Continuing with our summer ghost theme, we’re taking a look at one of the oldest collections in English of Japanese superstitions and ghost stories. Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things was written in 1904 by Lafcadio Hearn and features 17 Japanese fables translated into English.
We’ve written a bit about Mr. Hearn before. He has many collections to his name, but Kwaidan is perhaps the most famous thanks in no small part to the 1965 Japanese horror anthology film of the same name. The film version adapted stories from that collection as well as a couple other collections that he published during his lifetime.
What follows are 5 of the spookiest stories available from Hearn, as well as links to where you can read the original tales yourself. So turn down the lights, snuggle up with the reading device of your choice and enjoy the frights.
Just a fair warning, there are some spoilers ahead.
Traditional art depicting the jikininki
A jikininki is a kind of goblin or demon that eats human flesh, and the topic of the first story on our list. A traveling priest asks for shelter at the house of a resident priest, but is refused entry. The resident priest gives directions to the nearby village. After arriving, the priest discovers that the head of the village has died.
As is tradition in this village, all of the villagers must leave the body alone in the village and return in the morning. The traveling priest chooses to stay and recite prayers over the body. During the night, he witnesses the arrival of a shape that eats the body and the offerings that were placed by the villagers.
When the villagers return the next day, they’re not surprised by the traveling priest’s account of what happened. They are surprised by his mention of the resident priest, however. No priest has lived in or near the village for some time. The traveling priest decides to return to the house of the priest he met and learn the truth about the shape he saw in the night.
This is the original tale of the jikininki, but the creature has appeared in other media as well. Recently, Tokyo Cowboys production company produced a short film featuring the jikininki. Check out the trailer here.
Traditional art depicting rokurokubi
“Rokurokubi” is another story about a traveling priest. This time, however, the priest used to be a samurai until his master’s house fell into ruin. During the course of his travels, he meets a woodcutter who invites him to spend the night. When they arrive at the woodcutter’s home, there are several other guests already there.
The others greet him kindly, and all seems well enough. During the night, the priest recites sutras and then decides to get a drink of water. Out in the main room, he finds the headless bodies of all of the dwellers sitting around a fire pit in the middle of the room. At first, the priest suspects murder, but then sees that there is no blood and realizes he is dealing with demon spirits, rokurokubi.
The priest goes on to fight the demons, which makes this quite an action-packed story. It’s also an early example of the paranormal hunter character that can be found in so many stories, from Dracula‘s Van Helsing to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Traditional art depicting a mujina
In Tokyo, there is a road called the Kii-no-kuni-zaka which is a very long slope near Akasaka Palace. In the past, many pedestrians avoided the darkened road because of a creature called Mujina. One night, an old merchant happens upon a young woman crying by the side of the road. The old merchant tries to console her to no avail, and when she turns around, she reveals that she has no face.
Panicked, the merchant runs up the hill screaming. It is incredibly dark, but up ahead he spots a light which turns out to be from a soba stand. The old merchant throws himself at the feet of the soba seller and tries to explain what happened to him. When he looks up, the soba seller reveals that he too has no face. And all the lights go out.
The ending of the story is probably the most disturbing part of the tale. There is no resolution, just darkness and uncertainty. The thing that makes this story even more unnerving is that Kii-no-kuni-zaka still exists and you can visit it even today in Tokyo. Nowadays, it’s lined with street lights, but I’d still be wary walking alone late at night if I were you.
Hoichi as seen in the film Kwaidan
A young, blind man named Hoichi is renowned for his skill at playing the biwa. One night, while staying at a local temple, he is visited by what he assumes to be a guardsmen and told that a rich patron wishes for him to sing and play for his court.
Since Hoichi is of a lower class, he has no choice to obey the guard and follow him into the night. The descriptions of Hoichi being led first by the guardsmen, and then by a woman attendant through the many long hallways and matted rooms of the rich estate are especially effective and mysterious. This is because Hoichi is blind and the narrative reflects his vague awareness of his surroundings by giving the descriptions an unsure and unsettling nature.
It turns out that he’s been playing for spirits and in an attempt to break the evil spirits’ hold over Hoichi, the temple priest paints his entire body with holy inscriptions. Well, almost. The priest forgets to paint Hoichi’s ears.
This tale was one of the stories used in the film Kwaidan. The images of Hoichi covered from head to toe in sutras (see image above) are some of the most memorable in the film.
A scene from “The Black Hair” segment of Kwaidan
The last story is perhaps the spookiest and also the most heart-wrenching. It involves a samurai whose house has fallen into ruin. The only way to save his name is to divorce his loving wife and remarry another woman of a more successful house. After many years, he realizes the error of his ways and returns to find his first wife.
When he arrives at his old home, the entire house is in disarray with moldy floorboards and broken paper doors. He begins to fear that his former wife has gone away somewhere, but in the last room he finds her. They reunite and the samurai apologizes over and over. Eventually, they fall asleep next to each other.
The next morning… Well, I’m sure you can figure out what comes next. If you can’t, check the link below to read the full story. This tale was also used as the basis for “The Black Hair” section of the film Kwaidan. The film version has a very different conclusion that ends up being much more horrific than the original.