Tag Archives: Japan

An App to Ghostly Haunts in Japan

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.

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Haunted places purported in Tokyo and the Kanto region.

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.)

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The former mass execution site of Suzugamori.

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:

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Details of Suzugamori and why you should avoid it.

“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.

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Haunted Japan


Reviving a festival

The Hashiramatsu 柱松 (literally, ‘pine trunks’) is an event in which three columns of tied bamboo or pine branches are stood upright and lit on fire.  The first to ignite determines the success (agricultural, economic, etc.) of the coming year.  Traditionally coinciding with the first day of Obon, it may have also been believed to invite down the local deities and ancestral spirits residing in the mountains.   The festival is held every three years at Togakushi and dates back to the late thirteenth century.  Well okay, that chronology is a bit misleading.

In the wake of major alterations to religious institutions by the government in the early Meiji period, the Hashiramatsu ended in the 1870s.  During this time, the three major temples on the mountain and their cloisters transformed from combinatory sites of Buddhism, Shinto and Shugendo into state-supported Shinto shrines.  Shugendo itself was proscribed from mountain sites around the country, which helps to explain the disappearance of this shugen-influenced ritual from Togakushi.

But after a thorough investigation by local scholars of extant sources related to the Hashiramatsu at Togakushi as well as other mountains (where it has continued uninterrupted), the festival has been recently revived.  Seeing the Togakushi Hashiramatsu offers a glimpse into the rich symbiosis of religious influences that were historically characteristic of practice at Togakushi and other sites around the country.  It may also suggest the future direction of the culture at Togakushi Jinja, given the community’s increasing re-engagement with its vibrant past.

(Click on photos to open gallery mode.)

The ceremony ends with the head priest seeing off the mountain deities and spirits as they return to the mountain.

Again, the event is held only once every three years, so if you get the chance, be sure to check it out in 2015!


The Great Spring Festival, part 2

Opening rituals done, and now begins the fun.

(Part 1 of this post can be found here.)

These five lit up goma precede the main fire of saito goma. The number of five represents a variety things in Esoteric Buddhism: five types of wisdom, five buddhas, or five luminous kings (明王). In this ritual, these deities are called down.

As the deities descend, the circle of practitioners chant and form hand mudra, both of which are meant to guard the deities against the scorching flames.

Now the main "saito goma" lights up. Characteristic of Shugendo, the saito goma is done outdoors with long spruce branches that billow out smoke. Formerly, it was conducted in the mountains. The name of this one - Ontake-san hon goma 御岳山本護摩 - suggests that it was traditionally held on Mt. Ontake itself.

Note the bare feet, soon to be treading through the glowing coals of the goma.

Here is one of the first gyoja 行者 (practitioners) to walk across the coals in what is called hi-watari 火渡り, literally "fire crossing." The white salt you rub your feet in before the coals may lessen some of the heat, but not by much! This type of event was formerly practiced by shugen specialists after sustained periods of ascetic practice in the mountains. It was believed that these austerities in the mountains awarded them supernatural powers. They could then showcase these powers at events such as this one in order to attract lay followers (an important source of income).

Now anyone can cross the coals. Laity undergo it in order to gain this-worldly benefits (現世利益).

A young girl carried across by a specialist. Shortly after, others in line were discouraged from following suit, given the danger of falling.

Ha-watari 刃渡り, or "sword crossing," is less commonly practiced than the hi-watari. Sharp sword blades make up the rungs of the ladder, which leans against a wooden tower in the picture. Luckily, a regular ladder takes you down the other side.

Done properly, one comes out unscathed. That said, this woman's face shows the pain her feet are feeling.

One of several prayer men attempting to insure safe passage.