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.

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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.

(more…)

I can’t tell you how many mostly-disembodied eyeballs are found in gift shops around the San’in region. They’re popularity is all thanks to the influence Mizuki Shigeru has had on popular conceptions of youkai, a somewhat frightening, somewhat endearing cast of Japanese goblins and ghouls. He is most famous as the manga-ka who wrote GeGeGe no Kitarou (introduced in this entry last Halloween), but he would introduce himself first as a world explorer and folklore researcher. Wherever I go looking for youkai information, I always find his name in the works referenced! As beloved as his comics are and as much as you see them everywhere around here, his life has been very unique and merits special introduction.

The manga-ka/explorer/folklorist himself, either surprised by his fame or surprised by… well… who knows what.

Mizuki Shigeru (whose real name is Murai Shigeru) was born in 1922 in the port town of Sakaiminato in the little part of Tottori nestled close to the Shimane peninsula. There was an old lady who helped take care of his household, and she was very religious and told little Shigeru about the monsters that lurked in their midst. He was captivated by these stories, also remembers being captivated by an illustration of hell populated by demonic creatures. As you can imagine, it was the kind of art deemed not appropriate for children, but once seen, children may carry it with them forever.

Little Shigeru listening to ghost stories from “Non-Non-Ba” (Religious Granny).

He encountered real terror later on when he was drafted into the military in 1942 and sent into combat on Papua New Guinea. In addition to watching his comrades die, he caught malaria, lost his left arm in an air raid, and become a prisoner of war. While everyone else was growing thin in their poor wartime conditions, his commander found it odd that young Shigeru seemed so well-fed. This was because he had a knack for getting along with the natives. He got along so well, in fact, that they offered him citizenship, land, and a bride.

He was highly tempted to accept their offer, but the military doctor guilt-tripped him into returning home to see his parents once the war ended. He did so with the intention to return to life with the natives on Papua New Guinea, but his post-war predicament back in Japan prevented him from doing so. Instead, the one-armed man worked in a movie theater until 1957, when he made his debut writing super hero comics. Later, he began writing the early adventures of his most famous character, Kitarou.

Like any good Japanese citizen at the time, his accepted an arranged marriage. Her name is Nunoe, and I believe she is from the nearby town of Yasugi. Together they scraped by through poverty and manga deadlines, and at some point, Kitaro exploded with popularity. With its catchy theme song and years and years of anime remakes about the montrous encounters of the title character and his band of regular cast members (everything from what remains of his father (an eyeball), a floating bolt of cotton, an old couple, a cat girl, and a rat man), you could say that it’s like the Scooby-Doo of Japan, except that–as far I know–Scooby doesn’t have an airport named after him. Kitaro is the kind of thing that pretty much every Japanese person has been exposed to in one remake or another, and it is particularly celebrated in and around Sakaiminato, Mizuki-sensei’s hometown.

In addition to his years of research, manga, and fame in regard to youkai, he has also written historical manga about the atrocities of WWII, and has recently been releasing his manga take on the Kojiki (I only noticed this after I started writing my own. As you can imagine, it makes me feel quite inadequate). Busy though writing manga probably keeps him, his interests do not keep him in Japan. Although he is one of the most thorough researchers of youkai in Japan, he has also traveled all over the world studying folklore and making friends with the locals. His fame has drawn more attention to his life story, and the the memorial museum dedicated to his life and works has exhibits about both his world travels and collections, as well as his life story illustrated by both photographs and illustrations from his autobiography. The museum also brings to life his research on Japanese youkai, and even has a model of what his house was like when he lived and struggled there with his young bride. There was even more interest generated in their lives when she released her own autobiography, “GeGeGe’s Wife”, which later had two live action adaptations.

As of my posting this on Halloween 2013, Mizuki-sensei is 91 years old and resides in Tokyo, still busy as ever. He sometimes returns to his hometown and provides original illustrations on the walls of his memorial museum and along the road of youkai statues and youkai-themed products and costumes characters that lead from Sakaiminato Station to the museum. I already admired him and had heard the basics of his life story before paying a visit there, but I left with a much deeper appreciation. Theoretically, since he’s still alive and comes back to visit, I suppose it would be possible to meet him someday. But what would I say or ask first to such a wizard, besides “this lowly worm is unworthy of calling herself a comic artist and purveyor of culture in your great presence”? I get the feeling he’d laugh that off, though.

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.

In Japan, summer is considered the perfect time to indulge in some spooky stories or visit haunted houses. This rationale behind this is that when you encounter something creepy, it sends chills down your spine and makes your shiver, thereby being an effective way to beat the heat. There is a rich culture of creepiness all throughout the islands, but the San’in region–particularly on either side of lake Nakaumi, right in the middle of the region–actively retains this culture throughout the year.

While Sakaiminato may be a youkai-researcher’s heaven and Matsue’s ghost tours and lectures with Prof. Bon Koizumi (Lafcadio Hearn’s great-grandson) draw visitors from all over Japan, I haven’t been writing as much as the haunts here as I thought I would. I think its because I feel inadequate. Mizuki Shigeru and Lafcadio Hearn are the experts and have already poured their energy into recording these tales, and it feels as though my own writing on the topic wouldn’t compare!

One of the more recent writers to join the story-telling scene is “Frogman”, the creator of a flash animation called “Taka no Tsume” (Eagle Talon). For what I’ve seen of it, it’s a rag-tag group set on conquering the world for the sake of world peace… I think. It goes so fast that English subtitles probably wouldn’t help, especially with many references that might need explaining, so I don’t foresee this getting very popular abroad. That said, it’s the kind of thing that people recognize all over Japan right now.

Frogman is originally from Tokyo, but is in love with Shimane and has lent the fame of his nationally famous characters to the prefecture’s public relations. In a region rich with folklore and stories, he uses “Yoshida-kun” to tell those stories in his slapstick style of seemingly severely caffeinated humor in a very limited span of time. There is even a line of souvenir t-shirts out here in the San’in region, one with Kitaro and an outline of Tottori, and the other with Yoshida-kun and an outline of Shimane. Respectively, they say, “Tottori: It’s to the right of Shimane” and “Shimane: It’s to the left of Tottori.” I find this hilarious, but I live here.

The most recent Frogman–Shimane project is now debuting at the Matsue History Museum–3 minute (or in one case, 1-minute!) retellings of the haunting stories Lafcadio Hearn wrote about!

Salutations: “I had always thought that animating Lafcadio Hearn’s ‘Kwaidan’ would become my life’s work. To think that it would take shape in such a wonderful place as this…!! I am really, truly grateful. I hope you all will enjoy getting scared!” – Frogman, 2013.7.27

This is just one part of the summer Kwaidan festivities going on this summer. Besides overnight ghost story activities for kids, there are also ghost tour scavenger hunt activities that I’ve seen kids on summer vacation walking around with guides for.

The syrup-buying woman


The human-eating turtle

The history museum also has a small haunted house set up themed around Hearn’s writings. What better way to cool off than to visit Yuki-Onna? Take a lantern, listen to the startled screams of people going ahead of you, and then watch your step as you enter the darkness. From the outside, you can hear the amused giggles of the people running the exhibit.

And then you can chill at the museum cafe, Kiharu, with both a cold drink and spooky stories.

Rokuro-kubi

Speaking of Hearn’s “Kwaidan,” perhaps you’re already familiar with the 1964 film of the same title. In case not, here are links to a few of the most famous stories (these are also ones the Eagle Talon team did their own retellings of) on Project Gutenberg, in Hearn’s own words:

Yuki-Onna (The Snow Woman)
Rokuro-kubi (The Long-necked People)
Mimi-nashi Hoichi (No-ears Hoichi)

Hoichi is pretty popular here. This is a statue by Lake Shinji, and I’ve seen a number of costumes and retellings of this story.

While there is hardly any need for me to make my own renditions of the tales, I do find that while I’m showing people around Matsue I frequently say things like, “this is the bridge where this one ghost hates this one song and this one samurai sang it and then…” or “this is the cemetary where…” or “this is the temple where…” as I’m pointing out the sights. I suppose we dohave a lot of ghost stories, don’t we? Seeing as this is the final day of O-bon, I’ll just post this piece of Hearn’s “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan” to explain why there is no official Bon-odori (O-bon dance) in Matsue proper, though most places usually have a local style of it.

The grim castle has its legend.

It is related that, in accordance with some primitive and barbarous
custom, precisely like that of which so terrible a souvenir has been
preserved for us in the most pathetic of Servian ballads, ‘The
Foundation of Skadra,’ a maiden of Matsue was interred alive under the
walls of the castle at the time of its erection, as a sacrifice to some
forgotten gods. Her name has never been recorded; nothing concerning her
is remembered except that she was beautiful and very fond of dancing.

Now after the castle had been built, it is said that a law had to be
passed forbidding that any girl should dance in the streets of Matsue.
For whenever any maiden danced the hill Oshiroyama would shudder, and
the great castle quiver from basement to summit.

As interpreted by Mizuki Shigeru (statue located in Sakaiminato).

Another youkai* that comes from the sea, this one has typically been sighted around the Hirata area of the Shimane Peninsula (now a part of Izumo City).

Not to be confused with a mermaid (a big distinction is made in this part of Japan), she is the hideous half-fish, half-woman “wife of the sea” (or the wife of Umibouzu, a sea monster that has been spotted throughout Japan). She is capable of living on land for several days at a time and even speaks the local dialect, and she walks around carrying her offspring with her. With fish scales all over and long, human-like hair, it is said that she took the form of a women who had drowned in the sea. More specifically, in Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan, she was said to have brought to shore the corpses of fishermen supposedly killed in a storm at sea, and their wives were so distraught that they threw themselves into the sea–only to turn into Uminyoubou themselves. Another story goes that a young boy lost his father when he was very young, and his mother went missing. Years later the boy became a fisherman, and when he went out to sea, an Uminyoubou appeared. She had tears in her eyes and said, “You’ve grown up well.”

In the Izumo sightings, she is said to enter peoples’ houses while they are out, and holding her baby in one hand she uses the other hand to steal and eat salted fish, which she shares with the baby. Apparently she prefers it salted rather than catching it fresh herself.

There was also an account of a man in Uppurui (which would later be a part of Hirata), who returned home early and noticed the Uminyoubou from outside as he approached his house. He peered in and saw her and her baby eating the fish, and she grumbled, “Where is the man? I wanted to eat him first.” Sounds a little like an old mountain lady we know.

* – “Youkai” is a blanket term for a Japanese monster. It may or may not include demons and ghosts, as these have their own terms, but they also get included in the general mix of inhuman creatures who make up much of Japanese folklore and who are responsible for mysterious happenings. Kami (gods) are similar in that they are spirits who influence our daily lives and may be angered or pleased, but while a kami might be considered pure, a youkai would be a more impure, occult creature–many look like deformed humans or objects, and this strangeness can make them quite unsettling. However, that also makes them interesting, and has driven people throughout history to name and classify them.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m trying to get my addiction to dessert cafes under control. It’s difficult with so many of them all over town, but I’ve been doing pretty well, and that makes the times I do treat myself all the sweeter (that was only a semi-intentional pun). I had a number of things to do on this particular Sunday in early March, but the Matsue History Museum was on my way so I stopped in to Kiharu for a quick break.

The museum is located right around the samurai district and the castle, so the outside of the building was designed in an old Edo period style–seeing as it was built on the same ground as a high-ranking samurai’s house in the past. The inside, however, is very comfortable has a sleek design, mixing Japanese elements–such as tatami flooring–with western elements–such as nice bathroom features. While the exhibits do charge admission (though it’s cheap admission to begin with and foreign visitors get a half-price discount), it’s free to browse the temporary photo and art exhibits, look around the library and the gift shop, peak at the perserved tea house, or stop in to enjoy a beverage and sweets at Kiharu, the cafe facing the garden.

Given characteristics like the color choices and the raised stepping stones, this is a characteristic examples of Izumo style gardening.

There are plenty of ice cream, wagashi, coffee, and tea sets to choose from, and the wagashi here are all Kiharu originals.

Sakaiminato may have Kitaro-themed everything, but I didn’t notice wagashi there! I like the Nezumiotoko one best.

What are you doing there, Shimanekko? You’re not a youkai!

I had just gotten my fill of wagashi the day before (which means staying out of cafes isn’t my only issue!), so I went with a matcha cream soda–green tea, soda, and vanilla ice cream. It hit both my craving for matcha and for something sweet–but to prevent brain freezes or overwhelming my tastebuds, it came with regular sencha anyway. For those who aren’t familiar with the terms, matcha and sencha are both green tea, but matcha is powdered green tea that you consume, whereas sencha is made by steeping the leaves.

There’s still so many more cafes that make me curious and that I want to treat myself to, but I guess this will tie me over for a while.

On a different topic, tonight the Shimane Civic Center is having a free showing of Stu Levy’s documentary about the Tohoku region’s post-earthquake recovery, “Pray for Japan“. The San’in region out here in the west part of Honshu isn’t very earthquake prone, but that doesn’t mean we’ll go through this 2nd anniversary unaffected. There’s still a lot of rebuilding to be done, and we’re sending aid and good wishes from here.