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Okiku

Okikuお菊
おきく

TRANSLATION: a girls’ name meaning “chrysanthemum”

APPEARANCE: Okiku was the name of a servant girl who lost a precious plate, died a terrible death, and returned as a vengeful ghost. Along with Oiwa and Otsuyu, Okiku’s tale is one of the Nihon san dai kaidan—Japan’s Big Three Ghost Stories. Her story has been retold countless times in folk tales, puppet theater, kabuki, film, and manga. Though the general outline of her story remains the same, the names, locations, and surrounding details vary quite a bit from telling to telling. The most famous version of her story is called Banchō sarayashiki—”The Dish Manor at Banchō.” It takes place in Himeji, present-day Hyōgo Prefecture.

LEGENDS: Long ago, there was a woman named Okiku who worked as a dishwashing servant at Himeji Castle. Okiku was very beautiful, and it was not long before she caught the eye of one of her master’s retainers, a samurai named Aoyama. Aoyama tried many times to seduce Okiku, but each time she rejected his advances.

Eventually, Aoyama grew impatient with Okiku and decided to trick her into becoming his lover. In the castle there was a set of ten very expensive dishes. Aoyama hid one of the them, and then called for Okiku. He told her one of his master’s fine dishes was missing, and demanded to know where it was. Okiku became frightened. Losing one of her lord’s prized dishes was a crime punishable by death. She counted the dishes, “One… two… three… four… five… six… seven… eight… nine…” She recounted them against and again. Each time she came up one short. Okiku was distraught.

Aoyama told Okiku that he would overlook her mistake, and tell his master that it wasn’t Okiku who lost the dish—but only if she would become his mistress. Though Okiku wanted to live, she once again refused Aoyama. This time the samurai became furious. He ordered his servants to beat Okiku with a wooden sword. Afterwards, he had her tied up and suspended over the castle well. He tortured Okiku, repeatedly dunking her into the well, only to pull her back out of the water and beat her himself. Aoyama demanded one last time that Okiku become his mistress. She refused. So Aoyama struck her violently with his sword and dropped her body down into the well.

Not long after, Okiku’s ghost was seen wandering the castle grounds. Night after night, she would rise from the well and enter her master’s house, searching for the missing dish. She would count the plates: “One… two… three… four… five… six… seven… eight… nine…” After counting the ninth plate, she would let out a blood curdling scream that could be heard throughout the castle. She tormented Aoyama in this way, every night, robbing him of his rest. Those who heard part of Okiku’s counting became very sick. Those unlucky enough to hear her count all the way to nine died shortly after.

Finally, the lord of the castle decided that something had to be done about Okiku’s ghost. He called a priest, and asked him to pray for her and exercise her spirit. The priest waited in the garden all night, chanting suttras. One again, Okiku’s ghost rose out of the well. She began to count the dishes: “One… two… three… four… five… six… seven… eight… nine…” As soon as Okiku counted the ninth dish, and before she could scream, the priest shouted out: “TEN!” Okiku’s ghost appeared relieved that someone had found the missing dish. From then on, she never haunted the castle again.

Osakabe hime

Osakabe hime長壁姫
おさかべひめ

TRANSLATION: the lady of the walls
HABITAT: secret areas of Himeji Castle

APPEARANCE: Osakabe hime is a reclusive yōkai who lives high up in the keep of Himeji Castle. She takes the appearance of a majestic old woman wearing a 12-layered kimono.

BEHAVIOR: Osakabe hime is a powerful yōkai, capable of manipulating people like puppets. She is extremely knowledgeable about many things and controls a multitude of kenzokushin—animal-like spirits who act as messengers. She can read a person’s heart and see their true desires. She can then manipulate them any way she pleases. It is rumored that anybody who sees her face will die instantly.

INTERACTIONS: Osakabe hime absolutely hates meeting people. She spends most of her time hidden away in secret areas of Himeji Castle. However, once a year, she comes out of hiding to meet with the castle lord and foretell the castle’s fortune for the next year.

ORIGIN: Osakabe hime’s true identity is a mystery. By popular account, she is actually an elderly nine-tailed kitsune who takes the form of this yōkai. According to other accounts, she may be a snake spirit, or the ghost of one of Emperor Fushimi’s favorite courtesans. She may even be the sister of Kame hime, a similar yōkai who lived in Inawashiro Castle in Mutsu Province.

Another common legend is that she was originally the kami of the mountain upon which Himeji Castle was built. When Himeji Castle was expanded by Hideyoshi in the 1580s, the shrine dedicated to the local goddess of Mount Hime, Osakabegami, was removed. The goddess was re-enshrined in Harima Sōja, a shrine dedicated to several gods. In the 1600s, when the lord of the castle, Ikeda Terumasa, fell mysteriously ill, rumors arose that his sickness was due to the goddess’s anger at having been removed. In order to appease her, a small temple was built in the keep and Osakabegami was re-enshrined at the top of her mountain. Osakabegami may be the true identity of Osakabe hime.

LEGEND: During the Edo period, a young page named Morita Zusho went on a dare to go see if a yōkai really lived in the upper floors of Himeji Castle. He waited until nightfall, and then—paper lantern in hand—he climbed to the top of the keep. As brave as he was, Zusho couldn’t help imagining what would happen to him if there really was such a creature up there. Finally, when he reached the top floor, he saw a faint light coming from a door in the attic. He peeked in, but whoever was inside had heard him. A woman’s voice called out, “Who’s there!?”

Zusho was paralyzed with fear. He heard the sound of a kimono rustling. The door opened up to reveal a beautiful, elegant woman in her thirties wearing a splendid 12-layered kimono. Zusho felt his strength return and politely introduced himself and explained his reason for coming.

Amused, the yōkai replied, “A test of bravery, you say? You will need some proof that you actually saw me.” She gave him a neck guard of a helmet— piece of his master’s own family heirloom armor—to show his master as proof that he met Osakabe hime.

The next day, Zusho told the story of what had happened to his master. Everyone had trouble believing him because they had always heard that the yōkai took the form of an old woman and not a young one. But when Zusho presented the neck guard, his master was shocked and had no choice but to believe the story.