There is an ethereal tranquility that descends upon the labyrinthine alleys of Yanaka during Tokyo’s humid summer afternoons.
The scent of incense wafts from cemeteries dotting the neighborhood as glass wind chimes ring in the occasional breeze, offering a brief respite from the scorching heat. Shadows of pedestrians stretch across weathered walls enclosing dozens of old Buddhist temples inhabiting this traditional district in Taito Ward.
It’s in the premises of one of these temples, Zenshoan, that the grave of Sanyutei Encho rests. A legendary Meiji Era (1868-1912) rakugo storyteller famed for his tales of ghosts and apparitions, Encho passed away on Aug. 11, 1900, at the age of 61. He left behind, among many stories that have since become rakugo classics, a rare collection of hanging scrolls depicting Japanese ghosts known as yūrei.
“There are many things we still don’t know about Encho’s motives behind collecting these paintings,” says Shoshu Hirai, the seventh-generation jūshoku (head priest) of Zenshoan.
For more than 30 years, the temple has been displaying Encho’s collection to the public during August, a month associated with the o-Bon season when the souls of the deceased are believed to return from the netherworld to their living families. Over 30 of the roughly 50 or so scrolls the temple preserves are exhibited in an air-conditioned room adjacent to the temple, giving visitors an opportunity to cool down and examine the chilling beauty of works by Edo Period (1603-1868) and Meiji Era painters such as Maruyama Okyo, Shibata Zeshin and Kawanabe Kyosai.
Hirai, 51, explains that there are several theories as to why Encho collected these scrolls, the most common involving hyakumonogatari kaidankai, a gathering of 100 supernatural tales. A popular parlor game during the Edo Period, the spooky ritual would see participants lighting 100 candles, extinguishing them one by one as they recounted ghost stories. When the final light goes out, otherworldly creatures would appear from the darkness, or so it has been told.
Encho, known for rakugo horror masterpieces including “Shinkei Kasanegafuchi” — a grim saga of betrayal, murder and a chain of misery cursing its characters over generations — is said to have hosted these events at a ryotei high-end restaurant in Yanagibashi, an old geisha district by the Sumida River.
“He appears to have been aiming to collect 100 ghost paintings in tribute to hyakumonogatari, but passed away before he could complete the task,” Hirai says.
Following Encho’s death, his patron family, the Fujiuras, took over his personal belongings and continued to gather ghost paintings on his behalf. In 1906, on the sixth anniversary of Encho’s death, the Fujiuras presented roughly half of the 100 scrolls it had their possession to Zenshoan.
A fire caused by the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake burned down the Fujiura home, however, and the other half of the ghost scrolls the family owned were lost.
“But several years ago, one of the paintings thought to have disappeared in the fire resurfaced,” Hirai says. Zenshoan purchased the piece by Kiyokata Kaburaki, a Meiji and Showa (1926-89) Era painter, and included it in its annual exhibition in 2017.
“Are there other paintings that have also survived?” Hirai adds. “We don’t know.”
This year marks the 180th anniversary of Encho’s birth. Hirai says, however, that the temple isn’t planning to organize anything special besides the Yanaka Encho Festival it hosts every year in August, when rakugo raconteurs gather to perform skits.
Founded in 1883 by renowned samurai swordsman Yamaoka Tesshu, Zenshoan is located on Sansaki-zaka, a hill that leads from Sendagi Station up toward Yanaka Cemetery, an approximately 100,000-square-meter plot of land home to around 7,000 graves, including those of historical figures such as former Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama, painter Yokoyama Taikan and the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu.
Near the center of the cemetery are the ruins of a five-story pagoda that was the site of a double suicide that could have been fodder for one of Encho’s kaidanbanashi (ghost stories) if he were alive.
In the early hours of July 6, 1957, a fire broke out that engulfed the landmark wooden pagoda. In its remains were discovered two charred bodies later identified as that of a 22-year-old seamstress and her 48-year-old married colleague and lover. At the site was a can of petrol, matches and sleeping pills, leading investigators to conclude the two set the pagoda on fire to end their lives and adulterous relationship.
Perhaps due to the scandalous nature of the case and the eerie setting, ghost sightings ensued in the cemetery. Locals also harbored various theories regarding the dramatic deaths, including claims that the case was a murder disguised as a suicide — a topic explored in Takehiko Koike’s recent book, “Tokyo no Yurei Jiken” (“Ghost Cases of Tokyo”).
Yanaka, as well as the neighboring districts of Nezu and Sendagi, collectively known as Yanesen, has been a source of similar tales of tragic relationships and ghosts.
Encho’s adaptation of the Chinese-influenced ghost story, “Botan Doro,” is set in the area and involves a samurai falling in love and simultaneously being haunted by the ghost of a young, beautiful woman named Otsuyu, who visits him nightly during the o-Bon season. A ghastly painting of Otsuyu and her faithful servant, Oyone, by ukiyo-e artist Ogata Gekko, is included as part of Encho’s collection.
Before Zenshoan began exhibiting its ghost scrolls to the public, Hirai says they were spread out and hung in the main hall of the temple for around a week every year to be aired out.
“It was us children’s responsibility to deliver offerings of food to the altar every morning and then come back at sunset to retrieve them,” Hirai recalls of his formative years. “Entering that hall at dusk when the scrolls were out was hair-raising.”