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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.

Notes

"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

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