Japanese folklore teems with tales of yokai: demons, ogres, even possessed household items that terrify and amaze. Not just relics of the past, the roots and traces of these legends and beliefs can be discovered all around modern Tokyo, if you know where to look.
Haunted Tokyo Tours is devoted to revealing this mysterious side of the city. Tour guide Lilly Fields believes these stories are a vital part of Tokyo’s history, giving us a deeper understanding of Japanese culture. “The things societies try to suppress—their demons and phantoms—often tell us more about that society than anything else,” says the 30-year Japan resident, whose passion for the supernatural is evident throughout the tour.
The “Ghosts and Goblins of Old Tokyo” tour focuses particularly on locations that pay tribute to various yokai: tengu, the long-nosed avial humanoids; foxes, which, legend has it, can shapeshift into beautiful women to seduce men and birth half-human, half-fox sorcerers; and kappa, water spirits that have taken to the sewers since Tokyo’s urbanization.
Fields begins the tour by demonstrating the correct method of walking beneath a torii gate: close to either pillar—not the middle sei-chu, which is reserved for the gods—and with your outside foot first, so you don’t offend any deities that also happen to be passing by pointing your bum at them. She then leads us to peer through a shrine window to see an eerily small skeletal hand believed to be that of a real-life kappa.
At another section of the tour, the ground we tread likely contains a few skeletons of a less supernatural kind: human remains are regularly discovered at the site, which was once one of Tokyo’s three big slums. Considered unworthy of saving by firefighters, it is filled with the bodies of former residents unable to afford proper funerals.
True crime and factual history are also covered in grisly detail—especially on night tours. One highlight is a visit to the final resting place of ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai, painter of the iconic The Great Wave off Kanagawa. A yokai enthusiast, Hokusai painted many of the demons prominent in Japanese folklore. And unlike other artists of his time, rather than depict actors in costume, he painted from his own vivid imagination. Standing beside his tomb, Fields shows us a widely unnoticed ghostly apparition in his most famous work, then reads aloud his chilling death poem, her voice dropping to a whisper.
After a visit to Old Hag’s Pond, the site of an infamous legend that has spawned both plays and horror movies, the tour ends at Asakusa’s Senso-ji, where the group cleanses themselves with sacred water. “If the cleansing doesn’t work and an evil spirit follows you home,” Fields begins earnestly before smiling, “don’t call me.”