Yorikata-sama

This is a story I heard from A, someone who was staying in the same room as me during our company’s new employee training when I first started work. Every night he had terrible nightmares that woke me up, so I asked him about it and he jokingly told me the following. It might be fake, but something that happened recently made me remember it.

A was a graduate from a university in Tokyo and a new recruit to our company, but he was born in N Prefecture. His family home was way out in the countryside. His mother was very superstitious and he heard many stories from her over the years. The one he heard the most was about a yokai named ‘Yorikata-sama.’ To summarise, there was a land beneath the mountains near their home, and that land was where Yorikata-sama lived. A’s family home was surrounded by mountains, and there were several caves they called hitoana (a cave formed by volcanoes which were once inhabited by people). The most famous caves were enshrined as Shinto shrines. They were probably something like a power spot, I guess, one of those places people think is full of mystical energy.

So, one of these caves was called Hebiana (snake hole), and it led to the place where Yorikata-sama and his friends lived. And so, people were warned that if they came across these caves in the mountains, they were to stay away. A had no idea what ‘Yorikata-sama’ was, but his mother warned him at every opportunity, “If you keep making noise late into the night, Yorikata-sama will come for you!” This somewhat scared him.

Time passed, and A started going to university in Tokyo, and he joined the ski club. During the winter break of his second year, he and three friends started talking about staying at his place for the holidays. There was a lot of heavy snowfall where A was from, and a ski resort nearby, so it was perfect for them to go and have a ski camp there.

The entire holidays they did nothing but ski. But of course, even they got tired of just skiing every day, so on New Year’s Eve they hung out at A’s house instead. They got sick of the specials on TV and had run out of things to talk about, so against his better judgement, A decided to tell his friends the story of Yorikata-sama. The TV was boring, and they had nothing to do, so they started talking about “finding the Hebiana” as a test of courage.

“No, it’s too dangerous,” A refused. There were several superstitions about the mountains surrounding his home, but in particular there was one that stated that ‘it is forbidden to enter the mountains during New Year’s Eve.’

(This wasn’t unique to A’s hometown, in N Prefecture there are apparently a lot of superstitions that involve it being forbidden to enter the mountains on a particular day.)

But his friends were really excited, and A didn’t want to dampen the mood, so in the end they decided to go looking for the Hebiana. It’s different when you’re a child, but A himself never really believed in Yorikata-sama, anyway. He thought the story was just made up to keep children from carelessly approaching the caves, so they didn’t run into bears or something.

There were several caves in the mountains that the local folk warned people not to go near, so A tried to guess which from among them might be the Hebiana. They decided to go check out a few guesses and off they went. However, once they reached the mountain, A was overcome with a sense of unease. He played there often as a child and had climbed it many times over, but this time it felt like he was straying into unknown territory, like he was seeing it for the first time.

It was the first time A had ever gone up the mountains at nighttime, and as he shone the torch on the dark mountain path he felt out of place. He had to force himself to continue. Even as his muscles froze, and he felt awful, A and his friends went around the different caves. He seemed to be the only one who felt it, as his friends carried on excitedly, so he was unable to stop.

The first and second caves were just tiny, only about five metres in length each. At the third one, they found what they were looking for. The cave suddenly slanted upwards, like a cliff, and the four of them tried to climb it. The cave entrance itself could be seen from the bottom of the slope, but it apparently just looked like an ordinary cave. It wasn’t until they went further inside that they realised something was wrong.

First was the smell. There were several arrowheads scattered around the entrance, many of them stuck into the corpses of frogs. The smell of their decomposing bodies was overwhelming. His three friends (hereafter B, C and D) were like, “Ugh, gross,” and laughed about it, but A was already freaking out and his knees were shaking.

Noticing that so many dead frogs and arrowheads scattered around was strange, B said, “Isn’t this a little off?” A agreed with him. But C and D made a show of barging in and went straight into the cave. A and B followed them, little by little. The cave was rather deep, about 10 metres long, and wide enough for two people to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to walk through.

Further in they found even more arrowheads and frog corpses littering the ground. They could all tell by looking at each other’s faces that they were scared, but being a test of courage, no-one dared to be the first to suggest leaving. They continued on.

At the end of the cavern was another hole, this one leading down into another section of the cave. The hole was just larger than a human head, meaning that they would just barely fit inside. About one metre before the hole there stood two stone pillars, one on either side, which were connected by a shimenawa (rope used to cordon off consecrated areas or ward against evil). As A shone the torch over it and saw the familiar white zig-zag pieces of paper on the shimenawa, he let out a scream. Of course, the four of them had seen shimenawa used at shrines before, but whether it was for good or bad reasons, it was not something to mess with lightly. Everyone fell silent, and the air grew heavy.

“What are we gonna do?” someone said, but then C, who was in general not the sharpest tool in the shed, said, “We can’t just go home like this.”

A: “I told you, this is dangerous. Seriously, this is not good.”

C: “What are you saying? There’s shimenawa at the shrine near my house, it’s nothing.”

B: “I’m telling you, it’s dangerous!”

C: “What? Are you scared?”

D: “If we just take a photo with our phones it should be fine, right?”

A: “Huh?”

D: “I mean, we can just take it from the hole there.”

A & B: “…”

C: “Alright! Let’s do that.”

D: “Okay, you do it. Go ahead.”

C: “You want me to do it? You do it!”

In the end D freaked out and refused to go, so C went. He stepped over the shimenawa and walked towards the hole. He shone the torch down it and the moment he took a picture, something inside moved. C screamed and fell back to the rope. The remaining three ran to see what scared him, and they all locked eyes with it.

What they saw on the other end of the torch was dry like a mummy. It had brown skin with a human-like face, but it had no eyes or mouth, only black, gaping holes where its eyes should be. It crawled out of the hole towards them. Dumbfounded, the four of them stood there, looking at it. A then realised that it was Yorikata-sama. The body beneath the mummy-like face was a long, snake-like body with a twisted tail that split in two.

The four of them froze for just a moment before screaming and running from the cave. A glanced over his shoulder just once, but the creature just stared at them from behind the shimenawa and made no attempt to go past it. Even thought it was dark and he couldn’t see the creature’s face very well, A felt like it was grinning at him somehow. They scuttled out of the cave and from there A said their memories were vague. Before they knew it, they were standing in front of his house. According to his mother, she saw the four of them wandering around outside with pale faces. She called out to them but no-one responded; they just slowly made their way inside. A thought that perhaps it had all been a dream, but everyone remembered being at the cave and seeing a snake person. There’s no way they could have all had the same dream; the four friends were dispirited.

No longer feeling the urge to ski, everyone returned to Tokyo the next day. After that, C—who had crossed over the shimenawa to get close to the hole—started having nightmares every night of ‘Yorikata-sama.’ They seemed so real that he became emotionally distressed, and right around the time he should have been graduating university and finishing his job search, he stopped going. A short while after that, A started having strange dreams. In the dream both his arms had been cut off by a hatchet or something, his legs were broken, and he was being dropped down that hole they saw behind the shimenawa. Perhaps because his arms had been cut off, he slid through the hole without trouble. It was quite deep, and he woke up before hitting the bottom. I remembering seeing A mutter that he would be next, and it scared me.

Of course, A himself was also concerned, and asked his family about this ‘Yorikata-sama.’ His grandfather passed away when he started elementary school, and his grandmother when he started high school, and neither of his parents knew much about it either.

He said to the locals that it was “important for his cultural anthropology class at university,” and went around asking about Yorikata-sama, but other than the temple monk and a few much older folk, no-one knew much of anything.

This is what he did find out:

In A’s village in the past there was a snake religion (or rather, there still was, there were a lot of shrines)
This god had his arms plucked off, became a snake and escaped to N Prefecture, where he became an indigenous god
There were several fairy tales set in the region near A’s hometown that involved a young man being dropped into the hole to the underworld below, where he became a snake and made his way back up to the surface again
There were several names besides Yorikata-sama, such as Saburou-sama and Minakata-sama.

So, what A was seeing in his dreams was probably some type of ritual. Oh yeah, and in addition to the above fairy tales, he also said that there was a version where someone chosen by the snake lost their arms and was called ‘Yorikata-sama’ (the one who’s chosen).

Lately his dreams have been getting longer, and he said he’s started to see what happens after he hits the ground. There are lots of other people there just like him, the Yorikata-sama, all crawling around. They’re being guided somewhere, but he hasn’t seen the end of the dream yet, so he doesn’t know where exactly.

A: “Once I see the end, I think what happened to C will happen to me.”

Having said that, A fell silent, but honestly, the whole time he was grinning and telling the story like it was one big joke, so I think it’s all fake. He’s one of those guys who likes to joke and mess around. I mean, for someone who was in a panic, he sure remembered a lot of the finer details of this ‘Yorikata-sama.’ Even the stories about his dreams just stink of fairy tale rip-offs. Plus, what on earth happened to B and D?

But then, the other day we had some company training in Tokyo and A wasn’t there. According to someone in the same branch as him, he’s been suffering from autonomic dysfunction and quit work. Hearing that, I remembered the story he told me all those years ago and began to wonder. What if…?

Translator’s note: Forum users who read this story tracked the original fairy tale down to that of Koga Saburou, a man who turned into a giant snake after his journey into the underworld. His full name was Koga Saburou Yorikata, and the caves the story took place in were located on the border of Nagano Prefecture, the so-called ‘N Prefecture’ in the story. After finding his way back to the surface and receiving help from monks to regain his human form, Saburou became Suwa Myoujin, the god of the Upper Shrine of Suwa. Another name he’s known by is Takeminakata-no-kami, just like the three names listed in the story.

 

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