Thursday, 20 August 2015

Japan Photo Spectacular:
Inside the Japanese Ghost House.

I wish I was able to tell you precisely when and how the tradition of the Obake Yashiki, or Ghost House, entered Japanese culture, but sadly such historical detail is not really forthcoming to us lazy English language googlers, and no one I’ve discussed the matter with is really familiar with the origins of the tradition. 19th century travelling carnivals would be my best guess, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of them being either a more recent, or indeed much older, form of public entertainment.

Initially seen as summer-time attractions, to be enjoyed during the Obon period in August during which Japanese Buddhism teaches that the spirits of the departed roam free on earth, purpose-built Ghost Houses are now operated all year round, and can be found throughout Japan – appended to funfairs, theme parks, local attractions, and even in shopping malls and some Tokyo department stores.

The concept of the Ghost House is pretty self-explanatory; basically, after buying their ticket, punters navigate a small labyrinth of cramped, darkened (or intermittently lit) corridors decked out in traditional ryokan style, wherein the House’s designers utilise everything in their power to scare them senseless.

More adult-oriented (well, teen-orientated, at least) than their Western counterparts, comfy nostalgia and campy cartoon monsterism are emphatically NOT on the menu for most Obake Yashiki, and indeed, the best Ghost Houses are genuinely unnerving and immersive experiences, whilst I think I’m probably safe in claiming that even the most mediocre examples of the form make yr average gaijin Ghost Train look pretty shabby in comparison.

As you might expect, some of the more modern, hi-tech Ghost Houses have gone all-out to establish themselves as record-breaking, stand-alone attractions with an accompanying modern horror aesthetic (think a cross between Laserquest and a ‘Silent Hill’ video game maybe?), but you’ll be unsurprised to learn that I have little interest in these, and instead find myself drawn to older, stranger, more low-key examples of the tradition.

The first Ghost House I experienced first hand – whilst visiting Japan in January 2014 – was located in the loveably decrepit Hanayashiki amusement park in Asakusa, Tokyo. Though probably not an outstanding Ghost House by any means, as a novice I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did Satori, who alarmed those queuing up by exiting mid-way through a blood-curdling scream, I seem to recall.

According to the evidence of my camera (randomly snapping, largely sans flash, as we stumbled through), it looked a bit like this;

Three months later, another visit, and the peculiar museum of vintage pop culture lurking quietly on the roadside near the coast on the Izu peninsula in Kanto is well worth a post in its own right. (Since I’m already going through the photos, hopefully said post will be forthcoming soon.)

I was already pretty bowled over that we’d somehow managed to book accommodation within walking distance of such an extraordinary establishment, which catered to my interests so well that I was already overwhelmed by the time we reached the building’s back door, only to discover that, lurking out back by the bins and cleaning cupboard, they also had their very own Ghost House.

Shall we take a look? OF COURSE WE SHALL.

Well, that will take some beating. Needless to say, these photos can’t get anywhere near to capturing the full effect of the staccato flashing gel lighting, motion triggered sound effects, home-made blasts of hot and cold air (several strategically placed hairdryers were involved) or any of the other myriad effects that make up the Ghost House experience, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that this one was extraordinary.

We’ll be back in Japan again next month, visiting places new and old, so let’s hope some contenders to the strange Izu museum emerge; sooner or later, I’ll let you know.

Update: If you've enjoyed this post, why not try Ceiling Gallery's visit to the 'Witche's Cave' in the abandoned 'Nara Dreamland' theme-park?

1 comment:

ASL said...

loved this post so much! your photos do capture the creep, and brought back great memories...
next time you're in Tokyo make sure and go to Odaiba for a full day, then check out if you have a few hours to spare. are you familiar with matt alt books? or shigeru mizuki's yokai anatomy?