Sunday, February 19, 2017

A True Ghost Story From Japan

--Susan, every other Sunday

All my life, I've professed to believing in ghosts ... primarily to prevent them feeling the need to actually prove their existence to me.

In other words - I believed by choice, so I didn't have believe by experience.

That worked out pretty well for me until last November, when I went to Japan to research my sixth Hiro Hattori mystery - and encountered one of Japan's most famous yūrei (ghosts).

Although I write fiction, the following story is absolutely true.

I spent November 3 and 4 doing research on Mount Kōya, one of Japan's most sacred mountains and the heart of Shingon (esoteric) Buddhism in Japan.

Kongobuji - one of Mount Koya's leading temples.

The mountain is home to over 100 Shingon temples (many of which host overnight guests, both secular and religious) and Okunoin ("the temple at the end") - an enormous cemetery that houses not only the mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi, the priest who brought Shingon Buddhism to Japan, but more than 250,000 other graves and monuments to the dead.

The entrance to Okunoin.

I spent five hours at Okunoin on the morning and afternoon of November 4. The scale of the cemetery is overwhelming, but it's also one of the most peaceful places I have ever been.

Foliage at Okunoin. A truly peaceful resting place.

That night, I stayed at Ekoin, a Shingon Buddhist monastery.

My guest room at Ekoin.

After dinner (and after dark) one of the priests from Ekoin offered an English-language tour of Okunoin. I went, and spent a delightful hour listening to him explain the history of the cemetery--and asking him research questions, which he answered at length and in depth.

The tour ended on the far end of the cemetery, near Kōbō Daishi's mausoleum, where the priest released us to walk back to the temple on our own.

I stayed near the mausoleum to take some photographs of statues I needed to document for my novel, and when I finished, I discovered that everyone other than our guide and two other visitors had already disappeared back down the path, most likely to escape the cold.

A statue of Jizō, the "excuse Buddha" - and my excuse for ending up alone in a cemetery after dark.

Which, of course, meant that I was an hour's walk from the temple. Essentially alone.

In the dark.

Buddhas and tombstones at night.

The guide was showing the remaining visitors some other statues, which I'd seen that morning, so I started back along the path on my own.

I wasn't scared. I'd seen the cemetery in daylight, and knew it was a peaceful, sacred place.

Okunoin in daylight.

About halfway through the cemetery, I stopped to snap some photos of the monuments in the light of the lanterns beside the path.

Tombstones after dark, illuminated by traditional lanterns.

While taking photos, I heard the click of traditional Japanese wooden sandals--the type many priests on Koya still wear--approaching from behind me. Wanting to be polite, I waited, taking photos and listening as the geta came closer. When the priest was right behind me, I turned, bowed, and said good evening . . .

. . . but there was no one there.

The sound of the sandals ceased the instant I turned and bowed. The path was completely empty in both directions, as far as the eye could see - and given that the path is straight at that place, and lit at regular intervals, I could see quite a distance in either direction.

Needless to say, I did what any self-respecting, curious historian would do.

I ran like hell.

I ran until I caught up to a couple strolling along the path ahead of me - far enough that I was completely out of breath, legs burning, and struggling to look like I was merely out for a pleasant jog. Only then did I slow down.

Not creepy at all. Until the ghosts show up.

I followed the couple back to Ekoin, returned to my room, and went to bed - but didn't sleep for quite some time.

After thinking through the experience, reviewing my photos and memories, and considering what I know of Japan, the world, and science, I believe the spirit I met in the graveyard was real, and that it was betobeto-san, a well-known Japanese ghost.

According to legend (which I now interpret as factual, too), betobeto-san is a harmless trickster. The spirit follows people along deserted streets or pathways, making a sound like wooden geta that get closer and closer to you until you panic and run. Even then, betobeto-san supposedly follows you until you turn and greet him by saying, "After you, betobeto-san," at which point the spirit goes away.

Based on my own experience, bowing and saying "Good evening," will also suffice - because, although I remained in Japan for another two weeks, I didn't hear or see anything similar again.

A Buddha monument at Okunoin. 

Some people don't believe in ghosts, and that's okay--I only half believed in them myself until November.

Now, though, I know beto-beto.


  1. What a great story, Susan. I believe in ghosts too, but I am sure they cannot (or will not) harm people. But either by accident or for fun, will scare us. The one I encountered did not scare me because I didn't know until the next morning that it was a ghost banging on the window when I thought it was a shutter flapping in the wind.

    1. I think I'd be happier not realizing until it was over, myself. I'd like to think ghosts can't harm people - and I think most of them probably won't - but I admit to being more than a little scared by them, and not really wanting to have more close encounters. The one I had was fine, but I'm still ok with them leaving me alone in the future.

  2. Replies
    1. It really was - scary, but definitely a cool experience!

  3. I live in a haunted house.. sorry to be politically correct I should say I live in a house with paranormal activity. We call this paranormal activity Agnes. She is listed at Glasgow Uni as a item of study. I think I might know who she is ( the woman who built the house- the title deeds are a bit weird). This is definitely her house - we only happen to live in it.

    1. I find it fascinating that Agnes is being studied by the university. What are they doing to investigate her?

      Also, I'm not sure I could handle living in a haunted house full time. One encounter in the graveyard was sufficient for me for a decade at least.

  4. Incredible, Susan. Did you ask anyone at the Temple about beto-beto san?

    1. Sadly, I didn't get a chance - but when I was traveling in Magome later in the month, I did mention it to one of the innkeepers there, and she was VERY familiar with beto-beto - apparently he's a regular anywhere they have restored or preserved sections of older stone roads. Not surprising - geta make more sound on stone than on asphalt or concrete.

  5. I have far too much imagination to be happy walking about in creepy places on my own at night. Even a country road overhung with trees and the odd owl taking flight will do the trick...

    1. I'm with you on this, actually. My imagination ran absolutely wild for several days after my encounter with beto-beto-san, and I admit to running (literally) to the bathroom at night more often than I'm proud to admit.

  6. I grew up in and subsequently lived in a couple of other places with a poltergeist, which was always friendly.

    1. As long as they're friendly, I have no objection. It's fascinating how many of us have had experiences with ghosts at one point or another, too. I wonder if the ratio is higher among mystery writers...

  7. I had an alarming beto-beto-san experience once near my own home, until I finally worked out it was first my own footsteps echoing off the dense corn (and ceasing each time I whirled to look behind me) and then a trick of the power lines. (Yep, two footstep-faking noises from different sources, making me crazy trying to identify it. Boosted my heart rate for sure!)

    My great-grandmother has been reported as haunting her old home. The current homeowner even stopped at a wall of antique family photos in a relative's home and said, "That's the woman in my house!" as she pointed her out. I'm not sure I totally buy it -- the relative with the photos is giddy for ghosts and is DELIGHTED to know our family is haunting someone -- but at least she's reported to be a nice ghost!

    1. Ok, that's funny about the corn. It would have scared me to death though.

      Very cool about your grandmother - and I'm glad to hear that she IS a nice ghost, if she's there (and I believe she is, if the homeowner picked her out of a lineup, so to speak...)

    2. The other thing that might be happening, with your grandmother, is that it might be what I think of as an "echo" - not actually the person's spirit, but almost an impression of them that somehow sticks around and sometimes becomes visible. I don't understand it (or, exactly, how it works with my faith and worldview - I'm still working through that) but I've heard many stories about people being seen after death in circumstances that suggest it's some kind of energy echo, but not actually a soul.

  8. Uhh, folks, I don't know how to say this, but I fear MIE is haunted! You, see, I published a comment to Susan's post right beneath Annamaria's, but when I noticed Susan hadn't responded to it, I came back to check and found it had vanished!

    What makes it so eerie is that my comment could be taken as doubting ghosts!

    Here's what i'd written:

    "Bah humbug. I don't believe in ghosts. I believe in woodpeckers. Puh-puh-puh."

    1. LOL. Puh-puh-puh-lease . . . keep saying that after beto-beto-san pays you a visit :)

      Except that maybe he already has, in the form of a missing comment...

  9. I'm pretty sure my mother is in touch with ghosts. Alzheimers makes the wall between the worlds pretty thin.