By Tsukuru Ikeda / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Moans heard from under a bridge; lanterns that follow you, regardless of how far you run — Tokyo’s Koto and Sumida wards east of the Sumidagawa river are home to many terrible tales from the Edo period (1603-1867).
“Something’s under the floor,” screamed a child visiting a reproduction of a typical Edo street scene with friends.
The children were spooked at the Fukagawa Edo Museum in Koto Ward on Aug. 24, the first day of a three-day nighttime exhibition of frightful dolls called “Obake no Sumika Returns.” The dolls were created by Riko Kitakatsushika, a plastic artist.
The “seven mysterious Fukagawa” tales, featuring places such as the ward’s Fukagawa district, had been passed down from that time. One tells of the collapse of the Eitaibashi bridge under the weight of a festival crowd that fell into the river and died. Their voices are then heard late at night.
Another famous tale is the carrier’s pole of Takabashi bridge — of the grudge held by a palanquin bearer who was murdered on another bridge.
There are also the “seven mysterious Honjo” tales featuring the Honjo district of Sumida Ward and other places.
Hailing from the Shibamata district of Katsushika Ward, Kitakatsushika grew up listening to these kinds of shitamachi horror stories from her relatives. Starting in 2010, she began to make dolls and block prints of the ghosts and monsters that appear in these stories. She always researches written records and talks to local residents for her projects.
“In Tokyo, ‘Yotsuya Kaidan’ (Ghost stories of Yotsuya) is famous, but the shitamachi has a lot of scary tales,” she said.
“The presence of a lot of samurai houses became the source of unique horror stories,” said Akie Takatsuka, 39, a curator of the Sumida Kyodo Bunka Shiryokan, Sumida Ward’s hometown cultural museum.
Famous among the seven Honjo tales is the story of the “foot bathhouse,” in which the blood-soaked foot of a large man crashes through the roof of a hatamoto retainer’s home.
“The samurai homes were a ‘black box’ to locals, so any time they heard an odd sound they thought, “That’s strange” or “How odd,” and imagined all kinds of things going on. Their imagination gave birth to the horror stories,” Takatsuka said.
Masao Higashi, 60, a literary critic and editorial advisor to the horror story magazine “yoo,” said that many of the shitamachi horror stories involve water — canals for transporting lumber and other materials ran through the shitamachi.
“Back then, rivers and moats were extremely dark at night. People on them must have thought they were on the border between this world and another,” he said.
In 2012, Higashi teamed up with Kitakatsushika to form a citizens’ group to use horror stories to show off the charms of Fukagawa. They give talks at the Fukagawa Edo Museum and perform other activities.
The shitamachi is now modern-looking with tall buildings and condominiums. Still, its horror stories are often turned into animations, manga and other works.