Much like Halloween in October in the West, mid-summer is a season to intersect with the dead in Japan, as deceased ancestors are believed to visit and spend few days with us during traditional Obon period (August 13-15).
Also similar to the U.S., temporary haunted houses are built in amusement parks or shopping malls as seasonal attractions. Horror movies and reports of haunted locations are televised, while popular kimodameshi (literally, to test your courage through scared route) games are enjoyed in schools and local communities throughout summertime.
I’ll admit, there can be a difference between in what Americans find scary and what Japanese find scary. When it comes to some Japanese haunted houses though, such cultural boundaries tend to disappear.
“Noroi no Haioku” (The Cursed Deserted House) and “Kyofu no Kakurennbo Yashiki” (Scary House of Hide-and-Seek), the two haunted houses currently open at shopping malls on Okinawa, definitely count as such attractions. A 10- and 40-minute drive, respectively, from Camp Foster will reward horror fans with a chilling experience to help them forget about the Okinawan summer.
House under a curse
“The Cursed Deserted House” has a backstory that goes like this: 30 years ago, a beautiful lady named Reika had her right arm cut off and was brutally murdered by a psychopath. Since then, death has fallen on many who have lived in this house. That’s where you come in, as visitors are tasked with finding her arm to break her curse.
According to Director/General Manager Fumio Nishida of S’s Ryukyu Live Co., Ltd., which organized this haunted house, the attraction has become a popular spot for many Americans.
“We have seen many Americans coming to our haunted house,” Nishida said. “Some of them are really scared, while others try to stay tough. But I see that Americans like the attraction more than Japanese do, because they are more responsive.”
As I waited in line on 3F floor of the Aeon Mall Okinawa Rycom, I could feel my blood pressure rise. Once inside, the tight, dark, maze-like space constantly made me feel uneasy. There was no way to tell when or from where the next surprise would come. I had no choice but to open a suspicious looking closet or check on a spooky looking space until I found the arm. It’s like diving into fear even though I wasn’t as curious as the horror movie protagonists. Once inside, you might just want to forget that curiosity is not rewarded in most horror movies.
I can’t tell you the details of what happens in the house. But I can say this: Unlike some haunted houses that look like straight out of a fantasy, this one has a very realistic feel. Faithful to the backstory, the rundown look of the house did seem like it could have been built 30 years ago. The boundary between reality and fiction gets blurry in a place like that.
Just like horror films and scary stories give you goose bumps, kimodameshi and haunted houses make the Japanese cool with fear and terror - another reason they are considered summer attractions. On a hot summer evening, students will often explore cemeteries or haunted locations and enjoy exchanging horror stories with friends
Kimodameshi is a must-play for students away at summer camp. It can be seen as a rite of passage for teenagers as they show their courage in public, and is a great chance for them to cling to someone they might have a crush on.
In kimodameshi, challengers, usually paired as boys and girls (sometimes alone or in a small group), walk along a spooky path in dark forests, grave yards, shrines, temples, abandoned buildings or any other haunted and mysterious spaces. In order to maximize fear, the location is scouted and scary objects, such as skulls and horror-props, are planted in advance. Sometimes, audio and visual effects are used to create an unusual atmosphere.
A good story teller, usually a teacher, provides a horror story before sending them out to the spooky path. To prove that they had walked through the designated course, challengers need to bring something back from the haunted location or leave some sort of token (often a card or stones written with challenger’s number or name) at the location, which can be recovered later.
Teachers, volunteering parents or senior colleagues hide along the path in ghost costumes, and jump out at challengers walking along the course.
During the event, students witness a strong-looking boy unable to move in his terror at haunted location while a gentle graceful girl shows her courage to take him out on the course. Some bust into crying and others leave their partner and run away from the course, and that makes some of great memories of school days that cannot easily be forgotten.
The tradition of kimodameshi goes back to the reign of Emperor Hanayama, about 1000 years ago. An official history book in the era “Ookagami” describes that Emperor sent three young aristocrats to an old house known as home of evils around 2 a.m. to test their courage. Only one of them was brave enough to accomplish his order, and he brought back a chip from the haunted house to show the emperor. The brave young aristocrat, Fujiwara Michinaga, later became prime minister and wielded his power over the nation.