Ushi no Koku Mairi – Shrine Visit at the Hour of the Ox

Ushi_no_Koku_Mairi_Mizuki_Shigeru

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

At the Hour of the Ox (between 1-3 A.M.) a lone figure creeps silently towards a sacred tree. She is dressed in white, and on her head an upturned trivet is worn like a crown, three candles burning in the night. In one hand, she carries a doll made of bound straw in the form of a person; in her other hand, a small wooden hammer and a set of long, iron spikes. The hatred in her heart blazes brighter than the candles, appropriate for one completing the curse-ritual known as Ushi no Koku Mairi, the Shrine Visit at the Hour of the Ox.

The Ritual

Ushi no Koku Mairi (丑の刻参り; also known as 丑の時参; Ushi no Toki Mairi, both of which translate as Shrine Visit at the Hour of the Ox) is an ancient, famous, and terrible Japanese curse-ritual. It has been performed for millennia—some sources trace it back as far as the Kofun period (250 – 538 CE), although in a different form. While the costume and ritual have changed over the centuries, the basic rite of pounding nails into dolls remains the same.

To perform an Ushi no Koku Mairi, you first make a straw doll (藁人形; waraningyo) to serve as an effigy of the person you want to curse. For the best effect, the doll should have some part of the person in it, some hair, skin, blood, fingernails, or other DNA. In a pinch a photograph will do, or even their name written on a piece of paper. This done, you done the ritual costume, and sneak into a shrine late at night. Many Shinto shrines have sacred trees, called shinboku, that are the homes of kami spirits. Nail the doll to the sacred tree using long, iron spikes called gosunkugi (五寸釘).

ushinokokumairi

As stated in the name, the timing is very important. The ritual can only be completed at the Hour of the Ox, between 1-3 A.M. in the ancient method of counting time in Japan. The Hour of the Ox is the traditional Witching Hour in Japan, a time when yurei and yokai and other evil spirits come haunting.

And most importantly—the ritual must be done in secret; it is said that if anyone sees you performing Ushi no Koku Mairi, the curse will rebound on the caster. Unless, of course, the eyewitness is immediately slain.

How many times you perform the ritual vary; some say that you must go back seven nights, pounding in a single nail each night. The final nail goes into the head, which will kill the cursed person. The results of the curse vary as well—some say the cursed person will sicken and die. Some say that, like a Voodoo doll, the cursed person will feel pain where the spikes are hammered in. Some say it is a summoning ritual, and that performing an Ushi no Koku Mairi summons a vengeful spirit to torment and ultimately destroy the recipient.

The Costume

An important component to the ritual is the costume. One does not simply waltz into a shrine and pound a doll into a tree. The costume is a demonstration of your intention, and is more than just decoration; the curse is said to be so terrible that in order to be effective you must become a demon yourself.

SekienUshi-no-tokimairi

Although the costume has changed over the years (and there are numerous variations depending on your source), the most recognizable version comes from the Edo period, and is still associated with the ritual.

• A white kimono and obi, with your face painted white (to look like a supernatural creature)
• An upturned trivet on your head, with three candles burning on the legs
• A mirror (a sacred symbol of Shinto) worn over your chest like a necklace
• A shortsword tucked into your sash, to kill anyone that sees you
• Tall, one-toothed geta clogs (or barefoot, if you can’t walk in them)
• A wooden comb (in some accounts, a razor) held between your teeth (It is important not to utter a sound once you enter the shrine, and the comb keeps you silent.)

Some variations of the costume swap out a headband and two candles for the trivet, but I think if you are going to do it, go all out.

The History of Ushi no Koku Mairi

No one really knows how old the ritual really is. In the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, the is an 8th century relic from an archeological dig of a doll made of bound wooden strips with an iron nail shoved through the chest. This is from a time when iron had just been introduced into Japan, and would have been a rare commodity. In the ruins of Datecho in Shimane prefecture, Matsue City, archeologists found a wooden plaque with a painting of a court lady that had wooden spikes pounded through it. It is known that dolls for curses were used by Onmyoji , the yin/yang sorcerers of the Heian period (794 – 1185 CE).

Going to the shrine at the Hour of the Ox has not always been associated with curses, however. Old records show that people originally snuck in to pray, and that during these nighttime visits your pleas to the kami were more likely to be answered. Somehow, along the way, these prayers for a kami’s blessing turned into prayers for a kami’s curse.

One of the oldest written accounts of the ritual comes from the Sword scroll of the Kamakura period epic poem The Tale of the Heike. It differs from modern accounts—the costume calls for you to bind your hair into five braids, to use bound-together pine branches threaded into an iron ring for torches, and to cake your face in red vermillion clay instead of painted white. Also, instead of a late-night sneak visit to a shrine, the curser runs down the street shouting their curse for all to hear. According to the story, the ritual was taught to a woman by a kami spirit, after she prayed for revenge at a local shrine. The woman would transform into the monstrous Hashi Hime (Bridge Princess), still wearing her frightful costume.

In the Muromachi period (1337 to 1573 CE), a Noh play called Kanawa (鉄輪; Iron Ring)is credited with drawing a connection between the Onmyodo doll ritual and the costume of the Hashi Hime, creating the first account of the Ushi no Koku Mairi as it is known today.

A_woman_makes_a_cursing_ritual_ceremony

By the Edo period, the Ushi no Koku Mairi was firmly established and illustrated by artists in kaidan-shu collections of stories of the strange. One of the main differences in Edo period artists was the results of the ritual—many preferred to show some evil spirit or god lurking in the background, waiting to be summoned by the completed ritual.

Where to Perform the Ritual

Not all shrines are created equal for Ushi no Koku Mairi. Kifune Jinja in Kyoto and Ikurei Jinja in Niimi, Okayama, are famous sites for Ushi no Koku Mairi, as is Jishu Jinja, a small shrine located near the Kyoto Buddhist temple Kiyomizudera. If you look carefully, these sacred sites have shinboku trees that still bear the scars of centuries of iron nails pounded in by vengeance-seekers.

Ushi no Koku Mairi Tree

And if all this seems like a lot of work to put together, don’t worry. In the modern world, a complete Ushi no Koku Mairi kit can be ordered online. But be careful, performers of the ritual can be prosecuted under Japanese law.

Ushinokokumairi_kit

Translator’s Note

The Ushi no Koku Mairi was a difficult project–difficult in knowing what to leave in, and what to leave out.  There are SO many different variations on the ritual it would be impossible to include them all.  I tried to add in what I thought was relevant, and appeared in the highest number of resources.  But this is by no means a complete account.

This is the second of my trivet-wearing yokai stories. Next up is a direct ancestor of the Ushi no Koku Mairi, the Hashi Hime.

Further Reading

For related kaidan stories, check out

Gotokoneko – The Trivet Cat

What are Teruteru Bozu?

The Mistress of Tonbu and Nezu

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13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Blue Satan
    Jan 04, 2013 @ 05:56:10

    You can be prosecuted under Japanese law if you perform Ushi no koku mairi… So, it works after all O.O
    You do not have to take these rituals slightly , because nobody knows it´s hidden powers…..
    Great post, and i´ll be waiting the one of the Hashi Hime, one of my favourites yokai!

    Reply

  2. 83n831
    Jan 04, 2013 @ 08:38:02

    Prosecuted indeed: Bridget Bishop was hanged in 1692 on Gallows Hill in Salem for having “poppets” [i.e., human effigies or dolls] in the wall of her cellar. These were made of rags and hogs bristles and were found with headless pins stuck into them. When questioned before the jury, contemporary records state, she could make no “reasonable or tolerable” explanation of what she had been doing with these poppets.

    Interestingly, alleged replicas of these poppets can still be purchased through US-based websites dealing with occult periphernalia. Wouldn’t recommend it, though. Excellent account, Zack, and full of useful information for the folklorist interested in vernacular magic.

    Reply

    • lilituwind
      Jan 09, 2013 @ 08:50:46

      There’s a lot of poppets and witchcraft pictures like that at the Witchcraft museum in Cornwall, England. Some are dated as late as WWII and others are much older. I think it’s a common method of magic.

      Reply

      • 83n831
        Jan 09, 2013 @ 13:03:18

        Yes, and in 1963-64 there was an intense media panic in England about alleged cases of “black magic” taking place in disused cemeteries. One item commonly found at such sites was an animal’s heart pierced with thorns. In one case (Leigh, Essex) it was reported to be a sheep’s heart pierced with thirteen thorns found on a burial vault inside a chalked letter “A” and beside a pentagram. This was reported to be a “traditional Black Magic death curse,” but folklorists, noting that the practice showed up in collections in both the UK and US, thought it was more likely a White Magic ritual to neutralize what was believed to be an evil witch’s hex. For more info on this, see Bill Ellis, _Raising the Devil_ (Kentucky, 1999), pp. 214-15.

      • lilituwind
        Jan 09, 2013 @ 15:21:56

        Thanks! Always looking for more info on that sort of thing! ^_^

    • Zack Davisson
      Jan 13, 2013 @ 23:31:17

      Thanks again for your additions! There are a few other forms of Japanese doll magic. Most of them are region specific. I have one story that I will translate that has doll fetishes boiled in a pot.

      Reply

  3. Mouryo
    Jan 08, 2013 @ 04:05:07

    And again what did Toriyama say about this

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      Jan 13, 2013 @ 23:33:11

      I’ll have to try and find a clean copy of the image. Most of the ones are too blurry for me to read, and I am not that great at old caligraphic writing. Usually someone has transcriped it somewhere, but I haven’t found one for this picture yet.

      Reply

  4. Snaedis
    Jan 09, 2013 @ 19:19:00

    Another good entry. When I knew about this for the first time, it was in a Ranma1/2 episode and it shocked me.
    Really? Prosecuted under japanese law? Where there criminal related cases to make it like that? I mean nowadays.

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      Jan 13, 2013 @ 23:29:10

      Its rare, but people can still be prosecuted for it. Basically, the law considers it a psychological attack–much like stalking and online bullying are illegal. The intent to harm is still there.

      Reply

  5. Bill Ellis
    Feb 04, 2013 @ 07:52:14

    Further to this topic, the Washington Post recently published an article on an archaeological dig in Mexico in which the remains of pre-contact human sacrifices were found. Interestingly, the researchers found evidence that the spot was the site of more informal religious ceremonies for centuries afterwards, and apparently is still visited for occult purposes. The article says, “researchers found a plastic bag containing a black candle, an egg, and paper streamers wrapped around photographs of people at the site, what one local worker suggested was a form of witchcraft.”

    [This sounds like a lot of creole hoodoo rituals that I've read. The black candle is to "uncross" an evil hex that someone has cast on you, and the egg, rolled over a photo of the person, absorbs his or her charisma. Then you throw it and the candle away in a bad place like a graveyard or crossroads.]

    More details:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/archaeologists-find-strange-mound-of-skulls-of-sacrifice-victims-in-field-in-mexico/2013/01/31/9886c952-6bcf-11e2-8f4f-2abd96162ba8_story.html?tid=pm_world_pop

    Reply

  6. Jenkat
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 09:38:47

    I would imagine you’d also likely be prosecuted simply for trespassing and vandalism. Even in America, you’d be charged with *something* when you are caught sneaking onto a Church grounds at 2 in the morning and nailing effigies into their holy trees.

    Reply

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