A True Ghost Story From Japan

All my life, I’ve professed to believing in ghosts … primarily to prevent them feeling the need to actually prove their existence to me.

In other words – I believed by choice so I didn’t have to experience ghosts for real.

That worked pretty well for me until last November, when I went to Japan to research my sixth Hiro Hattori mystery (next year’s TRIAL ON MOUNT KOYA – which is now available for preorder) – and encountered one of Japan’s most famous yūrei (ghosts).

I spent the early days of November 2016 doing research on Mount Kōya, the heart of Shingon (esoteric) Buddhism in Japan.

Okunoin Buddha

The mountain is home to over 100 Shingon temples (many of which host overnight guests) and Okunoin (“the temple at the end”) – Japan’s largest cemetery – which is home to not only the mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi (the priest who brought Shingon Buddhism to Japan from China), but more than 250,000 other graves and monuments to the dead.

I spent five hours at Okunoin on the morning and afternoon of November 4. Although its scale is overwhelming, the cemetery is one of the most beautiful, and most peaceful places I have ever been.

That night, I stayed at Ekoin, a thousand year-old Shingon Buddhist temple.


After dinner (and after dark) a priest from Ekoin offered an English-language tour of Okunoin. I spent a delightful hour listening to him explain the history of the cemetery–and asking research questions, which he answered at length and in depth.

The tour ended on the far end of the cemetery, near Kōbō Daishi’s mausoleum, where the priest released the group to walk back to the temple (through the cemetery) on our own.

Okunoin Trees

I stopped for a while to photograph some statues for my novel. When I finished, I discovered that everyone except for our guide and two other visitors had already disappeared back down the path, most likely to escape the cold.

Okunoin Buddhas

Which left me essentially alone, an hour’s dark walk from the temple. 

The guide was telling the remaining visitors about the statues, and I didn’t want to disturb them, so I started back along the path alone.


I wasn’t scared. I’d seen the cemetery in daylight, and knew it was a peaceful, sacred place.

About halfway through the cemetery, I stopped to snap some photos of monuments lit by the lanterns along the path.

Okunoin - Lantern and Jizo

While taking photos, I heard the click of traditional Japanese wooden sandals–the type many priests on Koya still wear–approaching from behind me. Wanting to be polite, I waited, listening as the geta drew closer. When the priest was right behind me, I turned, bowed, and said good evening . . .

Okunoin Graves (1)

. . . but there was no one there.

The sound of the sandals ceased the instant I turned and bowed. The path was completely empty in both directions, as far as the eye could see – and given that the path is straight at that place, and lit at regular intervals, I could see quite a distance in either direction.

Needless to say, I did what any self-respecting, curious historian would do.

I ran like hell.

I ran until I caught up to a couple strolling along the path ahead of me – far enough that I was completely out of breath, legs burning, and struggling to look like I was merely out for a pleasant jog. Only then did I slow down.

Ekoin At Night

I followed the couple back to Ekoin, returned to my room, and went to bed – but didn’t sleep for quite some time.

After thinking through the experience, reviewing my photos and memories, and considering what I know of Japan, the world, and science, I believe the spirit I met in the graveyard was real, and that it was beto-beto-san, a well-known Japanese ghost.

According to legend (which I now interpret as fact), beto-beto-san is a harmless trickster. The spirit follows people along deserted streets or pathways, making a sound like wooden geta that get closer and closer to you until you panic and run. Even then, beto-beto-san supposedly follows you until you turn and greet him by saying, “After you, beto-beto-san,” at which point the spirit goes away.

Based on my own experience, bowing and saying “Good evening,” will also suffice – because, although I remained in Japan for another two weeks, I didn’t hear or see anything similar again.

Some people don’t believe in ghosts, and that’s okay–I only half believed in them myself until last November.

Okunoin Tombstone

Now, though, I know beto-beto.