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  • Shona McCarthy

Japanese Ghost House / Kaizuka-shi


I won't name the last place I stayed during my last trip to Japan. Mostly because I don't want to bring them shame through my brutal honesty. But also because I don't actually want people to be discouraged from staying there. It was a fascinating, unique and challenging experience, and I think it would do anyone good to go through it.

(Taken by me, 2019.)

It was a place I found on Air BNB so it wasn't manned the way a standard hotel would be. Rather, when I arrived very late at night, I had to retrieve my key from a lock box that was padlocked to the property. It was very dark when I arrived. I found the lock box very challenging to open. Even once I had the key, the door had a very challenging lock. But I finally managed to get in. The significance of the place, and the main reason I had chosen it, was because it was so spectacularly old. I could easily believe it was originally built in the Edo period and then only minimally renovated to keep it within housing laws. I say "minimally" because some of the walls were not only unfinished, but the manner in which they were unfinished was hidden by cheap bamboo blinds. Even the changes that were made were sad and ill-considered. It seemed that a rug had once been attached to the the bathroom floor with double-sided tape. But the rug was gone and so the tape was exposed and decidedly fluffy. The bathroom only contained a luxurious sink unit with multiple lights. There was a toilet stall to one side, which I was grateful for, since it had a window covered in lattice. This ventilation came in handy for reasons I'll later explain. To shower I had to go to a bathroom stall outside. There was mould all over the ceiling, a rusting washing machine, an antique unit you could place your things on, The shower and bathtub itself was in a separate room. There was no heating. The whole stall had an unfortunate smell about it. Something like cauliflower farts. And it was insufferably cold since the window had to be constantly open in order to allow the room to properly ventilate. This was very needful, so I tolerated it. The room itself was filled with abandoned shampoo, conditioner and body wash bottles on the edge of the bath, on the shelving, and around the faucets of both the shower and the tub. It was like a ragtag choir of pantene and herbal essences were watching my ablutions.

This wasn't surprising. The accommodation was advertised for its proximity to Kansai Airport. So, many people likely left their toiletries there deliberately, not wanting to carry needless weight home. What this means is that if you do find yourself staying here, you can probably get away with using some of the products there.

(Taken by me, 2019.)

Based on the architecture and level of damage, I'd say the bathroom stall was probably built or renovated in the late 80's. But the bathtub and shower were in a traditional arrangement, low to the ground with the expectation that you would clean yourself while sitting on the little plastic stool they provide. But did I want to place my hairy, half-Chinese rear on an item of unknown vintage where potentially millions of other butts of undiscriminating genders may have sat and washed off the worst of the day... Or week... Or month...? Oh, the horror. No thanks. At this point, it might be hard to understand why I wanted to stay in such a place or why I would say good things about it. In fact, I've only described about half of the things that were wrong with the place at this point. Yet, I still think that you, reader, should visit. Why? All of these flaws, these oddities, these seeming offences to the very nature of what good accommodation should be, come together to create an experience that is delightfully ab/normal. When you are there, you experience a distinct reality. You are in a foreign and often idealised country. You are surrounded by intense beauty. But the fact that you also experience intense ugliness somehow makes the beauty more real, more earnest. For example, the smell in the building I stayed in was so very bad that I had to go out to the local shops on foot and buy some room deodorizer. I should point out that my sense of smell is so sensitive that most people probably wouldn't be so bothered by odours as me. I managed to find some room deodorizer at a Daiso in the same building as a bustling supermarket. There I was able to pick up some foods for myself heavily discounted since they were nearing their expiry dates. It was exactly what I would have done back home in Melbourne. Except it was completely different because I was doing it in a place that was totally foreign to me. I wasn't sure what the smell was, so I cracked a window and deliberately placed my bed close to it. The smell was so intense that I had to spend a day working on it before I recognised it as mould.

I also turned on a heater/air conditioner each night, both to warm such a cold place and to try to force the smell out.

(More views of the house, the bathroom and the mysterious tunnel. 2019)

The place had another gas powered heater in it. I thought it might help me cook the smell out of the room, as well as cutting through some of the creepiness of how cold and quiet it was. But I suspect the heater had been filled with the wrong fuel, since very quickly the room filled with a noxious smell. I had to use the other heater to blow out through windows I had to leave wide open, letting even more cold into the house. The accommodation had a policy that you should only take as much bedding as you need from the cupboard, one set per person, and to leave whatever you used on the ground without putting it away once you left. I didn't comply with this, since the little futon mattresses provided were horribly thin. So I stacked a few on top of each other. No bed sheets were provided, so I used an additional blanket as a sheet. In the absence of a pillowcase I wrapped my pillow in the large furoshiki I printed with mon in Kyoto. Each morning and night, I went through the house spraying with the room deodorizer wherever the smell seemed worst. I found the building I stayed in dreadfully creepy. It was such a quiet dark, remote area. There wasn't a TV set to keep me company, not even in the front room, which was something like a contemporary living room. This front room had another smell: a deep, abiding body odour. I'm not sure whether it was coming from the sofas, or the rug, or the window alcove. But I went around spraying that smell, too. In among this all, there was meant to be a kitchen that I could eat meals in if I wanted to. I could imagine a family staying in the same location would be able to make the most of such a thing. But I just chose meals from Family Mart in town and microwaved them. Finding the kitchen itself wasn't easy. I had to carefully explore the compound during the day to figure out that the mysterious door in my house/room lead out to it along a strange walkway. It was decorated with various pieces of cleaning equipment and examples of taxidermy which, while beautiful, made the place incredibly eerie at night.

Within it was an old style traditional wood stove complete with a bamboo pipe for stoking the flame and some old pots and pans. The kitchen itself looked like it had been abducted from an American family home during the 70's and then held against its will. It looked wholesome despite its strange surroundings. Yet, decay was always just out of my periphery. It seemed to smell of spaghetti meals. But I'm not sure whether the smell was truly there, or if I only imagined it.

Using the kitchen felt somewhat awkward. The living room of the family staying next door was plainly visible from the kitchen itself, since nothing was between the two aside from a very large glass door. The family had even left their own food products around the kitchen, apparently unaware that it was meant to be shared. It made me feel nervous that the family might discover me there and chase me away as though I were some sort of bandit. There was Wi-Fi. It was largely reliable. I was able to listen to music via Youtube in my room throughout my stay. This comforted me through my more nervous moments there. Though I can imagine it would be a fantastic place to have a horror movie marathon with friends. But only if you will be staying together. During my stay I watched some old Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoons there with a local friend.

The garden outside was beautiful and wonderfully maintained. But even it reminded me of a website I used to visit reading old Japanese ghost stories called "Sarudama". I can't seem to find the website anymore.

(The garden made a wonderful place for taking photos. Photos by Josiah Sillavan and me, 2019.)

Ever since I stayed in this place, I've seen Japanese horror stories like Yamishibai a whole new way. It's free on Crunchyroll.com. So I suggest taking a look.

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