I heard this story from my grandfather when I was a junior high student. He heard it from his father, so, my great-grandfather.
In my hometown, there’s an old shrine in the mountains that doesn’t have a priest. The kami that’s revered there is a so-called tatarigami, a malevolent spirit, and there have been many legends passed down over the years about him. Most of them are about how he causes disasters if not treated right, but amongst them is the following story.
During the Sengoku Period, there was a feudal lord’s son who believed that stories of curses were mere superstition. To prove as much, he entered a shrine, removed the goshintai that housed the body of the resident kami, and in a drunken stupor, peed on it.
Immediately following this nothing happened, but then a few years later, strange things started to occur. According to the oral tradition passed down from that time, unexplainable events started to happen all over the place. Numerous villagers vanished without a trace. The lord’s face swelled with an unknown illness and, while he recovered, he lost his eyesight. His three other sons all lost their lives in battle or to serious illness, while the one who caused all this went mad and ran off into the mountains to never return.
In the end, the villagers tried everything they could to calm the angry spirit, but nothing worked. One by one they all moved away and the village ended up abandoned.
It was an old story and there were no official records of it anywhere. It ended without anyone knowing how it really finished, and because it was passed down orally, and everyone moved away from the village, you could say it was little more than a rumour passed down over the generations.
Time passed and the Meiji Restoration happened, and my grandfather was born a few years after that. Even at the time there was no priest in the shrine, and the villagers who held power used the shrine for meetings, helped clean and look after it, and occasionally invited priests from other areas to do work there as well.
There’s a saying to let sleeping dogs lie, so nobody ever touched the goshintai because of the story passed down, and it was left where it was.
After the incident during the Sengoku Period, the goshintai was left alone and peaceful days passed. Then one year, something happened.
A group of youngsters from the village gathered one day and got to chatting about the above-mentioned incident. Then several of them proposed something.
“There’s no such thing as curses. We’ve become civilised since Japan opened up, so holding ourselves to such old superstitions is no good.”
And so, because of that, the decided to rid themselves of the superstition by going to see the goshintai for themselves. My grandfather said that they treated the issue lightly, it was more like a simple test of courage than anything else.
But not everybody agreed with this plan, and because many were terrified of the curse, only 10 people gathered to go see it. And being a test of courage, they all gathered at night and then made their way towards the shrine.
They entered the shrine grounds, opened the door to the hall of worship and went inside. They found a compact altar, and behind it an old wooden box tied heavily with string. It appeared that the goshintai was inside that.
Having come this far, they were suddenly seized by fear and unable to reach out and touch the box. Then the first person who had claimed it was all a superstition finally resolved himself and reached for it, pulling on the rope keeping the box closed and opening it.
Inside they found three beautiful stones (apparently they were magatama stones), and that was it. The tension in the room broke and they grew brave once again. They put the goshintai back and apparently drank in the hall of worship until morning.
The next morning, the youths who had opened the box and drunk in the hall of worship until morning were chastised by the village elders, but nothing disastrous befell them or the village, so they left it at that. Apparently all the village chief did was drag them back to the shrine to apologise.
But then three years later, strange things started to happen. Wild boars, deer, and monkeys were discovered skewered on trees on the outskirts of the village. Several people heard voices in the night that barely sounded human or animal. Other people found small stones pelted at their houses, and dogs went crazy barking at empty air.
Apparently my great-grandfather saw a line of dark shadowy figures walking outside when he woke up to go to the toilet one night, but nobody was ever harmed so they just looked at them as creepy and unpleasant incidents.
Because these strange events continued to occur, people of course began to whisper that it had to be because of what happened three years earlier. Under the guise of public safety, the villagers went to see the resident police officer to discuss what was going on. He called on support from the neighbouring police office and the villagers also created a vigilante group to patrol at night. They also made the youths who visited the shrine that night three years earlier go back and apologise once again.
But despite the various measures they took, nothing worked. On the contrary, now victims were actually beginning to emerge. At first they found the dead body of a villager who had entered the mountains and been attacked by something, and then children who went out to play started going missing. Then the members of the vigilante group suddenly disappeared. This was followed by a woman who was woken up by a scream outside her house during the night. She ran outside and disappeared before desperately running back to her house, as though being chased by something. Once inside she grabbed a knife and slit her own throat.
This strange events continued for a month straight, and the villagers were unable to do anything to stop them. They got together to discuss if there was anything they could do, and then one of the villager elders suggested something.
“There is a priest in a shrine beyond the mountain who has worked with us several times. He has ties to our shrine, so perhaps we should go and ask him for help.” Nobody else had any good ideas and they had nothing to lose, so the discussion ended with the agreement that they would go over to see the priest.
The offender who had opened the box three years earlier went over to the shrine the next day and tried to convey the message to the priest. The priest calmed him down and they went to the shrine office to properly hear everything he had to say. But partway through the man’s story, the priest suddenly muttered, “That’s strange.”
Apparently the goshintai in the box above the altar was actually a flat mirror, not the magatama they had found. Apparently the story of what the feudal lord’s son had done at the shrine had even reached them in the next shrine over, even though all of this had taken place during the Sengoku Period.
Apparently, the priest’s predecessors had long performed holy acts at the village’s mountain shrine, and he himself had also gone there when he was younger. He had no idea that magatama were inside the wooden box. To be honest, he was surprised to hear that and the first he’d learnt of it.
Yet the priest claimed that this wasn’t the work of an evil spirit or a tatarigami, but rather something else entirely. He wouldn’t know unless he saw them first hand, but it’s possible that the kami residing in their shrine was actually trying to seal whatever this thing was with the magatama stones.
The priest said he would check the books they had on hand and see if he could find anything about the stones, and then agreed to go visit the man at his house two days later.
Two days later, as everyone was waiting for the priest to arrive, the resident police officer showed up to inform them that the strange events were spreading. Not just to their village, but to surrounding villages and even the nearby garrison. People had started disappearing, and while their village was the epicentre, it was now spreading. Although only rumours, people were starting to trace it back to them, so they needed to do something to solve the problem, and fast.
While the villagers were talking, the priest arrived. It was decided they’d go visit the shrine first so he could see the magatama with his own eyes. As they reached the end of the mountain path leading into the shrine, the priest stopped to explain everything he had researched.
According to him, long ago there had been something terrible in the area. This thing had snatched away many people. The locals prayed to the indigenous kami to exterminate the being, but it was too powerful, and the more people it snatched the stronger it grew. In the end the kami was able to seal the being, although it could not destroy it.
In short, it wasn’t that the being was gone but rather that it was lurking on the outskirts of the village, and because the kami was using its power to seal it, it was unable to do anything. And because the youths had opened the box with the magatama, its powers were returned and it was snatching and killing people once more.
The priest further elaborated that what happened in the village during the Sengoku Period was undoubtedly the work of the tatarigami, but this time was different. The black shadowy figures people had seen around the village were those who had been snatched up by the being, and freeing them from it would likely be impossible.
And although the being had gained power since the last time, they should still be able to use the kami’s power to seal it again, but only if they were able to reach it in time. And because it had been bound to the magatama for so long, it was likely that the being wasn’t able to move too far from them. Meaning, it had to be lurking somewhere nearby.
Furthermore, the youths who had broken the seal were likely being possessed by the being and there was a good chance it was using them for its own nefarious purposes. Even if they managed to seal it, they would not be able to rest easy, so once the job was done, they would need to be purified, and if that still didn’t work they would need to visit the head Myojin Shrine to receive cleansing there.
There was also a chance the being would try to use the youths to disrupt the ritual once they had called the kami down to seal it, so he felt it best if everyone who was present at the time gathered there at the shrine.
The priest asked for the usual tools used during rituals to be brought to him, as well as various items he had written on a piece of paper. He then asked that everyone from the village gather at the shrine to watch over the youths. If they tried anything, they were absolutely not allowed to leave the shrine grounds. He then went inside to open the box and inspect the magatama for himself.
According to the priest, magatama possessed the power to seal things, but now, he could sense nothing from them. However, like the literature said, these were undoubtedly part of the being now, and he could sense that strange presence through the stones.
Several hours later, the villagers came back with the rest of the youths and the items the priest needed to work with. He began preparations for the ritual to borrow the kami’s power right away. He enclosed the youths with a rope, a type of border, and read a Shinto prayer as he began.
Things proceeded smoothly at first, but before long the area began to smell like wild beasts, and the priest could sense several people wandering around the outskirts. Everyone at the shrine was ushered inside the hall of worship, and the remaining villagers were informed not to leave their houses, no matter what happened. Nobody would be outside or going to see anyone.
In other words, that being was, at that very moment, somewhere outside the shrine.
“The kami is coming down towards to the bronze mirror now,” the priest said, “So that thing won’t be able to come inside the hall of worship. Whatever happens, you will be safe as long as you don’t go outside.” He didn’t know how much longer it would take in total, but everyone had to bear it until then.
The ritual continued until morning, and the whole time they heard voices outside that were neither human nor animal, numerous people chatting, and something walking around the perimeter, scratching and banging at the walls. Once the ritual was over, everyone was exhausted from the constant tension and just wanted to go home as soon as possible to sleep. After the priest explained what would happen next, he opened the door leading out of the hall of worship.
Outside the shrine was a mess, with trees knocked over everywhere and muddy footprints that appeared to come from dozens, if not hundreds of different people. Something large had scratched the shrine walls, leaving deep gashes, and they found the remains of various birds and tanuki that had been eaten as well.
According to the priest, because the village had long been abandoned, there had been nobody left to pass on the traditions of those who lived there beforehand, including the role of the shrine and the being itself. Even the priest himself only knew because of what he had discovered in the literature, and before that he knew nothing of it
But even so, there was nothing written in the literature about what that being really was, nor what connection it had to the shrine.
As for why I’m writing all this down now, roughly two years ago there was a robbery at that shrine in the mountains and everything was taken, even the goshintai. This type of thing has been happening a lot lately, huh? The problem is that the wooden box was taken, and in just a few short months it’ll be the third anniversary of it going missing. Which means the thing connected to the magatama will again strike out, and everything in a several kilometre radius will be in danger.
“There’s nothing we can do now,” my grandfather said. “Not until we know the location of the magatama…”