Discover Kyoto

The other side of Kifune jinja shrine


Ghost stories in Kyoto

Kyoto is a historical city with various myths and anecdotes about it. It is also known as the city where many deities and gods reside; numerous traditional shrines and temples exist. At the same time, there are many episodes about supernatural monsters or ghost stories too, for it is an ancient city.
I would like to introduce one “very little known episode about a famous touristic spot” in Kyoto, the city where people have lived with evil spirits of rivers and mountains since old days.

Sakyo-ku, Kyoto-shi: Kifune-jinja Shrine Okumiya

Kifune-jinja Shrine is a famous touristic place in Kyoto, right?
When it comes to Kifune-jinja Shrine, people think of “the matchmaking shrine”; it is often introduced in travel websites overseas too. But they only refer to the bright side of the shrine, such as “the history of Kifune-jinja Shrine”, “the air is clear and crisp in Kifune-jinja Shrine!”, or “kawadoko in Kibune is awesome!”. Almost none of them talks about “the darker side” of Kifune-jinja Shrine.

Kifune-jinja Shrine is the sanctuary for casting a curse: the origin of ushi no koku mairi

Kifune-jinja Shrine is famous for matchmaking, but in reality it has the opposite characteristic to it. This is the sanctuary for casting a curse. It’s also known as the origin of the “ushi no koku mairi legend”.


What is ushi no koku mairi?
Ushi no koku mairi, or ushi no toki mairi (both signifies “ox-hour shrine-visit”) is a type of magic rituals that is traditional to Japan, to lay a curse upon a target by hammering nails into a straw effigy of the victim placed against a sacred tree of the shrine at around “the hours of the Ox (between 1 and 3 AM)”.

Typically, the practitioner is a scorned woman and she dresses in white and crowns herself with an iron ring set with three lit candles upright around her head to conduct this ritual.

The practitioner must repeat this ritual every night for seven days, after which the curse is believed to succeed and causes death to the target. But if the practitioner is witnessed in the act, it is believed to nullify the spell.

Kifune-jinja Shrine is famous as the matchmaking shrine, but it does not only grant happy wishes. As we say “love-hate drama”, the deeper love is, more likely that it would turn into deep grudge. Kifune-jinja Shrine holds many, many episodes like that. You can see these anecdotes in Japanese classic literature. The original story can be found in “Tsurugi no maki (Book of the Sword)” in “Yashiro Hon Heike Monogatari”, which can be called as the other side of “The Tale of Heike”.
Long story short…in the era of Emperor Saga (early 800s), a girl from a noble family shut herself in Kifune-jinja Shrine for 7 days, and asked deities to turn her into a fierce demon to kill her love rival. She was given revelation from Kifune Daimyojin (Kifune resident deity) to change her appearance and bathe in Uji river for 21 days. She was to change her appearance as below:

1.Divide her long hair into five bunches and fashioned these bunches into horns.
2.Daube her face with vermillion (mercury sulfide).
3.Daube her body with cinnabar (trilead tetraoxide).
4.Set on her head an iron ring (tripod) with burning brands attached to its legs.
5.Hold in her mouth another brand, burning at both ends.

She looked so grotesque that it was otherworldly. Apparently, those who saw her dressed like this and with a demoniac look on her face died from fear. Well, after 37 days of bathing in Uji river in this appearance, she successfully (?) became a demon and killed men and women, including her love rival. This is the story of the legendary “Hashihime (the Princess of the Bridge)”, the demoniac woman as well as the guardian. A noh song “Tetsurin (Iron Ring)” was born from this legend.

One point to note is that the ritual did not include hammering nails into a straw effigy at that time yet.
As time went by, in the Edo period, the style of ushi no koku mairi has become complete which continues to this day.

3 burning candles on your head, paint your face white but paint the lips red, and color your teeth black with ohaguro (tooth blackening dye).

Hold a comb in your mouth, wear a white single kimono, hang a mirror from your neck, and wear a pair of geta (Japanese wooden footwear).

Put whatever part of a person (such as hair) you wish to curse in a straw effigy and you are all set. Only thing you have to do is to hammer a straw effigy against a tree with long nails at around 2 AM, “the hour of the Ox” when the spiritual power of Kibune is said to be the strongest.
You must continue this for 7 days no matter what, filling yourself with the feeling of grudge.

One important point here, in case you might want to try it. You cannot be seen while you are conducting this ritual of curse.

Because, when you are seen, the curse would be nullified and it would get back to you.
If you are seen conducting ushi no koku mairi, you must destroy the person who saw you or you might die yourself…apparently.
(Actually, one of my friends has witnessed ushi no koku mairi in Kifune-jinja Shrine once, and she was chased by the person who was casting a curse…)

For those who go visit (sightseeing)…

There still is a huge tree with countless nails hammered into it in Kifune-jinja Shrine (I cannot tell you where exactly it is though). Some nails are ancient and rusty, some are brand new…showing that there still are people who cast a curse in these modern times.
If you wait until 2 AM and witness something, there is no guarantee that you will get out of the shrine alive, so I recommend you walk around when the sun is still up in the sky. You know living people can be a lot scarier than the dead…

Kyoto is deep. There is still uncovered darkness in many places. The fact that is has a long history means there were many people who lived and died there. It must be fun to search for anecdotes and episodes which are still little-known, about the other side of Kyoto.
I do recommend you do that in the afternoon though…

Kifune jinja shrine <貴船神社>

Adress 京都市左京区鞍馬貴船町180
180, Kurama Kibunecho, Sakyo-ku Kyoto-shi, Kyoto, 601-1112, Japan
TEL 075-741-2016
Open [from May 1st to November 30] am 6:00-pm 8:00
[from December 1 to April 30] am 6:00-pm 6:00
Entrance fee Free
Access [Eizan Railway] 30 minutes walk from Kifuneguchi Station
[Kyoto bus] 5 minutes walk from Kifune Station