Lurking in the darkness of some haikyo are sights that are so chilling that they seem almost unreal. Scenes that make me stop and wonder if perhaps I’m the target of a sick, practical joke. Or perhaps I’m twelve years old again and have somehow been sucked inside one of my beloved adventure video games. Because what I’m looking must be some sort of fantasy. Real people don’t actually create stuff like this. Do they..?
The following tale is without a doubt one of the creepiest explorations I’ve ever experienced. A bizarre discovery with potential cult connections and descriptions of deplorable sexual rituals, readers with a faint heart would do well to stop reading now.
Of course you are. Well, you’ve been duly warned!
Come, then, and join me as I explore the abominable Tower of Skulls (髑髏塔).
A Brisk Morning Walk
It’s early morning, almost exactly a year ago today, and a bitter cold air snaps as my face as I walk towards my destination. The first rays of light are breaking over the horizon and an orangey-red glow hits the homes around me. I can hear the sounds of life from within; elderly residents stirring from their slumber. I hasten onwards, eager to find my mark for the day before they are fully awake.
Not much is known about the bizarre building I’m headed to. It sits in a quiet, rural town and would almost be invisible were it not for its strange, pyramid-like shape and beastly black exterior. The limbs of scraggy trees reach up around it, like a giant hand trying to conceal the eyesore, perhaps in an attempt to pull it back underground and hide it forever.
I see it ahead of me now and wander off the road towards the back of the structure. Back entrances are my preferred point of entry, although they can be quite unpredictable. Sometimes I may spend a good hour or two laboriously finding my way through untamed forest or travelling along rough trails to reach them, only to find they are heavily locked up or inaccessible. Other times, like today, the portal to ruin is easily found. A door has been cut out of the base of the stone pyramid, and I hop easily inside.
It takes my eyes a while to adjust to the darkness inside, but gradually the lumpy shapes of piles and piles of rubbish emerge. Old household items strewn haphazardly across the floor in every direction and then, a shadow shifts by the wall. Did I just imagine that..?
“…Oh!” I’m startled by the sound of my own voice.
“Good morning to you, Neko-chan. You caught me quite by surprise!” I exclaim.
A frumpy cat watches me intently from the gloom before springing down from its bed and out the open door. I feel a little more energised by its presence. Feral cats making the basement their home is a good sign this place is well and truly abandoned!
Ladders to Heaven
Although not a very tall structure, the title of ‘tower’ is a very fitting name for this haikyo, because for one to fully explore the building, a scramble over several floors is required. Staring up at the first trapdoor from the junk-filled basement, I can see the way to the second floor above. Sunlight pours through the opening, beckoning me skywards, but there’s one big problem. The ladder to take me there has long since rotted away. It’s going to take a few acrobatics for me to reach the second level…
Not a problem. A few minutes later, I’ve crafted myself a makeshift ladder from the debris scattered around and haul myself up through the opening. Dust falls as the wooden floorboards creak a little under my weight. I find myself in what appears to be the main room of this abode. A rusty refrigerator sits precariously in the corner with a big hole in the floor next to it, and furniture is packed around the outer walls, with a large iron bedframe taking up most of the space. Quite how the owner got all these items into this building I don’t know, but there’s barely room to walk around here, let alone take pictures.
The main focus of this room, and the entire structure for that matter, is the central concrete pillar holding everything else up. On each of its faces, I see elaborate paintings of various deities, a mixture of good and evil sprites. Gods and demons.
The artist seems to be quite skilled; clearly these paintings are not just mere graffiti left by some local vandals. That said, small elements betray the hand of an amateur. The head and limbs seem annoyingly out of proportion to the body, and there’s a rough nature to the drawings that suggest a work borne out of passion rather than profession.
Aside from the central pillar, I notice similar curious paintings lining the outer walls. Most of them are concealed by the furniture packed into the tiny chamber however, and I can only make out a few strange eyes and mouthless heads poking out.
Curious and curiouser. Just what sort of person used to live here..? I wonder.
And why paint your house with pictures of gods and demons?
The mysterious tower was certainly not disappointing.
I scout around the room for clues on the former owner. A few pages of a magazine showing oldschool prostitutes and some karaoke cassette tapes. There were also a couple of pages from a photo album. Although heavily water-damaged, I could make out one curly-haired man who seemed to be captured in quite a few of the scenes. Perhaps a former resident here, or a relative?
Entry to the third floor was a little easier than the second, although just like the basement, the ladder leading there had disappeared. Using the surrounding furniture I was able to stretch up and scramble inside. Just like the basement, this room was full of crap. Empty beer cans and plastic bags, old food containers and magazines littered the floor to such an extent that it was impossible to take a step without feeling something unpleasant crunch and squish underneath. Worryingly, a couple of large holes had opened up in the floor, so I proceeded to tiptoe with caution.
This room seemed to be something of a bedroom and had a spacious quality the second floor lacked. Remnants of a musical past were everywhere. A large amp and speaker, lyrics and music to ‘Bloody Sabbath’. A retro sweatshirt from the rockband ‘Rainbow’ and several classic rock magazines with cassette tapes spoke volumes about the former inhabitant – one Hirokazu Hasegawa, as the name penned into a baseball cap would suggest.
A metal bunkbed was balanced in the corner and a perverted pair of dirty knickers hung from a cheap, plastic laundry line, swaying a little from an unknown draught. But while the rock memorabilia and undergarments were interesting, again the central pillar of the tower fought for my attention. Here more bright paintings of gods adorned the walls, and faded letters were scrawled into the side of the building, as if a warning to explorers.
At the Top of the Tower
Much to my relief, the trapdoor leading to the fourth floor of the tower still has a chunky wooden staircase leading upwards. I peer nervously out of the opening and let my eyes adjust to the bright morning light flooding inside. Just like the other chambers, strange drawings cover the four walls and the central pillar, lavishly decorated with the image of a holy goddess, commands most of my immediate attention. But something feels different about this room.
It feels as though…I’m being watched?
My eyes lock onto the cause and I draw in my breath sharply. Over on the far side of the chamber, resting beneath the sunburst, is what must surely be an homemade altar. On it, a most terrible sight.
Dozens of bottomless black eyes stare back at me with gnarled teeth and twisted grins. Skulls, stacked in layers like cans on a kitchen shelf. An offering of some sort? I shudder and inch closer.
The beige, pockmarked complexions and rough shapes look to be moulded by a creator. Each one bearing a different mangled expression from the last. I reach out and touch one, confirming my suspicions, and almost audibly sigh in relief. They aren’t skulls from this world, at least. No bone here, but clay, fired in a kiln somewhere and crafted into these shrunken heads.
In front of the altar is a frayed straw mat, several jars and containers and a pile of dusty books and sutras. I notice a set of Buddhist prayer beads and the telltale grey ash from incense burned at previous ceremonies. Here, it seems, our host would perform rituals.
But I’ve never seen any sort of Buddhist ceremony like this. Indeed, I’ve never even seen a skull on show in a Buddhist temple, although according to my research, they can sometimes be found, such as in the hand of the Thousand Armed Kannon or adorning an elder’s staff. In Buddhism, the skull supposedly conquers demonic influences and serves as a reminder of the impermanence of life.
But why the need for this many skulls? And why have them on display like this?
And furthermore, what on earth is something like this doing in a home?
The books in front of the altar may give us some clues. Aside from the sutras, indecipherable to a layman such as myself, I find a death register. Inside are the names of many people, all noted as having living in and around the immediate area. It doesn’t seem to be a personal family death register, but perhaps the skulls are icons, one for each of the deceased? But why pray for them here? And again, why the use of skulls for this ritual?
Another book is entitled ‘Eleven Stories of The Condemned‘ (死刑囚十一話) written by former lawyer Fuse Tatsuji, famous for his work defending human rights and humanitarian efforts saving many Koreans during the colonial era that earned him the title of ‘Japanese Schindler’. The book details eleven stories of people condemned by the death penalty and serves as a memorial for those who died.
Perhaps the former inhabitant here lost a relative by the death penalty? Perhaps the skulls and prayer rituals are an attempt to redeem these lost souls..?
I’m lost in thought before my attention snaps back to the gaze of one of the skulls.
Hellish Skull Rituals
There is a much darker possible explanation for the skulls, however. A sect known for its use of craniums in an offshoot of an esoteric arm of Buddhism. Very little information about the practitioners still exists today, as it was outlawed in the 13th century and most of the teachings were destroyed by other monks due to their deplorable nature…
First though, a little background.
Mikkyo (密教 or ‘secret teachings’) is otherwise known as Esoteric Buddhism, for its teachings are passed down orally and by spiritual experience in contrast to the Exoteric Buddhism that teaches mainly by use of textbooks and in large groups. Mikkyo has two main sects: Shingon and Tendai.
Of the two, Shingon Buddhism practices only Mikkyo teachings (with perhaps exceptions for ‘standard’ Buddhist rites such as funerals, blessings and prayers), and believes that enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime by following these teachings. Because of its esoteric nature and the lack of written material however, much of Mikkyo and its doctrines are still closely-guarded secrets, only being unveiled person-to-person, once a student is ready to be initiated. Some of the Mikkyo teachings include ‘magic rituals’ that supposedly helped improve harvests, avert natural disasters and exorcise demons, among many others.
What is interesting to me is the multitude of Buddhas found in Mikkyo. Each has a diverse range of characteristics, much like the colourful paintings in the tower and are used as visual images to facilitate spiritual practices. In addition, practitioners of Mikkyo often use various objects in their rituals, many of which were found at the altar I discovered, although they certainly aren’t unusual by themselves.
The skulls however, could point to a much darker subsect of Shingon Buddhism. That of the Tachikawa-ryu. Founded in 1113 by the monk Ninkan, the Tachikawa sect used sexual energy in its rituals as a means of obtaining enlightenment. In very basic terms, the union of male and female is seen to be the source of all phenomena, so by performing ritual sex, one aims by experience to identify with the deity as a means to attaining enlightenment
“Sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is the supreme buddha activity. Sex is the source of intense pleasure, the root of creation, necessary for every living being, and a natural act of regeneration. To be united as a man and woman is to united with Buddha.”
Most infamously, this sexual energy was incorporated with humans skulls in the ‘Tachikawa Skull Ritual‘, as detailed by the monk Shinjo (a small excerpt):
“If anyone would practice this secret Dharma (Ritual) and attain great Siddhi (magical powers), he must construct an object of worship (honzon). I do not refer to the auspicious face of a woman here; this Misogi (purification Rite) is a skull. … (T)he officiant uses the original skull. To this he adds a chin, puts in a tongue and teeth, and covers the bone with a hard lacquer so that it looks just like the unblemished flesh of a living person. When the skull has been completely formed, he places it in a box. Then he must have sexual intercourse with the skull and with a beautiful and willing woman, and must repeatedly wipe the liquid product (the mixture of male and female seminal and vaginal secretions) of this act on the skull until it reaches 120 layers. Each night at midnight he must burn “Spirit returning” incense (frankincense/hangon-kō), pass the smoke through the eye holes of the skull, and chant a “spirit returning” mantra fully and perfectly one thousand times.”
Further notes from Shinjo go on to clarify the use of skulls in religious rituals as a means to obtaining magical powers. He notes that it is particularly prominent in the tantric forms of Buddhism. Further, the act of passing the smoke of incense through the eyes holes of a skull, the windows to the soul, is to empower it with prayer or thought
Q/ “Why is a skull used?”
A/ The bodies of living beings contain ten spiritual essences- three hun (kon – Jpn.) souls and seven p’o (haku – Jpn.). When a person dies, the three hun souls disperse and suffer rebirth in the Rokudō (six realms of transmigration), while the seven p’o souls linger about their old body as guardian spirits in this miserable world (人道/Nindo- realm of human form). The spirits that appear in ocular dreams are all manifestations of the seven p’o souls. When the practitioner takes a skull and carries out the Rite of carefully nourishing it, the seven p’o souls are happy to grant him the worldly fortune he seeks. If he draws the mandala and insets the secret charms, he will attain mastery of those occult powers appropriate to the mighty powers of the particular charms and mandalas used. This is why there are several types of installation ritual.”
Whether or not the former resident of this tower practised Mikkyo or its dark subsect the Tachikawa-ryu is a mystery. From the items found inside, we can at least know that the inhabitant was heavily influenced by Buddhist teachings and had a particular penchant for visual representations and iconographic elements. We also know that, for this person, death and the afterlife were topics close to heart. It seems plausible that the entire structure of the building could have been built around the idea of travel to an afterlife, potentially with each level of the tower representing stages of an ascent. Perhaps someone with better knowledge than I can shed light on the deities in the wall paintings.
The use of skulls in Buddhism is often as a reminder of the impermanence of life, but why so many roughly crafted clay skulls were set up on an altar in this way is quite strange. Perhaps it was a special ritual to pray for the souls of deceased loved ones? There were certainly markers inside, indicative of lost relatives. Perhaps though the skulls were used in a more sinister ritual with the aim of attaining magical powers? It’s impossible to say for sure. Whether sexual rituals were involved is pure speculation, although I think it unlikely that anything as dark as the Tachikawa Skull Ritual was actually practiced here.
As strange as the Skull Tower is then, perhaps it was just a single person’s passionate devotion to Buddhism and those since departed. A local priest, or a lone student of the religion. Somebody with a painful loss whose regular household Buddhist altar grew to become the household itself.
As is often the case, I leave the building with far more questions than I had going in and a feeling that I’ve had the honour of witnessing something intensely private and personal. I hope that the people connected to the place found peace.