Here I am, reading an untitled poem I wrote based on the Japanese ghost story ‘Banchō Sarayashiki.’ You can read the full story in my post about Himeji Castle.
Read & recorded at Speakin’ Weird open mic night at Spin in Aberdeen, February 2019.
Tottori may be Japan’s least populated prefecture in terms of people, but if it’s yōkai you’re counting then it will come out on top. In the city of Sakaiminato, they have taken over the streets with their somewhat disturbing charm.
In Japanese folklore, yōkai are mischievous supernatural creatures akin to spirits or demons in Western culture. The artist and writer Mizuki Shigeru brought them into the limelight with his 1960s manga series GeGeGe no Kitarō (ゲゲゲの鬼太郎). Shigeru’s work tells the story of a boy named Kitarō, who fights to make peace between the worlds of humans and yōkai, along with his… unusual allies. Most notably Medama-Oyaji, an anthropomorphic eyeball who is also the reincarnation of his father, and Neko-Musume, a young girl who can alter her facial features to resemble a sinister-looking cat.
Mizuki Shigeru spent his childhood in Sakaiminato. To celebrate his work, the area around JR Sakaiminato station and the main road leading off of it has 153 bronze statues of yōkai. You can purchase a guidebook at the station (in Japanese only), which lists each one with some information about it. There are also spaces for collectable stamps, found outside of shops and restaurants along the road. Already being an avid collection of Japanese train station stamps, I was so on that! More so than the elementary school children I frequently found myself queuing with…
I took photos of some of the statues, which I shared on Twitter with the hashtag #dailyyōkai during the summer. For those who missed it, here’s a recap. Just click on the images to make them bigger. All images my own.
In Japanese folklore, it’s sometimes hard to define where yōkai ends and yūrei/obake (ghost) begins. Strictly speaking, the term yūrei should only be used for human spirits and obake for things which are possessed (like the chōchin-obake in my photo above). But in reality, these terms are often used interchangeably and there is much overlap of attributes between all three. This difficulty with defining them makes yōkai a subjective set of creatures, adding to their mystery and appeal. Each has their own identity, composed of their own power, purpose, and motivation. This makes yōkai very relatable – when we are stressed at work we can blame the isogashi, or when our bathroom needs cleaning we can wish for an akaname to appear. And I am sure after a terrible date we can sympathise with the Hari-Onna!
After living in Japan for a year, I thought I was impervious to the stranger sides of Japanese culture. I caught myself watching this Funassyi video and not even flinching; a giant fairy pear running through a minefield seemed perfectly normal. But after visiting Sakaiminato, I’ve discovered that there is still a lot left in this country capable of making me wonder ‘why is this even a thing?!’ Like the sagari – Ghost horse heads which spontaneously drop out of trees and scream at people? Okay. It’s Japan. Don’t question it. Embrace the insanity.
What’s your favourite yōkai? Tweet it to me @amyelize
For more about yōkai, read my tsukumogami post. These are a specific group of yōkai comprised of possessed household objects. Watch out for the boroboroton!
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
For another take on Okiku’s story, have a listen to my poem about her.
Imagine going to boil some water, but your kettle transforms into a raccoon and runs away. Or turning a light on, to find your paper lampshade grinning at you and waggling a long tongue. You might have a spirit problem, but these are no ordinary poltergeists. Meet the tsukumogami.
Tsukumogami (付喪神) is the collective name given to a type of yōkai (Japanese spirits or monsters) which are haunted household objects. It’s a Shinto belief that everything has a spirit, so in Japanese folklore it’s possible for inanimate objects to become sentient. The transformation occurs on their one-hundredth birthday, as only after serving people for a century can objects gain souls. If the object has been mistreated in that century, it becomes vengeful and causes havoc for its current owner. So if you buy second-hand things, beware! If their previous owner was unkind, unfortunately you’re the one they’ll unleash their wrath on. Tsukumogami’s powers range from mildly irritating to murderous, and they are known for teaming up to maximise their scare factor. They also like to wander the streets at night to meet others of their kind.
If a household object exists, there is likely to be a tsukumogami version of it. Here are some of the most notorious...
Japanese-style houses feature room dividers called shōji, which are paper screens. If there are holes in the shōji, it is believed that ghostly eyes can fill them and watch the residents of the house. These are called mokumokuren, and although harmless they are very creepy. Mokumokuren literally translates as ‘many eyes.’ They are one of the staple inhabitants of any haunted Japanese house. Thankfully it’s easy to get rid of them; all you have to do is repair the holes.
If you hear noises in the night, then it’s most likely a pair of bakezōri. Traditional Japanese sandals, called zōri, are a type of flip flop made from rice straw. If they are old and mistreated, they are likely to grow arms, legs, and one eye to transform into bakezōri. These tsukumogami enjoy running around in the dark and causing mischief. They also repeat this chant: Kararin! Kororin! Kankororin! Managu mittsu ni ha ninmai!
Managu mittsu ni ha ninmai translates as ‘three eyes and two teeth.’ Zōri have three holes where their straps are attached, so ‘three eyes’ perhaps refers to these. ‘Two teeth’ makes a little less sense, unless they are geta sandals which have two wooden blocks on their soles. The other words are nonsensical.
Iron tea kettles are used in Japan to heat water on stoves to make tea. The Morinji-no-kama is a tea kettle with a spirit trapped inside. A well-known Japanese folktale called ‘Bunbuku Chagama’ is about a tanuki (Japanese raccoon) which transforms into a tea kettle.
Sticking with the theme of kitchen appliances which transform into animals, this one is my favourite. Purely because it’s so bizarre. The name yamaoroshi is a pun of sorts – yamaarashi is the Japanese word for porcupine, and oroshi is the word for grater (as in cheese or vegetable grater). Put them together, you get a yamaoroshi. A porcupine grater. Apparently, when a grater becomes dull and can no longer be used, its slicers transform into spines and it grows legs.
I’m confused as to why this tsukumogami even exists, because I’m pretty sure that there’s no cheese in Japan which is actually big enough to grate… I once bought what I thought was a tub of cream cheese, but when I opened the box it was actually individually-wrapped chunks about the size of my thumbnail. You can barely even spread that, let alone grate it! It was a sad day. Also, the rule is that a household object has to be 100 years old to become a tsukumogami. Who keeps a grater for over 100 years?! That would be some random family heirloom. I can just imagine it on the Antiques Roadshow, ‘yes, here’s my century-old grater. Careful, it could turn into a porcupine at any moment!’
If you’re a dressmaker, beware of this one! Ittan-Momen is a long sheet of cloth used to make clothes, which flies around at night and attacks people by wrapping itself around them. Sometimes it smothers them, if it goes for the face. This malicious tsukumogami is most commonly found in Kagoshima Prefecture.
Chōchin lanterns are the iconic paper or silk lanterns with bamboo frames which are a common sight in Japan. Because of their fragility, when they get old they are likely to split. These splits form eyes and a wide mouth with a long tongue hanging out of it. Chōchin can also become inhabited by vengeful spirits. If such a chōchin is lit, the spirit will be released and attack the lighter.
If neglected, old umbrellas will become kasa-obake. There are one of the most commonly-known yōkai, but strangely there are no stories about them. They only exist in folklore and images. It is thought they were created by oral storytellers in the Edo period, when there was a demand for new folklore characters. Kasa-obake are closed umbrellas with one eye, and they jump around using the handle as a leg.
Futons are Japanese bedrolls. If they are not well cared for, then they may turn into a Borobororton. When the owner is asleep, the Borobororton wraps itself around them and strangles them in revenge for its mistreatment. It then stumbles around the house and strangles any other sleepers it finds. One of the first things I did when I moved into my Japanese apartment was air the old futons!
Next time you clean your house, think about airing your mattress and giving those old shoes in the bottom of your wardrobe a clean. Hang pictures over holes in your walls, and make sure any rolls of fabric are tightly bound. And be sure to look after your cheese grater. Just in case.
Most of us can probably remember being told as a child ‘don’t do that or the [insert monster here] will get you!’ Growing up in Norfolk, for me that monster was Black Shuck. Norfolk is a place of marshes, big skies, and lonely beaches. Shells of broken windmills stand in the perpetual wind from the North Sea, which tears across the countryside no matter how far inland you go. It is the perfect place for a malevolent, ghostly dog to reside.
Variations of black dog legends exist throughout the UK, with differing names. In Essex, he’s called Galley Trot. Up in Yorkshire, you’ll find Barghest. In Somerset, it’s simply Gurt Dog which means ‘great dog.’ In Scotland there’s Cù Sìth or ‘fairy dog,’ in Wales there’s Gwyllgi or ‘dog of darkness.’ In Norfolk, he’s called Black Shuck. As a child, my brother would torment me with Black Shuck stories. They scared the living daylights out of me at the time, but now I find the wider implications of them more interesting.
Despite all the different names and locations, all black dogs share similar attributes:
Black dogs are spirits, and behave as such. They appear and disappear, their footsteps are silent, they have supernatural features such as red eyes, and sometimes they seem to float on a cloud of mist. Some, like the Scottish Cù Sìth, also have a spectral green glow.
Black dogs are usually described as being the size of a great dane, but looking more like a wolf (yes, it would make much more sense to say they are wolf-sized and like wolves, since there’s not much difference in size between a wolf and a great dane. But we just don’t do that!) Some stories also say that black dogs are the size of donkeys.
Many accounts of black dogs involve travellers. They commonly appear at crossroads, or follow people along empty paths. In Norfolk, Black Shuck is said to haunt the empty coastlines and the flat, soggy plains which are carved up by the Broads.
Based on all of this, black dogs don’t sound like the sort of creatures you want to meet. At the very least, they are regarded as harbingers of misfortune. It is uncertain whether they merely warn of bad things to come, or if seeing one is what draws the bad things to you. Either way, they are not good omen. A common belief in Norfolk is that if you see Black Shuck, you must say a poem backwards three times to ward off evil.
Another local story tells of how Black Shuck terrorised the village of Blythburgh, Suffolk, in the 1500s. In fear, the villagers ran into the church and bolted the door to protect themselves from him. Black Shuck clawed at the door, and eventually broke in and mauled several people before leaving. As he made his exit, the church tower collapsed. Nowadays, this incident is attributed to being the work of a storm. But to superstitious country folk, on an eerie winter’s night, it’s easy to see why they would have believed old Shuck was about. However, there is the matter of the scratch marks which remain on Blythburgh’s church door…
…and the skeleton of the giant hound, which was discovered in an unmarked grave during an archaeological dig at nearby Leiston Abbey. So maybe there is some truth to this story. We’ll never know for certain, which I’m okay with, because where’s the fun in that?
Dogs are renowned for being playful. Throw a stick, they’ll fetch it. Put them together, they’ll play fight. Have some food? Look away for a minute, and you won’t have any more! In some stories, black dogs also reveal their playful side. One of my favourite examples of this is the English fairy tale ‘The Rose Tree,’ collected by Joseph Jacobs. In this, a girl is sent out to fetch candles for her stepmother and a black dog steals them. Such an innocent, puppy-like thing to do, but it causes a lot of trouble for the girl (as those of you familiar with the Grimm story ‘The Juniper Tree’ can well imagine). So in this sense, the black dog is a sign of misfortune, but also a sign of being a dog thinking ‘cor, I’d quite like to chew on those candles!’
Black Shuck isn’t always bad. Like many other folklore characters, black dogs have an ambiguous nature. Sometimes they are portrayed as watchful creatures, who accompany travellers home instead of harming them. In The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, it states that a black dog ‘is a guardian of the place that it haunts.’ If this is true, then maybe it’s our fault for stumbling onto their turf and disturbing them — the impending misfortune is just their revenge. Also, dogs are loyal, territorial creatures. Especially in the Welsh story of Gelert and the Scottish story of Greyfriar’s Bobby. It makes sense that their restless spirits would want to guard somewhere which was significant to them in life.
Black dog stories are curious, because there is the potential for truth in them. Dogs are real animals, and some of them do have black fur. If their owner lets them out onto the beach for a wee on a moonlit night, then anyone with knowledge of these legends is going to be afraid! Even now, over a decade after my brother told me about Black Shuck, if I see someone walking a big black dog my brain instantly has a mini freak-out. Because that’s the power stories have. They turn something as everyday as a dog into a mysterious, fearsome being.
Something odd happened to Britain in the 1970’s.
The hippie movement was turning sour. Scientists furthered new environmental research and people began looking inward to their country surroundings. Urban sprawls butted against farmland, creating unsettling, unfamiliar spaces, and there was a surge of interest in dark folklore of the British Isles. The mantras of peace and love were abandoned. Innocence fled the fields.
The peak of the folk horror movement in the 70’s left a taste in British mouths that we have never been able to get rid of, most vividly in fiction.
The notion of a terror from within toppled the reign of the ghoulish Hammer horrors and set the stage for films such as The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw. No one was scared by Gothic castles adorned with clanking chains any more: the real horror was to be found right outside your front door in the piercing sunshine of the summer solstice.
The most effective folk horror fiction puts nameless fears into words. It reminds us of our fear that, for all our quantifiable facts and study, there will forever be a shapeless realm like a veil between ours and whatever dead place lies on the other side. M. R. James was an early example of folk horror’s timeless appeal, penning several contributions to the genre in the early 20th century. His Ghost Stories of an Antiquary usually featured an unnamed narrator sat by a cosy fire in some Oxford clubhouse, relating a woeful tale of horror to rapt companions. James was fully aware of the power of bringing the supernatural into familiar surroundings.
In James’s A View from a Hill, a scholarly archaeologist is called to the country to examine artefacts and finds a ghostly abbey, ruined during the Reformation, visible only through binoculars.
The dark forces still dormant in the fields around the abbey nearly kill him. In O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, an affable gentleman named Parkin retires to the seaside for a restful break. On a walk, he finds an ancient bone whistle in a graveyard and, pleasantly unaware of the consequences, blows a note. It heralds the arrival of a featureless spectre that haunts him just beyond his scope of vision. The story was adapted for television in 1968, and traumatised the British public with a dream sequence involving Parkin pursued by the spectre along an endless stretch of bleak Norfolk coast.
Folk horror even pervaded public service announcements which highlighted to children the danger of seemingly everyday situations. These broadcasts have become notorious, and many adults have been unable to shake their memories. The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water was one such film created to prevent accidental drowning, and featured a Grim Reaper-style hooded figure lurking nearby as children swam or attempted to retrieve a ball from a flooded quarry. Needless to say these broadcasts were very effective.
The popularity of folk horror continues, with books such as Simon Maginn’s Sheep shining a light on the innate fears unique to British culture to this day. We are an island nation, naturally distrustful of strangers and blanketed by a beautiful yet perilous and often lonely countryside with a pagan past that has left little by which it can be understood. Our increasingly technological lifestyle means the forces of nature, seen and unseen, are more removed from our everyday lives than ever, and that leaves us wondering – were our solstice celebrations really as innocent as we once claimed?