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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.


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.

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