Spirituality is universal. The idea of the existence of paranormal entities and the mystery that surrounds them is spoken about throughout all different creeds and countries. What these spirits do to manifest themselves to humans entails expressing themselves through the physical world. Most often, they come in apparitions, noises, or through kinetic force of objects, and sometimes, people. When those symptoms continuously and simultaneously occur in the same spot, one may concur that spot is haunted.
It is no secret that many places are indeed teeming with paranormal happenings in Japan. In this mix are a few eerie forests and castles to abandoned hotels, and shrines. Many of them are homes that house specific kinds of “yokai” or paranormal entities that just want to cause trouble. These houses are called “Obakeyashiki”.
What Is the Meaning of the Japanese Word “Obakeyashiki”?
The word “obakeyashiki”, written in kanji as “お化け屋敷”, or sometimes written as two words; “obake yashiki” comes from the combination of the word “obake” (化け物), which refers to a ghost that shapeshifts, and “Yashiki” (やしき), which means estate, or residence; traditionally one of a “daimyo” or feudal warlord. With Japan having animistic and Shinto historical links, it has held many beliefs that some objects inherently contain spirits. “Obake”, (お化け), also sometimes known as “bakemono”, is a form of that.
An obake that lives in a yashiki or house tends to terrorize those who live in it by moving objects around or turning into monsters that scare them at night. The obake are particularly menacing, terrifying, and mean compared to other forms of yokai, such as sometimes more passive “yurei”.
The Difference Between a Yurei and an Obake
In the world of Japanese supernatural folklore, there are many subcategories of “yokai”, which is a broad term for anything supernatural. Under this broad term are smaller categories to fit in the different yokai – two categories are yurei and obake. It is acceptable to interchange these terms in modern Japan. The truth is, they are - if one were to strictly adhere to their dictionary definitions - different from each other.
A yurei is the closest Japanese depiction of what most westerners describe ghosts to be. They are spirits of the dead who cannot seem to move onto a more peaceful afterlife for their own reasons. That’s why the etymology of the word “yurei” is divided into two meanings; “yu”, which means “faint”, and “rei”, which means “soul”. Put those words together, and it gives you the imagery of a silhouette of one’s being. They come in many different forms as well and can be vengeful or passive.
A real obake, on the other hand, is a being of preternatural class that is very much alive and has nothing to do with the undead. They can shapeshift and are out to cause terror in humans. They can appear out of nowhere and coexist with people.
The reason people sometimes call a yurei an obake or bakemono, is because of the change that the person experienced from being a live person to turning into a ghost is supposedly enough to classify it as a being that morphed; or an obake. They are also both paranormal creatures, which a person may tend to lump into one big category.
How A Bakemono/Obake Shapeshifts
An obake or bakemono has an original form. It is a level lower in terms of spirituality than a “kami” (Shinto god), as they say, it is something like a non-Enlighted kami trapped inside a physical encasement. An obake’s form can range from being an animal (a fox is known as “kitsune”, a raccoon dog is called a “tanuki”, and a badger is called a “mujina”), to a monster, to an inanimate object such as a lampshade. The obake are sometimes named after what their original shapeshifting forms are; for example, if its original form is a household object, then it is a tsukumogami.
The word “tsukumogami” can be literally translated to “tool spirit” because Japanese mythology believed that physical objects (ancient tools) could be possessed by kami. Now, it’s used for normal objects, such as a cell phone or chair.
Other times, the obake will try to scare you by morphing into less-than-friendly forms, such as the onyudo, hitotsume-kozo, or noppera-bo. Each has their own descriptions; the hitotsume-kozo is described as a creature that resembles a child, only it is bald and has only one eye. The onyudo is the hazy figure of a giant that takes after a monk (obozu) though they can also just be plain giants. The noppera-bo, possibly scariest of them all, is a ghost that resembles a human… Without a face.
Commercial Haunted Houses
Japan has both authentic haunted houses and houses constructed just for the sole purpose of scaring people for a living. One of the first places that capitalized on this kind of attraction was in England, in Hollycombe Steam Collection. The name of the haunted house was the Orton and Spooner Haunted House, and it went into business in 1915. By the mid-2000’s, thousands of haunted houses were spread all throughout the United States.
Some commercial haunted houses – especially those in the west – can get predictable and repetitive with their themes and way. They rely on jump scares to frighten the individual. They are often scared from behind or from the sides usually to move the customers forward. It isn’t necessarily the same in commercial haunted houses in other countries. In fact, many articles online think Japan’s commercial haunted houses are better. But why?
Why Obakeyashiki Set-Ups in Japan Are So Entertaining Compared to Others
The commercial haunted houses in Japan are known to be one of the best in the world for two main reasons: first, they have a culture that is extremely rich in monster, demon, and ghost lore, which is expressed in these programs. If you were equipped with knowledge about Japan’s paranormal lore, it would add a creepier element to your experience. Second, they do not necessarily use the same scare tactics as they do in western countries.
In commercial haunted houses that are well-made and professional, instead of being pushed into semi-pitch-black darkness with not an ounce of an idea of what is going on, customers are prepped and made to read a story about the location they’re about to step into. Location-wise it does not necessarily have to be a house or residence; “obakeyashiki” is just a blanket term for these amusement programs. The location they are entering can be anything from a hospital, a school, or a place that is religion-related.
The Japanese do not hold back when it comes to the content of their horror-themed productions. If you haven’t noticed, most Japanese ghosts are female; usually back in the form of a vengeful and disgraced spirit to haunt those who tortured them back when they were alive. Many haunted houses may depict their stories of abuse, while others show some brutally graphic and violent scenes.
Gomi Horifumi: Japan’s Pioneer Haunted House Producer
The man behind some of the commercial haunted houses that break records in terms of attendees is Gomi Horifumi. Haunted houses were growing stale in the 80’s, as they were deemed as something for kids with unrealistic masks and monsters that barely move. In the early 90’s, Horifumi changed all of that. He popularized the concept with his production of “Luna Park”, where hyper-realistic, grotesque characters would spook and interact with people who were passing through the rigged house.
Horifumi developed his expertize for producing Haunted Houses, and started to introduce concepts that many other haunted houses lack: giving each person a role, letting them read a deep narrative, and requiring them to complete a mission. One example of a mission (taken from the obakeyashiki “Baby in Hell” is to make sure that the baby you are given makes it to its mother safely – but you must bravely escort it through a hellish underworld.
What makes Gomi even more special is that he is competent, pays attention to detail, and rises to the challenge of meeting his customer’s expectations. He makes sure that wherever he stages a haunted house production, he researches about the intricate folklore and spooky tales that belong to the region he’s setting up in. He then works as an author to create convincing horror stories to go with the attraction, hiring professionals and experts to make sure that his props, actors, and actresses look real.
As part of the tradition (and to avoid any trouble, as they say, she brings misfortune to those who don’t visit her), he pays a visit to the burial location of Oiwa; a woman whose gruesome death and story were depicted in a traditional Japanese play, a kabuki.
Summer: The Best Time to Go to A Commercial Ghost House in Japan
If you’re touring Japan with your friends during summer (Japan’s summer starts June and ends in September, with August being peak month), you’ll notice that one of the highly anticipated and popular places to go is an Obakeyashiki, or Ghost House. You don’t need to understand the Japanese language to enjoy this attraction. You may be wondering why they don’t time it with Halloween instead, and the Japanese have a good reason for this: the chill that goes down your spine fights off the summer heat.
Though it may not be scientifically proven that getting scared does bring down your body’s temperature, summer is still when all the commercial haunted houses pop up. More so, it is also related to traditional festivals that were, and still are being held, such as “Obon”. During this Buddhist festival, relatives who have passed on come to visit the living and are thus honored. This is celebrated on either the 15th of August, the 15th of July for the Kanto region, or the seventh lunar month’s 15th day. It is commonly associated with the Ghost Festival.
Top Obakeyashiki or Commercial Haunted Houses You Can Visit In Japan
Searching for the best obakeyashiki out there? There are many different obakeyashiki of different qualities that pop-up during the summer, but some are open during all seasons for your enjoyment. Here’s a quick list of top horror houses you should consider.
One of the most popular and raved about obakeyashiki is the Fuji Q Highland’s “Super Scary Labyrinth of Fear”. Found at the base of Mount Fuji, this theme park has one of the scariest hospital-themed obakeyashiki in the entire archipelago. It takes around 45 to 60 minutes to complete. Be prepared to walk, because the entire program runs for about a kilometer. A ticket costs 1000 yen, and you must be of at least elementary school age to enter.
There’s Haunted House located at the Nagashima Spaland, where the props are very well-thought of and pay feature many of the ghouls, demons, and other special mythological creatures in Japanese folklore. There are no live actors or actresses here, as most of the sounds and effects are mechanically managed. It has very little to no jump scares, so it’s best for kids. It’s also great as an introduction to Japan’s take on the horror genre.
The “Onnen Ryokan” or Haunted Inn at Namja Town is another must-visit when it comes to obakeyashiki. This one is much shorter than the Super Scary Labyrinth of Fear, as it lasts for only around 10 minutes. It does not have a live cast, but it’s just as scary, with its ghostly photograph motif, and recognitions of Japanese culture, such as the skeletal Samurai. It’s found in Sunshine City World Import Mart Building. Its address is 3-1-3 Higashi Ikebukuro Toshima-ku, Tokyo, and costs only 600 yen to enter – not counting the fee it takes to enter the Namco Nanja Town.
Beware: Not for the Faint of Heart
If you have a serious medical condition, particularly those relating to the heart, you may want to opt-out of this kind of program. Though commercial Obakeyashiki can be quite a fun experience, most, if not all programs use the shock factor very often (sudden screaming, characters jumping unexpectedly, running towards you) to get people to feel scared and raise their adrenaline. This could be potentially fatal for the elderly, as well those who may have underlying health problems.
For Those Who Love A Good Scare
Commercial obakeyashiki are for people who love the thrill that comes with being frightened. For those who want a more authentic experience instead of an engineered one, there are also tours they can take that bring them to haunted locations around Japan. However, if your schedule to visit this year allows you to have extra time to go out and experience a spooky staple of Japan’s summers, then you should go out there and grab the opportunity to enter an obakeyashiki – if you dare.