In Ghostly Japan

In Ghostly Japan

by Lafcadio Hearn


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In addition to chilling tales of the spirit world, this compilation features a noted Japanophile's nonfiction reflections on Japanese idioms, Buddhist proverbs, translations of haiku, and ritual uses of incense.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486837338
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 10/16/2019
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904) was instrumental in introducing Western readers to Japanese culture and literature. Raised in Dublin and a longtime resident of the United States, the writer, translator, and teacher adopted Japanese citizenship and served as Professor of English Literature at the Imperial University of Tokyo.

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And it was at the hour of sunset that they came to the foot of the mountain. There was in that place no sign of life, — neither token of water, nor trace of plant, nor shadow of flying bird, — nothing but desolation rising to desolation. And the summit was lost in heaven.

Then the Bodhisattva said to his young companion: — "What you have asked to see will be shown to you. But the place of the Vision is far; and the way is rude. Follow after me, and do not fear: strength will be given you."

Twilight gloomed about them as they climbed. There was no beaten path, nor any mark of former human visitation; and the way was over an endless heaping of tumbled fragments that rolled or turned beneath the foot. Sometimes a mass dislodged would clatter down with hollow echoings; — sometimes the substance trodden would burst like an empty shell. ... Stars pointed and thrilled; — and the darkness deepened.

"Do not fear, my son," said the Bodhisattva, guiding: "danger there is none, though the way be grim."

Under the stars they climbed, — fast, fast, — mounting by help of power superhuman. High zones of mist they passed; and they saw below them, ever widening as they climbed, a soundless flood of cloud, like the tide of a milky sea.

Hour after hour they climbed; — and forms invisible yielded to their tread with dull soft crashings; — and faint cold fires lighted and died at every breaking.

And once the pilgrim-youth laid hand on a something smooth that was not stone, — and lifted it, — and dimly saw the cheekless gibe of death.

"Linger not thus, my son!" urged the voice of the teacher; — "the summit that we must gain is very far away!"

On through the dark they climbed, — and felt continually beneath them the soft strange breakings, — and saw the icy fires worm and die, — till the rim of the night turned grey, and the stars began to fail, and the east began to bloom.

Yet still they climbed, — fast, fast, — mounting by help of power superhuman. About them now was frigidness of death, — and silence tremendous. ... A gold flame kindled in the east.

Then first to the pilgrim's gaze the steeps revealed their nakedness; — and a trembling seized him, — and a ghastly fear. For there was not any ground, — neither beneath him nor about him nor above him, — but a heaping only, monstrous and measureless, of skulls and fragments of skulls and dust of bone, — with a shimmer of shed teeth strown through the drift of it, like the shimmer of scrags of shell in the wrack of a tide.

"Do not fear, my son!" cried the voice of the Bodhisattva; — "only the strong of heart can win to the place of the Vision!"

Behind them the world had vanished. Nothing remained but the clouds beneath, and the sky above, and the heaping of skulls between, — upslanting out of sight.

Then the sun climbed with the climbers; and there was no warmth in the light of him, but coldness sharp as a sword. And the horror of stupendous height, and the nightmare of stupendous depth, and the terror of silence, ever grew and grew, and weighed upon the pilgrim, and held his feet, — so that suddenly all power departed from him, and he moaned like a sleeper in dreams.

"Hasten, hasten, my son!" cried the Bodhisattva: "the day is brief, and the summit is very far away."

But the pilgrim shrieked, —

"I fear! I fear unspeakably! — and the power has departed from me!"

"The power will return, my son," made answer the Bodhisattva. ... "Look now below you and above you and about you, and tell me what you see."

"I cannot," cried the pilgrim, trembling and clinging; — "I dare not look beneath! Before me and about me there is nothing but skulls of men."

"And yet, my son," said the Bodhisattva, laughing softly, — "and yet you do not know of what this mountain is made."

The other, shuddering, repeated: —

"I fear! — unutterably I fear! ... there is nothing but skulls of men!"

"A mountain of skulls it is," responded the Bodhisattva. "But know, my son, that all of them ARE YOUR OWN! Each has at some time been the nest of your dreams and delusions and desires. Not even one of them is the skull of any other being. All, — all without exception, — have been yours, in the billions of your former lives."



Recently, while passing through a little street tenanted chiefly by dealers in old wares, I noticed a furisode, or long-sleeved robe, of the rich purple tint called murasaki, hanging before one of the shops. It was a robe such as might have been worn by a lady of rank in the time of the Tokugawa. I stopped to look at the five crests upon it; and in the same moment there came to my recollection this legend of a similar robe said to have once caused the destruction of Yedo.

Nearly two hundred and fifty years ago, the daughter of a rich merchant of the city of the Shoguns, while attending some temple-festival, perceived in the crowd a young samurai of remarkable beauty, and immediately fell in love with him. Unhappily for her, he disappeared in the press before she could learn through her attendants who he was or whence he had come. But his image remained vivid in her memory, — even to the least detail of his costume. The holiday attire then worn by samurai youths was scarcely less brilliant than that of young girls; and the upper dress of this handsome stranger had seemed wonderfully beautiful to the enamoured maiden. She fancied that by wearing a robe of like quality and color, bearing the same crest, she might be able to attract his notice on some future occasion.

Accordingly she had such a robe made, with very long sleeves, according to the fashion of the period; and she prized it greatly. She wore it whenever she went out; and when at home she would suspend it in her room, and try to imagine the form of her unknown beloved within it. Sometimes she would pass hours before it, — dreaming and weeping by turns. And she would pray to the gods and the Buddhas that she might win the young man's affection, — often repeating the invocation of the Nichiren sect: Namu myo ho renge kyo!

But she never saw the youth again; and she pined with longing for him, and sickened, and died, and was buried. After her burial, the long-sleeved robe that she had so much prized was given to the Buddhist temple of which her family were parishioners. It is an old custom to thus dispose of the garments of the dead.

The priest was able to sell the robe at a good price; for it was a costly silk, and bore no trace of the tears that had fallen upon it. It was bought by a girl of about the same age as the dead lady. She wore it only one day. Then she fell sick, and began to act strangely, — crying out that she was haunted by the vision of a beautiful young man, and that for love of him she was going to die. And within a little while she died; and the long-sleeved robe was a second time presented to the temple.

Again the priest sold it; and again it became the property of a young girl, who wore it only once. Then she also sickened, and talked of a beautiful shadow, and died, and was buried. And the robe was given a third time to the temple; and the priest wondered and doubted.

Nevertheless he ventured to sell the luckless garment once more. Once more it was purchased by a girl and once more worn; and the wearer pined and died. And the robe was given a fourth time to the temple.

Then the priest felt sure that there was some evil influence at work; and he told his acolytes to make a fire in the temple-court, and to burn the robe.

So they made a fire, into which the robe was thrown. But as the silk began to burn, there suddenly appeared upon it dazzling characters of flame, — the characters of the invocation, Namu myo ho renge kyo; — and these, one by one, leaped like great sparks to the temple roof; and the temple took fire.

Embers from the burning temple presently dropped upon neighbouring roofs; and the whole street was soon ablaze. Then a sea-wind, rising, blew destruction into further streets; and the conflagration spread from street to street, and from district into district, till nearly the whole of the city was consumed. And this calamity, which occurred upon the eighteenth day of the first month of the first year of Meiréki (1655), is still remembered in Tokyo as the FurisodeKwaji. — the Great Fire of the Long-sleeved Robe.

According to a story-book called Kibun-Daijin, the name of the girl who caused the robe to be made was O-Samé; and she was the daughter of Hikoyémon, a wine-merchant of Hyakusho-machi, in the district of Azabu. Because of her beauty she was also called Azabu-Komachi, or the Komachi of Azabu. The same book says that the temple of the tradition was a Nichiren temple called Honmyoji, in the district of Hongo; and that the crest upon the robe was a kikyo-flower. But there are many different versions of the story; and I distrust the Kibun-Daijin because it asserts that the beautiful samurai was not really a man, but a transformed dragon, or water-serpent, that used to inhabit the lake at Uyéno, — Shinobazu-no-Ike.




I see, rising out of darkness, a lotos* in a vase. Most of the vase is invisible; but I know that it is of bronze, and that its glimpsing handles are bodies of dragons. Only the lotos is fully illuminated: three pure white flowers, and five great leaves of gold and green, — gold above, green on the upcurling under-surface, — an artificial lotos. It is bathed by a slanting stream of sunshine; — the darkness beneath and beyond is the dusk of a temple-chamber. I do not see the opening through which the radiance pours; but I am aware that it is a small window shaped in the outline-form of a temple-bell.

The reason that I see the lotos — one memory of my first visit to a Buddhist sanctuary — is that there has come to me an odor of incense. Often when I smell incense, this vision defines; and usually thereafter other sensations of my first day in Japan revive in swift succession with almost painful acuteness.

It is almost ubiquitous, — this perfume of incense. It makes one element of the faint but complex and never-to-be-forgotten odor of the Far East. It haunts the dwelling-house not less than the temple, — the home of the peasant not less than the yashiki of the prince. Shinto shrines, indeed, are free from it; — incense being an abomination to the elder gods. But wherever Buddhism lives there is incense. In every house containing a Buddhist shrine or Buddhist tablets, incense is burned at certain times; and in even the rudest country solitudes you will find incense smouldering before wayside images, — little stone figures of Fudo, Jizo, or Kwannon. Many experiences of travel, — strange impressions of sound as well as of sight, — remain associated in my own memory with that fragrance: — vast silent shadowed avenues leading to weird old shrines; — mossed flights of worn steps ascending to temples that moulder above the clouds; — joyous tumult of festival nights; — sheeted funeral-trains gliding by in glimmer of lanterns; — murmur of household prayer in fishermen's huts on far wild coasts; — and visions of desolate little graves marked only by threads of blue smoke ascending, — graves of pet animals or birds remembered by simple hearts in the hour of prayer to Amida, the Lord of Immeasurable Light.

But the odor of which I speak is that of cheap incense only, — the incense in general use. There are many other kinds of incense; and the range of quality is amazing. A bundle of common incenserods — (they are about as thick as an ordinary pencil-lead, and somewhat longer) — can be bought for a few sen; while a bundle of better quality, presenting to inexperienced eyes only some difference in color, may cost several yen, and be cheap at the price. Still costlier sorts of incense, — veritable luxuries, — take the form of lozenges, wafers, pastilles; and a small envelope of such material may be worth four or five pounds-sterling. But the commercial and industrial questions relating to Japanese incense represent the least interesting part of a remarkably curious subject.


Curious indeed, but enormous by reason of its infinity of tradition and detail. I am afraid even to think of the size of the volume that would be needed to cover it. ... Such a work would properly begin with some brief account of the earliest knowledge and use of aromatics in Japan. It would next treat of the records and legends of the first introduction of Buddhist incense from Korea, — when King Shomyo of Kudara, in 551 a. d., sent to the island-empire a collection of sutras, an image of the Buddha, and one complete set of furniture for a temple. Then something would have to be said about those classifications of incense which were made during the tenth century, in the periods of Engi and of Tenryaku, — and about the report of the ancient state-councillor, Kimitaka-Sangi, who visited China in the latter part of the thirteenth century, and transmitted to the Emperor Yomei the wisdom of the Chinese concerning incense. Then mention should be made of the ancient incenses still preserved in various Japanese temples, and of the famous fragments of ranjatai (publicly exhibited at Nara in the tenth year of Meiji) which furnished supplies to the three great captains, Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Iyeyasu. After this should follow an outline of the history of mixed incenses made in Japan, — with notes on the classifications devised by the luxurious Takauji, and on the nomenclature established later by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who collected one hundred and thirty varieties of incense, and invented for the more precious of them names recognized even to this day, — such as "Blossom-Showering," "Smoke-of-Fuji," and "Flower-of-the-Pure-Law." Examples ought to be given likewise of traditions attaching to historical incenses preserved in several princely families; together with specimens of those hereditary recipes for incense-making which have been transmitted from generation to generation through hundreds of years, and are still called after their august inventors, — as "the Method of Hina-Dainagon," "the Method of Sento-In," etc. Recipes also should be given of those strange incenses made "to imitate the perfume of the lotos, the smell of the summer breeze, and the odor of the autumn wind." Some legends of the great period of incense-luxury should be cited, — such as the story of Sué Owari-no-Kami, who built for himself a palace of incense-woods, and set fire to it on the night of his revolt, when the smoke of its burning perfumed the land to a distance of twelve miles. ... Of course the mere compilation of materials for a history of mixed-incenses would entail the study of a host of documents, treatises, and books, — particularly of such strange works as the Kun-Shu-Rui-Sho, or "Incense-Collector's-Classifying-Manual"; — containing the teachings of the Ten Schools of the Art of Mixing Incense; directions as to the best seasons for incense-making; and instructions about the "different kinds of fire" to be used for burning incense — (one kind is called "literary fire," and another "military fire"); together with rules for pressing the ashes of a censer into various artistic designs corresponding to season and occasion. ... A special chapter should certainly be given to the incense-bags (kusadama) hung up in houses to drive away goblins, — and to the smaller incense-bags formerly carried about the person as a protection against evil spirits. Then a very large part of the work would have to be devoted to the religious uses and legends of incense, — a huge subject in itself. There would also have to be considered the curious history of the old "incense-assemblies," whose elaborate ceremonial could be explained only by help of numerous diagrams. One chapter at least would be required for the subject of the ancient importation of incense-materials from India, China, Annam, Siam, Cambodia, Ceylon, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, and various islands of the Malay archipelago, — places all named in rare books about incense. And a final chapter should treat of the romantic literature of incense, — the poems, stories, and dramas in which incense-rites are mentioned; and especially those love-songs comparing the body to incense, and passion to the eating flame: —

Even as burns the perfume lending my robe its fragrance, Smoulders my life away, consumed by the pain of longing!


Excerpted from "In Ghostly Japan"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Lafcadio Hearn.
Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations, xi,
Fragment, 1,
Furisodé, 5,
Incense, 9,
A Story of Divination, 27,
Silkworms, 31,
A Passional Karma, 37,
Footprints of the Buddha, 61,
Ululation, 69,
Bits of Poetry, 77,
Japanese Buddhist Proverbs, 87,
Suggestion, 105,
Ingwa-banashi, 109,
Story of a Tengu, 115,
At Yaidzu, 119,

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