Every Halloween we share a scary folktale that's been keeping Japanese children up at night for centuries. This year's tale is adapted from Lafcadio Hearn's KWAIDAN, a classic book of Japanese ghost stories.
On the Akasaka road in Tokyo there is a slope called Kii-no-kuni-zaka, which means the Slope of the Province of Kii. I do not know why it is called this. On one side of the slope you see an ancient moat, deep and very wide, with high green banks rising up to some place of gardens. On the other side of the road extend the long and lofty walls of an imperial palace.
Before street lamps and rickshaws became commonplace, this neighborhood was very lonely after dark, and belated pedestrians would go miles out of their way to avoid it after sunset. It's said that a mujina- a faceless woman- roamed freely there. The last man who saw the Mujina was an old merchant of the Kyobashi quarter. This is his story.
One night at a late hour, he was hurrying up the Kii-no-kuni-zaka when he saw a woman crouching by the moat all alone. She was weeping bitterly and her hands covered her face completely as she heaved forward towards the moat. Fearing that she intended to drown herself, he stopped near her to offer his help. As he came closer he saw that she was lithe, handsomely dressed and that her hair was arranged like that of a young girl from a good family.
He was a kind man, and pity gripped his heart. "O-jochu (young girl)," he exclaimed, approaching her, "O-jochu, do not cry like that... Tell me what the trouble is, and if there be any way to help you, I shall do it."
But she continued to weep, hiding her face from him with one of her long sleeves.
"O-jochu," he said again, as gently as he could, "Please listen to me. This is no place for a young lady at night! Do not cry, I beg of you! Only tell me how I may help you and I will!"
The girl rose up slowly, turning her back to him. She continued to moan and sob behind her sleeve, but her cries were slower, more subdued. The man felt his heart swell with pity and laid his hand on her shoulder.
"O-jochu..." he pleaded, "O-jochu, listen to me, just for one moment-"
Suddenly, the girl turned around and dropped her sleeve from her hand. Where there should have been two eyes, a mouth and a nose, was nothing but a featureless blank of skin as smooth as an egg. She began stroking her face with her hand slowly before him.
The man screamed and ran away. Up Kii-no-kuni-zaka he ran, and all was black and empty before him. On and on he ran, never daring to look back; until at last he saw a lantern, so far away that it looked like the gleam of a firefly, and he made for it.
It proved to be the lantern of a late-night soba-seller who had set down his stand by the side of the road. The man flung himself down at the feet of the soba-seller, crying out, "Ah! Ahh!"
"Kore, kore, (there, there)" said the soba-man, "What is the matter with you? Anybody hurt you?"
"No, nobody hurt me," said the man, wincing, "Only... ah!"
"Only scared you?" queried the peddler, unsympathetically, "Robbers, maybe?"
"Not robbers, not robbers," gasped the terrified man, "I saw... I saw a woman by the moat- an she showed me... oh, I cannot tell you what she showed me!"
At this, the soba man began to stroke his own face. Slowly he stroked his chin, and as he did his face began changing. "Ah..." he said, the features in his face melting away into blankness, "Was it by chance anything like this?"
With horror, the man looked on as the soba-man's face became like unto an egg. And suddenly, the light went out.
ADAPTED FROM KWAIDAN, BY LAFCADIO HEARN