Stories of fear – The 100 candles

In Japanese scary tales there are stories of heroes similar to ours, with epic characters,  but also stories of common men and women, with their daily routines, and their ordinary lives.

Therefore it happens that young women are kidnapped while they are washing clothes, that children are drowned by the Kappa while they help their parents with household chores; welcoming a traveler according to the rules of hospitality may be reciprocated with bloody slaughter by the guest.

 We could say that if the unfortunate Westerner is asking for it a little bit, the unfortunate Japanese can be truly an innocent victim in a situation that is totally foreign to him.

Daily life, in its proper unfolding, with zeal and good will, can be abruptly turned upside down as the victim finds himself like a chick suddenly snatched by a hawk.

The Japanese storytelling had no didactic or moral purpose, it served to foster the idea that the monster of the tale might appear during the narration; or worse, on the way home at night, while walking alone along dark streets which could become places for an ambush of monsters or brigands.                                                                           

Taken from – Yōkai. Le Antiche Stampe dei Mostri Giapponesi – published by Skira.

Discover all the terrible Japanese scary stories in the book for sale at our bookshop.

Audio 1

Watanabe’s Lament

Gi… Yu… Jin… Rei… Makoto… Meyo… Chugi…

Honesty… Courage… Compassion… Kindness… Sincerity… Honor… Duty…

These are the values pursued by us bushi, The excellence among men.

“Among flowers the cherry, among men the warrior”.

Because we were noble warriors, we were… Samurai.

My name is Toru Watanabe. I set the Buddhist temple on Mt. Hiei ablaze, I slaughtered the invincible shinobis of Iga village, I even survived the siege of Katsuie… but now I am dead.

No blade ever touched my armor, no spear nor arquebus ever struck me. It was not a katana that felled me.

Fear killed me. With the momentous Battle of Sekigara, the Tokugawa clan achieved a decisive victory over the coalition of warlords loyal to the Toyotomi family, and this finally gave everyone a long period of great prosperity and innovation.

No longer involved in other bloody wars, I too was free to devote myself to my moral elevation by cultivating the arts of tea ceremony, calligraphy and painting.

We also had a ritual hundreds of years old that served us noble bushi to keep tempering our courage during this new era of peace in Japan.

The hundred candles ritual.

We warriors would sit at night in a dark room like this one, lit only by the candlelight of a hundred lanterns. One by one, we would tell terrifying tales to scare and shake the other participants.

At the end of each story, the narrator stood up and extinguished one feeble candle light from the lanterns then went to look at themselves in a mirror placed in the furthest corner of the room. And immediately a new tale full of monsters and murderous creatures would begin.

Do you see how the room gets darker and creepier every time a candle goes out? You used to have a companion next to you but now there are only eerie shadows stirring like flames and you feel alone, isolated and abandoned.

It was at this very moment, when the darkness squeezed us tighter and tighter into a somber silence, broken only by the serious voice of the narrator, that the most chilling stories were served. Children being kidnapped and carried to the bottom of a river, severed heads trying to bite you, deformed women being thrown off cliffs…

The legend said that one of the monsters conjured up by our words during the night might come to us, once the last candle eould be extinguished.

And it happened, I swear to you on my honor, even though I have now lost it… But I have seen it… that thing wasn’t big but had an ugly bird-like beak, long hairy monkey arms, and a turtle shell on his back.

I was returning home on a summer night of a new moon when it suddenly emerged from the waters of the river and appeared before me screaming and dragging a woman’s foot behind him.

My name is Toru Watanabe and I am a noble samurai.

I hunted down the traitor Mitsuhide and defeated him at the Battle of Yamazaki together with the army gathered by Tokugawa Ieyasu. My sword forged by Master Kanenaga spread blood, fire and widows throughout Edo Province.

I have never feared death, my life has always been distinguished by courage and honor, but that night I was afraid… and in front of that Yokai I fled, chased by its nauseating smell.

I never went out at night again, never again participated in the ritual of the hundred candles, and lost my honor. I kept seeing spirits of white robed women, giant spiders and monstrous orcs armed with clubs, but my fellow warriors did not believe me.

I placed bamboo sticks under my eyelids to prevent me from closing them, my family deemed me insane and abandoned me, leaving me alone in my Kōbe estate. On April 29, 1607, I ended my life by lacerating my abdomen according to the ritual of Seppuku, the last remaining privilege of my Samurai caste.

Now go. By the end of this day you will have learned about the Yokai, the monsters of the legends that drove me insane, through the works of the most frightening artists of Japan. Your nights will never be as dark as mine were, lit only by the faint light of the candles inside red paper lamps, but don’t feel too confident of conquering fear when you return home.