Just in time for Halloween, we present a spooky Japanese folktale to keep you up through the night.
Some centuries ago there lived in Akamagaseki a blind man named Hoichi, who was famed for his skill in playing the biwa (a traditional Japanese lute). As a professional biwa-hoshi, he became famous for his recitations of the Tale of the Heike, and it was said that when he sang the song of the sea battle of Dan-no-ura, even the goblins could not refrain from tears. He was very poor and lived in the temple of Amidaji with a friendly priest for whom he performed in exchange for food and lodging.
One night, when the priest was away, Hoichi was sitting on the veranda playing his biwa to distract himself from the hot weather when he suddenly heard steps approaching from the back gate. The steps stopped right before him, and a deep voice called the blind man’s name in an abrupt and unceremonious manner, like a samurai summoning an inferior. The voice informed Hoichi that he was expected in the house of a great lord, and commanded Hoichi to follow him.
The samurai took him into the house of a great nobleman, where a performance of the battle of Dan-no-ura was requested. Although Hoichi could not see, he could sense from the audience's manner of speech that he was performing for members of the nobility. He lifted his voice and chanted of the flight on the bitter sea, playing his biwa to sound like the straining of oars, and the rushing of ships, and the crashing of steel upon helmets. His performance was so beautiful and raw that his audience was moved to tears, and he was instructed to come perform again the following day. As the samurai led him back to the temple, he told Hoichi that his lord was traveling incognito and that he should refrain from telling the night’s events to anyone.
The following night was much the same, and Hoichi so moved his audience that he was asked to return for the next six days of the lord’s stay. But the priest had grown suspicious of his friend’s late-night outings, and instructed his servants to look after Hoichi. The next night as the servants stood guard, they watched Hoichi stand up from his position in the veranda and walk alone, as if in a trance, into the Amidaji cementery. Horrified, they watched as he took out his biwa and began to passionately recite the tale of Heike to the tombs.
The servants dragged him back to the temple, where Hoichi was awakened and told the priest everything. The priest revealed that Hoichi had been passing his nights in the cemetery playing for the memorial tombs of the Heike. That night he had been playing before the tomb of Antoku Tenno, a child emperor who had been drowned in the Battle of Dan-no-ura to keep him from being captured.
Terrified, Hoichi realized that he had been bewitched by ghosts and would know no respite until he was free. To save him, the priest painted Hoichi’s body with the kanji characters of the Heart Sutra for protection and instructed him to sit by the veranda one last time. Whatever happened, Hoichi must remain silent and motionless when called upon.
That night, the ghostly samurai entered the veranda and was shocked to see only Hoichi’s ears suspended in the air--the sutra characters on his body had made him invisible to spirits, but the priest had forgotten to paint his ears. He called to Hoichi, but the terrified musician did not move. Angry that only his ears had shown up for his appointment, the ghostly samurai removed them from Hoichi’s head. Armed with proof that the great musician had been reduced to his ears, he walked back into the cemetery and disappeared into the night.
With the help of the priest, Earless Hoichi was finally freed from the spirit’s power. Though he was now sightless and earless, he grew to become a greatly respected musician and played at courts and banquets throughout the land--this time for living patrons.
ADAPTED FROM LAFCADIO HEARN'S KWAIDAN: STORIES AND STUDIES OF STRANGE THINGS
WORDS BY MAGALI ROMAN
ARTWORK BY JENNY NIEH