SPIRITS AND GHOSTS OF THE WINTER

A person’s spirit in Japan is sometimes seen as a small ball of flame floating around. A ghost could appear in this way, or it could be a floating figure without feet, or a full figured apparition, just like anywhere else. There is always the famous ghost story that seems to be popular in Japan and many other countries of a ricksha driver, or a taxi driver picking up a beautiful woman with a depressed demeanor, who then wants to be driven to an address near a graveyard. As they pass the graveyard she disappears. There are people who swear they know someone who this really happened to.

But the little glowing flame floating around is one of the spirit motifs, and it is based on something people actually see: the kitsunebi (fox flame) or onibi (monster flame) are two of the names of this phenomena. In haiku it is a winter seasonal word. I don’t know if they are more common in the winter or that it is because winter has a natural association with death. I suppose we could relate this to glowing swamp gas perhaps? One theory of its origin, according to a Japanese book I have is that these glowing floating apparitions may be the result of decomposing horse bones or other animal bones, that were gnawed on by a fox. (I’m not sure why a fox has a causal effect, if any).

But they are spooky nonetheless. The English equivalent of kitsunebi, or onibi is will-o’- the-wisp, or St. Elmo’s Fire.

 

夜の森深し
雲に月
狐火也

 

yo no mori fukashi
kumo ni tsuki
kitsunebi ya

 

Deep in the night forest
the moon in the clouds
ah! spirit fire!

 

Ghosts, monsters, and will-o-the-wisps, make nice creepy entertainment, and the Japanese have plenty of them, but I was never one to believe in such things. That is, until I lived in the Philippines for a while… But that’s another story for another time.

 

狐火也
間違い道に
古盆地

 

kitsunebi ya
machigai michi ni
furu bonchi

 

The spirit fire!
on a wrong road
an old graveyard

 

These are all from 2006. Here is another one that can be disconcerting if you were to ever experience it.

 

夜の森
水の音
みみづく鳴き也

 

yoru no mori
mizu no oto
Mimitzuku naki ya

 

The night time forest
sound of water
a horned owl cries!

 

The owl has a beautiful call, but it is a bit creepy–especially when you don’t expect it. Actually, anytime you walk through a thicket of bamboo at night, you are likely to startle a bird that was resting there–unseen until you stumbled upon it, and it suddenly flies up and away with a flurry of wings and loud alarming squawks. It is very startling as it shatters the silence, even when you know it is likely to happen and try to expect it.

On a different note, the Japanese have a custom similar to the voodoo doll. You had to be pretty upset with someone to do this—because it was dangerous. Perhaps a common reason this would happen would be a broken heart—it seems that women are more likely to resort to black magic than men in Japan (besides, traditionally Japanese men generally try to maintain an air of cold-hearted indifference when it comes to romance)—though, obviously men could get angry enough to do such things too.

This is called a noroi ningyounoroi is a curse and ningyou is a doll. You generally needed something from the person, as I recall, it was usually hair, but perhaps fingernail clippings or something like that could be used. You dressed like a ghost or the Japanese dead, all in white—then at midnight, with a triangle-shaped cloth worn over your forehead like a crown, you would make the doll out of straw and whatever you had off the body of your victim, putting all your evil intention of pain and harm into it. Then you would take off deep into a forest where no one would find it, and nail the doll onto a tree–typically one nail through the heart. By some traditions, you would wear a crown with candles on your head—formed from the kettle stand from a ro stove, placed upside down on your head, and candles placed on the legs. It was risky however, because if it backfired, the pain you intended for your victim could come back to you, but multiplied many times from what you had intended.

This is one I composed this year:

 

夜森の月に
古呪い
人形也

 

yomori no tsuki ni
furu noroi
ningyou ya

 

The moonlit night forest
Ah!
an old curse-doll!

 

The moon by itself was a fall word, which is to say that this is a fall haiku.

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