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 it 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. The stone columns erected around it mostly concealed it even from a short distance.
A popular Japanese ghost story, its veracity in question, went 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, 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 was called Bancho Sarayashiki, which inspired the story of Sadako in the novel (and the movie), The Ring.
This well in Himeji-jo had been called Okiku’s Well. Moral of the story: Never dispose of dead bodies in wells. They might crawl up with their disheveled unrebonded hair all over their faces.
Not far from the well was an even more morbid place. It was a separate structure, the 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 was 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 didn’t think this story inspired the movie Boxing Helena. But he did give the Japanese their own Barbie. Daruma had been reincarnated as a Daruma doll (or Dharma doll), a semi-rounded torso with those big round eyes and without appendages. It was a wishing doll with white eyes. The right would be painted with a black dot when a wish had been made, the left dotted when the wish was fulfilled.
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 stood a shrine that had 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 involved 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 was 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 held court in a shrine dedicated to her, the Osakabe Shinto Shrine.
Himeji in Movies
Himeji Castle harbored other stories, spooky and otherwise, fit for the movies, or good urban legends. The castle, in fact, had 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 was hardly surprising. Himeji was arguably the best-looking, most photogenic castle in Japan. And with the stories and legends surrounding it through the centuries, it was decidedly the most showbiz too.