Matsue is considered a rather large city in the sparsely populated San’in region, and life in the center of town is easy. I have a ten minute walk to work or to Matsue Castle, and a plethora of grocery shopping options that are easy to get to. A car ride twenty minutes in any direction, however, will take you the outskirts of town where life is simplier. Nature is abundant, as are farmers. Agriculture is still a major industry for this reason, and it’s hard to see remnants of Japan’s burst bubble because the bubble economy didn’t reach this region much. In many ways, Shimane and Tottori seem to follow their own train of history which goes at a more leisurely pace than the better-connected areas of Japan. On that note, the Chuugoku mountain range makes it unlikely a bullet train route will ever be built out here.

In addition to being a place where rustic nostalgia paints the landscape, this is also the land of myth. Many of the Kojiki myths are tied directly to the geography of this region, and I’ve spent a handful of weekends getting my JET friends in the inaka–the rural areas–drive me around to go hunt down places associated with the Kojiki myths. On one particular September afternoon, I met up with a friend in Shinji, a southern district of Matsue on the banks of Lake Shinji which borders the town of Unnan. While driving along to where we think we’re going to find the shrine in my guidebook, we make small talk.

“So, how’s life in the inaka?”

“It’s good.”

“Ever see any tanuki around here or anything?”

“No, this is my third year, but I’ve never seen a tanuki. I’ve seen monkeys chilling by the side of the road, though!”

“I see nutria where I live sometimes, but never monkeys!”

Around this time of year, the rice is harvested when it turns the right shade of gold. Throughout the inaka of Japan, you’ll also notice the air is hazy with the smell of burning waste from the harvest.

When the maps on our phones are no longer helping, we look around on foot. We can’t find the shrine, but we can see the figs are ready for picking soon! These are a local product of the Izumo region (some Japanese friends in bigger cities didn’t even know that figs were grown in Japan).

We finally asked for directions from a group of ladies who were taking a break from their harvest, who very cheerfully informed us we were on the wrong side of the hill. Shimane is known for having record numbers of centenarians, and these ladies are perhaps the oldest looking people I have ever met in Japan. Furthermore, they spoke with the thickest Izumo dialect I have heard yet. Through toothless smiles and leathery skin they point up the road and give us detailed directions, and off we go, much better off having asked.

It took a bit longer than we expected, but we found the shrine, and I gathered material for a future post to go with a future manga myth rendition, with only a few autumn mosquito bites to show for it. As we were heading off to go meet up with friends for a dip in the onsen, I got one more glimpse of Shinji’s charming sights.

“STOP!!!! IT’S A TANUKI!! BACK UP! LOOK! LOOK, WE FOUND ONE!” – Buri-chan, the shotgun driver

Not everything in the inaka is so charming, though. Unlike my encounter with a mujina/nopperabo, however, I have photographic proof of this disturbing encounter! It’s as if she follows you all the way from Unnan back through Shinji, waiting on the side of the road just to jump out and startle you.

This is what I’m used to seeing. This happy child is something I’ve encountered all around Japan, a friendly warning to drivers to watch out for children who might dash out into the street. Brightly colored and noticable, he seems to do alright at his job.

But one day, she appeared.

It’s a good thing I wasn’t driving, or I might have crashed in surprise to suddenly see a disturbingly unhumanlike human suddenly accost me from the side of the road. She wasn’t just in one place, either–she was everywhere, lurking along the sides of innocent looking streets. As I was started to adjust to her presence, suddenly we really did see a real child standing at the side of a neighborhood road with a similarly wide stare. Though this was a good little girl who did not dash out into the street to give us the heart attack of our lives, both the driver and I were startled that time to see something live in the place of this soulless girl we had expected to be standing there.

She’s watching you…

Despite the San’in region being a land of ghosts and goblins, I’m not a very superstitious person. That said, I did have a freaky experience once at my local convenience store. As I was leaving, I saw a large man standing right behind me reflected in the glass door, but there was nothing remarkable about his face. He looked like an anatomically correct human, but his face seemed to be missing human features. It was too brief a moment to even react, and before I could even turn back to get a better look he had walked the other direction and all I could see was his back.

Perhaps in Western ghost-story-telling tradition this sounds a little lame–so I didn’t get a good look at a reflection that suddenly showed up behind me. Big deal! And what kind of setting is a FamilyMart for a ghost story anyway? However, people familiar with the folklore of Japan have immediately responded, “ah, so you saw a mujina!”

If I had to find a term for what I saw… then yes, it would be a mujina or nopperabo!

The terms tend to be used interchangably, but they are not the same. A mujina, the name you tend to hear most often, is referring to a tanuki-like (but not necessarily tanuki) mammal, who shapeshifts into human figures in order to deceive humans. A nopperabo is more human in origin, the main characteristic being that they have blank skin for faces. Part of the reason mujina may be in wider use as a term for a faceless being is because of Lafcadio Hearn’s influence on Japanese tales and their retention today, however close or not close they may be to the originals. While he is widely credited in Japan for committing to public memory many ghost stories, many modern Western Japanologists are critical of his work partly because of his less than reliable grasp on the Japanese language. He collected ghost stories from all over Japan, but many of them were told to him through his wife Setsu, who didn’t speak much English. It is possible that what he wrote of the mujina in Kwaidan (1904) was actually supposed to be about nopperabo.

…But she continued to weep, hiding her face from him with one of her long sleeves. “O-jochû,” he said again, as gently as he could, “please, please listen to me! … This is no place for a young lady at night! Do not cry, I implore you! [O]nly tell me how I may be of some help to you!” Slowly she rose up, but turned her back to him, and continued to moan and sob behind her sleeve. He laid his hand lightly upon her shoulder, and pleaded: “O-jochû! O-jochû! O-jochû!… Listen to me, just for one little moment!… O-jochû! O-jochû!”… Then that O-jochû turned round, and dropped her sleeve, and stroked her face with her hand; and the man saw that she had no eyes or nose or mouth, and he screamed and ran away.
Up Kii-no-kuni-zaka he ran and ran; and all was black and empty before him. On and on he ran, never daring to look back; and at last he saw a lantern, so far away that it looked like the gleam of a firefly; and he made for it. It proved to be only the lantern of an itinerant soba-seller, who had set down his stand by the road-side; but any light and any human companionship was good after that experience; and he flung himself down at the feet of the old soba-seller, crying out, “Aa! aa!! aa!!!”…
“Kore! Kore!” roughly exclaimed the soba-man. “Here! [W]hat is the matter with you? Anybody hurt you?”
“No, nobody hurt me,” panted the other, “only… Aa! aa!”…
“Only scared you?” queried the peddler, unsympathetically. “Robbers?”
“Not robbers, not robbers,” gasped the terrified man… “I saw… I saw a woman, by the moat; and she showed me… Aa! I cannot tell you what she showed me!”…
“He! Was it anything like THIS that she showed you?” cried the soba-man, stroking his own face which therewith became like unto an Egg… And, simultaneously, the light went out.

(Source and complete passage here. “O-jochû” is a polite form of address for a lady you don’t know.)

One of the other big local names that is famous world-wide for recording creepy stories is Mizuki Shigeru, the manga author of Gegege-no-Kitaro and many other thoroughly researched works. In his hometown in Tottori, Sakaiminato, is home to over a hundred bronze statues featuring Mizuki’s characters and his interpretations of Japan’s varied cast of youkai. This is his take on a nopperabo.

Click for photo source (Japanese)

A notable difference many people bring up between Japanese ghost stories and Western ghost stories is that they are more about creepiness than horror. Ghostly encounters do not necessarily have to spell your doom (though many do), but they are bothersome at some level or another. I can understand the creepiness of mujina/nopperabo as they are so humanlike, but any striking or even only slightly noticeable difference will send off messages in our brains that something is very wrong. If you’re looking for new ways to freak yourself out this Halloween season, search around the internet for things in the Bukimi-no-Tani.

If you’d rather just learn about some interesting tales of creepy things without needing to burn bothersome images into your memory, then read Lafcadio Hearn‘s Kwaidan or any youkai-related work of Mizuki Shigeru. As I was opening WordPress to write this entry I also noticed Cristy at Takeshita Demons had just made a nopperabo reference as well in a recent entry, and Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai is always a good source for youkai talk, too.