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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What is the White Kimono Japanese Ghosts Wear?

Translated from Japanese Wikipedia and Other Sources

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

Black hair. White face. White kimono. Whisper the word Japanese ghost to anyone, and that is the image that will appear in their head. For Americans, the image generally comes from Japanese horror films where white-kimonoed girls crawl from TV sets or rise from wells. But to Japanese people, the costume of a white kimono has a more somber feel. Most likely over their lives they will wrap more than one loved one in the traditional burial garment called a kyokatabira.

Kyōkatabira – The Buddhist Robe

The white kimono that most Japanese take their final journey in is called a kyokatabira. The word is split into two terms: kyo (経) which means Buddhist sutra, and katabira (帷子) which is a light, unlined kimono worn on informal occasions, such as rising in your own house in the morning.

Katabira were traditionally made from hemp and came into fashion around the Heian period (794 to 1185). At the time, katabira were a form of underwear. They were stuffed with cotton and used to keep warm as a sort of wearable blanket. But as summer came and people shed layers, they soon learned that the simple, single-layered garment was just as comfortable in Japan’s humid and oppressive summer. These were eventually adapted for use in the bathhouse, which were called yukatabira (湯帷子). This word was later shortened to yukata, a light kimono that are still worn in Japan today— although the kanji 浴衣 is more commonly used.

The use of the white katabira is thought to have appeared around the same period, as a mix of Shinto and Buddhist tradition. The Emperor was said to wear a white kimono when performing religious rituals during the Heian period. Unlike the coarse hemp of the commoners, the Emperors garment was spun from silk and was called a byakue (白衣) meaning nothing more complicated than “white robe.” Shinto priests adopted the fashion, with a full costume called jōe (浄衣) meaning “purified robe.” Brides on their wedding days wore a white kimono called a shiromuku (白無垢) meaning “white purity.”

Buddhist priests preferred the rough hemp over the fine silks of the byakue and jōe, and took to wearing what was called kyōkatabira. As the name suggests, kyōkatabira were standard white katabira inscribed with Buddhist sutras. Kyōkatabira came to be work by Buddhist on pilgrimages as they travelled Japan.

All of these types of garments: byakue, jōe, shiromuku, and kyōkatabira; fall under the category of shiro-shozoku (白装束) meainging “white clothing.”

What is the significance of the color white? – Priests, Brides, and Corpses

I sometimes hear people say that white is the color of death in Japan, but this is a mistake. White is the color of purity.

For as long as anyone knows, white in Japan has been the color of purity, specifically ritual purity. The native religion Shinto has always been concerned with cleanliness and purity. At most Shinto shrines there is a place for you to wash yourself before entering.

Ritual purity means more than just taking a good bath, although that is a part of it. In order to be ritually pure, you must be cleansed of kegare (汚れ) meaning “impurities,” which can only be done through a serious of prescribed enigmas under the guidance of a priest. Wearing a white kimono is a visible sign of purity, and is generally done by only three classes of people; priests, brides, and corpses (or those soon to be corpses, like people commiting seppuku).

And of course yurei, Japanese ghosts.

Shinishozoku- Costume for the Dying

Around the 700s, Buddhism arrived in Japan and began to grow in popularity. Buddhism in Japan mixed with Shinto to create a unique religion quite different from its Indian origins. Over time, Shinto and Buddhism split until each oversaw a different aspect of humanity, the kami of Shinto overseeing the living and the deities of Buddhism caring for their souls in death. Buddhism slowly took over all funeral rites, which remains with way it is in Japan today.

In Buddhism, death is not the ending but just the beginning of another cycle. Appropriately, Japanese Buddhist dressed corpses as pilgrims going on their final journey, called the shidenotabi (死出の旅) meaning “the final trip to death.” The full costume for a corpse is called shinishozoku (死に装束),which means roughly “the costume for one going to death.”

A complete shinishozoku will have the corpse dressed in a kyōkatabira with sutras written on the inside and folded right-over-left in the opposite style, a tankan-the triangle-shaped headband, a zutabukuro-a small carrying bag containing ferry passage over the Sanzu river of the dead, a walking cane, and coverings for the legs, arms, and back. The final item is a string of prayer beads nestled in the hands.

What is the significance of folding the kimono right-over-left?

A common occurrence in Japan is seeing a foreigner trying on a yukata for the first time, and eliciting a room full of gasps as they innocently take the right side of the yukata and fold it over the left. I did. And I had no idea why everyone was so shocked.

I found out soon enough that the right-over-left style is reserved exclusively for corpses, Living people always—ALWAYS—fold their yukata or kimono left-over-right. But why? That, no one could tell me.

It took some digging to find the answer, but it comes back to that old Asian favorite, class distinction by clothing. Apparently in ancient China the way you folded your kimono was a visible way to show your rank. Like foot-binding and long fingernails, it was also a way to purposefully hobble yourself to show that you did not need to work for a living.

Folding your kimono left-over-right allows a greater freedom of movement, such as was required by field workers. The leisure class thumbed their noses at freedom of movement, and purposefully folded their kimono right-over-left. During the Nara period, when Chinese culture influenced Japan, this custom was taken up enthusiastically by the aristocratic classes.

Death, however, knows no distinction of rank. One of the principles of Japanese religion and folklore is that the dead are mighty, and you don’t want to offend them. So it became the custom that all dead people, no matter what they were in life, rose to the aristocratic right-over-left class and folded their kimonos that way for their final journey.

The meaning of the kyōkatabira

So the white kimono, the kyōkatabira, is much more than a simple garment. It is a statement of transformation. It shows that here, on their last journey, a person has become ritually pure in the Shinto tradition, a holy pilgrim in the Buddhist tradition, and a wealthy aristocrat in the human tradition.

Few other items of clothes so completely raise you simply buy putting them on. Of course, you have to be dead to wear it, so there is a trade-off.

The Ghost of Oyuki

For more about the origins of Japanese Ghosts, you can purchase Zack Davisson’s limited edition yomihon chapbook The Ghost of Oyuki from Chin Music Press.

The Ghost of Oyuki Chapbook

Further Reading:

Check out other death customs from hyakumonogatari.com:

What is the Triangle Headband Japanese Ghosts Wear?

Nagarekanjyou – A Death Custom

Kimodameshi – The Test of Courage

Translated and sourced from Japanese wikipedia and other sources

Are you brave enough? That is the question that will be answered by playing kimodameshi, the Japanese test of courage. You will have to walk a dark, lonely path to a haunted location and set down your token to prove that you had been there.

The Meaning of Kimodameshi

Kimodameshi (肝試し) is most often translated into English as Test of Courage, which is not literally accurate. The word kimo (肝) actually refers to the liver, while dameshi (試し) does in fact mean “test.” In Japan the liver is associated with courage—for example kimo ga suwaru, or to sit on your liver, means to be brave or self-assured. So a more literal translation of kimodameshi would be to “prove your guts.”

The History of Kimodameshi

Like most folkloric practices, the factual origin of kimodameshi is lost to legend. But there are two possible beginnings, both of which could be equally true.

In the closing years of the Heian Period, during the reign of Emperor Shirakawa (1073 to 1087), the book “O-kagami” (大鏡; “Great Mirror”) was written by an unknown author. In the book was a story of three sons of Fujiwara Kaneie. One night during the Hour of the Ox (around 3 A.M.), the sons dared each other to go to a nearby house that was known to be the home of an oni. Only the son who was the leader of the martial arts school was brave enough to take up the challenge, and as proof of his courage he used his sword to slice a chip from the lintel of the house which he brought back to show the others.

Whether the story of the sons of Fujiwara Kaneie is true or not is unknown, but it is also said that kimodameshi began as a way for those of the samurai class to condition their children against fear, and that the game served as a kind of training.

During the Edo period, the 100 candles game hyakumonogatari kaidankai—which this site is based on—was a form of storytelling kimodameshi. The earliest recording of this game comes from the kaidan-shu “Tonoigusa” (1660) where a group of samurai gather to test their courage by telling ghost stories one by one.

Modern Kimodameshi

There are no set rules to kimodameshi, and there are as many variations as there are people who play it. Kimodameshi can be played impromptu, with only a few friends egging each other on to go somewhere scary or haunted, or it can be an organized event with a preset course, often inside a prepared haunted house with actors playing the roles of spooks.

In its most pure version, a group chooses a destination, one guaranteed to inspire fear. Common examples are dark forests, grave yards, Shinto shrines, abandoned buildings, or known haunted and mysterious spaces called shinrei spots. Challengers can go alone or as a duo. They go to the chosen spot at night, to ensure maximum fear, and they either bring something back to prove that they had gone the distance, or leave some sort of token that can be recovered the next day.

Like all Japanese ghost traditions, kimodameshi traditionally takes place in the summer. In Japan, summer is when the land of the living is thought to intersect with the land of the dead, and it is the time when yokai and yurei come out to play. All organized haunted house kimodameshi will take place during the summertime. It isn’t unusual to see TV celebrities during the summer being filmed walking through a haunted house or to some famous location in a game of kimodameshi.

There are some legal issues with kimodameshi. When an abandoned building becomes a popular spot, the police have been known to set up stings to arrest trespassers. Some of the locations themselves are dangerous, such as long, dark tunnels on country roads where a car can come through at any time.

School Kimodameshi

Many Japanese people experience kimodameshi when they are young, in Elementary or Junior High School. The game is played when the children go on school camping trips, or sometimes at school during school festivals. When played with school children, the game is a set-up.

In order to keep them safe, and still provide a good scare, the location is scouted before hand and scary objects like skulls and horror-props are planted along the way. Teachers and other volunteers dress in ghost costumes and hide along the path to spring out at the children. All of the students are told a scary story about that particular location, then sent off in groups to prove their guts once the Sun has gone down.

Students can also create their own kimodameshi events at school during school festivals. They dress up in costumes and turn one of the classrooms into a haunted house for other students to enter and test their courage.

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.

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