Hey hey! I’m Thersa Matsuura and you’re listening to the 100th episode of Uncanny Japan. One hundred! It took awhile to get here, but we’re here! And it wouldn’t have happened if not for all of you. So I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for tuning in, reaching out, supporting, leaving a review, and spreading the word about the show to friends and family. Thank you!
I started the podcast in October of 2016 and I’m not sure exactly what I expected to happen. But I can tell you one thing that totally surprised me, and that is how incredibly smart, kind, and awesome you are. No, I don’t talk to all of you, but the listeners and supporters of the show I have had the joy of interacting with are just incredible.
Another thing I’ve learned along the way, is you have stories, too.
So for the 100th episode I kind of threw the idea out there — how about you tell me any true ghost stories that you’ve experienced while visiting or living in Japan. I was nervous about whether or not I’d get enough replies to do an entire show, but was delighted that not only do I have enough creepy and freaky real life experiences for the 100th episode, I have enough for three episodes. The submissions group into categories quite nicely, too.
So three themes: Today is “Haunted or Ghostly Houses.” I’m actually going to read one strange experiences that really resonated with me for reasons I’ll share later.
The next episode is will be something like “When the Ghostie Gets You.” I will read a great couple stories from listeners and again share one of my own experiences that’s really messed up and I usually don’t talk about because it’s still a little much. But since if fits in with the theme, I’ll share. I’ll end that episode with a couple sweeter experiences that were sent in.
Then the third episode in the series will be “The Strange and Unsettling Outdoors.” Again I’ll read several pieces sent in that fit this topic and talk about them a little, too.
So this happy 100th episode is going to be three shows, a little different, a little scary, but a lot of fun.
Oh, and do you like the new background music? Julyan made that for the show and it fits just perfectly, I think.
Welcome back to our 100th episode. Now get ready for some curious and spooky tales.
Today’s sent in story is from Cate. Cate reached out to me awhile back and she’s one of those people who you meet and you have the peculiar overwhelming combination of emotions, partly “Where have you been all my life!” and partly “Wait? Have we known each other forever?” and another part kind of wonders if you had chosen a couple different paths way down the the line, would you be living a similar existence?
She’s lived in Japan, had incredible experiences, became a Buddhist priest, had more incredible experiences, and I’m waiting for her to write her memoir.
Here, let me read you her story.
I lived in a haunted house in Yamanashi Prefecture. It wasn’t an old musty cottage filled with soot sprites. No. It was a brand new house that my husband and I had built on a mountainside overlooking peach orchards and grapevines, with a view across the Koshu valley to the majestic snow-capped Akaishi Mountains, the Southern Alps. The house was on the outskirts of a small village, next door to an ancient temple that was once a major centre of Esoteric Buddhism and a central training place for Shugendo ascetic mountain monks. The old temple was now quite run-down and the many sub-temples now gone, with just an old cemetery up behind the temple.
The first inkling that the house was haunted was when my three-year-old daughter came into my bedroom and woke me in the middle of night, wanting to get into bed with me. “Why? What’s wrong sweetie? Did you have a bad dream?” “No,” she said, “but there’s a girl in my bedroom and I don’t like her. She’s a white shadow.” “Okay, sweetie,” I said sleepily and making way for her in the bed.
It wasn’t until the next day that I pondered what she had said. A little girl who was a white shadow? Isn’t that just the way a small child with no knowledge of the word ‘ghost’ might describe one? I questioned her more about it, and she described how the little girl had come out of the floor and stood by her bed but didn’t say anything.
That was the start of a number of sightings of the little girl by different people who stayed with us over the following year or so. We had many friends from overseas who came to visit and, not knowing that anyone else had made any such report because we certainly didn’t advertise it!, they started reporting various phenomena:
“Was there a matsuri in the middle of the night? I heard people singing?”
“What was that sound like marching I heard during the night?”
“Was someone crying last night?”
My sister, a really straight no-nonsense kind of woman, who looked after my daughter and the house one time when I needed some medical care, on my return said to me, “Well, I do not believe in ghosts, but your house is haunted!” One night she had seen the little girl walk past her door, and believing it was my daughter out of bed for some reason followed her, only to see her disappear out through the wall and find my daughter sound asleep in bed.
There was never any sense of malevolence and curiously no one seemed particularly frightened, but the strange sounds, and music, and singing, and marching, and ghostly appearances continued.
So I decided to investigate the history of the place in depth to see if I could find any reasons why this was happening. I was very matter-of-fact about it all and set out like a detective. I asked the old people in the village about the land that we had bought to build our house, which had been sold to us by the temple.
I learned that the field at the base of the slope below our house, where a new baseball field was built, was called Hana-tori, the kanji of which read “flower-bird.” However, I was told that the kanji for this name had actually been changed in the last century and was previously the same-sounding words for “cut off noses.” It was the location of a fierce and bloody battle during the 1600s and the victors had sliced off the noses of the defeated and piled them up there as a humiliating sign of defeat.
I learned that there had been a warning beacon and a fort right up behind our house on the mountains, where the troops gathered and watched the movement of the enemies below on the plain.
I also learned that the cemetery behind the temple was quite new. Between our house and the temple was a vacant block of land, then a stream, then the temple. Apparently the stream kept flooding the old cemetery which had been on that vacant block between us and the temple. The old grave stones were moved up to the new cemetery but there were many old graves that were unmarked and the villagers no longer knew who was buried there from centuries before.
It occurred to us that all of the sounds and apparitions had appeared on the side of the house facing that block of land. One old man remembered playing among the abandoned graves when he was a little boy. He recommended that we contact the local shrine and have the shrine priest conduct an exorcism.
We consulted the shrine priest and he readily agreed to conduct the exorcism and gave me a list of things that I needed to buy as offerings to the spirits to be placed on an altar in the house. The list included fish from the sea, and fruit and vegetables and herbs from the mountains.
I went to the supermarket in the nearby city to find the right kind of fish. I was looking through the fish for sale, when the person in charge of the fish section came up and said, “Oh yes, good choice! You’re in luck today! Those fish are on special! Really tasty! How are you going to cook it?” So I told him straight out, “It’s for an exorcism.” He looked startled, but it wasn’t because I said it was for an exorcism, it was because the supermarket fish weren’t good enough for that ritual. “Oh no,” he said, “You must go directly to the fish market in the city wholesale market – here’s the name of the fellow you need to see.” Upon which he wrote down the name of the fish guy who’d be able to give me the good fish.
I went into the main wholesale city market and to the fish section and asked around for the fish seller I’d been recommended and was pointed to a large rather fearsome looking fellow who seemed decidedly put out that there was a gaijin in his fish market. I explained that I’d been recommended by the fish guy in the supermarket and told him I needed a fish for an exorcism. His whole demeanour changed as his plunged his hands into the buckets of ice and pulled out one fish after another, muttering, “No, this one hasn’t got clear enough eyes. No, this one’s mouth is open…” until he was satisfied he’d found just the right one. He handed me the fish, but refused to take any money for it.
Next, I collected the necessary fruits and vegetables being careful now to pick only the unblemished and perfect ones. I then went to the stationary store to get the envelope to put the cash donation for the shrine priest. The storekeeper, an old obaachan, asked me if she could help and when I told her it was for an exorcism, she didn’t bat an eye, but disappeared out the back, returning with a very austere money envelope in black and white and gold on which she wrote out some kanji I couldn’t read. And when I went to pay for it, she refused payment and instead wished me good luck.
The priest arrived for the exorcism and carefully checked over the altar we had prepared and was satisfied with everything. He chanted the ritual with much dramatic flare and then proceeded to walk through the house going into every room, even the toilets, continuously chanting. And even though we said nothing to him about it, when he came to any room in which there had been an apparition or strange sounds, he stopped and said, “Here!” and chanted more loudly and told us to place salt in the corners of those rooms. And he was right every time!
Well, that was how it happened. And did the exorcism work? No, unfortunately, it did not. After several months of quiet, the sounds and apparitions returned. So instead, I just set up an altar and lit incense and placed flowers and chanted the Heart Sutra every day in the hope that the restless spirits would be calmed by my efforts.
Readying the Altar
I can so relate to Cate’s story. Something a little bit along the same vein happened to me and my family. But first, getting the special altar ready. I remember when my mother-in-law insisted an oharai done to me — an oharai is a Shinto cleansing or purification ritual, also sort of a low key exorcism — there were certain things I needed to ready as well.
My job wasn’t half as difficult as Cate’s though. My mother-in-law took care of most of it, you know, to get it done right. But I was in charge of buying the little ceramic saucers for salt (not just any salt, mind you, but a special salt that comes from the Suruga Bay and has been prepared with lots of sunshine and wind). Anyway, about the saucers. I was told specifically that they can’t sit flat on the floor they have to have little bumps or feet on their bottoms to raise them up. I found some, they were expensive, but I still use them to this day for serving very, very small foods, or soy sauce for sushi, twenty years later. So they’ve paid for themselves.
Another thing I really like about Cate’s experience is the fact that other people, not just the Shinto priest, felt, saw and heard the presences. When you get unbelieving people going, Okay, what just happened? Well, it feels good to be believed.
Here’s a little story: Before my oharai ceremony — because my mother-in-law insisted I had some spirit following me around — we visited a woman who was known to be quite powerful in getting rid of such things. She was also blind. I was all a little skeptical, not about her, but about my mother-in-law accusing me of carrying around a ghost. I felt perfectly fine.
I remember going to the woman’s place at night for a meeting, a pre-exorcism if you will. It was me, my husband, my in-laws, and Julyan. Five of us. We took off our shoes and she called us into her altar room where we kneeled seiza style in front of her. We were there to discuss the details of the ceremony. The first thing woman said was “Oh, there are six of you here, tonight.” No. There are only five. She pulls back a little, That’s strange, I distinctly feel six people in the room. Glances were exchanged. My mother-in-law gave me the biggest “I told you so” face. I’m sure she was happy that I believed her now. It was creepy.
Our New House
Another thing I like about Cate’s story is her sleuthing. I love that there was a history to the land that no one really talks about, and that the kanji for “Hana Tori” had been changed to make it less, well, gruesome.
Now let me tell you what happened to Julyan and me after we moved into our new house when he was in kindergarten. It’s got some similar points. First, keep in mind, my husband at the time was mostly absent, doing something called tanshinfunin. It’s a not uncommon practice where the company sends the husband to work in another prefecture away from the home. Evidently, it’s cheaper than moving the whole family, and people also don’t want to disturb the children’s education. But basically it means families only get to see their husband/daddy once or twice a month depending on where he’s working. Sometimes less than that. So for years it was mostly just Julyan and me.
The land we bought to build our new house on was previously a vegetable garden. But nearby there was a very windy road with lots of old homes on it. This tells you it’s been there for a long time because it was once a foot path. On that road, not far from our house, was a small, unmanned shrine called Dobara-inari Shrine. No big deal, there are little shrines and statues everywhere in Japan.
But after we moved into the house, quite a few strange things started happening. The biggest and most shocking fits more into the next episode of the show, but this one kind of started it all. And it happened in Julyan’s room.
I didn’t even consider this until I read Cate’s story. But Julyan’s room was in the recommended by both our realtor and a Shinto priest lucky South-East direction. It just occurred to me, though, that that was also the closest room in the house to that windy road and that little shrine.
The Head and Closet
Anyway, Julyan began having bad dreams, and a lot of kanashibari (sleep paralysis), and then some weird things began happening. Not all the time, but occasionally. The most, I guess, concerning, was the period when he said he’d wake up in the middle of the night with the feeling that someone was in the room. We’d already set up a light to be kept on all night, so h e said when he opened his eyes and looked over at his desk there was a head, sitting there, starring at him. He’d close his eyes, convince himself that it was just his imagination, open them again, and their it was, still staring right at him. Then he’d bury himself in his blankets and tell me about it the next day. When it got bad, we’d do the purification thing with incense and salt and tell the head to stay away, and it would, for awhile. But after awhile it would return. This went on for a couple years. There would be periods of relative calm, then he’s start talking about the head being back or waking to find the closet door open. He really didn’t like the closet.
I talked to him very recently to compare what he remembered and what I remembered and he said the only thing that really helped and made it all stop was having our beagle, Cha Cha Maru, sleep up there with him.
History of the Land
I didn’t do what Cate did and ask around though. Although I should have. Then I would have asked for a proper oharai. Instead most of the neighbors were new there, and the land felt new, except for that windy road. So I guess I didn’t even think about it. But one day while talking to one of the older folk who lived by the shrine. He called it Kubizuka Jinja. I understood what he meant and asked to hear more.
Remember Nekozuka and Nezumizuka from last episode? Cat Grave and Rat Grave? Yeah, well, kubi means head or neck. The Head Grave Shrine. The story I was told was that in the year 1570 on February 8th the a Sengoku Daimyo, Takeda Shingen, of what is now Yamanashi Prefecture was attacking a nearby Hanazawa Castle. The Lord of the Castle Ohara and his men fought a strong fight, but they were defeated on March 3rd of that year. Some of Ohara’s men became vassals of Takeda Shingen, while Ohara and a good many of his followers moved on toward western Shizuoka. Only they didn’t make it very far because Takeda Shingen’s men were pursuing them. There was another battle in that area and many soldiers died.
I was told by a couple people living there, the tale went there heads were lopped off and they were lined up along the road. But the story I found online just said there were bodies everywhere.
After that everyone in the area started having bad luck, seeing ghost fires, and other weird things happening, so much so that as soon as it started to get dark they’d close their rain shutters and stay inside.
Finally, someone said hiding all the time wasn’t going to get the rice planted or harvested, so they suggested they build a shrine to honor and lay to rest the spirits of those who had been decapitated, Kubizuka Jinja. It was built, offerings made, and the ghosties calmed down.
My Experience in the Room
For the most part, I guess. My story for next episode is a doozy, but aside from that I do have a little experience in Julyan’s room. There were a couple months long after he had gone away to college when I was sleeping there. It was the only bed in the house, and I was tired of the futon. At first everything was fine, but it got to the point where sometimes it felt like I wasn’t alone. There was that buzz that happens when someone’s nearby. You turn around quickly, but no one’s there. I never saw a head, but I remember I always slept with my back pushed up against the wall and I always made sure the closet was closed. Even now, if I walk into a room and a closet is open I freak out, just a little. If you happen to be nearby prepare for my lecture about how ‘we don’t let scary things out of the closet now do we?’ as I firmly shut the door again.
There was one tiny odd thing that happened there before I stopped sleeping in that room altogether. It was late at night and I was lying on the bed, talking to a friend on the phone. The house was quiet and there was a pause in our conversation when something brought my attention to one of Julyan’s posters on the wall above me. I looked up and just then a pin popped out, audibly, and didn’t just fall but flew landing in the middle of the room. Even my friend heard it and asked, What was that?! Cha Cha had passed away and I wasn’t sticking around to find out why I was so squicked out by the closet.
When I mentioned that to Julyan right after it happened he just laughed and said, Oh, that isn’t the half of it.
Okay, I’ll wrap up today’s show. Thank you all again. We made it to 100 episodes. You’re the best!
There are still a bunch more ghostly, creepy, and even a couple heartwarming listener stories coming up. The next episode is going to be dark and unnerving, with a little sweetness at the end to lighten things up.
Thank you for listening, thank everyone for sharing your experiences, and I’ll talk to you again in two weeks.
All music by Julyan Ray Matsuura