In search of the fearsome Onibaba

Legendary 'Demon-hag' gives Fukushima town a dubious claim to fame

by Mark Schreiber

“Here’s as close as I can take you,” said my taxi driver, a charming fellow named Ishii whose pronounced zuzu-ben (Tohoku accent), was strong enough to cut with the proverbial knife.

“Just follow the path down the hill there — you can’t miss it.”

He promised to return to the same spot and — fate permitting as Halloween nears — pick me up in time to catch a train from nearby Nihonmatsu to Koriyama, where I could hop a shinkansen to the metropolis.

Disembarking from the car into a light rain, I popped open a folding umbrella and strolled through the Furusato Mura gift shop-cum-restaurant complex, out a side door and onto a path veering to the left. I soon passed the gate to the Kanzeji Temple and followed signs pointing to the ominous-sounding Kurozuka (Black Mound).

The path followed the rolling topography, first ascending a hill, then taking a sharp turn to the right that preceded a short descent.

Just then the wind picked up, violently rattling my umbrella as the rain came driving at me almost sideways. It was turning into a thoroughly nasty afternoon. But considering where I was headed, the ambience couldn’t have been more appropriate.

Reaching a narrow access road, I found myself on a bluff overlooking the Abukuma River, standing in front of old Buddhist statuary and a large Japanese cypress marked with worn signs.

It’s a forlorn place even today, and it’s easy to imagine how desolate it would have seemed to the people in ancient times who traveled through this part of the northeastern Tohoku region of Honshu known as Michinoku.

Beneath that solitary tree, according to local legends, repose the remains of Adachigahara no Onibaba, the so-called Demon-hag of Adachigahara. Also described variously as an “ogress” and a “goblin,” her story stands out as one of the most bloodcurdling legends in a country that has no shortage of grotesque, gruesome and barbarously chilling tales.

Perhaps due to the inclement weather and there being no one else about, I would have any spirit of the horrible hag’s undivided attention for the duration of my visit.

Truth be told, though, she also had mine, as I reflected on accounts of her dreadful deeds that appear to go back around 1,260 years, to the late Nara Period (710-784).

In those days her name is believed to have been Iwate, and she worked as a wet nurse for an aristocratic family in the Imperial capital. Then one day her high-born mistress fell ill, and Iwate was told by a seer that she could only be healed by consuming the raw liver of a pregnant woman.

Ever the loyal servant, Iwate left her own small daughter to set off in search of a cure, eventually taking up residence in Japan’s then remote and near-uncharted northeast.

Years passed until, one autumn evening, a young couple with the wife heavily pregnant approached her hut and requested shelter for the night. That evening the wife went into labor and her husband dashed off to seek medication. Seizing her chance, Iwate slashed open the young woman’s belly and began to remove her liver. In her death throes, the woman gasped, “I came here searching for my mother, from whom I’d been separated in the capital.”

Then to her horror, Onibaba recognized a talisman she had given to her daughter in infancy, and at that moment realized she had murdered her own beloved offspring. Driven to madness, she turned into a full-fledged serial killer and cannibal. The exact number of her victims is not specified — nor likewise the circumstances of her death.

Then eventually, according to one version, she was forced into irreversible permanent retirement by a holy arrow sent winging her way as a result of a Buddhist exorcism ritual.

It’s amazing how we humans can even scare ourselves — let alone others — and I departed the Kurozuka and retraced my steps, anxiously casting occasional nervous glances over my shoulder. The tree soon disappeared from sight and I found myself at the gate of the Kanzeji Temple, affiliated with the Tendai Buddhist sect that was founded in 726.

The main hall, according to information on the back of my ¥400 entry ticket, was erected in 1788. Just past the entrance there is a memorial, embellished with floral offerings and incense, where visitors can offer prayers to Onibaba’s victims. Behind this are several impressively large boulders, among which is the so-called Iwaya overhang beneath which, as the story tells it, Onibaba erected her hut.

Hence, presumably, this was the spot where her whole grisly, demented career began with that killing of her daughter.

As if the imagination weren’t already pretty active, another “attraction” here is a small feature dubbed the Deba-arai Ike (Knife-washing Pond), in which the Onibaba is said to have washed away the sanguinary residue of her vile deeds.

Next to the temple’s main hall is a one-room museum with various items related to the Onibaba legend on display.

Along with more modern works of art are several artifacts, including what appears to be a very old, corroded iron cutting instrument, reputedly the deba (knife) with which she butchered her victims, and the kuwa (shovel) she used to bury her victims’ leftover remains.

And surprise, surprise — the temple also sells a variety of protective talismans and packets of postcards.

A short walk from the temple, meanwhile, is a sprawling historical and cultural park called Furusato Mura, and a gift shop selling locally produced food items and other souvenirs. One corner is the domain of cellphone ornaments, stickers and assorted other items featuring “Bappy-chan,” the cute mascot spun off from the Onibaba legend. Such transformative efforts at endearment might be said to have echoes in “Barney,” America’s amicable purple Tyrannosaurus Rex, and a host of European folklore, myths and legends given the vapid Disney treatment.

An illustration of the Onibaba of Adachigahara appears in Toriyama Sekien’s 1776 picture book, “Gazu Hyakki Yagyo” (“The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons”). The kijo (deranged woman) has also been a recurring theme in Japanese literature, performing arts such as kabuki and noh dramas, in cinema and manga.

As a generic monster, the Onibaba takes many forms. One is an ogre who has assumed the form of a human female; another a human female who insanely engages in fiendish behavior.

As “The Goblin of Adachigahara,” she made her English debut in a 1903 book by Yei Theodora Ozaki titled “Japanese Fairy Tales.” That book has since been reissued by Tuttle among many other publishers.

In more modern times, the late cartoonist Osamu Tezuka featured his own variation on the Onibaba tale from 1956 in Shonen Jump comics magazine.

My own acquaintance with this ghoulish old gal and her bloodthirsty exploits came about through a famous 1885 woodblock print titled “Adachigahara hitotsuya no zu” by the master artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-92). A pupil of the great Kuniyoshi, Yoshitoshi is regarded as one of the most versatile graphics artists of his day and arguably the last great woodblock drawer with roots in the Edo Period (1603-1867).

From early in his career, Yoshitoshi gained a reputation as something of an enfant terrible because of the shocking nature of his bloody muzan-e (atrocity pictures) of infamous murders. He returned to the theme two decades later in a series of prints portraying some of Japan’s best known akujo (evil women) — including the Edo Period’s most famous female firebug, Yaoya no Oshichi (featured in Ihara Saikaku’s 1686 novel “Five Women Who Loved Love”) and another legendary mass murderess named Omatsu, whose modus operandi was to persuade solitary samurai to carry her piggyback across river shallows so her kimono would not become wet. Then, once mounted, she would pull out a dagger and slit the do-gooder’s throat in midstream.

The pair of prints comprising Yoshitoshi’s famous vertical diptych on the Onibaba theme show a young female, bound, gagged and suspended head down from the ceiling by a rope. She is hugely pregnant, and her long hair dangles close enough to the hearth to be licked at by its sparks. The cackling Onibaba squats on the floor, her wrinkled torso bare from the waist up as she hones her knife to a sharp edge on a whetstone.

Without showing so much as a drop of blood — censors in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) had begun cracking down on works of art depicting gratuitous violence — Yoshitoshi’s print brilliantly suggests the greater horrors to follow.

Fortunately, Nihonmatsu’s reputation does not appear to have been sullied in the slightest by its ghoulish resident of yore. In fact, the town of 58,000 people is listed (yes, there are lists for everything) as one of the top 100 spots in Japan for viewing cherry blossoms, and is also famous for its locally brewed rice wine and Kiku-ningyo dolls.

Getting there: Nihonmatsu is on the JR Tohoku main line between Koriyama and Fukushima, which are bothserved by the Tohoku Shinkansen. Trains to Nihonmatsu run only once or twice per hour, so visitors are advised to consult the timetable. Open daily, Kanzeji Temple and Furusato Mura history theme park are about 10 min. (¥1,200) by taxi from Nihonmatsu Station (where rental bicycles are also available).