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March 15, 2022

The Killing Stone: Sessho Seki (Ep. 96)

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Reading Time: 10 Minutes
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It was all over the news: Japan’s Infamous Killing Stone that was housing a chaotic, disaster-inducing nine-tailed fox spirit, broke in half on March 5th. Is the fox spirit free? I’ll tell you all about it on this episode.

Sessho-seki Killing Stone Whole
The Sessho-Seki in One Piece
Sessho-Seki Killing Stone Broken in Half
The Sessho-Seki Broken in Two

Hey hey, this is Thersa Matsuura and you’re listening to Uncanny Japan.

I’m going to interrupt my regularly scheduled episode to bring you the breaking — literally breaking — news that perhaps some of you have heard already.

I think we can all agree that times are tough, more than tough, they’re hellish. Over and over we think to ourselves, it can’t get any worse; and then, it gets worse.

Well, in the “Couldn’t Have Predicted That New Hell!” category, we have this month’s news. Yes, on March 5th the infamous Japanese Killing Stone, the Sessho Seki cracked in half, releasing a powerful, chaos-causing, nine-tailed fox spirit.

Maybe? Maybe not? I’ll let you be the judge.

I want to thank everyone who reached out to tell me about the stone splitting news. You are all so on top of things. I was able to follow along with the story, read up on the rock’s history, and dig into some Japanese sites with information that I don’t see being talked about in English. So I’ll go into all that.

Japanese Yahoo News Article

To start, let me sum up the Japanese article in Yahoo News. In Tochigi Prefecture, on March 7th an employee who worked with the Nasu Tourist Information Center visited the site of the Sessho Seki / 殺生石 / The Killing Stone and confirmed that the large rock was broken in half. The holy rope that was draped around it had also fallen off.

The event seemed to have happened on March 5th, when a tourist Tweeted a photo of the catastrophe and said something like, “I feel like I’m witnessing something I shouldn’t be witnessing.”

So what is The Killing Stone? Short story is it was believed to encase the wicked spirit of a nine-tailed fox. Thus, perhaps — I’m just what everyone on social media is saying — releasing that evil out onto the world again. Yes, again.

A little backstory

Reading about this myth, I find there are two main lines of thought. One that there was a nine-tailed fox spirit who possessed various women and caused pandemonium, disease, and destruction, hopping from one body to another over hundreds of years.

A Spirit or a Real Fox?

The other line of thought says it wasn’t a spirit but a real nine-tailed fox, golden furred and sexy, and she changed into these various women — I believe always some sort of courtesan — throughout history. Fox or fox spirit, choose your poison. But I read a little more about it being a fox spirit, so I’ll refer to our antagonist like that here.

China to India, Back to China

As always there are various versions of the myth, but a popular one from the Edo Era tells of a certain wicked, nine-tailed fox spirit who people hopped causing great calamity and violence as it did.

This fox-spirit first possessed a concubine to the King Zhou — the ruler of the Shang Dynasty — in China. Her name was Daji and it’s said because of her enchantment of the King a reign of terror was caused and the Shang Dynasty ended for good.

The fox-spirit then scooted on over to India where it again took the form of a courtesan — this time one named Lady Kayo — who just happened to be the special friend of Prince Banzoku. Bewitching ensued and ol’ Prince Banzoku started cutting off men’s heads. A thousand to be exact.

Next the nine-tailed fox spirit escaped back to China, ready for a second go. Again, a courtesan was the body of choice. This time one named Bao Si. But it was soon recognized and chased away where it went quiet for a couple hundred years. Where it appeared in Japan.

The Nine-Tailed Fox in Japan

The next story is said to have taken place under the Emperor Konoe or a little before him under the Emperor Toba/ 鳥羽. The stories are similar so I’m going to pick my favorite emperor of the two and his story. That would be the Toba version. Because I like his name. Bird Wing.

Enter the Heian Era and cue Tamamo-no-Mae another courtesan to a powerful man. This time to that Emperor Toba I was talking about . He reigned from 1107 to 1123. During this time he met Tamamo-no-Mae and lost his mind. She was not only extremely beautiful but also extremely intelligent. They say there was no question she could not answer.
But, alas, after him falling helplessly in love, Emperor Toba fell deathly ill, too. It was believed to be Tamamo no Mae’s doing. At least that’s what his mother thought. She called upon a diviner called an onmyouji, named Abe no Yasunari (or Yasuchika, depending on the tale) to consult the stars and gods and come up with an answer for her son’s illness.
Abe no Yasunari agreed with the mother-in-law. Yes, indeed, it’s this smart, lovely courtesan’s fault and you know why? She’s a nine-tailed fox spirit. She was chased from the home.

How She Was Vanquished

One story has the emperor sending two men, Kazusa no suke and Miura no suke or sometimes called Yoshizumi Miura and Kazusa Hirotsune, to lead an army of 80,000 men to kill the fox spirit on the plains of Nasu. There are different stories here as well.

One says they did something called oomakigari / 大巻狩. Which I learned is a hunting technique where the hunters surround their prey in a big circle, moving in closer and closer, so it can’t escape, then they can kill it.
Some tales have Tamamo no Mae not being killed but transforming herself into a big stone, or the spirit willingly hiding inside the stone, or the arrow used to hunt her was a specially carved and holy one called a Whistling Arrow and that it had the power to send the bad spirit into the rock. Another story said they shot her with regular arrows piercing her neck and flank, with another warrior cutting her down with his sword. It was while dying or after her death that she changed into the stone. Trapped.

How the Stone Got its Name

But this wily fox spirit had something left up her sleeve. She started to release a poisonous gas. For years killing any creature that came close. Even monks who attempted to exorcise it. It was dubbed Sessho Seki. The kanji are: Death Life Rock. Meaning, a rock that brings death to living things, or something like that. Killing Stone sounds better.

But lethal gas aside, it was a place to visit. It was decorated with a shimenawa — a kind of holy rope. There in Nasu, Tochigi, on this rocky slope was the Killing Stone among a thousand little ojizo statues. Especially since in 1957 it was designated a Historic Spot. Although the stone’s killing spree had calmed down quite a bit by then.

It might be importent to note here that the rock and statues are located near a natural onsen or hot spring. Back in the day it wouldn’t be too strange if volcanic gases seeped through the ground around that area, perhaps killing all living things that came near. Was it a rankled spirit? Was it stinky gas?

But Wait? Was She Exorcised?

Now, you can believe that the mysterious and captivating nine-tailed fox spirit has escaped this most recent breakage and might be looking for another host body to reside in as to wreak more havoc upon this world.

Or you can be comforted to know that in the 14th century, in 1385, August to be exact, a certain Buddhist monk named Gennou Shinshou / 源翁心昭 — some say using only a fly whisk called a Hossu — visited on a windy day and exorcised the evil spirit in the stone, causing it break into three pieces two of which took off and flew to faraway places. One remaining at Nasu. Some versions of the story have it exploding into more pieces.

Anyway, that was over 650 years ago. The stone has been resting fairly quietly since, not killing anyone. Well, until it broke in half.

Where are the Other Pieces of Sessho Seki?

Trying to track down the other two pieces of rock has been a trick. It almost seems like more than two temples or shrines are taking credit for having one. Which would be an easy a brilliant PR stunt. I mean, every shrine has rocks on its property. Quick put a fence around that one. I’m kidding. No one would do that.

The second chunk of Sessho Seki made its way all the way to Okayama Prefecture, Maniwa City to a temple called Kaseiji where it still resides today. In the photo I saw, it was kind of in a rock jail, surrounded on all sides by the short stone pillars.

The third piece traveled to Fukushima, to Isasumi Shrine. It’s supposedly located at the Sessho Seki Inari Jinja. Remember Inari relates to foxes. So some quality naming there. That one has reportedly harmed people and caused some natural disasters in the area.

There were some other places that laid claim to having some of the haunted rock. If you even want to look into that. For example, in Kyoto at Shinnyo-do there is an ojizo that is believed to have been carved from a Sessho Seki.

Which is downright cruel, right? People go to ojizo’s to pray for comfort, offering little gifts. Imagine going and being poisoned by the little guy. Although, I didn’t read about anyone actually dying or falling ill from that one.

Back to our main Killing Stone. It seems like it had been cracked since 2021 and no foul play is suspected. Just your everyday disruptive spirit breaking free from the confines of her stone to stir up some shit.

Cosplaying Near Nasu

Another interesting tidbit. Evidently a lot of cosplayers go to the Nasu area — where the original is located — to take photographs. There is an inn nearby call Ishikawaso that has a room set up for those who want ot cosplay and take photos. It even has costumes, wigs, makeup, lights, parasals, the works. The owner has been a cosplayer himself for over 25 years.

A Sacred Fire Festival for Foxes

Also, every May there is a sacred fire festival at night where the participants all wear white and carry torches and walk from Nasu Onsen Shrine to the Sessho Seki.

I found some photos and it looks pretty intense. Everyone wearing white, gold sashes, fox masks, blond or white wigs. There are flutes, singing, drumming, dancing, storytelling, and an enormous bonfire. I wish it wasn’t a five hour drive away. I’m intrigued.

The Yahoo News article ended mentioning that the town of Nasu is considering bringing in some equipment to fix the broken stone, however, it’s possible that instead of spreading a curse, the broken Sessho Seki will bring in a lot more tourists and that’s a very good thing.

I’ll leave off right here then. A positive note.

If you want to check out our new show, Uncanny Robot Podcast is waiting for you. Ai generated stories that are surprisingly great, very entertaining, thought provoking, and the sound really good, too.

Thank you everyone for listening! Thank you patrons and supporters!

I’ll talk to you again real soon,

Bye bye


Intro and outro music by Julyan Ray Matsuura

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About The Uncanny Japan Podcast

Speculative fiction writer, long-term resident of Japan and Bram Stoker Award finalist Thersa Matsuura explores all that is weird from old Japan—strange superstitions, folktales, cultural oddities, and interesting language quirks. These are little treasures she digs up while doing research for her writing.

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