There are many nuanced ways to describe ghosts in Japanese. The most common words are obake (which means “changed thing”), yūrei (“faint spirit”), and onryō (“grudge spirit”). Tonight’s story uses the word bōrei, which appears several times in Shokoku hyakumonogatari. The word literally means “dead spirit,” and simply refers to the spirit of a person who has died. It might even be preferable to simply translate bōrei into English and say “ghost” instead, but whenever possible I like to preserve the Japanese names of supernatural creatures; so I left it as-is.
Tonight’s story mentioned Ariwara no Narihira; a name which is probably unfamiliar to most English-speaking readers, but which would have been instantly recognizable to an Edo period reader. He was a legendary poet and playboy from the Heian era. His name is synonymous with the idea of a beautiful, seductive, young man, much in the same way Don Juan and Casanova are used in English. His name has appeared in yōkai stories before.
The Monk Who Met a Bōrei in Shimotsuke
Long ago, a celibate monk was traveling to Shimotsuke Province for ascetic training. The sun was setting, and there was no inn to be seen anywhere for some distance, so he decided to spend the night in a field. He was reciting sutras and prayers, when he heard the faint sound of a flute coming from out nowhere.
The monk thought it was strange to hear a flute out here, so far from any village, and so he grew a little afraid. He chanted his prayers even louder, but as he did the sound of the flute drew closer and closer. Then he saw a boy of about sixteen, with such sublime features that the monk wondered if the legendary Ariwara no Narihira of antiquity looked something like this.
The monk was increasingly perplexed as to how a person like this could appear in the middle of a field in the middle of the night, and he figured it must be a henge of some kind. He was chanting the Shingon darani prayer, when the boy said to him:
“Father, why are you all alone in such a place as this?”
The monk replied, “Night fell as I was traveling, and I was about to spend the night here. What kind of a man are you to come to such a place?”
The boy looked over the monk, and said to him, “I can see that you must think I am a henge. I assure you am absolutely no such thing. I have merely come here to play my flute, and to comfort my heart on this clear moonlit night. Please fear me not. Let me accompany you back to my mansion and give you a place to stay.”
The monk was concerned, but he thought that if this was a henge, it wouldn’t leave him in peace if he stayed here in the field. So he got up and accompanied the boy some distance, until they arrived at a large castle.
They passed through two, then three gates. They crossed a moat and passed deeper and deeper into the back of the castle, until they reached a beautifully appointed room.
“Come inside,” the boy said.
He served the monk food, followed by tea and refreshments.
Then the boy went into the next room and politely said, “You can rest peacefully here. I always sleep in this room. You must be exhausted from your journey.”
The monk grew more and more suspicious. Unable to sleep, he stayed up for the rest of the night until dawn broke. In the morning, a crowd of castle guards burst into his room.
“Who is this strange monk, and how did he sneak into our castle? Arrest him and torture him!”
The monk was startled. “Please wait a moment! I can explain,” he said. Then he told them everything that had happened the previous night.
As the men listened to the monk, they became astonished. Some of them burst into tears. When the monk asked them why, they replied:
“Here is why! The young lord of this castle died of an illness only twenty days ago. He was only fifteen years old. He always loved playing his flute, so we made an offering of a bamboo flute and placed it upon his altar where we prayed for his soul. Now it seems that the young lord’s bōrei honored you by inviting you into his room. Please, you must stay here for some time and perform memorial services for his lordship!”
The men explained everything to the lord of the castle, who agreed to retain the monk, and they treated him to a great feast.