Japanese Folktales: The Peony Lantern – A Ghost Tale

The Peony Lantern – Warwick Goble [Public domain] Source

This work is a retelling of a kaiden, a traditional Japanese ghost story from a collection retold by Grace James titled, Japanese Fairy Tales, and called The Peony Lantern. There are also versions  called Kaidan Botan Dōrō.  In  many ways it is passionate and  romantic yet has more than a hint of horror involving necrophilia while hinting on the consequences of the karma of the two main characters.

The Peony Lantern

It is said that by the strong bond of illusion the living and the dead are bound together. Now, there was a young samurai who lived in Yedo. His name was Hagiwara and he had reached the most honorable rank of hatamoto. He was a very handsome man, very athletic and light on his feet and his good looks made him very popular with the ladies of Yedo.  Some were very open about their affections, while others were more coy and secretive. For his part he gave little of his time and attention to love. Instead he preferred to join other young men in sports and joyous revelries. He would often be seen socializing and having fun with his favorite companions, very much the life and soul of the party.

The Festival of the New Year

When the Festival of the New Year came he was to be found in the company of laughing youths and happy maidens playing the game of battledore and shuttlecock in the streets.  They had roamed far from their own neighborhood to the other side of town to a suburb of quiet streets and large houses that stood in grand gardens.

Hagiwara was good at the game and used his battledore with impressive skill and technique.   However, the wind caught the shuttle after he had hit it taking it way over the heads of the other players and over a bamboo fence and into a garden.  He ran after it but the others cried, “Leave, Hagiwara, let it stay!  We have plenty more shuttlecocks to play with.  Why waste time on that one?”

Hagiwara heard them but answered, “No my friends, that one was special. It was the color of a dove and gilded with gold.  I will soon fetch it!”

“Let it stay!,” they cried, “we have a dozen here that are dove coloured and gilded with gold.  Let it stay!”

Hagiwara stood staring at the garden.  For some reason he felt a very strong need for that particular shuttlecock and did not know why.  Ignoring his friends he quickly climbed the bamboo fence and jumped down into the garden. He had seen exactly where the shuttlecock landed and thought he would be able to retrieve it quickly, but when he went to the spot it was not there.  For some reason he now considered that particular shuttlecock was his most valuable treasure. He searched up and down the garden, pushing aside bushes and plants, but all to no avail. His friends called him again and again but he ignored them and searched feverishly around the garden for the lost shuttlecock.  Again his friends called, but he ignored them and continued searching. Eventually, they wandered off leaving him alone searching the garden.

He continued searching into the evening ignoring the glorious spectacle of the setting sun and as dusk fell gently he suddenly looked up.  To his surprise there was a girl standing a few yards in front of him. Smiling, she motioned with her right hand while in the the palm of her left she held the shuttlecock he had been searching for.  He moved eagerly towards her but she moved back still presenting the shuttlecock to him, but keeping it out of reach, luring him into him into following her. He followed her through the garden and up three stone steps that led into the house.

On one side of the first step a plum tree stood in white blossom and on the third step stood a most beautiful lady.  She was dressed in celebration of the festival in a kimono of patterned turquoise with long ceremonial sleeves that swept the ground  Underneath she wore garments of scarlet and gold and in her hair were pins of coral, tortoiseshell and gold.

O’Tsuyu, the Lady of the Morning Dew

On seeing the the beautiful lady, Hagiwara immediately knelt before her in reverence and adoration touching his forehead to the ground as a sign of respect.  The lady smiled down on him with shining eyes and then spoke softly,  “Welcome, Hagiwara Sama, most noble samurai of the hatamoto.  Please allow me to introduce myself and my handmaiden. My name is O’Tsuyu, the Lady of the Morning Dew and this is O’Yone my handmaiden. She it it is that has brought you to me and I thank her.  Glad am I to see you and happy indeed is this hour!”

Gently raising him she led him into the house and into a room where ten mats were placed upon the floor.  He was then entertained in the traditional manner as the Lady of the Morning Dew danced for him while her handmaiden beat upon a small scarlet and gold drum.  They set the red rice for him to eat and sweet warm wine to drink as was the tradition and he ate all he was given. It was getting late when he had finished and after pleasant conversation he took his leave and as she showed him to the door the Lady of the Morning Dew whispered, “Most honourable Hagiwara, I would be most happy if you came again.”

Hagiwara was  now in high spirits and flippantly laughed, “And what would it be if I did not return?  What is it if I do not come back, what then?”

O’Tsuyu, the Lady of the Morning Dew flinched and then stiffened and her face grew pale and drawn.  She looked him directly in the eye and laid a hand upon his shoulder and whispered, “It will be death. Death for you, death for me.  That is the only way!”

Standing next to her O’Yone shuddered and hid her face in her hands.

The Charade

Perplexed and very much disturbed, Hagiwara the samurai went off into the night wandering through the  thick darkness of the sleeping city like a lost ghost, very very afraid.

He wandered long in the pitch black night searching for his home.  It was not until the first grey streaks of dawn broke the darkness that he at last found himself standing before his own door.  Tired and weary he went in and threw himself on his bed and then laughed, “Hah, and I have forgotten my shuttlecock!”

In the morning he sat alone thinking about all that had happened the day before. The morning passed and he sat through the afternoon thinking about it.  Evening began to fall and suddenly he stood up saying, “Surely, it was all a joke played on me by two geisha girls.  They will be laughing at me expecting me to turn up but I will show them.  I will not let them make a fool of me!”

Therefore dressing in his best clothes he went out into the evening to find his friends.  For the next week he spent his time sporting and partying and through all these entertainments he was the loudest, the happiest, the wittiest and the wildest, but he knew things were not right.  At last he said, “Enough, I have had enough!  I am sick and tired of all this charade!”

Fever

Leaving his friends he took to roaming the streets alone.  He wandered from one end of Yedo by day and then back again at night.  He sought out the hidden ways of the city, the lost courtyards, the back alleys and the forgotten paths that ran between the houses, searching,  always searching, for what he did not know.

Yet, he could not find the house and  garden of the Lady of the Morning Dew although his restless spirit searched and searched.  Eventually finding himself outside his own home he went to bed and fell into a sickness. For three moons he ate and drank barely enough to keep himself alive and his body grew weak, pale and thin, like some hungry, restless, wraith. Three moons later during the hot rainy season he left his sickbed and wrapping himself in a light summer robe set out into the city despite the entreaties of his good and faithful servant

“Alas, my master has the fever and it is driving him mad!” wailed the servant.

Hagiwara took no notice and looking straight ahead set out with resolve saying, “Have faith! Have faith! All roads will take me to my true love’s house!”

Eventually he came to a quiet suburb of big houses with gardens and saw before him one with a bamboo fence.  Smiling, Hagiwara quickly climbed the fence and jumped down saying, “Now we shall meet again!”

Hagiwara the samurai stood in shocked silence staring at it.  An old man appeared and asked, “Lord, is there something I can do for you?”

However, he was shocked to find the garden was overgrown and unkempt.  Moss had grown over the steps and the plum tree had lost its white blossom, its green leaves fluttered forlornly in the breeze.   The house was dark, quiet and empty, its shutters closed and an air of melancholy hung over it.

The Lady Has Gone

“I see the white blossom has fallen from the plum tree.  Can you tell me where the Lady of the Morning Dew has gone?”  Hagiwara sadly replied.

“Alas, Lord, the Lady of the Morning Dew has fallen like the blossom of the plum tree.  Six moons ago she was taken by a strange illness that could not be alleviated. She now lies dead in the graveyard on the hillside.   Her faithful handmaiden, O’Yone, would not be parted from her and would not allow her mistress to wander through the land of the dead alone and  so lies with her. It is for their sakes that I still come to this garden and do what I can, though being old now that is but little and now the grass grows over their graves.”

Devastated by the news Hagiwara went home.  He wrote the name of O’Tsuyu, the Lady of the Morning Dew, on a piece of white wood and then burned incense before it and placed offerings before it.  He made sure he did everything necessary to pay the proper respects and ensure the well being of her spirit.

The Festival of Bon

The time of the returning souls arrived, the Festival of Bon, that honors the spirits of the dead. People carried lanterns and visited the graves of those deceased.  They brought them presents of flowers and food to show they still cared. The days were hot and on first night of the festival Hagiwara unable to sleep walked alone in his garden. It was cooler than the blazing heat of the day and he was thankful for it.  All was quiet and calm and he was enjoying the peacefulness of the night. It was around the hour of the Ox, that he heard the sound of footsteps approach.  It was too dark to see who it was but he could tell there were two different people that he thought were women by the sound of their footsteps. Stepping up to his rose hedge he peered into the darkness to catch sight of who it was approaching.  In the darkness he could make out the figures of two slender women who walked along the lane hand in hand towards him. One held before them on a pole a peony lantern such as those the folk of Yedo used in their traditions to honour the dead and it cast an eerie light around them.  As they approached the lantern was held up to reveal their faces and instantly he recognized them and gave a cry of surprise. The girl holding the peony lantern held it up to light his face

Reunion

“Hagiwara Sama, it is you!  We were told that you were dead.  We have been praying daily for your soul for many moons!” she cried.

“O’Yone, is it really you?” he cried, “and is that truly your mistress, O’Tsuyu, the Lady of the Morning Dew, you hold by the hand?”

“Indeed, Lord, is is she who holds my hand,” she replied as they entered the garden, but the Lady of the Morning Dew held up her sleeve so that it covered her face.

“How did I ever lose you?” he asked, “How could it have happened?”

“My Lord, we have moved to a little house, a very little house in the part of the city they call the Green Hill.  We were not allowed to take anything with us and now we have nothing at all. My Lady has become pale and thin through want and grief,” said the handmaiden.

Hagiwara the samurai gently drew his Lady’s sleeve away from her face but she turned away.

“Oh, Lord, do not look upon me, I am no longer fair,” she sobbed.  Slowly he turned her around and looked into her face and the flame of love leapt in him and swept through him but he never said a word

As he gazed upon her the Lady of the Morning Dew shrank away saying, “Shall I stay, or shall I go?”

“Stay!” he replied without hesitation.

The Green Hill

Just before dawn Hagiwara fell into a deep slumber,  eventually awakening to find himself alone. Quickly dressing he went out and went through the city of Yedo to the place of the Green Hill.  He asked all he met if they knew where the house of the Lady of the Morning Dew was but no one could help him.  He searched everywhere but found no sign or clue as to where it could be. In despair he turned to go home, lamenting bitterly that for the second time he had lost his love.

Miserably he made his way home.  His path took him through the grounds of a temple situated on a green hill.  Walking through he noticed two graves side by side. One was small and hardly noticeable but the other was larģe and grand marked by a solemn monument.  In front of the monument was a peony lantern with a small bunch of peonies tied to. It was similar in fashion to many of those used throughout Yedo during the Festival of Bon in reverence of the dead.

Nevertheless, it caught his eye and he stood and stared.  As if in a dream he heard the words of O’Yone, the handmaiden,

“We have moved to a little house, a very little house in the part of the city they call the Green Hill.  … My Lady has become pale and thin through want and grief,”

Then he smiled and understood and he went home.  He was greeted by his servant who asked if he was alright.  The samurai tried to reassure him that he was fine emphasizing that he had never been happier.  However, the servant knew his master and knew something was wrong and said to himself, “My master has the mark of death upon him.  If he dies what will happen to me who has served him since he was a child?”

The faithful servant of Hagiwara realized someone was visiting his master in the night and grew afraid.  On the seventh night he spied on his master through a crack in the window shutters and his blood ran cold at what he saw.  His master was in the embrace of a most fearful and terrifying being whose face was the horror of the grave. He was gazing lovingly into its eyes and smiling at the loathsome thing while all the time stroking and caressing its long dark hair  with his hands.

Illusion and Death

Nevertheless, Hagiwara was happy.  Every night the ladies with the peony lantern came to visit him.  Every night for seven nights no matter how wild the weather they came to him in the hour of the Ox.  Every night Hagiwara lay with the Lady of the Morning Dew. Thus, by the strong bond of illusion were the living and dead merged and bound to each other

Just before dawn the fearful thing from the grave and its companion left. The faithful servant, fearing for his master’s soul went to seek the advice of a holy man.  After relating to him all that he had seen he asked, “ Can my master be saved?”

The holy man thought for a moment and then replied,  “Can humans thwart the power of Karma?  There is little hope but we will do what we can.”

With that he instructed the servant in all that he must do.  When he got home his master was out and he hid in his clothes an emblem of the Tathagata and placed them ready for the next morning for him to wear. After this, above all the doors and windows he placed a sacred text.   When his Hagiwara returned late in the evening he was surprised to find he had suddenly become weak and faint. His faithful servant carried him to bed and gently placed a light cover over him as he fell into a deep sleep.

The servant hid himself that he may spy on whatever might come to pass that night.  With the arrival of the hour of the Ox he heard footsteps outside in the lane. They came nearer and nearer and then slowed down and stopped close to the house and he hears a despairing voice say,

Entry is Barred

“Oh, O’Yone, my faithful handmaiden, what is the meaning of this?  The house is all in darkness. Where is my lord?”

“Come away, come away, mistress, let us go back.  I fear his heart has changed towards you,” whispered O’Yone.

“I will not go.  I will not leave until I have seen my love.  You must get me in to see him!” whispered the Lady of the Morning Dew.

“My Lady, we cannot pass into the house – see the sacred writing over the door over the windows, we cannot enter,”  warned the handmaiden.

The Lady wailed and then began sobbing pitifully, “Hagiwara, my lord, I have loved you through ten lifetimes!”  and then footsteps were heard leaving as O’Yone led her weeping mistress away.

It was the same the next night.  At the hour of the Ox, footsteps in the lane were heard and then a long pitiful wail followed by the sound footsteps disappearing back down the lane as the ghosts departed sobbing and crying.

The next day Hagiwara got up, dressed and went out into the city.  While he was out a pickpocket stole the emblem of Tathagata but he did not notice.  When night came he lay awake unable to sleep but his faithful servant, worn out with worry and lack of sleep dozed off.   In the night a heavy rain fell and and washed the sacred text from over the round window of the bedroom

The hour of the Ox crept round and footsteps were heard in the lane and entering the garden.  Hagiwara listened as they came nearer and nearer until they stopped just outside.

The Power of Karma

“Tonight is the last chance, O’Yone.  You must get me inside to my lord, Hagiwara.  Remember the love of ten lifetimes. The power of Karma is great but we must overcome it.  There must be a way you can get me in to see him!” said the Lady mournfully.

Inside Hagiwara heard them and called out, “Come to me my beloved, I await you!”

“We cannot enter. You must let us in!” she cried.

Hagiwara tried to sit up but he could not move.  “Come to me my beloved!” he called again.

“I cannot enter and I am cut in two.  Alas, for the sins of our previous life!” wailed the Lady.

Then, O’Yone grasped the hand of her mistress and pointed at the round window, “See, Lady, the rain has washed away the text!”

Holding hands the two rose gently upwards and passed  like a mist through the round window into the bedroom of the samurai as he called out, “Come to me my beloved!,”

“Verily Lord, verily, I come!” answered the Lady.

The next morning the faithful servant of Hagiwara of the most honorable rank of hatamoto found his master grey lifeless and cold.  By the side of him stood a peony lantern that still burned with a pale, yellow flame. The faithful servant seeing his master lying still and cold wept saying,  “I cannot bear it.” And so the strong bond of illusion bound together the living and the dead.

The next morning the faithful servant of Hagiwara of the most honorable rank of hatamoto found his master grey lifeless and cold.  By the side of him stood a peony lantern that still burned with a pale, yellow flame. The faithful servant seeing his master lying still and cold wept saying,  “I cannot bear it.” And so the strong bond of illusion bound together the living and the dead.

© 17/04/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 17th, 2019 zteve t evans

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19 thoughts on “Japanese Folktales: The Peony Lantern – A Ghost Tale

  1. Great story! I’m currently looking at Japanese folklore for my writing and these resources are great, thank you 🙂

  2. What a beautifully told tale – it brought back memories of my days in Japan. Cuisine for thought about fate, karma, free will, and the sometimes thin veil between our world and the afterlife. It helps explain why the Bon (Obon in Okinawa) festivals are still observed, with visits to the shrines of the ancestors and offerings: paper money, food, and so on, to keep the dead happy (as opposed to unhappy).

  3. “The Peony Lantern” was my first encounter with Japanese ghost stories back when I studied Japanese in college. In the version I heard, O’tsuyu had been the daughter of a samurai who forbade her to see the protagonist (his name was Shinzaburo in that telling). She had committed suicide as a result.

    I like the dream-like quality of the garden scene in this telling of it.

    Incidentally, didn’t Lafcadio Hearn include it in one of his collections?

    • Lafcadio Hearn may well have included a version and there are quite a few variants that I have found with different names and variations in the plot. Any way thanks for reading and commenting, greatly appreciated!

  4. I remember seeing it in a film by Satsuo Yamamoto’s 1968 version, filmed for Daiei Studios. It is variously known as Bride from Hell, Haunted Lantern, Ghost Beauty, My Bride is a Ghost, Bride from Hades, or Peony Lanterns. Yamamoto’s film roughly follows the Otogi Boko version of the story, establishing protagonist Hagiwara Shinzaburo as a teacher who flees an unwanted marriage with his brother’s widow & lives quietly some distance from his family. The usual encounter with Otsuyu follows, although the inevitable consequence is treated as a happy ending or at worst bittersweet since they are united beyond the grave & need never again be lonesome.

    Thanks. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Via Under the influence!-Japanese Folktales: The Peony Lantern – A Ghost Tale – Fang & Saucer

  6. Much enjoyed this Hagiwara and the lady of the Morning Dew story. I’ve heard a number of local (Indonesian) ghost stories, but none has an act of necrophilia (however implied) in it. 🍸

  7. Pingback: Via Under the influence! Japanese Folktales: The Peony Lantern – A Ghost Tale – Fang & Saucer

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