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Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011
THE ZEIT GIST
Death, mystery and well-endowed tanuki: a tour of terrifying Tokyo
By GIANNI SIMONE
If supernatural beings are a form of energy strongly connected to violent death and tragic events of the past, then Japan is the perfect breeding place for such phenomena, says Lilly Fields, a "certified paranormal investigator" who has lived in Japan for more than 25 years.
"Tokyo in particular is a city with a history of catastrophe and death," says Fields. "Blood is everywhere: numerous bloody samurai uprisings, hara-kiri, fire-bombings, modern-day suicide. The capital was racked by earthquakes and terrible fires all through the Edo Period, the death toll often reaching into the tens of thousands. Dead bodies were thrown into mass graves without the proper funerary rites performed to allow the souls to move on. These makeshift graveyards are located everywhere underfoot.
"From the beginning of the 17th century, the Tokugawa shogunate employed feng shui in city planning to make the capital into a kind of a spiritual power center. That, along with certain favorable environmental conditions such as dampness and seismic activity, turned the city into a vortex of ghosts and paranormal activity."
Fields is the founder and director of Haunted Tokyo Tours, a new way of exploring the city by touring places linked to ghosts and spirits. In September, this writer braved the damp, hot weather and joined the "Ghosts and Goblins of Old Tokyo" tour, a three-hour walk through the Ueno and Asakusa districts.
The area around the Inaricho subway station, from where the walk starts, is full of temples, shrines and other related businesses, such as stores selling butsudan, those small Buddhist altars that people keep at home to pray for their ancestors — "and into which sometimes an evil spirit pulls an unsuspecting person — at least in some J-horror flicks like 'The Grudge,' " Fields adds.
This is a notoriously spiritual area, and the locals believe it to be cursed: The suicide rate is alarmingly high, they say; when someone tries to start a business it ends up bankrupt; and every time they build something here they dig up human bones. In fact, the area just behind the nearby Shitaya Shrine is suspected to be the location of a huge mass grave into which the bodies of thousands of victims of the many fires of the Edo Period were dumped without receiving proper funeral rites.
Spooky tales aside, this area is also worth visiting for its relatively high percentage of old buildings. Many of them are covered with plates of corrugated iron, presumably to protect them from fire.
There are also five prewar houses standing side by side along a Moto-Asakusa backstreet. The mistresses of important people of the past apparently used to live here. "It is very unusual that five of these buildings survived side by side," says Fields, "considering all the past destruction."
Next we come to the temple of Sogenji, better known as Kappa-dera because it houses a lot of memorabilia devoted to these child-size, monkey- or turtle-faced goblins — with heads topped by plate-like discs — that are said to dwell in the waterways. At the entrance we are greeted by a wooden sculpture of one of these tricky creatures while "in transition." Like many yokai, kappa have the ability to morph into different shapes, including that of a human being.
Walking through the Matsugaya district, every few meters we come across statues and other assorted images of these ubiquitous little fellows. According to legend, kappa from the nearby Sumida River helped the local people stop the constant flooding of the area. Business went on prospering, and even today the Kappabashi district is famous for selling kitchenware and catering supplies, including the faux foods you see displayed in restaurant windows.
More weird and wonderful stories await us once we reach Asakusa. The Buddhist temple called Chingodo, for example, is devoted to another yokai — the tanuki, or raccoon dog. Notorious tricksters of Japanese folklore, tanuki are renowned for their huge testicles, which can be stretched at will and used as both tools and weapons.
Not far from the temple, we are attracted by the screams of terrified people. The abominable sounds are emanating from Hanayashiki, the oldest amusement park in Japan — and arguably one of the least safe. Few people know that originally this place was a botanical garden that was later turned into a freak show. Its obakeyashiki (haunted house) was allegedly inhabited by a real ghost who, since the attraction was demolished, is said to still wander the park, as it will in perpetuity.
The last stop on the tour is Old Hag's Pond, just east of Sensoji. This is the site of an inn run by an evil old woman who murdered countless guests by dropping a boulder on them as they slept. If you are brave enough to visit this place at night, you might hear cries ring out over the still, stagnant waters . . .