Ghosts of Himeji Castle
Hyogo Prefecture, Japan. Upon Himeyama Hill, in the central part of the Harima Plain, lies the largest and arguably most beguiling castle complex in Japan. Its 83 buildings, spread along a vast terrain, signal the epitome of early 17th-century Japanese design and layout. Its curved gables and white plastered earthen walls have given it the epithet Shirasagi-jo, or White Heron Castle, from whose soaring heights Japanese feudal lords ruled over a land brimming with the soft scent of cherry blossoms. Created at the crux between harmonious aesthetics and military acumen, Himeji Castle stands as majestic today as it did 400 years ago. Throughout its history, it has been visited and inhabited by an extensive and diverse cast of characters, many of whom would eventually become mired in legend.
It’s the 29th of January 2010. The morning light shines electric as the JR Hikari train from Hiroshima arrives at Himeji Station, stopping briefly before resuming the long journey to Tokyo. The human swarm steams toward the exits and soon disperses, leaving world travelers/paranormal investigators Elle and FW North stranded alone in the empty platform, flustered and already peckish. Following a few minutes of linguistic struggle with the surrounding signage, they manage to secure their belongings in one of the very convenient lockers available. Thus freed of unnecessary gewgaws and equipped only with their wits and comfy coats, the derelict duo leaves the train station and traipses along Otemae-dori street, trying not to get too distracted by cardboard cutouts of samurais and the sensual allure of Japanese food, whose rich flavors have already tickled Elle’s finely attuned salivary glands.
“Shouldn’t we get something to eat before we visit the castle?” asks Elle.
“There is no time. We have a job to do, remember?” replies FW, pacing quickly while straightening his cap and caressing a chocolate bar hidden in his coat’s right pocket.
“But I’m running on fumes here… Last thing I had was that coffee from the vending machine back in Hiroshima,” says Elle.
“I know, I know… This shouldn’t take long, I can already see the castle ahead,” says FW, dreaming of melting bits of cocoa and caramel while gently squeezing the plastic wrapper holding his concealed block of sugary delight.
Arriving at the first picturesque bridge, the two ragamuffins gaze in awe at the tranquil scenery ahead: pine trees are being expertly manicured by a couple of grizzled men in blue overalls, snipping away as the milky lightness of Himeji Castle looms in the background, seemingly perched on green branches and white clouds. It’s a sight to remember, and only after a few moments of reverential silence are their legs synaptically ordered to move onwards.
Crossing the Uchibori inner moat, the asphalt road leads them to Otemon gate, followed by the lyre-shaped San-no-Maru, ringed by the curlicued branches of naked cherry trees. Tickets are procured just before the Hishi gate, rising prodigious against the winter sun.
Within the enclosure blooms the smell of gravel and lumber, slowly becoming enmeshed with musky perfume and leather, courtesy of the first trickle of tourists soon seen removing elephantine cameras from their bags and deploying a barrage of flashes of such dazzling magnitude they end up scaring the bejesus out of every winged creature in the vicinities. As the skies become blackened by a flurry of birds seeking shelter from the flickering apocalypse, Elle and FW swerve toward the Nishi-no-Maru Nagatsubone, promptly finding themselves roaming the corridors once swept by Princess Sen’s footsteps.
Welcome to… Context!
The dramatic tale of Senhime, as this particular princess is known in Japanese lore, began at the age of six (or seven, accounts vary), when she was forced into wedlock by her grandfather and became the wife of Toyotomi Hideyori, the ruler of Osaka Castle. When she turned eighteen (or nineteen, see above) the castle was besieged and, following her husband’s ritual suicide in the face of defeat, ultimately vanquished. Further corroborating the ancient dictum “You can choose your friends, but you can’t pick the bad apples from your family tree”, the conquering army was led by none other than the mighty Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the very same grandfather who had arranged the marriage in the first place. The princess herself managed to escape, soon beginning a new life in Himeji as the bride of one Honda Tadatoki.
Nonetheless, rumor had it she was saved by another suitor, who either died an ignoble death for his efforts or was shunned by the distressed damsel due to a severe facial burn incurred while in the act of heroic rescue (I’ll let the reader decide which scenario is more disheartening). Royal life in Himeji Castle was peaceful for a number of years, until her new family disintegrated into a thick mist of death, disease and bad luck. Choosing to follow the traditional role of pious widow, Senhime’s last years were spent as a Buddhist nun in Edo, which is what folks called Tokyo before neon was invented.
Thank you for visiting… Context!
Entering the Kesho Turret, distanced from photographic mayhem, the couple of supernatural sleuths promptly arrives at a carefully preserved domestic scene. Encased in white walls and red fabric, a statue of the tragic princess is shown playing a game of chance with a maid, also statuesque if not as glamorously adorned. Losing no time, FW approaches the black royal wig and twitches his nostrils. Inhaling as deeply as he can, he then waits for a sneeze to burst through, a surefire sign ghosts are nearby. This nasal method, although certified by the Bureau of Odd Occurrences (aka BOO!), comes with a few sublunary caveats, namely that it is undistinguishable from an allergy attack or a mere case of the sniffles. To an overreacting nose such as FW’s, usually drowning under a histamine flood, springtime can be the busiest season for ghosts.
“I’m not feeling anything,” says FW, “not even a tingling.”
“Well, she didn’t die here; there’s not much point in returning to haunt the castle, is there?” replies Elle.
“What about the maid?”
Elle looks at FW scratching his chin. She notices how each stroke of a fingernail upon his skin seems to mirror another step down the evolutionary ladder, until all that is left is a blur of simian features under a worn blue cap.
“The maid?” she finally asks.
“Yeah. Wasn’t there something about a maid’s ghost? Or was that a made ghost, like in the American Mafia? Maybe our ghost is a member of the Dead Mafia Society. No, wait, the Dead Yakuza Society!”
Elle glares at the fool and restrains herself from slapping him out of his flight of criminal fancy. She approaches the maid’s statue and leans into its flowing robes, searching for any ectoplasmic signs. “I doubt this is the ghost. My info concerning ghostly maids mentions only Okiku’s well, which is on the other side of the compound. We need to get past the donjon to reach it,” she says.
FW pauses his distracted destruction of follicles. “Okiku? Who was that again?”
“Doleful maid, stuck in a well, the most probable culprit of all these mysterious grumblings we’ve come to investigate” begins Elle, trying to ascertain any hint of recognition in FW’s doe-eyed expression. “Have you read any of the links I’ve sent you?”
Male lips move but only silence ensues – a silence so piercing it’s almost possible to hear the static crackle of Tatami mats and the faraway drip of snow melting atop Mt Fuji.
“Okiku of the nine plates!” says Elle, gritting her teeth. “Wrongly accused of stealing a precious plate from a set of ten, tortured and killed by a lecherous traitor with sights on Himeji’s comfy throne, is supposedly still at the bottom of the well counting plates and hoping to come up with the right number at some point… Does any of this ring any bells in that forsaken cathedral of aloofness you call a head?”
FW blinks but remains dumb.
“You’re not drinking any more sake for the remainder of this trip,” says Elle, turning away from FW and a developing migraine.
As the clatter of digital cameras finally approaches Senhime’s glacial likeness, the snooping twosome scoots to the gated world outside, their eyes already locked on the towering Daitenshu, or main donjon. Continuing their slow ascent, they encounter a storehouse, currently void of the rice and salt which sustained warriors, servants and lords in days of yore. Surrounded by round family crest tiles belonging to ancient rulers of Himeji and their families, they are soon attempting to navigate the steep rock walkways leading to the keep. Corners are turned, rock is microscopically crushed, the wind rises, legs begin to cramp, the universal clock ticks forward, another corner is turned, sweat trickles down increasingly bent spines.
Swooping the heavens, a lone bird’s eyes discern two human dots walking through a bewildering maze devised by elite military strategists for the sole purpose of disorientating an attacking force, in modern times perfectly suited to exasperate sightseers, who become progressively confused by their crumbling sense of space and time.
“That fucking donjon looked a lot closer when we started,” FW cleverly notes between gasps for breath.
Elle, forever graceful, disregards him completely while trying to control a stomach which is grumbling with escalating urgency. “Do you think they sell snacks here?” she wonders aloud.
“I doubt it,” replies FW, pretzeled over his knees, “but we can get something as soon as we’re done here. Are we far from Okiku’s well?”
“I have no idea; this place is a crazy labyrinth…” says Elle.
Presently the investigative pair comes to a small courtyard. Here, the pathways divide into a symmetrical V, leading to two distinct gates. To the left is the massive To-no-Ichi gate and to the right, further away, is the smaller Chi-no-Mon gate.
“The proverbial crossroads,” says FW, placing one hand on either side of his waist.
“Which one do we take?” asks Elle.
“The small one seems to lead to the main donjon,” says FW. “Then again, it might lead to the twilight zone.”
“Fine, let’s take the other one.”
“Wait,” says FW. “Shouldn’t we try and go visit the donjon first? It’s only six floors.”
“I thought you wanted to see the ghost in the well first,” says Elle, leaning against a wall.
“Why not take a small detour? Maybe they have a vending machine inside.”
“A vending machine? Inside a scrupulously preserved feudal fortress?”
“Well, samurai swords then,” notes FW, brimming with optimism.
Elle caresses her belly, letting her fingers linger while rolling her eyes at her partner’s bouncing brain. “Fine, let’s make this quick,” she says, walking through the Chi-no-Mon gate en route to the dry expanse of the Honmaru, speckled with mounds of green grass and Japanese hackberry trees.
Close by, the other tourists are catching up, steadily unfurling along the inner bailey. Trying to regain some momentum, not to mention a general sense of lightness, FW takes his winter coat off and rolls it around his left arm. As he does so, the chocolate bar which lay hidden in one of the coat’s pockets falls to the earth with a plastic thud. Suddenly overcome by panic, he drops the coat, lifts the chocolate bar and stands bewildered for a few heartbeats, clutching the plastic wrapper like a python does its prey. Finally, he takes his blue cap off, places the chocolate bar atop his black curls and squeezes the cap back on, careful not to crush his treasure. Finding himself once again surrounded by the clicking masses, bumping elbows against each other and whatever paraphernalia hanging around their necks, he picks up his coat from the graveled ground and rushes behind Elle, who has remained oblivious of the whole sorry spectacle.
Once inside the donjon, stepping out of the sun’s faded beams, all surfaces exude the smell of old wood and shadows. Putting their shoes into a plastic bag, FW and Elle slide across the dark flooring, past meticulous woodwork, hundreds of Tatami mats and rows of weapon racks stacked against the walls, holding polearms and matchlocks. Leaving their fellow tourists behind, they climb the Daitenshu’s six floors at a swift pace, disregarding reverence but indulging in glimpses of chiaroscuro grandeur nonetheless.
If not for the silent emptiness around them, they would have no trouble believing the rooms and staircases being now treaded by foreign feet had just finished construction. Awash in pristine minutiae, the offbeat team eventually ascends to the last floor, where they are faced with the serene presence of a Shinto shrine, draped in purple.
As soon as FW approaches the shrine, his nose goes on a sneezing rampage, which has the unnerving effect of transforming his torso into a flesh-and-bone imitation of a nodding donkey, manically pumping from an oil well in West Texas. Due to the strength of the spasms, his coat is soon splayed on the immaculate floorboards, but he manages to hold on to his cap with one trembling hand until the sneezes finally subside.
“Are you okay?” asks Elle, furrowing her brows while handing him a tissue.
FW, breathing heavily, takes it and blows his nose. “Fine,” he replies, “must be dust or something.”
Elle stares at him. “Dust? Have you seen this place? It looks like they’ve just cleaned it this morning! Our skin is dirtier than the floor!”
“Well, something then,” says FW, still dazed. “What’s your point?”
“My point is that guy over there”, Elle replies, pointing at a Japanese man standing by one of the corners of the small castle tower, seemingly trying his best to look casual. Unfortunately, not only is he holding two large samurai swords around the waist of his traditional hakama (a dead giveaway, so to speak, that something is awry) but he is also positively translucent.
“I think that might be a ghost,” says FW, still clutching a runny tissue in his hand.
“Think? Might? I can see the wall behind him! Of course that’s a ghost,” says Elle, loudly whispering, “and he has two very dangerous-looking swords with him.”
“Great, we’re getting eviscerated by a samurai ghost…” mumbles FW as he obliviously drops his crumbled tissue to the floor.
At this moment, the ethereal samurai lunges forward, blades drawn and face scowling. He stops midway between the shrine and FW, directing one sword to the latter’s feet. The room overflows with tension, whilst the couple’s necks tighten with tension.
“Pick… up… the tissue,” says a presently static Elle between her teeth.
Quickly crouching, FW bundles the tissue with his coat, which he then nervously puts back on his shoulders. He tries to display his most contrite smile, but can merely come up with a Gremlin-like grimace.
“A-po-lo-gize,” breathes Elle, making an effort not to further agitate the still visibly upset samurai.
“Oh. Uhmm… Konnichiwa,” says FW, bowing so fast he nearly trips over himself.
Next to him, Elle takes a break from immobility to look at the ceiling, increasingly desperate for some god, any god, to lift her out of this room and give her a bite to eat, or at least strike her mate with non-deadly lightning. “That’s not an apology; it’s a greeting,” she notes.
“Crap! Uhmm… Sumimasen!” shouts FW.
“Wrong type of apology,” shoots Elle, now facing the samurai’s continuous glare. “You’ haven’t bumped into him on the subway, have you?”
Scratching his forehead, FW goes through his embryonic knowledge of the Japanese language. After a few more seconds of intellectual strain, he raises his head and bellows “Shitsureishimashita!”
To this outburst, the samurai responds by withdrawing his sword and stepping back. He quietly composes himself, straightening his back and letting his facial muscles return to a more placid configuration.
Slightly less intimidated by the samurai’s sober mien, FW chances a step forward and readies his hands for an attempt at gestural communication, only to be interrupted by the wheezing arrival of an old Japanese lady, who stops on her tracks as she catches sight of the pair of discombobulated gaijin. She wears horn-rimmed glasses, which she adjusts on her nose while repositioning the gigantic camera around her neck and straddling her legs for balance.
“Are you okay?” she asks in heavily-accented English.
“Yeah, just trying to deal with a samurai ghost, ” replies FW, bathed in nonchalance.
Already predicting an awkward conversation, Elle comes to the rescue: “Sorry, what he meant was…”
“Ah, that must be Miyamoto Musashi,” cuts the Japanese lady. “He’s supposed to guard the Osakabe shrine.”
[Picture this scene: flecks of sunshine scatter through the donjon’s windows, warming the wooded grounds. Suddenly, the flutter of wings is heard nearing the tower, rising fast but immediately receding, until only echo is left bouncing along its snowy interior walls. All else is bound by stillness]
“Osa-what now?” ask Elle and FW in unison.
“Osakabe,” says the old lady as she approaches the shrine, “so named after Princess Osakabe, whose spirit haunted Himeji castle back in the 17th century. The story – well, one of the stories – goes that she was finally defeated by Miyamoto Musashi, one of the greatest samurai to have walked the shores of Japan.”
“Did he have two swords?” asks Elle.
“Yes, he was famous for his two-sword fencing. There are many tales about his exploits. Actually, one of them mentions he also subdued the ghost of Toyotomi Hideyori shortly after dealing with Princess Osakabe.”
“Toyotomi Hideyori? That name sounds familiar,” says Elle, putting one finger to her chin.
“He was Senhime’s first husband,” says the old lady.
“The one who committed sepukku back at Osaka castle?” asks FW, eager to contribute.
“Yes, that’s the one,” the old lady responds, a gold tooth sparkling through her smile.
“So you did read some of the links I sent you,” teases Elle.
“Yeah, well…” says FW, shrugging. “Anyway, this place seems to be riddled with ghosts. I mean, how many can there be in just one castle?”
“Oh, there’s plenty at Himeji,” replies the old lady, “and not only samurais and royalty. For instance, there is the story of Sakurai Genbei, who was the master carpenter upon the keep’s completion. He jumped to his death when he discovered it leaned slightly southeast. Some say he still roams the compound, biting on his chisel.”
“Seems like this place is more cursed than a basket full of Snow White’s apples,” says FW, hoisting his eyebrows as he notices the ghost of Miyamoto Musashi slowly return to his position by the corner, where he stays keeping watch over the gathering.
“I wouldn’t say cursed though,” says the old lady while moving toward one of the donjon’s windows. “Sure, Okiku got a rotten deal, and I’m sure Sakurai Genbei isn’t too pleased with himself, but overall it seems the spirits oh Himeji have been protecting it more than laying out curses upon it.” She takes her camera and begins shooting photos of the town of Himeji, spread out in the distance. “For all the gloomy folklore, this castle has been very lucky throughout the ages, and I’m quite certain there’s been a spectral influence once in a while.”
Having concluded her photo session, she lets her camera hang against her chest and motions the ragtag couple to approach with a wave of her wrinkled hand. Once they do, she points to the window and invites them to take a look. The pale sun continues to shine over the wintry landscape, giving it a fairy-tale aura. “Do you see that statue at the roof’s edge?”
“Is that a gargoyle?” asks FW.
“Sort of, ” replies the old lady. “Do you know its name?”
“Udon!” interjects Elle, eyeballs glinting.
FW turns to her and furrows his brows. “Like the noodles?” he asks, skeptical.
“What? No! Sorry, was thinking about something else,” says Elle, sinking into starvation.
“It is called shachihoko,” explains the old lady. “It’s a tiger-headed fish and a talisman against fire. Many great buildings in Japan have burnt to the ground, so they placed eleven on Himeji’s roofs to guard against any disastrous blaze. Its efficiency was put to the test in 1945, during the last months of the Second Great War, when the Allied forces dropped a firebomb on Himeji castle. But guess what? It failed to detonate. Either the shachihoko or the spirits must have prevented it from blowing up. Also, the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995 flattened much of the city of Himeji. Yet once again, the castle was spared – even the bottle of sake you see in the altar of Osakabe’s shrine was left standing intact!” The old lady pauses to give an elfin burst of laughter. She continues with an added twinkle in her eyes. “I like to imagine Miyamoto Musashi holding the bottle in place, or maybe even Princess Osakabe, while the earth trembles around them. Wouldn’t that be a funny sight?”
“Have you seen any of these ghosts you mention?” asks FW.
The old lady hesitates an answer. After a few seconds she says: “No. I don’t seem them… but I know they’re here.” She then proudly displays her golden tooth, flashing through a mischievous expression. Elle and FW remain expectant, but she seems happy to conclude the conversation and walks toward the exit following a cheerful “Sayonara!”
“Sayonara!” reply Elle and FW, vaguely bowing. They continue mute for a while, letting Himeji’s ancient spell wash over them, until a flurry of visitors comes rushing through the room and helps dissipate the scent of mystery.
“It has to be Okiku then,” says Elle as she retreats down the staircase, “or maybe Sakurai Genbei. They’re the only ones who seem to have an axe to grind.”
Following suit, FW ponders the situation. “Makes sense. But there’s just one thing: the occurrences we came to investigate began only recently – last 30-odd years or so -, whereas all the ghosts we know about have been around for hundreds of years,” he says. “Why start a ruckus now?”
Outside, the first waterlogged clouds of midday begin to gather over the city of Himeji. Elle, slogging past Harakiri-Maru on the way to Ri-no-Mon gate, is having visions of colorful Futomaki rolls and fried Inarizushi. She tastes their memory, but is not satiated. By her side is FW, weighing the likelihood of having melted chocolate streaming down his forehead in the near future. He can feel the plastic wrapper under his blue cap, pressing against his skull. When they finally arrive at Ni-no-Maru, a few bashful drops of rain begin to hit their noses, which although dripping are at last directed toward Okiku’s well.
Approaching the well’s circular stone pillars, FW leans over and carefully inhales, expecting a sneeze of cartoonish proportions. When nothing happens, he leans further down, almost touching the well’s protective metallic grid with his face. Yet again he inhales, but no histamine tickle unfolds. Disappointed, he straightens up and looks around, hoping to find another well in the vicinities. When it fails to materialize, he looks at Elle, who is now suspiciously quiet.
“Uhmm… I just remembered something,” says Elle, sheepishly plucking at her coat. “Okiku’s ghost only ascends at night.”
This delicate piece of news compels FW to gaze at the sky. Failing to see any stars, he moves to one of the lonesome olive benches lined close to a wall sprinkled with loopholes. He sits down, legs askew. Elle joins him shortly, morose but glad the rain has taken a break. They remain speechless for a short while, until FW sighs and says: “You know, I doubt Okiku is around much these days. She’s such an old ghost… Who knows? Maybe she found her tenth plate at some point.”
“So what’s been harassing people these last few decades?” asks Elle.
“Beats me. If it is a ghost, we haven’t found it.”
“Should we leave then? I’m absolutely famished…”
As FW is preparing to acquiesce and flex his knees, he is thrown back by a sudden sneeze. He feels his eyes moisten and his muscles slacken. Shaking his head, he draws his coat tighter and requests a new tissue from Elle. While she fumbles around her coat, an elderly man wearing a red yukata appears behind them, bowing and walking at a snail’s pace, until he is facing the bench and its tired occupants. Elle and FW smile. The man returns in kind and utters a sentence in Japanese. Elle and FW, accustomed to being ignorant foreigners around the globe, revert to the universal language of nodding like idiots. Encouraged, the old man begins a long monologue, punctuated by brief signals to FW’s cap. The puzzled duo is unable to understand any word of the rambling marathon, but FW soon becomes uncomfortable with the recurring finger-pointing directed at his cap. Just as he prepares to nudge Elle in the exit’s direction, a flash of recognition sweeps across his little gray cells.
“Did he say Kurosawa?” he asks Elle.
“I’m just hearing sushi and namagashi right now…” she moans.
“I think he said Kurosawa,” insists FW.
At this point the old man stops talking. Taking a roguish look at FW, he begins a prolonged pantomime, dragging himself from one side of the bench to the other, flailing his arms in gradual desperation, until he falls on his knees as if pierced by an arrow. He then opens his mouth in a delighted grin, concluding the show by unmistakably roaring the name “Kurosawa!”
Elle and FW are dumbfounded.
Getting up, the old man shakes his yukata and distinctly points to FW’s cap, launching into a new but brief monologue. He finishes by rapping his belly and pointing once more to FW’s cap, eyes full of gentle supplication.
“I think he wants your cap,” notes Elle, surprised at such a curious desire.
FW feels himself sink into a sea of shame. Sensing his cheeks light up like a radiant supernova, he removes his cap and picks up the chocolate bar positioned atop his head. The sound of the plastic wrapper being handled is deafening. After what seems like eons, FW stretches both hands and delivers the chocolate bar, which is swiftly taken by the old man. Holding it to the skies, he then rips the wrapper apart and takes a bite. As he chews, the red of his yukata begins to fade, and then the man’s features start to blur, ultimately disappearing altogether. Where he stood, there is nothing but background left, filled in its entirety by the splendor of Himeji castle.
The two minstrels of the occult watch the apparition evaporate. FW fidgets on his side of the bench. Elle is staring ahead, mouth agape. He coughs and speaks, not turning to face her: “Did you know Akira Kurosawa filmed scenes for Kagemusha and Ran here? I’m guessing the old man must have been an extra or something.”
“You had chocolate…” Elle mumbles.
“But why was he haunting this place?” continues FW, moony as ever. “Do you think he died here?”
“You had chocolate,” she repeats, raising her voice.
“Or maybe he returned here as a ghost? And why did he want chocolate? I don’t get any of this…”
Elle stands up while FW’s words are trailing off. Her hands are shaking with incipient rage. The veins in her forehead seem about to burst.
“You had chocolate?!” she screams. “You sneaky little fu…” Choosing to let her sentence lie incomplete, she storms out and hurries to the Nu-no-Mon gate, already conscious of the exit nearby and mentally cataloging all the food she will eat throughout Himeji.
Back on the bench, FW places his cap back on and gets up to follow. Running after his partner, he yells “I was saving it for later!” before tripping on an inconspicuous rock and falling flat on his face, swallowing dust, ancient history and the last remnants of manly pride.