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