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
*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 (thevore.com has listed a number of current Japanese art house action movies like ‘Why don’t you play in Hell’ and ‘The Drudgery Train’ that will impress you). 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.