Japanese Ghost Stories: Himeji Castle and Okiku’s Well

In my experience, where there are castles there are also stories. Himeji is no exception. This vibrant, serene city is also home to one of Japan’s most famous ghost stories.

Japan has hundreds of ghost stories, known as 怪談 which is pronounced kaidan. Living near Himeji made it was impossible not to learn a kaidan called ‘Banchō Sarayashiki.’ Its English title is ‘Okiku and the Plates,’ and there are many versions of it throughout Japan. It is often performed as kabuki, which is a traditional style of Japanese theatre.

Himeji castle is one of the most commonly cited locations for ‘Banchō Sarayashiki.’ Let me take you there, and introduce you to Okiku…

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DISCLAIMER:
As I have said, there are many different variations of ‘Banchō Sarayashiki.’ The one I have written here is taken from the plaque in the grounds of Himeji castle, which I visited and studied myself. In no way do I claim that this is the ‘proper’ version, or that it is my own.
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Himeji castle has many names. For over 400 years it has stood, dominating the cityscape with its calm, gleaming white walls. It is called ‘white heron’ or ‘egret’ for its beauty, and ‘miracle’ for its longevity. But for all their majesty, castles are dangerous places for love. They are filled with secrets, and peril. In the 16th century, Himeji was no exception.

Himeji castle
Himeji Castle is famous for its beautiful white walls. Image my own.

Like any good tragedy, this story begins with love. Love between a brave warrior, called Kinugasa Motonobu, and a servant, the beautiful, honest Okiku.

Okiku served a powerful, influential samurai named Aoyama Tetsuzan. He was also the regent of Lord Norimoto, the true ruler of the castle. One day whilst working, Okiku overheard Tetsuzan discussing a plot to kill Lord Norimoto and seize the castle for himself.

Maybe it would have been better if she had never learned of this plot, or if she had ignored it. But when life gives you such choices, you either let them slide and what will be will be, or you take action. And Okiku was not a woman to let anything slide. In that moment, she knew she had to do something. She confided in her lover, Motonobu, and his allies, and they promised her things would be well and that the plot would be foiled.

And indeed it was.

Lord Norimoto was warned of the attack, and he fled the city. But although he was safe, Himeji castle and our lovers were not. In Lord Norimoto’s absence, Aoyama took control. He was furious that Lord Norimoto had escaped, and sought out the traitor. Secrets, secrets in his midst. Who to trust? No-one, no-one.

The only thing awaiting the traitor was death.

Okiku ema boards at Juunisho-jinja
The ema at Juunisho-jinja in Himeji feature pictures of Okiku. Ema are small wooden plaques which people write prayers on and hang in the grounds of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Image my own.

Fearing for their own lives, one of the warriors betrayed Okiku. They informed Tetsuzan’s accomplice, a man named Danshirō, of her role in foiling the plot.

It was her, the servant girl. Because of her, Norimoto escaped!

Danshirō was a devious, possessive man. He saw Okiku’s beauty, and planned to make her his own. Instead of informing Tetsuzan of the traitor’s identity, he confronted Okiku himself. Secrets, secrets.

Beautiful Okiku, marry me, and your life will be spared.

But Okiku had already given her heart to Motonbu. She refused Danshirō over and over again.

No, no, I will not marry you!

Not a man to give up, Danshirō tried one final time to gain Okiku’s acceptance. He stole one of 10 valuable plates which were treasured heirlooms of the Aoyama family.

It is easy to frame a servant for theft…

All of the plates were here this morning! Who has been in?

Only the servants, my Lord.

What were they doing?

Cleaning, my Lord. They always dust the plates…

Who dusted the plates today?

Okiku, my Lord.

And where is she now?

Okiku was running. From the otemon gate to the honmaru. In the West Bailey, and in all of the yagura. Through the gardens and every kuruwa, and to the moat and back. Running, searching. She crept into Tetsuzan’s rooms and counted over and over again: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…

Always nine. The missing plate was nowhere to be found.

Okiku's ghost
Painting of Okiku by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1890. Image in the public domain – source

Seeing Okiku so desperate, Danshirō seized his chance.

Marry me, Okiku. This is the last time I will ask you. Marry me, and I will return the plate and clear your name.

But how could anyone agree to such a proposal, when they are already in love with another? Okiku’s love for Motonobu was true, and she was fearless. The reckless kind of fearless which only the strongest love can bring. She took a deep breath…

No, Danshirō. I belong to another, and I will never, ever marry you.

Danshirō’s jealousy and rage overcame him. This woman, who had foiled their plans and defied him, and still refused his affection no matter what he tried. This woman who dared to risk her own life for her love. Well, she need risk it no longer…

Danshirō drew his sword. One swipe was enough. He was fast; so fast that Okiku didn’t have time to scream or run. By the time she realised what he was going to do it had happened, and her blood was spilling out of her.

Where to hide a body? Somewhere deep, which daylight never shines upon and no human eyes ever glimpse…

Somewhere like… a well?

Yes, the well!

Okiku's well at Himeji castle
Okiku’s well in the grounds of Himeji castle. Image my own.

Danshirō gathered Okiku’s body into his arms, and with a last, wistful look at her beauty, a lament to that which he would never own, he threw her into the castle’s well.

Secrets. Leave them to rot in the sombre, damp underground.

Okiku’s absence raised no questions. After all, everyone believed she had stolen the plate and they knew that Tetsuzan took no prisoners. Only Motonobu and his companions continued to fight Tetsuzan. Eventually they were successful. He was overthrown and Lord Norimoto returned to Himeji, and Danshirō’s terrible crime was discovered.

In tribute to her love and bravery, Okiku was enshrined at Jūnisho-jinja. This modest, tranquil shrine is tucked away down a side street, quietly emitting its charm into the city.

Juunisho-shrine, Himeji
Jūnisho-jinja in Himeji. ‘Jinja’ means ‘shrine.’ Shrines are Shinto places of worship. Image my own.

As for the well…

Once the sun began to set and the shadows lengthened, people started avoiding it. There was talk of hearing strange sounds, like whispers, from within, and glimpses of the ethereal figure of a woman.

For the few who dared to venture to the well in the darkest hours of the night, if they listened carefully, they would realise that the whispering voice coming from the well was counting. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…

Only to nine, never 10. One missing plate. One restless spirit eternally searching for it, counting every night. Never leaving her watery grave.

 

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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Currently she is living in Scotland and studying for a masters degree. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

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