Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan
June 24, 2009
I had been in Japan barely 24 hours, and I already stumbled upon Sadako’s well! I found the horrific well within the complex of Himeji Castle.
Well, the well actually looked unremarkable in broad daylight. There was none of the giddy creepiness of its movie version. Stone columns had been erected around the well; it was hardly visible from a short distance.
A popular Japanese ghost story, its veracity still in question, goes that a maidservant named Okiku was in love with a daimyo‘s (feudal lord) samurai retainer. Okiku’s master, another retainer, was plotting to overthrow the lordship. The girl got wind of it and tattled to her lover, thus, foiling the plan. Okiku’s master later learned of this and vowed to exact revenge (this guy was an abysmal failure in bushido!). He accused her of losing the lord’s delft dish (a precious family treasure), a crime punishable by death. Okiku was made to pay for it with her own life, her body thrown into the well. Since then, her wailing voice would emanate from the well at night as she counted the dishes. The story is called Bancho Sarayashiki, which inspired the story of Sadako and the well in the novel (and the movie), The Ring.
This well in Himeji-jo is now called Okiku’s Well. Moral of the story: Don’t dispose of dead bodies in wells. They crawl up with their disheveled unrebonded hair all over their faces.
Not far from the well was an even more morbid place. It is a separate structure, called harakiri-maru, within the castle’s bailey and where a samurai would commit seppuku, or ritual suicide, by self-disembowelment, usually to avoid capture or facing disgrace. The lord and his family were also expected to do this for the same reasons. Other samurai or the lord would witness the proceedings on a viewing platform.
Before committing seppuku, a samurai was bathed and dressed in a white robe and given his “monster’s ball” - his favorite meal which would be his last. He might also write a death poem. A haiku perhaps. Who would have either have the appetite or the mental acuity for poetry under such gut-wrenching circumstances? After cutting up his belly, another samurai put him out of his misery by swiftly beheading him. The head is then washed in a nearby well. Probably in Okiku’s Well.
In the castle’s donjon, I was stopped in my tracks by an arresting Sakai painting of Daruma, the father of Zen Buddhism in Japan and China. He was an Indian sage who famously cut off his eyelids after he dozed off during meditation, hence his depiction in paintings and dolls with abnormally big round eyes in spooky white.
He was so much into hard-core meditation that, eventually, his arms and legs atrophied and fell off. No, I don’t think this story inspired the movie Boxing Helena. But he did give the Japanese their own Barbie. Daruma is now reincarnated as a Daruma doll (or Dharma doll), a semi-rounded torso with those big round eyes and without appendages. The eyes are painted white. You make a wish and paint a black dot on the right eye. When the wish is fulfilled, you dot the left eye.
If I had a Daruma doll, it would only have a dotted left eye. I had not wished for this marvelous Japan trip – I knew nothing about this place even a few months back; but I was given the chance to visit this amazing country. Fulfillment came before the wishing!
Osakabe Shinto Shrine
On the penthouse floor of the castle’s keep lies a shrine that has another ghostly story of its own. Before the castle was built, there was a shrine on the same spot on the hilltop. The shrine was moved elsewhere when construction began, causing the whole town of Himeji to become haunted. Ghostly shadows lurked and spooked the residents. The shrine was then reinstated to the same place, albeit inside the castle.
Another legend involves the samurai Musashi Miyamoto, famous for his two-sword style of fencing. He was the Jet Li of the Edo Period with his legendary and “artistic” fights. It is said that he vanquished the monster-spirits, a la Spirited Away, and exorcised the Shinto spirit of Princess Osakabe Myojin that haunted the castle. Now she holds court in a shrine dedicated to her, the Osakabe Shinto Shrine. You can burn incense there, or offer sake.
Himeji in Movies
Himeji Castle harbors other stories, spooky and otherwise, fit for the movies, or good urban legends. The castle, in fact, has made numerous appearances in films, such as The Last Samurai, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, and the 80s miniseries Shogun. The day I was there, a film crew and actors dressed as ninjas were shooting at the grounds of the castle.
It is not surprising. Himeji is arguably the best-looking, most photogenic castle in Japan. And with the stories and legends surrounding it through the centuries, it is decidedly the most showbiz too.
And here’s my short introductory video of Himeji Castle. Indulge me.