Masakado's head mound: appeasing a vengeful spirit

Located in the heart of Tōkyō's buzzing business district of Ōtemachi, just a stone's throw away from the Imperial Palace lies a speck of land that has remained largely untouched for centuries. For whenever it had been touched, tragedy would befall those who had angered the spirit of Japan's "first samurai", Taira no Masakado. Kubizuka (首塚, "head mound") is a monument to Masakado's head: after he had lost it in the Battle of Kojima in 940, his cranium had been on display in Kyōto where it was hung from a tree for three months. Night after night, it would gnash its teeth and wail for its mortal form until one passerby plucked up courage and reminded Masakado where he was and how he got there, upon which his head fell silent.

One day his head is said to have taken a flight back to Kantō, towards his home, in a desperate quest to find its body. One account states that an attendant of the Nangū shrine in modern-day Gifu shot it down with an arrow en route. The spot where the head landed is marked by a small shrine called Okashira-jinja in the village of Yadōri. Prayers offered at the shrine are effectual to cure afflictions of the head and the neck. The more famous account relates that his head continued its flight from Gifu, and exhausted, it fell back to earth close to a small fishing village called Shibasaki, in what would later become Ōtemachi. Local villagers washed it and buried it there under a massive tombstone to hinder it from flying off again. Ten years later, in 950, they heard unearthly cries arising from the grave, and in the darkness, a strange warrior appeared and vanished.


From this time on, the locals feared Masakado as a vengeful spirit and blamed him for tragedy and plague, trying to pacify him with rites and prayers. In 1309, a visiting monk named Shinkyō Shōnin (真教上人) from Yugyōji temple restored Masakado's mound and erected a Buddhist stele at the adjacent Nichirinji temple to console the spirit. Masakado was later enshrined at Kanda Shrine (神田明神 Kanda-myōjin), which was originally located in the same spot in Ōtemachi. When shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu decided to fortify and expand Edo Castle in the early 17th century, the shrine was dismantled and relocated. During the relocation, a spate of calamities occurred; therefore, it was decided to leave Masakado's mound and the headstone behind on what would later become the estates of the Sakai and the Doi who both tended kubizuka.


When in 1871, the Meiji government tore down the Sakai residence and constructed the Ministry of Finance in Ōtemachi, the mound and headstone were left undisturbed. At that time, kubizuka consisted of an earthen mound some seven metres high and about thirty metres in circumference. Oddly enough, Masakado's spirit did not take offence when the Meiji government officially declared Masakado an "enemy of the emperor" in 1874, thereby ending his status as a principal deity worshipped at the Kanda Myōjin. However, the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 caused considerable damage to the mound and left the stone badly charred and disfigured. The Ministry conducted an archaeological survey between 1923 to 1926 and eventually razed the site. Within two years, fourteen people who worked at the temporary office building constructed on the site died, including the Minister of Finance, Sasoku Seiji; countless others suffered inexplicable accidents and falls. In 1928, it was decided to demolish the building and restore kubizuka in a formal pacification rite.

Apparently, Masakado found no solace in that, as a series of mysterious deaths and suicides among big companies managers that had their head offices nearby occurred. In 1940, lightning struck the Ministry of Communications building, burning down nine ministry buildings, including the Ministry of Finance. The Ministry eventually moved to Kasumigaseki, and the gravesite was restored and repacified. Kubizaka became the property of the Tōkyō municipal government. S

Mysterious incidents continued to happen after the Second World War when the U.S. Army wanted to level the area to convert it into a parking lot. Finally, in 1971, the site was restored by the "Masakado-zuka Preservation Society" (将門塚存会) and declared a municipal cultural treasure. While the mound no longer exists, the headstone still stands. It is surrounded by office buildings and has recently been covered by a steel and PVC roofing structure to protect it from ongoing construction work.


The headstone consists of a stone lantern (now covered by a vitrine-like contraption) hidden behind a commemorative stone block dated 1307 and guarded by stone frogs. As you would expect in any gravesite, fresh flowers and incense are in place.


The significance of the frogs is not entirely clear. Could it be a play of words? In Japanese, frog means kaeru (かえる, or 蛙 in Chinese characters). Kaeru (返る) is also a verb that means "to return", so is this a reference to Masakado's return to Kantō? Or did his head bounce back to earth just like a leaping frog?


Whatever the reason, it appears that Masakado's spirit has finally found consolation. You can access Masakado-zuka from Otemachi Station, exit C6a (C4 and C5 are currently closed due to construction work, see the map below).

Mind that Masakado's head is not buried in situ. Various shrines claim to preserve multiple of his body parts. Masakado's headstone, however, is just a monument to his famed cranium.

Tsukudo Shrine in Chiyoda Ward is said to have kept Masakado's "head bucket" (首桶 kubi-oke) until it was allegedly destroyed in a U.S. bomb raid in 1945.


Taira no Masakado's head bucket (平将門の首桶)
Source: Tsukudo Shrine