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Sunday, Aug. 11, 2002

Chill out in Tokyo's favourite haunts


Special to The Japan Times

Sites of assassinations, murders and suicides; dark, dank tunnels and creepy old abandoned buildings; weird creatures, the stuff of legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time . . . Tokyo harbors dozens -- perhaps even hundreds -- of "ghost spots" where inexplicable, sinister phenomena have reputedly occurred.

News photo
A visitor plays it safe by paying his respects at the burial mound reputed to contain the head of the 10th-century warrior Taira no Masakado.

Of course many, if not all, of these are likely the harmless manifestations of overactive imaginations. Nonetheless, perhaps we should allow for at least some exceptions.

For one thing, you don't want to mess with Taira no Masakado. A warrior whose exploits are recorded in the historical work "Taiheiki," Masakado led a rebellion against the throne. After being killed in battle in 940, his severed head was sent to Kyoto as a war trophy and hung from a tree for all to see. But what they saw, so the story goes, was the face continuing to grimace and roll its eyes . . . before the head flew back to eastern Japan under its own power.

Masakado's kubizuka (the mound beneath which tradition says his head still rests) is located in the grounds of a powerful samurai's residence in Edo (present-day Tokyo). When the new Meiji government's finance ministry took over the property in 1869, a small stone monument bearing the legend "Taira Masakado" and the prayer "Namu amida butsu (Save us, merciful Buddha)" was erected there.

Today, the site is a designated historical landmark tucked into a cranny at 1-1-1 Otemachi, flanked by the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan and Mitsui & Co. buildings, on land belonging to the metropolitan government's Bureau of Finance.

Sitting on some of Japan's prime real estate, there's an obvious temptation to move it or build over it. It's been tried. But Masakado qualifies as an authentic enrei -- a ghost with attitude -- whose tatari (retribution) follows swiftly on failure to show him proper respect.

After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, for instance, the Finance Ministry erected a temporary facility over his mound. Soon afterward, ministry officials began suffering illnesses and misfortunes, some of them fatal. Finally, on June 20, 1940 -- which just happened to be the 1,000th anniversary of Masakado's death -- the ministry building was razed by fire.

The monument was then restored, and no more was heard from the enrei until Occupation forces decided to convert the area to a motor pool -- whereupon a bulldozer sent to level the mound tipped over, causing a fatality. The foreigners then wisely decided to leave Masutada in peace.

The site has since been restored and is treated with exceptional deference. To this day, however, workers in neighboring offices are said to align their desks to avoid sitting with their buttocks pointing disrespectfully in his direction. For the moment, at least, it appears that Masakado feels proper deference is being shown: Since his bulldozer bombast, he's been mercifully keeping his cool.

That's not to say, though, that spookiness is off the capital's menu. In Bunkyo Ward, for one, a tunnel sloping away from the Marunouchi subway line close to Myogadani Station follows what used to be known as Kirishitan-zaka, or Christian Hill. In the 1640s, Japanese Christians who refused to renounce their faith were detained in a compound there prior to their cruel executions. A rock that wept at night and another, called "parrot rock," that was said to echo whatever a speaker said were among the district's paranormal phenomena.

Rocks that make sounds, it seems, really get around. Another, legend has it, was heard within the Imperial Palace grounds -- one of the legendary "seven mysterious wonders" of Edo Castle that used to stand there before it was destroyed by fire in the 1860s. Among the others: a room where a woman's footsteps could be heard walking on top of the ceiling; a pure-white badger-dog; and a pond that reflected the moon, even on moonless nights.

At the other socio-geographic extreme, Tokyo's so-called "deep zone" north of Ueno, between Iriya and Minami Senju stations on the Hibiya subway line, boasts at least eight places famed for creepy events. Among them are temples, shrines and a former execution ground. The latter, now a desolate cemetery near Minami Senju Station, is the final resting place of more than 100,000 executed convicts and those who died in jail before their sentence could be carried out.

Further west, meanwhile, residents of Nakano Ward are well-acquainted with Tetsugakudo Park's reputation for spooky occurrences. Most recently these include the sounds of a woman who weeps at night; a public phone booth with disappearing occupants; and a black-clad phantom on a motorbike who appears and disappears from cars' rearview mirrors.

Wherever you go, though, one of Tokyo's most consistent sources of ghostly tales are its taxi drivers, who work the wee hours of the morning. Are their hallucinations brought on by fatigue and lack of sleep during their 20-hour shifts? Perhaps not. The Sendagaya Tunnel in Shibuya Ward, built in the early 1960s, passes directly beneath the Senju'in Cemetery. Drivers passing through there late at night insist they've been jolted by the sound of a heavy weight falling on their car's roof. Technicians at a nearby recording studio are also reputed to have picked up babies' cries and other inexplicable sounds on their equipment.

Notwithstanding all this "evidence," it's hardly surprising that investigation occasionally does yield a more logical explanation for at least some ghoulish visions. Shunichi Kameda, a veteran curator of Tokyo's historical sites, is one skeptic who takes the down-to-earth view that, "From the way [Edo Period writers] described the horrible, malformed appearances, it's possible that people who thought they were looking at ghouls or monsters may have actually seen individuals suffering from advanced syphilis."

Cool and logical, maybe, but that's not what most people want to hear. For them, a quick click on the Web to the site titled "Tokyo tonai no shinrei sei'iki (Spirit sites in the Tokyo metropolis)" will throw up a feast of the phantasmagorical.

From this Japanese-language site at users.hoops.ne.jp/kuromax/tokyo/tokyospot.htm it's clear that a preponderance of these spooky sites are all places where some poor soul came to a violent or unhappy ending and has returned to the world in search of what in modern jargon is called "closure."

In view of this, these otherworldly phenomena may have more to do with guilt felt by the living than rage projected by the dead. But in the sweltering mid-August heat, far be it from this writer to slosh tepid water on a good summer chiller.



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