Several astute readers have noticed lately that I have been trying to focus on establishing distinct tourism destinations. While locales such as Kamakura, Hakone, and Nikko linger on the radars of more informed foreign visitors, they are rarely, if ever, done right. Still though, this is a blog about getting off the path and it’s high time that I get back to those roots. On that note, how about a tale of malevolent ghosts and legendary ninja to shake things up?
Today we’re going to be taking a look at the centrally located neighborhood of Yotsuya. Situated in the heart of Tokyo, Yotsuya is home to the prestigious Sophia University where I did my masters degree. Yet despite being in the area every day for my graduate studies, I was completely oblivious to the hidden folk history found along Yotsuya’s backstreets.
Before continuing though, allow me a brief disclaimer. The following tale of ghastly ghouls is not my own original concoction. That credit belongs to the guide Lily Fields of Haunted Tokyo Tours. I unexpectedly stumbled across her ghostly narrative while scanning this article in TimeOut Tokyo. Ever since reading the piece, I knew that I had to do my own take on the itinerary.
How to Get There
Our journey will begin at Yotsuya Station. This hub is conveniently located at the intersection of several different train lines of both the JR and Metro variety. This of course means there is no real optimal way to get there and much will depend on where you’re coming from. To find the best route, please refer as always to Hyperdia or a similar service.
If you’re meeting up with a group, I suggest planning to congregate in the Atre building. Here you’ll find a number of eateries and more importantly, a Starbucks. Especially during winter, a hot cup of coffee will help chase away the poltergeist’s chill.
Yotsuya & Hattori Hanzo
Before rushing off after otherworldly revenants, I suggest you first make your way to Sainen-ji. Here’s a Google Map to guide you. While this quaint little temple is easy to miss, it is home to the final resting place of Hattori Hanzo, possibly the greatest ninja to have ever lived. Nicknamed Oni-no-Hanzo (lit. “Demon Hanzo”), this stealthy master was instrumental to the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the late 16th century. Check the Wikipedia entry on Hattori Hanzo for a more detailed look at his exploits.
By the way, if the name Hattori Hanzo vaguely rings a bell, know that you likely heard it first in the movie Kill Bill. Sadly, the film misappropriated the name and depicts Hattori Hanzo not as a ninja but as a swordsmith. As if this weren’t enough of a historical mocking, the actual Hattori Hanzo was considered to be a master not with a sword but rather with a spear.
Anyway, supposedly in the waning years of his life, Hattori Hanzo took to Buddhism and adopted the title of Sainen. Under his new name, Hattori Hanzo went on to establish the Sainen-ji temple complex before passing away at the age of 55 years. Today, if you visit the temple, you’ll find the grave of what is arguably the best ninja of all times located immediately to the right of the temple as can be seen in the shot above.
Lastly, although not usually open to the public, Sainen-ji still keeps Hattori Hanzo’s spear on display to this day. The 4.2 meter long weapon was supposedly given to the legendary ninja by Tokugawa Ieyasu as a prize following the Battle of Mikatagahara in 1573.
Kappa Pride in Yotsuya
Sit tight! Things from here on out will be getting a lot darker and more ghastly. Our next stop on the Tour de Ghoul will be the Sharikimon-dori street. To find it, just follow this Google Map while keeping your eyes peeled for the two red poles seen above. These are adorned with a pair of rickshaw drivers giving a historical nod to the fact that this area was once a drop off point for a nearby red light district.
During the Edo period (1603–1868), Sharikimon-dori street was lined with brothels. Over the years it’s become quite tame. Today, you’ll find a small number of bars and pubs while strolling the winding slopes. Still, it’s easy to imagine that less than a few hundred years ago the Sharikimon-dori establishments were brimming with cheating husbands. These days, while the unfaithful may still be around, the ladies of the night have long since departed.
OK, so what does this have to do with ghosts and ghouls? Well, continue on down Sharikimon-dori street a little further past the drinking establishments. You’ll eventually happen upon the small Benzaiten shrine and pond pictured above (here’s a map). Folktales declare that this pond used to be infested with kappa. Not to be confused with the infamous Twitch meme, these creatures are mythical monsters who are found in and around water. Kappa have been used to warn children of the dangers lurking in rivers and lakes as the spirits are fond of using water to lure their prey.
While the above description of kappa may not seem all that frightening, please keep in mind that these reptilian humanoids are actually quite terrifying. You see, kappa have a strange obsession with what’s known as shirikodama. What’s a shirikodama? Glad you asked! Simply put, it’s a mythical ball found in your anus and the kappa love to extract them from unsuspecting victims. No, seriously! You can’t make this stuff up folks…
As legends go, the kappa took up residence in this pond to prey upon the denizens from the nearby red light district. This of course was probably not the type of “play” that its patrons were looking for but there’s nothing like a good old surprise to spice up the night…
Yotsuya & The Scorned Wife
Is there a chill in the air? I’m not surprised. Yotsuya is the setting of one of Japan’s most famous ghost stories. Known as the Yotsuya Kaidan, this tale follows the tragedy of the beautiful Oiwa who is betrayed by her husband Iemon. In the interest of brevity, I’ll spare you the details but know that poor Oiwa is betrayed and then horribly disfigured by poison. Subsequently, she commits suicide vowing to haunt Iemon forever. If you’re interested in learning more, Creepypasta does a good job of rounding up the legend.
Old wives’ tales warn that Oiwa continues to stalk the streets of Yotsuya seeking her vengeance. Oiwa is supposedly buried at Myogyo-ji temple in neighboring Sugamo but there is also a shrine in Yotsuya dedicated to placating her spirit. Officially known as Tamiya Inari Shrine, this shrine is colloquially called Oiwa Inari Shrine due to its connection to the tragic Oiwa. Supposedly, the historical Oiwa once worshiped here back during early Edo period (1603–1868).
If you’re interested in paying your respects to Oiwa, you’d do well to visit Oiwa Inari Shrine in person. That is, of course, if you’re brave enough to risk her wrath. You’ll find this haunted reliquary nestled amidst the backstreets of Yotsuya Sanchome. It’s quite difficult to find if you don’t know where to look so just follow this Google Map instead.
Let’s hold up here before continuing the poltergeist hunt. There two things I would like to mention. First of all, if you’re going to make the trek to Oiwa Inari Shrine, there’s an awesome and unique ramen joint nearby called Black Scorpion. If you’re feeling hungry, I recommend stopping by and trying the “No Soup Tantanmen” pictured above. As for the other tidbit, you should be aware of the fact that Oiwa is actually the inspiration for the character in the Ring. That’s right, that creepy girl from the popular horror flick actually has her roots in a Japanese ghost tale that’s hundreds of years old. Whodathunkit!
Going to Hell in Shinjuku
The next stop on this spooky ride will take you to the bowels of hell itself. From Oiwa Inari Shrine, continue to make your way down Yasukuni-dori past Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. You’ll have time to check these out later but for now your destination will be the Taiso-ji temple complex. You’ll find it located here, just off the main road on the right hand side of the street.
Taiso-ji has early roots dating way back to 1596. The temple is home to the largest of the six famous Jizo statues of Edo (for those who don’t know, Edo is the medieval name for what is now Tokyo). As the story goes, a monk was stricken with an incurable disease. He prayed to Jizo and somehow magically recovered. In thanks, the monk collected a large sum on money which he used to construct these statues. The names of the donors are carved into the six copper effigies.
In addition to housing one of the six Jizo statues, Taiso-ji is also hides a darker secret. Upon entering the compound, you’ll see two distinctly Japanese looking structures located just to your left and right. While the left hand structure harbors nothing but a statue in the likeness of Fudo Myoo, the vermilion pavilion to the right conceals something far more sinister and terrifying.
What’s to fear? Well, those who boldly dare to peer through the grate will be staring into the demonic eyes of none other than King Enma, the judge and jury of the dead. This mythical figure resides in the otherworldly realm of Meido, the kingdom of the waiting dead. Depending on one’s actions in life, King Enma will decide if he or she will stay in Meido awaiting reincarnation or be sent off to the land of eternal toil and punishment. He’s certainly not the type of guy you want to cross!
The edifice concealing the great King Enma is usually closed to the public except during August for the Obon season. For those visiting at other times during the year, Taiso-ji has installed lighting that can be activated by the push of a button. There’s no English instruction available so just know that this activates the lights. There’s no need to go worrying about summoning emergency personnel or anything along that mindset.
Feeling the creeps and jitters yet? Well, be sure to look to the immediate left of King Enma too. Here, you’ll find a sculpture of the dreadful Datsue-ba. This fearsome, hideous old hag is another character from the Buddhist hells. When a sinner arrives, Datsue-ba forces them to strip naked. Their clothes are then hung on a riverside branch that bends to reflect the gravity of a sinner’s wrongdoings. It is said that if one arrives in hell with no clothes, Datsue-ba gruesomely rips their skin from their bodies instead.
Shinjuku & Its Seedy Legacy
Have you ever wondered why Shinjuku always feels like it has a hint of lechery in the air? Even to this day, Shinjuku is home to one of the sleaziest areas of Tokyo. Known as Kabukicho, this red light district is infamous for being home to both the legendary Robot Restaurant and all other shady forms of debauchery.
Kabukicho’s seedy roots date back to the Edo period (1603–1868) when Shinjuku was a budding post town on one of Japan’s highways. To accommodate all of the foot traffic, a number of vendors catering a variety of carnal pleasures sprung up. For much of medieval history, prostitution thrived in the inns and establishments that lined Shinjuku’s roads.
Today, you can see remaining examples of this legacy scattered throughout Shinjuku. One prime example is Jokaku-ji temple which is home to a desolate common grave of more than 2,200 Edo period (1603–1868) sex workers. According to my sources, these poor women were “thrown away” when their services were no longer necessary. As if this weren’t already tragic enough, Jokaku-ji is also home to a monument dedicated to 18 love suicides that occurred between 1800 and 1814.
Until next time travelers…