There’s something terrible in the mountains of Japan

Sandy and I had been couchsurfing across the cities of Asia for the last six months, safe in the bosom of civilisation. After several weeks travelling across Japan we decided that we wanted to see something other than towns and cities and began browsing last minute tours of the Japanese countryside. Most of them were for the sort of tourist destinations we’d spent our time seeing so far but none of these caught our eye. We were looking for something off the beaten track.

“This looks perfect” said Sandy pointing at her phone “The guide takes you to a lesser know part of a huge national park specifically to get away from the crowds! Imagine it, no parking lots jammed with tourist packed coaches. Just us, the guide, and the Japanese wilds”.

It did sound perfect but knowing how Sandy often got ahead of herself I ran a quick search for reviews and couldn’t turn anything up.

“Hmm, no reviews. I guess it’s a new tour” I said gesturing to the fruitless search, but she was undeterred.

“Well all the other tours are fully booked or send us to a soulless tourist trap so we either roll the dice or spend a few more days in the city. Besides we’ll have a great time no matter what the tour’s like, we always do”.

She had a point. Her last minute impulsiveness had led us on many misadventures, planned or otherwise, and although we had some grim tales to tell we’d never had a bad time.

“OK, let’s do it” I leant over her shoulder and tapped her screen to book the outing.

“I knew you’d come around, now let’s make our last night in the city count! Karaoke time!” and with that Sandy threw her arm over my shoulder and, ignoring my arguments for an early night, forced me out of the hotel door.

The next day I woke up to a horrible hangover and vocal chords which were keen to remind me that my range was a lot smaller than I’d thought the night before. After a hurried breakfast of coffee and painkillers we were out of the door and cramming ourselves into the sardine can that is the rush hour metro. After a 10 minute ride that lasted far longer than it had any right to we swapped the underground for the blazing heat of the Japanese summer and walked the short distance to the tour meeting point where a friendly native pointed us in the general direction of our tour guide.

I spotted a short Japanese lady wearing a luminous green vest sporting the words “Takiyasha Tours”. Dragging Sandy away from a nearby vending machine, I approached the woman.

“Yukiko?” I asked, waving as we walked over.

“Hai. You are here for the mountain tour?” she replied, a slight Japanese accent clinging to her English.

We answered in the affirmative, gave our names, and before we knew it we were bundling into the back of a minibus with Yukiko sitting up front to drive.

On the drive through the city and out into the suburbs Yukiko proved herself to be an able guide, dropping titbits of information about the structures and areas we were driving past, her easy manner and entertaining delivery bought the city to life. Before long grey was replaced with green as we left the city and headed out into the countryside proper. Even through the window of a speeding vehicle the countryside of Japan was a delight to behold and the long journey to the mountains seemed to pass in an instant.

Finally, Yukiko pulled the car off of the main road on to a dirt track hidden in the shade of the trees at the base of a heavily wooded mountain. A few bumpy moments later we reached a small clearing in the trees and Yukiko brought the car to a stop.

“OK, from here we have a small walk to the base of the mountains following an old Shinto pilgrimage trail. We will pass many old shrines and temples on either side of the path but it is not allowed for us to approach them. Feel free to take photos if you like.” Yukiko told us once we were out of the minibus.

The old pilgrimage trail was paved with haphazardly placed grey bricks that seemed to rise up and catch your foot just as you looked away from them to take in the sight of a particularly striking shrine or torii gate. Each turn in the path revealed another charming tableau as the summer sun dappled the path and set the bronze and red of the temples aglow, holding us enraptured until the uneven footing caught us unaware once more.

We carried on down the trail for a while longer until we reached an old bench where Yukiko called a stop for lunch. While we ate a distant chanting reached us from down the trail. Surprised, Yukiko explained “These temples are not used very often and when they are it is only on certain days but this is not one of them. Even if it was we would be lucky to hear a ceremony so deep in the woods.” She listened for a few moments more and added “Though I do not recognise the prayer.”

We continued along the path towards the rhythmic chanting. Through the tall trees we could see that the trail was taking us towards the green mountain and while we walked the sound of rushing water joined the monk’s chanting, increasing in volume until we came across a large lake. The mountain loomed across the lake from us and a number of rapid streams swept down it and over the edge of a colossal boulder set into the face of the mountain, forming a collection of pure white waterfalls that shimmered in the midday sun. The trees huddled close around the lake and the path led through them past a large red temple set partly over the water on short round stilts.

As we walked to towards the temple the chanting grew in intensity and the background noise of the forest began to fade, like a storm was approaching. Sandy and I caught each other’s eyes apprehensively as the sky began to darken behind the mountain. Yukiko noticed our discomfort and reassured us “This far into the mountains the weather can change quickly and without warning” but as darkness rapidly spread across the sky from behind the mountain she seemed less confident.

“This doesn’t seem like a storm” I worried out loud and my fears were confirmed as the spreading darkness shrouded the sun, plunging us into an eerie twilight. The sky around the mountain looked like it had been replaced by a starless night which gave way to the brilliant blue of a spotless sky at its edges.

“I vote we head for that temple asap” Sandy said, fear in her voice.

“Ditto” I replied, equally uncomfortable.

“Normally I would not like to intrude a ceremony but I think the monks will understand because of, um, this” said Yukiko, gesturing to the sky.

With that we hastily made our way towards the temple. The path wound through three stone torii gates of increasing size, ending at the black steps which climbed to the front of the temple. The large entrance was shrouded by cream drapes and candle light flickered through them from inside. The chanting of the monks slipped around the drapes and echoed around the silent lake as though they were standing right next to us, sending a chill up my spine.

“It should be OK to enter but take your shoes off before you go inside” said Yukiko as we ascended the steps. We kicked our shoes off and I pushed through the drapes. I knew something was wrong as soon as my hand breached the threshold. My emotions stilled like the sounds of nature had outside and a wave of sickening black swept in to replace them, like sewage in a clear pool. As I fully passed through the drapes the chanting abruptly stopped, leaving not even an echo behind, and the bright candlelight hinted at through the material dimmed and went out, plunging the large space into gloom. An empty husk of a building stood before me. The floor was strewn with detritus from the forest and three figures stood in the centre of the room, their heads bowed as if in prayer.

“Jesus Christ, what was that!?” I heard Sandy whisper as she entered behind me. “Did you feel it? It’s like the colour drained out of the world.” She looked around “And what happened to the lights?”

Shaken and with no better idea of what had happened myself I turned to her and shrugged. Yukiko approached the closest figure.

“Sumimasen” she croaked, but none of them responded. As I moved in I could see why. Mottled grey flesh was visible under the monk’s tattered robes as though it had begun putrefying where it stood and a swollen tongue lolled out of its cracked lips like a blue slug. At once the decaying figures began chanting again but this was not the clear rhythmic sound from before. The voices that struggled out of their blocked mouths were somewhere between a whimper and a growl, the syllables intoned in unsettling ways.

I caught Sandy’s panicked eyes and we both bolted for the exit in unison, Yukiko not far behind. As we passed through the now ruined drapes into the gloom outside, my ears began to ring heavily.

“What the hell is going on here” I said, panic staining my voice as we fled the temple.

“I do not know! I do not know!” Yukiko yelled back as she ran.

Once we’d covered what felt like a safe distance from the temple we slowed down to catch our breath.

“Were those guys dead?” Sandy asked in between panting breaths.

I didn’t know what to think “It looked that way. And that feeling, ugh.”

“I do not know what is going on” Yukiko said in a small voice.

Sensing her discomfort, Sandy changed the subject “My ears are ringing like I’ve been standing too close to a speaker for the last few hours”

“Yours too?” I rubbed my ears but the sound persisted.

The ringing continued to increase in intensity and as we turned a corner the mountain came back into view.

“Wait, the mountain should be behind us, I think we went the wrong way. This way leads us back to the temple” Yukiko piped up as we walked.

“We must have gotten turned around when we ran from the temple” Sandy guessed.

Our discussion was interrupted when the ringing in our ears became unbearably loud. Grabbing my head I saw part of the mountain move. My jaw dropped as I realised that it wasn’t part of the mountain at all, but a gigantic figure shrouded in gloom, walking from a dark void that had formed at the centre of the dark sky on the other side of the mountain.

“Is-is that a person?” I just about made Sandy say over the deafening ringing in my ears. Yukiko said something I couldn’t make out, her face turning white as she stared at the huge figure, the look on her face close to awe.

“Come on we have to get out of here!” Sandy yelled, snapping us out of our stupor. Both directions down the path we were on led back to the lake where the massive creature was heading, so we charged into the trees opposite us, hoping to put as much distance between us and it as possible. Scratches and falls were our constant companions as we ran full tilt through the barely lit forest. Crashing through bushes and jumping fallen trees we pushed on until the ringing subsided to a bearable level.

Catching her breath Sandy managed to puff out “Everyone OK?”

“Just about.” I said between deep breaths.

Yukiko responded “I think so.”

Once my lungs stopped burning I turned to Sandy and Yukiko “Guys, please tell me you have any idea what’s going on here? Those monks were dead but still singing and I’m fairly sure I just saw a giant skeleton come out of a hole in the sky and almost burst my eardrums” I blurted out. I could feel tears welling up as panic set in.

Sandy stared at me blankly as though she was just now starting to process what we’d seen and Yukiko looked like she had passed through panic and arrived at whatever was on the other side. Looking at us she said slowly “I think, I think that was Gashadokuro, the giant starving skeleton. In the tales you can tell it is coming by ringing in your ears and it is summoned from a black hole in the sky. But they were meant to be just tales.”

“Summoned? So someone called that thing here? Why would anyone do that? Who would do that?” I spat, welcoming the anger in place of fear. The change in the tone of conversation shook Sandy out of her fugue “The monks.” she said.

Yukiko nodded “In one story Gashadokuro is summoned by a spell recital. That would explain why I have never heard that chant at a temple before.”

“Right, so now we know that there is a gachadoku, or whatever it’s called, here. What do we do? It’s early afternoon, the sun is basically MIA, we’re literally lost in the woods, and none of use are even wearing shoes” Sandy said while rubbing a foot, a note of worry creeping into her voice.

“Yukiko, do you know where we are?” I asked.

“I have never left the path before. I am a guide, not an explorer. If we could see the mountain I could find my way but the trees are too tall here” she replied, looking at the towering conifers that surrounded us, compounding the gloom of the artificial twilight.

“I have an idea.” Sandy said apprehensively, as though she wished she didn’t “We could follow the ringing to a landmark we recognise.”

“That landmark might be a 100 foot tall skeleton or a temple full of zombie monks.” I shot back, more anger in my voice than I intended.

“I know that but our only other option is to wander in the forest, in the dark, with that thing out there somewhere.”

“She is right.” Yukiko agreed “It gets cold in the mountains at night and none of us are wearing the proper clothes. If we stay out here too long I do not think we would make it through the night.”

“I guess that settles that then” I admitted. “I doubt we ran in a straight line but heading back the way we came is a better start than picking a direction at random.” I thought aloud.

“Agreed” said Sandy as Yukiko nodded.

Sticking close together we turned around and began walking back the way we came. Simultaneously hopeful and terrified that we would hear that head splitting ringing again.

A funny thing happens when you listen intently with next to no background noise. Most people will find that their ears start ringing due to ear damage caused by one or more short sighted decisions in their past. We weren’t sure if we were mistaking tinnitus for the ringing of the giant and though we tried to retrace our steps, in the gloom with no equipment it was proving extremely difficult.

We were starting to lose hope when an enormous crash resounded through the forest, loud enough for nearby trees to shake.

“What in the hell was that?” Sandy asked.

Startled, I replied “I have no idea.”

We stood in silence, facing the direction of the boom, straining our ears for any further clues. Sandy volunteered “I bet the skeleton had something do with it. It’s risky but we should head in that direction and hope we come across a landmark.”

With a clear goal in mind we redoubled our efforts and I felt hope bloom in my chest as the trees started to thin out and we could see the mountain again.

“OK, we need to head that way” Yukiko said, pointing towards the mountain and taking the lead.

The forest was becoming darker as we marched towards the mountain. Sandy sighed with relief when the trees suddenly gave way to the edge of the lake. From that side of the lake we should have seen waterfalls falling over the huge boulder embedded in the mountainside. My eyes widened when I saw that the boulder had been tossed to one side and the waters were falling into a gaping black hole in its place. Even in the gloom we could see a grey fog was spreading outwards from the dark pit, draining the colour from the surroundings. Where the monochrome fog touched, plant life became desiccated and the clear blue lake water was replaced by a bog like mess.

“Yomi” I heard Yukiko utter fearfully.

The three of use stood there, exhausted and gazing at the strange scene as our tired minds tried to process it. Looking at the grey fog filled me with an almost primal dread and a strange sense of familiarity as though my body instinctively recognised it for what it was. The feeling of dread deepened when the ringing returned full force and something massive started rising from the deep shadow in the hole. The dim light from the shrouded sun bounced off of an enormous mottled grey skull as the gashadokuro stepped out into the boggy lake. It looked in our direction and the empty sockets seemed to burn in to us.

“Not again” I said, my voice breaking with fear as I turned to run back into the woods with Sandy at my side. The ringing was becoming louder as we ran and I pulled from reserves I didn’t know I had to speed up to a full tilt sprint. Branches whipped at my face and the forest floor tore into my socked feet but I could barely feel it as terror drove me onward like a frenzied animal.

“Where’s Yukiko?” Sandy screamed over the ear splitting tone. Using all of my willpower, I stopped and turned to look through the trees. She had tripped and the gashadokuro was almost on top of her.

“Yukiko! Run! Now!” I shouted at the top of my lungs. But Yukiko was frozen in place, clutching her head as streams of dark blood trickled from her ears, seemingly unaware of the giant looming over her. The ringing still loud in our ears, we watched in horror as the gashadokuro reached for her from the lake, its bony fingers wrapping around her legs and torso to hold her in a massive skeletal fist. As the giant fingers closed around her body she realised what was happening and began to scream so loudly we could hear it even over the infernal ringing. The hulking skeleton slowly lifted Yukiko until her head was level with its enormous skeletal grin, each tooth the size of a pillow, and its jaw began to open. Yukiko thrashed in the giant’s grip but to no avail, and in slow motion we watched those massive teeth slam shut around her neck, arterial blood spraying down the creature’s bony chin. Its jaw clamped shut the gashadokuro began wrenching the body away, leaving tattered musculature, shredded sinews, and a gleaming white shard of intact spinal column hanging between its teeth as Yukiko’s compressed neck tore free of her body. My mind froze in shock and unbidden I wondered how long it took before a severed head lost consciousness. I prayed to whatever gods were listening that Yukiko’s last moments weren’t spent witnessing her grisly fate from the inside of the giant’s mouth.

Dropping Yukiko’s body in the lake like a broken doll the gashadokuro stepped on to the lake’s shore, moving its head from side to side as though it was searching for us. Knowing there was no way we could outrun that thing we hunkered down in the shadows of the trees and hoped the skeleton couldn’t see us through the dim light. As we waited frozen in a terrified silence the grey fog continued to spread slowly from the gaping maw behind the gashadokuro. The fog reached the shore and we saw something jerkily rise from its gloomy depths. Yukiko’s monochrome headless body pierced the top of the murk in fits and starts. Her formerly vibrant clothes stretched over her bloated body like stained grey rags and the slimy chunks of skin visible through them hung from her in places as though she had been under the lake’s surface for years. The headless corpse swayed there, facing the shore like it was waiting for something, the fog continuing to advance past it, washing the life and colour out of everything it touched and deepening the shadows it passed over.

Terrified at the prospect of the fog reaching and corrupting us as it had every other thing it touched, I mouthed to Sandy “We need to go”. Her wide eyes met mine and she nodded shakily. We moved as slowly and silently as our present state would allow, creeping further into the forest and using the mountain to keep us on track. We inched along painfully for what felt like hours under the constant threat of the slowly dimming ringing, occasionally catching glimpses of the headless corpse and gashadokuro standing guard on the shore. Eventually we moved far enough away that we risked increasing our pace. When the ringing continued to decrease we moved as fast as possible in the direction we thought the old pilgrimage path was and after a gruelling hour we finally found it.

Exhausted we made our way back to the road and flagged down a local for help. Back once more in civilisation Sandy and I concocted a more believable version of our story and presented it to the local police to explain Yukiko’s disappearance, saying we had become separated from her in the woods when the weather became extreme. The police let us go and we returned to our hotel room where we slept away the horrors of the day.

Sandy won’t talk about what happened but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. The last thing we heard Yukiko say was “Yomi”. I’ve since learnt that this is the name for the Shinto underworld and it was supposedly connected to our world before being sealed off with a boulder by an ancient god. I’ve been watching a lot of TV while we recover and I’ve seen what look like local news reports of a strange fog spreading around the area we visited. With the portal open and no gods to be seen, who will save us from the fury of the dead this time?