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

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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.

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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.

Manekute no Yurei – The Inviting Ghost Hand

Mizuki_Shigeru_Manekute_no_Yurei

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara and Other Sources

Late at night, when you have to get up to go to the bathroom, a mysterious hand beckons you from a wall. That’s strange enough, but when you go into the room the hand was inviting you to, no one is there. Most likely, you have encountered the yurei of someone who died in that room long ago—they want something, but have only the strength to manifest a single hand to plead with you.

These kinds of stories are typical in Japan, especially in yurei in houses. Generally, they want nothing more than for someone to acknowledge their presence, and read a sutra in their honor at the local temple. Manekute no Yurei tend to gather around houses near temples, or the particularly pious, those who they feel will be able to perform the desired ceremony.They are spooky, but amongst the least dangerous of the types of yurei.

Here is a typical story from the Edo period:

An abbot was making a trip to Akiyama village, when he heard the sounds of footsteps behind him. The abbot was particularly sensitive to ghostly matters, and knew at once what it was. “Ah, that is a poor, lost soul who died in the terrible drought in this village awhile back. So sad to think it is still hanging on long past its time.”

When he arrived at the village, the abbot prepared a copy of a Buddhist sutra. This done, he returned to where he had heard the footsteps and waited for dark. Sure enough, a milk-white hand thrust out to him from the darkness. The abbot laid the sutra in the disembodied hand and began to chant the memorial service for the dead. The unknown yurei disappeared and was never heard from again.

Translator’s Note:

Another yurei story for Halloween, this one short and sweet compared to the last tale of bloody revenge. The Manekunote Yurei (招く手の幽霊; meaning招く手 (manekute; inviting hand) +幽霊 (yurei) is one of those ghosts where there was probably a story or two about it, and Mizuki Shigeru made up a name the phenomenon to include in his yokai encyclopedia. I haven’t found any other reference to the Manekunote Yurei, except for those that specifically site Mizuki as a source. However, like many of his stories the Manekunote Yurei has escaped Mizuki’s pages and into the popular imagination.

Menekute_no_Yurei_TV_Show_1

Menekute_no_Yurei_TV_Show_2

Pictures of a Manekute no Yurei on a TV show from this site.

But naming aside, this is another story that illustrates one of the fundamental principles of yurei, Japanese ghosts—they want something. Western ghosts can linger in a place like psychic residue, or play over and over again like a strip of looped film. But not Japanese ghosts. They are bound to this world by a specific desire, and when that desire is satisfied they move on. One of the most basic desires—and the most common—is the desire for more ritual. Yurei need to be properly feted before they can peacefully move on to the afterlife.

The unusual element of this story is the disembodied hand. It is atypical for yurei to manifest only a hand, and the will of the dead person must be weak indeed if that is the best that they can do.

Further Reading:

For more tales of random body parts, check out:

Tanuki no Kintama – Tanuki’s Giant Balls

Kyōkotsu – The Crazy Bones Yōkai

The Speaking Skull

The One-Armed Kappa

The Severed Heads Hanging in the Fowling Net

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