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August 15, 2021

Obon Story Time: “At Yaidzu” by Lafcadio Hearn (Ep. 82)

Reading Time: 19 Minutes
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It’s Obon and today I want to read to you an essay by Lafcadio Hearn. He wrote it about the town he would stay at during summers, the town I’ve lived in for 25 plus years. Here he talks not just about the lantern floating ceremony, but also the ocean and ghost and gods and how we humans fit into it all.

Hey hey, you’re listening to Uncanny Japan. I’m Thersa Matsuura and because it’s obon – festival for the dead – season, today I’m going to share with you a cool essay by Lafcadio Hearn, a piece I stumbled across and don’t know how I didn’t know about earlier, because it’s written about the town I’ve lived in for over 25 years.

Usually, when I read Lafcadio Hearn stories, here or on Patreon, they’re his fiction retellings of folktales he heard while living here. But he didn’t only write fiction, he was also a great journalist and I’ve always found his observations fun and fascinating.

So for today let me read you Lafcadio Hearn’s essay about Yaizu. I know Yaizu, so it’s fascinating to hear his descriptions of it while staying here in the summer during Obon. I just love how it culminates and connects the ocean, music, gods, and ghosts and how we humble humans fit into it all.

After I finish I’ll make a couple comments about how things have changed or stayed the same.

First off I want to thank all my glorious patrons. Remember I have that goal to reach 300 by the end of the year. Well, as of this moment, we’re up to 235, so I wanted to give a great big arigatou gozaimasu to all of you. And I  just remembered I haven’t mentioned it here, but I’ve enabled yearly patronage, so if you’d like you can pay for eleven months of whichever tier you like and get the twelfth month free.

Oh, and some wicked good news. Uncanny Japan was just nominated for three categories at the New Jersey Web Fest for the Tanuki Buttons episode. We’re up for Outstanding Comedy, Best Series Premise (Narrative Fiction), and Best Leading Performance. Those will be voted on in mid September and while Richard and I are encouraged to fly back and attend, and it does look like  a lot of fun and we are vaccinated and always wearing masks anyway; we just spent all our money on our last trip, so we’ll be biting our nails and crossing our fingers in front of a computer come the award ceremony.

On to today’s show, since this one is about my little port city, Yaizu, we hoofed it down to the rocky shore you’re fixing to hear about to record some summer waves. Talk about magic, you can close your eyes, listen to Laf. Hearn’s essay about obon and the sea while experiencing the exact ocean he did around 120 years ago.

At Yaizu by Lafcadio Hearn


Under a bright sun the old fishing-town of Yaidzu has a particular charm of neutral color. Lizard-like it takes the grey tints of the rude grey coast on which it rests,—curving along a little bay. It is sheltered from heavy seas by an extraordinary rampart of boulders. This rampart, on the water-side, is built in the form of terrace-steps;—the rounded stones of which it is composed being kept in position by a sort of basket-work woven between rows of stakes driven deeply into the ground,—a separate row of stakes sustaining each of the grades. Looking landward from the top of the structure, your gaze ranges over the whole town,—a broad space of grey-tiled roofs and weather-worn grey timbers, with here and there a pine-grove marking the place of a temple-court. Seaward, over leagues of water, there is a grand view,—a jagged blue range of peaks crowding sharply into the horizon, like prodigious amethysts,—and beyond them, to the left, the glorious spectre of Fuji, towering enormously above everything. Between sea-wall and sea there is no sand,—only a grey slope of stones, chiefly boulders; and these roll with the surf so that it is ugly work trying to pass the breakers on a rough day. If you once get struck by a stone-wave,—as I did several times,—you will not soon forget the experience.

At certain hours the greater part of this rough slope is occupied by ranks of strange-looking craft,—fishing-boats of a form peculiar to the locality. They are very large,—capable of carrying forty or fifty men each;—and they have queer high prows, to which Buddhist or Shinto charms (mamori or shugo) are usually attached. A common form of Shinto written charm (shugo) is furnished for this purpose from the temple of the Goddess of Fuji: the text reads:—Fuji-san chojo Sengen-gu dai-gyo manzoku, —meaning that the owner of the boat pledges himself, in case of good-fortune at fishing, to perform great austerities in honor of the divinity whose shrine is upon the summit of Fuji.

In every coast-province of Japan,—and even at different fishing- settlements of the same province,—the forms of boats and fishing-implements are peculiar to the district or settlement. Indeed it will sometimes be found that settlements, within a few miles of each other, respectively manufacture nets or boats as dissimilar in type as might be the inventions of races living thousands of miles apart. This amazing variety may be in some degree due to respect for local tradition,—to the pious conservatism that preserves ancestral teaching and custom unchanged through hundreds of years: but it is better explained by the fact that different communities practise different kinds of fishing; and the shapes of the nets or the boats made, at any one place, are likely to prove, on investigation, the inventions of a special experience. The big Yaidzu boats illustrate this fact. They were devised according to the particular requirements of the Yaidzu-fishing-industry, which supplies dried katsuo (bonito) to all parts of the Empire; and it was necessary that they should be able to ride a very rough sea. To get them in or out of the water is a heavy job; but the whole village helps. A kind of slipway is improvised in a moment by laying flat wooden frames on the slope in a line; and over these frames the flat- bottomed vessels are hauled up or down by means of long ropes. You will see a hundred or more persons thus engaged in moving a single boat,—men, women, and children pulling together, in time to a curious melancholy chant. At the coming of a typhoon, the boats are moved far back into the streets. There is plenty of fun in helping at such work; and if you are a stranger, the fisher- folk will perhaps reward your pains by showing you the wonders of their sea: crabs with legs of astonishing length, balloon-fish that blow themselves up in the most absurd manner, and various other creatures of shapes so extraordinary that you can scarcely believe them natural without touching them.

The big boats with holy texts at their prows are not the strangest objects on the beach. Even more remarkable are the bait-baskets of split bamboo,—baskets six feet high and eighteen feet round, with one small hole in the dome-shaped top. Ranged along the sea-wall to dry, they might at some distance be mistaken for habitations or huts of some sort. Then you see great wooden anchors, shaped like ploughshares, and shod with metal; iron anchors, with four flukes; prodigious wooden mallets, used for driving stakes; and various other implements, still more unfamiliar, of which you cannot even imagine the purpose. The indescribable antique queerness of everything gives you that weird sensation of remoteness,—of the far away in time and place,—which makes one doubt the reality of the visible. And the life of Yaidzu is certainly the life of many centuries ago. The people, too, are the people of Old Japan: frank and kindly as children—good children,—honest to a fault, innocent of the further world, loyal to the ancient traditions and the ancient gods.


I happened to be at Yaidzu during the three days of the Bon or Festival of the Dead; and I hoped to see the beautiful farewell ceremony of the third and last day. In many parts of Japan, the ghosts are furnished with miniature ships for their voyage,— little models of junks or fishing-craft, each containing offerings of food and water and kindled incense; also a tiny lantern or lamp, if the ghost-ship be despatched at night. But at Yaidzu lanterns only are set afloat; and I was told that they would be launched after dark. Midnight being the customary hour elsewhere, I supposed that it was the hour of farewell at Yaidzu also, and I rashly indulged in a nap after supper, expecting to wake up in time for the spectacle. But by ten o’clock, when I went to the beach again, all was over, and everybody had gone home. Over the water I saw something like a long swarm of fire- flies,—the lanterns drifting out to sea in procession; but they were already too far to be distinguished except as points of colored light. I was much disappointed: I felt that I had lazily missed an opportunity which might never again return,—for these old Bon-customs are dying rapidly. But in another moment it occurred to me that I could very well venture to swim out to the lights. They were moving slowly. I dropped my robe on the beach, and plunged in. The sea was calm, and beautifully phosphorescent. Every stroke kindled a stream of yellow fire. I swam fast, and overtook the last of the lantern-fleet much sooner than I had hoped. I felt that it would be unkind to interfere with the little embarcations, or to divert them from their silent course: so I contented myself with keeping close to one of them, and studying its details.

The structure was very simple. The bottom was a piece of thick plank, perfectly square, and measuring about ten inches across. Each one of its corners supported a slender slick about sixteen inches high; and these four uprights, united above by cross- pieces, sustained the paper sides. Upon the point of a long nail, driven up through the centre of the bottom, was fixed a lighted candle. The top was left open. The four sides presented five different colors,—blue, yellow, red, white, and black; these five colors respectively symbolizing Ether, Wind, Fire, Water, and Earth,—the five Buddhist elements which are metaphysically identified with the Five Buddhas. One of the paper-panes was red, one blue, one yellow; and the right half of the fourth pane was black, while the left half, uncolored, represented white. No kaimyo was written upon any of the transparencies. Inside the lantern there was only the flickering candle.

I watched those frail glowing shapes drifting through the night, and ever as they drifted scattering, under impulse of wind and wave, more and more widely apart. Each, with its quiver of color, seemed a life afraid,—trembling on the blind current that was bearing it into the outer blackness…. Are not we ourselves as lanterns launched upon a deeper and a dimmer sea, and ever separating further and further one from another as we drift to the inevitable dissolution? Soon the thought-light in each burns itself out: then the poor frames, and all that is left of their once fair colors, must melt forever into the colorless Void.

Even in the moment of this musing I began to doubt whether I was really alone,—to ask myself whether there might not be something more than a mere shuddering of light in the thing that rocked beside me: some presence that haunted the dying flame, and was watching the watcher. A faint cold thrill passed over me,— perhaps some chill uprising from the depths,—perhaps the creeping only of a ghostly fancy. Old superstitions of the coast recurred to me,—old vague warnings of peril in the time of the passage of Souls. I reflected that were any evil to befall me out there in the night,—meddling, or seeming to meddle, with the lights of the Dead,—I should myself furnish the subject of some future weird legend…. I whispered the Buddhist formula of farewell—to the lights,—and made speed for shore.

As I touched the stones again, I was startled by seeing two white shadows before me; but a kindly voice, asking if the water was cold, set me at ease. It was the voice of my old landlord, Otokichi the fishseller, who had come to look for me, accompanied by his wife.

“Only pleasantly cool,” I made answer, as I threw on my robe to go home with them.

“Ah,” said the wife, “it is not good to go out there on the night of the Bon!”

“I did not go far,” I replied;—”I only wanted to look at the lanterns.”

“Even a Kappa gets drowned sometimes,”(1) protested Otokichi. “There was a man of this village who swam home a distance of seven ri, in bad weather, after his boat had been broken. But he was drowned afterwards.”

Seven ri means a trifle less than eighteen miles. I asked if any of the young men now in the settlement could do as much.

“Probably some might,” the old man replied. “There are many strong swimmers. All swim here,—even the little children. But when fisher-folk swim like that, it is only to save their lives.”

“Or to make love,” the wife added,—”like the Hashima girl.”

“Who?” queried I.

“A fisherman’s daughter,” said Otokichi. “She had a lover in Ajiro, several ri distant; and she used to swim to him at night, and swim back in the morning. He kept a light burning to guide her. But one dark night the light was neglected—or blown out; and she lost her way, and was drowned…. The story is famous in Idzu.”

—”So,” I said to myself, “in the Far East, it is poor Hero that does the swimming. And what, under such circumstances, would have been the Western estimate of Leander?”

1 This is a common proverb:—Kappa mo obore-shini. The Kappa is a water-goblin, haunting rivers especially.


Usually about the time of the Bon, the sea gets rough; and I was not surprised to find next morning that the surf was running high. All day it grew. By the middle of the afternoon, the waves had become wonderful; and I sat on the sea-wall, and watched them until sundown.

It was a long slow rolling,—massive and formidable. Sometimes, just before breaking, a towering swell would crack all its green length with a tinkle as of shivering glass; then would fall and flatten with a peal that shook the wall beneath me…. I thought of the great dead Russian general who made his army to storm as a sea,—wave upon wave of steel,—thunder following thunder…. There was yet scarcely any wind; but there must have been wild weather elsewhere,—and the breakers were steadily heightening. Their motion fascinated. How indescribably complex such motion is,—yet how eternally new! Who could fully describe even five minutes of it? No mortal ever saw two waves break in exactly the same way.

And probably no mortal ever watched the ocean-roll or heard its thunder without feeling serious. I have noticed that even animals,—horses and cows,—become meditative in the presence of the sea: they stand and stare and listen as if the sight and sound of that immensity made them forget all else in the world.

There is a folk-saying of the coast:—”The Sea has a soul and hears.” And the meaning is thus explained: Never speak of your fear when you feel afraid at sea;—if you say that you are afraid, the waves will suddenly rise higher. Now this imagining seems to me absolutely natural. I must confess that when I am either in the sea, or upon it, I cannot fully persuade myself that it is not alive,—a conscious and a hostile power. Reason, for the time being, avails nothing against this fancy. In order to be able to think of the sea as a mere body of water, I must be upon some height from whence its heaviest billowing appears but a lazy creeping of tiny ripples.

But the primitive fancy may be roused even more strongly in darkness than by daylight. How living seem the smoulderings and the flashings of the tide on nights of phosphorescence!—how reptilian the subtle shifting of the tints of its chilly flame! Dive into such a night-sea;—open your eyes in the black-blue gloom, and watch the weird gush of lights that follow your every motion: each luminous point, as seen through the flood, like the opening and closing of an eye! At such a moment, one feels indeed as if enveloped by some monstrous sentiency,—suspended within some vital substance that feels and sees and wills alike in every part, an infinite soft cold Ghost.


Long I lay awake that night, and listened to the thunder-rolls and crashings of the mighty tide. Deeper than these distinct shocks of noise, and all the storming of the nearer waves, was the bass of the further surf,—a ceaseless abysmal muttering to which the building trembled,—a sound that seemed to imagination like the sound of the trampling of infinite cavalry, the massing of incalculable artillery,—some rushing, from the Sunrise, of armies wide as the world.

Then I found myself thinking of the vague terror with which I had listened, when a child, to the voice of the sea;—and I remembered that in after-years, on different coasts in different parts of the world, the sound of surf had always revived the childish emotion. Certainly this emotion was older than I by thousands of thousands of centuries,—the inherited sum of numberless terrors ancestral. But presently there came to me the conviction that fear of the sea alone could represent but one element of the multitudinous awe awakened by its voice. For as I listened to that wild tide of the Suruga coast, I could distinguish nearly every sound of fear known to man: not merely noises of battle tremendous,—of interminable volleying,—of immeasurable charging,—but the roaring of beasts, the crackling and hissing of fire, the rumbling of earthquake, the thunder of ruin, and, above all these, a clamor continual as of shrieks and smothered shoutings,—the Voices that are said to be the voices of the drowned., Awfulness supreme of tumult,—combining all imaginable echoings of fury and destruction and despair!

And to myself I said:—Is it wonderful that the voice of the sea should make us serious? Consonantly to its multiple utterance must respond all waves of immemorial fear that move in the vaster sea of soul-experience. Deep calleth unto deep. The visible abyss calls to that abyss invisible of elder being whose flood-flow made the ghosts of us.

Wherefore there is surely more than a little truth in the ancient belief that the speech of the dead is the roar of the sea. Truly the fear and the pain of the dead past speak to us in that dim deep awe which the roar of the sea awakens.

But there are sounds that move us much more profoundly than the voice of the sea can do, and in stranger ways,—sounds that also make us serious at times, and very serious,—sounds of music.

Great music is a psychical storm, agitating to unimaginable depth the mystery of the past within us. Or we might say that it is a prodigious incantation, every different instrument and voice making separate appeal to different billions of prenatal memories. There are tones that call up all ghosts of youth and joy and tenderness;—there are tones that evoke all phantom pain of perished passion;—there are tones that resurrect all dead sensations of majesty and might and glory,—all expired exultations,—all forgotten magnanimities. Well may the influence of music seem inexplicable to the man who idly dreams that his life began less than a hundred years ago! But the mystery lightens for whomsoever learns that the substance of Self is older than the sun. He finds that music is a Necromancy;—he feels that to every ripple of melody, to every billow of harmony, there answers within him, out of the Sea of Death and Birth, some eddying immeasurable of ancient pleasure and pain.

Pleasure and pain: they commingle always in great music; and therefore it is that music can move us more profoundly than the voice of ocean or than any other voice can do. But in music’s larger utterance it is ever the sorrow that makes the undertone, —the surf-mutter of the Sea of Soul…. Strange to think how vast the sum of joy and woe that must have been experienced before the sense of music could evolve in the brain of man!

Somewhere it is said that human life is the music of the Gods,— that its sobs and laughter, its songs and shrieks and orisons, its outcries of delight and of despair, rise never to the hearing of the Immortals but as a perfect harmony…. Wherefore they could not desire to hush the tones of pain: it would spoil their music! The combination, without the agony-tones, would prove a discord unendurable to ears divine.

And in one way we ourselves are as Gods,—since it is only the sum of the pains and the joys of past lives innumerable that makes for us, through memory organic, the ecstasy of music. All the gladness and the grief of dead generations come back to haunt us in countless forms of harmony and of melody. Even so,—a million years after we shall have ceased to view the sun,—will the gladness and the grief of our own lives pass with richer music into other hearts—there to bestir, for one mysterious moment, some deep and exquisite thrilling of voluptuous pain.


Intro and outro music by Julyan Ray Matsuura.

Sweet Dreams by Agnese Valmaggia
Link: https://filmmusic.io/song/8100-sweet-dreams
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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