Two Tales of Ubume

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.

The Two Opposing Stories of Tanaka Kawachinosuke

Translated from Nihon no Yurei

The gruesome death of Tanaka Kawachinosuke was told by author Tokugawa Musei, in story “Traveling Companions,” from his book “The Days of Tokyo.” According to Musui, the story originated in a game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai played in the Mukoujima Hyaken garden.

My father, however, never missed a chance to dispute this.  And to be honest, I don’t really know which one was telling the truth, Musui or my father.  The very nature of these kinds of stories compels the storyteller to bend the facts, to make the story seem like they are speaking from personal experience.  And to fiercely defend their version of the story to be true. 

Of course, a stranger’s version would be entirely different. 

Now my father claimed that the story of Tanaka Kawachinosuke did not come from a game at the Mukoujima Hyaken garden, but from his own storytelling circle at the Shogakan Gahakudo building, which stood opposite the bridge in Kyobashi.   Shogakan Gahakudo was a legendary gathering place for Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.   At the entrance there was a permanently burning lantern hanging, of the sort normally only used for the Obon festival of the dead. You didn’t even need to plan the event, for such was the passion for the game that on any given night you could be assured a spontaneous round of storytelling would begin, with members alternating turns, exchanging their favorite kaidan. 

My father would boldly say:

“The author Musei certainly never showed his face at the Shogakan Gahakudo!  But this story I heard directly with my own ears, and the storyteller I saw with my own eyes, until he died. This detail alone casts doubt on Musei’s claim of the Mukoujima gatherings!

The opening years of the Taisho era were an easy-going time.  Japan had yet to be ravaged by the Spanish flu, and the Great Kanto Earthquake was still years away. Things were booming.   The storytellers gathered as usual on the third floor of the Gahakudo to entertain each other with kaidan.  On that day, an unfamiliar face appeared amongst the group.  As was the custom at the Gahakudo, any stranger was compelled to tell a story. And what story did he tell, you may ask?  Why, the story of Tanaka Kawachinosuke. We all listened intently to the tale.

The stranger began by saying that this was the true story of Tanaka Kawachinosuke, and what happened to him following the notorious “Event at the Terata Inn.”  The tale, he said, was one of ill omen, and carried a curse that would fall on anyone who told it.  As a result, the true story of those events has never been told.

“Those who know the true story grow less and less every year, and none remain but I who can tell the tale.  Because I am the last, I will finally speak of those events.”

Of course, as everyone knows this is the same Tanaka Kawachinosuke written about in the Yamamoto Yuzo play “Kindred Spirits.”   The events took place during the time of the Tenshu army, when Fujiwara Yoshiko, daughter of the Chief Counselor of State Nakayama Tadayasu and little sister of Captain Nakayama Tadamitsu, gave birth to Emperor Meiji.   Tanaka Kawachinosuke read stories of filial piety to the baby emperor, although he was far too young to understand them.  But when he came to power, the Emperor remember Kawachinosuke fondly, and asked those of his inner circle what had become of him. An enquiry was made, and Kuroda Kyotoka intimated to Okubo Toshimichi: “Okubo, you know something of this don’t you?” Okubo answered this question with great reluctance. For there was a rumor going around that Tanaka Kawachinosuke had come to a violent end on the orders of Okubo.

Because this man was talking about the death of Tanaka Kawachinosuke we all sat perched on our knees and with ears at attention.

 “This is a story that should not be told, even though I am telling it now, I have never told it before.  Thus it has become that only I remain who knows the tale. Now, this was a time when Japan’s Westernization movement had taken over society…”

 Listening to this man speak, with the nuance of his elegant language, we instantly felt his age and were transported back in time to the Meiji era.  Say what you will about Japan’s modernization, when this old-fashioned man spoke he made an immediate impact on those who remember him. And we all remember him. Although we disagreed that there was any story that couldn’t be told,

“Now for the first time I will tell this tale, so everyone listen closely…”  

 He said again, finishing his preface.

The stranger broke into a vigorous ramble, stating that all those listening should take care because of the curse of the tale, and anyone apprehensive should leave now, but that those who chose to stay would find the story most interesting.   He stated his introduction again, and then wandered from subject to subject almost as in a daze, returning again to the beginning:

 “Of those who know the true story I alone remain, and at this time in the middle of Japan’s Westernization movement there are those who would say that there are no more forbidden subjects. So I am resigning myself to speak…” 

From there he would begin again, going a little bit forward but always returning to “Of the people who know Kawachinosuke’s fate…”  It was like he had no true subject.

In the middle of this ramble, one person sitting and one person standing became two people standing.   I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were trying to escape the stranger’s pointless story, but they found themselves called away bit by bit.  For example, my father suddenly had a phone call from home.

My father went downstairs for the phone call, and then had a cigarette at the counter.  While smoking, when another person followed him down saying “He is on the Westernization of Japan again” and they both broke out in laughter.

While the two men were sharing a laugh at the bizarre turn of events, another man came walking down the staircase.  When he reached the main room, suddenly, and with no one immediately near him, the man fell face-down onto a small desk in the middle of the room. And he died.  Of course, it was that same man who had moments ago been upstairs relating the story of the last days of Kawachinosuke.

Author Kimura Shun wrote in detail about the early life of Tanaka Kawachinosuke in his book “Emperor Meiji” (Japanese History New Book, Published in the 31st year of Showa).  When Keiko was pregnant, it was said Kawachinosuke would go daily to the Osaka Ikasuri Shrine to write compositions praying to the gods for a male child.  However, because Kawachinosuke is not the focus of the book, his final fate is not touched upon.

Nagarekanjyou – A Death Custom

Translated from Nihon no Yurei

There is a memorial custom called nagarekanjyou (流れ灌頂).   In a small river that runs next to one of the streets in town, four bamboo poles are stood upright in the river, and a red cloth is stretched between them.   Next to the cloth and poles a hishaku spoon is placed so that passer-bys can stop and ladle water over the cloth.

It is said that when the lettering on the cloth has washed away completely, and the colors have faded, that dead person’s soul is released and can float up to nirvana.  It is also said that it is dangerous to catch so much as a glimpse of a nagarekanjyou and not stop to ladle water.  This will enrage the waiting yurei who will then follow you home.

This custom is most often associated with women who died in childbirth.

The Mistress of Tonbo and Nezu

Translated from Nihon no Yurei

The Ginza area of Tokyo is overflowing with local legends and gossip. This is one of them.

The restaurant itself is no longer standing, but from the Meiji era through the Taisho and Showa eras, the name Tonbo would have been familiar to any residents of the Ginza.  The popular restaurant flourished for decades, and appears as a setting in several historical accounts.  This is a story concerning the mistress of the restaurant.

As a restaurant, Tonbo was famous for the fierce loyalty of its customers.  A Tonbo customer did not stray to other establishments.  And none obeyed this code more stringently than the name named Nezu, Tonbo’s most loyal customer. Such was the extent of his patronage that the two had become synonymous.   “Nezu’s Tonbo” the restaurant was called, just as he was called “Tonbo’s Nezu.”

Now Nezu was a man of strong passions, and one of his passions was for a woman named Mochizuki.  Although they were not married, such was their relationship that Mochizuki accompanied Nezu when he took trips abroad.  It so happened that, on the day Nezu died in his home, his lady Mochizuki had happened to come calling to his house and discovered his body.   The Ginza gossip said that it was almost as if the Buddha had summoned her at that exact moment to tend to her love.  To no one’s surprise, it was only a day before Mochizuki too passed away, following Nezu into the afterlife.  Nezu must have called for her from the other world, everyone said. 

It turned out Nezu was not as loyal to his women as he was to his restaurant, for with Mochizuki also dead yet another woman, an employee of an antique shop, came forward as Nezu’s lover and offered to attend to the funeral arrangements as was her duty.  Her assistance was not long, as she too soon died and joined Nezu in the other world.

With his lovers gone, the obligation of arranging the funeral now fell to the Mistress of Tonbo.  Feeling safe that Nezu was well-comforted in death, the Mistress of Tonbo dutifully performed the purification rites and attended at the funeral of her most loyal customer.  In spite of this show of affection and duty, Nezu was not content to bring only his two lovers with him to the afterlife.

A year had passed, and on January 4th, the exact day of Nezu’s death anniversary, the Mistress of Tonbo also died.  Her funeral was on January 8th, the same day that Nezu’s funeral had been held.  Some said this was mere coincidence.

Now, the Mistress of Tonbo had no children, but she was very fond of costumes and clothing.   For reasons unknown, prior to her death the Mistress of Tonbo had already prepared her funerary wear, ordered from her favorite kimono shop.   The head clerk of this shop, a woman named Nishi, had been the one to discover the Mistress of Tonbo’s body when she stopped by to pay her traditional New Year’s greeting.  Everyone said that the Mistress of Tonbo had foreseen her own death, citing both the preparation of her funerary wear as well as the timing of the expected visit from Nishi.  After these events, Nishi of the kimono shop suddenly died.

Next up was a man named Koya.  An old friend of the Mistress of Tonbo’s father, Koya had often looked after her when she was growing up, and his presence at her funeral was taken for granted.  When Koya failed to appear, the Ginza was abuzz with gossip over the reason why, until the day of the funeral Koya’s daughter came to give her regrets and say that Koya too had passed away.

Not only had Koya died on January 4th as well, but his own funeral had been held on January 8th, and it was thought that the Mistress of Tonbo had somehow brought Koya along with her to the afterlife.  At least that is what everyone believed.

I first heard this story from my aunt, but because the legend of the Mistress of Tonbo and her loyal Nezu are so famous almost everyone is familiar with this haunting tale of coincidental death.  My aunt could not resist adding a personal touch, however, and whenever she finished the story she would say with a slight smile that there was more to the story.

During wartime, such a grand restaurant as Tonbo could not expect to operate, and it was forcibly shut down by the government and its resources re-allocated.  The Mistress of Tonbo could not stay idle, however, and in a different location she soon opened a much smaller neighborhood shop.  Such was her pride, however, that she could not bring herself to stand in the shoddy booth day-after-day taking customer orders. So the Mistress of Tonbo asked my aunt if she wouldn’t mind coming in and taking over the running of the new shop?

To my aunt, this seemed a somewhat mercenary request.  The Mistress of Tonbo would collect all the cash while my aunt did all the work.  Still, a job was a job, and my aunt mulled it over for awhile.  Finally, my aunt decided that she too had pride and that perhaps it would be for the best to recede from the company of the Mistress of Tonbo.  My aunt instead recommended Okiku, a girl who had worked at Tonbo restaurant for some time, to stand in as mistress of the new shop.  Although disappointed at my aunt’s refusal, the Mistress of Tonbo soon warmed to the idea of Okiku, and it was just a short while before they were in business together.

Of course, their little venture was cut short of January 4th of that year when the Mistress of Tonbo suddenly died.  And it was only half a year later before it was Okiku’s turn, who found that her Mistress had a pull on her in death as well as life.

My aunt dutifully attended Okiku’s funeral, but sure that Okiku would also want to drag someone along with her to the afterlife, my aunt placed two small dolls in Okiku’s coffin.  My aunt always bragged that it was she and her little dolls that ended the chain of deaths.  In such times of violent war people took such death superstitions seriously.

There was no doubt in my aunt’s mind that Okiku had taken her place in more than the restaurant.  If my aunt had not transferred that job to Okiku and completely severed her ties with the Mistress of Tonbo, then it would have been my aunt’s cold body lying in that coffin.  And surely Okiku would not have been clever enough to think of the two dolls, and the situation would have dragged on even further.

Now when you normally hear the story of Nezu and the Mistress of Tonbo, it ends with the death of the Mistress.  But my aunt liked to flavor the story with her own personal experience.  That is typical of these local legends swapped in the Ginza.  Each person twists the details, or emphasizes parts intended to reinforce the moral lesson they wish to tell, or even just to boast of some personal triumph over the supernatural.

But if you look back into folklore and history, there is some precedence to the story’s conclusion and the two dolls my aunt says she placed in Okiku’s coffin.  The ancient story of Nomi Sukune tells of a samurai who defied the custom of committing ritual suicide in order to accompany his empress into the afterworld when she died.  Instead, Sukune placed a set of unglazed clay warrior figures, called haniwa, into her coffin for company.

My aunt’s dolls served the same purpose as these haniwa, nullifying the dead person’s curse and satisfying the need for someone to accompany them to the afterlife.

The Web of the Water Spider

Translated from Nihon no Obake Banashi

In the Northern country, there was a mountain called Mt. Hondo.  This is a story of one summer day on that mountain.

Up in Mt. Hondo, there was an old pond, where a lone man came to do some fishing.

“Ho!  Today I am going to get some fish for my table!”

The man had no sooner cast his line than he was pulling up more fish than he had ever seen.  In mere moments his bag was full to the brim.

“Wow!  I wonder if this is because I am up here alone?”

That day was terribly hot and humid, and the man dangled his feet into the pond to cool off.

“Ahhhh….now that feels good…”

The man soon noticed that he was not truly alone.  A water spider came dashing at him over the surface of the water.  The water spider was covered in black hair and had long spindly legs.  While the man idly watched, the water spider began skipping back and forth over the man’s feet.

“Hey, what do you think you are doing down there?”

Wondering what the little creature was up to, the man soon saw that the water spider was busy wrapping his big toe up in a web.  Before he noticed, the water spider had wrapped first one thing strand, then ten, then a hundred or more tightly around the man’s big toe.

“Hmmm…it looks like you have some bad plans for me little spider.”

The man got annoyed at the water spider’s activities, and took the binding web from off of his big toe and attached it to the root of a nearby willow tree.  Just when he was finished with this, he heard the sounds of a rush of water like a wave from over the pond. 

It sounded like something big emerging from the water.  The man grew afraid, and hid himself in the banks of the pond.  Suddenly, he heard a deep voice coming from the pond.

“Taro…Jiro…Saburo also. Come out, come out!”

The voice was coming from the depths of the pond.

“Is there no one here?  Where are Taro and Jiro?”

The man crouched down very small to hide.  Without warning, the sides of his bag containing his fish burst wide open.

Batta batta pyon pyon!

With nothing more to restrain them, the fish from the man’s bag flipped and flopped on the shore, making their way back into the pond.  Soon, there was not a fish left above water. 

“Is it possible that those fish were Taro, Jiro and the others?  Whew…this is really something that I am seeing now!”

The man thought that now was a good time to make his escape, when he again heard the deep voice from the pond.  He realized that it was no longer a single voice, nor even two voices or a hundred, but countless voices joined in unison. 

“ Heave…Ho….Heave….Ho….”

The voices were chanting together, and it sounded like they were pulling on something.

“Ah!  The web of the water spider!”

The web was wrapped around the thick root of the willow tree, which was now being pulled with a tremendous strength.


Slowly, the thick roots of the willow tree began to be pulled and twisted from the ground, and with a sudden shock the tree itself uprooted and was dragged into the pond.

“Ahhh!  This is amazing!  Amazing!”

The man had never seen anything like this before in his life.

He realized that if he had not taken the web from his big toe and attached it to the willow tree, it would be his own body now being drug under the water of the pond.  That thought sent him into a panic, and he sprang from his hiding place and fled swiftly all the way home.

From that time on, no one ever went to that pond alone again, and it gained a reputation as something to fear.

This is a folktale from the Date region of Fukushima prefecture.  In old Japan, there were a lot more water spiders, all though they have become rare with the passing of the years.  They were able to live in the water by wrapping themselves in a thin layer of air.  It is no wonder that such a mysterious creature would give rise to legends such as this.

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