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A walk on Tokyo's shadowy side

In all parts of the city, whether ultra-modern or ancient, supernatural tales of ghosts, spirits and grisly death provide equilibrium in a stressful modern world.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001

[Photo: Linda Watanabe McFerrin]
The Asakusa Temple, also known as the Sensoji Temple, is approached through the Thunder Gate, noted for its huge red paper lantern and scowling deities.
TOKYO -- A shadow world floated between the skinny fingers of lamplight that pointed a quavering path through the Shitamachi, one of the oldest portions of Tokyo. If it weren't for my landlord, Mr. Sawa, I'd have been lost.

Mr. Sawa was leading me on a night tour through the labyrinthine old neighborhood that surrounds his inn, or ryokan, and his tour was creeping me out.

Earlier in the day, with the sunlight streaming, dreamy and creamy, over stone temple walls, I had visited the umbrella shops, bookstores, bakeries, bathhouses, tatami (floor mat) makers, noodle shops, florists and shrines indicated on the hand-drawn, hand-lettered map Mr. Sawa had given me.

This was old Tokyo, a place in the northeastern section of the metropolis where the wooden two-story houses and shops -- spared the earthquakes, fires and bombs that have ravaged much of the city -- hark back to an ancient era.

I had meditated at a Shinto shrine and then strolled along overgrown, leaf-scattered paths at Yanaka cemetery, weaving my way in and out amid the headstones. It seemed such a pleasant and nonthreatening place.

In Japan the cemeteries are almost like parks, the cheerful home of one's ancestors. Families gather and picnic within them. But late at night, with the click-click of Mr. Sawa's wooden sandals, or geta, ticking through the darkness far ahead of me, I was not at ease.

Sometimes Tokyo spooks me. As a child, I lived with my grandmother in the city's racy Roppongi district -- a kid from the United States in the clutches of an other-worldly land. Public baths, dogs dressed in two-piece plaid suits -- these are cultural oddities from which anyone can recover.

But the footless, phosphorescent obake -- women who died with a grudge; the angry demons, or oni, with their ruby-red eyes; and the faceless ghost with no eyes, nose or mouth who walks Akasaka Road, weeping -- played long-term mental mischief with me.

I have since found that the Japanese are quite comfortable with the supernatural. Their phantoms and wraiths are the repositories for unspoken feelings. They absorb and act out the stresses and fears that might upset public balance; they fulfill a significant purpose.

So it is only natural that the Japanese are actually fond of their specters and make sure that there's a place for them in their otherwise smiling, happy world.

In the Ginza, one of the premier shopping areas in Tokyo quite close to the center of town, for example, the mood gets altogether creepy around the Kabuki-za. With its enormous lanterns and shadowy eaves, this theater sells out almost daily with its canon of traditional plays.

[Photo: Linda Watanabe McFerrin]
An actor wears the traditional makeup of kabuki theater.
Best to book a ticket to watch as the all-male cast is tormented, murdered, grossly transformed and provoked to suicide in an explosion of color and chaos, as spirits reach out from beyond the grave to test and to tempt them.

Translation tapes are available for the hauntingly musical language. The plays last for hours, but you can come and go between acts.

Not far from the Kabuki-za, south along Harumidori Avenue, is Tsukiji fish market, the largest municipal market in Japan. An estimated one-third of all the fish eaten in Japan moves through Tsukiji. To unfamiliar eyes, the tuna auction, which begins at around 5 a.m., can seem as obscure and mysterious as a druidical rite.

The tuna is frozen to kill parasites and germs, and an eerie fog emanates from the cadavers as the auctioneers do their work. Other unusual forms of sea life, kept alive in tubs of running water, make the experience seem like an alien encounter. In this version, though, the people are eating the aliens.

Shinjuku at night can also be an eerie affair. Even after the Ginza, the fast-paced Shinjuku district with its skyscrapers and towers can come as a bit of a shock. Entire cities exist within the walls of some of its 40- and 50-story edifices.

[Photo: Jeff Greenberg]
Tokyo’s Ginza district at dusk: shops, offices and a whirl of activity in the city’s most famous neighborhood.

North and west of the city's center, at the juncture of what were once Tokyo's most important roads, Shinjuku Station is easily the busiest train station in Tokyo. Approximately 2-million people pass through it each day, and plenty of them seem to stay for the night.

Just north of Yasukuni-dori Avenue and east of Seibu Shinjuku Station is Kabuki-cho, a red-light district peppered with massage parlors, strip clubs, peep shows and "love hotels," where rooms rent by the hour.

It seems so much more sensible to look down on the lurid scene from the wholesome ambiance of the 40th-floor, two-story Japanese restaurant, Kozue, in the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Perched high in the heavens with a clear view of Mount Fuji, you will feel safe from all shady and unsavory apparitions.

A pet, a pat and a smile
In Tokyo, where space and spare time for pets are at a premium, animal lovers can visit Cat's Park or Dog's Town, pay a fee and find a furry friend -- or dozens -- to snuggle with.

A stroll through a forest of sculpture
At the Open-Air Museum in Hakone, Japan, art meets nature in the open air, as famous outdoor sculptures pose in landscaped alcoves.

But another chilling venue, if one approaches from the Asakusa subway station by way of the Kaminari-mon (Thunder Gate), is Asakusa Kannon Temple, also known as Sensoji Temple. Situated not far from the banks of the Sumida River that forms Tokyo's eastern boundary in the district of Asakusa, it is also a part of the ancient downtown.

At the Thunder Gate, two frightening protector deities -- Fujin, the god of wind, and Raijin, the god of thunder -- guard the entrance. Behind these terrifying gods stretches the carnival of kiosks and shops known as Nakamise-dori, with their scary Noh masks, demon-head key rings, antique armor, plastic samurai swords, kamikaze headbands, T-shirts and trinkets.

If you survive this gaudy gauntlet with your wits and your wallet intact, climb the temple steps, toss a coin into the wooden offertory box, slap your hands together to catch the attention of the deity for a quiet few seconds.

If you're hedging your bets, it is a good idea, before you do this, to cleanse yourself with the incense that smokes just inside the Kanando Hozomon gate at the base of the temple steps. More than 30-million people visit yearly to pray or bathe in the healing smoke of this incense.

Unlike Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines prohibit the use of incense as impure and displeasing to the older gods. But at every Buddhist temple, cheap incense is burning to drive away goblins and the evil powers that preside over a pantheon of diseases.

The best time to encounter the dead in Tokyo is during O'Bon. On the 13th day of the seventh month of the year, the great Festival of the Dead commences.

For three days in July, the living give the dead a spirited welcome. Lanterns are hung to guide ghosts to their homes. Families set out food on the shoryodana, or shelf of souls, under moonlight. Incense rises, paper obake (representing ghosts) hang and turn in the wind, and chants, prayers and invocations litter the air with expectation and remorse.

Of course, that night as I walked through the dimly lit streets with Mr. Sawa, I knew it was coming. As I trudged along behind him on our way to his favorite watering hole, he decided to tell me a story:

It seemed we were on the very road that a certain high-ranking maiden by the name of Tsuyu travels every night to meet a young samurai who resided near Nezu. She carries a peony lantern and is always accompanied by her loyal maidservant, O-Yone.

[Photo: Linda Watanabe McFerrin]
A small forest of grave markers stands at the Yanaka Cemetery, in the Shitamachi district.
She and the samurai fell in love at first sight, but he never called on her again. Tsuyu pined away and died. Today, she can be found in Yanaka-no-Sasaki at the temple of Shin-Banzui-In.

In the cemetery, right where her grave should be, is the grave of a Buddhist nun. Next to this grave is the grave of a Nezu merchant named Kichibei. It is in this grave that Hagiwara Shizaburo, the samurai with whom Tsuyu fell in love, is supposed to lie.

But, apparently the information is wrong, or Tsuyu doesn't know this, because every night she returns to the samurai's Nezu home. Kara-kon, kara-kon -- the sound of her geta echoing over the darkened streets lets the neighborhood know she is passing.

Listening to Sawa-san's geta beat their redundant tattoo on the pavement, I shuddered. It felt like the door between two worlds had opened.

Instead, it was the pub door that opened, and I felt the sudden flush of warmth and laughter. Grateful for the camaraderie, I settled down to my usual struggle with unusual appetizers and the mysteries of Japanese conversation.

Everyone knows that the best protection from ghosts is good company. I was glad, most of all, that Mr. Sawa was walking me home.



Many major Japanese hotels offer considerable discounts with club memberships, so it is a good idea to ask about them. These memberships generally are available by simply filling out a membership form.

Kozue-Park Hyatt Tokyo -- 3-7-1-2, Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; call 011 813 5322 1234; fax 011 813 5322 1288.

Le Meridien Grand Pacific -- 2-6-1 Daiba, Minato-ku, Tokyo; call 011 813 5500 4511; fax 011 813 550 4513.

Keio Plaza Intercontinental -- 2-2-1, Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; call (800) 222-5346, or in Japan, 011 813 3344 0111; fax 011 813 3345 8269.

Sawanoya Ryokan -- 2-3-11, Yanaka, Taito-ku; call 011 813 3822 2251; fax 011 813 3822 2252. These small, family-operated inns are a fraction the price of hotels such as those named above; price here is about $34 single, $63 double (with shared bath.)


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San Francisco area freelance writer Linda Watanabe McFerrin is the author of a short-story collection, The Hand of Buddha, published by Coffee House Press in August.

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