Author’s note: I’ve added details of my own to this Japanese Folktale/Ghost Story, however the underlying plot elements (the lazy fisherman, his wife, the scared fisherman, the beautiful woman, the forbidden pond and the Faceless) appear in the many variations of this story.
Additionally, the protagonist’s name is a reference to my favorite Buddhist poet, Ikkyu (1394-1481), a Zen master who wrote of wine, women and the nature of impermanence.
You’ve just woken up. It’s the middle of the day, and a cool breeze runs over your bloated belly.
In the corner of your hut are your fishing nets. You reach under your cot, and feel around until you find your flask of sake.
Cold sake is better than no sake, you ruminate wisely to yourself.
Luckily, your wife isn’t there, shrieking at you in her shrill, cackling voice.
She must be at the market, you deduce. Better get moving.
You grab the flask and the nets, put on your sandals, and head out the door, whistling on your way out.
There she is, waiting for you.
You quit whistling.
“Ikkyu, you good for nothing, lazy excuse for a husband! My mother warned me about you, but did I listen? May the Buddha forgive my sins so I’m not stuck with you in my next life.”
You look down at ground, and whimper “Honey…”
Of course, she isn’t finished.
“I heard you mumbling in your sleep. Something about fishing for Koi in the Imperial Pond. That’s what happens when you drink sake, you idiot. Those are sacred fish, and the Pond is next to a cemetery.”
At this point, she changes gears; she sounds genuinely concerned.
“Ikkyu, for the love of Kannon, Mother of Mercy, don’t go fishing there.”
You look her in the eyes, and feign agreement.
“I’ll go to the dock.”
It was an hour walk to the pier. It took thirty minutes to reach the Imperial Pond. Either way, after fifteen minutes, it was time for some sake.
Sitting under the shade of a peepal tree, you rest and guzzle down the flask.
That is how wise decisions are made. You nod to yourself in approval, and suck the last drops from the flask.
Just then, a man with a net stumbles towards you.
His face is frozen in terror.
Luckily, you have a spare flask.
“Have a drink, good sir.”
He relaxes as he takes a sip, but still looks frightened.
“Is your face real?” He asks in a broken voice.
A Zen master, you conclude. This must be a spiritual riddle, a Koan.
“Based on how much my wife loathes it, I must conclude that I have a real face.” You reach for your flask, adding “Another swig may provide me with a wiser answer.”
“I see your nets.” The man drew in closer. “For the love of Buddha, don’t go near the Imperial Pond.”
He reaches our for the flask, and takes a fleeting gulp. Handing it back, he starts to reiterate his warning:
“For the love of Buddha -”
You interrupt the man.
“Yes, for the love of Buddha, i will consider your wise words.”
What a strange monk. What a strange Koan. Nothing that a little sake won’t fix.
You ponder the encounter as you leisurely stroll towards the Imperial Pond, whistling as you sip your sake.
Before you lost your hair, before your belly outgrew you, back when you swam in the ocean as opposed to drowning in sake, you had been a handsome man, and you knew it.
It seems like a lifetime ago.
But when you enter the Imperial Pond, and she looks at you, you feel young again, like when the Earth was new.
Her features are flawless, her hair long and flowing, her gown exquisite.
And she is looking at you with all of the intensity of the summer sun…
Despite the sake, you come to your senses. This doesn’t add up…
You know what you look like now, face and all.
You decide to act paternally.
“Child, can I help you?”
“You can help yourself to all the fish in the sea.”
She smiles seductively, and licks her upper lip.
“But hear me, Ikkyu the Fisherman. Don’t fish here.”
“My reputation precedes me, lovely woman. However, I came for these Koi, and I will leave with these Koi.”
You smile, turn away from the woman, and start to cast your nets.
“Ikkyu, one more thing.”
You turn around to see her.
She wipes her hands over her face, revealing…
No eyes, no nose, no mouth.
Just a smooth surface,
a blank canvas of human skin.
You drop your nets and run home.
You don’t even stop for sake.
Gasping for breath, you burst into your hut.
Your wife is sitting on your cot.
She nods again.
“A faceless woman…”
“My goodness! Did she look something like this?”
With that, your wife wipes her hand across her face, leaving no trace of any features…
Accounts vary at this point:
You might have been screaming “Don’t fish at the Imperial Pond!”
Or you might have been yelling “I need sake!”
Either way, you fled in terror…
So what did poor Ikkyu encounter?
So, what is a Noppera-bō, and what does it want?
What a Noppera-bō might be:
a) A ghost
b) A Mujina, a trickster animal which might be a Japanese Badger, or a Tanuki, a Japanese Racoon Dog
What a Noppera-bō wants:
Unlike other beasties, the Faceless don’t inflict physical violence. Instead, the enjoy inspiring fear – perhaps they even feed off of it.
They typically haunt in groups, or pairs of two, as seen in this tale. Also, the can take on the form of someone the victim knows, also indicated in this tale.
Another popular story, The Mujina of Akasaka Road, follows the two Noppera-bō mottif.
The take away:
If you come across one Noppera-bō , expect to come across a second, very likely someone you know…
The Noppera-bō can be found in Hawaii.
In 1959, the daily Honolulu Advertiser reported a Mujina/ Noppera-bō sighting at a drive-in theater.
While the claim went unconfirmed, one thing is certain: the Faceless are alive and well in the realm of mythic archetypes.