A Tokyo Ghost Story: The Angry Spirit of Taira no Masakado

  • Tokyo is one of the most densely populated areas in the world: more than 6000 people live in 1 square kilometer in this metropole. This also means that space is scarce, and especially in popular downtown districts every square meter is utilized to the maximum. This makes it all the more surprising to find a piece of land the size of a small office building near Tokyo Station dedicated to a small, unassuming temple. It is the place where according to legends, more than 1000 years ago the head of one of the first samurais, Taira no Masakado, crashed down after a furious flight from Kyoto.

    Who was this samurai, and why are people so afraid of his spirit that even 1000 years after his head allegedly came down here they won’t move his shrine?

    The Traitor of Kyoto

    In the 10th century, Japan’s capital city was in Kyoto, and Taira no Masakado was a minor, but successful warlord who found himself on the wrong side of the court of the Emperor. It is said that although Masakado himself tried everything he could to stay on the right side of the law, the court thought otherwise. They said that as he already was a wanted criminal by the court, he thought he could just as well conquer as much of the area as he could, and started to call himself the New Emperor. They branded him a traitor to the Emperor, and there was only one fit punishment for that back in the year 940.

    Flying Head

    Even though Taira no Masakado was probably trying to get a pardon from the court, they put a bounty on his head. Soon after Masakado and his men were found, and Masakado was killed. His head was then cut off and brought to Kyoto to be put on display. The legend goes that Masakado’s head was so furious that it took flight on its own, all the way back to Tokyo where Masakado originally came from. It frantically searched its body, but never found it and crashed on the spot that is now Otemachi, close to Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace. After it crashed, villagers found it, washed it and buried it. They erected a shrine to appease its fury and faithfully honored Masakado’s spirit with ceremonies.

    The Shrine that Can’t Be Moved

    Fast forward almost a thousand years, and a large metropolis has replaced the once sleepy fishing village. Office buildings have been erected all around the shrine, and the shrine’s ground seems untouched. This is not entirely true, though…

    After the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, the Ministry of Finance wanted to take the opportunity to get rid of the shrine, and put an office building in its place. Within 2 years, the Minister of Finance and 14 other office workers have died, mostly of unnatural causes. Among the other employees, unexplainable injuries broke out, mostly to the feet and legs. Because officials got scared after all these maybe not-so-accidental looking accidents, the building was replaced by a shrine again, and a Shinto ritual was held yearly to appease the angry spirit.

    Then, during the course of WWII, people were too busy to hold the Shinto ritual, and in 1940 exactly on the 1000 year anniversary of Taira no Masakado’s death a lightning bolt struck the building next to the shrine, destroying most of it. A large Shinto ceremony was held again, and a stone memorial was erected on the site of the shrine that still stands there today.

    But the story doesn’t end there. When the US occupied Japan after the end of WWII, the Americans found the space of Taira’s shrine a fine area to make a parking space for their military vehicles. When they tried to level it, a bulldozer flipped over and the driver was killed. When more accidents started happening after that, and Japanese officials begged the Americans to leave the spot alone, peace was restored again to the final resting place of Taira no Masakado’s head.

    Whether you believe in ghosts or not, you will probably still get the chills when you visit this place. Do you dare to pay Taira no Masakado’s shrine a visit?

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