“10 minutes past midnight. Waiting at the red light. A faint shrieking voice pierces the darkness. The yellow lights of the long narrow tunnel ahead, flicker for an instant. The traffic light turns green. He grabs the steering wheel with sweaty hands and the car slowly slides into the darkness…”
It’s already summer and summer is the season for telling horror stories in Japan. For some people, on the other hand, it’s also the best time for kimodameshi, passing a test of courage and visiting haunted or creepy places.
Here is my top 5 selection of the most awe-inspiring spots in Kansai area.
Ironic name for an amusement park that has become one of the creepiest places all over Japan. Open in 1961, the park was meant to be a copy of Disneyland and with almost 1.6 million visitors a year at its peak, it surely was one of the greatest attractions of the area. However, with Tokyo Disneyland and USJ opening in Osaka in 2001, the interest for Nara Dreamland dropped radically, until the number of visitors became so scarce that the closure was unavoidable. It happened on 31 August 2006. Ever since, everything was left behind, from roller coasters to merry go rounds, like in a suspended state.
Grass, trees, and bushes engulfed the former playgrounds while rust and dirt completely covered the shine that the place once bore. From 2013 on, the former amusement park started to gather the attention of foreign bloggers who managed to get inside and take pictures. These pictures(including the one above) became so viral that the Japanese interest for the ruins of Nara Dreamland rose exponentially. At present, the place gathers youngsters who want to test their courage, just like 20 years ago it did so but in a totally less grim atmosphere. Since 2014, there have been Japanese bloggers who claimed that the place is not only extremely creepy, but also the place of supernatural events, including objects moving all of a sudden, shadows crawling behind the abandoned buildings, weird sounds… However, there is little to no evidence of any suspicious deaths connected to the amusement park, therefore the probability of Dreamland being a haunted spot is extremely low.
Haunted or not, the place is growing into one of the most frightening, nightmare inducing Japanese ruins. Definitely not a Dreamland anymore, but still beautiful in its own eerie way.
As far as haunted places and ghost stories go, there is probably no better place than Kyoto. Not only does the old capital have an abundance of ancient temples and shrines, but also if you dwell into the background story of their places, most of them are somehow connected to a bloody historical event that was afterwards turned into some terrifying and just as bloody legend. Kubitsuka Daimyojin is a good example of how history becomes legend and legends give life to a present day haunted spot.
Situated on road 9, near Oi no saka, the tiny- one would say even shabby- shrine doesn’t gather much attention during the day. The story of the place is based on the Heian period story, Shutendouji whose main character is a demon. Shutendouji lives in the Oe mountain, with his demonic peer, and from time to time goes into the capital, Heiankyou( Kyoto’s former name) killing, raping and abducting young women. To put an end to this pillage, the court sends Minamoto Raiko with 3 other heroes(among which Watanabe Tsuna, famous for the Rashomon demon-slaying adventure) to kill Shutendouji. They find him in an iron palace, and with the help of a few magical items, including some wine that makes demons reveal their true face, they cut the Shutendouji’s head.
It’s particularly this – the head of Shutendouji – that is apparently buried under the Kubitsuka Shrine and the reason why this place was built to begin with. Raiko and his crew brought the demon’s head as close as possible to the capital they were allowed so that the kegare, the spiritual foulness doesn’t spread into the town. Oi no saka was a crossroads and also a barrier against evil spirits according to the Japanese feng shui practices, therefore best place to bury the head of a demon, in order to exorcise its power and also close enough to the capital so that anyone can check the authenticity of the story, far enough to keep Kyoto safe from any demonic attack. The shrine built upon the tomb, Kubitsuka (literally the tomb of the head) is meant to pacify the evil spirit, and has been doing that quite successfully, considering the fact that nowadays there is even a Shutendouji matsuri and people come to Kubitsuka to pray for health. Needless to say, the place has been used by Japanese “ghost busters” for years. The Shutendouji legend, the eerie atmosphere, and the lack of visitors most times of the year make it the perfect place for a haunting story.
And speaking of Kyoto, one cannot just skip Fushimi Inari, on the list of places that give you the chills. Famous among Japanese and insanely popular among foreigners, the huge shrines covers almost the whole surface of the mountain on which is built. It worships the Inari god, deity of the harvest and economic growth, usually represented in the form of a fox. The gates of the shrine are actually guarded by 2 fierce-looking kitsune, and that only is enough to make you feel there is something odd about the place. As a piece of advice, don’t stare into their eyes, the legend goes that the person who looks the statues in the eyes, will never leave the Shrine alive.
And speaking of legends, this place is full of them. One story goes that the couples who climb the mountain through the thousand gates, at twilight, will both disappear and if they ever come back again to the real world, they will be completely amnesiac. Needless to say, this is a variation of the kamikakushi legend, of children being spirited away by certain gods, being introduced to the beauties of the life beyond the veil and then taken back to their homes, incapable, however, of remembering what happened to them. There have been cases of children gone missing in the Fushimi Inari perimeter, and many have become local legends.
There is also the story of the 4 hanged bodies. A whole family, a father and 3 children were found hanging by the neck from the torii’s at sunrise. Most blamed the father for what seemed like a forced suicide, yet, there was nothing that the father could have used as a platform to hang himself after killing the children. In a word, one of the many mysteries of the place and the fuel for another local legend.
Fushimi Inari is completely different from any so called shinrei spotto (haunted places) maybe because the supernatural entity behind the inexplicable events is in fact, a god. Which doesn’t make the place less creepier, on the contrary, the more you advance into the mountain, and the closer you get to the main temple, you can literally feel shivers down your spine, and it’s not because of the cold.
In case you want to enhance the experience, don’t forget to visit the Tsurugi ishi 劔石 a sacred stone in which the spirit of the god of Thunder(raijin) himself, or maybe the Hachimagaike no oohachi shima, an adjacent shrine, whose name (oohachi shima) is the same with the name of the Japanese islands as they are first mentioned in Kojiki. If you also consider that the whole mountain on which the shrines are built, Kannabi yama 神奈備山 is the main body of the Inari God, you can say you got the number 1 must-go of the Japanese creepy places.
One more shrine in Kyoto with a dark tradition covered by the shiny surface of the red gates and golden decorations. Kifune Jinja is considered to be the place of origin of the ‘ushi no koku mairi’ curse.
‘Ushi no koku mairi’ which literally means ‘ox-time shrine visit’ relates to the Japanese tradition according to which curses and evil practices are more effective during certain times of day. For instance, demons and ogres oni and youkai tend to surface around twilight(between 6-8 PM, tasogare doki or kawatare doki or oumagatoki). Ghosts prefer midnight to make their appearance. Ushi no koku refers to the interval between 1-3 AM, and the reason why it is called ‘ox-time’ is because according to the Chinese system of reckoning time( called in Japan juunishi ) each two hours of the 24 had one corresponding animal, and the one for the 1-3 AM interval was the ox.
It’s no coincidence that the ox time is considered the best one to perform a curse. The North-East direction, from which demons are thought to come through, is also called the ox-tiger direction (ushitora hougaku). Also, come to think of it, all the representations of the Japanese demon feature a tiger skin and bull horns, definitely in relation to the above. The ushi no koku mairi curse is indeed most effective between 1-3 AM because the demonic powers are also more influential and more active during the ox time. But what does this curse consist of?
According to the tradition the curse is performed by a woman who, most of the times, dressed in white, shows up at the shrine during the ox time and hammers nails into a Shinto tree. Variations of the tradition, most of them recent ones, imply that the curse needs a straw effigy of the person it is directed to, or sometimes, one of their personal belongings. Once these objects are nailed to a sacred tree, it takes no more than 7 days until the cursed person dies in a gruesome way.
There are many theories that consider Kifune jinja the place of origin of the curse. Most of them are derived from the belief that if you visit the shrine on the year, month, day and hour of the ox, any wish you have will come true. Since any wish can come true, so can curses, which are nothing more than wishing something bad happen to your enemy, therefore the conversion of the initial meaning.
Nowadays, it’s hard to find any solid proof that the practice is still going on. However, judging by the considerable number of blog posts bringing up the legend, you can definitely say the belief is still deeply rooted in the social consciousness. Some bloggers state having actually seen a woman hammering nails into a straw doll, some that they even found shoes or pieces of clothing nailed into the sacred trees… Some are more reluctant and only express the weird feeling, like a bad omen, they had when they passed by certain goshinboku sacred trees inside the shrine’s perimeter. Be that as it may, the shrine is definitely a top 10 creepy places in Japan. Whether you believe in the curse or not, it’s better to avoid the ox-time for a visit. Not to scare you or anything, but even those who witness the curse -irrespective of the fact that the curse is not for them- will be affected by it… In a more or less gruesome way.
Named many times the scariest place in Japan, the Kiyotaki Tunnel has been gathering the public interest for decades.
During the Namboku period(1336-1392) it was a battlefield as well as an execution place, therefore it stands to reason that it wouldn’t have been that difficult to become a haunted spot. Or at least to fuel the imagination of those who believe it is. Built in 1929 the tunnel has a distinct creepy atmosphere, enhanced by the yellow lights and the moss-covered walls. However, the reports about supernatural sightings in the area only started after a girl committed suicide in the late 90s. Her skelleton was found in 1998 haging by the neck, very close to the tunnel.
After that the ghost stories surrounding the place practically exploded.
The ghosts people claim to have seen are mostly women, old, young, some crying some angry, some fully visible, some only showing themselves in the rear window. Others heard a wailing male voice as if coming from the walls of the tunnel. Not surprising considering the number of construction workers who died while building the structure.
There is also a scary local story regarding the traffic lights in the area. If by any chance the traffic light before the tunnel shows green don’t rush to catch it. This is, as the legend goes, a light from the other side, inviting you in. Disregard his advice, and the tunnel you get in will be populated by all sorts of ghosts trying to end your life. If the light is green let it turn red -of course, first pull over- and when it turns green again you can safely pass.
The belief is so deeply rooted that you can actually see cars pulled over on the side of the road, and people looking worried at the color of the traffic light.
The only place on the list that already underwent demolition a long time ago. Even so, a constant and recurrent presence in Osaka’s modern scary stories.
Situated on road number 63, in Sennan city, at a crossroads, the building was named Marui Hospital because of its round shape. Unlike many hospitals which draw their names from the specific location where they stand, Marui Hospital was literally the Round Hospital, ◯井病院, an extremely unfamiliar name for a medical facility.
While still functioning, the hospital was famous for the rumors about many deaths during surgery, up to a point that people started claiming that anyone who gets surgery there definitely dies. This might be actually considered the beginning of the scary stories related to the hospital, and definitely the reason that caused the downfall of the facility and its inevitable closure.
After this, as happens with most ruins, people started spreading rumors of a haunting. Some claimed it is the ghost of a nurse, some, that it’s the dead patients.
Most stated they saw lights turning on and off by themselves in the surgery room. The most extreme stories told how if you picked up one of the medical records spread all over the place, you’d end up being harassed by a phantom call asking you to give them back.
These are only a few of the scary places Kansai area offers to locals and visitors. Old shrines, ruined amusement parks, deserted hotels and hospitals, dark tunnels, they come in many shapes. And as frightening as they might be, they keep attracting people in search of a few rushes of adrenaline and a new scary story to tell everybody this summer.