Every year around Halloween time I write a Scarier in Japan post. I’ve covered creepypastas monsters and urban legends (twice). This year, I’m going for campfire stories. So what are campfire stories? Well, they’re not that different from urban legends or creepypastas really except that they are generally believed to be older than the internet. That’s why they were shared around campfires rather than online.

There’s a hallowed tradition of sharing tales of ghosts and demons in order to keep them away. Except that in most of those tales, the person learns about a gouhlie and then gets eaten or something so I’m not sure why we keep doing this. Maybe we just enjoy being scared. And Japan is really good at scaring folks! Without further ado, here are some tales to share around the campfire on your next camping trip. If you daaaaare.

Botan Dōrō

Let’s start things off with a bang. This haunting tale from the 17th century has everything you’ve been craving. Terror, romance even som sex! Awww yeah!

There are a few versions of this tale but I like the classic appeal of the story of Ogiwara Shinnojo.

Ogiwara was a widowed samurai living in Edo in the 1600s. In some version of the tale, he is either wandering the streets on a dark night during Obon when he spots a beautiful woman carrying a peony lantern. Hence the name of the tale. In some versions, he’s at home and the woman is accompanied by a younger girl as they walk by his house. In any case, Ogiwara is immediately enthralled by the woman with the lantern. For her personality, surely!

So Ogiwara decides to go up to her and strike up a conversation. Turns out the lady is called Otsuyu. It goes well and he invites her back to his place for some sake and chill. And it’s lovely. Ogiwara has been lonely for some time. This mysterious lady is kind and seems educated. The conversation flows easily and one thing leads to another if you know what I mean!

The thing is, Ogiwara also has this nosy neighbour. This was the 17th century so spying on the people in your neighbourhood was like the peak of entertainment. Later, the neighbour would claim to have heard a strange noise coming from Ogiwara’s house or something but whatever. Point is, he decided to peep on the samurai and freaked out when he saw the man in bed holding a laughing skeleton. To be fair, I would have freaked out as well.

To his credit, the neighbour tells Ogiwara everything the next day and surprisingly, the samurai believes him. If this was a modern horror story he would have brushed it off! So Ogiwara does an actual logical thing, at least for the time, and goes to the local temple to consult the priest on what to do next.

When he gets there, he’s shocked to see that Otsuyu’s grave is at the temple. And somehow, he knows that it’s the same woman he met on the night of Obon. He consults the priests, explains everything and they come up with a ritual and plan to keep Ogiwara safe.

But even after all of this, Ogiwara is still in love with Otsuyu. He misses her and wishes they could meet again. So he finally just goes to her grave to try to get some closure. But as he gets there, Otsuyu greets him in person and returns his previous invitation by asking him to accompany her home. And Ogiwara is more than happy to accept.

No one ever sees the samurai again after that night. Well, kind of. As news of the disappearance spreads, the priest orders Otsuyu’s grave excavated and there they find Ogiwara’s body lovingly hugging Otsuyu’s skeleton. The two lovers eternally entwined.

It’s a very happy ending for a ghost story. Remember ladies, it’s never too late to find your prince charming! Don’t let a little thing like death stop you!


We’re going back to my favourite subject here. We’re talking Yokai!

The name means two-mouthed woman and it literally refers to a Yokai that appears to be a normal woman but has a second mouth in the back of her head hidden by her hair. That second mouth can actually use the hair-like tentacles to grab things and eat them. Here,s one of the classic tales of Futakuchi-onna.

In this little village lives a man who was so cheap that he refused to marry because he didn’t want to have to pay for food for a wife. And of course, these were the days when women working and paying for their own food was not acceptable so I guess celibacy was the guy’s only option.

Lucky for this dude, he happened to meet this young woman who didn’t seem to eat anything at all. Since this was like his one and only requirement for a wife, he asked her to marry him immediately. (I’m guessing he was hoping she would wear his hand-me-downs). The stories don’t really bother to let us know her feelings about it, she’s just married now.

So the now-married woman is just going about her wifely duties and the stingy guy is really happy about it. She’s quiet, hard-working and she never ever eats. Best wife ever! However, he also notices that his supplies, specifically his rice supplies, are disappearing and he has no idea why.

So the guy decides to mount a sting operation. He stealthily pretends to go to work but like just sneaks around the side of the house or something. And starts spying on his rice supply from a distance. When his wife came by to sweep the area, he was horrified to see her long hair turn into tentacles scooping up the rice and shoving it raw into a gaping mouth at the back of her skull.

The story ends there but I like to think she ate him too.

I read that tales of Futakuchi-onna arose because people were fascinated by how little some women ate… And this was before you couldn’t click on a website without getting a weight-loss ad or liquid diet recommendation.

Eternal Love

I’m beginning to see a theme in these stories. Maybe I should have written this post for St-Valentines days. Anyways, let’s get a little more modern now and go all the way to the early 1700s.

It seems that double suicide was all the rage for young lovers of the day and the method of choice was to bind your hands together with a tea towel and jump into a raging river, holding hands forever after. Sweet. I’m kidding kids, don’t do that.

In the span of roughly a year, at least four couples lost their lives that way. Thankfully, the trend dies down as authorities and social climate turned the tide. About a hundred years later, in the early 1800s, the young heir to a rich family decided to have an affair with one of the family maids. Not an unusual situation. And the affair leads to pregnancy. As such things usually go, this was a problem.

Being an heir to a rich family, the young man already had an arranged marriage to a suitable lady planned. And when his indiscretions came to light, everything was blamed on the maid. Of course! She was banished from the household, left penniless and unable to find another job. Of course, being pregnant, a husband would be out of the question as well. And so, finding no options for this life, she decided to move on to the next one.

What does this have to do with tea towels you may ask. It’s an unfortunate story but sadly, an all too common one. Well this particular maid, was a touch more vengeful than average.

For some time, the young heir and his new wife were happy enough. she also got pregnant and gave birth to their first child. The young man was set to inherit his family business and make some good money. Life was great until one morning, after failing to come to breakfast, the servants discovered the couple in their bed drenched in blood with their wrists bound together by a tea towel. No one knows really what happened but whispers of how that maid could finally rest in peace echoes through the house.

this is a bit of a modern interpretation by GENZOMAN

The Yama uba 

OK, let’s switch things up a bit. It’s getting a bit depressing to think that every beautiful young woman you meet in Japan that takes an interest in you is going to turn out to be some sort of monster. So let’s talk about old women instead. Second Yokai of the post, the Yama uba.

These Yokai might look like kindly old ladies, or just sort of harmless crones, the type that will give you hard candy and pat you on the head while knowingly humouring your childish rantings. But that’s not all that they are.

Once upon a time, in a land far far away. Well far away from here, maybe close to where you are. In the mountains of Japan basically. I’m not telling you which mountains. Ok so a long time ago, in those mountains, a Buddhist priest on pilgrimage was caught in a storm and desperate for shelter. As he looked around, he was relieved to see a little hut out in the middle of nowhere and made his way to it.

Once there, he was greeted by an old woman who lived by herself. When he explained the situation, she was nice enough to invite him in to weather the storm. The house was modest but a warm fire helped him dry off and the old lady kindly shared some delicious food with him to get his strength back up. She was absolutely lovely and only asked in return that he not snoop around and leave the backroom alone.

You know, cause she was an old woman that lived by herself and some strange dude just sort of insinuated himself into her house. Maybe she doesn’t want him to rob her.

I bet you can guess what happened. Yup, as soon as the old woman stepped out to get some more firewood. Not only did the dude not offer to help but he immediately went to see what was up with that backroom. What are they teaching Buddhist priests?

So in this case he might not be the only bad guy in the story since that backroom was filled with half-eaten human corpses. It seems the woman was really a Yama uba and he was most likely her next meal. Not only that but she was one of those rude Yama uba that left all that food behind while there were probably poor little starving Yama uba all around the world!

Well, the priest was not going to stick around to give her any lessons in that regard. He hightailed it out of there and that’s how we know about the cannibal grannies in the Japanese mountains!

The Sad and Lonely Tale of Oiwa

I made up this title. I’m sure there’s a much more dignified and fitting one for this 17th-century classic Japanese horror story.

Oiwa is one of the more famous legends of historical Tokyo, or rather Edo at the time. And it’s supposedly at least based on a true story. It’s difficult to assess how much of it actually happened, but like any good campfire story, let’s just assume it was all true!

Like a lot of classic Japanese horror stories, this one starts with a beautiful young woman, named Oiwa. Oiwa’s charm and grace, as well as the aforementioned beauty, landed her the desirable role of samurai’s wife, and the lucky husband was Iemon, a member of Edo’s prestigious Tamiya family.

Iemon wasn’t exactly husband of the year, trust me on this one, and he really only married Oiwa to have a beautiful young woman on his arm. He was, however, handsome and wealthy and as such, had been desired by other women like Oume who had been in love with him for years. She flew into a jealous rage after Oiwa and Iemon’s marriage and decided to murder the young woman by offering her cream (a delicacy) that had been secretly poisoned.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, the poison wasn’t quite potent enough to finish off an otherwise healthy young woman such as Oiwa. Instead, it crippled her and her appearance, discolouring her skin and causing her eyes to droop. She was no longer the beautiful young woman everyone admired.

So what do you think Iemon did. I warned you he was a jerk. Of course, being worried about his wife’s health never crossed his mind, instead, he was immediately grossed out by her looks and decided to marry Oume instead. She had not been as pretty as Oiwa before but now she was much hotter in comparison and rich on top of that.

So Iemon paid his friend Takuetsu to rape Oiwa so he would have a perfectly valid reason to divorce her. I mean you have to remain respectable, right!?! Being an absolute prince of a man, Takuetsu was all for it until he saw Oiwa (she had been bedridden since the poisoning and no one knew about her looks) and was too freaked out by her face to go through with it. Just a collection of the most admirable men in this tale.

So instead of raping her, Takuetsu instead tells Oiwa the whole plot and gives her a mirror since she has no clue what he’s talking about when he says she’s deformed. Oiwa also freaks out at the sight of her own face and just grabs Taketsu’s sword and kills herself right then and there. I guess he got the job done after all. Divorce accomplished. This said Oiwa made sure to voice her displeasure with her husband before she went. Also known as curse him with her dying breath.

On the night that Iemon was to marry Oume, he saw the ghost of his dead ex-wife before him and fled from the ceremony. But that wasn’t enough for Oiwa. She haunted him the rest of his days. Whenever Iemon would glance around, he would spot Oiwa’s disfigured face starring back at him. In fact, Oiwa’s ghost is said to haunt the remains of the Tamiya family shrine in Yotsuya to this day!

So what did we learn today kids? Don’t be a jerk to the women in your life. If you don’t want them to have jobs, let them at least eat, don’t go through their stuff without permission, don’t get them pregnant then throw them away without any means of taking care of themselves and your baby and like, don’t poison them or pay people to rape them. This goes for all of you, ladies, don’t poison each other! If you manage to abide by these rules, you should be ok!

Oh and sometimes the hot chick you pick up at a party might already be dead. But you can still have a great relationship. Keep an open mind!

12 thoughts

  1. I am surprised there are so few comments on this one.
    Irina, this is amazing!

    I was supposed to start back on homework, but saw your title and had to click.
    Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into gathering these.

    For my final project this semester I am actually looking for traditional and famous Japanese folktales.
    I am looking specifically for ones that have a moral and shows some of the core values in Japanese culture.
    So, if you think of any, please let me know.

    I read these ones here purely for entertainment purposes, and I have to say (without the slightest amount of jest) that the first story has to be one of the most romantic stories I have read. I mean, this goes beyond “’til death we part” afterall.

    I love that he was still in love with her and that he followed her beyond the grave- knowing that she had already passed. Now, if her coffin was surrounded by corpses of men, that WOULD have been a horror story. But the fact that it was just those two embraced in her coffin, I truly think that is beautifully poetic.

    And just because I am having so much fun on your blog, alternative morals:

    Botan Dōrō:
    When you find the person you love above all others, people just won’t leave you alone!
    Everyone may tell you why it won’t work. Just keep calm and carry on.
    Or, “One man’s romance is another man’s horror story.”

    In olden times during arranged marriages, it was common to check teeth for health. But it is just as important to check their hair. They could have lice, or be wearing a wig… you don’t know!
    Or, “What is not seen is often the most telling thing about a person.”

    Eternal Love:
    The maid will always be blamed, so don’t be the maid!
    Honestly, the most likely candidate for this murder was the next heir in line. But it doesn’t make half so thrilling a story as a woman scorned doing the job.
    Simply, “Don’t be the maid”

    The Yama uba:
    There are so many morals in this one… where to begin! If you are tired of intruding guests, just tell them NOT to snoop in the very room that you have piles of corpses stored for such an occasion. WHY did I never think of this one?
    Stop leeching off of people- if you can’t be bothered to get up to get your own firewood or find accomodation at a decent hour, you will inevitably find yourself in a dangerous place. Stop being lazy.
    Or, “It is far better to stay alive outside in a storm, than to dwell in a warm and comfortable cottage with cannibals”

    The Sad and Lonely Tale of Oiwa

    1. Oh no did you run out of space.
      It’s o.k. my scarier posts never get much comments but I really enjoy writing them so it works out.
      Besides a comment like this is worth so much more than a dozen random ones. It’s amazing, thank you so much for taking the time to write this Maica. I particularly like the “don’t be the maid” moral!

  2. Thank you for this delicious collection of camp fire tales! I loved them! But then, I’m a little old lady who would love to live in a hut in the mountains…

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