CREEPY CORNER: The Tale of Hoichi the Earless

Moral of the story: Always cover your ears.
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Louise Hung
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Moral of the story: Always cover your ears.

FUN FACT: I spent a good part of my 20s creating a play for young audiences called Mukashi Mukashi. 

It was my baby. My weird, creepy puppet baby. 

If you or someone you know were of elementary school age between 2007 and 2013, and lived in either Los Angeles or St. Louis, Missouri (you gotta go where the work is), you might have seen it. Surprise, surprise it was a children's play with puppets, about Chinese and Japanese ghost stories.

this hoichi

The Hoichi character from a school tour we did in Los Angeles. 

Before there was Creepy Corner, there was Mukashi Mukashi, or "long, long ago," the Japanese version of "once upon a time." 

One of the stories from Mukashi was the story of Hoichi the Earless or "mimi-nashi-Hoichi." The story of Hoichi is one of those old Japanese ghost stories that so gracefully weaves history and legend together that it seems almost unreasonable not to believe it. 

The Hoichi story has been on my mind ever since I got to Yamaguchi. I don't know how I feel about such things as being "fated" to come here, but it certainly seems a bit uncanny that I did. 

I mean, how many 20-something puppet nerds in Los Angeles become enamored with a relatively unknown-to-Americans story about a blind, possessed Japanese musician who loses his ears because of ghosts? And of those ghost-obsessed puppet nerds, how many end up living in Japan? And how many of them end up living right by the very temple central to that blind, possessed Japanese musician ghost story? 

I'm the only one that I know of. 

I didn't even know I was moving to Hoichi country. Honestly, what led me to realizing my Hoichi connection was Creepy Corner. While looking up stuff on the internet about this spooky, abandoned building nearby (more on that at a later date), I happened upon something about a haunted temple. 

Who doesn't like that?

Clicking on the link (and wondering why the name of the temple sounded so familiar), the story of mimi-nashi-Hoichi popped up on my computer screen. "Holy shit!" I cried out to the ghosts in my empty apartment. Somehow I had managed to move myself partway around the world to live a short train ride away from Amidaji, the temple where the Hoichi story took place. 

If I go to visit Amidaji and I'm never heard from again, you'll know why. The long game the Japanese ghosts started almost a decade ago in Los Angeles finally came to fruition, and I have taken my rightful place next to Hoichi the Earless FOR ALL ETERNITY. 

I hope they have pizza in eternity. 

So before I fulfill my fate, I want to share with you the story of Hoichi the Earless. It's one of those spooky legends that is just perfect for the Halloween season. And if you like Hoichi, check out the 1960s movie Kwaidan for some eerie, atmospheric Japanese storytelling. The book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn is also a fun read if you're into supernatural legends and beliefs. 

Anyway, on to the story. 

Mukashi, mukashi...

There was a gifted musician named Hoichi. His skill at playing the biwa, a lute-like string instrument, while reciting poems and stories was legendary. And though Hoichi was blind, it did not seem to impede his playing. In fact, it is said that his playing was so good, he could make goblins weep. 

Hoichi lived at a Buddhist temple with a kind priest who had taken him in. In exchange for a place to live and food to eat, Hoichi would entertain the priest with poetry and music. 

One night, the priest had to leave the temple to attend to a funeral. Left alone, Hoichi decided to sit outside and practice playing the biwa. After playing for a little while, he heard his name being called.

"Hoichi..."

"Hello? Who is that?" Hoichi asked the night. 

The voice called again, louder this time. 

"Hoichi!"

"I'm sorry, I am blind, I cannot see who you are!"

The voice was very near now, and very loud.

"HOICHI! HOICHI!"

At this point, Hoichi was very afraid. "Please don't hurt me!" he cried. "I'm just a simple musician!"

The gruff voice said to him, "Don't be afraid. I am a samurai. My lord has heard that you are skilled at reciting the story of the battle of Dan-no-ura. He requests that you come and play for him at his court."

The battle of Dan-no-ura was the final battle of a long war fought between the Heike and Genji clans more than 800 years ago. The Heike lost, many of the clan perishing in the ocean. A defining image of the battle is the mother of the infant emperor, clutching her child as she falls from a seaside cliff. 

Amidaji, the temple where Hoichi lived, was erected to make amends to the ghosts of the Heike. It was said that the Heike ghosts haunted the ocean and coastline, rising up to try and pull down ships, appearing as balls of fire on the beach, or as crabs with human faces on their shells (the spirits of the Heike warriors). 

The story of the battle of Dan-no-ura was Hoichi's specialty. Plus, who was he to say no to a samurai?

"I will gladly play for your lord," Hoichi told the samurai. Taking Hoichi by the arm, the samurai swiftly led him through many twists and turns to the court of his lord. 

Upon arriving Hoichi could hear lots of people around him — the swish of sandals, voices muttering, the flap of fans. Sitting down on the cushion offered to him, he waited for instructions. 

A woman's voice, the head attendant of the lord, said, "Play your biwa, Hoichi, and recite the story of the battle of Dan-no-ura."

"As you wish," Hoichi replied and began to play. 

After he had played the final chord, the court was silent. Hoichi waited for any response. 

Out of the silence, the woman's voice said, "You are wonderfully skilled, Hoichi, and have pleased our lord very much. He requests that you come back and entertain the court for the next six nights, after which you will be given a 'fitting reward.' However, you must not tell anyone about this, or you will be punished."

"As you wish," Hoichi agreed. 

Hoichi was brought to his feet by the samurai's hand, and after many twists and turns was returned to the temple. It was nearly dawn when Hoichi arrived home, and he collapsed from exhaustion.

The priest returned shortly after Hoichi, and seeing that Hoichi was sleeping, suspected nothing. 

The next night the samurai came to collect Hoichi again. Again Hoichi played all night for the court, and again he was returned to the temple just before dawn. However, this time the priest saw Hoichi returning. 

"Hoichi! I was so worried about you. Where did you go?" 

"I cannot tell you; I had business to attend to," Hoichi replied, and he went to sleep for the day. 

Surprised that Hoichi was so evasive, the priest decided to keep an eye on him. When night fell, the priest saw Hoichi leave the temple grounds again and sent servants to follow him. Yet, the blind man took so many twists and turns that they lost track of him. 

They were about to give up when they heard Hoichi's biwa in the dark. 

Following the sound of the biwa, they found Hoichi alone in the cemetery, sitting in front of a tomb dedicated to the infant Heike emperor. Surrounding Hoichi were spirit fires, ghosts of the Heike clan. 

"Hoichi! Hoichi!" the servants called, but Hoichi was in a trance, unable to hear them. 

Grabbing him, the servants pulled him out of the cemetery and brought him back to the temple, where they explained to the priest what had happened. 

When Hoichi came out of his trance and was confronted by the priest, he tearfully admitted what he'd been doing.

"My friend," said the priest, "you have been tricked by the ghosts of the Heike. You have been performing for the dead every night. You are now under their power and after the sixth night, they will take your soul. Of course, now that the truth has been discovered, they will punish you. Unless..."

The priest gathered his writing brushes and ink. Removing Hoichi's clothes, the priest wrote sacred texts all over Hoichi's body, even the soles of his feet. 

Hoichi kwaidan

Hoichi from the movie Kwaidan. (via dharmawheel.net)

"Now, Hoichi, go sit outside and wait for the samurai to come and collect you, like he usually does. Only this time, when he calls to you, stay absolutely still and do not make a sound."

Hoichi did as he was told and sat outside, waiting for the samurai. After many hours, he heard the samurai call his name.

"Hoichi... Hoichi!" 

Hoichi did not move, did not utter a word. He heard the samurai getting closer and closer. 

"HOICHI!" the samurai called. He was standing right next to Hoichi now, but the sacred texts written all over his body made him invisible to the samurai. "Where are you, Hoichi?! My lord waits for you!"

Hoichi listened to the heavy footfalls of the samurai circling him, walking around the temple grounds. 

"WHERE ARE YOU, HOICHI?!" the samurai growled. 

Then the samurai was right next to his ear. "What's this? I only see two ears and a biwa."

Hoichi suddenly realized that the priest had forgotten to write sacred texts on his ears! 

"I will take these to show my lord that I tried to carry out his orders but could find nothing but the biwa player's ears!"

And with that the samurai ripped Hoichi's ears from his head. Hoichi was in horrible pain, but he did not move or cry out until he no longer heard the samurai. 

The priest rushed to his side and, upon seeing Hoichi's bloody wounds, berated himself for such an oversight. But in time, Hoichi did heal and the spirits never troubled him again. 

And from that night on, Hoichi was known as mimi-nashi-Hoichi, or Hoichi the Earless. 

Amidaji is still said to be haunted by that ghostly samurai, searching for Hoichi. And on certain nights, some say you can hear the sound of a man singing and a biwa playing from somewhere in the dark. 

This retelling of mimi-nashi-Hoichi is largely taken from Lafcadio Hearn's telling from 1904. Some liberties have been taken from variations of the legend as I understand it. 

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And don't forget! You still have time to send me your spooky stories for the Creepy Corner Reader Roundup on Halloween Day! Send your stories to CreepyCornerMail@gmail.com, see last week's post for details.