Translated from Nihon no Yurei
The name Tsukiji nowadays brings to mind a bustling fish market in Tokyo, but it was not always so. In the olden days, the area known as Tsukiji was packed with temples, mostly belonging to the Honkan-ji temple complex. . The area was also covered in cemeteries.
Along the banks of the Sumida River that flows near Tsukiji, there were also stands selling fresh fish and the sweet sake for children known as amazake. In one story, late every night a woman clutching a child would come to a certain amazake dealer to buy the sweet sake from him, which she would then give to her child to drink. The sake dealer, sensing something mysterious about this woman, followed her from his stall one night and watched her as she made her way towards the main hall of the temple, where she disappeared like a blown-out candle. When she vanished, the sake dealer could hear the cry of a baby coming from somewhere in the cemetery. Tracking the sound to a freshly-dug grave, the sake dealer enlisted the help of some others to dig up the grave, and when opening the coffin discovered a crying baby nestled in the arms of its mother’s corpse. So it is said.
I heard this scary story many times when I was a child. And of course, there are many variations of the same story. Kaidan of the child-bearing yurei known as ubume are very old, and yet the story is still widely told in modern times. The basic ingredients of the story have unaltered even as the legend has passed through the years. The ubume legend first appeared in the 12th century kaidan collection called Konjyaku Monogatari, and it is that story I shall relate to you next.
The 17th scroll of the Konjyaku Monogatari is a kaidan scroll, full of ghost legends and monster stories. This particular story is Number 43 from the 17th scroll; the Tale of the Bravery of Urabe Suetake.
Urabe Suetake was a retainer of that legendary figure Minamoto no Yorimitsu. More than just a retainer, however, Suetake was one of the Shiten-nō, the Four Guardian Kings whose legend would grow to almost the same size as Yorimitsu’s himself.
One this occasion, Yorimitsu and his retainers had made camp near a river-crossing in the old province of Mino (modern day Gifu prefecture). As was common at the time, the soldiers whiled away the night telling weird stories around the campfire, until one man mentioned that this very river crossing was supposed to be the home of an ubume. The legend, it said what that a woman appeared holding a weeping child, and she would plead anyone attempting to ford the river to take the child from her and save its life. Anyone foolish enough to accept the burden would find that child becoming heavier and heavier in their arms, until they were drug under the water and drowned.
After hearing this story, all of Yorimitsu’s men were far too frightened to cross the river, but Suetake just laughed and said that he didn’t believe in such nonsense.
“I shall cross the river myself. Right now!” he shouted boldly.
Standing up and preparing to make his way towards the haunted river, he snatched up an arrow and said he would place it on the far bank as testament to his deed.
There were three men in the camp who decided that they would not be satisfied with the evidence of the arrow. After all, he could just fire it across the river! So after Suetake had left, the used the cover of the darkness to silently follow him and to bear witness to his deed.
When the arrived, Suetake had indeed crossed the river and placed the arrow, and was now mid-way through his return trip. Suddenly, from the darkness they heard the voice of a young woman, and the unmistakable cry of a baby. The woman appeared next to Suetake, and begged him to receive her baby and carry it safely across the river for her. In spite of the danger, Suetake bravely received the child and started for the shore. With each step, Suetake’s burden grew heavier, but with his great strength he persevered and it was soon obvious that he would reach his destination.
Behind him, the woman screamed in desperation, begging Suetake to return her child to her, but Suetake refused her cries and continued on until he reached the river shore. From there, he headed back to camp with the baby still bundled in his arms.
When Suetake arrived in camp, he proudly opened the bundle to show the ubume’s child as evidence of his great deed. Inside, however, there was no baby. Just a mass of wet leaves bundled together in the rough shape of a human child.