Frightful Japan: Playing Hide and Seek by Yourself (Hitori Kakurenbo)

I fondly remember my teens. I like to think of those years as that precious time when I was old enough not to be frightened by all the creatures lurking under my bed, and yet still young enough that I wasn’t terrified by mortgages, yearly health check ups, and my own teenage son announcing that he wants to be a rock ’n’ roll guitarist when he grows up. Those were the invincible years. And they probably should have lasted until my late twenties and early thirties except I did something truly scary.

I moved to Japan.

Japan is a wonderful country filled with kind and generous people, but when you peel back the layers you find that the Japanese culture takes “scary” to a entirely new level.

I remember as a kid being freaked out by the game Bloody Mary — going into a bathroom, turning around, reciting something three times, and looking into the mirror. I thought nothing could be creepier than that. Well, let me tell you about Japan’s take on the old bathroom scare.

I first heard about hitori kakurenbo (playing hide and seek by yourself) back in late 2007. It sounded like an anticlimactic game geared to sad shut-ins with no friends. Or so I thought until I did some online research to find out how the game was played.

Here are the rules if you want to play. Go on. I dare you. Prepare:

*A stuffed animal that has both arms and legs
*Rice
*Fingernail clippers
*A knife, shard of glass, or some sharp instrument
*A needle with a long piece of red thread
*A cup of salt water or Japanese sake
*And you’ll also need to draw a bath

First, you must give your stuffed animal a name. Let’s say you have a teddy bear and you decide to call him Cuddles. Next, you cut Cuddles open and remove all his stuffing, replacing it with rice and a few of your fingernail clippings. After the stuffing/rice transfusion, you need to sew him back up. Use the needle and red thread making sure you have thread left over so that you can wrap it tightly around Cuddles’ body. You know, making him look even more sinister that he already looks.

At three am you take Cuddles into the bathroom and draw a bath. You hold Cuddles in both hands and say out loud, “For the first game I’m (say your name) going to be it.” Say this three times and then drop Cuddles into the water.

Here you’ll want to run around the house turning off all the lights. You’re allowed to leave the TV on, but only if it’s on a static-filled station. Close your eyes and count to ten. When you’re finished, open your eyes and grab the knife (or whatever instrument you have chosen) and return to the bathroom. Say, “I found Cuddles!” and proceed to stab him with the knife.

Congratulations! You won that game.

Note: In Japanese the word for “it” — in hide and seek and tag — is “oni” or “devil”. Knowing that fact makes the next part a little creepier.

Next, you say, “Okay, now Cuddles is it (the devil).” And leaving the impaled teddy bear in the bathroom (either in the water or on the floor) you quickly (yes, the instructions say “quickly”) hurry out of the room and hide quietly (yes, the instructions also say to hide “quietly”). It is very important that whatever you do, make sure you have your glass of salt water or sake with you in your hiding place.

Closets make excellent hiding places. So let’s say you’re in the closet. You remain there waiting and listening. All sorts of strange things are said to happen. Apart from sounds (footsteps and things being moved around) people have reported horrible smells, changes in temperature, and having the TV suddenly switch off or the volume change dramatically. Some reported the sensation of being touched or pulled on, others said that their household pets freaked out (cowered or cried out). Whatever happens, stay hidden for as long as you can or until sunrise.

The ending ritual is extremely important. You can’t just hop out of the closet at sunrise and announce that you’ve won. Let’s say it’s still dark, something has freaked you out and you want to end the game. Take as much salt water (or sake) in your mouth as you can, holding it there while you return to the bathroom. Don’t assume Cuddles will be where you left him. There have been people who find either him or the knife moved or missing entirely. Keep searching until you find Cuddles.

Once you find the bear, spit the salt water (sake) all over him and tell him three times, “I won!” That almost ends the game. As a final precaution it is imperative you burn the stuffed animal you used. Even though the game is over people have posted that they’ve become ill, gotten into some kind of accident, or continued to  feel the presence of someone or something.

Oh, and another note of warning is not to play while someone else is in the house. There is the possibility that they will be “found” instead of you. And something terrible will happen to them. You must be alone in the house when you play.

Hitori Kakurenbo became such a phenomena that a movie was made about it in 2009 called (you guessed it) Hitori Kakurenbo. I did see the flick but wasn’t much impressed. What is infinitely more frightening is checking out the streaming conversations of dozens of invincible teens all around Japan playing the game at three in the morning. They use their cell phones to chat about what they are experiencing real time. Some even dare to peek out from their hiding places to snap photos or record strange noises. Now that’s scary.

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About Thersa Matsuura

I've been living in a small Japanese fishing town for the last twenty years. Here I research, translate and write about Japanese folklore, superstitions, and mythical creatures. A collection of these stories -- A Robe of Feathers and Other Stories -- was published by Counterpoint LLC. Charles de Lint called A Robe "truly a unique collection that suits no easy categorization except that of excellence."

47 Responses to Frightful Japan: Playing Hide and Seek by Yourself (Hitori Kakurenbo)

  1. Defender says:

    That was a very interesting article. Though I read this before, I never really dared to try that game. Anyway, I heard that the game must be played at exactly 3am or the game won’t work. It’s dangerous game. If any of you are playing this game I’ll give you a warning, you MUST and I mean MUST no matter how tired or sleepy you are you MUST pay attention to your surroundings when playing the game.

    • Rin says:

      Ah, you’re thinking of the general time when spirits are stronges, which is actually 1 AM to about 4 AM. I believe that the strongest hour is 3 AM, but it doesn’t have to be performed at exactly 3 AM. It can be performed at any time during the night, really. Just don’t play for too long.

  2. ahmed says:

    Never, ever think of using a human-sized doll no matter what!
    japanese s3x dolls or not, DO NOT USE THEM, they might be easy to see/find/spot(when peeking from your hiding, IF you dared), they may move in a very, abnormal-unhuman-ish way,
    i wont bother explaining but still, stay calm and silent while hiding!

  3. MC says:

    I found this page during some research after watching that Japanese movie. If I were a few years younger I might have entertained the thought of playing for kicks, but it feels a little childish to me now.

  4. MirrorMirror says:

    The red thread represents blood vestals, you know?
    This game is so creepy…and I don’t dare to play it, I’m too much of a p*ssy. :/

  5. AG says:

    holy sh** i was planning to do this after watching a youtube video make fun of it but now that i’ve read this article i’m chickening out…i was going to use a patrick doll from spongebob and its almost life size…holy shiznuggets

    • Cheapskates says:

      Well you’ll have to stuff it with rice so life-size doll is not an option. How much will it cost if you fill your big doll with rice to just burn it in the end, Your parents gonna kills you instead.

  6. CRABMANLOVESMRTURTLE says:

    The only reason I found out about this was the Japanese song called Lonely Hide and Seek. It’ epic but I didn’t know what it was talking about..now I know. I wanna play so bad!!!

    • Alice says:

      Me too.I was hearing JubyPhonic’s version of that song when i got curious and decided to search.Now i’m defenitly never going to play that game.

  7. harsej says:

    Back when my parents where still together, we still live in Japan, someone in my class dared us to play hide and seek alone, he wanted to play it, but he was too scared to do it alone, of course he covered it with something of wanting to have someone to chat with and know what was happening in real time.

    Stupid me and 12 more of us accepted the challenge. My mum was with my grandmother, sobbing her heart out, dad was at ‘work’, perfect timing you could say.

    That night, I used my least liked doll, an ugly little monkey doll that my dad’s mistress gave me to win me over, cut him up, stuffed uncooked rice inside of him and sew him up. Tied him good, made sure to stab him good after.

    I followed everything, send text messages to my friends and cousin, who was doing the same at her house. I even snorted at some of the things they had to say, I thought it was stupid.

    5 am, i felt like giving up, but then they said that I should wait a bit longer, so I did, until it was about 7. Imagine my surprise when I found the ugly monkey next to my bedroom door.

    Freaking out, I hurriedly took a mouthful of saltwater and spit it out on the thing, doused more on the blasted thing with more and burned it. As I did, I felt cold, what I meant was that, it place, our backyard was cold, very, very cold.

    I waited until there was nothing left of it, and then I prepared for school.

    At school, they all seemed liked they haven’t had any wink of sleep, not that I blame them. I didn’t had much myself.

    For the past 2 weeks, the feeling of being watched and being followed never left me.

    And there was this moment of my life, that I knew, just knew I once saw the doll in one of my way home, in one of the corners of the street going to my house. It only happened once, but it was enough for me to know that I will never, ever do anything as stupid as that again.

    • Anonymous says:

      You started at 3 AM and ended at 7AM which was 4 hours and was over the time limit which was 2 hours which also made the spirit harder to remove which is why even though its gone, you still get that feeling of being watched and why you thought you saw the doll again at that point.

    • Anonymous says:

      If the spirit is still following you, you could try a few Japanese purification rituals. I’m sure if you look hard enough you might be able to find something good! Alternatively you could try putting salt around the entrances to your house or rubbing it in your clothes, because I’ve heard that spirits are supposed to be afraid of salt.

  8. placeboism says:

    I just heard this thing but im more familiar with the ouija board and stuff..
    Well for me this play is kinda meaningless and attracts too much danger for oneself..
    For instance why would you want to conjure a demon or ghost just for fun or out of curiosity.
    I for one, have been haunted for about 5yrs long from playing ouija board and it’s not nice being haunted.
    The ritual process mostly almost the same..like the ending you need to send them back..
    well i did sent them home but still i got haunted..it’s not a guarantee you wont got backfired.

    • Anonymous says:

      hey, during you haunting what happened? was it doors opening and water taps running and constant banging?

  9. Anonymous says:

    Woah. Look. There’s a fatal error in the instructions. “Whatever happens, stay hidden for as long as you can or until sunrise.” You only play it for 2 HOURS, any longer and the spirit will be harder to remove!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Urk. I meant the maximum is 2 hours. It’s recommended that you keep the game under an hour. And another thing. If there is a T.V. acting strange in the same room as your hiding spot. DO NOT LEAVE YOUR HIDING SPOT. You might witness something… dangerous. No one should try this game though, even if dared to.

  11. nil says:

    Life is stressful enough, y even bother to conjure xtra 1 more spirit in ur life to add to the burden of your stress? i’d say just make yourself a cup of iced lemonade instead of salt water, kick back and relax infront of your favorite tv drama and enjoy…

  12. beth says:

    nope, i will never try this game. EVER.

  13. Anon says:

    do not try this… seriously.. unless you’re like goku from dragonball or something.. dont.. if something is dead.. leave it dead..

  14. XSillypastamonsterX says:

    Do NOT try this with a Furby!!

  15. Eido_Tee says:

    Sweet Jesus! Who would be stupid enough to play this?

  16. 夢ファイト says:

    I remember doing this, I still cannot find my doll.

  17. Lashelle says:

    Im going to try it to see if it actually real or make believe. I myself dont believe in ghost or spirit. Wish me luck.

  18. Asuka says:

    I found out about thins when I first saw the movie. I thought that it was pretty interesting and I did some research on how to play,instructions and so on.. I was very excited about it and I even thought of playing it.
    But holy sh*t!! After I read everything and saw some stories of people who played it I got so freaked out that I just can’t try it.I’m usually kinda skeptical about such things but that seems super dangerous and I’m pretty sure that something will happen to me if I try to play. DON’T DO IT! No matter how curious you are.

  19. Bella says:

    I’m going to try it because my friend dared me to. I don’t have any beliefs in spirits, but wish me luck

  20. Hugh says:

    I wonder if Lashelle and Bella are still alive and if they played the game… :D
    Seriously, conjuring up spirits? Just scaring yourselves sh**less…
    Plus the movie about the game is bad. Not scary at all. Nice try, though.

    • Bella says:

      I chickened out and told my friend it was fake, I just didn’t want to do it. My dad was born in the Philippines and he said he would have played it, but his grandma wouldn’t let him. So he told me not to do it…

  21. Amanda says:

    i can never do it, i love stuffed toys, so its bad if i play this game.

  22. Creatip says:

    I just found out about this urban legend game today, stumbled upon this post (and other posts from other sites) from google. I believe in supernatural phenomenas, but I still try to keep an open mind (half-skeptic) about it.

    Well, there are some points:

    1. In one of the websites I read, there is this line: “No matter what happens, do not spit or swallow the water in your mouth during the game. It cloaks your presence from the ghost” (I don’t know if I’m allowed to post a link here). Well, if the salt water kept in your mouth cloaks your presence, then why bother going to hide at all? Just put the salt water in your mouth, pull out a chair beside the doll, and wait there. It can’t see you, right? Like the scenes from LOTR movies, where Frodo put on the ring, and he vanished in front of the others. That way, you can actually see the doll (supposedly) actually climb out of the water basin, and moving around to find you.

    2. Why would you need to stab it? I mean, cant you just poke it with your hand, or pinch its body or something? In return, when it does find you, it would just poke or pinch you to tag you. Well, maybe to invoke ‘strong dark emotions’ like anger. Will it not work with ‘strong good emotions’ like care and love?

    3. If I absolutely need to stab it (or it won’t work), then I seriously would consider using wooden toothpicks. It’s sharp enough to go through most plush dolls, but brittle enough to do any real damage to human being (unless stabbed in really weak and vital area, like the eyes or something)

    4. I would consider tying (or sewing) one of its legs, with a thread or something, to something stationary in the bathroom, like the sink or the pipes. That way, say the doll really move around, I don’t have to look all over the house to find it, when I want to end it. It’d be still in the bathroom, with one leg sewed there, like a leash.

    5. I would consider setting a night vision camcorder in the bathroom, pointing at the plush doll, hoping I’d get an actual footage of the doll moving on its own.

    Well, perhaps by including the above points, this urban legend wouldn’t have the same ‘mysterious aura’ surrounding it, who knows….

    • Transmutation says:

      It doesn’t make you invisible. By presence it means like your aura or your life or whatever. The demon would supposedly be able to sense you without the salt water (I think). I’m not entirely sure about the poking… I mean I think it was said somewhere that it wants your body and probably can’t get into it by poking you so the game would be a waste of time for the demon haha. You can use like pencils and stuff though. Also, I’m not sure if the demon is completely confined to the doll. I mean people say they hear footsteps so… The doll might just be the door way to the living or something. Let me know if you try any of these interesting ideas of yours though! I’m kinda scared xD

    • mOn says:

      You SHOULD NOT just sit and watch the doll when it is your turn to hide. I’ve read that you might see something VERY disturbing.

  23. Scaredshitless says:

    What happens if you don’t find the doll?

    • Alice Liddell says:

      Then the game won’t end. The spirit/demon will haunt you and if other people do the same then it will be your curse. You have to find it, use salt to purify the area you found it in and in every windowsill, bottom of the doors, nooks and cranies. When you find the doll, follow the rest of the instructions because if you don’t…… You will get stabbed by the doll when you fall asleep after he game or the demon will get stronger and you won’t be able to get rid of it.

  24. Anonymous says:

    I’m tempted to try this tonight. Not like my life isn’t weird enough already, ^\\^. It’s just hard deciding, because if it does find me, I have way too many knives and swords in my house for me to be safe at all. That, and my house is filled with stuffed animals, so I might have an issue finding it…

  25. what'sthepoint? says:

    there is no point in this game! you just putting yourself at unnecessary risk! courage test with no profit. here in post-ussr countries we summon Black Widiow (not the sexy superhero, but something much scarier and ancient) – The Queen od Spades. There are a lot of variations of the ritual, but the end is always the same – if you done EVERYTING correctly, every minor detail The Queen will grant you your wish. But id you don’t something terrible will happen. Sickness, death any kind of disaster. With a frosting on the cake – lifelong haunting.
    But at the very least you can get something out of this! This hide and seek game is too dangerous for nothing! It’s not wise to invoke spirits and demons just for shit and giggles.

    and another thing. How can pet oweners fo this with a defensless pets present!?!?! What the FUCK??

  26. Nadine says:

    I’ve just learned about this game today, from one of mrcreepypastas stories.. I’ve read every comment on this site about this topic. I am terrified of the dark, and I already hallucinate (not with any substances) and see shadow people. Ii sleep with a night light bright enough to see everything in my room, (I wear sleeping mask) but yet I am still so intrigued. The only thing I’m against in this is shutting off all lights and being in a pitch black dark closet. In my artistic mind something’s already in there with me, I’d probably have a serious heart attack. I know it says hide and seek alone but what if you have a friend in the closet with you, but s/he has salt water in their mouth?

    • Sakura says:

      I had heard of em…..that two sisters do that and one accidentally swallowed the salt water and she got poke by the doll O.o while the other girl won and spit the salt water on the doll…..then the one that got poke lied to her parents and the doctors that it was just an accident she fall from walking around the house to drink water at night……T^T…..and they didnt say any thing about burning the doll…… O.O

  27. Animal Crossing Fangirl says:

    Can u still save yourself if the doll finds u?

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