Halloween tales: The grisly death and afterlife of Lady Iwa

Halloween tales: The grisly death and afterlife of Lady Iwa

O-Iwa-san was murdered centuries ago, but the legend of her disfigured face and blood-spurting scalp never gets old
This ema, or prayer board, offered at Yoh'un-ji temple, bears an image of a non-horribly disfigured O-Iwa-san.

Some three centuries ago, Tokyo's downtown Yotsuya neighborhood was host to a horrific crime.

Deceived into drinking poison by her cheating husband, O-Iwa-san ("The Lady Iwa") turned and viewed her reflection in the mirror with horror. The looking glass revealed a terribly disfigured face, the once-supple skin sloughing off in horrifying folds.

It got worse for O-Iwa. At the touch of a comb, her hair began falling out in clumps and blood gushed from her scalp. Before long, blood covered her clothes and the floor.

As she collapsed and died, O-Iwa swore revenge on all who had deceived and shamed her. Shortly thereafter, her spiteful ghost began stalking those responsible for her death, making them pay for their foul betrayals.

So goes the plot of the famous kabuki play "Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan," which debuted in 1825 to massive popular acclaim. To this day, O-Iwa remains synonymous with grudges and betrayal.

The story itself is fiction, but in fact Lady Iwa is based on an actual woman who lived in the Yotsuya section of Edo (now Tokyo).

Her full name was Tamiya Iwa, but the details of her life and death differ greatly depending on whom you ask.

Feud over legacy

Built in the 1800s, the O-Iwa Inari Shrine sits directly opposite Yoh'un-ji, a rival temple erected in O-Iwa's honor.

Both are locked in a competition for the title of "the" authentic O-Iwa reliquary. Yet neither seems to want to acknowledge the other's existence.

The two couldn't be more different.

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The centuries-old O-Iwa Inari Shrine is understated and sedate. While claiming a direct connection to O-Iwa's family line, it nevertheless is one of many venerating the Shinto fox-god of Inari.

It portrays Iwa as a dedicated housewife who stuck by her poor husband when the Tamiya family was in debt.

Meanwhile, the Yoh'un-ji temple appeared somewhat mysteriously after World War II. Yoh'un-ji venerates O-Iwa herself. It features bright colors and a wooden effigy of the woman that can be viewed by appointment.

Yoh'un-ji portrays O-Iwa as a frightening force to be reckoned with, a mercurial goddess of business, health, breaking off unwanted relationships and forging new ones.

The actual resting place

Neither O-Iwa Inari Shrine nor Yoh'un-ji holds Iwa's final remains. O-Iwa's actual grave is located at Myogyoji temple in Toshima-ku, another part of the city entirely.

The temple graveyard looks like any other in Japan, save for one detail -- a Shinto torii gate in the middle, flanked by a large silver sign donated by a self-proclaimed "believer in Lady Iwa."

It declares that while O-Iwa was indeed a cursed soul, she will grant a wish to any who pray hard enough and provide a wooden stupa tablet (Sanskrit-inscribed stakes often spotted in Japanese cemeteries) for her grave.

Whatever the facts of O-Iwa's life, there seem to be as many stories about her as people who tell them. And at least a few intriguing spots where the ancient woman's enduring curse has been transformed into enduring legend.

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Getting there: O-Iwa Inari Shrine is a five-minute walk from Yotsuya Sanchome Station on the Marunouchi Line (Samon-cho 17, Shinjuku-kuGoogle maps). Yoh'un-ji temple is across the street (Samon-cho 18, Shinjuku-kuGoogle maps). Myogyoji temple is near Sugamo Station on the Yamanote line (4-8-28 Nishisugamo, Toshima-ku, Google maps).

Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt run AltJapan Co., Ltd., a Tokyo-based  company that specializes in translating video games and other pop culture. They are the co-authors of "Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide," "Ninja Attack! True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws," and "Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide."

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Matt Alt, for CNN Travel
Hiroko Yoda, for CNN Travel

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