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Three historical ghost stories set in Tokyo

Three historical ghost stories set in Tokyo

It's almost summer, which means that the traditional season for ghost stories is around the corner – in Japan, as soon as the temperatures soar and firework festival announcements start dropping in, yurei-related movies, plays and advertisements also return to haunt us. Peak supernatural time is August, when the Buddhist Obon festival takes place. In short, best get ready to brush up on your Tokyo ghost story knowledge and haunted whereabouts for those late summer nights.

Made famous abroad by countless Japanese horror movies, yurei (幽霊, literally 'faint spirit') can be distinguished from your Western bed-sheet-with-two-eyesockets ghost by a few defining features: they tend to wear white (think more funeral kimono or dishevelled party gear than bed sheet), have long black hair, no feet and may be followed around by little green, blue or purple flame spirits known as hitodama.

Yurei are classified by how they died or what they were in their former lives, with some of the more 'popular' ones being onryo (wrathful ghosts), goryo (aristocratic ghosts, usually wrathful), ubume (women who died in childbirth, serve candy to kids) and funayurei (those who died at sea, may look mermaid-esque). 

Ghost stories (kaidan, which were originally based on Buddhist moral tales) became a proper pastime in the Edo period, when people would sit around and tell scary tales with 100 candles burning in a separate room, with one extinguished after each story ended. The practice was known as hyakumonogatari kaidankai ('ghost story gathering of one hundred tales'), and started a new wave of stories that came to influence contemporary popular culture such as kabuki and noh.

Although many of these were adapted to local tastes or not set in a specific location to begin with, some have distinct Tokyo roots. Check out our top three picks, and see if you dare to walk past any of these places at witching hour (between 2am and 2.30am in Japan) afterwards...

Oiwa Shrine, Yotsuya: Yotsuya Kaidan

Take your wife, poison her and then see her haunt the place forever – thus goes the very basic plot of arguably Japan's most famous ghost story, Yotsuya Kaidan. Based loosely on two historical characters, it sees a woman, Oiwa Iemon, gradually poisoned by her husband Tamiya, who is having an extramarital affair.

The poison, presented as either facial cream or food, eats away at Oiwa's face, and she is therefore usually depicted with her left eye as lopsided and drooping. What happens next depends on the version of the story, but poor Oiwa either accidentally slices open her own throat with a sword and curses Tamiya's name while bleeding to death, is killed by Tamiya himself, or dies of 'natural' causes.

Regardless, she comes back to haunt him when he marries his mistress. It's said that when Tamiya goes to lift the veil of his new bride, Oiwa's face appears instead. In shock, he slashes at her with his sword, after which the apparition disappears – and it turns out he has just killed his newly betrothed instead. Oops. 

Although Oiwa and Tamiya most likely did really exist, it seems the story is an amalgamation of several sensational murders that happened in the early Edo period, and was possibly even made up to slander the good name of the Iemon family.

If you want to pay your respects to Oiwa, know that although her grave is actually at a temple in Sugamo, the story is more commonly associated with Oiwa Inari Tamiya Shrine in Yotsuya, said to have been built to appease her tormented soul. The original shrine was destroyed by a fire in 1879 and subsequently moved to Hatchobori (which is what shows up if you Google Map it), but then rebuilt in its original Yotsuya-Sanchome location in 1952.

Perhaps the image of a woman with long hair and a drooping eye sounds familiar to you? That's because the character of Sadako Namamura in The Ring was based on Oiwa. To this day, film crews and theatre troupes staging adaptations of the story head to Oiwa's grave before shooting to 'ask for permission' – so she doesn't come back to haunt them. 

Kii no Kuni-zaka, next to Akasaka Palace: The mujina of Akasaka Road

Another Yotsuya-based tale, this one is known to most students who have taken a history class at nearby Sophia University. Kii no Kuni-zaka is the hill running past Akasaka Palace towards Akasaka Station, and serves as the setting for this tale, mainly known as one of the stories highlighted by orientalist Lafcadio Hearn in his collection of kaidan. It was said that people would go out of their way to not walk up or down the hill after sunset. The story goes something like this:

A man hears wailing while walking down the slope at night, and sees a beautiful girl, dressed as if she is from a wealthy family, weeping on the banks of the moat. The man stops to ask her if she's OK and to console her, but the girl continues to weep while hiding her face behind one of the long sleeves of her kimono. While he keeps on pleading with the girl to stop crying, she slowly rises up with her back turned to him, and then turns towards him and wipes her face with her hands, as if to wipe away tears – but it turns out she has no face, just a blank slate where eyes, nose and mouth should be.

The man screams in fear and runs up the hill as fast as he can, away from the scene. Not stopping to look back, he spots a lantern far up the road; exalted, he runs towards it, although it turns out to be a lonely soba seller rather than a dwelling. Upon reaching the seller, he drops to the floor and breathlessly tries to explain what he just saw. The soba seller replies, rather unsympathetically, 'Was it something like this?', and waves a hand across his face, after which all his features disappear, and the entire area becomes dark.

We'll think twice about stopping to help anyone crying around that area now...

Otemachi: Taira no Masakado

Wander around the high-rise buildings of Otemachi and you might just spot a small stone shrine. This is the grave of 10th-century samurai Taira no Masakado who, in true samurai fashion, met his death in a rather gruesome way. Decapitated, his bodiless head then managed to be preserved remarkably well for the longest time (or could fly, depending on who you ask – it had to get from Kyoto to Tokyo somehow), and eventually made it to where it's now said to be buried.

Removing or relocating the grave has proved difficult, as any attempts to do so have supposedly been plagued by misfortune. When the nearby Ministry of Finance tried to level the hill after the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, 14 workers related to the project started dropping dead like flies from accidents, ailments and other bizarre incidents.

The 1,000-year curse holds to this day, with multiple tales of people falling ill or dying after the shrine had been tampered with in any way. By now, people tend to not mess with it any more (just in case). It's even said that desks inside the buildings clustered around the shrine are placed so as to not make anyone sit with their back to old Masakado – although when we visited a building in the vicinity, this turned out to not be true for all desks.

Of course, there are plenty of other historically haunted spots (Roppongi Hills allegedly being built on the site of some of the 47 ronin's graves is a notable one) scattered around the city. If you're looking to really scare your socks off, consider joining a Haunted Tokyo tour, which will let you peek at the most bone-chilling locations in the flesh. And if you know of any other Tokyo-based, old-school ghost stories, do let us know in the comments. 

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