The Speaking Skull

Translated from Nihon no Yurei Banashi

The Man who materialized before the Temple Gate

This is a tale that comes from about 1300 AD.   There was a temple in Nara prefecture called Kanko-ji, where lived a monk named Doutou.  Doutou had come from Koma province (modern day of northern Chosen peninsula), and was a very tender-hearted and compassionate person.  He noted one day that travelers had difficulty crossing the Uji river due to lack of a bridge, and so he supplied the funds from his personal savings to build a bridge for everyone’s use.  Acts such as this earned Doutou the respect and honor of everyone who knew him.

One day, Doutou was walking through the valley of Mt. Nara with his disciple Manryo.  Quite by accident while glancing on the wayside, he saw a skull that had tumbled down from somewhere.  The skull seemed to have had a hard time, being covered in mud and looking like it had been kicked around by travelers on the road. There was very little meat left clinging to the bone, and then only in small places.  Doutou felt very sorry for the poor skull, and turned around to talk to his disciple Manryo.

“Look at this poor skull, of nobody knows who.  People have been picking on it even when it is dead.  In order to protect it from this shameless behavior, the least we can do is place it in some tree away from trampling feet.”

As his mastered commanded, Manryo took the skull high up into a tree away from where it would be seen, and covered it with some branches to keep it hidden.

This happened on the evening of the closing of the year.

Soon after, a man appeared before the gates of Kanko-ji, asking to be shown inside.

“I have humbly come down from the mountains, with a request to see the one they call Manryo with my own eyes.  Could you please bring me before him?”

The man was infallibly polite in his greeting and manners, so the young man tending the gate guided him to Manryo.

Though Manryo had never seen the man before, his face had an odd familiarity about it.  This is what the man said:

“I am a man who is deeply indebted to you.  You have done me a tremendous service, and now I would like to return your generosity.  Although I have brought nothing with me now, I beg of you to return with me to my home so that I may properly repay you.”

For his part, Manryo did not understand at all.  However, because the petitioner had come with such heartfelt enthusiasm, he felt that the man must be telling the truth.

“How could I deny such a request from one so earnest?  I will come with you to your home.”

There was nothing for Manryo to do except for to accompany the man out of the temple gates.

A crime revealed

When he arrived at the man’s house, Manryo was presented with a dazzling feast.

“Please, please…take only your favorites, and lots of them!  Please!”

While saying this, the man began to enthusiastically gorge himself.  Manryo still wondered what he had done to deserve such rich rewards, but when he asked the man how exactly he had been of service, the man was quick to shut Manryo up by shoving delicious delicacies at him.  There seemed to be no end to the offered morsels.

Manryo, still a young man and given to worldly pleasures, was unable to resist.

“Alright, I will hear the reason later.  For now, I will simply enjoy the proffered feast!”

With that decided, Manryo dug into the food with as much enthusiasm as his mysterious companion.  Never in his life had he tasted such delicious foods, and he was eager to try them all.  Between the two of them, empty plates piled up like a mountain.

Eventually, enthusiasm gave way to physics as Manryo could stuff no more food into his eager body.  Thinking to relax, he was startled as he saw the man’s face suddenly turn a violent shade.

“Honored Manryo!  My brother who murdered me has just arrived!  There is no time to hesitate.  We must flee from here!  Come with me!”

Hearing this, Manryo was shocked out of his pleasant repose.

“What? What exactly are you saying?”

His voice trembling, the man answered.

“Many years ago my brother and I had a business together. From that business I was able to save 30 kin of gold (about 18 kilograms).  My brother himself saved nothing, and thought it easier to kill me one night and steal my 30 kin of gold.  For the longest time my body rotted in the forest, until nothing was left of me but my skull.  People walking along the road who saw me would only kick my skull out of the way like an inconvenience. It was terrible. But then, beyond all hope you came along and lifted me up from the dirt and saved me from my fate.”

“I thought about how I could possibly repay such a kindness, and so I came to your temple this evening to invite you to my house for this feast.”

To say that Manryo was surprised by this confession would be a gross understatement.  But even in his panic and confusion he realized that being caught in this house by the murderous brother was undesirable, and so he jumped to his feet.  But he was too slow in trying to escape, and he heard the door creak open and someone enter the house.

The shock was too much for him, and Manryo froze in fright.

The person at the door, however, was not the feared brother but instead the brother’s son accompanied by their mother.  She saw Manryo standing rigidly in her living room and shouted in fear.

“Ahhh!!! A monk! Why are you here inside my house!”

Manryo let the story he had just heard poor out in every detail.  He turned back to look over his shoulder and get confirmation from the man who had led him to this house, only to see nothing.

The mother listened to Manryo’s story with as much shock as Manryo had.  It was nothing like what she had heard before.   The mother was very angry towards her son who had killed his younger brother.  She looked down at the brother’s son and told him in her strictest voice.

“Your father is a terrible person!  You must pray for the spirit of your murdered uncle, and apologize for your father’s crime!”

The young boy did as he was directed, and removed his father from his heart to be replaced by honored instead his uncle who had been good and kind.

This story comes from the “Nihon Ryoiki,” Japan’s oldest collection of folktales and legends. That folktale collection was written in the 13th year of Konin (822 AD), and is mostly a collection didactic tales for teaching Buddhism.

The Two Measuring Boxes

Translated from Nihon no Yurei Banashi

The Customer and the Government Official

 Long ago, in the town of Tsuyama in the province of Mimasaka (modern day northern Okayama prefecture), there was a general store called Ebisu-ya, the shopkeeper of which had the extraordinarily auspicious name of Zenroku.

The “zen” in Zenroku’s name had the meaning of “virtuous,” and used the same kanji character as in the term “Men of Honor.”  If you were to look at nothing but his name, you might think that Zenroku was an equally extraordinary person. But if you could peer past the surface into Zenroku’s heart, you would see that in fact he was exactly the opposite. Whether he was selling oil, or beans, or dried awa melon he would find a way to cheat and deceive his customers.

“Hey Zenroku!  Get me a measure of awa.”

Whenever this call came from a customer, Zenroku would smile sociably and say “Sure! Sure!” making a big show of handing over the measuring box while saying “Go ahead and scoop it yourself!”   He would then quickly take the filled measuring box and dump it into a sack.

Seeing all of this at first, you would think that Zenroku was an exceptionally generous and trusting shopkeeper, allowing his customers to take their own measure.  But if you were to take a closer look at Zenroku’s measuring box, you would find a carefully crafted tool of deception, one that had been modified with a thick board cut and sized to fit invisibly in the bottom of the box.  It was in this way that he swindled his customers out of a full measure.

To be sure, Zenroku also kept an unmodified measuring box behind the counter ready at any time for those days when officials from the government came in for inspection.

“Here is the measuring box we use for this shop.  Please inspect it to your heart’s content!”

The government officials were always entirely taken in by this simple trick, and soon left the shop satisfied.  But sure enough, as soon as Zenroku saw their backs walking out his door, he would stick his tongue out at them.

“Ha!  I fooled them completely!” Zenroku would later brag to his wife Ume.

Ume would not answer, but after such incidents sadness would cloud her face.

“Why does my husband have to be such a bad person?  All the time he is thinking only of how he can cheat and deceive people!”

This constant deception caused Ume great pain and sadness.  She would beg her husband to mend his ways, but Zenroku would never comply with her wishes.  Instead he would rage and shout at her.

“Shut up you!  Taking advantage of people and swindling customers is just good business!”

In the face of this admonishment Ume would hold her tongue and be silent.  And then once again, right in front of his wife, Zenroku would charge people for a full measure while using his fixed box to supply them with only a half-measure at most.   Even then, he had no trouble looking his customers in the eye.

But Ume was not like Zenroku, and in her heart she desperately hated the deception on which they lived.

“How can I possibly turn my husband into a good person?”

This was Ume’s sincere prayer to the kami spirits every day, and then every day again.  But in her heart she had no real hopes that he would ever change.  Such was her despair that Ume eventually fell deathly ill, and was bed-ridden. Zenroku did not spare a thought for his sick wife and just went on with his business as usual, taking dishonest money from his customers as he pleased.

In a short time Ume’s illness was slowly taking her from this world, and she lay fading.  In her very deathbed, she implored her husband to change.

“Husband I beg of you.  Cease using the two measuring boxes to deceive your customers.  Use only the proper measuring box that you show to the government officials.”

With those very words on her lips she died.

But even in death, Zenroku would continue to disappoint his wife.  Her dying words did not touch his heart and he remained unchanged.  While smiling in his customers face he continued to swindle them unashamedly.

The Lost Wife

Zenroku had a friend, a man named Hikohachi.

At the time of Ume’s death, Hikohachi had been away on a trip to Edo (modern day Tokyo).  On the journey home, he was passing through Odawara town in the province of Sagami (modern day Kanagawa prefecture).  As night fell, the path darkened around him until it was pitch black and difficult to see.

“There must be some kind of shelter around here…”

Hikohachi wandered around looking for somewhere to stay the night.  It so happened that he found his way into a thick bamboo forest.

“Ahh…this is a nasty place.  I’m not going to find a shelter around here!”

While attempting to hurry back out of the forest he had stumbled into, Hikohachi caught site of a pale blue light moving lazily through the trees.

“Wha..wha…what is that?”

Hikohachi couldn’t help but stare at the mysterious phenomenon.  Slowly, the glowing light began to take on the distinct shape of a woman’s form.  It was too much for him.  In a place such as this, where there should be no woman wandering, there was clearly a woman right in front of him.  Try as he might he could not deny the evidence of his eyes.

Swaying back and forth, the woman edged closer to Hikohachi.  In a thin, fading voice she said to him:

“Hikohachi san.  It is I, Ume of Ebisu-ya.   My husband Zenroku, to whom I am bound, has shamed me with his misdealing.  Even though I have died I cannot pass into the presence of the Buddha.  I wander here lost.”

Hikohachi heard this, shaking from the tips of his toes to the ends of his hair. This simply could not be happening.  Where he stood now, that distant bamboo forest in Odawara, was more than a month’s journey from Tsuyama where Ume had only recently died.  Yet here, is such a far and forlorn place she wandered as a yurei.

Ume then drew even closer to Hikohachi.  Turning to flee, his legs gave out beneath him making it impossible to even stand much less run.  In the darkness Ume loomed over him.  With a voice dripping with tears, she cried:

“Hikohachi san.  Tell my husband Zenroku that he must give up his deceiving ways and put away his false measuring box.  Tell him of me wandering lost here as a yurei. And show this to him.”

Ume then reached up and tore the sleeve of her kimono off at the shoulder and presented the fabric to Hikohachi.  With this done, she faded back into a blue light, which faded further still until she had disappeared.

As said it took a month for Hikohachi to make the journey from Kodawara to Tsuyama, but when he arrived back in his hometown he went straight to Zenroku and told him the tale:

“Eh?  You say Ume has become a yurei?”

Zenroku listened to the story skeptically, until Hikohachi produced the sleeve that had been torn from Ume’s kimono.  Zenroku recognized it as the same kimono Ume had worn when she died, and he at last felt pitty for his wife and mourned her.   Finally Zenroku understood the darkness in his own heart.

“Ume, I was wrong!  Please forgive me!  From now on, I will strive to be a decent upright man so you can go forth to paradise!”

He held the strip of her kimono cloth closely to his face and wept his apology.  Zenroku then gathered all of his ill-gotten money together, and used it to construct a Buddhist temple to stand as a memorial for his good wife Ume.

Because of this, the yurei that was Ume was able to move on to paradise.  And even now, in Daienji temple in Nishitera town, you can still see the temple built by Zenroku for Ume.

This legend is unusual in how the yurei simply admonishes the person with the bad heart.  This makes the story a more moralistic tale than most yuei legends of the same type.

Misplaced compassion

Translated from Nihon no Yurei

My great-grandmother was born and raised in Uneme-cho (present-day East Ginza, fifth ward), and lived there until she died at age eighty-five in the tenth year of the Taisho era.  Many were the stories that we heard from her.  This is one of them.

 A certain monk was walking by and saw a chicken that was due to be slaughtered.  Pulling some money from his pocket, the monk bought the chicken and thus saved its life.  However that night, the chicken stood before the monk as if in a dream and cursed the monk:

“If I had died today as was my destiny, I could have been reborn as a human! Instead of that, because you saved my life, my dearest hope has been lost and I am doomed to go back into the re-birth cycle all over again!”

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