Growing up in the United States, one of the things I did every October was to sit around a campfire and tell ghost stories. Most of them are just stories, but the idea got me thinking. What about Japan? Are there are any good Tokyo ghost stories?
Almost every culture in the world has some belief in ghosts and spirits, Japan is no different. People do not speak openly about them, but rumors spread and stories are created to fill in the gaps. I’ve visited some places that have a bad reputation.
Tokyo Ghost Stories: Aokigahara
Aokigahara is considered one of the most notorious forests in the world. Several horror movies and novels use it as a setting, and it is considered to be one of the most haunted places in Japan.
People call Aokigahara the “Sea of Trees,” due to its dense growth and small human population. However, it has a more sinister name–“Suicide Forest.” Rightfully so, as over the years this location has seen a number of suicides. Due to the dense growth of the forest, bodies are often not found.
Aokigahara surrounds the base of Mount Fuji. The most commonly visited sites in the forest are the Ice Cave and the Wind Cave. There are several places to visit in the forest, but the caves are the best landmarks. Whether you find a ghost or not, this forest is one of the most unnerving locations on the list!
Reaching Aokigahara is no easy task for someone visiting Japan on a short vacation. Anyone attempting to visit the area considered haunted by locals must walk or drive from Kawaguchiko station.
Nearest Station: Kawaguchiko Station. Then take a bus, car, or walk Southwest. The forest is not close to the station.
Suicide Prevention Information:
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The Aoyama Cemetery is one of the largest in Tokyo, spread across a few kilometers. It is also one of the most silent places in the entire city. The cemetery is home to several mass graves and memorials to great disasters in Japanese history. It is also home to many family grave sites, but its most famous resident is not human at all. One of the most visited graves in Aoyama is the grave of Hachikō the dog, Professor Ueno’s loyal pet.
Nearest Station: 4-minute walk from Nogizaka Station (plan your route at the link and click on the Google Map below for walking directions)
Bakeneko Serving Maids of Shinagawa-ShukuShinagawa-shuku was one of the first stops from Edo on the Tokaido road. One might wonder why a traveler would stop so close to their destination (if headed to Edo) or only an hour from their starting point (if headed to Kyoto). But when one recalls the courtly intrigue, the strict etiquette, and the arranged marriages of the time, it is understandable why a traveling nobleman might decide to linger at the inns, restaurants, and tea-houses on the outskirts of the city (or why he might arrive late in the evening, in order to “get an early start” on his travels the next day).
The bakeneko serving maids of Shinagawa-shuku are a legend from that time. During the Edo period of Shinagawa-shuku’s history, women working as maids and waitresses often made extra money by moonlighting as prostitutes. Bakeneko, cats that could take on the shape of attractive women, infiltrated this substrata of society by taking on human lovers and (in darker stories) eating them.
Is there any truth to the legends? One theory offers a simpler explanation. Prostitutes weren’t allowed to eat or drink at the table of the men who had bought them, though they were still required to sit and pour sake. Inevitably the men would doze of, at which point the women would eat as quickly as they could. It’s easy to imagine a scene such as in the picture above, where someone wakes from a drunken stupor long enough to catch a glimpse of a woman from behind, leaning over a stolen meal.
The Kitashinagawa area still has a few hotels and many great restaurants, but all of the ladies working there are (or appear to be) human. However, there does seem to be a lot of cats in the neighborhood, so who really knows?
Nearest Station: Kitashinagawa Station (plan your route at the link)
At the center of Otukayama Park in Hachiōji is one of the more mysterious places in Tokyo. The ruins of Dōryō-dō Temple in the park has been the site of two murders in the past century alone. In 1963, a thief robbed and murdered the shrine’s elderly caretaker. Without a caretaker, the temple fell into disrepair. Ten years later, a university professor tricked a female student into meeting him at the temple. He murdered her and left her in a shallow grave.
People hear the voices of the victims crying for help in the dark, the Tokyo ghost stories say. These stories give the temple grounds their more sinister name, “The Crying Ruins.”
Nearest Station: 12-minute bus ride (and 8-minute walk from the bus stop) from Kitano Station (plan your route at the link and click on the Google Map below for walking directions)
Grave of the First Samurai
Taira no Masakado was one of the first samurai in Japanese history. During the Heian period, Masakado led a rebellion against the central government in Kyoto. He used his army to capture a few small provinces and declared himself the new emperor. However, his family did not follow–they supported the government in Kyoto.
Betrayed by his family, Masakado killed his uncle, leaving his cousin Sadamori seeking revenge. In response to his acts of rebellion and murder, Kyoto placed a bounty on Masakado’s head. In 940, Sadamori and Fujiwara no Hidesato met Masakado at the battle at Kojima. Sadamori killed Masakado and collected the bounty on his head.
Sadamori took Masakado’s head to the fishing village of Shibasaki, where he buried it. Edo (Tokyo) would later absorb Shibasaki into the city limits. It is said that at his grave in Ōtemachi, you can sometimes see his ghostly head rolling around. It is also said that all attempts to move his grave result in terrible accidents.
Nearest Station: Just outside Otemachi Station (Exit C5). (plan your route at the link and click on the Google Map below for walking directions)
Edo wasn’t always a nice town. People came from all over Japan to make it in the big city, but few were able to realize their dreams. The Shinagawa area in particular attracted hardscrabble newcomers–shady merchants, desperate prostitutes, laborers with nothing to sell but the strength of their backs, and the criminals who preyed on all of them.
Back then, life was cheap and there was no social safety net to keep people from dying in the streets. Many died with nothing, and had no relatives willing or able to pay for a proper funeral. Other unfortunates died with no friends or family, and no one knew the name under which they could be buried. Where do the dead go when no one cares for them?
The area around Kaizoji Temple functioned as a potter’s field for the penniless, anonymous dead. The temple still stands today in the middle of a small residential block, and there isn’t much to give away its history to casual visitors. It has a small graveyard at which to pay your respects. Be warned–the temple is usually unattended, with no priests, attendants, or even mourners around. Unattended by the living, that is.
Nearest Station: 2-minute walk from Shimbamba Station (plan your route at the link and click on the Google Map below for walking directions)
Kamakura’s Haunted Hills
The Kamakura area is home to many ancient grave sites. During the Kamakura period, Samurai and Buddhist monks were laid to rest in small caves in the cliffs in the area. On many of the hiking trails, visitors can still find numerous graves cut into the rock.
Due to a lack of funds for upkeep, the largest collection of these tombs is off limits. The Mandarado Yagura has been off limits to visitors since 1996, but remains one of the largest concentrations of cave tombs in Japan. Visitors can view smaller grave sites along the Daibutsu, Tenen, and Gionyama hiking courses.
To visit the Tenen tombs, get off the train at Kita-Kamakura station and enter through Kenchō-ji Shrine. The attendants at the ticket office can give you directions if you require, but if you keep walking to the back of the temple you will find the hiking trail. It is a stone path up to Hansōbō Shrine. The area also offers a good view of Mount Fuji on clear days.
Tucked away in a small corner of Shinjuku is the Yotsuya neighborhood. It can be found just east of the Shinjuku Garden near Yotsuya-sanchome station. This is the location of the Oiwa Shrine, and the setting of one of the oldest ghost stories in Tokyo.
In the story of Oiwa, Iyemon was married to a woman named Oiwa. Iyemon then fell in love with a second woman, named Oume. To marry Oume, he poisoned Oiwa. Oiwa curses her husband with her dying breath, swearing to haunt him for the rest of his life.
A small shrine stands on the spot where Iyemon and Oiwa lived. It is said that her spirit still haunts the neighborhood.
Nearest Station: 5-minute walk from Yotsuya Station (plan your route at the link and click on the Google Map below for walking directions)
Sengaku-ji – Shrine of the 47 Rōnin
The Akō incident made Sengaku-ji famous. In 1703, Lord Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori of Akō and Lord Kamei Korechika of Tsuwano were both ordered to host the Emperor at Edo Castle. They both received the court official Lord Kira Kozuke-no-Suke, who was to instruct them in proper court etiquette. However, both lords did not present favorable gifts at their first meeting, and Lord Kira began treating them both poorly. While Lord Kamei’s advisors managed to bribe Kira, Lord Asano decided the best course was patience. While Lord Kira treated Lord Kamei more favorably, he continued insulting Lord Asano until Asano finally attacked him. His lord ordered him to commit suicide for drawing a weapon in Edo castle.
Lord Asano’s 47 most loyal retainers set out to get revenge on Lord Kira. They succeeded in killing him, cutting off his head and washing it in the well at Sengaku-ji Shrine. There they gave the temple monks all of the money they had, surrendered themselves to the Emperor, and committed suicide. Afterwards, the monks buried them next to their lord. These 47 Tokyo ghost retainers still haunt Sengaku-ji Shrine.
Nearest Station: 2-minute walk from Sengakuji Station (plan your route at the link and click on the Google Map below for walking directions)
Suzugamori and the Bridge of Tears
During the Tokugawa Shogunate, the government of Japan moved from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo). During this period, the government held many executions outside of the city. The Suzugamori Execution Grounds operated between 1651 and 1871. It is estimated that over 100,000 people were executed during this time. The execution grounds were originally on Tokyo Bay, before the government began filling it in to create more land. During this time, one method of execution was to hang the accused upside down, drowning them as the tide rose.
Suzugamori was especially busy during the Ansei Purge (1858-1860). The government of Japan was attempting to open up to foreign traders, and many people resisted the international growth. The Shogunate executed anyone who resisted.
Executioners marched prisoners on their way to execution to the outside of the city limits, across a bridge over a small river. This last wooden bridge was called the Namidabashi (“Bridge of Tears”), and was the last place the family of the condemned could see them before they were taken away. Today the “Bridge of Tears” is constructed out of stone, and a small wooden plaque explains its importance in Japanese history.
Nearest Station: 2-minute walk to the Bridge of Tears and a 10-minute walk to the Suzugamori Execution Grounds from Tachiaigawa Station (plan your route at the link and click on the Google Map below for walking directions)
Know any good Tokyo ghost stories? Send us an email and let us know!