Skip to main content

Masakado's head haunts Ōtemachi

This one's really creepy: a decapitated head that wouldn't decompose, flew from Kyoto to Tokyo, haunted Ōtemachi, killed a finance minister and various other officials, burned down the Finance Ministry building exactly 1000 years after its execution, and defeated the United States occupation forces after World War II.

If it's all coincidence, it's got to be the scariest pile-up of coincidences in the history of haunted neighbourhoods.

It's based on real events, which I'll retell as briefly as possible. Taira no Masakado ( 将門) was a samurai in the Heian period who lived in eastern Japan, northeast of present-day Tokyo, and led a rebellion against the central government of Kyoto.

A woodblock print of Masakado attacking a rival
by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

According to Wikipedia, the years of his rebellion, from 935 to 940, rank among the most dramatic episodes in the early history of the samurai. It coincided with earthquakes, rainbows and lunar eclipses in the capital; uprisings in the north; and pirate disturbances in the west. These events threw the court and the capital into a panic, and climaxed with the protagonist’s claiming for himself the title "New Emperor". It was not to last: the real emperor's forces caught up with Masakado in 940 and executed him. His head was brought to Kyoto and displayed at a market on the tenth day of the fifth month.

Now it gets interesting. His head refused to decompose, and its expression got fiercer every day. One night it started glowing and … flew back to eastern Tokyo. It got tired, though, so it rested in the village of Shibasaki, present-day Ōtemachi. Villagers found it, cleaned it, and buried it near the original site of Kanda Myōjin.

The main gate at present-day Kanda Myōjin

Kanda Myōjin

I took this photo at nearby Yushima Seidō, which has nothing to do
with Masakado, except that it's a headless thingie.

Thingie with head

Kanda Myōjin itself has a beautiful roof with Mandarin ducks on it.
Mandarin ducks are called oshidori (オシドリ) in Japanese.
They're a symbol of good luck and marital harmony.

Masakado's spirit haunted the neighbourhood and caused various calamities, pestilences and, undoubtedly, fits and vapours.

Kanda Myōjin was moved to its present site in 1616, but Masakado's grave was left behind. Fast forward a few centuries, and the Meiji government declared that Masakado had been a traitor, revoked his status as deity at the shrine, and constructed its Finance Ministry Building next to the grave.

Masakado's grave between buildings in Ōtemachi

Prime real estate, worth a fortune, yet untouched ...

Things started getting odd. Finance Minister Hayama Seiji died relatively young; as did 13 other ministry officials in the next two years. Exactly 1000 years after Masakado's death, in 1940, lightning struck the Finance Ministry building and burnt it down. The ministry prudently moved. (I love the wording on the noticeboard at the grave, which you can see below. Beautiful understatement: "Afterward there were many plans did not go well.")

That's when the army of the mighty US of A moved in. They cleared the area for a parking lot, but Masakado would have none of that. Equipment failed, workers died, bulldozers flipped over. Said army of the mighty US of A tucked its tail between its legs and fled.

Approaching Masakado's grave

Masakado's grave

The Japanese government regained control of the site in 1961, and held various purification rituals to appease Masakado's spirit. Despite that, workers in surrounding buildings continued to fall ill. Finally, in 1984, Masakado was reinstated as a deity at Kanda Myōjin, and since then he's been relatively quiet.

Just to maintain the peace, though, local businessmen continue to pray at his grave on the 1st and the 15th of each month.

Mark Schreiber writes in The Japan Times (link):

Some believe that 背を向けたら祟られる (se wo muketara tatarareru, if you show your back [to the mound] you'll be struck by the curse), and it was long rumoured that in the offices of Mitsui & Co., located immediately adjacent to the site, employees' desks were arranged so as not to show disrespect. This, however, was debunked in Shukan Gendai magazine in which Mitsui's PR spokesman remarked, "We don't give undue attention to direction when arranging the desks."

Masakado’s grave is located at 1-2-1 Ōtemachi, about 70 meters from Exit C5 of Ōtemachi Station. I went there on a bleak, overcast, icy cold winter's day; and I admit that I felt uneasy. While I was taking photos, I almost stepped on the grave in an attempt to take pictures of various frog statues. When I realized what I was doing, I freaked out, scurried backwards and bowed to the grave. I didn't even feel silly doing it: it was an automatic response.

Frog statues at Masakado's grave

Fresh flowers and offerings at Masakado's gave

The grave is surrounded by frogs, because frog in Japanese is (kaeru), which is a homophone for 返る (kaeru, to return), and that's what Masakado's head did, innit? It returned. You often see frog statues at shrines and temples, since they're regarded as a good luck symbol due to that word association.

Right, now for the extra mile which your friendly local foreign guide always walks to bring you juicy details which most other (English) sites don't include. Masakado's head may or may not be buried in Ōtemachi (the skull has never been found), but his armour is buried at a shrine in Ōkubo called Yoroi Jinja (鎧神社).

Main entrance of Yoroi Jinja in Ōkubo, where Masakado's armour is buried

Side entrance of Yoroi Jinja

Yoroi Jinja

The person who actually beheaded Masakado was Fujiwara no Hidesato, who suffered from a debilitating illness after his deed. Hidesato buried Masakado's armour in the former Kashiwagi, present-day Ōkubo, to console his victim's angry spirit, after which he fully recovered.

Yoroi Jinja is fairly innocuous. I didn't feel a ghostly presence, but I did see two koma-inu (lion-dogs) that are very old and have an unusual design, and are listed as Cultural Assets in Shinjuku. One is female because she wears lipstick and the other one is male because he, well, see for yourself:

The koma-inu are at a smaller shrine to the left of the main shrine.
Below: the female on the left, the male on the right.

The most interesting thing about Yoroi Jinja, though, is the barbed wire. I'm used to barbed wire in South Africa, where it keeps sheep in and thieves out, but it's the first time I've ever seen it at a shrine in Tokyo. I know that area has its problems – poverty, immigrants, racial tensions – but I was still surprised by this "keep out" wrapping on the shrine's porch.

Barbed wire at Yoroi Jinja

Lion-dogs (above and below) at Yaroi Jinja

OK, that's enough for today. I have another great ghost story for my kaidan series, the story of the peony lantern, but I don't have any photos yet. Patience, please, we'll get there.


"Yoroi" is the Japanese word for armour.
Another interesting titbit from Mark Schreiber's article: A superstitious person is said to be 迷信深い (meishin-bukai). The word for superstition, 迷信 (meishin), translates as "confused beliefs".

The first map below indicates Masakado's grave (the green arrow) and the second map gives you the location of Yoroi Jinja.

View Larger Map

View Larger Map

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

Happy birthday, Mum!

Here's an August flower for you.  Not your beloved cherry blossoms, but your favourite colour. I miss you.

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

The princess who loved insects

Edit added 8 May 2013: This post receives so many keyword search hits for "The Princess Who Loved Insects" that I've published an updated post (with extra information) that focuses on the book. Click here to read it.)

Blogging has been an interesting experiment. I initially started two blogs, Rurousha for personal musings and Sanpokatagata for factual stories accompanied by photos. I've now decided I'll do all stories on this blog, regardless of the content, and turn Sanpo into a supplementary photo blog. I'm not sure it's a good idea, since I'm not a good photographer at all, but let's see how it goes.
It occurred to me that "nomad" is not the ideal name for my blog. I don't wander anymore; I want to live in Japan forever and ever amen till death do us part. Then I remembered that I've already stayed in six different apartments in Tokyo and although most of my income is derived from one company, I've been based in three diff…

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?
The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.Birds protect it against fire.
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?

Why Kanda Myōjin?
Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed …

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

Bush clover, the flower of autumn

It's a modest plant, easy to overlook, yet it used to be Japan's most beloved flower.

Bush clover (ハギ, hagi) is mentioned in 141* poems in the Manyōshū (万葉集, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), Japan's first anthology of poetry, compiled in the 8th century. That far exceeds the 119 poems about the second-most popular flower, plum blossoms. The latter was revered as an exotic import from China; the former was praised for its rustic simplicity.

Bush clover grows about 3 m in height and has long, slender branches that droop across paths. The branches represent feminine elegance, but it's also a symbol of vigour thanks to its ability to produce young shoots from old stock. It flowers in September, when summer's heat lingers, but it's believed that if you can see dew drops on the plant's small green leaves, you know that autumn is near.

Nowadays the flower attracts little attention. There aren't any good bush clover viewing spots in Tokyo that I know of, apart…

Yotsuya Kaidan, Japan's favourite ghost story

Kaidan! Ghost stories! You ready?
August is the month of Obon (お盆), a Buddhist festival that honours ancestral spirits, who are believed to return to their birthplaces in this week.  Since otherworldly beings are wandering about, it's also the perfect time for ghost stories or kaidan.
Kaidan (怪談) consists of two kanji: 怪 (kai) meaning "strange, mysterious or bewitching apparition" and 談 (dan) meaning"talk"or "recited narrative". It's a slightly old-fashioned word that conjures up tales from the Edo era, and we're going to start our August Kaidan Series with an old Edo tale of murder, betrayal and revenge that remains the most famous ghost story in Japan.
It's called Yotsuya Kadain (四谷怪談), and it proves that "heavenhas norage like love to hatred turned, norhellafury like a woman scorned".¹ It's roughly based on a real event: a woman called Oiwa² married a man called Tamiya Iuzaemon, but after their divorce, various misfortunes be…