Halloween means crisp autumn weather and a chance to tour Tokyo’s ghastly haunts. Steve Trautlein gets in the spirit.

At first blush, Tokyo appears to be a most uncreepy place. With its concrete sprawl and teeming millions, the city belies our typical view of haunted areas as being rural and deserted. Yet from its pre-modern origin as a simple fishing village through its rise to world prominence, Tokyo has been dogged by the ghostly and the inexplicable. And, as is true of any big city where people live, love and occasionally kill each other, the metropolis has been host to its share of lurid and shocking crimes. So why not celebrate Halloween this year by venturing out on a ghoulish journey to some of Tokyo’s abominable places?


Trash in Inokashira Park concealed a gruesome horror in 1993

The city’s inhabitants themselves delight in the uncanny and the prurient. Each summer sees a debate over the prime minister paying homage to the spirits of the war dead at Chiyoda-ku’s Yasukuni Shrine, while even minor crimes involving the well-known—like the recent hit-and-run incident involving SMAP’s Goro Inagaki in Shibuya—get lead coverage on evening newscasts.


Uneasy spirits
Such an obsession with the seamy and supernatural has its origin in Japan’s ancient past. Indeed, though isolated for most of its history, Japan has developed folk tales that resemble to the ghost stories of other cultures. The Japanese traditionally divide dwellers of the nether regions into two broad categories. Yuurei are the spirits of the dead that for some reason are still kicking around, while bakemono are bizarre, inhuman creatures whose various forms number in the hundreds. The half-man, half-bird tengu, probably the most famous of the bakemono, is often represented on festival masks that call to mind those of central Africa. And the conventional image of the yuurei as having elongated arms and no legs almost exactly resembles the iconography of Western spirits.

Perhaps the longest suffering yuurei is that of Taira no Masakado, a 10th-century warrior and pretender to the imperial throne who sought to relocate the seat of power to Kanto. Killed in Chiba in AD 940, Taira was decapitated and his head shipped backed to the emperor in Kyoto, with inexplicable phenomena following. It’s said that the head showed no signs of aging and eventually found its way back to Shibasaki (pre-Edo Tokyo), where fearful villagers entombed it in a shrine near what is now Otemachi.  

It’s said that the head showed no signs of aging and eventually found its way back to Shibasaki (pre-Edo Tokyo), where fearful villagers entombed it in a shrine near what is now Otemachi.  

Taira no Masakado's head rests peacefully in Otemachi

Over the succeeding centuries, various efforts to relocate the shrine proved disastrous, most notably when attempted by the Finance Ministry in the early 20th century. Following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, officials decided to rebuild their offices on the site of Taira’s grave. By one account, over a dozen ministry officials died soon thereafter and the ministry again perished in flames. Today, Taira’s head—with a small and well-attended-to shrine—lies under the towering Mitsui Corporation headquarters in Otemachi (2-1 Nihonbashi-Hongokucho, Ginza line Mitsukoshimae stn). According to the warrior’s “online resume” (, the would-be emperor is now content.

From at least the time of Dante’s fated traveler—who passed through a dark wood only to arrive at the mouth of a forbidding gate—transitional spaces like doors, tunnels and bridges have been fraught with supernatural import. To the Japanese, too, these areas often symbolize passages to the otherworldly. In Akira Kurosawa’s beautiful, hypnotic Yume (“Dreams,” 1990), an officer returning from World War II encounters, close by a rural highway tunnel, a ghostly platoon comprised of men who died under his command. Adding a postmodern twist, the Ring movies depict televisions as passageways through which the recently undead snatch their victims.

Tokyo, with its narrow byways and limited space, is forced to build tunnels in some undesirable places. One such passage lies under the cemetery of Senjuin Shrine in Harajuku, on the street that runs from the station to Jingu Stadium. Perhaps inevitably, Sendagaya Tunnel has developed a reputation as host to mysterious happenings. Legend has it that a woman is sometimes seen running next to cars driving through; others have reported faces appear in windows and windshields. In one story of a woman hails a cab and then vanishes when the driver reaches her destination.


War story
Perhaps the best known of Tokyo’s haunted sites is the area now occupied by the Sunshine 60 Building in Ikebukuro's sprawling Sunshine City, which lies just east of the station. Once lying in a largely ignored area of town, the neighborhood became a fukutoshin (subcenter) after opposition in more populated districts moved the construction of a Yamanote line stop there. A series of prisons were built on the site starting with the Sugamo Prison in 1895 and continuing through to late 1971, including Tokyo Kochijo [detention center], which hosted the execution of seven Class A war criminals on December 23, 1948. Among them was the wartime prime minister, Hideki Tojo.

When economic considerations forced the destruction of the prison in the ’70s—the grounds could be seen from the upper floors of the Seibu department store, clearly unacceptable—Tojo’s yuurei was apparently not pleased. Despite the Buddhist purification ritual that is traditionally performed before all such projects, the site of what was to become Japan’s tallest building was hampered by a string of inexplicable happenings. Workers were hurt in bizarre accidents, while others reported feeling eerie presences and refused to return.

            After completion, Sunshine 60 became a magnet for suicides, recording 150 jumpers over one 10-year period. Then, on August 14, 1979, passers-by saw huge fireballs swarming about the upper floors of the building. Various explanations have been offered, including the observation that the fireballs are associated with the souls of the dead and that they appeared around the anniversary of World War II. Tojo, it appears, rests uneasily.


Crime sprees
A tour of the more notorious areas of Tokyo does not have to be limited to those associated with the supernatural or otherworldly. Ordinary citizens have often enough been the sole authors of bizarre and ghastly acts, some well remembered and recent, others older and almost forgotten.

            One incident that captivated the city occurred in 1936 in Arakawa-ku. In what was then the Hotel Masaki—but which is now a staid Japanese-style house at 1-8-81 Oku-cho—a maid entered one of the rooms to find a gruesome sight: the occupants castrated and blood-soaked corpse.


Graffito adorns the forbidding Sendagaya Tunnel

Word soon got out, and a breathless public delighted in every lurid detail: Messages written in blood were found about the room, including on the victim’s thigh; the prime suspect, Miss Sada Abe, was a former prostitute then employed at the dead man’s restaurant; the two had been engaged in a passionate affair that involved strangulation techniques designed to increase their erotic pleasure; and, most titillating of all, the murdered man’s manhood was nowhere to be found.

            Apprehended two days later in the Shinagawa-kan Hotel—today it’s the Shuwa Shinagawa Building near Takanawadai station—Abe produced the carefully wrapped organ and gave a full confession. She was sentenced to seven years in prison and became a cult heroine, with dozens of books and films—including 1976’s Ai no corrida—chronicling the incident.

            Farther north lies Kichijoji’s Inokashira park, a place not always as placid as a stroll through makes it seem today. On June 13, 1948, the writer Osamu Dazai—author of the novel No Longer Human and a genuine literary star—and his mistress drowned themselves in the Tama River. Certain evidence suggested that Dazai was dead when he hit the water, leading to speculation that his lover actually killed him before drowning herself—believable, as she had stated in her diary the previous year that she would go to her grave with the famous novelist. A small memorial now stands in the park, which lies near Mitaka station.

            No such commemoration is given to the events that occurred there on April 24, 1993, when a plastic bag was found containing partial human remains. Twenty-four other such bags eventually turned up, leading to the incident being called the Inokashira Park Bara-Bara (spread out) Murder. The victim’s head—as well as the murderer—were never found.

            One Tokyo institution actually devoted to heinous acts is the Keiji Hakubutsukan, a name that literally translates as “Criminal Museum.” A more fitting appellation might be “Torture Museum” because, alongside the nasty-looking billy clubs and similar devices used to ensure public tranquility, there are replicas of a an iron maiden and other inquisition-inspired contraptions. Must-see items include oversized woodblock prints depicting various criminal upbraidings—including a triptych showing the painful consequences of “hectoring the stepchild”—as well as photographs of severed heads mounted on posts and depictions of the persecutions of early Christians.

            Tops, though, are the implements with a distinctively Japanese flavor. The “torture rock” depicts a bound criminal kneeling on pointed boards while massive stone slabs are lowered onto his thighs. Other horrors, lavishly illustrated and labeled in quaint English as “examinations by torture to extort confessions,” include: whipping, branding, hanging, tying—can bodies really bend like that?!—crucifixion, “slogging,” and “sawing the neck of a criminal exposed to the public.” Entrance to the museum, located on the campus of Meiji University (JR Sobu or subway Jimbocho stn), is free.

As are all the spots mentioned here. Money isn’t required for a tour of haunted and lurid spots around town, only an appreciation of the mysterious and the seamy. So, if you’re game, explore the city’s dark underbelly during the bright days of autumn. All you need is an open mind and a strong stomach.



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