You hear a creaking sound coming from the upstairs bedroom, though you are the only one at home. Armed with your katana blade, you creep silent as a ninja up the stairs.
Standing beside the open window of the upstairs bedroom, you see what appears to be a giant human with wild hair, and two long horns growing from the top of its head. On closer inspection, you see claws instead of fingers and since it is barefooted, you count six toes on each foot.
In the moonlight, its skin appears to be reddish-blue, almost purple. It wears only a loincloth made of tiger’s skin and carries an iron club, kanabo 金棒. Is it just a trick of the light, or did the creature disappear and then reappear?
As you make your way forward, the floor creaks beneath your feet. The Oni turns in your direction. Its hideous face has three bloodshot eyes. The creature shape shifts into what can only be described as a giant purple tiger. It turns to face unlucky northeast and growls, as if to summon other minions from Jigoku, the Oni hell.
You reach for the pouch at your waist filled with crushed green peas. You dip your fingers in while raising your kanata in the other hand. You rush toward the demon.
The Chinese character鬼 meaning “ghost” is sometimes used to describe the Oni’s formless nature. They also go by the name of rakshasa and yaksha, meaning “the hungry ghost” called gaki. They are the demon minions of Enma–Ō who punishes sinners in Jigokuor Hell.
They Oni are used in conjunction with the northeast direction or kimon 鬼門, which means “demon gate”. Thus the northeast is considered an unlucky direction through which evil spirits may cross over into this world. Temples often face the northeast and Japanese buildings are frequently built with an L-shaped indention at the northeast to help ward off Oni. For this same reason, the Japanese capital was moved northeast from Nagaoka to Kyoto in the 8th century.
During the spring festival of Setsubun festival, people throw soybeans or green peas outside their homes while shouting, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” “鬼は外！福は内！”, which is translated to mean, ” Oni go out! Blessings come in!”.
Monkey statues are used to guard against Oni. because the Japanese word for monkey, saru, is a homophone for the word, “leaving” in the Japanese language. The holly plant is also used to guard against Oni.
In more recent times, the Oni have taken on a more protective guise. Men dress in Oni costumes and lead Japanese parades to ward off bad luck. Japanese buildings are sometimes built with onigawara 鬼瓦, which are Oni-faced roof tiles used in the same sense as gargoyles are in the western tradition.
It is night. In the upper bedroom of the rented farmhouse, you lie awake against the futon pillow. You gaze up at the ceiling. For some reason, you cannot fall asleep. It’s as if your mind will not shut off. The events of the day keep playing, like a broken record, across your mind.
From the corner of your eye, you detect flickers of blue, green and purple flames just outside the sliding glass door. Your heart skips a beat when you glance in the direction of the colored flames. Standing on the narrow balcony, that rests against the side of the house, is a young man dressed in a white kimono that covers his feet. Long, black hair trails in a disheveled mass around his shoulders and down his back. On his forehead rests a white triangle of cloth. His hands dangle limply from his wrists on outstretched arms that point directly toward you. His dark eyes gaze beseeching into yours.
You grab the edge of your quilt and yank it up around your chin. Your mind cannot conceive of what your eyes see.
After the first initial shock, you wonder what has happened to trap the spirit between this world and the next and who were his relatives, that must have once lived here? He seems to have come back for their help in releasing him from his torment.
Against your better judgement, you rise and walk toward the closed, glass door. Before you can release it, the latch clicks and the door slides open, as if by magic. You find yourself standing only a few feet from the ghostly young man.
You now see a haki maki is tied around his forehead, beneath the white triangle. He whispers the word, “Kamikaze,” and you realize, he must be one of the very young who died as a “suicide boomer” in the second world war. You want to help him, but are not sure how. Nonetheless, you reach your hand toward his and smile.
Yūrei, 幽霊? meaning “faint spirit” or Bōrei 亡霊, “ruined or departed spirit” is also called Yōkai妖怪 orObake お化け. In Japanese culture, humans have a spirit called a reikon 霊 that returns to their living family during the summer Obon Festival. If a person is murdered or commits suicide or if proper funeral rites are not preformed, they become stuck in the physical world, unable to travel to spirit world. The restless yūrei must first resolve the emotional conflict that holds it trapped between the two worlds.
In the village square, Chinese lanterns and fireflies cast a ghostly glow over the tightly packed shops and houses along the narrow avenue. The sound of clapping hands and beating drums draw you toward a drum tower, situated just below the elevated train station. Atop it, men and boys, dressed in dragon coats, with matching scarves tied around their heads, slam mallets against the sides of drums both large and small.
Dressed in colorful yukata of cherry blossoms, soaring white cranes, and glittering fans with ribbons, women dance in a circle around the drum tower as they sway to the hypnotic “dance of the dead.” Their flowing hands and the drums’ beat call for the dead to arise and join in the celebration, as the spicy scent of cooked sausage floats on the jasmine breeze.
In the willow trees that grow along the street cicadas creep from their brittle shells. The lure of their castanet song adds to the intoxicating beat. The dancers, the drum tower and the crowds of people seem to swirl and bob around you, like a magical dream.
To your surprise, someone whispers in your ear, words from Matsu Basho, master haiku poet.
“Temple bells die out.
The fragrant blossoms remain.
A perfect evening!”
You turn to find a pair of smoldering eyes, like polished jade, gazing into your own. A white prayer scarf, painted with red kanji calligraphy, wraps the apparition’s ashen forehead, pulling long black hair away from its ghostly face and neck.
You stare, dumbfounded as people stroll by, unaware that “something” not of this world, stands in front of you. A small boy, twirling a plastic pin wheel, walks straight through the apparition’s chest. The image flickers as if it might go out like a candle flame as the ghostly image bows respectfully toward you.
“Moonlight and magic,” you whisper. Your thoughts swarm like bees in the summer heat, so fast you can hardly grasp their meaning.
The sharp pounding of the barrel taiko yanks your attention back toward the drum tower. Everything around you seems to spin in slow motion and then tilt-a-whirl fast making you so dizzy you almost lose your balance.
When the spinning stops, you find the apparition has disappeared. You shake your head and walk away, whispering beneath your breath, “It was only a dream.”
You find yourself beneath the grandfather Cryptomeria, the giant evergreens that cover the sloping sides of Mount Kurama. It is spring, when the dawn goddess’ dance lures Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun, back from winter exile. You have chosen this time to make a pilgrimage to the mountain of the tengu king.
Through the dense overgrowth, shifting light stirs the morning mist. You close your eyes to better hear the voice of the forest sharp and crisp. Pop! Snap! The crack of high branches echoes against the whirring wing-beats of a crane in flight.
You open your eyes to see its elegant neck extended as the magnificent white bird rises above the canopy into a graceful glide. Its quavering voice is a haunting trumpet.
Near the lower branch, from where the sleek bird took flight, a raven perches. Its ebony feathers glisten like emeralds, as if jewels shine beneath the dark pinions.
“Did you frighten the crane?” You smile, pretending the sassy bird can understand your words.
Head cocked to one side, the bird waits, as one shrewd eye seems to watch your every move. The next instant, the brute flies at you face.
The tip end of one black wing flicks your nose sending a shock wave of surprise roiling down your spine to quake in the pit of your stomach, while the raven’s sharp beak snaps close to your ear. Then in a swooping motion, it flies away only to double back, diving, and then grabbing onto the slope of your shoulder. The unruly fowl digs its claws into you for an unsteady perch.
The peppery scent of pine needles fills the air as you wait with expectation, for the sharp talons to pierce your flesh. They never do. Still, you stare in wonder because the almond eyes of the raven, too close for comfort beside your own, are not what you would expect. They are human-like.
The pungent scent grows in intensity making your nose itch. The next instant, the fiend lifts off into the air and settles on the ground a short distance from your feet.
A gathering mist shifts around the bird, settling like smoke from an incense bowl the priests use to call out their incantations. It reminds you of dregs left from a magician’s spell cast in the purple dawn.
In the raven’s place, there stands a man, or at first glance what seems to be a human man. A circlet of gold lies atop his black hair flecked with glistening emerald lights feathered across elfish-point ears.
His jeweled eyes sparkle with mischief as they watch you from above a beak-shaped nose that juts from the center of a scarlet-blush face and a smirk that pulls haughtily at the creature’s lips. Blue-black wings, crimson tipped, fold against his broad shoulders, where muscled arms hang crisscrossed against his chest. Powerful legs stretch from a human torso ending in bare feet where the nails of the creature’s toes curl under, more like claws than fingernails.
You gape in wordless wonder, for you stand in the presence of a tengu mountain goblin. Choose your next words and actions very carefully. Although the tengu like to make mischief rarely do they enjoy turn about as fair play…
In the summertime of old Japan, when the oppressive heat and humidity rendered daylight activity all but unbearable, people longed for the night and the scant relief brought by the setting sun. There, amidst a chorus of frogs and insects serenading the coming of the dance of the dead, the people played a game called, “A Gathering of 100 Ghostly Tales”, and silently the spirits would return.
100 lit candles were placed in a circle, and the players each told a ghoulish tale. As each tale ended, the storyteller doused a single candle. As the light slowly faded the tension rose. The game was said to be a ritual of evocation, the expiration of each story and each candle summoned more spiritual energy, transforming the room into a beacon for the dead. With the vanishing of the final light, someone or something terrible was found waiting in the darkness… This story is for the first lit candle…
You sit the garden near the Palace in the once Imperial City of Kyoto. It is a beautiful spring day. In fact you are fortunate to have planned your visit to Japan the very day the cherry blossoms are at the most glorious. As you admire the scenery, a young woman happens by and sits on the bench near you. When she turns your way, she smiles sweetly and asks if you have ever heard the story of Tamamo-no-Mae? You shrug and tell her it is your first day in Japan and no you have never heard the story.
Again, the young woman smiles sweetly and gets a far off look in her eyes. This is when you see the smooth, black stone she holds in her hands. It has the glossy look of obsidian, the kind of rock thrown millennia before from the pit of Mount Fuji. You find it odd that the young woman is caressing the glossy stone as if it is a pet of some sort.
You’re not sure why, but a shiver runs up your spine at this particular moment. Your first inclination is to jump up and hurry back to your hotel. But you stay thinking how silly you are being on such a beautiful day with such a pleasant companion to talk to.
As the young woman continues to pet her stone, she begins to tell a story, of a priest named, Gennoh who decided to see the world, so the next morning he and his servant packed their belongings and left the city. One day on their journey, they were crossing a field when they saw a bird fall dead from the sky. They found out in the village that the bird had flown to near Nasuno, the death stone.
A village woman told the priest and his servant, “It is a good thing you did not go too close. You see, the stone steals the life from whatever touches it. Inside the stone is the spirit of Lady Tamamo-no-Mae.
“Who?” the priest asked, confused as to the significance of the spirit.
The woman shook her head and continued. “It is said that the spirit that resides inside the death rock once destroyed kings in both India and China and was later a consort to the Japanese Emperor, Toba. Tamamo-no-mae was her name. She was both beautiful and wise, but her heart was filled with evil.
“Late one night during a concert at the end of autumn, all the lamps in the emperor’s garden suddenly blew out. To everyone’s horror and amazement, Tamamo-no-mae began to glow like the full moon. Soon after this, Emperor Toba became deathly ill.
“His Astrologer cast the Emperor’s fortune and found that it was Tamamo-no-mae who had caused the Emperor’s illness.
The Astrologer began an exorcism which in turn caused Tamamo-no-mae to writhe in torment. To escape her punishment, she leapt into the air and landed far away on the Nasuno plain.
“But the Emperor sent warriors to find and destroy her. They chased her into a trench and shot arrows at her until her life drained away. It was then that she became the Death-Rock, which has killed all who come too close.”
The young woman sitting near to you smiles once again, but this time you see a gleam in her dark eyes that can only be described as feral. Again, you shiver, but not from the cold.
The young woman rises from the bench. Her back is to you now, but she is still speaking. “That day, Gennoh, the priest did a second exorcism on the stone. The spirit of Tomama-no-mae appeared, begging forgiveness, promising to do good all the rest of her days.”
Silence falls across the garden and you wait to hear the rest of the story. Instead, the young woman walks away. As she does, you see a swishing fox tail following directly behind her and a pale radiance like the moon glowing out from her body.
Much to your horror, your throat begins to feel tight as if someone’s fingers clench around your windpipe. You find that you can no longer draw a breath. In your desperation you look down to see the black stone the young woman was holding now sits on the bench only a foot or so from you. You reach out as if to knock the rock to the ground. Instead, you collapse beneath the bench where only moments before you sat upright.
A couple, walking in the garden, sees your distress and hurries toward. You try to tell them not to come closer. You gesture toward the glistening black rock that seems to writhe as if alive. But the words stick in your throat. You hear jeering laughter like the wind whistling through the tree tops. The next instant everything goes dark as the first candle is blown out…