In my Japanese Folklore and Festival course this fall, we devoted much time to pouring through historical sources from the medieval period (Tale of the Heike, oni legends, and temple origin tales), early modern yokai encyclopedia and illustrated monster parades, and rural tales collected by folklorists in the early twentieth century (like Yanagita Kunio‘s Legends of Tono).
But I also wanted to show my students that folklore and ghost legends are not simply a thing of the past or of the countryside (as often nostalgically portrayed in folk studies) but remain relevant today.
For this, I turned to an iPhone app I recently discovered while in Japan called Hontō ni iite wa ikenai basho 本当に行ってはいけない場所, or “Places you definitely want to avoid.” True to the title of the app, the person who introduced me to it was extremely reluctant to do so because he was worried I was actually going to seek out these places. To date I have not, but I have found it to be an interesting guide to present-day beliefs on ghosts and haunted sites in Japan.
The app, also referred to as Shinrei Suppoto 心霊スポット (“places where the spirits dwell”), effectively visualizes haunted Japan through a map which pins sites across the country. Densely populated areas like Tokyo and Osaka or cities with long histories (Kyoto or Nara) host dozens of haunts while scattered pins mark other notorious sites across the archipelago.
And no surprise that many of the infamous sites relevant to famous Japanese legends pop up. For Tokyo, we looked at Suzugamori 鈴ヶ森, a major execution ground on the southern outskirts of Edo for most of the Tokugawa period (1600-1868) – first with photos and background of the area, and then through the app. (Some of the photos I used came from this interesting blog post on the history of the area, others from my time living just up the road from the site.)
Spirits of people with shady convictions (sometimes politically motivated) have long been thought in Japan to linger in the world, carrying out vengeful acts on the population and the state in return for their premature demise. Much time, devotion, material resources have been allocated over the course of history toward appeasing these ghosts (known as goryō 御霊, literally “revered spirits”) through the construction of shrines, production of ritual, and posthumous lofty titles. These steps sometimes led to the deification of such spirits.
So with estimates of a staggering 150,000 executions at Suzugamori over roughly two centuries, it is easy imagine a fair share being carried out under dubious accusations (see for example, Punishment and Power in the Making of Modern Japan by Daniel Botsman). Hence the numerous votive stele offering blessings to the dead as well as a Buddhist temple on the premise to provide memorial services.
Shinrei Suppoto thus provides the following description:
“Based on rumors and confirmed reports, there are a great variety of ghosts.
The site served as an execution ground until Meiji 3 (1871)…
[Various methods of execution that were employed follow.]
A great many of those executed did not commit any crime. The execution and death-by-fire post holes remain.”
We see a classic aspect of folklore here in the first line – its vernacular nature. Of course, we shouldn’t discount other modes of transmission, including recent digital platforms like this one.
In this sense, Shinrei Suppoto demonstrates the continued life of ghosts and haunted places throughout Japan. Incidentally, I found no parallels to this app from a preliminary search on the Apple Store for North America, but a good one appeared for another country with a similarly long history of ghoulish tales and spooky haunts – England.
Given the layout of the map on Shinrei Suppoto, I initially thought the pins were crowd-sourced. That would be especially cool for the folklorist as it would better reveal the interests of users beyond the data provided by the app’s developer. We’ll have to wait for an updated version or a different app for that information to emerge.
In either case, its a fun tool to introduce in the classroom, and if you dare, use for your next itinerary to Japan.