A few months after my colleagues and I had settled into our new office, a fashionable residence to the north of Shibuya, I stretched back in my chair and sighed contentedly. “I love the feel of this place!” I said absent-mindedly.
Two colleagues – both Japanese – froze and looked at each other.
“Really?” one asked cautiously. “We’re so glad to hear you say that.”
A confession unfolded as to why they had been so keen to include me in the office search. They believed that I had the ability to “see things.”
The Japanese are notoriously superstitious, especially when it comes to living spaces. Landlords have to lower the rent if an “incident” such as a suicide has occurred in the apartment, and there is even a map online that tracks all such unpleasant incidents so you can be sure there is no bad karma in your new pad.
Why did my colleagues believe I had magic powers?
A creepy coincidence…
Let me tell you a story that I don’t tell everyone. It’s the kind of story that makes people’s hairs stand up on their necks – either because they totally utterly believe me or because they believe I am a total utter nutcase.
On June 21st, 2017, I woke up after a horrible dream. I felt peculiar. I didn’t feel like going to work. I was anxious for no reason, debating over and over whether I should ignore the rain and get on my bicycle, or just get the train.
In the end, I opted for my bicycle. I sent my friend the following message. The rest you can see from the timestamps on the messages.
As you can see by my face in my one-and-a-half-eyed selfie, even in my skull-fractured state, I could see the funny side.
So given my reputation for premonitions and sensitivity to the supernatural, I wasn’t in the least bit surprised when Tokyo Survival Channel challenged me to spend a night in some of Tokyo’s most haunted spots.
I CLEARLY LOOK LIKE A GHOST-HUNTER AND DUTY CALLS.
PLAY THE GHOSTBUSTERS THEME AND LET’S GO.
Haunted Spot #1: Kozukappara Execution Grounds
Imagine a football pitch. Now fill that space with dead bodies. Congratulations. You’ve got yourself an accurate mental image of the scale of the Kozakappara Execution Grounds, which were in operation from the mid-1600s until 1873.
As yet another example of the random brutality the human race likes to inflict upon itself, it is said that 100,000 to 200,000 convicts were executed here. This was just one of three sites in Edo (the old name for Tokyo) but by all accounts it was the most poorly managed: those executed were buried in shallow, unmarked graves and dogs apparently used to dig up corpses and drag them through the streets. The smell of death was everywhere. (See Japan This for an excellent deep dive on the area.)
Even in modern days, human remains are still sometimes unearthed during construction work. The main street that runs through the area is called コツ通り kotsu dōri – with the “kotsu” believed to be from the character 骨 meaning “bone”. So the name literally translates as “bone street,” which couldn’t really be any creepier. The area was considered unclean – both physically and spiritually. It came to be inhabited by the lowest castes within Japanese society who performed jobs associated with death. The area remains rundown and is only a stone’s throw from one of the cheapest and most dangerous areas in Tokyo that I explored recently.
To reach Kozukappara, I take a train to Minami-Senju station. On exiting, I am immediately struck by how empty it is. There are almost no shops visible at all; to not see a convenience store on exiting a station in Tokyo is creepy in and of itself.
The killing grounds themselves are supposedly located under the tracks and a small cemetery. I know instantaneously I was in the right place because I came face to face with the Kubikiri Jizo – literally, the “beheading Jizo” – and the last sight a convicted criminal would see before the end. He cuts an eerie figure against the murky light-polluted night sky. I stare at him for a while as trains rattle past on both sides.
I stroll round the cemetery, shiny and new-looking, with some unusually cheerful graves.
There is no-one else around, save the endless rumble of trains. I may be looking for spirits but this place is soulless.
Determined to explore “Bone Street,” I set off down the street. The road is scruffy and empty, but its name is sprawled across signs and even flowerpots.
The side alleys are whispering to me and I find myself drawn towards a narrow street. Again silence surrounds me.
I stumble across a “bookshelf of smiles” where people have left their unwanted things for others to freely take. There are large signs warning about security cameras and asking people not to abuse the system. This area is clearly one of poverty. Old houses jigsaw along the alleys. A condom machine cut a lonely figure.
A few streets over, I stumble across a small izakaya, run by a lady called Emi. I later find out she rides a motorcycle and is probably quite badass. Her cooking is also badass.
I tuck into pickles and stewed beef, while sipping some early autumn sake.
There is only one other man in the bar, Kiyoshi san. He is bemused as to what I am doing here. “There aren’t many places open at this time around here. How did you find this place? And why are you here – in this area?” His questions are persistent.
Can he sense I had come to look for ghosts? Would it be rude to enquire about the dead?
I answer as nonchalantly as I can without lying. I like to explore new areas, I said, and I haven’t been around here before.
It’s not long, however, before Kiyoshi begins to illuminate the area’s shadows. “Every place has a light side and a dark side,” he tells me. “When they dug up the ground to build the station, they found so many dead bodies.”
The area had once been fairly thriving and it had received a boost as construction companies moved into the area during the rebuilding after the East Japan earthquake and tsunami. But they had long since moved out, he says, and the area was once again in decline. His customer base is dwindling.
A lot of people have seen ghosts here, he continues matter-of-factly. People in the Edo period were more familiar with death; they lived closer to it, and so they were closer to the spirit world. Now, we’re further away, and less in touch, he shrugs.
Given how desolate the area seems, I can’t help but think:
Loneliness can be more frightening than ghosts.
I head back to the station and got on a train. I am in a city of nearly 14 million people. But there is no-one else in the carriage.
Haunted Spot #2: Shakuji Park – a ghostly maiden
My next stop takes me further back in time, from the far east of the city to the far west and into legend territory. Who doesn’t love a good legend?
Shakuji Park near Nerima is supposedly home to several ghosts. Originally the site of a castle ruled by the Toshima clan, in 1477, the then-leader Yasutsune Toshima lost against the armies of Ōta Dōkan, a seemingly multi-talented fellow described as a samurai warrior-poet, who was also a Buddhist monk. Seeing Ōta’s army advancing and knowing defect was inevitable, Yasutsune decided he would go to the next world on his terms: he grabbed the family treasure, the Golden Saddle, and rode his white horse off the cliff into Sanpoji Pond. His daughter Teruhime, distraught at his death, decided she might as well drown as well. Apparently she was quite a beauty and Ota felt so sorry for her that he built a burial mound for her known as “Himetsuka”.
This legend has spawned a whole lot of other legends. Some say you can see the face of a woman floating in the pond; others say if you take a photo of the pond, the form of a woman will appear in the image. What’s more, lovers who meet by the lake are said to be doomed. A beautiful maiden on a white horse will tempt the man into the water, and the very next day, the woman will also be inexplicably drawn to its murky depths, never to be seen again.
I really wanted to meet this beautiful but rather bitter dead maiden. Which meant I really needed to recruit a FAKE BOYFRIEND.
It turns out fake boyfriends are much easier to find than real boyfriends. I immediately found two who were very eager to go ghost-hunting. So soon I had two boys faking it for me.
This would definitely make the Pond Princess insanely jealous.
Three pairs of eyes would also be useful to help in my quest for my absolute favourite legend surrounding Shakuji Park. In 1993, there were several eyewitness sightings of a GIANT CROCODILE, which were taken so seriously a trap was even set to capture it (and apparently inspired this children’s picture book series!)
I need all the fake boyfriends I can get to help me search for the reptile. If we’re really lucky, it might even be a GHOST CROCODILE, which would be a double win! Although according to this bizarre and fairly cute cartoon, the crocodile was only hungry for oden, a light winter stew.
We board the last train for Sakujiikoen Station, a wealthy, leafy suburb. The contrast with Minami-Senju is stark. We stroll the main shopping street, which is mainly deserted until we come across what looks like a modern bar/cafe, with wide warmly-lit windows revealing young people drinking at the counter, casually chatting and even someone sitting working at a Mac.
Eye contact and smiles and suddenly… we’ve accidentally formed a street party. The bar is in pre-opening preparations for later this month and we get a tour of the very smart interior which they hope will also be a co-working space (check out the snazzy website for Asunaro). One of the boys pops open some champagne, accidentally showering my hair.
Oh well. It’s going to be a long night.
While doling out drinks, our new friend talks animatedly about the park.
“My friend was walking there and then something grabbed his leg! He felt like he couldn’t move,” he says. “Be careful there.”
Have we accidentally gone back to the eighties? Because this could be the start of a terrible horror movie.
With those words in our heads, we continue on our journey. We head to the nearest convenience store to buy provisions… which actually just involves me downing coffee. I am going to need to be alert, especially if I have to contend with a jealous ghost.
I decide to get into the spirit of things (pun shamelessly intended) and make full use of the apparently hands-on Halloween display. I decide to HAUNT MYSELF in Family Mart… but possibly end up frightening to staff more instead.
It’s late and the last train departed long ago. We make our way through silent streets to the park.
There is no-one around.
While there are lampposts, the bushes cast daunting shadows and a rustle is enough to make us jump. The reflections in the water are eerily still. We shuffle along the path, spiderwebs brushing our faces.
“It’s the witching hour,” says Horror Fanatic Fake Boyfriend.
He begins to explain “Ushi no toki mairi,” a curse ritual that involves nailing an effigy to a tree and is performed between the hours of 1am and 3am, typically by a scorned woman.
I pray we don’t find any effigies.
I step off the wooden walkway and cautiously edge through the darkness towards the pond, my feet squelching on the damp ground. I peer deep into the water, conscious of the sound of my own breath. I stare and stare and stare and…
A fish jumps in the water and I almost wet myself.
My fake boyfriends are highly amused. No sign of the princess yet.
We attempt to read the maps in the park to navigate to the Himetsuka burial mound but every time we arrive at a map, it seems to show something different. We set off in one direction, but by the time we come to the next map, we seem to have gone past it and have to double back. The endless loops become more and more unsettling.
“This is just like a horror movie,” says Horror Fanatic Fake Boyfriend with impeccable timing.
Eventually, we decide the mound must be the creepy old tree that we keep ending up at. I start to edge towards it but my fake boyfriends are feeling creeped out and tell me not to go near it. It’s probably for the best.
We head back down towards the pond, and I begin to record some audio to see if I capture anything unusual. Suddenly, we hear uneven footsteps are coming along the path. An old man shuffling like a zombie scuffs past. “Good morning,” he says gruffly. It’s 2 am.
I head back to the water and stare into its murky depths. But the only face that appears is my own. Maybe the princess has found her peace. Or maybe she can tell that my boyfriends are faking it.
As for the crocodile, I consider asking the men fishing by the “No fishing” sign whether they have ever caught one. But I decide against drawing attention to their illegal activities. That might be more dangerous than anything else I’ve done tonight.
Hot ghost hunting tips
- Take a friend. Your imagination will eat you alive if you go alone.
- Talk to locals. They will tell you all the legends, rumours and gory details.
- Wear sturdy footwear. You might need to run.
- Take me with you. After getting hit by a car, I now have a lightning shaped scar on my forehead like Harry Potter that occasionally hurts. I am sure the sudden sharp pain is a warning sign of approaching evil (and that the fact that I never got a Hogwarts letter when I was 11 years old was a terrible mistake).
As our solitary drinker Kiyoshi san told us in that hidden izakaya in Minami Senju…
Every city has a light side and a dark side.
Tokyo has many secrets. I challenge you to go out and discover them.