Ryokufuso Inn: CNNGo visits the ghost of Kamemaro -- just before the hotel burns to the ground
My husband Matt and I finally cross the threshold of the Enju-no-ma room at the Ryokufuso, a traditional Japanese inn in rural Iwate prefecture, several hours north of Tokyo. We've come by bullet train and rental car. It's taken us two years to get here. No, the car didn't break down -- the waiting list for this famous inn is simply that long.
How did a humble converted farmhouse, a private home for generations, turn into Japan's hardest-to-book hotel?
It's all thanks to a little spirit by the name of Kamemaro.
The legend of Zashiki Warashi
According to local legend, certain old residences in this area are home to a fairy-like yokai called the Zashiki Warashi. These yokai dwell in the guest rooms (zashiki) of traditional northern-style farmhouses, taking the form of an average child (warashi). But this is one spook you most definitely want haunting your house, for a Zashiki Warashi is said to bring good luck to a home's occupants and any to whom it chooses to reveal itself. We've made the long journey from Tokyo in the hopes of running into the little Zashiki Warashi long believed to live in the special room we booked here.
By morning, the Ryokufuso, all 3,000 square meters of it, had burned to the ground. With one exception. The backyard shrine. It survived the conflagration without so much as a scratch.
Once limited only to visiting dignitaries -- automotive legend Soichiro Honda stayed here, as have several prime ministers -- the proprietors of the Ryokufuso opened the Enju-no-ma room to the general public several years ago.
Those willing to stay in any of the other rooms the inn has to offer can pretty much reserve anytime. But those who want the Enju-no-ma must call on a certain pre-announced day once every three years -- within just a few hours of the phone lines opening, the reservations fill up for the following three years. It seems there is no shortage of people who want to make this pleasant poltergeist's acquaintance. Including us.
Thumping fingers and ghostly white balls
And here we are today. The spacious room is covered in fragrant tatami mat. Stuffed animals, Japanese dolls and other toys line the walls several rows deep, offerings from the room's many previous occupants. Several guests have reported having their stomachs thumped by invisible fingers as they slept. Others heard the chirping of birds in the room late at night, while others have claimed to have seen what appeared to be ghostly white balls floating in the air.
Come out and play tonight
In the backyard, an ancient-looking Shinto shrine with red gates is flanked by cedar trees. We approach and after bowing and clapping in the traditional manner, I ask Kamemaro to come out and play tonight.
That evening, we find ourselves drifting off to sleep earlier than usual, lulled by the quiet gaze of uncounted toys and dolls. Perhaps it was the traditional multi-course meal of local delicacies we enjoyed in the communal dining room. Perhaps it was the soak in the inn's fabled hot spring baths. Or could our sudden fatigue be the work of Kamemaro himself?
During the night, I have the strangest dream. I am back inside the shrine. Reluctantly, as though parting from the company of a good friend, I turn to leave. Two volleyball-sized glowing orbs appear before me. They gently bob and weave a path ahead, gently preceding me as we exit through the torii gate together.
When I awaken the next morning, my eyes alight on the kanji character atop the scroll hanging in the room's alcove: 'Dream.' Maybe it really had been Kamemaro. But why had there been two orbs?
Relating my dream to the inn's owner over breakfast, I learn that the Ryokufuso's Zashiki Warashi occasionally takes the form of both Kamemaro and a figure believed to be his mother. The owner says the pair have been appearing on the property for some 600 years.
Packing our things to leave that morning, I turn to address the alcove one last time with thanks and a wistful request to meet again in our dreams. And so it was that Matt and I bade our farewells to the Enju-no-ma.
Burned to the ground
Three days later, at 8:20pm on October 4, a fire started in the boiler room of the Ryokufuso. Igniting a pile of pressurized gas canisters, the ensuing fireball engulfed the room and eventually spread throughout the entire inn.
Fortunately, all of the staff and guests evacuated safely. But the pillar of flame rising from the Ryokufuso grew so large that it could be seen two kilometers from the scene. By morning, the Ryokufuso, all 3,000 square meters, had burned to the ground. With one exception. The backyard shrine. It survived the conflagration without so much as a scratch.
And that's why I hope my final request to the Zashiki Warashi comes true. For the Ryokufuso and the Enju-no-ma are no more. And the only way to meet little Kamemaro again is in my dreams.