August is Ghostly Japan: Japanese superstitions & other mysteries . . .

Ghostly Noh mask of a woman courtesy of Your Japan Private Tours Ltd

More Japanese people believe in old superstitions than you might think, even though Japan has some of the most developed cities in the world.

Every country or culture has its own superstitions. Sometimes the symbol of fortune or a sacred object in one country has a completely different meaning in other cultures. For example, Japanese think that if a bird poops on you that it is a good luck sign. A European would never think of that as a good sign. Another example is snake skin. Some Japanese people put pieces of a shed snake skin in their wallet in the belief their money will return the way a snake’s new skin returns.

One superstitious thing many Japanese people are really careful about is yakudoshi or misfortune/bad luck years. There are three different ages in one’s life that are believed to be particularly bad for unfortunate incidents or events: 25, 42, and 61 for men, and 19, 33, and 37 for women. The year before and after these ages are also part of the bad luck cycle. The middle year, called taiyaku (big misfortune), is the worst. Japanese people visit shrines to pray to the gods to rid them of bad events (yakuyoke). Some shrines hold special rituals for yakuyoke. Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto offers this service (on most days) from 9:00 to 16:00 for Yen 5,000.

Another way to stop the bad energy of yakudoshi is to carry something that has seven special colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, navy blue and purple). Belts, wallets, bracelets and pendants are among the things one can find in Japan with these 7 colors. Recently, 7-color straps for cell phones have become very popular.

Some locations are more alive with superstition and power than others. One of the most famous in Kyoto is Ichijo Modori-bashi Bridge, where the dead come back (modoru) to life. In the early Heian period (794-1132), a monk named Jozo was training deep in the mountains. One day he got a letter that said his father was in critical condition. He tried to return quickly to Kyoto to speak with him one last time. However, he arrived only to see the funeral crossing over the bridge. Jozo prayed strongly that his father would come to life so that they could speak again. Suddenly the sky above the bridge became dark, a bolt of lightning struck, and his father revived. This is how the bridge got its name. In WWII, many Japanese soldiers came to this bridge in the belief that they could come back from the death fields of war. Engaged women are warned not to cross the bridge as it may turn her into an unengaged woman again.

Another legend related to this bridge is about Abe no Seimei, the most famous sorcerer of the Heian period (794-1185). According to one story, he hid his magical power or shikigami under the bridge. Therefore, the bridge is believed to have some mysterious power from him. Abe no Seimei is still very famous and there is a number of books and information about to him. Seimei Shrine, a 5-min. walk north of Ichijo Modoribashi bridge, enshrines his spirit. Many people from all over Japan come and visit here every day.

Japan is also alive with superstitions and stories of ghosts. For example, many people believe that the ghosts of unhappy ancestors remain caught in the water worlds after Obon (August 10-16) and so many stop swimming after August 16th.

In the Edo period (1600-1867) telling ghost stories was a popular night time fright game in which groups of people would gather at night and lit one hundred candles, taking turns telling ghost stories. For each tale told a candle was extinguished, deepening the shadows and the tension until the room was plunged into darkness—ghosts would then appear!

Yurei, usually the ghosts of females who died in the grip of intense emotions such as jealousy or despair, are considered to be the most terrible ghosts. They are depicted as a shadowy figure draped in a white burial kimono; hands are limp and beckoning, hair long and messy.

A well-known yurei tale is about Oiwa and her husband, Iyemon, who betrays her. But when Iyemon tries to poison Oiwa, he only disfigures her, leaving one eye bulging from a swollen, partly bald head. Finally, he impales Oiwa and her servant to a door and throws them into a river. Thinking his troubles are over, he marries. When he lifts his bride’s wedding veil he is terrified to see the vengeful face of Oiwa’s ghost. Drawing his sword, he mistakenly beheads his new bride!

Content courtesy of Ian Ropke, Japan destination expert and travel designer (since 1990). Going to Japan? Visit us @ www.kyoto-tokyo-private-tours.com  .  . .

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Your Japan Private Tours

Ian Ropke has been active in the Japanese tourism industry for nearly 30 years. His book, A Historical Dictionary of Osaka and Kyoto is available on Amazon.com and Google Books.

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