Tajima no Sorei – The Poltergeist of Tajima


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

Tenjoname – The Ceiling Licker


Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Japanese Wikipedia, and Kaii Yokai Densho Database.

Some yokai are scary, some are funny, and some are just … weird. The tenjoname—that bizarre, late-night licker of ceilings—is one of the few yokai that fits all three categories at once.

What Does Tenjoname Mean?

You can’t get much more straightforward than tenjoname. Its name combines 天井 (tenjo; ceiling) + 嘗 (name; lick) to make天井嘗—tenjoname, the ceiling licker.

What Does a Tenjoname Do?

Again, you can’t get much more straightforward than tenjoname—the ceiling licker licks ceilings. That’s pretty much it. It comes out of the darkness on cold, winter nights, and laps away at any accumulated frost or dirt or spider webs clinging to the rafters. You know the next day if you have had a visit from the tenjoname by the dark streaks it leaves behind, evidence of its long, red tongue being drug along the ceiling.

Oh, and there is the small consequence that if you catch sight of a tenjoname while it is doing its business, you die.

Of course, that minor detail doesn’t appear in every legend. But if you are tucked away in bed at night and hear something crawling along the ceiling—or maybe the sound of a long, slurping tongue—it’s probably for the best not to sneak a peek and risk death. Keep your eyes shut tight.

The Origin of the Tenjoname


Like many yokai, the tenjoname is the invention of artist and yokai-maker Toriyama Sekien. Tenjoname first appeared in Toriyama’s yokai encyclopedia Gazu Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro (画図百器徒然袋; The Illustrated Bag of One Hundred Random Demons).

Toriyama wrote on his illustration:

“The heights of the ceiling devour the lamplight when the winter in cold. This is not by design. You will shiver in fear if you catch a glimpse of the this strange apparition, and know that it is no dream.”

The Gazu Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro is famous for its literary allusions, and connection to things in everyday life. For the tenjoname, Toriyama was inspired by a poem from the book Tsurezuregusa (徒然草; Essays in Idleness). The poem comes from the 55th verse of the book, and says:

“In the cold of winter, tall ceilings swallow the lantern light.”

Like many Japanese poems, these lines are meant to evoke an image and emotional response from readers at the time. It deals with a subject most Japanese people would be familiar with. Japanese houses from the period were built with tall, towering ceilings. This was useful in the summer, and helped open up the house to dissipate the fierce tropical heat and humidity of the Japanese summer.

What was a blessing in summer was a curse in winter. The charcoal hibachi and fish oil lanterns were not powerful enough to reach the high ceilings, and so in the winter they became a mysterious domain of frost and shadows.

Yokai in the Boundaries

Ceilings are also boundaries, and in Japanese folklore yokai are known to haunt boundaries. Like fairylore of many countries, yokai exist in the in-between places—in the twilight between light and darkness, on the surface of the ocean that breaks the water world and the dry, or even in the ceiling that separates the inside from the outside.

From ancient times the ceiling was a gathering place for magical creatures, and many kaidan tell of a menagerie of yurei and yokai dangling from the rafters and hiding in the high corners of houses. Toriyama read the poem in Tsurezuregusa, thought of old stories of monsters on the ceilings, and imagined a yokai that scuttled around in the darkness of cold, winter nights.

The Design of the Tenjoname


For his visual interpretation of the tenjoname, Toriyama looked to the famous Muromachi period picture scroll the Hyakki Yagyo Emaki (百鬼夜行絵巻; Night Parade of 100 Demons Picture Scroll). At the time the scroll—and others like it—were designed, the yokai depicted had no name or story. Most of them were just interesting visual designs on the part of the artists, who thought no more of their individual traits than Hieronymus Bosch thought of his demons in his hell portraits. They were just weird designs.

Toriyama took a particular yokai running around with its tongue out staring and the ceiling and decided that was his tenjoname. Strangely enough that particular yokai inspired other yokai as well. A different version of the Hyakki Yagyo Emaki has the word “Isogashi” (meaning “busy” or “frantic” in Japanese) written next to it, and so the Isogashi became another yokai that was constantly running around knocking things over. An almost identical yokai to the tenjoname, called the tenjosagari or “ceiling descender,” comes down from the ceiling and licks the sleepers below instead of the ceiling.

Tenjoname in Showa and Beyond

Just as Toriyama built off of the Tsurezuregusa, many other writers added to the legend of the tenjoname over the years. Fujisawa Morihiko’s 1929 book Yokai Gadan Zenshu
(妖怪画談全集; Complete Discussions of Yokai) added the detail of stains being left behind on the ceiling as evidence of the tenjoname’s visit.

Yamamura Shizuka and Yamada Norio’s 1974 book Yokai Majin Shorei no Sekai (妖怪魔神精霊の世界; The Worlds of Ghosts, Evil Monsters, and Yokai) tells the story of a tenjoname haunting a castle in Tatebayashi Castle, part of the Tatebayashi Domain (Modern day Gunma prefecture) The cobwebs of the castle would be mysteriously licked clean, with the tell-tale slime trail of the tenjoname’s tongue being left behind. The source of this story is unknown, however, and first appears in Yamamura and Yamada’s book.

During the Showa period, the story of the tenjoname leveled-up, adding the terrifying component that seeing the face of the tenjoname would kill you. That has been come an important part of the modern mythos, and has scared many a young Japanese child into into not looking up at their ceilings at night for fear of seeing its frightful face.

Translator’s Note:

This is another yokai that appears in my translation of Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan. As a young boy, Nonnonba shows Mizuki Shigeru the frost that has accumulated on the ceiling and warns him of the tenjoname that will come at night to lick it off.

Additional Reading:

For more yokai from Showa: A History of Japan, check out:

Nezumi Otoko – Rat Man

Hidarugami – The Hungry Gods

Sazae Oni – The Turban Shell Demon

Kitsune on Yomeiri – The Fox Wedding

Betobeto San – The Footsteps Yokai

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.

Tsugaru no Taiko – The Taiko of Tsugaru

Translated and adapted from Japanese Wikipedia and other sources

This is a story from the Edo period.

In Honjo, in Hirosagi-han fiefdom, a Daimyo of the house of Tsugaru had his mansion. Daimyo’s have two mansions, the kami-yashiki, where they live during their year of residence in Edo, and their shimo-yashiki in their native land. This mansion we are speaking of was the Daimyo’s kami-yashiki.

At this Daimyo’s kami-yashiki, there was a tall observation tower that was used for fire-spotting. Fire was the bitter enemy of Edo period Japan, and these towers were a common site. You are probably familiar with them from the roll of a fire tower in the tale of the 47 Ronin. Aside from being high enough to spot any sign of smoke or fire, they were equipped with a large shaped piece of wood, called a bangi, suspended by ropes from the roof. Whenever a fire was seen, the bangi would be loudly struck as an alarm to summon the fire brigade.

The mystery of the Tsugaru tower was that, when the alarm was raised, instead of the usual clack of a bangi the deep booming of a taiko drum would come from the tower.

The townsfolk’s explanation of the mystery varied. Some said that the tower had a bangi like all the others, but that when struck the bangi sounded exactly like a taiko drum. They said that the bangi had come from a tree that was used to make a taiko, or that the bangi itself had once been part of a taiko, but this was just idle talk.

There are some who say that the Taiko of Tsugaru was even less mysterious. They say that, instead of a bangi, the tower of Tsugaru simply had a large taiko drum. The reason for the drum, they said, was that because the fire tower was on a Daimyo’s kami-yashiki, the Daimyo’s didn’t want to use a bangi like everyone else. He just had to be different.

Like all of the Seven Wonders of Honjo, the Taiko of Tsugaru was incorporated into Rakugo performances. However, due to the story’s lack of true mystery, it is the wonder most often omitted.

Translator’s Note:
The Taiko of Tsugaru,  Tsugaru no Taiko (津軽の太鼓), is one of the Honjo Nana Fushigi (本所七不思議) meaning one of the Seven Wonders of Honjo.

Ochiba Naki Shii – The Chinkapin Tree of Unfallen Leaves

Translated and adapted from Japanese Wikipedia and other sources

This is a story from the Edo period.

In Honjo, in the Hiradoshinden-han fiefdom, in the house of Matsura, there stood a Daimyo’s mansion. More than a simple mansion, this was the Daimyo’s kami-yashiki, where the Daimyo lived during his year in residence in Edo by edict of the Shogun. The Daimyo’s shimo-yashiki was in his native land, but the Daimyo currently resided in Edo.

This kami-yashiki was bordered by a large wall, which ran parallel along the banks of what was then called the Great River, but what we now call the Sumida River of Tokyo. Planted in the Daimyo’s garden was a prodigious chinkapin tree whose leaves hung over the wall. The leaves from this tree never fell.

Now, chinkapin trees are evergreen, not deciduous, but even then at least a few of their leaves fall with the seasons. But not the tree in the Daimyo’s kami-yashiki. No one had ever seen so much as a single leaf fall from its branches.

The Daimyo’s gardener was a diligent fellow, but not even he could clean up every leaf that ever fell. This particular chikapin tree was truly a wonder. And what was the origin of this chikapin tree’s fantastic abilities? Well that is a mystery still to this day.

The Daimyo was unsettled by the tree—perhaps fearing some unknown fox power or mysterious spirits—and used his kami-yashiki as little as possible. But the fame of the tree spread until the mansion was no longer known as the Matsura house, but was locally called the Chinkapin Tree Mansion. The tree hanging over the wall near the banks of the Great River was considered an elegant scene and was popular for strolls.

When the stories of the Seven Wonders of Honjo became popular in Rakugo storytelling, the Chinkapin Tree of Unfallen Leaves was included in the ranks.

Neither the Daimyo’s mansion nor the famous chinkapin tree survive to the modern world. During the Meiji era, the territory was purchased by the Yasuda zaibatsu financial conglomerate who created a private garden called Yasuda Park. In the fifteenth year of Taisho, the Yasuda zaibatsu donated the garden as a public park. The park is now located in the Sumida ward, in the Honjo district. Like all of the Seven Wonders of Honjo, the old location of the Chinkapin Tree of Unfallen Leaves is marked with a sign and stone monument.

Translator’s Note:
The print is by Kobayashi Kiyochika and shows the Ochiba Naki Shii (落葉なき椎), one of the Honjo Nana Fushigi (本所七不思議) meaning one of the Seven Wonders of Honjo.

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