It’s early autumn and the signs are everywhere in Kyoto: the rice stalks are cut and drying on racks in the fields, persimmon are ripening on the branch, and leaves everywhere are beginning the slow bleed to crimson.
While summer nights are the height of night festivals and haunted houses, still a few linger on into October, a ghost of seasonal understanding, imported from the Americas, and All Hallow’s Eve. Ask a Japanese person why we go Trick or Treating, or the origins of Halloween, and most wouldn’t be able to tell you. It is a day time activity, here, and the scariest place to take part in festivities is DisneySea — but this is not exclusive to Halloween. Christmas and Easter are also appropriated for their color and delight, but the origins and meanings are lost in translation, leaving only a brief consumer festival. Given how many festivals Japan takes part in, though, it is little surprise that is the way it is, though.
In the eastern part of the city, a haunted house remains. Junior high school students passing by are invited to take part in a story — the story of the Lady and the Cursed Mirror. Find the mirror and get out alive. Don’t, and the Lady’s ghost will take you.
They giggle nervously and enter in a tightly huddled group.
Like their American counterparts, Japanese haunted houses follow a track — visitors turn dark corners and mirrors play tricks with the depth perception. But the story unfolds as you pass through the house. Guides and ghoul’s voices relay the story of the beautiful woman who found a cursed mirror. This mirror was cursed to show only the beauty of a person’s insides, but in a darker twist than Snow White, the woman who owned it killed any one who looked more beautiful than her in its reflection, only strengthening her ugliness on its surface.
Eventually, the woman died, and now the mirror possesses her vengeful spirit; a spirit intent to suck the life from anyone whose reflection is beautiful.
Girls shriek as they see their normal faces in the mirrors. The power of the story has taken hold. Some ghosts, former victims, help the girls get through the track — one gives them the mirror and begs them to flee.
They leave the house breathless and pale, but still a nervous titter of giggles envelops them. It’s time to go back to the night market and play carnival games, eat yakitori and squid, and set off the last of the year’s fireworks near the river.
This is a dramatized version of a story one of my Japanese students told me. -Alex