Ghosts, Gods & Spirits of Kyoto 2

December 16, 2005

by Tomoya Kida; Yusuke Shimizu; Takashi Muraj

As befits a city with more than 1200 years of history, Kyoto is known as a haven for many ghosts, gods and spirits. Here is your chance to get briefly acquainted with some of the better-known entities said to haunt the cultural heart of Japan.

The Oni of Rashomon

A long time ago, the gate known as Rashomon was the main entrance and triumphal arch of Kyoto, the capital of Japan at that time. The eminent writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927) has written about Rashomon in a famous short story of that title. The renowned filmmaker Kurosawa Akira (1920-1998) featured this southern gateway in his classic film of the same name. Nowadays in Kyoto, one can only find a stone monument, erected in 1895, that tells us there was once such a building in this place: a lofty, tile-topped gate. But back in the old days, a tale was often told which claimed that an oni (a fiend or ogre) lived in this place.

The legend says…

In the Heian period (794-1185), while the samurai soldier Watanabe no Tsuna held a party with his colleagues, some of them challenged themselves to test their courage. To do so, they walked to Rashomon one by one. At last, it was Tsuna’s turn. He went alone and arrived at Rashomon without incident. He placed a card at the gateway that certified his arrival. Then, on his way back, when he was passing the Ichijo-Modoribashi bridge, an ogre grasped his kabuto (samurai’s helmet) from behind. Tsuna attacked this monster with his sword, and the fiend ran away. At Tsuna’s feet, he found a big severed arm, still grasping Tsuna’s helmet. The owner of this arm is an oni named Ibaraki-Doji, who is still said to haunt the site today: a follower of Shuten-Doji, another ogre said to live on Mt. Oe. According to some accounts, this oni went to take his arm back, over and over.

Another legend says…

Once a biwa named Genjo (a traditional Japanese lute), an instrument greatly treasured by the emperor of the time, was stolen. People said that the theft was intended to drive the emperor mad. Then late one night, when the nobleman and great musician Minamoto no Hiromasa happened to be thinking about that missing lute, he heard the sound of someone playing it. He took his servant boy with him and followed the sound, which was certainly Genjo’s, and it led him to Rashomon, where he found that the tune he was hearing came from the top of the double-roofed gate. Hiromasa and his servant both listened, but only he could hear the brilliant playing. He whispered to his servant, “I don’t think this is a person who is playing Genjo, but an ogre!” And suddenly the music stopped. Then Hiromasa shouted, “Who is it playing Genjo up there?! That lute is a treasure of the emperor, stolen some days ago. Now I’m here; I followed your beautiful music right up to this gate!” Then something suddenly dropped down, hanging from the gate. Hiromasa quickly backed away, thinking it could be a hanged man, or the ogre. But soon he saw the precious biwa tied with a rope to its neck. He cut it free and brought it back to the emperor. Genjo can still be found in the Imperial Palace today. Courtiers insist it is a living thing with a spirit of its own, and that if a poor musician tries to play it, Genjo will grow sullen and not produce any sound. Once, when a fire burned down part of the palace, everyone ran for their lives, forgetting to save Genjo. But the lute was later found safe outside, where it seemed to have taken itself!


At first, Kyoto was structured very neatly with an exact matrix of streets. But as dozens of years went by, the southern area didn’t drain well and was gradually getting wilder. Perhaps for that reason, some tales arose that say an oni is living around Rashomon. Actually, there are many types of folklore and traditions hidden in various places within the urbanized city of Kyoto, for this is a very old city. Moreover, Japan’s capital was moved from Nara to Kyoto by the Emperor Kammu in part to run away from many deep-seated grudges. So this ancient city is a fertile ground for the activities of ghosts and demons. Here is the ideogram for “oni” in Japanese.

In addition to the ogres haunting Rashomon, many types of ghosts and gods live in Kyoto. Here is a partial list of sites and their inhabitants:

• Mt. Oe: An ogre named Shuten-Doji had his head cut off by a samurai commander and buried on a mountain pass named Oinosaka. This beheaded demon repented of his crimes and is said to help people with ailments above the ncck…

• Ichijo-Modoribashi: Here at this haunted bridge a group of late 16th century Christian martyrs had their ears cut off. Nearby is Seimei-Jinja, a Shinto shrine devoted to warding off evil spirits…

• Kibune-Jinja: at this Shinto shrine it is said the ghost of the Genji general Minamoto no Yoshitsune resides…

• Kurama-dera: Atop a mountain in northern Kyoto stands this Buddhist temple. Within its grounds is a sanctum where the temple’s followers claim a “demon king” is enshrined. The spirit is said to have come to Earth from Venus 6 million years ago to control the destiny of the human race…

• Kitano-Tenmangu: This Shinto shrine was built for the spirit of Sugawara no Michizane, a 9th & 10th century scholar, writer and court minister of astonishing brilliance who died shortly after a plot against him had led to his exile in Daizafu (present-day Kyushu). After his death, Michizane’s angry spirit is said to have caused misfortunes at court. He was posthumously pardoned and promoted to the highest rank. This shrine was built for him and his ancestor Tenpo Nichimei, where he resides deified today as Tenman Tenjin, the patron saint of scholarship…

Not only in Kyoto city itself, but in the surrounding regions you can find many ghost spots and sites which are like the theatrical stages of legends and folklore. Follow your curiosity, to where Japan’s history and mythology converge!

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