Uncanny Japan - Myths, Folktales, Superstitions, History and Language

Speculative fiction writer, long-term resident of Japan and Bram Stoker Award finalist Thersa Matsuura explores all that is weird from old Japan—strange superstitions, folktales, cultural oddities, and interesting language quirks. These are little treasures she digs up while doing research for her writing.

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episode 53: Putting a Curse on Your Enemies (Ushi no Koku Mairi)


Ushi no Koku Mairi means visiting a shrine at the hour of the ox (between 1:00 and 3:00 am). It also means going there so you can put a curse on your enemy. Deriving from the legend of Hashi Hime (The Bridge Princess) and the Noh play Kanawa (The Iron Crown), this peculiar and frightening way of cursing those who have wronged you is definitely next level.

Although, ushi no koku mairi is not easy to do. You'll need a straw doll, hammer, long nails, white kimono, geta shoes, and an iron trivet decorated with lighted candles that you'll need to wear on your head.

In this episode of Uncanny Japan we're experimenting with a different way of immersive storytelling and interesting information-giving. It's also much scarier than any previous episode. Definitely not a show to fall asleep to, or if you have a weak heart.

Thank you for listening and let us know what you think.

terrie

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Notes: Intro/Outro by Julyan Ray Matsuura. Here and here. And here.

Kathrin by Sascha Ende
Link: https://filmmusic.io/song/430-kathrin
License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Marimba Thriller by Rafael Krux
Link: https://filmmusic.io/song/5335-marimba-thriller-
License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Pixel Peeker Polka - faster by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://filmmusic.io/song/4220-pixel-peeker-polka---faster
License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Transcript:

For whatever reason you’re in Japan, hiking in a forest near an old shrine. It’s two am. Other than an almost full moon that is somewhat obscured by the trees and passing clouds, you only have the weak beam of a flashlight to guide you.

Oh, yeah, and you’re all alone.

The way is steep, so you’ve stopped to lean against a tree and catch your breath. That flashlight has been dimming and brightening over and over for the last fifteen minutes, so you turn it off to save the battery. Soon you’re breathing normal again, and just about to start the last leg of your trek up to that spooky shrine you read something interesting about on the internet, when you hear a sound.

Someone else is tramping up this same pathless hill. The person is illuminated, but not by flashlight. Candlelight.

You decided to remain hidden in the dark and observe. What you see walking by a stone’s throw from where you are standing almost makes you gasp out loud. But you don’t. You’re smart and you know better. Because your gut is telling you something is very wrong here.

There is a woman wearing a long white kimono stepping carefully through the uneven forest floor. You can see why she’s stepping so carefully. On her feet she’s wearing wooden geta, but not the usual one’s with two short supporting wood pieces for each shoe. Her geta only have one support per shoe.

She is carrying something in each hand. You can’t make out what she has on the side far from you, but on the side that faces you, is a hammer. Clenched in her black teeth is what looks like a long nail. But what truly makes you really wish you’d gone to the restroom before your hike, is what she has around her mussed up, long black hair. Somehow she has fashioned a type of metal crown and around that crown are several long white burning candles.

The woman stops right in front of a large tree, lifts the thing in her left hand, and presses it against the trunk. She then removes the nail from her mouth, mumbles something angry under her breath, and begins hammering it in with all her might.

Intro

Hey hey, everyone. How are you all doing? It’s been awhile since I’ve done anything creepy and potentially hair raising. So today on Uncanny Japan I’m going to talk about ushi no koku mairi, a way of cursing someone in Japan that is really next level. I’ve been wanting to about it forever. But just recently had to the time to really delve into the subject.

Before we start cursing our enemies, I want thank my fabulous patrons. Without all of you there would be no me.

What is Ushi no Koku Mairi

Where were we? Ah, yes. We were watching a woman dressed in a white kimono walking through the forest at night. She’s wearing one-toothed geta shoes, clenching a long nail in her mouth and has a hammer in one hand, a something else in the other. That something else is a straw doll or waraningyo.

Today I’m going to talk about ushi no koku mairi or ushi no toki mairi. Both mean “shrine visit at the hour of the ox”. The hour of the ox is between one and three am, by the way.

But why a shrine visit? To curse your enemy of course. Ushi no koku mairi is the type of curse. The word for curse is noroi.

This is one of those recipes that I’m encouraging you not to follow. But out of morbid curiosity, mine and possibly yours, let me tell you a bit about this still practiced today phenomenon.

A little back story. Cursing a person in Japan or anywhere else really, is nothing new. But as far as Japan goes, this particular way of cursing, the ritual of it all, has changed over time.

The Legend of Hashi-Hime no Uji/The Princess of the Bridge Uji

A legend that really solidified this ritual is called Hashi-Hime no Uji. The Princess of the Bridge Uji. It was a story that first appeared during the Heian Era that told of a woman who spends many lonely nights waiting for her lover or husband (depending on the version of the tale) to return. She learns he’s with another lover and grrr, cue jealousy. She treks over to Kifune Shrine for seven nights and begs to be transformed into a female demon so she can exact her revenge.

The god of Kifune finally answers her prayer telling her to go to the Bridge of Uji (way down south from where she is), perform a certain ceremony, then submerge herself in the water. Do that for 21 days, says the god, and I’ll help you.

Part of the ceremony she was told to perform was to first twist her hair into up into five horns, using ground cinnabar to paint her face and vermillion to paint her body. Next, she was to use a three-pronged trivet on her head, set with three torches of burning pine. And finally, in her mouth she should hold two more twisted burning pine branches.

The princess-woman did this for 21 days until she did indeed transform into a female oni or demon. She was then able to slay magnificently all those who hurt her.

There is a Noh play called Kanawa (the Iron Crown) that is based on this tale. Seriously, look it up.

So now there is this elaborate and super creepy ritual around cursing your enemies. And maybe not as much as before, it still is performed today.

I was reading around and found quite a few different websites listing quite a few different shrines where this is still done. They really are all over Japan, usually old shrines deep in the forest. The more remote the better. Although a shrine that offers enkiri, or to cut connections or ties to a person, also seems to have these rituals or something similar performed on their grounds.

One of them, that Kifune Jinja I mentioned earlier. That’s a real place in Kyoto. It looks quite nice, but because of that legend I just told you about, it does have the ushi no koku mairi stain attached to it. I’m sure all these shrines would rather keep the pesky cursers with their long spikes away from their hundreds of years old sacred cedars.

Let me talk about the way of doing the curse. It’s is a little involved, but just so creepy I’ve always wanted to tell someone. So now that I have your attention… It’s kind of like hitori kakurenbo, playing hide and seek by yourself. Remember I talked about that in episode 16. Where the ritual itself really is a big part of the terror.

Also just imagining the degree of hate required to do this…

Items Needed for Putting a Curse on Your Enemy

Anyway, here’s are some of the items required.

First, the straw doll. It’s called a waraningyou in Japanese. Think of it like a voodoo doll, but instead of being made of cloth or clay or some other material, it’s made from a long lengths of straw folded and tied in such a way that it looks vaguely like a human body. Head, arms, legs.

It’s said, as with all things hex-related, you should include with the effigy some item from the person you’re cursing. Hair, fingernails, a piece of clothing, or a photo will do nicely.

I hear and have read, too, about how people will also write down their vitriol: the name of the person, how much hate they have for said person and why; and then what terrible thing they’d prefer to happen to them.

Second item on the list is the nail or spike called a gosun kugi (五寸釘), or a five sun nail. A sun is 3.03 centimeters. So a five sun nail is about 15 centimeters or about 6 inches. You’ll need at least seven of these. More if you’d like. Either one or several you will carry in your mouth as you go to make your curse. Clenched in your teeth work nice for effect. Imagine how terrifying that would be with blackened teeth, as they used to do.

Sometimes you’ll hear about having a comb or some other flaming pine torches being held in the mouth instead of nails.

Third, a hammer. This is called a kanatsuchi.

Fourth, white clothes. A long flowing kimono works best. Same color dead people wear, just saying.

Fifth, if you can find some geta, you know those cool, Japanese, old-fashioned shoes that look like wooden flip flops, that would be good. If you can find the ones that have only a single ‘tooth’ or wooden piece to balance on, that would be even better.

The sixth object is a mirror that you hang around your neck, under your clothes. I’m not sure this is essential, although, overall it just sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it?

And for the last item I’m going to need to explain. It called a gotoku (五徳). For you kanji-loving folk, the characters are five and virtue. It is a kind of metal tripod or trivet that is used for setting pots and kettles above a fire. A metal ring on which you place your pot, with three small legs or feet.

To use this you’ll have to turn it upside down so the metal ring is around your head, like a crown, and the little metal prongy things are sticking up. You secure several long white candles on those and light them. So you’ll need candles, too.

Wew. Okay, now the curser must  find an old shrine, the more remote the better, I’m guessing.  There are certain ones that have been used throughout history, so it sounds like not any old shrine will do. Also, keep in mind a whole lot of shrines and temples now have surveillance systems, alarms or cameras, so people don’t go sneaking around during the middle of the night looking for a shinboku or sacred tree.

Speaking of the middle of the night, the curser must perform this ritual during the hour of the ox, which is the time between 1am and 3am. Oh, and it has to be done for seven days in a row.

Modern Day Ushi no Koku Mairi

As with any nefarious act, there is going to be someone who is willing to make money off it. I found a place that will actually take your money and place the curse for you. In case you’re not up to all that prep work and wandering around in the wee hours in one-toothed geta with burning candles dripping wax on your face.

The website boasts a “professional curser” (I’m doing air quotes here) who will hex your enemy for as little as 20,000 yen (very roughly 200 dollars) all the way up to 300,000 yen (3,000 dollars). The more you pay the more “powerful” (again air quotes) the curser is.

Oh, and I found another place that will send you a noroi kit complete with a chunk of wood purportedly taken from a sacred tree, so you can do the ritual without even leaving your living room. They assure you the name of their company The Curse Society will in no way appear on the package and you can choose whether or not you want the contents listed as make up or supplements, or if you don’t choose one of those they’ll just label it computer parts.

Now before anyone gets any funny ideas, I’ll paraphrase what my mother in law told me, not that I’d put a curse on anyone, but she always thought I’d run off and do stupid things if she didn’t tell me specifically not to. Terrie, if you put a curse on someone, by putting all that hatred and bad energy out there, it will come back to you tenfold. Or something like that.

Also, I used to do be involved in the Wiccan community when I was in high school and into university and I always appreciated their philosophy as I understood it that you reap what you so. If you put out bad or good energy you’ll get it back three fold.

The Rest of the Story

So where did I leave you? That’s right, in the forest with a spurned woman nailing a straw doll to an old tree. You’re so nervous that you fidget and a twig snaps under your foot.

The woman in the white kimono turns to look right at you. You’ve been seen!

Now you need to run. Because if you’re seen performing the ushi no koku mairi the curse becomes not only ineffective, but it falls upon the person doing the cursing. Unless, of course, the person with the hammer in their hand can catch and kill the one who just saw them. You’ve got a bit of an advantage unless she kicks off those tall geta shoes.

The whole thing is bad luck as you can imagine. For example, if you ever see a waraningyo with a spike nailed through it, it’s best just to keep on walking. That’s a lot of bad juju there.

I have a personal story that I found quite funny. I used to take stone carving classes in a mountain, about a forty minute drive from my house. The teacher was this old, wild haired man who carved mostly ojizo statues, but other things as well. He’s actually quite well known in the ojizo carving community.

Anyway, one day while I was there banging on a piece of stone, he told me a story about how years ago he was sleeping in this small cabin he had up in the mountain when he heard something banging going on nearby. He snuck over to investigate and saw a young woman in the proper gear nailing a straw doll to a tree. He waited until she left, went up, took it down, went back to his hut to read the piece of paper describing how much she hated this person, then he back to the tree and put it back up.

First I asked if he was worried he’d be cursed by doing that and he was like Naw. She was seen, she should be the one who’s afraid. Then I asked what it said. His answer there: A lot of hate stuff.

I have to admit his cavalier attitude really threw me. Everyone else I know in Japan wouldn’t be so light hearted about it.

So don’t worry. Know that you are safe at home. Doors closed and locked. There’s no way that a woman with a heart full of hate has managed to follow you, knowing it's the only way she can saver herself. She would never be outside your window waiting for you to fall asleep. Hammer raised, measuring where she should break the glass.

Thank you all for listening, supporting, reviewing, messaging, emailing and spreading the word about Uncanny Japan. For only five dollars a month you can get a monthly Bedtime Story, plus access to the 38 stories that are already up. Other stuff, too. I’m wrangling my sound engineer to do a Behind the Curtain this month for $5 and up patrons where we’ll talk about those Japanese murder hornets, suzumebachi in Japanese.

Oh, and tell us what you think of this new format. I’ll talk to you in two weeks.


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 2020-05-16  16m