Scary Stories: 7 Japanese Tales That Will Chill You To The Bone
Are you afraid of the dark?
October 24, 2019
Art & Culture, In Season, Japanese Culture
Japan has some of the best—and least known—ghost stories or kaidan. Interestingly enough, most of these stories are centered around women. Curl up in a warm blanket and let these ladies tell their terrifying stories.
In old Japan, samurai would play a game: The Hyakumonogatari Kaidan. They would sit in a circle of one hundred candles and every time someone told a story, one candle would be blown out. Once the final candle was blown out, the room would be plunged into darkness and a ghostly figure would appear.
While I can’t tell one hundred stories, here are seven of the scariest stories featuring female yurei (Japanese ghosts) and yokai (Japanese monsters and spirits) that you can tell your friends, maybe even your older and braver kids, as a spooky bedtime story.
1. The Secret of the Yamamba
© Photo by natsuki_1811
The Yamamba look like harmless old women, but are actually terrifying mountain yokai that consume human flesh. One of their oldest legends is from the Konjaku Monogatari:
Once upon a time, a Buddhist priest was caught out in a storm but luckily passed by a lonely hut. A kind old woman invited him inside, welcoming him with food and a warm fire. As welcoming as she was, she gave the priest a strange warning: “No matter what, do not look in the back room.”
Unable to overcome his curiosity, the priest failed to heed the old woman’s warning. As soon as she stepped out to gather more firewood, the priest peeped through a crack in the door. To his horror, he discovered the room filled with half-eaten corpses. The priest realized that the old woman was a Yamamba, luring unsuspecting travelers into her home only to shred them to pieces for her next meal. He fled from the hut as fast as he could and never looked back.
2. The Legend of the Jorogumo
© Photo by zoe_marie_creations
The Jorogumo is a half-woman, half-spider yokai that can transform itself into a beautiful woman when hunting for unsuspecting men to devour!
A young samurai was accosted in the street by an alluringly gorgeous woman. Although she was beautiful, the samurai saw through her disguise, realizing she was not a human but some kind of yokai. He immediately drew his sword and plunged it towards her, but only injuring the strange woman before she quickly retreated. The samurai followed the scarlet trail of spotted blood, all the way to an old, abandoned house. Inside, he found dozens of bodies bound in spider silk, and a giant Joro spider, dead from the injuries it had received.
3. The Tale of Oiwa
© Photo by coolarttokyo
Not all scary stories are made up—The Tale of Oiwa is based on a real event that took place in 17th century Edo:
Oiwa was a stunningly beautiful young woman who was married to the samurai Iemon, a petty man who only loved her for her head-turning looks. Another woman, Oume, was madly in love with Iemon and out of jealous rage, she tricked Oiwa into using a cream that was laced with poison. It disfigured Oiwa’s face, causing one of her eyes to droop and her hair to fall out, without her even noticing.
Disgusted with her new appearance, Iemon wished to divorce Oiwa and marry Oume. The despicable samurai hired his friend Takuetsu to rape Oiwa, so that he would have the grounds for divorce. Takuetsu was so shocked by Oiwa’s appearance, he couldn’t follow through with the orders. Instead, he told Oiwa of Iemon’s plan, and showed Oiwa her own face in a mirror. Seeing her deformed face for the first time, Oiwa was so horrified that she stole Takuetsu’s sword, killing herself. With her last breath, she cursed Iemon’s name.
On the night of Iemon’s remarriage to Oume, the ghost of the disfigured Oiwa appeared before him. A terrified and guilty Iemon quickly fled from Oiwa, but no matter how far he ran, he couldn’t escape her hauntings. After that night, no matter where Iemon looked—even in the very lanterns he used to light his path—he would see Oiwa’s face staring back at him.
4. The Woman of the Snow (Yuki-onna)
The Yuki-onna is a kind of snow spirit yokai. She usually takes the life of humans who wander into her frozen lands, sometimes even falling in love:
A young man in search of his fortune was passing through the snow-covered mountains, when he’s caught in a sudden snowstorm and loses his way. Nearly frozen to death, he almost gives up hope when a strange woman, covered in frost and with a face as pale as snow, appeared before him—a Yuki-onna. Because he was still so young, the Yuki-onna took pity on him, and guided him to a warm cabin in the woods, saving his life. In exchange for his rescue, however, she made him promise never to tell anyone of their meeting.
Years later, the young man met and married a charming girl named Yuki, and they lived happily together for many years. But one day, the young man told his wife about how he was once saved by the mysterious Yuki-onna, breaking his promise. As he reveals this tale to his wife, her face grew pale and frost began to cover her body—his wife’s true identity was the Yuki-onna. The promise broken, she vanished back into the winter’s night.
5. The Ghost of Okiku
© Photo by matthewmeyerart
Okiku’s story is sure to keep you up all night, and if it doesn’t, her ghost will!
There was once a girl, Okiku, who lived in Himeji Castle as a servant of the samurai Aoyama. One of Okiku’s tasks was to care for her master’s collection of ten valuable plates. But one day, while Okiku was washing the plates, she realized one was missing. No matter how many times she counted, she always came up one short. Her master was so enraged that she had lost his plate that he threw her down a well.
Murdered so brutally, Okiku’s soul could not rest. Every night, her ghost crawled out from the well to continue counting her master’s plates. She would count to nine, then, upon realizing that the tenth plate was still gone, she would let out an ear-piercing shriek. Okiku’s screams kept everyone in the castle up all night long for weeks on end, until a Buddhist priest finally appeased her.
6. The Black Hair
This thousand-year-old legend is one of the first terrifying stories within the kaidan:
Once upon a time, there was an impoverished samurai living in Kyoto with his wife. A wealthy lord from a distant land invited the samurai to be his vassal. Because it was such an honorable opportunity, he had no choice but to accept, leaving his wife to wait in poverty at home until he returned.
Years later, having dutifully served his lord, the samurai finally returned to Kyoto. Although his house was in disrepair, his wife was still there to happily welcome him home. Finally reunited, the two spent the entire night talking and laughing together before drifting off to sleep. When the samurai awoke, the warmth he had felt just the night before from having his arms wrapped around his loving wife was no longer there. Instead, he opened his eyes to see that he was only holding a cold skeleton, shrouded in long, black hair.
The samurai learned that his wife passed away from sadness the summer before, but her skeleton had remained in the house all the while, waiting faithfully for his return.
7. The Peony Lantern
© Photo by sixxonillu
Along with Oiwa and Okiku, Otsuyu is one of the three female ghosts that make up the “Nihon san dai kaidan” or Japan’s big three ghost stories:
One dark night, the samurai Ogiwara spotted an elegant woman carrying a peony lantern wandering through the streets of Edo. For Ogiwara, it was love at first sight. He invited the beautiful woman, Otsuyu, to accompany him home where they talked, laughed, and enjoyed each other’s company. That night, Ogiwara’s neighbor, hearing eerie laughter coming from Ogiwara’s garden, peeked over the wall. He saw Ogiwara holding, not a woman, but a laughing skeleton! The next morning, Ogiwara’s neighbor revealed to him what he had seen. Horrified, Ogiwara went seeking advice from the priest at a nearby temple.
To his shock, Ogiwara found Otsuyu’s grave at the temple. He realized that the woman he had fallen in love just the night before with had died long before they had even met. Now that Ogiwara knew the truth, Otsuyu’s ghost no longer appeared before him.
Even after discovering the truth Ogiwara missed Otsuyu desperately. After some time, he could no longer bear his sadness and returned to the temple where Otsuyu lay buried. At the temple gates, Otsuyu appeared before him once more. Reaching out her hand, she asked Ogiwara to accompany her home. Without hesitation, Ogiwara took her hand, walking with her into the darkness.
After his final visit to the temple, Ogiwara vanished. The priest, concerned, opened Otsuyu’s grave. Inside the coffin lay two bodies: Ogiwara and Otsuyu, together forever.
Which of these stories do you find the spookiest? Let us know in the comments below!