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Japanese ghosts and where to find them

Some of the most popular horror movies ever made have come from Japan. The most famous of which might be The Ring, which is about a cursed videotape that kills the viewer about a week after watching it. It’s almost as frightening as confronting the persistent NHK man who comes knocking on your door to collect the TV license fee.

For those of you interested in what the Japanese do after they snuff it, folklore here is full of great ghost stories. One of the terms used is yurei (幽霊), which means faint spirit. If a soul cannot move on to join its ancestors, perhaps due to a tragic death or unfinished business, it transforms into a yurei which exists on earth and haunts somewhere until the conflict that ties it to our world can be resolved.

Should have watched Takeshi's Castle instead

A lot of the themes from these traditional tales reappear in contemporary urban legends and pop culture, often to deal with how Japan has adapted to rapid technological change. Once again, this juxtaposition of old and new is still one of the most fascinating parts of living here.

This time let’s look at how traditional beliefs crop up in present-day Tokyo weirdness by checking out a few of the places you might experience some ghostly happenings.

The Yurei Izakaya

The first place to look is the Yurei Izakaya in Kichijoji, a Japanese bar/restaurant dedicated to all things ghoulish. There are various morbid decorations such as a stage with a full-sized coffin, plus a smoke machine and even spiders that fall from the ceiling when you clap. The waitresses are ghosts dressed in traditional funeral clothes and the bathroom is decorated with contorted faces:

A typical scene from my TOEIC exam class

I actually ended up going there for my birthday just over a month ago. My friends and I sampled the ten course menu which included various dishes named after things like eyeballs. After the food, the waitress made a little speech to the restaurant about my ‘deathday’ or something, and dressed me in a white kimono for burial. I was then instructed to get in the coffin.

Nick was particularly distraught

I imagine most Japanese customers play along and adopt a pseudo-sombre mood but my friends weren’t so obliging. The waitress seemed to be a little distressed when she asked them to lay flowers by my head and most were placed on (or thrown at) my crotch. I also imagine she was used to Japanese customers saying a genuine goodbye message to the departed, not the “Fuck you, Simon, we’re glad you’re dead!” that I heard as the coffin lid closed.

I was expecting to get a little claustrophobic in there but it was genuinely quite pleasant. I’m not sure what that says about my hectic work schedule here.

Overall it was a successfully spooky night and I’d totally go again, although I think one deathday per lifetime is enough. Instead of using the actual Kanji for ghost, the izakaya apparently uses similar sounding characters which mean ‘play’ and beautiful’, so it’s more of a quirky place to hang out rather than a full-on horror experience.

Indeed, the only genuine look of terror during the night belonged to our tiny waitress, when my almost seven foot tall and slightly inebriated friend Cian asked a little too forcefully why exactly he couldn’t get another alcoholic drink after last orders. Poor girl.

The bathroom at your school

As an English teacher, I knew Japanese schools weren't safe long before I heard the story of Hanako-san.

According to the urban legend ofトイレのはなこさん - or Hanako of the toilet - a young girl called Hanako haunts the third stall in all girls’ school bathrooms. If you knock three times and ask: “Are you there, Hanako-san?” you will hear “I’m here” in reply. Then if you open the door, she’ll drag you in and kill you.

Thankfully my Japanese isn’t good enough to initiate the conversation, so I’ll probably be OK.

In some versions of the story she was killed in a bombing raid during the war. In others she was murdered by an abusive adult. Either way it’s sort of like the Japanese version of Bloody Mary, except with schoolgirls. I mean, it’s Japan. Of course it’s with schoolgirls.

And you thought the worst thing you’d have to deal with in the bathroom here was a bizarre futuristic toilet.

Shibuya and Roppongi at Halloween

If you want to see something truly crazy, go to Shibuya or Roppongi at night on October 31st or the surrounding weekend. Halloween is a very Western celebration but it has been fully embraced here. I guess this is the country that invented cosplay. The result is crowds of young people in their thousands wandering the streets until early the next morning, barhopping, spilling out of clubs and drinking outside convenience stores.

The outfits range from professionally scary to ridiculous, with cute and sexy in between, as well as some that are just down right bizarre. It feels more like a music festival than a night out and strolling around drunkenly talking to costumed strangers with a can of something potent in your hand is both preposterous and sort of glorious. At least until you wake up the following afternoon in your Where’s Wally jumper with a hangover that lasts three days.

My favourite Halloween experience was my first one here. My friend Cooper and I had absolutely no idea what to go as so we went to tax-free megastore Don Quijote, which has a huge selection of ready-to-wear costumes. I settled on a popular Japanese character I had recently discovered called Rilakkuma, meaning bear in a relaxed mood.

I looked at least this adorable

Cooper agreed that a onesie would be a snug choice for a chilly October night of prowling the streets and invested in one of a different bear character which had a more menacing look. I think it's called Gloomy Bear:

We met up at our friend Kevin’s place later while he was applying face paint for his Simpsons' Ned Flanders costume, had a few drinks, then walked to the station to make our way to Roppongi.

On our way, we came across an unconscious homeless man who had presumably drunkenly passed out and knocked over his trolley of belongings. We stopped to check if he was OK, forgetting that all three of us were in full costume.

The unfortunate bastard awoke disorientated to see three foreigners, one dressed as Rilakkuma, one basically just an Irishman in yellow-face, and the other a black guy dressed as a black bear covered in blood, all standing over him, speaking in broken Japanese. I doubt he even knew it was Halloween. With a baffled expression and a glazed smile, he picked up his things and stumbled away.

I like to think that one experience probably got him sober and turned his life around.

Check out this video from Tokyo Cheapo for the full Tokyo Halloween experience

Your own apartment

The suicide rate in Japan is particularly high for various reasons. Mostly due to social stresses that I won’t go into, but also because I guess honourable suicide has a long history in Japan. From samurai committing harakiri (腹切り) in order protect their honour and avoid being captured, all the way to kamikaze pilots and banzai charges during WW2. I’m sure I once heard a student shout “long live the emperor!” when they handed in their final writing assignment.

The most popular way to kill yourself in Tokyo is to jump in front of a train at the station. Usually the exact one I need to catch to go to work. The second most popular is to do it in your own house. This has lead to what is known as Jiko Bukken, or stigmatised apartments.

It looks absolutely fine to me. Wait, what was that noise?

I came across this term during my recent hunt for accommodation when I saw a place on Craigslist that didn't have all the usual high move-in fees that are common in Japan. The agent’s email correspondence seemed rather slimy and a quick Googling revealed that not too long ago, a woman living there had lobbed herself off the balcony.

These properties are notoriously hard to get rid of and agencies are supposed to be legally obliged to tell you if anything happened. Depending on how superstitious you are, you could get a fantastic bargain. Or an unwanted houseguest.

Still an improvement over some of my university housemates

The housing website Suumo actually tried this tactic once by advertising some stigmatised properties as ‘ideal for singles,’ with a picture of a cute and friendly ghost.

For me, life in Tokyo is stressful enough with additional psychological terror. After a busy day teaching and a long journey crammed in a train carriage with my face in someone’s armpit, the last thing I want to do is participate in a scene from Paranormal Activity:

Don't worry, that's not my apartment. It's far too big

It did cross my mind that some of the agencies who rent to foreigners here and offer low move-in costs might be taking advantage of these types of properties…

Last year I rented an apartment from a popular agency but I didn't experience any spooky happenings during my stay. Except for just after I moved out when a large sum of money mysteriously disappeared from my deposit.

However, I’m pretty sure a ghost didn’t fucking take it.

That much for new curtains? Really? I know who I'm going to haunt if I get stuck in this world as a yurei. And forget the white kimono, I know what I'll be wearing too.

Photo credit: Yurei Izakaya - David Morrow, Hanako-san - Jpinfo, Halloween - Flickr (Hideya Hamano, Tim Brockley), Wikimedia Commons.