Meido: The Japanese Underworld

The longest and most tiresome part of working on my yokai books is the translating and writing period. By tiresome I don’t mean that it is boring or uninteresting — on the contrary it is totally engrossing — but just that is it completely exhausting! Some yokai only have a single sentence of back story to their entire name, which I try my best to expand to a full page by giving detailed background information that may not be apparent… while other yokai lead me down long, twisting, turning trails of research that require me to spend hours or even days of translating just to end up with a single paragraph for the book. Down the rabbit-hole of research, so to speak. This generally happens more often with religious-themed yokai, because there is so much more documentation and so many more variations on the same theme (and they are often contradictory!) that it is incredibly hard to distill them down into one single entry. One example of this is a recent entry I did on Meido, or the Japanese underworld — the place souls go before they go to Heaven, get reborn, or get flushed down to Hell.

Many English-language resources refer to Meido as a sort of Japanese version of Hades or Purgatory. While there are a number of similarities between these Western myths and Meido, there is not an actual cultural link between them. The idea of Meido was derived from the Chinese fusion of Indian Buddhism with local folklore, reinterpreted through a Japanese lense, and Hades and Purgatory developed along totally different lines. I don’t like to make too many cross-cultural comparisons in my writing because it can oversimplify and lead to wrong conclusions, and I also think it is more interesting to the reader to hear a fresh description rather than just making comparisons to other myths.

This was a fun topic for me because I studied Tibetan and Indian religions in college, so the Buddhist and vedic origins of Japanese Buddhism were familiar to me, but the way that they have changed on their long journey from India through China and Korea and finally to Japan is just fascinating. While the vast majority of Japanese Buddhism would be recognizable to someone who was only familiar with Indian (or even Western) Buddhism, there are really neat differences that don’t exist in the Buddhist cosmologies that we are most commonly exposed to here in the English speaking world.

Here is a bit of writing I did about Meido, the first stop for souls on their way to the next life, which will appear in The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits:

When a person dies, he or she either goes to Tengoku (Heaven) or Jigoku (Hell). If the person lived an exceptionally good or an exceptionally evil life, he or she may go straight to Tengoku or Jigoku. However, for most people, who have done both and good and evil in their lives, the soul travels to Meido, where it is test by the judges of the dead, each of whose true form is that of a buddha or a god, and then sent either to Tengoku or Jigoku.

To enter the underworld, the soul much first find and cross the Sanzu River (“the River of Three Crossings”), which marks the boundary between this world and the world of the dead.  The Sanzu River is said to be located somewhere on Mount Osore (literally “Mount Fear”), a desolate volcano located in northern Japan. Mount Osore is one of the three holiest places in Japan, despite its appearance — it is covered in blasted rocks, bubbling pits of dark liquid, and open vents spewing out toxic gas.

The origins of Jigoku are strongly rooted in Buddhism. When Buddhism was brought from India to China it took on a structure of its own, merging many aspects with Chinese philosophy and Taoism. This mixture of Chinese Taoism and Indian Buddhism was imported to Japan, after which it began to develop its own uniquely Japanese features as well.

There are many variations on what exactly happens after this life ends, and these are often depicted in graphic “hell scrolls” kept at temples. The depictions can differ greatly from tradition to tradition and place to place. A typical explanation may go like this:


Upon dying, a soul is visited by three oni who escort him or her on a seven day journey to Meido. The journey is harsh and terrible. It is dark, and a strong, howling wind rages constantly. The corruption of the living world materializes into swords on this plane, which pierce the bodies of the travelers, turning the surrounding terrain into a sea of blood.



A few days along the way, the souls are assaulted by horrible birds, which tear at their skin and pluck out their eyes, all the while taunting them and screaming at them to hurry up. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? I would have hurried from the start!” cry the souls of the dead. “What is this stupid soul saying!” cry the birds. “We were perched on his roof since three days before he died, warning him to start saying his prayers! That fool only said, ‘The crows are being extra noisy today. The old woman next door must be dying. Go bring her some sugar.” That old woman is still alive, happily licking her sugar!”


Next, the souls come to an enormous mountain which scrapes the clouds, covered in sharp thorns. The path up the mountain is steep and impossibly long. The souls cry out, “I was sick and weak in life, how can you expect me to climb such a mountain now?” To which the oni reply, “What is this stupid soul saying! This is the mountain of your greed! Every time you wanted something your neighbor owned, or desired some earthly possession, you added to this mountain! You built it, now you can climb it!” Anyone who lags behind gets hit with the oni’s terrible iron club.


Finally, after seven days, the souls arrive at the Sanzu River and face the first trial put forth by the first judge, King Shinkou (whose true form is that of Fudo Myo-ou; who is known as Acala in English). Shinkou judges the souls on how much killing they have committed, down to every bug that was squashed, every fish that was caught. Those whom Shinkou judges to be wicked go straight to Jigoku. Others may cross the river depending on how well they fared in the trial. To cross the Sanzu River, a toll of 6 mon (an old form of currency) is required. This is buried with the deceased during the funeral; those whose were not properly performed and did not receive the 6 mon cannot cross. This is the reason that the seventh day after death is an important day in Japanese funerary services; the services and prayers performed for the deceased aid them in this trial and allow them to cross the river.


One part of the Sanzu River is crossed by a great bridge. Another part of the river is shallow and fordable. The rest of the river is wild and deep, and filled with poisonous snakes. The souls with the most good deeds are allowed to cross the bridge. Those with a mixture of both good and evil may ford the river in the shallow part. The worst of the souls may only cross by swimming through snake-filled rapids. The crossing of the Sanzu River takes seven days.


After crossing the river, the souls encounter Datsueba and Ken-e-ou. These two oni take the heavy clothes, wet from the crossing of the river, from each soul, and hang them on a tree. The amount the branch bends under the weight of the clothes serves as a measure of the weight of the sin on each soul, to be used as evidence in the trials to come. If a soul arrives with no clothes (perhaps having discarded them while swimming in the river), Datsueba flays his or her skin and hangs it from the tree instead.


The second trial takes place fourteen days after death, and is overseen by King Shokou (whose true form is Shaka Nyourai, or Siddhartha Gautama). Shokou judges the souls on how much they have stolen. As with the previous trial, he sends the most grievous offenders straight to Hell, while allowing the good to pass on to the next trial. Again, the fourteenth day after death is an important day for family members to perform ceremonies in honor of the deceased, in order to help him or her pass this trial.

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Before the third trial, each soul must pass through a fortified gate which is guarded by a fierce oni. The oni wields large blades, which he uses to haphazardly chop off the arms and legs of the souls, saying, “That hand helped you to sin. I’ll cut if off for you!” The souls must then cross an enormous bay, wider than the Sanzu River, and filled with boiling liquid. The river gives off foul smelling fumes in all directions for many miles.


The third trial takes place 21 days after death, and is overseen by King Soutei (whose true form is Manji Bosatsu, or Manjusri). Manji judges the souls on their sins of lust and sexuality, using a cat and a snake. The cat is used to judge the souls of men; it bites at their penises, and the degree of the injury — from a slight scratch to completely severed — is used as a measure of one’s sexual sin. The snake is used to judge the souls of women; it is inserted into the woman, and the depth to which it can enter is used to determine the depth of her sin. As before, some will go on to Hell, while others — with the aid of funerary services from their surviving family members — will pass on to the next trial.


The fourth trial, 28 days after death, is overseen by King Gokan (whose true form is Fugen Bosatsu, or Samantabhadra). Gokan judges the dead on the number of lies they told in life. He weighs each soul against a large, heavy stone. The number of stones it takes the balance the scale determines the weight of one’s sins. Excessive liars are damned, those who are not may continue on to be judged again. Once again, the family holds a funerary service to aid their beloved departed in this trial, hoping to sway the mercy of the judge.


Next, the souls must cross a vast blasted, desolate landscape of unfathomable length. Balls of red-hot iron fall constantly like rain from the sky, burning the skin of the souls and causing their feet to blister as they walk the path to the next trial.


The fifth trial, 35 days after death, is overseen by Great King Enma, the ruler of the underworld (whose true form is that of Jizou Bosatsu, or Ksitigarbha). Enma’s judgement is the final chance to appeal one’s fate through the prayers and memorial services performed by the living relatives. Enma shows each soul a large mirror, in which the individual’s former life is reflected back at them, with all of their sins and transgressions clearly laid out. Enma’s job is to decide, based on his and the previous trials, which of the six Buddhist realms each soul will be reborn into: the realm of Heaven, the realm of Humans, the realm of Asuras, the realm of Beasts, the realm of Gaki (or Hungry Ghosts), or the realm of Hell.


After 42 days, the souls which have made it this far now face the judgment of King Henjou (whose true form is Miroku Bosatsu, or Maitreya). Henjou decides the location of each soul’s rebirth based on the reports from Enma’s mirror and Gokan’s scale.


Next, the souls must cross a dark land, full of strange animals whose cries pierce the darkness and fill the atmosphere with dread. Strange birds attack the souls, breathing flames at them and piercing them with their sharp beaks.


On the 49th day after death, the souls reach the trial of King Taizan (whose true form is Yakushi Nyourai, or Bhaisajyaguru). The 49th day memorial service is a very important one, with many family members attending to pray for the deceased; Taizan’s trial is the final chance to avoid going to Hell. He uses the information from the previous judges to determine the remaining conditions of each soul’s rebirth.



Upon completion of this trial, each soul moves on to a road with six unmarked torii gates, each representing one of the Buddhist realms. There is no way to tell which gate leads to which realm, and each soul must decide for him or herself which gate to choose. Upon passing through the gate, the soul travels along an enormous frozen river, and leaves Meido for the next world, whichever one it may be. For many, the journey ends here. Those who have been judged worthy may find themselves in Tengoku. Others are reborn as humans, animals, or yokai. For those deemed unworthy for even the lower forms of rebirth, more trials await in the realm of Jigoku…


(The pictures in this post are from Chougetsu-ji Temple in Aichi prefecture.)

12 thoughts on “Meido: The Japanese Underworld

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  9. This is the most detailed post I have found about the mythos of Sanzu River. I am trying to identify 3 or 4 beings at the top of the river. They were humanoid & dressed in black robes. It’s possible that no such beings exist in recorded mythology. I just saw them in a dream. Sorry, I know that sounds ridiculous.

    I’ve been reading for the last 2 hours because I dreamt I was hiring a boatman to travel up a river to the top where I had to negotiate something with these beings. The river was full of writhing gray things, which I didn’t really pay attention to but upon waking I thought they looked like dolphins or manatee, being gray & slimy looking. On my left was a huge cemetary (?) which was NOT to be entered, & there was a perhaps 15-20 story tall ogre gamboling about in it, with blue skin & orange hair. On my right was a forest of dead trees. There was also some other very lethal animal which I can’t exactly recall that we had to avoid – it might have been on the side with the trees. I was accompanied by the ferryman & a crow. The boatride was very rocky & we reached the top but I don’t recall what the exact negotiation was. I think I had to give them something.

    Anyway, I Googled “Japan haunted river” & the only thing that came up was Sanzu River. At first I thought maybe the gray things in the water were souls trying to cross, but maybe those were the snakes. The ogre could have been a generic oni or that old man/woman that takes your clothing based on woodcuts I’ve seen today, but I was just curious to see if I could find any mythological beings that would correspond to the folks up at the top.

    I’m Japanese but I’ve never been to Japan. My family is descended from Minamoto Tametomo but I don’t know much else about it. I was surprised to read that Sanzu River is said to be located in Aomori, because I actually just bought some hokke, shishamo, & other items from a Hokkaido festival booth while grocery shopping this past Friday. I haven’t had hokke in over a decade so I was delighted to see it. I had never heard of Sanzu no Kawa until today. I have no idea if the groceries have anything to do with my dream but what a coincidence, right? I haven’t had such a detailed, vivid, linear dream in a very long time. And naturally I sound like a crazy person talking about this but do you have any thoughts? I’m really just tripping out right now on everything I’ve read.

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