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December 17, 2021

Mayoiga: The Mysterious House You Find When You’re Lost (Ep. 90)

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Reading Time: 15 Minutes
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A mayoiga is a house that magically appears when you’re lost in the forest or mountains. If you venture in, what will you find? What should you do? I cover all of this on today’s show, The Mysterious House You Find When You’re Lost.

Hey hey, I’m Thersa Matsuura and your listening to Uncanny Japan.

Lost in the Woods

Where shall we go today? How about closing your eyes and imagining being lost in the woods. In Japan, of course. You think you know the way home, but end up wandering farther into unknown territory. You’re starting to get scared for real when you come across an impressive black gate. Well, that’s interesting. Why not investigate?

What could possibly go wrong?

You push open the heavy wooden doors to find a lavish garden with beautiful red and white flowers blooming everywhere. And chickens. There are chickens bawk-bawking and darting around your feet. Isn’t that quaint? Oh, what’s that? (Moo). Yes. Why it’s a cow and (whinny) a horse.

But, hm, no people.

Maybe they’re in that big ol’ mansion over there. So again you make the decision to open those closed doors.

“Gomen kudasai,” you call out, letting the owners of the house know you’re there. No answer. You step inside.

Wow. This is like a super rich person’s house, you tiptoe around from room to gorgeous room, until you end up in a dining area. The table is set with red and black plates and bowls and cups. And among it all is a single bowl of steaming rice. Almost as if someone was waiting for… someone.

With that thought in your mind you move cautiously on to the next room, where you find a charcoal fire in the irori hearth with an iron kettle boiling furiously above it. Still no sight of anyone, or any …. Thing. You suddenly realize, perhaps whoever lives here isn’t a kind soul at all. Could this be the fancy abode of a blood thirsty mountain man or yamanba witch?

And that’s all you need to turn on your heel, and run. Past all the elaborate decor and expensive trimmings. You flee the house.

Miraculously, you find your way home.

What you, my dear friend, have just stumbled across was a mayoiga (迷い家). Mayou (迷う) meaning to get lost and ga ( )meaning house. In the English version of Kunio Yanagita’s book The Legends of Tono it’s translated as a house found when one loses their way.

And that is exactly what we’re going to talk about today. Because there’s more to the story than that.

First, I want to thank everyone who asks for episodes on certain topics, suggests things, or even brings up a subject that I previously didn’t know about, but totally arouses my curiosity enough to research it and then do a show on it. Today’s episode one goes out to my wonderful, wicked smart, and super lovely patron, and dare I say internet buddy, Priya.

I’ve got other suggestions and ideas from patrons and listeners that are in various stages of research and writing. I haven’t forgotten you. Although, feel free to nudge me if you’d like.

And for a second bit-o-news, we’re back from Kyoto and boy did I not get to do even a fourth of what I wanted to do. As I was beating myself up for not seeing and doing more, a super nice and very deep knowledged patron pointed out to me there’s a 1-1-1 rule when touring Kyoto. That is you visit one temple, one shrine, and one art/folk/history museum a day. Which makes so much sense. You don’t get burned out and you get to sufficiently see what you want see. Although, at that rate going daily it would take you three  years to see everything.

I think I’d like to unofficially venture to make it a 1-1-1-1 rule, adding one really delicious restaurant/cafe or outdoor food stall.

So the trip was a blast thank you all very much for your suggestions and ideas. Let me try to give you a micro, stream of conscious, somewhat free form spoken word account of our three days in Nara and Kyoto.

After four hours driving to a temple in the mountains of Nara. Getting close. GPS says take narrower and narrower wind-y roads. I say no. GPS says yes. Gut says no no no, GPS says Yes yes yes! Almost there. Really! Roads too narrow, can’t turn back. And then: Dead end. Now we’re surrounded on all sides by forest and sheer cliffs and wilderness.

You have arrived at your destination.

Richard says “Hey I see a temple over there beyond that ravine. We can Evil Kenevil our way down. I laugh. I don’t cry. I make a hair raising twenty six point turn. Back on the road.

At the temple, greeted by friendly monks with matcha and a little manju cake. Take temperature. More green tea. Welcome! Big room, shared toilets, shared baths, shared sinks, pillows stuffed with gravel, I mean buckwheat. Ow.

Buckwheat pillow aside, only three of us staying in the entire place. I have zero complaints. It’s a gorgeous experience. Dinner is kaiseki ryori, very fancy, also delicious. More tea.

Monk tells me we’re free to roam the mountain trails, between and around the temples and shrines after dark. Tells me it’s mysterious with a wink. Just remember to be back by ten. Sure. I don’t ask why. Wait? What happens after ten?

Richard and I grab our cameras and meander for hours along lantern lined paths, from small temple to shrine, to moss covered jizo to tiger statue to golden kannon, to fierce bishamon with scowl and spear. This place has got it all. Only no people. We don’t run across another soul.

Hey, Wanna go to the top of the mountain? Sure why not. Up up we go, legs are starting to rebel, fifteen minutes, twenty, keep going up, through dozens upon dozens of vermilion torii gates, mostly splintered and leaning and old, cobwebbed, occasionally dimly lit. Mostly dark and spooky.

Thirty minutes, forty, up, up up, fewer and fewer lights, out of breath, an hour, legs screaming. Wind picks up. I notice what’s weird about it all. There isn’t a single sound from the forest all around us. No night bugs, nothing. I ask why. Richard says too cold. I say, GHOSTS!

Up up up. Almost there. By the way, what time is it? Nine. Hmmm

More tiny shrines, so many leaning torii gates. Legs have turned into some kind of rubber. But then we make it and all the spooky creepiness vanishes.

At the tippy top of the mountain all around us are breathtaking views of the city below and a handful of little shrines dedicated to various gods and goddesses and Dragons! Yes, dragons!

Make it back by ten. Wew. That night: Can’t sleep. Leg cramps? Yes. Too much tea? Definitely. Pillow cutting of circulation to my head, that, too. Also just excited to be out of the house.

But gotta wake up at five for special purification ceremony. Three hours sleep? Sure, why not? I’m running on pure adrenalin and green tea now.

Purification ritual wasn’t exactly what I remembered. Small temple decked out in shiny gold, candlelight, bottles of sake, bags of rice. Monk comes in sniffling. Corona? Doesn’t chant out loud, bummer. But all the hand mudras and fire and tossing all manner of magical leaf, wood, powder, and oil onto that fire until it’s roaring. Pretty cool.

Six am walking trails again. No one out but quiet monks shuffling to one prayer ceremony or another. Birds giddily chirping. Sounds something like this.

At which point, Richard innocently takes out his phone and opens it. Some rando apps decides it wants to entice him to buy it with a series of boing boing sounds that echo off the peaceful mountains. I almost pee my pants as he desperately tries to silence the app. And birds are like wtf?

Noon. Off to Kyoto. Small koshin temple (ep. 3) remember three worms in your body? Decorated in hundreds of brightly colored wishes, sarubobo (ep. 4) remember monkey shaped charms?

Kiyomizu Dera looks nothing like what I remember. That’s strange. Too many people for my blood. Long drive to Hashi Hime’s shrine, remember ep 52?, the poor woman who begged to be turned into a demon so she could exact revenge on her two timing, no good, husband. Yeah, her. Small shrine, a little sad, literally someone’s backyard.

Exhausted, sleep. Real sleep. Good morning. Off to Fushimi Inari Taisha. So many torii gates, foxes, so many people. Beautiful sky though. Hey, what’s that lady grilling? Is it sparrow or quail? Quail! The whole bird. I’ll take one! Eat the entire thing she said, head and beak and bones and all. I take tiniest of bites. Mmm tough. Richard eats it all. What a trooper. All day long he asks for a toothpick. I got bone in my teeth, he says. Don’t make me hurl, I say.

Lovely kitsune. Let’s go see tanuki. I drive to Tanuki Dani, an out of the way temple occupied by hundreds and hundreds of tanuki statues, but also 250 steps to climb. Miyamoto Musashi did some training here, was inspired, won another battle. There’s a toilet god, too. Also, in the temple proper in the back stands a giant Fudomyou statue, with electric eyes. So freaking cool. Goosebumps.

Okay, let’s go back down. Time to head home. Meet a little old lady at the bottom. Says she’s been making the trip up for 52 years. Asks if I went into the temple. Yes I say. Did you see his eyes? Yes! I say. Long drive home.

Oh, and through the time travel sorcery that editing can do, I was just reminded by Richard to mention to all patrons and anyone considering becoming one, that all levels —  $3 a month and up — had access to the Behind the Scenes channel over on Discord where we pretty much live updated the entire trip in real time with photos and observations and really interesting conversation.

Irony working as it’s wont to do, I’m actually a pretty private person, content noodling away in the corner over here, but I so enjoyed being able to share the Kyoto-Nara trip, chat with patrons about their experiences and basically all of us getting to know each other better.

Also, Richard is a wicked good photographer so he posted bunches of photos and a few videos with his witty sometimes hilarious commentary. He just called this our test run and I agree. We’ll definitely do more mini travel plus live updates, conversations, photos, and more on the Patron benefit part of Discord.

You know, I just found a list of 7 temples in nara each one dedicated to one of the 7 lucky gods, so…you KNOW that’s going to be a trip early next year.

Okay, now let’s get into the show.

What is a Mayoiga?

Okay, let’s start with the Wikipedia definition of Mayoiga: in Japanese folklore a Mayoiga refers to a lavish or well kept but abandoned house found in remote parts of the mountains or similar wilderness.

That’s it, the end of the explanation. But that’s far from all of it, so let’s go into a little more detail.

These mayoiga are thought to be mysterious mansions that can (under the right circumstances) bring wealth to there visitors. It’s also said that these lavish dwellings are presented to you and you’re allowed to take one item from them, a cup, trinket, painting or even a cow! And that thing you take will give you fortune and luck for the rest of your days.

The first thing I do when reading about a topic for the show, is see if there are any local legends or any places near me where I can go and get some hands on research and photos, but with the mayoiga, I couldn’t find anything. Which I soon learned made sense because these curious houses usually make their appearance in the Tohoku and Kantou region of Japan, so northeastern and the greater Tokyo area. I’m more south than that in the Tokai region.

Yanagita Kunio’s Tono Monogatari

Probably the most well known tales of mayoiga were written in Yanagita Kunio’s Tono Monogatari, The Legends of Tono. Specifically, story number 63 and 64. That imagining I did at the beginning? That’s basically an English version of the beginning of his retelling of tale number 63. But there’s more to the legend. Here’s the rest.

You, remember you’re our protagonist, return home and tell anyone who will listen about your experience. But no one believes you. What kind of crazy person thinks they found a lavish mansion in the middle of the forest? Ho hum. It’s not like you have any proof. You had no idea you were allowed to take anything, and you didn’t because you’re an honest good person.

Back to life as usual. A few days later you’re out washing some things in the river when a super snazzy, red lacquered bowl comes floating down the river, right to you. Well, you don’t see that every day. Especially when after you pluck it from the water, you realize it’s the same one you saw on the table back in your imagined house in the woods.

You take it home and are a little reticent to use it at the dinner table, I mean, where has this thing been? So you decide it would make a great rice scoop. You needed a new rice scoop anyway.

But something odd happens. No matter how much rice you take from the container, the rice doesn’t decrease. This goes on for days, weeks, months. Finally, everyone in the family is like shouldn’t we be buying some more rice? We’ve been eating an awful lot of it lately. And you finally spill, confessing how awhile ago you snagged the cup out of the river as it floated toward you and now all this magic is happening. Okay, now they believe you about that phantom mansion. And you know what comes next? You all live happily ever after with all the wealth and rice you could possibly want. The end.

Mayoiga in Popular Culture – The Lost Village Anime

Maybe you’ve heard of mayoiga in popular culture, manga or anime or games. Because they’re all over the place. Now I’m not sure what’s been translated into English or not. But just to mention one, there’s an anime called The Lost Village, Mayoiga in Japanese, of course.

The premise for this show is there’s a busload of colorful characters all on their way to a place called Nanaki Village, a place where an urban legend says you can start over and live a perfect life. As you can guess, it isn’t quite as easy as that. I haven’t seen it or read it, but it looks interesting.

I warn against coming to Japan to wander in the woods to try and find a mayoiga, it’s one of those things that finds you, you don’t find it. Also, wild boar, bears, and mountain witches. You definitely don’t want to be lost in the woods in Japan.

A Warning

Another aside: if you’re leading a good life, you’re not greedy, you’re kind to strangers and animals, donate to charities, all that, then the mayoiga might find you and bestow some good fortune. But be warned there is also a story of a man who found the place, just as described above, freaked out, ran away, told his family and friends, and they said, wait a minute, why didn’t you grab something from the house? You idiot. So with him in the lead, they all trekked back to the mysterious mansion and what do you think they found? You’re right, nothing. It had disappeared.

Okay, that’s all for today, I know you are all good hearted folk, so if you ever in the Tohoku or Kanto area of Japan and stumble across your own mayoiga, remember to humbly remove a cup or bowl or chicken, bow your head and thank the house and whatever god or gods presented it to you, and if the legend holds true, you’ll live the rest of your life, ripe with fortune. But again, don’t go looking because if it’s instead a mountain witch’s house, there’s no way you’ll be able to run fast enough. So…

Thank you for listening. Talk to you all in two weeks, bye bye!


Intro and outro music by Julyan Ray Matsuura

Sneakers by Brian Holtz Music
Link: https://filmmusic.io/song/8666-sneakers
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Positive Fat Bass Intro Loop by WinnieTheMoog
Link: https://filmmusic.io/song/6093-positive-fat-bass-intro-loop
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Funkorama by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://filmmusic.io/song/3788-funkorama
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Little Trolls by Frank Schröter
Link: https://filmmusic.io/song/8104-little-trolls
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

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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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