Himeji Castle is the largest and perhaps one of the most beautiful castles in Japan. If you’re there during the day, ghost stories might be the furthest thing from your mind. However, summer is traditionally a time for such stories thanks to the Japanese holiday of Obon, when spirits walk the earth.
Exploring the castle grounds leads you to the impressive main keep, which looks out over the city and has earned the nickname the White Heron Castle for its appearance. On the way down, you might see people gathered around a fenced-in well, looking down through the grate over it. It’s one of the last stop-offs you’ll hit on the self-guided castle tour.
Congratulations, you’ve found your way to Okiku’s Well, the real-life inspiration for the ghost legend that helped inspire the Koji Suzuki novel Ring and its many films and TV adaptations.
Origin Story: Banshu Sarayashiki
What the castle and J-horror masterpiece Ringu have in common is that they’re both connected to the legend of banshu sarayashiki (“The Dish Mansion in Harima Province”), a spooky tale that dates back centuries.
Himeji was once the capital of Harima Province formerly known as Banshu, which made up part of contemporary Hyogo. There are different versions of the sarayashiki legend, with some relocating the action from Banshu to the similar-sounding Bancho area in Edo (the old name of Tokyo, where Bancho still exists in Chiyoda ward). However, the earliest-known dramatized version of it is the 1741 Bunraku puppet play Banshu Sarayashiki by Tamenaga Tarobei and Asada Itcho.
Pushed down the well by her stepfather, Sadako famously crawls out of it and right through the TV.
The story tells of a court lady named Okiku who became the victim of an unjust plot to assume the lordship of Himeji Castle. When the castle lord is sick and dying, his villainous chief retainer, Tetsuzan, plans to eliminate a rival heir with the help of Okiku. He tries to seduce her and then blackmail her by framing her for the theft of one of ten treasured dish plates that the heir has earmarked as a succession gift. When that doesn’t work, Tetsuzan decides to suspend Okiku over a well and torture her.
Tetsuzan repeatedly lowers and raises Okiku from the well, deriving sadistic pleasure from striking her with his bokken (a wooden sword used in kendo and other martial arts). The phallic shape of the sword and the whole exercise of moving Okiku in and out of this hole in the ground lends the scene twisted psychosexual energy as if it were a bit of early torture porn like Saw.
Okiku refuses to give in and become Tetsuzan’s lover or help assassinate his rival, so he finally knocks her down into the well. Before long, he hears a voice counting plates from the bottom, and Okiku’s spirit rises from the mouth of the well.
Okiku to Sadako, the well to video
With the vengeful ghost Sadako in Ringu, Director Hideo Nakata puts a modern technophobic spin on Okiku’s tale. It sees journalist and single mother Reiko Asakawa retracing the steps of her niece, who has died of fright at the sight of Sadako after viewing a cursed videotape and receiving a phone call that left her with only seven days to live.
Pushed down the well by her stepfather, Sadako famously crawls out of it and right through the TV to kill people unless they make a copy of the tape and keep the chain going.
Before you die, you (should) see Himeji Castle
In the same way that some variations of the folktale send it to Japan’s capital, Ringu has Reiko follow her niece’s photo trail to the fictional Izu Pacific Land, filmed at America Camp Village in Okutama, Tokyo.
She compares the cabin in front of her, number B4 in the film (and L-6 in real life), with the one in the girl’s picture. As the viewer embarks on movie-inspired travel in Japan, they might find themselves doing something similar with places like Oshima Island, where Sadako’s mother threw herself into the volcanic crater of Mount Mihara.
The wording of the movie tagline for The Ring, “Before you die, you see the ring,” almost makes it sound like a bucket-list item. Before you kick the bucket or leave Japan, seeing Himeji Castle is a must. While you’re there, you might as well check out Okiku’s Well, the spot that gives the majestic fortress an unlikely J-horror connection.
If you peer down into the darkness of the well and hear a voice counting plates, you can try shouting, “Ten!”
In some tellings of the story, this has been known to assuage Okiku’s spirit and keep her from shrieking at the lost plate after she gets to nine. Don’t ask us what to do if you go back to your hotel room and the phone starts ringing off the hook, or the TV suddenly turns on by itself…
Have you watched Ringu? Know any other real-life horror locations in Japan? Let us know in the comments!