Updated October 26, 2020
To welcome the month of Halloween, I hunted down three spooky locations in Sendai. Most people in Sendai would only be able to list off a notorious suicide bridge, or mention rumors of ghosts left behind after the tsunami, when you ask about local ghost stories. However, Sendai has plenty of scary, strange, and frightening folklore from its rich history. Here is but a brief sampling.
Monsters from the Heavens
One of Japan’s most famous “supernatural monsters, spirits, and demons in Japanese folklore” (Wikipedia), collectively known as yokai, are the dreaded tengu. These half-bird, half-demons are characterized by their long noses, exceptional pride, and martial arts skills. They are mischievous and muscle-bound creatures which enjoy playing evil tricks on humans. Favorites include appearing instantly from above their human prey, swooping them up, and placing them up on the highest tree in the area. Less elaborate and far less pleasant would be forcing a human to eat animal dung. Trick-or-Treat!
Tengu live in the mountains and forests. Sendai is surrounded by mountains and is called the “City of Trees.” We’re screwed. If for some reason you want to meet a tengu, head over to Atago Shrine (仙台愛宕神社). This mysterious shrine is older than the city itself, having being brought here when Masamune Date relocated his domain from Iwadeyama in northern Miyagi. Tengu are said to live at and protect this shrine. Two tengu statues, said to be some of the biggest in Japan, are encased in the front gate . . . until they more likely than not reanimate in a “Night at the Museum” movie-style scenario each night to terrorize drunk salaryman.
The statue of city founder Masamune Date overlooking modern Sendai on horseback at the former castle site is a powerful scene. The “One-Eyed Dragon,” as he was called, enjoyed a colorful life as city builder, samurai warlord, and politician. But what’s the story with that horse?
The Goto family was group of expert horse trainers and caretakers attached to the Date Clan. Top member Nobuyasu Goto (1556–1614) would gift one of the most loyal, strongest, and bravest horses to his leader. Its name was also Goto. Masamune rode the horse into battle before moving to Sendai— without a doubt, the horse served him many years of dedication during the times of peace as well. Then in 1614, Masamune was summoned for battle one more time to Osaka for the last major campaign to solidify Japan. Reluctantly, he had to leave his faithful horse Goto behind because the horse had grown old and would have trouble making the journey, let alone running around in battle.
It is said Goto the horse became incredibly saddened to see his master leave. Some say it was heartbroken his master left without him. Others say Goto realized he had served his master as much as he could and knew he had no more purpose. In any case, soon after Masamune and his soldiers left Sendai, Goto jumped off the castle cliffs to his death. Masamune was shocked and deeply upset. He ordered Kakizaki Inari Daimyojin Shrine (蛎崎稲荷大明神) to be built as a memorial. Eventually the grave/spirit of the horse would be transferred to an upgraded shrine next to a central park near the Sendai Courthouse. That shrine is called Ubagami Kakizaki Shrine (馬上蠣崎神社). I’ll let you hunt that one down for yourself.
You can still visit the original shrine and site of the horse grave by following the street across from the Kokusai Center a five-minute walk south. The red torii gate guarded by two fox statues is hiding behind some bushes across from the tennis courts. A rough trail leads into some small woods to the final destination.
Dead Prisoners’ Curse
In an area called Kadan, right across the Hirose River from Sendai Castle, there used to be an ancient prison camp set-up during the time of Masamune Date. Criminals, peasants that couldn’t pay their taxes, disloyal samurai, and anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time were sent to be tortured then killed there. And it wasn’t a quick chop, whack, or cut. Executioners were the creative minds of the medieval period. They came up with plenty of slow, gruesome, and horrifying methods of human destruction: burning, crucifying, boiling, or the occasional pulling apart by horses, to name a few.
The prison death camp was eventually relocated. Some say it was to expand the facilities while others say because it took up valuable central real estate needed for housing. I believe it was because the screams of the tortured prevented castle residents from enjoying their tea ceremonies. After a few short years it moved again in 1690, ending up steps away from what is now Yaotome Subway Station in Izumi—close to the house I lived in for two years! Over the next 178 years until the Meiji Restoration, approximately 5,300 to 7,000 souls perished here.
The area is decorated with Buddhist statues in hopes the departed may rest in peace. Still some negative energy, perhaps the revenge of those killed, is present in the area. Locals swear the adjacent intersection is cursed, suffering a high number of traffic accidents. Others point to the poor design of the intersection which features both turns and slopes in its design as the real culprit. Why couldn’t it be both? I imagine the curse simply infested the minds of the designer and voting members of the city council during the time of construction.
Have a scary and fun Halloween, Sendai 👻