August is almost over, and 2 more ghosts to go! I guess I won't be sleeping for the rest of this month... Today's story is #3 of Japan's Top 3 Ghost Stories. Technically, Botan doro is actually a Chinese story. It was adapted into Japanese, with the names, places, and time period reimagined (Kyoto during the Onin War) for its Japanese audience.
In the 19th century there were popular theatrical versions of this story made for rakugo and kabuki. The kabuki story is the most famous version, and the main one you'll find on the internet and in books. I posted it on my blog years ago, Lafcadio Hearn translated that version for his books, and it pretty much dominates the story.
I decided to go back a little further for this version and tell the "original" Japanese remake. I feel like it is a little creepier; in the kabuki version it's a love story that carries on after death. In the first Japanese version, it's just a ghost who happens to catch a human. A subtle difference, I know, but I feel like it's a little purer. It feels more like a folk tale rather than an elaborate drama.
Anyway, here is the tale of Otsuyu, from Botan Doro.
TRANSLATION: a girls’ name meaning “dew”
APPEARANCE: Otsuyu is the ghost from Botan dōrō—The Peony Lantern. Along with Oiwa and Okiku, she is one of the Nihon san dai kaidan—Japan’s Big Three Ghost Stories. Although her story was originally a Chinese folk tale, it was adapted into Japanese in the 17th century. It was later adapted for rakugo and kabuki, with extra characters and more details added to flesh out the story. Her story takes place during Obon, when the dead are believed to return to the land of the living. Otsuyu’s story is rare among Japanese ghost stories, as her tale is one of love rather than of vengeance.
LEGENDS: Long ago lived a man named Ogiwara Shinnojō, who was recently widowed. On the first night of Obon, Ogiwara saw a beautiful woman and her servant walking down the street, carrying a lantern with a peony motif. Ogiwara was instantly smitten with the beautiful woman and invited her into his home. Her name was Otsuyu. That night they made love. Otsuyu stayed with Ogiwara until long after the moon had set and the lamplight had grown faint, when she reluctantly bid him farewell and left into the early morning.
To Ogiwara’s delight, Otsuyu and her servant returned the following evening, carrying the same peony lantern. Ogiwara fell deeply in love with Otsuyu. He quickly lost interest in seeing anybody but her. Ogiwara no longer left his house, and stopped taking care of himself. Night after night, Otsuyu visited Ogiwara’s house. Each night they made love, and each night she left before dawn.
Twenty days passed. Ogiwara’s neighbors began to grow concerned for him. Next door to Ogiwara lived a wise old man. One night, the old man heard laughing and singing coming from next door. He peeked through a hole in Ogiwara’s wall. However, instead of a beautiful woman, he saw Ogiwara entwined in the boney arms of a skeleton. When Ogiwara spoke, the skeleton nodded its head and moved its arms and legs. When the skeleton’s jaw opened, a haunting voice came from where its mouth should have been. The old man was horrified.
As soon as day came, the old man called for Ogiwara. He warned Ogiwara that Otsuyu was really a ghost, and told him to go to a temple at once. Ogiwara heeded the old man’s advice. At the temple, Ogiwara discovered Otsuyu’s grave, with her old and tattered peony lantern draped across it. The priest warned Ogiwara that he must resist Otsuyu, and gave him a magical charm to place on his house, which would keep him safe from the ghost. Ogiwara rushed home and placed the charm on his door. The charm worked perfectly, and Otsuyu no longer came to visit Ogiwara.
Although he was safe, Ogiwara became despondent. He missed Otsuyu dearly. One night, days after her last visit, Ogiwara became drunk. He carelessly wandered to the temple where he discovered Otsuyu’s grave. At the temple gate, Otsuyu appeared to him, and led him to her home: her coffin. Later, when Ogiwara had been missing for some time, the priest opened up Otsuyu’s grave. Inside was the dead body of Ogiwara, wrapped up in the boney arms of a human skeleton.