This story is a prequel to the the events in the “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” urban fantasy trilogy. It was first published as “Staring at the Haiku” in TOMO: FRIENDSHIP THROUGH FICTION – AN ANTHOLOGY OF JAPAN TEEN STORIES, from Stone Bridge Press, a book dedicated to raising funds and awareness to help communities damaged by the 3/11 Tohoku disaster.
The story goes like this:
The young trainee teacher was patrolling the long, empty high school corridors, making sure all students have gone home. His footsteps echoed down the halls, and beyond the windows it was already dark; the hot, steamy twilight of a Japanese July. He was feeling nervous; summer is the time for ghost stories in Japan, and all kinds of tales were going through his head.
Then he heard the crying.
It was coming from the end of the corridor. He walked through pools of shadow to the classroom, opened the door, stepped inside. He flicked the switch; the lights weren’t working. Strange. But in the dark he could make out a girl, in school uniform, sitting at one of the desks. She sat turned away from him, her head hanging down, long black hair over her face, and sobbing like her heart was broken.
“Every student should have gone home,” he said, trying to keep his voice firm.
The girl didn’t turn around. She kept on sobbing, her hair masking her face, and the teacher was feeling really creeped out by now.
“Are you all right? What are you doing here on your own?”
He walked slowly into the classroom. He reached out a hand and gently tapped the girl on the shoulder.
As quick as a striking snake, the girl turned toward him, her hands snatching at the teacher’s arm with razor-sharp nails. She flicked back her long hair, and her face –
Her face was –
Her face, was like –
Well, what do you think it was like? Welcome to –
– which is the most amazing blog ever on Japanese ghosts, written by yours truly Tomoe Kanzaki! In English! I’m seventeen years old, and a student in the Global Studies class for returnees, here at Chiyoda High. Now I’ll let the other ghostbusting ghostbloggers in the Club introduce themselves – scroll down for the introductions!
Hi, I’m Shunsuke Wakita. My birthday’s January 27th and my blood type is B. I like PE, and I’m in the baseball club at school. My family lived in Ohio for three years and Frankfurt for two years. My ambition is to get into a good University – or become an F1 racer. Yoroshiku Onegai Shimasu.
Hi, I’m Xin Yao Liu! I’m an exchange student in Japan for a year, and I’m from Chongqing in southwest China. My strong point is I’m a quick reader – I can finish a novel in less than a day. My ambition? I’m interested in science, so I’d like to be a pharmacist.
I’m Hideaki Sakamoto. I like all sports, but I’m in the Kendo Club. I like animals, pasta, Japanese curry-rice, going for karaoke parties, and hanging out in Shibuya. In the future I’d like to travel around the world and then get into male modeling. Or maybe the other way around.
I’m Reiko Bergman. I’m half-Japanese, or a Ha-fu, as they say here. My father’s American and my mother’s Japanese, and we lived in New York for eight years. My other nickname is Rekijo, which means ‘History Girl’ – but I’m not a geek! I just like stories from long ago, and I’ve got a good memory.
And like I said, I’m Tomoe, and this is my blog. I could tell you more about myself, but I won’t, because we’ve got ghost stories to deal with!!
The Calligraphy Lesson
The last two weeks of February. The time of year for the final exams, the graduation ceremony, and then the Spring Break, when every teenager within a hundred kilometers of the capital tries to get into Tokyo Disneyland at the same time. It’s also the season for Girl’s Day, on March 3rd, when families put up a special display of Japanese style dolls in their houses, and have hamaguri clam soup with sweet sake to celebrate. For some reason Boy’s Day on May 5th is a national holiday but on Girl’s Day we still have to go to school. Boys get all the lucky breaks, huh?
So there we were, with the finals done and grades given out, looking forward to a break with no lessons or homework, when – bang! The craziest thing happened! The junior high school girls started talking about a miracle in the Calligraphy Room!
It was an urban legend – and you know what urban legends are like once they get started. Here in Japan, there are some that everyone knows; the girl crying alone in the dark (see above), the masked woman who hangs around the school gates, Little Hanako the haunter of the toilet – but the one in our school was something totally new. This spread around all the classes and soon everybody was totally OMG. Except the teachers, of course. The teachers were more concerned with the Principal’s toy – a set of antique dolls that he’d put on display in the third floor lobby for Girl’s Day. Go figure.
So what kind of urban legend was it? The juniors said that if you put a blank sheet of calligraphy paper on the wall before you went home, the next morning you’d find the first Kanji character of your future boyfriend’s name written on it! So if you saw a character pronounced ‘MA’ – like, maybe
– then your boyfriend could be Masahiro, or Masatoshi, or Masataka! And you know what juniors are like – they all believed it!
This is what we discussed at the very first Yokai Hunters Club meeting held in the Chiyoda Station Starbuck’s, after school. I was the chairman, and also the note-taker, and I explained in great detail the nature of Assignment # 1.
“You are the freakiest person I ever met,” Reiko said, after I’d finished.
“It wasn’t a compliment,” she added, shaking her head.
That’s just how she is.
“Urban legends are like mega-creepy,” said Xin Yao. “And I don’t need to find out my boyfriend’s name like this!”
“Because you’ve already got a boyfriend?” Hideaki muttered.
“Come on, guys,” I said, in my Madam Chairman voice. “Something amazing is going on, right? This is like those stranger-than-fiction TV specials, like those stories of statues that weep blood and drink milk.”
“Or statues that drink blood and weep milk,” said Hideaki, digging Shunsuke in the ribs.
“Shut up!” Xin Yao yelled, and I thanked her and quickly brought her into the discussion, as our resident calligraphy expert. I asked her if there was anything special about the paper used in the calligraphy room. I gave her a few sheets I’d secretly ‘borrowed’ today and she held them up to the light.
“It looks like ordinary paper and ink to me,” she said. “Smells like it, too.”
“Oh, come on,” said Hideaki, leaning back in his chair. “It’s all a joke, right? Someone steals the key, gets into the Calligraphy Room after school, puts something on the wall and laughs at the juniors the next day.”
“That would be the obvious answer,” I said, “and this is my proposal for ruling it out. Hideaki, your mom and dad gave you a little Minoru robot with a stereo webcam inside it, right?”
“Yeah. It was a free sample from one of my dad’s clients.”
“How about,” I said, trying not to grin too much, “if we put it in the calligraphy room to monitor what happens, and we do an all-night vigil from our bedrooms?”
“Keep it online all night?” Shunsuke cried. “How much is that going to cost?”
“Got a flat monthly rate from J-Com,” Hideaki said with a shrug.
“There is no way I’m staying awake all night for this,” said Reiko hotly. “I’m up until twelve every night doing homework already!”
“Doesn’t have to be all night,” I kept on. “We keep a guard rota. We take one hour each, and when the hour’s up, we call the next person.”
“Spying on the school?” Hideaki nodded slowly. “Yeah, okay! Why not.”
“You’d better put the webcam somewhere the teacher won’t find it,” I said.
“I’ll make up some errand and go in early in the morning and take the camera out.” Said Shunsuke.
“I’ll come in with you and distract the teacher so she doesn’t notice,” said Xin Yao.
“I’ll stand in the background and whistle the Mission: Impossible theme,” said Hideaki.
The Yokai Hunter’s first investigation had begun!!!
The next morning, after a disturbed sleep broken by an hour of staring at a darkened computer monitor, I met the other bloggers in the homeroom, when all the other kids were at the lockers or eating early morning snacks.
“You didn’t see anything?”
“It was too dark,” whined Xin Yao. “I could see the paper’s faint outline, but nothing else.”
There were slow nods all round.
“Was there anything written on it when you came in?” I asked Shunsuke.
“Yeah, the juniors were all over it. But it wasn’t kanji. It was the Hiragana character for mo.”
“So somebody’s going to have a boyfriend called … Motoki?” Hideaki asked.
In math, we learned that two negatives make a positive – or something like that; and as I listened to my classmates gripe over the sleep they lost, I suddenly realized – with a big shock of happiness – the negatives they brought to the table added up, in fact, to one big positive. Which is not mathematically sound, but it was lucky for us.
“Guys! Nobody came into the Calligraphy Room, right? So however this is happening – it’s not a junior or senior sneaking in to write something as a joke! We’ve got a genuine case of paranormal activity on our hands!”
Blank looks turned into shifty sidelong glances as everyone tried not to look scared.
“So what do we do now?” asked Shunsuke.
“We find out what happens when there’s no paper on the wall,” I said.
So that night, after the latest crowd of giggling juniors had put up a blank sheet of paper in the ‘special’ place on the wall, Xin Yao and I went in and took it down again.
The next morning the homeroom teacher told us of a special announcement from the principal, broadcast over the PA to every classroom. Uh oh, we thought, he’s found out about the urban legend and he’s going to warn us about impressionable young minds and not believing gossip or whatever.
Nope. Instead of that, he spent the whole ten minutes of homeroom time telling us not to touch the antique dolls. Apparently someone had moved them or been playing with them after school yesterday.
Men and dolls. Brrrrr…
“Tomoe, Tomoe, you’ve gotta see this!” Xin Yao said from the door to the Calligraphy Room. She had the keys, so the five of us locked ourselves in, keeping the juniors out.
There was a new kanji character. Written on the wall in the place where the paper would have been.
We got up close and peered at it. It was the verb ‘to read’. It looked kind of gross; it hadn’t been drawn with a brush, it was made of dark spots and stains that were almost … organic.
“What is that stuff?”
“Not ink,” said Xin Yao. She leaned forward, and recoiled with a face like a lemon. “It smells like … mold.”
“We’ve gotta clean this off,” said Shunsuke.
“But this is evidence!” I said.
“Evidence for who?” said Hideaki. “We’ve seen it, that’s enough. I’ll take a picture with my smartphone. If the teacher sees it, she’ll go crazy.”
We had no idea how crazy things were going to get!
I went through the rest of the day in a trance, unable to concentrate on lessons, until Xin Yao came up to me after school and said breathlessly, “I think I’ve got something.”
“The kanji. Sen-Botsu-Tai-Shou-Ni and the rest. We thought the characters meant boy’s names, like Tsuyoshi or Taishi or Shoutaro – but they don’t. If you put them together, the whole thing spells a haiku!”
She handed me the paper. From top to bottom, and right to left, she’d brushed hasty but elegant kanji characters. In English, the poem said:
Of our captain lost
Banners speak of fate; Omens read
In death we meet again.
“And this means?”
“It’s a poem from the late Sengoku civil war period,” she said, “composed by one of the Shogun Tokugawa’s samurai generals. The kanji on the wall this morning was yo, right? That means the next one tomorrow should be shin, beginning the poem’s final line.”
“The Kanji for death.” My head was spinning, and I felt my skin break out in goosebumps. “Xin Yao – you’re a genius! Now, if we could only figure out how and why this is turning up on our wall …”
Every answer we got was throwing up more questions. To tell the truth, after school that day I felt like leaving it alone, before things got any weirder – but like my dad always says, “Don’t give up.”
He also said, “Tomoe, do what you’re best at.” And as it turns out, that means investigating funky paranormal stuff. Who knew?
Speaking of the Old Guys, that night I got home and Mom was yakking on the phone to her club cronies. Ballroom dancing – she’s off every Sunday with her friends in tacky costumes, but she says that’s how she keeps her figure. While we waited for Dad to get home for dinner I went up to my room, put the headphones on and started blasting out Spacecandle so I could concentrate.
Spacecandle. Only the best Japanese rock band ever. They helped me get through revising for all my exams so far, so they’d help me with this. I lay on the bed, headphones on, staring at the haiku.
Hmmmm. If I ever form a rock band, which is my ambition, I’m going to call the first album Staring at the Haiku.
Just before Dad called “Tadaima!” as he slipped his shoes off in the parlor, the answer hit me.
“We’ve been looking at it the wrong way,” I told them the next day, when we all gathered in the calligraphy room. “It’s not the kanji themselves.”
“So what is it?”
“It’s the wall.”
Shunsuke made a face. “There’s something special about the wall of the calligraphy room?”
“Yeah, there is,” I told him with pride. “It faces the Kimon. You know what the Kimon is?”
“Yeah, sure.” Shunsuke threw a sidelong glance at Hideaki. “Not really.”
I pointed to the big window running along the wall of the room. “The Kimon – the Demon Gate. The old superstition that says spirits enter and exit the world of the living from the northeast; that’s why there are so many temples and shrines in northeast Tokyo.”
“A line of defense,” muttered Reiko, nodding.
“The haiku is a message,” said Xin Yao. “It’s trying to tell us something.”
“A message from who?”
We all moved to the window. Central Tokyo stretched away from us, towers of steel and glass shining in the sharp winter light, and not far away, the tranquil green of the Imperial Palace gardens.
“The flow of spirit energy,” I said, “is entering the building from this direction, so it’s passing that way.” I turned around, and pointed to the door.
“Over there?” Hideaki said. “There’s only the staircase.”
“And the windows.”
“And a janitor’s storeroom on the landing. You think the janitor’s doing it?”
Reiko opened the door.
“And the dolls,” we all said at the same time.
Dolls. And not just any dolls.
Usually, the Girl’s Day dolls were little figures wearing traditional Japanese costumes. A medium-size display had one Emperor, one Empress, three ladies in waiting, three male attendants and five court musicians. But ours were different. There were eleven male retainers wearing samurai armor from the Sengoku Civil War Period, and one female doll dressed in kimono as the General’s wife – but the General’s doll was conspicuously missing. According to the plaque on the wall, the dolls had been in school storage for many years, but were brought out especially for this year, the 400th anniversary of the Siege of the Kodaira Garrison in western Japan.
“I might have guessed it was dolls,” Xin Yao said when we were in Starbucks again. “Dolls are so freaky.”
Hideaki looked up from his café latte. “Why are you so scared of them?”
“There was a doll once. It freaked me out.” She glared angrily back at him. “End of story, okay?”
“I’m getting really confused now,” said Shunsuke. “This started off as an urban legend, but we’re now investigating a bunch of spooky dolls?”
I turned to Reiko. Or more correctly, I held up my smartphone. This was her night for exam prep at cram school, but she was sending text messages every ten minutes.
“The Kodaira garrison was about to be overrun by the forces of the invading Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi,” I said, reading from Reiko’s text. “General Hasegawa and his eleven men chose to stay behind and engage the enemy, giving their lord, Tokugawa Ieyasu, time to regroup. The night before their last battle, Hasegawa composed his suicide poem. The next day, every last man was cut down in combat as the garrison burned around them.”
We all sat quietly around the table for a while, just taking it all in.
“But there are only eleven dolls,” said Shunsuke eventually. “Where’s the leader? Where’s the General Hasegawa doll?”
I held up the phone again. “This is the clincher, guys. There was a doll in the likeness of General Hasegawa, but it was badly damaged in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and laid to rest in Kosenji Shrine near Roppongi. There’s a special part of the grounds where broken toys and dolls are laid to rest.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” said Hideaki.
“The Shinto religion says everything has a soul,” Xin Yao mused. “Even dolls.”
“So these dolls have been in storage for decades, until the Principal puts them on display for the anniversary, ” said Hideaki.
“Somehow, it awakens their spirits, and they become … aware,” said Xin Yao.
“They sense the final thoughts of their dying General, from across Tokyo,” said Shunsuke.
“And across the centuries,” I added. “Thoughts that take form on the wall of our school where the dolls are displayed.”
“And they’re going to do what?” said Hideaki, almost as if he was angry. “Follow their General into the great Doll Afterlife?”
“Whatever they’re going to do,” said Xin Yao, “they’ll probably do it three nights from now. That’s when the haiku ends. And…” she looked at me. “Oh, no. No, Tomoe! We’re not going to!”
But of course, we were.
If you want to secretly stay behind in school after the premises have been locked up, it’s not impossible. All you have to do is find a nice dark place and be absolutely quiet. Which is maybe impossible for Hideaki, but you know what I mean. The security guards are retired salarymen who spend most of the night in their cabin with their TV and boxed dinners, and there are security cameras at the school entrances, but not inside the corridors. In Chiyoda High, students have individual keys to their lockers, but there’s no lock itself on the door to the Locker Room on the second floor. So that’s where we hid.
We stayed there until six. It gets dark really early in Japan, so when we opened the door and crept out, the corridors were in darkness, with white security lights shining out onto the tennis ground and the trees. Hideaki and Shunsuke took up the lead, with the wooden bokken swords borrowed from the Kendo Club. I was behind, and Reiko and Xin Yao took up the rear (holding hands – hah!) We tiptoed down the corridor and got to the stairwell leading to the calligraphy room, and then – that’s where we saw them.
They weren’t dolls.
Eleven tall shadows stood above us, the dim light reflecting from iron and leather masks, battered chest plates, leather gloves covered in nameless stains. The two horns of a crescent moon insignia gleamed upon their helmets, and their swords hung at their sides.
Someone gave a muffled scream; it could have been Reiko or Xin Yao. Or maybe me. Shunsuke and Hideaki huddled together, their wooden swords held up in front of them. Even in semi-darkness, I could tell their faces had gone white.
With shaking hands, I lifted my smartphone, switched on the video camera, and held it up in front of my face like a talisman.
The eleven figures moved down the stairs like smoke. Their outlines were misted, almost transparent. The corridor filled with a whispering, like echoes in a cave, and the overpowering smell of forest earth and decaying leaves.
We followed them, because we couldn’t stop ourselves. They melted into the glass of the windows and reappeared on the other side, in the courtyard. They marched silently into the trees. We ran to the window and pressed our faces up to the glass, and I saw the last man in the line turn back. He lifted up his head, his great dark mask with hideously blank eyeholes in the battle-scarred metal – and he bowed to us, arms straight by his side, in formal Japanese style.
Then he melted into the Tokyo night like he’d never been there at all.
The next day the school was pretty quiet.
There wasn’t much to show the police were there; one patrol car parked discreetly at the back entrance. The Principal was trying to keep the lid on the fact that his entire display of dolls had disappeared – but there were no signs of a break-in.
Our post-mission debriefing at Starbucks. I looked around the café; tables of junior girls giggling about boys and zit cream and pop idols, student types with their books and their headphones screwed into their ears to shut themselves away, the young salarymen with their laptops and schedules taking a break between sales appointments … none of them knew. None of them knew what we knew.
That there was another world beyond this one.
And my team, my club, my nakama – I looked around the table at them, as they looked soberly back at me.
“I’m sorry,” I said eventually.
Shunsuke did a double-take. “Why?”
I shrugged. “Well, for one thing, the cell phone video didn’t come out. We can’t put that on the blog because it’s too dark to see anything. And I feel kind of bad for getting you into this.”
“We voted on staying,” said Xin Yao.
“Yeah, but they were all …” I made a mask gesture with my hands over my face.
“I think They Were All Dead is what she’s trying to say,” put in Hideaki.
“Thanks.” I took a deep breath. “Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe we should just forget ghosts and concentrate on the living.”
“I don’t think so,” said Reiko.
We all looked at her.
“Now, we know some legends are not just legends, right? There are things that people never talk about but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I think we should find out how many of these old stories are based on some kind of truth. I think we should do it; it’s a responsibility.”
“A responsibility to a world that can’t be seen,” said Xin Yao, with a funny look in her eyes.
I raised my frappuccino in salute. “That was really well put, Reiko. We’ve got a mission!”
That would have been the noise our toast made if we had glasses instead of paper cups. But there it was, our new brotherhood and our first mission, sealed with coffee and juice.
“What the heck,” snorted Hideaki. “This is more fun than the Kendo club.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE TOMO ANTHOLOGY AND TOHOKU’S RECOVERY OVER THE YEARS, GO HERE:
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE “SWORD, MIRROR, JEWEL TRILOGY” … GO HERE: