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Japan Times Review of The Ghosts of Okinawa

The August Bon festival is the time when the spirits return to the land of the living to visit with relatives and partake of the offerings laid out for them. Then they return to the netherworld for another year, or so it is presumed. But what of the spirits who do not return, or those who have never left? For some, at least, their presence is felt year-round.

Tales of their sad histories and current whereabouts abound in Japan, famous for its ghost stories and legendary superstitions. Most of us dismiss these tales. In fact, foreigners often like to live near cemeteries in cities like Tokyo, since they offer relative quietude and calm. Many Japanese, however, prefer not to live close to these areas for reasons of superstition and respect.

But what about haunted areas outside of graveyards? What about a place like Okinawa, which historically has been the site of fierce wartime battles? This book by former Okinawan resident and prolific writer Jayne Hitchcock, provides a veritable "spirit map" of haunted houses and spooked sites in Okinawa and its environs. Okinawa is even called "Spook Central" by residents whose sightings of World War II era ghosts have become legendary. Hitchcock, now a teaching assistant at the University of Maryland and head of a group called the Maryland Ghosthunters, is an award-winning writer, author of books of Okinawan Folktales and an Okinawa Tour Guide, among others.

Among the places where ghosts have been sighted in Okinawa are hotels, memorials, highways, seawalls, cafes, restaurants anywhere and everywhere. There are also ghastly sightings at specific war-related sites, including ghosts on the military bases, at Maeda Point, which was the site of tragic suicide jumps, and in areas where wartime hospitals were located. There is even an undersea ghost that reportedly haunts scuba divers. This book gives a whole new spin to the idea of a guidebook even an innocuous place like a bus stop can be home to an unsettled spirit as the "Bus Stop Shivers" entry testifies.

A woman recounts the story of something that happened to her when she was a junior high student and got on a bus in Naha. The bus went to its next stop the Kainan bus stop, a very well-known meeting place for spirits. An oji-san (old man) got on the bus and sat next to her. She looked out the window toward the bus stop and gasped when she saw a wounded Japanese soldier in full World War II regalia. The people waiting at the bus stop obviously did not see this spirit. The ojii-san smiled and said to her, "You can see it too, huh?"

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, Hitchcock takes her ghostbusting quite seriously. She even provides a "Rules" section for going ghosthunting, including getting permission to enter a "haunted building" and stating the obvious but often overlooked advice, "Never Go Alone."

She also offers a list of necessary ghosthunting supplies. "A thermometer is helpful since many ghosts change the temperature in rooms or sites they haunt. Some haunted spots have recorded differences in temperature from 6 degrees to 20 degrees colder than what was normal." Also, bring a compass, which "sometimes reacts oddly when encountering a ghost."

In addition to the list of haunted places, the book has some photos of haunted spots, which look surprisingly plain, and it also provides a helpful glossary of ghoulish things and a list of Okinawa superstitions.

During this season when the dead visit the living, this little book is perfect for spooky summer campfires at the beach, just as long as you remember to bring "a good flashlight with fresh batteries" and carry an okiyome, an amulet used to offset any bad luck by emitting "spirit rays."

Reviewed by LEZA LOWITZ

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