The occult world of ancient Kyoto

By Alex Farrell

We all know Kyoto as the most popular tourist destination for Western visitors to Japan, filled with some of the most spectacular temples, shrines, rock gardens, etc. But did you know that this city, once the country’s capital for 1,000 years, has over its long history spawned a plethora of dark myths, legends and curses? You can still find traces of them if you know where to look.

Jisshu Shrine: Betrayal and Revenge

One place is right under the noses of the multitudes gawking at the magnificent construction of Kiyomizu Temple. Situated adjacent to the temple is Jisshu Shrine, a popular place for women who come to pray for good fortune in love. However, there is a darker side to this bustling sightseeing spot. Standing at the shrine is the Prayer Cedar, where as you probably already guessed, visitors come to pray. But bored into this seemingly innocuous tree are nail holes made by women who have been betrayed by their lovers. "Ushi no Kokumairi," meaning “the 2 a.m. visit,” is an old Japanese means of cursing someone you despise and praying for their death by nailing a "wara ningyo" (straw doll) into an ancient tree at a shrine at the “hour of the Ox.”

Judging from the freshness of the holes in the Prayer Cedar, it seems this ancient practice is still alive and well, though according to someone who went and asked about it, the head priest is reluctant to discuss the matter for fear of encouraging more such unsavory behavior. Another place in Kyoto where the "Ushi no Kokumairi" has been performed is Kifune Shrine in Sakyo Ward, which enshrines not only a god of marriage, but also gods of divorce and curses.

Rokudo Chinno Temple: Passage to the Underworld

At Rokudo Chinno Temple, there is a well that supposedly acts as a passageway to the underworld. The Heian period scholar Ono no Takamura, also known as Sangi no Takamura, served the Imperial Court by day, then would allegedly climb down this well at night to aid in the work of judging those souls who have died and entered the afterlife. His grave is said to be in Kita Ward, Kyoto, next to the grave of Murasaki Shikibu, the woman who penned the epic "Tale of Genji" and, as legend has it, descended into hell as a punishment for her lustful behavior.

Ghost who hails cabs

A well-known story among Kyoto taxi drivers is the one about the ghost who appears as a young lady and hails a taxi for a ride. According to one sightseer’s experience in the ancient capital, “I took a trip to Kyoto looking for ghosts. A taxi driver said he picked up a young woman along the banks of the Kamo River and started taking her to a place called Midoro Pond. When they entered the dark Tadasu Forest, the driver looked back at the woman, but he saw nothing there except for a damp spot on the seat where she had been sitting.” If the Kyoto cabbies are to believed, this perpetually on-the-go phantom still haunts them to this day.

These three examples just scratch the surface of the dark underside beneath the tourist-friendly veneer that greets visitors in Kyoto. Why not make your trip to the ancient capital even more special by checking out some of these sites? See the directions at the end of this article for help finding your way. Also, if you’re interested in learning more about Japanese perspectives on the supernatural, one work I can recommend is the anime series "Hell Girl," or "Jigoku Shojo," as it’s known in Japanese, in which "wara ningyo" play a prominent role in the plot. There’s also a scene in the intro sequence depicting the trails of torii, or Shinto gates, that weave through the mountain slopes behind Fushimi Inari Shrine, another Kyoto location with an eerie ambience that envelopes walkers when the tourist herds aren’t around to spoil it.

Jisshu Shrine

Next to Kiyomizu Temple, 25 min. from Keihan Gojo Station, and 15 minutes from both Kiyomizu-dori Bus Stop (Kyoto City buses #100 & #206) and Gojo-zaka Bus Stop (Keihan buses).

Kifune Shrine

30 minutes on foot from Eizan Kurama Line Kifuneguchi Station. Keihan buses run from the station to the shrine’s vicinity starting on the vernal equinox until the end of November, taking 4 minutes on the bus followed by 5 minutes on foot from the drop-off point.

Rokudo Chinno Temple

West of Kiyomizu-dori bus stop (Kyoto City buses #100 & #206).

Grave of Murasaki Shikibu

Murasaki no Nishigojo Dencho, west from the intersection of Horikawa and Kitaoji.

Kamo River

The taxi-riding ghost is said to hail her rides between Gojo and Sanjo on Kawabata-dori, which runs along the river, though this depends on who you ask.

Midoro Pond

Within walking distance of Kyoto Municipal Subway Kitayama Station, or Midoro-ga-ike bus stop (Kyoto City & Keihan buses).

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Near JR Nara Line Inari Station, Keihan Fushimi-Inari Station, and Inari Taisha-mae bus stop (Kyoto City bus #5).

By the way…

Hell Girl Official Site (FUNimation):

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Soo....don't jilt any Japanese girls in Kyoto. Wakata.

The taxi driver story? That's news? Really?

In America, every city has that story, looks like it just migrated East. If they had cab service in the Arctic circle, the one cabbie out there could probably tell that same story.

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How do you know the story migrated East from America; and not from East to West?

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The use of "ancient" here is misleading. Technically, it means the period ending nearly 2,000 years ago. "Medieval" would be the correct description in this article, especially as Japanese civilization didn't even exist during ancient times.

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I think that story of a passenger who becomes a puddle or some sort of wraith is well known in Japan. I have a a Crayon Shin-chan comic where Shin-chan is the cab driver, and he starts telling the story of that ghost girl to his passenger (who is the ghost). He out-weirds the ghost though, and it leaves.

Anyone have any ghost stories in their neck of the woods? I have a friend who had to steer her car around a group of people walking down a country road, and when she checked her mirrors they were gone. She and her passenger agreed not to speak about it but to draw pictures of what they saw when they got home... and they were (dun dun dunnn) the same...

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i thought kyoto was kinda ugly, and looked exactly like tokyo

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"The Higayashiama-ku district of Kyoto is said to boast three well known spots believed to be haunted, reports Jitsuwa Knuckles (April). One is a "love hotel," formerly named Ondine, located adjacent to the Yasui Konpira-gu, a Shinto shrine where, tradition has it, Japanese went for the purpose of "en-kiri" (non-judicial divorce).

"It seems that back in 1997, the body of a female singer had been discovered in one of the hotel's rooms, a full week after she was strangled to death. Her murderer, it seems, concealed her corpse by pulling out the mattress from the bed frame, lowering her body inside the frame, and then replacing the mattress. As was reported a weekly magazine, the room was subsequently rented out to at least a dozen couples, who made use of the bed without taking any notice that a woman was reposing beneath it. Eventually the corpse began to bloat and stink; a horrified maid eventually found the body and called the cops.

"Police believe the woman, who appeared to have been in desperate financial straits, had taken up prostitution to supplement her income. Her murder remains unsolved.

"Understandably reluctant for this kind of publicity, the hotel subsequently changed its name, but is still very much in business."

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Kyoto is a wonderful city I must try and visit one day - I have occult world experience and have encountered demons too. Jisshu shrine sounds a very interesting place I would like to take a study tour and do some research. The placing of curse by nailing a doll into an ancient tree must be taken seriously, it works. Farakh Malik

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Beauty in Kyoto is well-hidden as stirfry says. Though Kyoto was not bombed during the War, 1960s Japan left a trail of concrete devastation.

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interesting indeed. Although I should think that like all ancient cities, its blanketed, not dotted with haunted places. (and I believe the perameters of ancient change depending on the subject; civilization, city, person etc. for example. 107 isn't by any means ancient for a city but definitely ancient for a person.) at any rate, Kyoto is far too old and has far too much bloody history to simply have a few haunted places. I imagine that countless spirits across centuries of history prowl those streets. The ghosts of the shinsengumi probably stare down with hatred upon oblivious western tourists. x3

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