (or who) you’ll see at the bottom.
The Hairy Tree, Yoro, Gifu Prefecture
Everyone enjoys the feeling of a new haircut, but you wouldn’t want to go near a particular persimmon tree growing in the grounds of Fukugenji Temple in Yoro with a pair of scissors. The reason this tree grows ‘human’ hair? Many centuries ago, a man seeking revenge for his father’s death was himself murdered, and his body buried underneath the tree. It is said that his deep sense of revenge somehow transferred into the tree, and that it absorbed the nutrients from his body and began ‘growing’ hair.
Apparently, if the hair on the tree’s branches burns, it smells like singed human hair (and we all know how bad that smells). Anyone foolish enough to remove the hair at any stage has allegedly died or suffered a terrible accident not long after their attempted styling. The tree also appears to glow blue, as if having hair alone wasn’t freakish enough.
After being scientifically examined, it was concluded to be a plant that ‘resembles’ hair, but the locals haven’t let hard evidence get in the way of a good ghost story. Still, we don’t condone taking your home hairdresser’s set along and giving the tree a mullet in the dead of night – that’d make anyone mad. Perhaps mad enough to kill.
Aokigahara Forest, Mt Fuji
This dense forest at the foot of Mt Fuji might just take the cake as the most legendary scary place in all of Japan. Aokigahara reads like a glossy travel brochure for the gloomier traveler as, ‘the perfect place to commit suicide.’ It’s said that if you try to navigate your way around the forest, even without intent to kill yourself, ‘malevolent forces’ screw with your compass, rendering it useless…and you completely fucked. The air seems congested with the spirits of the dead, attracted to the forest for its sinister depths and proximity to Mt Fuji. It’s certainly true that there’s no shortage of people killing themselves in Aokigahara – the corpse count has hit the 70s in recent years – and that’s just the bodies that were actually found. Sounds like the ideal place for a camping adventure – fire up the barbie!
Much of the information in this article was sourced with the help of a neat little book, Supernatural and Mysterious Japan: Spirits, Hauntings, and Paranormal Phenomena, by Catrien Ross. A decent introduction to some spooky places in Japan and the stories behind them, you’ll probably find it in your local library.