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A heady witches’ brew of midsummer nightmares

by Mark Schreiber

Aside from the Summer High School Baseball Tournament at Koshien Stadium and NHK documentaries reminiscing about World War II, mid-August tends to be a quiet time and most of Japan’s weekly magazines skip an issue.

Still, this is the time of the year when ghosts traditionally make their appearance, and some magazines run stories about frightening phenomena, just part of the huge genre of the supernatural that includes books — aimed at both juveniles and adults — manga and animated films.

In past columns we’ve covered some of the famous places in Tokyo and environs where paranormal incidents have reportedly occurred. There’s a tunnel in Sendagaya, Shibuya Ward that late-night taxi drivers are said to insist on avoiding, and also a public telephone booth in a park in Nerima Ward, where nocturnal apparitions supposedly appear.

Another creepy landmark is situated right in the heart of the Otemachi business district. In A.D. 940, a nobleman named Taira no Masakado was executed by decapitation for leading a rebellion. According to legend, Masakado’s head flew on its own from Kyoto to a fishing village that later became Edo (present-day Tokyo). His kubizuka (skull mound) rests at the base of a high-rise building, and any signs of disrespect can result in dire consequences, even to this day. Which is why the neighboring office is said to carefully arrange workers’ desks so that a seated person’s buttocks do not point in Masakado’s direction.

In addition to paranormal “hot spots,” another type of scary story that the weeklies have regularly featured in their mid-summer issues involves bad things that happen to students or newly hired company employees who move to Tokyo each March, just before the start of the business and academic year. Because they’re unfamiliar with the big city, and because they are wont to seek out affordable lodgings, they are easy prey for sly real estate agents who introduce them to apartments with an unpleasant history — such as a previous tenant who was murdered, or committed suicide, therein.

Several weeks after moving in, a typical story might run, the new tenant might see appliances turn on and off by themselves, or glimpse a woman’s face peering in from outside an upper-story window. Or perhaps they’ll awaken at night to a noise and be terrified by the sight of blood dripping from the bathroom ceiling.

This summer, Weekly Playboy (Aug 22-29) has taken a cue from the rush by Tohoku residents to obtain hand-held devices to measure radioactivity. The magazine sets out to test two portable gadgets that claim to indicate the presence of ghostly spirits. One is a “Ghost Meter,” which sells for about ¥4,000. The other is an iPhone application called “Ghost Radar,” that can be downloaded for just ¥85.

The testers, a three-person retinue led by spiritualist Kei Sato, visit three allegedly haunted spots in Tokyo’s Minato Ward — Shiba Park, Yurei-zaka in Azabu, and Aoyama Cemetery, plus Toyama Park in Shinjuku Ward.

As opposed to the first three, whose scary reputations have pretty much faded in the mists of time, Toyama Park is of more immediate interest: during construction work just 20 years ago, the skeletal remains of upwards of 100 humans were unearthed. Pending their identification, rumors have continued to swirl.

The site is located close to the government’s Infectious Disease Surveillance Center and during the war years may have been used as an experimental laboratory by the Japanese military. Nearby residents have sworn, late at night, they’ve heard cries emanating from the site.

Weekly Playboy’s team departs from the Toyama Park at a rapid pace, casting nervous looks over their shoulders — and definitely convinced the area is infested by … something, anyway.

Spa! (Aug. 9) ran an article to confirm or debunk “urban legends of mid-summer.” Will sleeping directly beneath the breeze of an electric fan cause death? Does overexposure to the sun cause people to have bad breath? Are people with type “O” blood more susceptible to mosquito bites? If a person stumbles and falls in front of a grave, does that mean he’s not long for this world?

Author Bintaro Yamaguchi tells Spa! he’s convinced most scary legends and stories have two main origins. “First is the desire to relieve the heat by diverting one’s attention. Ghost stories were akin to ‘Cool Biz’ for people in ancient times.

“The other reason is that shrines and temples tolerated such stories as a means of self promotion,” Yamaguchi adds. “To discourage people from enjoying themselves during the O-Bon period, they’d be warned they’d drown if they went swimming in rivers or the ocean, or that a kappa (a legendary river monster) might take hold of their leg and pull them down.

“I suppose their aim was to make people take time off, visit their ancestors’ graves and bolster their religious beliefs.”

Vacationers willing to pay for a good fright might want to check out the “Hospital of Horrors” attraction — claimed to be the world’s largest obake yashiki (haunted house) — at the Fujikyu Highland amusement park near Mount Fuji.