Katabira no Tsuji – The Crossroad of Corpses

Katabira_no_Tsuji_Mizuki_Shigeru

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, A Diplomat in Japan, Part II: The Diaries of Ernest Satow, 1870-1883, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

To learn much more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

At the beginning of the Heian era, during the reign of the Emperor Saga, lived the Empress-Consort Tachibana no Kachiko (橘嘉智子; 786-850CE). A devout Buddhist and holy woman, Tachibana founded the great Buddhist temple complex and learning center of Danrin-ji, and because of this was known as the Empress Danrin.

All of her life the Empress wanted to use her position and education to forward and spread the teachings of Buddha. But she had one major problem—Tachibana no Kachiko was cursed with a beautiful face. So much so that whenever she tried to teach people of the Buddha and warn them of the impermanent nature of life, she found herself constantly assailed by love letters and obscene offers instead of interested students . Even when she went to the mountain retreats to practice ascetic disciplines amongst the holy brothers—those who should have been spiritually armored against the temptations of flesh—the unwanted attentions were never ceasing.

This troubled Tachibana deeply. She knew that the beauty of her face and body were nothing; mere illusion that would fade and disappear. Yet with everyone so distracted by her transient beauty, how could they learn about the deeper truths of eternity? It was a question that would cloud her entire existence.

When the Empress died at the age of 64—still beautiful—her last will and testament was opened, and shocked the entire royal family. Instead of a state funeral and proper internment, the Empress requested that her body be garbed in the simplest cloth, then flung onto the streets. When people saw her delicate flesh rot away, the meat of her body picked at by crows and wild dogs, and her beautiful body reduced to unlovely bones, at last they would understand the impermanence of things and perhaps learn the lesson she had been trying to teach them.

And that is exactly what happened. The body of the Empress Tachibana no Kachiko was flung onto a dirty street in Kyoto, where it slowly rotted away and was picked at by crows and wild dogs. The body was dressed only in a simple katabira—the white kimono worn by Japanese corpses—and so the street where her body lay became known as the Katabira no Tsuji – The Crossroad of Corpses. Although many have forgotten the reason, the name remains and you can still go to Katabira no Tsuji today (Stop B1/A9 on the Arashiyama and Kitano lines in Kyoto).

Katabiru no Tsuji Train Sign

Translator’s Note:

Another grim tale for Halloween, but one that involves no actual ghost. In fact, according to Japanese tradition it would be impossible for Katabira no Tsuji to be haunted because the Empress got exactly what she wanted—she would have no lingering attachments or resentments keeping her tied to the living world. But you have to love the gruesome image, and the story that goes with it.

Katabira no Tsuji was included in Takehara Shunsen’s Yokai Catalog, the Ehon Hyaku Monogatari (絵本百物語; Picture Book of a Hundred Stories).

ShunsenKatabiragatsuji

There is slightly more to the story. The devout Empress Tachibana no Kachiko’s final act did not go unnoticed, and started an entirely new kind of Buddhist painting known as Kyuaizu (九相図; The Nine Signs). These paintings juxtapose scenes of a person beautiful and alive with the nine stages of their corpse as it decomposes. These pictures were extremely realistic, and obviously drawn from studies of actual corpses decomposing over time.

Kyuaizu were generally painted of famous, beautiful woman to show how their charms and wonders were nothing more than rotting flesh and death—only the soul mattered. The honored courtesan Onono Komachi was a popular subject of Kyuaizu, which lead to some mixing between her story and the story of the Empress Tachinbana.

Ernest Satow, a diplomat stationed in Japan, was being shown around Kyoto in the late 1800s when he related this story in his diary:

“Passed Katabira ga Tsuji where the body of Onono Komachi was flung out to be devoured by kites. Kukakusa no Shosho made love to her and was refused. She promised to be his if he would visit her first during 100 continuous nights. He walked 3 ri there and 3 ri back, but when the 100th night came she was from home.”

This blog shows the Kyuaizu of Komachi in its entirety.

Stage 1 – Still Living (生前相)

Kyuaizu Stage 1

Stage 2 – Freshly Dead (新死相)

Kyuaizu Stage 2

Stage 3 – Filled with Gas (肪脹相)

Kyuaizu Stage 3

Stage 4 – Consanguinity (血塗相)

Kyuaizu Stage 4

Stage 5 – Flesh Rot (肪乱相)

Kyuaizu Stage 5

Stage 6 – Discoloration (青瘀相)

Kyuaizu Stage 6

Stage 7 – Food for Beasts (噉食相)

Kyuaizu Stage 7

Stage 8 – Skeletal (骨連相)

Kyuaizu Stage 8

Stage 9 – Nothing but Dust (古墳相)

Kyuaizu Stage 9

Further Reading:

For other death customs of Japan, check out:

What is the White Kimono Japanese Ghosts Wear?

Nagarekanjyo – A Death Custom

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Garei – The Picture Ghost

Mizuki_Shigeru_Garei

To learn more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Ochiguri Monogatari, and Other Sources

Long ago, there was a dilapidated folding screen with the portrait of a woman holding her child. The screen was the property of the Kanju-ji temple in Kyoto, where it was kept buried away in a storehouse. One day, a request came from a retainer of the samurai Honamiden to borrow the screen. Thinking it was nothing more than a worthless nuisance, the temple was only too happy to comply with the request. The priests sent Honamiden the screen with all due haste.

Even though the screen was old and neglected, the painting was beautiful and Honamiden proudly put it on display in his house. That very night, reports started coming in of a mysterious woman who appeared in the vicinity of Honamiden’s manor. She was beautiful, and was reported to be carrying a small child. The unknown woman appeared every single night and wandered the grounds of the manor. Finally, one of Honamiden’s servants followed the woman. He watched her as she entered the house, and gasped as she suddenly disappeared while standing in front of the ancient painting.

Upon hearing this, Honamiden returned the screen to Kanju-ji as quickly as possible, mentioning nothing of the mysterious woman or the incident. A beautiful picture was one thing, but he did not need to attract strange spirits.

Now, that same mysterious woman began to appear around the Kanju-ji temple. Suspecting the painting was the origin of this apparition, a clever servant placed a piece of paper over the head of the woman in the painting. Sure enough, that evening when the ghostly woman was seen her head was covered by a piece of paper.

Kanju-ji assembled some artists to investigate the painting, and they all agreed it was the work of the artist Tosa Mitsuoki—and an important work at that. Because Tosa was dead, there was no way of knowing the story behind the woman in the painting, but they all agreed that it was a shame that such a valuable painting was allowed to degenerate to such poor condition. Hearing that, Kanju-ji paid to have the screen restored to its former condition and properly displayed.

From that time onward, the mysterious woman never appeared again.

Translator’s Note:

Winding down on my Halloween yurei posts! Although the last two haven’t exactly been yurei, but spirits of a different sort …

This story comes from Fujiwara Ietaka’s Ochiguri Monogatari (落栗物語; Tales of Fallen Chestnuts), thought to be written sometime in the 1820s. Ietaka’s book is a loose collection of random bits and pieces, observations of daily life of the time and stories overheard. Obviously, the Garei falls into the latter category.

The connection between art and ghosts is an old one, going back at least to The Ghost of Oyuki and probably even further. The story of the Garei builds on the idea that certain works of art and craftsmanship are able to be infused with some of the soul of the artist and take on a life of their own. The story serves as a cautionary tale with a definite moral—treat works of art with respect, or they will come out and haunt you.

(Speaking of which, this can almost be seen as an inspiration to films like Ringu, with the ghost emerging from the painting instead of Sadako emerging from the TV. Of course, the Garei from this story wasn’t quite so vengeful as Sadako; she just wanted her picture to be appreciated and treated nicely. )

Yokai researcher Oda Kokki identifies the Garei as a type of Tsukumogami , a belief in Japan that household objects can gain life after 100 years. I’m not personally sure I agree with that, as the painting in this story is not yet 100 years old. And Tusumogami tend to be everyday objects that are handled and used daily, slowly gaining life as human’s infuse them will small pieces of their motive energy over the century. Garei-type stories tend to be more about the power of the artist, how certain artists attain such skill that they are able to infuse their works with souls. A similar story has an artist painting such realistic portraits of Hell that they become actual portals to the netherworlds. Sounds like an episode of Twilight Zone, doesn’t it?

Oh, and by the way: Mizuki Shigeru ends his retelling of the Garei with a further warning—you better be nice to his comic books or he will make sure that all of the monsters he puts in there will come out to get you!

Further Reading:

For more stories of yurei and art, check out:

The Ghost of Oyuki

Hokusai’s Manga Yurei

More Hokusai Manga Yurei

Yurei-zu: A Portrait of a Yurei

A Portrait of an Ubume

Konnyaku no Yurei – The Konnyaku Ghost of Tenri

Mizuki_Shigeru_Konyaku_Yurei

To learn more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Legends of Tenri, and Other Sources

This peculiar story comes from Tenri city, in Nara prefecture. In the span separating Kabata ward from Inaba ward, there is a stone bridge nicknamed the Konnyaku Bridge. This is why.

Long ago, a rice dealer named Magobei was making his way across the city at night when he went to cross the stone bridge. Before he could cross, a female yurei appeared on the center of the bridge, with a large piece of konnyaku hanging from her mouth. Terrified, Magobei dropped to his knees and began chanting the name of the Amida Buddha over and over again. When he reached the 99th repetition of the Buddha’s name, the bizarre konnyaku yurei disappeared. With the way cleared, Magobei ran home as fast as his legs could carry him.

He later heard that there had been a married couple in town who had quarreled over a piece of konnyaku, and that somehow lead to the wife’s death. The details were unclear, nor did anyone know exactly what the woman wanted. It is said that she appeared from time to time on that bridge, always with the same chunk of konnyaku dangling from her mouth. And that stone bridge has been known as the Konnyaku Bridge ever since.

Translator’s Note:

Another short and sweet yurei tale for Halloween! This one is a local legend that Mizuki Shigeru collected, from the town of Tenri in Nara prefecture. I lived in Nara for several years, but unfortunately didn’t know this story at the time. I would have gone in search of the Konnyaku Bridge!

There are actually several Konnyaku Bridges across Japan. Some have legends attached to them, like the Konnyaku Ghost of Tenri, but most likely these legends came long after the name. Traditionally, Konnyaku Bridges were low water wooden crossing bridges that tended to wobble and shake like the eponymous konnyaku. The sturdy stone bridge in Tenri being called a “Konnyaku Bridge” is odd enough for someone to create a ghost story about.

They are fairly unsafe, and most of these have been replaced by modern bridges although they retain their names. Like many vanished parts of Japan, those wobbly Konnyaku Bridges are nostalgic enough for a sappy pop song to be written about them.

Konyaku Bashi

Here’s a picture of a Konnyaku Bridge in Hyogo, from this blog

If you aren’t familiar with it, konnyaku is a unique Japanese food that is almost impossible to describe. The dictionary calls it “solidified jelly made from the rhizome of Devil’s Tongue.” It usually comes in a squishy block of …. yeah, OK. “Solidified jelly” is about the best term there is. So a block of “solidified jelly” that is sliced and added to salads, or boiled and added to soups like nabe and oden, or put on a stick and grilled. I made konnyaku once, and it is a process as bizarre as the food sounds. It makes you wonder who on Earth saw the nasty, starchy root called Devil’s Tongue and figured that it you pounded it and boiled it enough you could render it into something edible.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Needless to say, konnyaku is an acquired taste. I like it myself, mainly grilled and slathered with hot karashi mustard, but I know far more people that loathe it than love it. At least amongst the non-Japanese. In Japan it is just standard fare.

Oh …. And although it doesn’t relate to this story, konnyaku is known to be a killer. Because of its solidified jelly status it can literally be hard to swallow. Konnyaku has been known to get stuck in the throats and suffocate those whose throat muscles aren’t strong enough to move it down—mainly small children and the elderly. With the konnyaku hanging out of this yurei’s mouth, it makes you wonder if her husband didn’t kill her by shoving a piece down her throat. Not a pleasant way to die.

There is another story from Wakayama prefecture called the Konnyaku Yurei, but instead of the ghost of a woman it is about an old piece of konnyaku that somehow became a yokai. A story for another time.

Further Reading:

Bridges are a popular haunting spot for Japanese ghosts and monsters. Check out:

Gatagata Bashi – The Rattling Bridge

Hashihime – The Bridge Princess

The Tale of the Hashihime of Uji

The Kappa of Mikawa-cho

Tajima no Sorei – The Poltergeist of Tajima

Mizuki_Shigeru_Tajima_no_Sorei

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Taihei Hyakumonogatari, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

This is a tale of the Edo period, from Tajima province (modern day Hyogo prefecture).

A down-on-his luck ronin named Kido Gyobu wandered into Tajima one day. He had heard rumors that there was an obakeyashiki—a haunted house—in town that had lay abandoned and unoccupied for years. Kido was very proud of his courage, and vowed to stay at the house as a Test of Courage.

From outside the house was dilapidated and the garden was overgrown, but it was livable. Kido took his small belongings, which were just his traveling clothes, bedding, and the two swords that it was his right to wear, and went into the house where he would live. He wandered through, kicking up dust and disturbing cobwebs. The tatami-mat floors were old and bug-ridden. The paper in the windows torn and yellow. The cooking utensils rusting. But he found nothing to evoke the terror that was the reputation of the house. Kido put it down to rural superstition, and made a bed for himself in the main room. He spent his day without incident—cooked his food. Took his bath. Drank his sake and smoked his pipe. All which lead him to think that there was nothing to fear.

That night, when Kido had put out the candle and climbed into his futon, the house suddenly lurched and began to shake violently. All of Kido’s belongings were scattered about the room, and the entire house shook like it was in the grips of some monster. Kido assumed it must be a massive earthquake, but when he steadied himself enough to look out the window, he saw the rest of the village was as calm as a pool of still water. It was only inside the house that the world was being shaken to pieces.

With the coming of dawn, the house settled down and the shaking ended. Kido was not to be beaten so easily, and resolved to continue his stay in the house. The second night was identical to the first. The day passed without incident, but at night the house came to live and rattled Kido around like dice in a gambling cup.

Kido had enough of the house, and went to ask advice from a distant relation, a monk named Chisen, who lived in a temple in a nearby village. Chisen listened calmly to his story, and thought for a short while, and told Kido he would accompany him back to the house and stay the night with him.

The third night was a repeat of the first and second—a boring day and a lively night. With the house doing its best to dislodge Kido and Chisen or at least to smash them into something, Chisen sat calmly in the center of the main room as if meditating. He stared intently at the floor for hours as if searching for something, oblivious to the chaos around him. Suddenly, in one swift move Chisen drew Kido’s short sword—which he had tucked into his obi sash—and plunged it into a particular spot in the tatami-mat floor.

The instant Chisen plunged the stabbed into the floor, the house stopped shaking. Blood welled up from the spot Chinsen had stabbed, staining the tatami mats. But that was all. The house was silent. Leaving the sword standing upright in the floor, the exhausted Kido and Chisen settled down for some much needed sleep.

The next morning, they pulled out the knife and lifted up the tatami mat to see what Chisen had wounded. The found an odd memorial plague, reading “Eye-stabbing Sword Bear Memorial Tablet” (刃熊青眼霊位 ). Chisen’s had stabbed the sword directly into the kanji for “eye,” and that was where the blood was welling up from.

Leaving the house, the revealed this to the villagers who told them of an odd legend. Years ago, the man who lived in that house had killed a bear who wandered in from the forest one night. Fearing the wrath of the bear’s spirit, he had a memorial tablet created and a proper funeral given for the bear. But it was apparently in vain, for the bear’s spirit possessed the man and killed him, and had haunted the house ever since. Many strange things were seen in the house every night, and none had dared to stay there until Kido and Chisen.

Translator’s Note:

A definite twist to this Halloween yurei story, eh? I bet you didn’t see that ending coming! I certainly didn’t expect that when I started translating it.

This story originally comes from the Taihei Hyakumonogatari (太平百物語; 100 Stories of Peace and Tranquility). The Taihei Hyakumonogatari uses the title Tajimekuni no Yanari no Densho (但馬国の家鳴の伝承; Legend of the Crying House of Tajime), which Mizuki Shigeru changes to Tajime no Sorei (但馬の騒霊; The Poltergeist of Tajime).

Yanari is a term for a particular type of haunted house that shakes and groans without any visible cause. The kanji translates to家(house) + 鳴(cry), and Harry Potter fans would recognize the Shrieking Shack as a classic Yanari. There are Yanari legends from almost everywhere in Japan. They were popular during the Edo period, with newspapers reporting on local Yanari and particularly popular ones becoming flash tourist attractions as the curious tried desperately to glimpse actual supernatural phenomenon.

Most Edo period portrayals of Yanari show small oni and other yokai on the outside shaking the house. However, these yokai are completely invisible and only their effects can be seen.

Toriyama Sekien Yanari

Mizuki uses the term sorei, which uses the kanji 騒 (disruptive) +霊 (spirit). This is a rarely used term for poltergeist-style ghosts that rattle the doors and shake walls just like Western poltergeists. Thanks to the movie series, the term sorei has almost disappeared and most people just use the term “poltergeist” (ポルターガイスト) in modern Japanese.

And yes, to the unanswered question–the story ends there. It never goes on to say if Kido and Chisen were successful in banishing the spirit, or if stabbing the memorial tablet did the trick.  That part of the story is the most bizarre, as it runs counter to all other Japanese ghost stories.  Most ghosts WANT memorials and funerals and to be worshiped. This is the only one I know of where destroying the tablet ends the haunting.

All I can think of is this–that the bear spirit was not Buddhist, and resented the Buddhist memorial tablet and funeral. This makes sense in a way if you think of animal spirits as being more of the Shinto tradition than the Buddhist.  And after all, the haunting and hubbub didn’t happen until AFTER the funeral, soooo ….

Further Reading:

For more Japanese ghost and spirit animal stories, check out:

Onikuma – Demon Bear

Kimodameshi – The Test of Courage

The Cursed Mansion of Yoshioka Gondayu

The Long-tongued Old Woman

Yokai of the House

10 Famous Japanese Ghost Stories

hokusai manga yurei

To learn much more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

Japan is one of the most haunted places on Earth. In Japanese folk belief, Japan as an island is infused with supernatural powers–The very soil of the land is charged with potential, magical energy. Human beings share in this energy. Inside each human being is a reikon, a being of profound power that is unleashed on death. The Japanese fear ghosts–called yurei in Japanese–but they also honor them. And for as far back as the written word goes in Japan, they tell stories about them.

The Golden Age of yurei was the Edo period (1603-1868), an unprecedented time of peace and prosperity. People swapped ghost stories in a story-telling game called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai that was the passion of the nation. Players sat in a circle and told stories in succession as one hundred candles were extinguished one by one. The light slowly dimmed to the rhythm of the game. In search of more stories, the Japanese people peered into every dark corner, dug up every suspicious stone half-buried in an abandoned temple, and pestered every grandparent for some snatch of an old tale half-remembered.

And the stories are good. Dead lovers returned from the grave. Parades of dead souls on the trail to hell. Ghostly hands with no purpose at all.  Below are ten of my favorite Japanese ghost stories.

Click the title of each to be taken to the full story.

10. The Ghost of Oyuki

Maruyama_Okyo_The_Ghost_of_Oyuki

In 1750, Edo-period Japan, Maruyama Ōkyo opened his eyes from a fitful sleep and beheld a dead woman.  She was young. Beautiful.  And pale. This is the true story of Japan’s most famous ghost painting, of the brilliant artist who painted it, and answers the question “Why do Japanese ghosts look the way they do?”

9. The Yurei of Aizuwakamatsu

Aizuwakamatsu_no_Yurei_Mizuki_Shigeru

A married couple is disturbed by a ghostly woman at night. Both the husband and wife claim they have no idea who the ghostly woman is, but is one of them lying? Is the woman the husband’s dead lover–or the wife’s?

8. The Black Hair

Yurei Picture

One of Japan’s most famous ghost stories, famed in the film Kwaidan and in the books of Lafcadio Hearn. But the story is older than each of these. Much older. Here is the original.

7. The Strong Japanese Ghost

Chikaramochi Yurei Mizuki Shigeru

One of the most offbeat stories in this list. A village woman is known for her unnatural strength, and … other attributes. After she dies, a yurei with the same unnatural strength appears to terrorize the village in which she lived.

6. The Speaking Skull

Kyokotsu

A story with Buddhist leanings, a man finds a skull on the side of the road. And the skull is feeling quite chatty, and not above asking a few favors.

5. The Rattling Bridge

Masasumi Tateyama Gatagata Bashi

It’s hard to sleep when your house is on the path of the road to hell. A man and his family see a nightly parade of ghosts making their final journey.

4. The Hunger Gods

Hidarugami Mizuki Shigeru

Hunger is a terrible way to die, and all these ghosts want to do is share their pain. Is that too much to ask?

3. The Inviting Ghost Hand

Mizuki_Shigeru_Manekute_no_Yurei

A mysterious hand beckons from a dark wall. This entry explores some of the differences between Western and Japanese ghosts.

2. The Yurei of the Blind Female Musician

Mizuki_Shigeru_Goze_no_Yurei

A ghostly tale of bloody revenge. One of the few true horror stories on the list.

1. The Vengeful Ghosts of the Heike Clan

Heikeichizoku_no_Onryou_Mizuki_Shigeru

Another of Japan’s most famous ghost stories, famed in Noh and Kabuki theater and performed over and over every year. At the end of Japan’s greatest civil war, the Heike clan lies scattered and defeated. But the ghosts of Japan never take defeat lying down.

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