Ghost Stories

The San’in region is known for its cloudy weather, and with clouds comes rain.
Likewise, it is also known for its deep ties with En-musubi, a mysterious power that brings people together and binds fate.
So of course the two should go hand in hand, right?

Matsue has entire tourism campaigns–including hotel and restaurant deals, themed cocktails and desserts, and seemingly scavenger hunts–all themed around Enishizuku (縁雫), the “drops of En” that bind everyone together.

These raindrops, however filled with mystical fate-binding power they may be, fall on everyone indiscriminately. Enter the Dan-Dan Kasa program, a cooperative project between two local NPOs to provide free umbrellas–marked by their stickers and special crates outside of frequented buildings–that tourists can take as needed. Well, in my case, you don’t have to be a tourist to take them. Thankfully I’ve forgotten enough umbrellas everywhere to have made my contributions back to this program I’ve benefitted so much from.

There are some particularly “Matsue” umbrellas that I’ve always liked, but have never allowed myself to purchase because I know how likely I am to forget them somewhere when I walk back outside into sunny weather. They’re sturdy, wide, and chic, with various colors–especially red–lined with black on the outer edge and marked with the small Enishizuku label. You see these everywhere, and they evoke a strong sense of Matsue’s character.

When it comes to Matsue and umbrellas, I also picture the large red one in Karakoro Square, which provides shelter from both the sun and the rain. Even if people haven’t gotten the lay of the land enough yet to know what you mean by “Karakoro Square” they usually light up with an “aha!” moment if you mention the giant red umbrella.

Obviously this feels more like it should be a June post than a Halloween post in keeping with the officially recognized Rainy Season (tsuyu), but really, rain is a year round occurence here. It may feel more like an October post given the especially powered-up En-musubi in the air during Kamiarizuki, but if you go by the old agricultural calendar, the gods still aren’t here yet for a few weeks.

But the timing is appropriate, I assure you! Here is a local ghost story about umbrellas.

The Red Umbrella, based on Michiko Hara’s adaptation in Kazukiyo Takahashi’s new compilation of Matsue ghost stories:

There once was an umbrella shop along the canals leading from Matsue Castle to Lake Shinji. The only son, named Denkichi, was nearing age 30 and was well-known for his filial piety. In addition to learning his father’s craft, he also kept the shop tidy, prepared the daily meals, and did the laundry all by himself.

“It’d be so nice if you could get married soon,” his sick mother said from where she was bedridden. “If you had a bride, then at least you wouldn’t have to go so far as to do all the cooking too.” They had taken her to see a local specialist who said that her condition was incurable, but it could be treated with medicine. This medicine, however, was very expensive.

In order to attain the money for this medicine, Denkichi fervently studied from his father and produced umbrellas, but in his haste, he added too much oil to the paper of a number of them and they became too thick to close. There was no fixing them, so rather than wasting them he painted them red and lined them up in front of the store as signs.

One spring evening, while Denkichi just happened to be outside the shop, he was approached by a man with one attendant who said he was actually the lord of Matsue going around town in disguise, but the sudden rainfall was causing him distress. Therefore, without knowing that the lined up umbrellas could not close, he had his attendant give him a sum of money to purchase them, and after taking them, they left.

However, that money, which would have gone towards his mother’s medicine, turned into a handful of leaves a short time later. Denkichi realized he had been tricked by a fox, and vexing though it was, there was nothing he could do.

A few days later when Denkichi was on his way home from selling umbrellas in the Kawatsu area of town, he came across the feudal lord who happened to be out enjoying a stroll at Mt. Rakuzan. “Ah! It’s that fox!” Denkichi growled. “Thought you pulled a fast one on me, didn’t you? Didn’t you! You pay up right now! Right now! That’s money for my mother’s–”

He had been coming at the fox threatening to hit it with an umbrella, but unfortunately for Denkichi, that was not a fox but the real lord of Matsue. “Insolent fellow, what do you think you’re doing?” one of the lord’s retainers shouted, and then swiftly stabbed Denkichi, leaving him for dead as the samurai class was privileged to do to the commoners.

When Denkichi’s parents received his body later, they wailed, crying out that he was such a good son and wondering how this cruel fate could have happened. Though nothing could stop their tears, there was no way they could take up complaint against the feudal lord or seek justice.

That night, around 3 o’clock in the morning, the lord saw an umbrella monster with a red, uncloseable umbrella. It seemed to carry with it a samurai with one of the bamboo bones of the umbrella stabbed through his abdomen like a sword, and from that corpse red blood began pouring unceasingly all over the lord’s white sheets. The lord grabbed his sword and swung it at the monster, but the monster itself disappeared, leaving only its twisted, angry face and the continuing stream of blood.

By morning, there was no trace of blood, but his experiences of the night still left the lord terrified. He suddenly remembered the umbrella vendor that had been slain the day before, and he sent one of retainers to investigate. When the retainer returned, he reported, “It seems he was a young man well-known for his filial piety.”

“I see,” said the lord, and then he ordered, “From now on, purchase all of the umbrellas made by this shop, and when it rains, line them up along the canals so that anyone may be free to use them.”

He was never bothered by the umbrella monster again, and to this day, you can still see red umbrellas lined up along the canals of Matsue on rainy days.


It’s hard to be in Japan a long time and not encounter a story or two about kappa.

Are they monsters? Are they sprites? Are they… real?

Among the varied cast of Japanese haunts, kappa seem to be taken more seriously for their possible existance. Given the abundance of water throughout Japan and the dangers that come with it, this does not surprise me, but whether kappa warn children about the dangers of drowning, or whether the kappa themselves are the dangers, differs depending on the stories of each locale. Their descriptions vary according to each account, but in general, they are child-size aquatic creature with a little depression on the top of their head that serves as a little basin for water. Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai is a blog that focuses on Japan’s stories of ghosts and other strange things, and they have written more extensively about kappa, but being a San’in region blog, I’ll leave the more detailed descriptions to them.

Here in Matsue, if you want kappa, you go to Kawatsu-cho, a neighborhood with a river running through it where kappa are said to live. The local elementary school has made kappa-themed signs and posters, both taking the creatures as an unofficial mascot. In Sakaiminato City right across Lake Nakaumi, which is of course known for its connections with Mizuki Shigeru, Japan’s ultimate modern folklorist, has kappa mixed in with the hundreds of other haunts found there.

However, the best place in the region for any dedicated kappa fan is Okinoshima-cho, on the largest of the Oki Islands. A neighborhood near the ferry port is so filled with kappa legends that the Kappa Federal Republic (yes, that’s a thing) held their 26th annual summit there in 2013, with members of this roughly 500-person Republic coming together from all over Japan. I was there the following year and found their commemorative statue.

A kappa tour by boat is offered April through September by the Okinoshima-cho Tourism Association. Besides taking you on a hunt for the possibly real, possibly mythical creatures, they provide a nice view of the harbor, island, and neighborhood scenery and a good way to cool off on a hot summer day.

Although I did not spot any live kappa from the boat, I did receive a nice kappa fan, which was great for the weather. Ah, not to mention the kappa I met while walking around afterward.

Although people everywhere has some idea what a kappa is and what sorts of places you’d find them in, locales like Okinoshima-cho have a public awareness of these creatures’ supposed presence, evident both in local shrines and art.

Even without the kappa, the Oki Islands are the ultimate quiet island-life getaway, with a very unique homegrown culture almost as unique as the islands’ geological and biographical features. I very much so enjoyed during my visit, but despite the decreasing population like that which plagues most of rural Japan, this is the kind of place that grabs so people’s hearts and attention so much that they happily drop their city lives and transplant themselves here for good.

It probably helps that the kappa here are on the friendly side–sort of. There are many stories throughout Japan of kappa being helpful tricksters only if you trick them first, after which point they keep their promises. One such story took place in this neighborhood, where an old lady named Saito caught a kappa strealing cucumbers from her garden (kappa do love cucumbers, after all). Old Lady Saito caught it and cut off its hand, which shriveled up as the kappa escaped into the river. She kept the shriveled hand as a trophy, and some time later, the kappa sheepishly returned and begged for its hand back. She agreed, on the condition that the kappy protect her family. Thereafter, all the neighborhood kids would shout “I’m the grandchild of Saito!” before jumping into the river so that they kappa would not attack them or save them if they face drowning.

This spot, across the river from the neighborhood, is said to be where a kappa lives.

While no one can promises a kappa encounter where they are nonetheless frequently sighted(?), your best bet any time of year is to visit the Kappa Park, which an amusing array of kappa themed art to enjoy. I feel it’s fairly safe to say that these are on the harmless side.

Back when I found out I was going to live in Matsue, I read eight of Lafcadio Hearn‘s books in the span of a month to know about the city as he observed it back in the Meiji period. Eight books was a bit excessive. However, this passage from “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan” (available for free here on the Gutenberg Project) stuck out and stuck with me:

But of all places, Kaka-ura! Assuredly I must go to Kaka. Few pilgrims go thither by sea, and boatmen are forbidden to go there if there be even wind enough ‘to move three hairs.’ So that whosoever wishes to visit Kaka must either wait for a period of dead calm—very rare upon the coast of the Japanese Sea—or journey thereunto by land; and by land the way is difficult and wearisome. But I must see Kaka. For at Kaka, in a great cavern by the sea, there is a famous Jizo of stone; and each night, it is said, the ghosts of little children climb to the high cavern and pile up before the statue small heaps of pebbles; and every morning, in the soft sand, there may be seen the fresh prints of tiny naked feet, the feet of the infant ghosts. It is also said that in the cavern there is a rock out of which comes a stream of milk, as from a woman’s breast; and the white stream flows for ever, and the phantom children drink of it. Pilgrims bring with them gifts of small straw sandals—the zori that children wear—and leave them before the cavern, that the feet of the little ghosts may not be wounded by the sharp rocks. And the pilgrim treads with caution, lest he should overturn any of the many heaps of stones; for if this be done the children cry.
(Lafcadio Hearn, 1894)

There are two famous caves in Kaka-no-Kukedo, the caves of Kaka. The more broadly advertised one is the “Shin-Kukedo” (“new cave,” or a pun on “cave of the god”), which is where the legend of Sada-no-Okami’s birth took place. The less advertised but nonetheless very well know cave is the “Kyu-Kudedo” (“old cave”), as Hearn described. Today, it is still almost exactly as Hearn described. He is one of many writers who have been attracted to these caves.

This description left such an impression on me that as soon as I heard it still existed, I made it my goal to take the boat tour out to see it. The 50-minute tour runs eight times a day March through November, however, just as in Hearn’s day, it can easily be cancelled if it’s too windy. Going far out to sea, or trying to navigate through the cave, is difficult in rough waters.

I had to try a lot longer than Hearn did to finally make this trip.

Every time I’d make plans with my friends, something would fall through. Either we didn’t plan in time to make it before the end of the season, or there was suddenly pouring rain the day we decided to go, or someone would suddenly fall ill. A few friends who had originally volunteered to go later admitted that they were afraid to go because they might see a ghost there. With so many things out of my control keeping me from getting there, it was tempting to think that maybe it really was haunted.

At last, towards the end of last year’s season, the tour finally (barely) worked out! Sort of… the waves were too high to do the full tour, so we had a slight discount. I was not going to let that chance slip me by, though, so I did the partial tour.

It departs from Marine Plaza in northern Matsue, near an active fishing port and a popular camping island called Katsurajima.

The first stop is the old cave, where the spirits of departed children are said to be hard at work. The boat stops a little ways away, and those who wish to see it can go down a long tunnel with alcoves filled with Jizo statues (at which, the tour operators leave incense while passengers are look around), and then walk around the cave. Jizo is a Buddha of mercy often thought of as a patron of children.

The waves only reach so far inside, and the cave goes fairly deep, beyond where the light can reach. As far as my eyes could make out, the countless little towers of rocks and Jizo statues and offerings went as far back as there was space to put them. A bat flapped around towards the interior parts of cave, and all was quiet.

For as many tries as it had taken me to observe this place, there were many, many grieving parents from who knows how far who had come here to leave a gift for their child, and perhaps construct a tower of rocks to spare them a bit of labor. Among the Jizo statues, there were recent, old, and likely many decades worth of perserved silk flowers, origami cranes, juice boxes and bottles of tea and cans of soda, shoes, toys, and other personal belongings. Although I can see why others would see it that way, I did not find this place creepy. However, there was a weight of sadness and sympathy coupled with a curious wonder at how far these parents had come out of their way to give their children whatever comfort they could.

After that, we went back through the tunnel and to the boat to continue on to a place of new life. Recorded in the 8th century Izumo-no-Kuni Fudoki as the birthplace of Sada-no-Okami, primary deity at the influential Sada Shrine, it is only accessible by boat.

However, if the waves are too high, it’s not accessible at all. I had to settle for seeing the outside and imagining the supposedly wonderous view of light from the inside. It seems the best time of year to go is during a short period of time in midsummer when there are special sunrise tours to see the sun rise through the view of the hole. I guess it’s hard to say I did the tour when I only got to see the cave from outside. And apparently this year they’ve started offering an 80-minute tour of several other caves in the area, too! Maybe if I had just been a little more patient…

But hey, watching the waves crash against the rocks was neat and all.

I even got a good view of Mato-jima, the “target island” Baby Sada practiced his archery on!

And riding the waves out there was fun!

While this is the main stage of this legend, there is a spot further inland that I’ll introduce next time.

This is a story about one of the chilling spots in a ghost-story laden town, and how the custom of drinking two cups of tea at time started in Matsue:

In the 13th year of the Keicho Period (1608), when there was difficulty in constructing the first Matsue Ohashi Bridge, a man named Gensuke happened to cross at the wrong time and was sacrificed as a human pillar. It was thought that if there was a human sacrifice, then the bridge would be stable. It could have been anyone, so they decided to toss over the first man who crossed wearing a certain kind of trousers.

It’s hard to say whether this story is fact or fiction, or whether Gensuke really was the victim’s name, but the story caught on enough that there is a memorial stone for him on the south bank of the Ohashi River, by which a famous cherry tree blooms. Though not the original, one of the middle pillars on the east side of the Matsue Ohashi Bridge is sometimes still called “Gensuke-bashira” (Gensuke Pillar). I can’t say for sure which one it is, though.

It is said that on that morning as he was having tea, his wife asked, “Why don’t you have another cup and take your time before you leave?” To which he replied, “I have to hurry and get to work,” and then left after having finished one cup. If he had stayed for the second cup, perhaps he would not have crossed the bridge at the wrong time and would not have been sacrificed. That story spread, and Matsue’s custom of drinking two cups of tea was born.

Or perhaps he could have been saved by wearing a different pair of trousers, but that hasn’t had quite the same cultural impact.

Even without the interesting story to go along with it, Matsue Ohashi is my favorite of the four bridges connecting the northern city center with the southern city center (with a fifth further east). It is the second one to the east from Lake Shinji, and that route takes you between two charming shopping streets, and the granite railings and lanterns give it a nice atmosphere. It’s also the best spot from which to view the O-bon lanterns floating down the Ohashi River every August.

Memorial pillar in nearby Gensuke Park

When you hear of the old province of Inaba, you might already be aware of the famous White Hare of Inaba thanks to his role in a popular Kojiki myth. He is not the only famous animal of the region, which is also known for the Inaba-Go-Kitsune—the Five Foxes of Inaba.

Foxes (kitsune) are known throughout Japan as tricksters that are adept are transforming, especially into humans, and especially into beautiful women. Of these local five, one was called “Otonjoro,” based on the name she took while pretending to be a prostitute (joro) in Yoshiwara (the famed red light district of Tokyo back when it was Edo). While acting as “Otomi” she used her trickery to fool around with the men of the big city, but when she got bored of that, she returned home to Inaba Province. This is one of the stories about her.

The villagers could tell she was up to no good in the area, and dreaded falling victim to her tricks. “We should offer a big reward for someone to do away with that Otonjoro,” they said.

Two young men stepped forward, confident in their abilities to best the beast. “We’ll get rid of her, so make sure it’s a really big reward!”

When it was a full moon, they staked out that night in the shadows of a big tree, and soon they saw a big fox come by. Silently, they watched as she placed a leaf from the tree on her head, spun around, and then ever so slowly transformed into a young woman. She took a large stone and plopped it into the river, and when she took it out, it was topped with water plants. This she cradled into her arms, and then it took the shape of an infant. As she walked off with the stone baby, the two young men stalked after her back towards the village.

The fox women came to a house, where the old man and old woman inside welcomed her, thinking it was their daughter and grandchild. The young men watched and listened from the windows, and when the old lady came outside, they addressed her in hushed tones. “Pssst! Old Lady! That woman in your house is a fox–it’s Otonjoro!”

“Don’t be stupid!” she laughed.

“It really is! You’re being fooled by a fox. She only looks like your daughter because she’s in disguise!” they pleaded and desperately tried to gain her trust.

As their voices grew louder, the Old Man soon came outside. “What’s going on out here?”

“Oh, Dear, these two young men are trying to tell us we’re being fooled by a fox.”

“That’s absurd!” he bellowed. “How dare they insult our daughter and grandchild that way?”

“It’s true!” the young men retorted. “If you don’t believe us, throw the baby in a pot of boiling water. It’s not a baby, it’s a stone. The disguise will boil away and you’ll see we’re telling the truth.”

“Fine, if you’re so insistent, that’s what I’ll do!”

They boiled a pot of water and threw the baby in, but to the young men’s horror, the baby did not turn back into a stone. “How can this be?” they asked, incredulous and turning pale. “We were so sure–we saw it with our own eyes!”

The old couple was livid. “How dare you! Because of your accusations, our adorable grandchild is dead! We’re going to have you thrown in jail!”

Before the young pair could fumble any defense on their part, a monk heard their raised voices from outside, and then welcomed himself in to mediate. “Pardon the intrusion,” he said. “I heard what happened, and I do not think you should condemn these men to prison. Doing so will not erase their sin or bring your grandchild back to life. Instead, you should have them go to the temple and become monks, and they will spend their days in there praying for the child’s soul. What do you think of this?”

The old couple agreed, and forgave the young men. Fearful as though they had already been to hell, the young men eagerly followed the old man inside the temple, where they shaved their heads and offered a large fish at the altar. In order to atone for their sin, they began fervent prayers, praying with all their might throughout the night.

Several hours later they were startled by the sounds of people calling their names, and astonished to see that the sun had already rose. With the morning light, however, they saw that they were sitting in the middle of a grassy field rather than inside of a temple. There was only grass where the old couple’s house stood, as it had all been an illusion of Otonjoro’s making. The fish they offered, as well as the the fox they were trying to catch, was gone.

“That Otonjoro!” they growled. “She’s thoroughly had us.”

Vexing though it was, they rubbed their newly shaven heads and returned home.

This is a story from the old Izumo Province. Like the story in the previous entry, it has a wandering monk finding himself the target of trouble.

Although I haven’t really wandered into abandoned temples, you don’t have to in order to find giant spiders everywhere–in late summer and autumn, the colorful Japanese Wood Spiders sit in pairs in the middle of their webs, which are practically clustered among any stretch of branches or bushes, or the very industrious ones make rather ambitious webs stretching up to the tops of power lines. Scary though they might appear (and I’m not putting pictures here for viewers’ comfort, however interesting their appearance is) the humans and arachnids here stay out of each others’ way, and even if they do accidentally wind up in each others’ space, these spiders are not particularly dangerous. To humans, anyway. And that just goes for the normal spiders, anyway–can’t say the same for demonic spiders like in the story.

This story took place a very, very long time ago. One evening, there was a traveling monk making his way between temples. Rain started to fall in heavier and heavier droplets. The sun went down and the rain showed no sign of letting up, so he decided he should find a place to spend the night.

Far away from any villages, he at last found an old, secluded temple. He tried to inquire about the place, but he found nowhere there, and invited himself in to the living quarters meant for the head priest. He found that it was damp, stank of mold, and was filled with spider webs–it had fallen into horrendous ruin. “Well, it’ll be fine,” he decided. “I’ll just keep the fire lit until morning.”

He hurried to gather some burnable sticks from the garden, and then lit it up in the fireplace in the center of the room. The damp and dark room was immediately filled with a warm, red glow. Just as his body was starting to feel a bit warmer, he laid on his side by the fire, and was soon softly snoring.

After some unknown amount of time has passed, he sensed someone moving around, and his eyes shot open. The rain had let up, and through the window he could see the moon peaking out behind the pine trees. Staying completely quiet, he listened carefully.

There was a creak, creaking sound coming from the main hall. They were footsteps, growing closer. Then came the sound of old, broken shoji screens sliding aside.

“Who goes there, in this run down old temple?” he asked as he sat up. At that moment, the shoji screen to the room he occupied slid open, and a woman carrying to a baby stood there. The monk was quite surprised, and said, “I didn’t expect anyone to be living an old place like this.”

The woman took a seat on the floor, and then said in a pretty voice, “Is there any way I could ask you to take of this child for the night? Please don’t ask me why, just take him, please.”

Seeing as he was taking the liberty of staying in that place for the night anyway, and seeing as she had some dire reason for requesting this of him, he accepted.

“Thank you,” she said, then set the baby on the floor and stood up, slipping out of the room just as suddenly as she had come in. Following her exit, the baby, which had been set on his back, rolled over on to his stomach and began crawling towards the monk. One step, two steps, three steps, and so on it came.

The monk thought it was rather strange behavior, but then was distracted by what felt like a rope around his neck. When he tried to lift a hand to it, it started squeezing him with a terrible force. Looking back at the baby, he saw that it was no longer merely crawling, but it had a glint in its eyes as it fixated on him, and then starting sliding straight towards him.

“A monster!” the monk tried to shout, but his voice could not escape his throat.

Then, the baby began to rise towards the crickety ceiling by what looked like a silky thread, and then crawled towards a large hole.

Trying to escape, are you? the monk thought, and grabbed a large piece of firewood from the pit, and threw it at the baby with all the strength he could muster. When hit, the baby cried out with a loud, echoing scream, and this was the last thing the monk heard before he fainted.

Soon enough, morning came, and the monk came to. The hole in the ceiling was still there, and he went up to take a look. What he saw there shocking–many, many human bones scattered about, and two disturbingly large, dead spiders, a parent and child pair, skewered by a sharp piece of firewood.

The traveling monk gathered the bones and buried them appropriately, and buried the spider corpses somewhere deeper, somewhere further away.

While reading a folktale, it dawned on me that Buddhist priests wandering around Japan by themselves are just asking for trouble. This tale from Lafcadio Hearn‘s famous “Kwaidan” series of ghostly Japanese folklore immediately sprang to mind.

Matsue loves Hearn’s ghost stories. In summer of 2013, illustrations like these could be found everywhere. This is from the entrance to the history museum’s cafe, Kiharu.


ROKURO-KUBI, by Lafcadio Hearn, 1904

Source: The Project Gutenberg “KWAIDAN: Stories and Studies of Strange Things”

Nearly five hundred years ago there was a samurai, named Isogai Heidazaemon Taketsura, in the service of the Lord Kikuji, of Kyushu. This Isogai had inherited, from many warlike ancestors, a natural aptitude for military exercises, and extraordinary strength. While yet a boy he had surpassed his teachers in the art of swordsmanship, in archery, and in the use of the spear, and had displayed all the capacities of a daring and skillful soldier. Afterwards, in the time of the Eikyo war, he so distinguished himself that high honors were bestowed upon him. But when the house of Kikuji came to ruin, Isogai found himself without a master. He might then easily have obtained service under another daimyo; but as he had never sought distinction for his own sake alone, and as his heart remained true to his former lord, he preferred to give up the world. So he cut off his hair, and became a traveling priest,—taking the Buddhist name of Kwairyo.

But always, under the koromo of the priest, Kwairyo kept warm within him the heart of the samurai. As in other years he had laughed at peril, so now also he scorned danger; and in all weathers and all seasons he journeyed to preach the good Law in places where no other priest would have dared to go. For that age was an age of violence and disorder; and upon the highways there was no security for the solitary traveler, even if he happened to be a priest.


Does the term “Tengu” mean anything to you? Although sometimes translated as “goblin,” “gargoyle,” or simply “demon”, this particular type of mythical creature conjures images of human-esque anatomy, attire of a yamabushi (mountain monk often involved in esoteric practices), holding fans that control the wind (and possibly more), and red-faced with a long nose that reflects the inflated sizes of their egos.

Karasu-Tengu as illustrated by Mizuki Shigeru

Karasu-Tengu as illustrated by Mizuki Shigeru

Although the term (天狗) refers more literally to dogs of heaven, they are more commonly thought of as birds. Some of the lower ranked kotengu (小天狗), who are often pictured with more bird-like faces with beaks as opposed to the signature long nose. Infamously capricious, they are often involved in folktales throughout Japan, like this one. Tengu are as also sometimes known as Karasu-Tengu (カラス天狗), literally “crow Tengu.” As far as their form is concerned, however, they’re more likely based on black kites–not toys, but the giant birds of prey throughout Japan that light to steal people’s bentou in their talons in single swoops.

Some black kites and a large crow in Izumo for size comparison.

Hanging out with the Karasu-Tengu of Tengu Forest at Izumo Kanbeno Sato in southern Matsue. I've also found a Karasu-Tengu hiding in the forest behind Tamatsukuriyu Shrine in the Tamatsukuri Onsen area...

Hanging out with the Karasu-Tengu of Tengu Forest at Izumo Kanbeno Sato in southern Matsue. I’ve also found a Karasu-Tengu hiding in the forest behind Tamatsukuriyu Shrine in the Tamatsukuri Onsen area…

If there are lower ranked Tengu, then there are also higher ranked Tengu–Daitengu (大天狗). Although there is no known limit to the Kotengu dwelling throughout the mountains of Japan, according to various texts from Kamakura era and referred ever since, there are only 17 Daitengu, though only the top eight (perhaps that should be Top Eight) are mentioned very often. All the Daitengu possess superior intellect, and whether to the ire or to the honor of the locale (attitudes towards Tengu and whether they are good or bad vary from era to era), they have specific areas they inhabit.

The 7th of these 17 is Hōkibō (伯耆坊), who resides on Mt. Daisen, the highest mountain of the San’in region.

Click for source

Click for source

One of the local famous wagashi (Japanese confectionary) producers in Matsue, Saiundo, has a signature sweet named after the local Daitengu. The Hōkibō sweet has sugar and slightly chunky red beans on the outside with a layer of soft mochi on the inside, and is based off the shape of his fan, as illustrated below.

Click for source.

Click for source and a larger version.

Hōkibō has generally been looked upon favorably by the locals in Tottori, but according to Edo period records, he moved to Mt. Ōyama in Kanagawa to oversee the flocks of Tengu there due to a Daitengu vacancy left after Sagamibō left to comfort a banished emperor. Hōkibō’s name still reflects his original home, seeing as Mt. Daisen is in the old Hōki Province. He also still makes appearances in Daisen Town’s parade of characters in historical costumes (see here, and here, and here).


You know the funny thing about Mt. Daisen and Mt. Ōyama? They’re both written 大山 (quite literally, “big mountain”).

Seeing as he is often mentioned when the Top Eight of the Daitengu are cooperating in something, such as–under the leadership of the top ranked Daitengu, Sōjōbō of Mt. Kurama near Kyoto–watching over a young orphan of the Genji clan who would eventually grow up to demolish the oppressive Heike clan, as well as be one half of Japan’s most legendary of dynamic duos. It just so happens the other half of that duo was born and raised here in the San’in region, and trained on Mt. Daisen!

Click for source and to view a larger verson of the image. This is an ukiyo-e by Tsukioke Yoshitoshi, one of the last great ukiyo-e artists, although he was known for some rather grotesque subject matter. Hōkibō is taking Benkei down by his leg, while Sōjōbō sits back and watches with Ushiwaka.

This is just one interpretation of the famous meeting on Gojo Bridge in Kyoto between Yoshitsune (or Ushiwaka, his childhood name he still used at the time) and Benkei. In general, the start of their story is that Benkei was a powerful naginata user and beat everyone up, but when he was beaten by young Yoshitsune, he swore fealty to him, and this was the start of their semi-historical, semi-fantastical adventures. Their story has been continually expanded upon in literature for hundreds of years with some basic running themes, such as how Yoshitsune trained with Sōjōbō on Mt. Kurama before meeting Benkei. There are many, many stories of young Benkei (called Oniwaka) here in the San’in region, such as how his mother had cravings for iron when she was pregnant with him, so he was born with a black face and strong as iron, but that’s for another time.

In the meantime, just a little plug for Asiascape‘s “Manga as/in Essay” online magazine. I’ll have a 17 page manga piece running in the “Kurama Tengu” issue. I know, what a traitor I sound like, writing about a Kyoto Tengu rather than a San’in Tengu! But research for that piece is what lead to this entry, and Hōkibō was mentioned in the script for the Noh drama, and by liberally extended definition even the northern part of Kyoto Prefecture can be called part of the San’in region. Well, off to go reward myself with another Hōkibō of the wagashi variety.

I don’t have pets, but I do have a giant tortoise in the neighborhood.

No, not like the floods of turtles in the canals. Those ones are charming. Those ones aren’t likely to smash or devour you. Those ones didn’t do anything to receive punishment.

My neighbor is and did.

Long lived as many tortoises are, this guy has been around since before Lafcadio Hearn moved here:

…the most unpleasant customer of all this uncanny fraternity to have encountered after dark was certainly the monster tortoise of Gesshoji temple in Matsue, where the tombs of the Matsudairas are. This stone colossus is almost seventeen feet in length and lifts its head six feet from the ground. On its now broken back stands a prodigious cubic monolith about nine feet high, bearing a half-obliterated inscription. Fancy—as Izumo folks did—this mortuary incubus staggering abroad at midnight, and its hideous attempts to swim in the neighbouring lotus- pond! Well, the legend runs that its neck had to be broken in consequence of this awful misbehaviour. But really the thing looks as if it could only have been broken by an earthquake.

(Lafcadio Hearn’s “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan,” 1894.)

Hearn’s left a lot of common details out of this brief description. First, let’s address its home, Gesshoji Temple, frequently mentioned in this blog for its famous hydrangea and for being home to the graves of the Matsudaira fuedal lords, such as Naomasa and Harusato (aka Fumai). Each grave is decorated in different ways, including detailed carved gates in Chinese style, often reflecting the taste and hobbies of the lord buried within. It’s always a quiet place, set apart as if in its own world by the thick forest growing in and around it. Francine Prose describes the atmosphere very accurately in this Smithsonian Magazine article:

Something about the temple grounds—their eerie beauty, the damp mossy fragrance, the gently hallucinatory patterns of light and shadow as morning sun filters through the ancient, carefully tended pines—makes us start to speak in whispers and then stop speaking altogether until the only sounds are the bird cries and the swishing of the old-fashioned brooms a pair of gardeners are using to clear fallen pink petals from the gravel paths.

While wandering among the hydrangea–at their height quite soon–and hopefully not slipping on the bumpy old rock paths made slick by hundreds of years of foot traffic and by the fresh rainfall, anticipating the matcha and wagashi waiting for you back towards the entrance of the temple when you’re done with your stroll, and contemplating the peaceful world where the lords’ remains remain, you suddenly run into it.

Better that than it running into you.

I’ve heard a couple versions of the legend aside from Hearn’s relatively innocent version. Sure, the tortoise probably made a big mess of the lotus pond while splashing around in there or just wandering away from his post to geta drink. Constantly being on guard around the graves is bound to make even a stone gaurdian thirsty. But this gaurdian apparently also got bored–and entertaining himself required running amock among the neighborhood, flattening townspeople in the process. In another version of the story, he would even gobble some townspeople up.

Naturally, no one dared to attack the tortoise. What match would samurai swords be for a tortoise made of stone–a seven foot tortoise, at that? At last, a monk came and bound the tortoise to its spot by driving this sealing plaque down its back.

I haven’t heard of it moving around since, and today there is another legend that says it is good luck to rub its head, as that will bring longevity. This seems sure and safe enough during the day, but thankfully the temple usually is closed after dark–if it’s gotten hungry since it’s gotten stuck in place, then perhaps standing so close to it wouldn’t bode well for your longevity.

Maybe a ghost story doesn’t seem like appropriate content for Mother’s Day, but many people love to point to this story as one of Lafcadio Hearn‘s favorites, seeing as he was seperated from his mother at a very young age.

Of the cemetery Dai-Oji, which is in the street called Nakabaramachi, this story is told-

In Nakabaramachi there is an ameya, or little shop in which midzu-ame is sold—the amber-tinted syrup, made of malt, which is given to children when milk cannot be obtained for them. Every night at a late hour there came to that shop a very pale woman, all in white, to buy one rin worth of midzu-ame. The ame-seller wondered that she was so thin and pale, and often questioned her kindly; but she answered nothing. At last one night he followed her, out of curiosity. She went to the cemetery; and he became afraid and returned.

The next night the woman came again, but bought no midzu-ame, and only beckoned to the man to go with her. He followed her, with friends, into the cemetery. She walked to a certain tomb, and there disappeared; and they heard, under the ground, the crying of a child. Opening the tomb, they saw within it the corpse of the woman who nightly visited the ameya, with a living infant, laughing to see the lantern light, and beside the infant a little cup of midzu-ame. For the mother had been prematurely buried; the child was born in the tomb, and the ghost of the mother had thus provided for it—love being stronger than death.

(“The Chief City of the Province of the Gods”, from Lafcadio Hearn’s “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan,” 1894.)

When I went on Matsue’s Ghost Tour, it wrapped up here at Dai-oji temple, nestled into a neighborhood not far from where I live. The temple has a history as long as the city itself, and it used to be connected to the outer castle moat by waterway, so the samurai living closer to the castle would visit the temple by boat.

On a cheerful, sunny day, the temple sits quietly among the houses, humble and easily unnoticed.

It seems the temple used to be a little more overgrown, providing more places for ghosts to hide. I’m not sure how old these photos are, though.

Click for source

There’s a part of me that wishes it were still covered like that, but it makes me wonder what it was like when Lafcadio Hearn lived here over a century ago. There is a street nearby to the temple (the street I think he was referring to within the Nakabaramachi district) with a lot of Showa era buildings and old family businesses so it’s somewhat easy to imagine a midzu-ame vendor around there, but even that wouldn’t be old enough to be accurate to the time Hearn lived here, or even the time this story supposedly took place! It seems there are similar stories to this one that take place in other parts of Japan as well, so it makes me wonder how much claim this temple really has or not to being the source. Whatever the case, this story of motherly love rather than ghastly haunting has staying power, and I don’t really think the details detract from it.

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