[content_warnings type="shaming, snakes, body_transformation, blood, death, childbirth, spiders_insects"]
This is a story set in the Taisho era. It was already 1915, and the excitement surrounding the arrival of the new century had completely faded away.
At Kyoto Senior High School #3 there was a student by the name of Heitaro Kiyomizu. Heitaro was a rational young fellow who believed in the progress and harmony of mankind. He felt nothing but contempt for ghosts and yokai and didn’t hesitate to declare that anyone scared of such insubstantial phenomena was an unenlightened imbecile. He had a habit of saying things like, “Act like you’re living in the 20th century!” and “Being frightened by stories told to spook children is illogical and unbefitting a student of our illustrious #3 High. It’s the 20th century now—how will cowering like that help the new youth of the Japanese empire fulfill our global ambitions? If you’re stuck in the previous century, go home to your village!”
When faced with such a person, it’s human nature to want to make him cry uncle. This smart-aleck Heitaro needed to be taught a lesson, thought his friends, but though they organized an association to test his courage, they never managed to frighten him. It was rumored that Heitaro had no fears.
One particular summer, a series of strange things had been happening at the 20th Century Hotel in Shijo Karasuma.
The 20th Century Hotel was a Western-style brick building constructed with new money made hand over fist during the Great European War. The clock tower peering over the roof, the latest central heating, the electric lights that made the whole place glitter like a treasure chest, the staff who glided noiselessly to and fro over the crimson carpets—all of these things made the hotel supremely high collar and modern, and thus it was especially bizarre for the string of strange happenings to be happening there. Guest after guest staying in a room on the third floor said they’d seen queer things, and an employee who had holed up there to investigate was so badly frightened that he ran home to his village. After a week, when the strange happenings hadn’t stopped, various rumors began to spread: that they had called in someone to exorcize evil spirits by twanging ceremonial bowstrings; that they had gotten a monk from Mt. Hiei to come down and recite sutras; that an expert tanuki hunter had been asked to lay traps.
Naturally, all of this pleased the members of the association to test Heitaro’s courage. “Even you’ll be helpless when faced with the 20th Century Hotel’s yokai!”
“What are you talking about?” scoffed Heitaro. “Surely you don’t expect me to believe that yokai actually exist?”
Heitaro’s uncle ran a scientific apparatus factory called Kiyomizu Manufacture. All the state of the art electrical fixtures at the 20th Century Hotel were provided by his company, so the hotel owner and the Kiyomizu family were not strangers by any means. It happened to be summer vacation, and Heitaro thought he’d like to take a firsthand look at the strange happenings, so he proposed via his uncle to investigate. “If anything does happen, you’re on your own, and what goes on in guest rooms is strictly confidential.” With those conditions, Heitaro was granted permission to conduct a personal investigation; he entered the hotel at the beginning of August.
The 20th Century Hotel’s proud lights radiated onto Karasuma-dori and illuminated the dust motes floating in the evening sky.
The young receptionist who led Heitaro to his room was terrified and wouldn’t cross the threshold. Heitaro, unconcerned, stepped inside. There was nothing suspicious about the well-lit, modern room that he could put his finger on, but the atmosphere was somewhat unearthly. As he was thinking this, he noticed a young lady seated on the sofa in front of the ornamental fireplace. She wore a long white dress with flowing sleeves and had her hair cropped short—a modern girl if he’d ever seen one. She put a pale arm on the back of the sofa and turned to, then grinned at, Heitaro.
Well, I see now why people are talking about strange happenings here. I wonder what the gimmick is … thought Heitaro. It looks just like there’s a real girl sitting there. You’d think a strange happening this beautiful would be more than welcome …
The young lady, however, was a genuine human and the daughter of the hotel owner. She insisted on observing the “yokai extermination.” When Heitaro told her it might be dangerous, she looked straight at him with her big eyes and said, “You think there’s something to these strange happenings?”
“I do not. They are nothing more than runaway daydreams.”
“Then it won’t be dangerous.”
Some girls are quite strange themselves … thought Heitaro.
He reached into his big leather bag and took out his tools. He’d borrowed various things from his uncle’s factory: a mercury thermometer, a hygrometer, a photometer, a storage battery, an incandescent lamp, a camera, and so on. The young lady observed him with admiration, “You sure brought a lot of stuff.” The receptionist couldn’t very well abandon the hotel owner’s daughter, but he was still too scared to enter the room, so he hovered fidgeting in the doorway.
As Heitaro prepared his equipment, the view out the window went dark. Suddenly the lights began to flicker.
He was cautiously sweeping his eyes around the room when a large white sleeve stretched out of the ornamental fireplace. “Ah!” gasped the hotel owner’s daughter, seeming both scared and amused as she jumped behind Heitaro for cover. Heitaro had no issues with this; something smelled indescribably good. Shielding the young lady, he gazed at the ornamental fireplace, and from the opening of the creepy sleeve came a puffy white hand. It was a disgustingly round, gigantic hand with ugly fingers like pestles sprouting out of it. As he watched, captivated, from the tips of those fingers grew hands, and from the ends of those hands grew more hands. The more fingers sprouted, the slenderer they became, puckery and white, soon thin as enoki mushrooms. The wriggling of the countless little hands was exceedingly eerie. But when Heitaro approached—I wonder what the gimmick is—they suddenly vanished. When he backed away, there they were wriggling once more.
At the sound of a sudden shriek, Heitaro turned to find the receptionist lying on the floor unconscious. A pale, delicate arm like that of a child’s was hanging down from above the half-open door. It seemed the receptionist had tried to flee, but the arm brushed his face, causing him to faint. When Heitaro attempted to approach the drooping arm, it disappeared up into the ceiling, just like a snake slipping into its hole. The large sleeve then withdrew back into the ornamental fireplace, and the room was returned to its former state. The area was silent, and not a thing moved.
“Pretty interesting, right?” whispered the hotel owner’s daughter.
“Indeed it is,” said Heitaro, but he had no idea what the true nature of the strange happenings might be.
Thus began Heitaro’s nightly visits to the hotel. Once each night at 10 p.m. that same timid receptionist would bring up a snack of buttered bread and coffee. Heitaro would simply wait, sipping the dark brew. Most of the strange happenings occurred around midnight.
The events that plagued him were many and various. One night the room shook as if there were an earthquake. Cracks appeared in the walls, but though he could see the hallway through them, they closed up after a little while on their own. Another time the ceiling descended. He stood perfectly still as his head poked through and came out overlooking the roof. Turning around, he could see the dark streets of Kyoto and the clock tower quite clearly. Just as he was admiring the view, things went back to normal. There was also a time that moving pictures appeared on the walls, despite there being no projector. There was a time the goddess in a painting on the wall began to walk about. One particularly vexing time his physics textbook vanished as he was taking a bite of buttered bread. He was crawling around looking for it on his hands and knees when he heard a small voice from the ornamental fireplace say, “Oops, here it is.” When he went over to look, there it was standing on the mantel. It was practically impossible to come up with a rational explanation for these phenomena. He searched every inch of the room and interviewed all the staff members, but he couldn’t uncover any clues. The mysteries only multiplied, and Heitaro grew irritated—even angry. He was wasting his summer vacation.
His sole form of recreation during his nights spent at the hotel were the frequent visits from the owner’s daughter. “When I was little we were growing daikon radishes behind our row house!” she said, explaining how fast things had changed during the decade between the Russo-Japanese War and the Great European War as her father transformed into a very rich man. But she hardly seemed to consider the fact that she herself had transformed from a row house urchin into a young lady raised tenderly in the comfort of her father’s deep pockets. Heitaro had never known anyone from this fantastic, lofty breed, and each time they met he grew more infatuated. She seemed to be in the habit of escaping her busy father’s less-than-watchful eye and doing whatever she felt like: taking up root in a cinema, enjoying cool evenings on the banks of the Kamo River, frequenting cafés, wandering the Rokkaku night fair buying knickknacks. Hiding behind Heitaro and observing strange happenings was probably just another one of her games. She was quite frightened of the phenomena, but she still wanted to watch.
One night, she bought one of the cream buns that were all the rage around town. They were going to share it, but when she split it in half, the inside was empty—not a drop of cream to be found. “Huh?” she frowned at it, and that very instant cream started dripping thickly down from the ceiling onto their heads.
“Agh, I’m covered in cream!” shouted Heitaro. She watched him and licked some off the corner of her mouth with a giggle. This was overwhelmingly adorable to Heitaro, and it made him feel lonely and think, If I reveal the true nature of the strange happenings, I won’t be able to see her anymore. He later reprimanded himself, Don’t be so pathetic!
Once the Obon holiday season ended, the strange happenings really intensified in their ghastliness.
A giant, glaring eyeball appeared outside the window; a sakasakubi skittered out of the ornamental fireplace like a human-head spider with long black hair for legs, its stumpy neck pointing into the air; a crowd of yamabushi ascetics came down from the mountains and trumpeted like crazy on their giant triton shells; the plaster walls began to froth and the face of a creepy old woman bubbled up. None of this, however, fazed Heitaro in the slightest—he dipped his pen into an inkwell and calmly took notes. Nor did his expression change when the legs of the sofa squirmed to life and the thing strolled around the room with him as a passenger. One night when the receptionist opened the door to deliver his snack, Heitaro was in the middle of the room engulfed in flames. “Calm down, calm down!” he said to the shrieking man. After a short time, the flames vanished. Heitaro had had the presence of mind to grasp that they weren’t real. It must be said that he had quite the unshakable wits about him.
Eventually it got so that the strange happenings persisted until morning and Heitaro wasn’t able to get any rest. He would return home completely exhausted and sleep until after noon. Later, he would wake up, eat dinner, and return once more to the hotel. His eyes were dazzled by lack of sleep and obsession. His family worried he was possessed. By this time, the hotel was beginning to consider the investigation a bother. Hadn’t the strange happenings only gotten worse since his arrival? They had even spread to other rooms on the third floor. At this rate, the whole place would turn into a haunted house. Heitaro’s uncle said, “Maybe it’s time you withdrew,” but Heitaro entreated him to, “Please wait a little more,” saying, “There must be some rational explanation!”
“These strange happenings won’t get the best of me, whatever they are.” Heitaro walked down Shijo-dori grumbling to himself.
Turning north on Karasuma, he found the street empty of anything besides floating dust motes. The evening sky was awash with crimson, like freshly spilled blood. “Well, that’s an ominous sky,” he murmured, passing the white brick bank, the long wall of the internal medicine clinic, a barber shop, and a stationary boutique. An ancient old ox slobbering drool the consistency of pulverized mountain yam pulled a cart. The street car went by, wheels clattering.
Some stools were set out in front of a kimono shop facing the street and the staff, having finished the day’s work, were enjoying the evening cool. Who should be standing there having a lively chat with them but the hotel owner’s daughter. The sight of her profile glowing in the light thrown by the lamps under the eaves made his heart skip a beat—he nearly stopped in his tracks in spite of himself. Nevertheless, he continued towards them, endeavoring to keep his expression unchanged, but she didn’t notice him. Just as a vague dissatisfaction was creeping over him, she turned to look, and her face lit up. “You’re here!” she said.
The 20th Century Hotel glittered under the ominous red sky.
Yes, Heitaro was indeed the student from Senior High School #3 said to have nerves of steel, and he had faced many strange happenings at the hotel so far, but the happenings of this night nearly made him wave the white flag. It stayed oddly quiet for the first half of the evening, to the point where they both began to wonder if there would even be any more strange happenings at all. It was the calm before the storm. This, too, was all part of their invisible opponent’s plan. When the receptionist brought their snack, he was looking a little peaked, and when the hotel owner’s daughter asked if he was all right, he dropped to all fours and began groaning in pain. She meant to rush to his aid, but instead jumped back with a gasp—the man’s head was swelling up like a balloon. When it had expanded to about barrel size, it abruptly burst, and three babies jumped out. The uncanny infants moved with the agility of small monkeys and flung themselves at the hotel owner’s daughter. “Well, this won’t do.” Heitaro tried to wrench them away from her. She shrieked and flailed, trying to shake them off. A sudden chill ran up Heitaro’s spine as he realized the window was open. His cry of “Watch out!” was in vain; she went over the sill and plunged to the street below. After one dreadful moment, a thud echoed from outside. Then came the sound of the hotel’s front door opening, people screaming, calls for help.
Heitaro stood by the window in a daze. His every thought was obliterated by the pain of having been unable to protect the hotel owner’s daughter—he even felt he might as well throw himself out the window after her. But something inside him whispered, Act like you’re living in the 20th century! He moved away from the window, sat down in a chair, and heaved a sigh.
“This is a trick and I won’t believe it!”
Then, as he frowned into space, the lights started dimming and brightening, like a candle flickering in the breeze. And with every dimming, a human-like figure became hazily visible sitting on the sofa across from him. It was a small man with a little mustache on his pale face. He wore black Western clothing with white gloves. Basically, he appeared something like a faux British gentleman. When eventually the lights went completely out, Heitaro found himself face to face with the mysterious man.
“What a courageous chap you are!” he said, praising Heitaro for enduring all the strange happenings thus far. “However, the one responsible for the 20th Century Hotel being troubled by strange happenings all this time is none other than yourself. All we thought to do was give these people with their modern airs a fright, but then this cheeky one showed up, refusing even to acknowledge our existence. In other words, you showed up. Then it became a matter of honor. That’s why all the mononoke from Kyoto and beyond have gathered here, and why circumstances are such as they are. Yet still you refuse to give in. A most tiresome chap! We had hoped to repel you by the end of Obon, but it seems we have failed. We shall withdraw from the hotel as of this evening.”
“Who are you?” Heitaro asked.
The man answered that, to put it simply, he was king of the yokai.
“Lies!” Heitaro snorted, “Yokai don’t exist, and that’s that!”
“My dear, young, 20th century man, eager to fulfill the global ambitions of the Japanese empire,” the man said, “I can see what you are thinking. I, too, am versed in the Western sciences you so prize. ‘If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’ You mean to shut us up in the darkness of the previous century and leave us buried there for all eternity, but are you capable of that? I think not. We are the world’s mysteries incarnate! If you still want to boast that you’ll cut all ties with us and do just fine, that’s splendid. Go ahead and try. But I’m warning you, the glory and tragedy you’ll encounter in that reality will be no different from in this. We will simply lurk deep in the shadows and wait to meet you again.”
The man declared he must be going and stood up. Suddenly, a faint smile played across his face. “A parting gift for you, young man of the glorious 20th century. You might as well accept your reward.” With these words, the man snapped his fingers and something like a black smoke billowed up to envelop Heitaro. Through the darkness before his eyes, Heitaro witnessed memories of the future. He saw the despair that would thrive on Earth over the next hundred years and heard the cries of the masses wondering how it all could have happened. This was not the future Heitaro had been dreaming of since he was a child. He instinctively covered his head, as if to protect himself from the 20th century tragedies flitting across his mind. I won’t accept such a future, he thought. How could he?
“What a stubborn chap you are!” came a voice from somewhere.
“If the day ever comes that you realize what I’ve told you was correct, simply call my name, ‘Akugoro,’ and I’ll return once more to grant you a wish.”
And then, how much time passed?
When Heitaro came to, the lights were shining brightly, and the mysterious man was nowhere to be found. Rising heavily, he pricked his ears for any sound, but the hotel had fallen silent, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The unearthly atmosphere had faded away, leaving the room feeling like an empty shell. There probably won’t be any more strange happenings, thought Heitaro. But the visions the man had shown him as that “parting gift” were still etched vividly in his mind. Heitaro stood near the still open window and looked out over the dark streets of Kyoto. As he was lingering there in a daze, the hotel owner’s daughter opened the door and came in. She’s alive! Heitaro felt it was the happiest thing in the world. She said that after watching some moving pictures in Shinkyogoku, she returned and had been napping in her room … which meant that their meeting under the eaves of the kimono shop and her falling out the window were both illusions shown only to Heitaro. Mysteries. Mysteries that couldn’t be solved even in the 20th century.
The words “20th century” had always held a special fascination for Heitaro. When he was young, his uncle had taught him those words. “You’re a child of the 20th century,” he had said. Now it seemed everyone had forgotten their novel sound, but Heitaro remembered it quite clearly.
“You know, it’s the 20th century,” he said to the hotel owner’s daughter abruptly, in a cheery voice.
Somewhat at a loss, she eventually smiled and said, “Yes, it is.”
“Ahh, if only you could understand what those words mean to me!”
Heitaro opened his arms towards dark Kyoto. “We are living in the 20th century and we must act like it. We were unfortunate to have to grope our way forward in the darkness. We have stumbled over our delusions. But we must not fail! If the light of reason shines across the Earth, the path we are all meant to follow will surely appear before our eyes. Then, finally, we can gather as one civilization and banish tragedy from this world. Our 20th century will be, without a doubt, a wonderful hundred years.”
It was as if he was trying to persuade himself with all his might.
“The 20th Century Hotel” originally appeared in Shōsetsu Tripper’s Summer 2015 issue.