Skip to main content

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: (kai) meaning "strange, mysterious or bewitching apparition" and (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 "heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury 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 befell the Tamiyas. It was commonly assumed that Oiwa had cursed them.

Woodblock print of Oiwa by Utagawa

The story that is still told to this day was originally written in 1825 by Tsuruya Nanboku IV as a kabuki play, and it's been adapted countless times, but here's the basic fictional story:

The samurai Iemon Tamiya lived in Yotsuya with his wife, Oiwa. When he fell in love and started an illicit affair with another woman, he ordered his servant to put poison – which he alleged was medicine – in Oiwa's food every day. Oiwa's condition deteriorated, her hair fell out and the right side of her face became deformed.

When she died, Iemon married his mistress, but on their wedding day – when he lifted his bride's veil – he was confronted by the deformed face of Oiwa, who had returned to haunt him. The horrified Iemon lunged at the face with his sword and cut off the apparitions' head, but when the severed head finally stopped rolling on the floor … it had the face not of Oiwa, but of his bride.

Further murders followed, heads rolled, specters howled at night, and eventually Iemon committed suicide. It's all rather deliciously gruesome. (Read more detailed versions of the story here and here.)

Woodblock print of Oiwa by Hokusai, depicting
her face emerging from a lantern

Oiwa is honoured at a shrine in Yotsuya called Oiwa Inari Tamiya Jinja (於岩稲荷田宮神社), which was allegedly built by the Tamiyas to appease her angry spirit. Oiwa's body, however, is buried at a temple called Myogyo-ji (妙行寺) in Sugamo. The date of her death is listed as 22 February 1636. 

Your friendly local foreign guide, always happy for an excuse to go hunting, obligingly visited both spots. I can assure you, she boasts unhumbly, that most internet stories about Oiwa will tell you about Yotsuya, but few will take it one step further and visit the really spooky site with the really spooky grave.

Oiwa Inari Tamiya Jinja

Oiwa's grave at Myogyo-ji in Sugamo

They also won't tell you about another fascinating titbit that I unearthed on Japanese sites: actually there are two rival institutions in Yotsuya, virtually right opposite each other, who both claim to have links to the furious female. Oiwa Inari Tamiya Jinja is better known, but Oiwa is also enshrined at Youn-ji (陽運寺), a Nichiren temple just across the road. I've read articles that refer to this particular temple as Hiun-ji and Samon Youn-ji (Oiwa's maiden name was Samon).

Wait! It gets better!

It is believed that Oiwa's curse still exists. Whenever the kabuki play is staged, the theater managers and actors have to visit Oiwa's shrine in Yotsuya or her grave in Sugamo and offer prayers, otherwise her curse will fall on all those connected to the production. It's considered especially important for the actor assuming the role of Oiwa.

If you don't do it – and even if you do – you should expect mysterious accidents, injuries and even deaths.

The haunted spots

Oiwa Inari Tamiya Jinja is a small, slightly shabby shrine that doesn't feel creepy at all. It's squeezed between apartment buildings and residential buildings, and the shrine itself is festooned with hand-written notes. It feels rather cosy and homely.

Oiwa Inari Tamiya Jinja

Articles explaining the legend

That's not spooky! It's cute!

If you take a photo from the shadows and fiddle with your camera's settings,
it looks darker and a tiny bit more ominous. 

It's an Inari shrine, and that means foxes.

Youn-ji is a mess, and that's a compliment! It's a mishmash of every possible symbol, icon, deity, legend, image, myth, you name it. It has iconic plants and frogs and foxes, a total zoo, all of it immaculately maintained. I ended up spending much more time at this relatively unknown temple, simply because there was so much to explore in such a small space.

Youn-ji

Ema at Youn-ji

I took 703 photos of this particular reflection.

Bonsai at Youn-ji

Yes, Youn-ji is a temple, but there's an Inari shrine on its premises, too.

I took 702 photos of this guy and the red umbrella.

Oiwa's grave at Myogyo-ji in Sugamo is the real thing. It's in the middle of a graveyard, in front of three bare-branched trees (I visited it in December), and it gave me the heebie-jeebies. I was almost scared to look up, because I was convinced I'd see her face with the droopy eye and the lank hair hanging body-less from a branch.

If I were you, that's where I would go. Then you're in Sugamo and you can also visit the duck with the fluffy butt, have splinters removed (link) and buy a red panty that "may cause you excite and make you sleepless" (link).

Entrance to Myogyo-ji

Walking towards Oiwa's grave

Getting closer. She's buried under those trees.

Oiwa's grave

Selfie taken at Oiwa's grave: two dangerous women
in one shot.

It's a bit tricky to find Oiwa's grave. See that gate/opening? Walk through that.

Watch out for this sign and follow the arrow.

Our next ghost story: the body-less head that haunts Ōtemachi and had the Ministry of Finance beat a retreat.

1) Quote from The Mourning Bride (1697) by William Congreve.

2) Her real name was actually Iwa, but the honorific O is usually added to her name, hence Oiwa.

I love the narrow alleys in the shitamachi.

Beetle! Happiness. I took this photo at another temple in Sugamo.

The first map indicates where Oiwa's shrine and temple in Yotsuya are (they're almost exactly opposite each other); the second map is Myogyo-ji, the temple in Sugamo where her body is buried.


View Larger Map


View Larger Map

Popular posts from this blog

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…

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…

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…

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.
C…

Happy birthday, Mum!

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


The Tenen Hiking Trail in Kamakura

"I can't do this anymore," my colleague said. The bell for the next lesson had just rung, but he was still sitting in his chair, looking like Marvin the Paranoid Android.
He's an eikaiwa veteran who's had a stint as a school manager, and he's a genuinely good teacher, but he's reached that saturation level that hits any eikaiwa teacher with half a brain and a smidgen of goodwill.
Eikaiwa teaching is a thoroughly unnatural job: you're supposed to make entertaining small talk with strangers you may never see again, and you're supposed to do this for eight hours. If it's an interesting person, great, but sometimes you're stuck with Kenji whose hobby is sleeping or Mariko whose hobby is to go to shopping.
I grimaced in sympathy. Only two things keep me going right now: knowing that university classes will resume shortly, and hiking. As I observed my colleague, I made an instant decision: Kamakura. Friday, my day off, Tenen Hiking Trail.

Kamakura…

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 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 old Tōkaidō in Hakone

How in heaven's name did Edo travellers walk long this road …


over this pass …

wearing straw sandals?!


Last week I walked along the old Tōkaidō (東海道East Sea Road) in Hakone. I did it in sturdy hiking boots, and although my feet weren't disgruntled, they weren't entirely gruntled either, if I may paraphrase P.G. Wodehouse.




It was the first time I visited Hakone, and I enjoyed it so much that I'll just have to go again. My main goal: following the Tōkaidō, the road that connected Edo and Kyoto. The old road has been replaced by modern highways² and high-speed railways, but you can still walk along the original route between Moto-Hakone (800 meters above sea level) and Hakone-Yumoto (80 meters above sea level), a distance of about 10 km. The sea levels should warn you that it's a steep route.
I didn't do the full course. I started at Hakoneen along the shore of Lake Ashi and then walked through Moto-Hakone to Hatajuku, halfway along the old Tōkaidō, and returned along…