Wells around the world are at once familiar and mysterious places.
Water is central to human life. Throughout much of human history, it was necessary to dig a hole nearby to attain it. But a well is hard to dig and construct. So they often became one of the central communal spaces in the village.
Indeed, in Japanese there is an expression used to describe exchanging rumors as an “井戸端会議 Idobata Kaigi” or a “well-side meeting”.
Wells are the proverbial “water cooler” of the pre-modern world.
As well as being familiar, everyday meeting points for the community, wells are also often seen as portals to another world. Given their subterranean nature, mostly as portals to the underworld.
Japan is no different. In this article, we will take a look at several examples of where wells have featured in Japanese storytelling and Japanese mythology, from the ancient to the modern.
The Legend of Ono No Takamura, who used the wells of Kyoto to work the night shift in hades
Rokudouchinnouji Temple in the Higashiyama region of Kyoto, there is a well called the “Kosengaeri”, which means the “underworld-return”. Any named well is worthy of further attention in my books, but “Underworld Return” screams out for investigation.
Today the Higashiyama area is a tourist Mecca, where people wander around with soft-serve ice creams and extend selfie sticks to get their smartphones above the throng to get the perfect shot of a particularly Japanese-looking piece of ancient architecture, but in the Heian period, Higashiyama was not so crash-hot. Called Toribeno, the Higashiyama area was used for cremating and burying the dead. It came to be seen as a boundary region between the other world and this world. If kyoto had a wrong side of the tracks, this was it.
So the story goes that in these environs, Ono no Takamura, a nobleman of the time, used the temple well to go back and forth between our world above and the netherworld beneath. What’s more, given the frequency he was said to have done this at, he seems to have moved as conveniently through there as, say, a Super-Mario riding some kind of mechanised elevator through a tube.
According to posterity, our protagonist Takamura was said to have worked as a government official at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto during the day, while moonlighting in the fires of hell at night. By all accounts, he seems to have been little more than a bureaucratic assistant in both the world above and the world of darkness below.
To be precise, it is recorded that Takamura would shimmy down the well of Rokudouchinnouji Temple, take a round trip to the hot place, and scuttle back up via the well of Fukusho-ji Temple in Saga.
Whether the devilishly officious Ono No Takamura took time out for a nap between any of these administrative and bureaucratic appointments is not recorded, but I believe I may have met him at my local council front office at several times in the past…
Japanese Wells in Traditional Ghost Stories
There is a genre of Japanese scary stories that go by the generalized name of Bancho Sarayashiki. The story is about a woman who refuses a man’s advances and who is accused of having lost or stolen one plate from a set of ten. The woman is eventually thrown down a well in punishment.
The woman becomes a ghost who haunts the well, night after night counting at nine plates, reliving the story that led to her demise.
In some ways, this Japanese ghost story is an ancient tale of extreme domestic violence in Japan, and the generational pain it can cause. All set at the bottom of a well.
Japanese Wells in Noh Theatre
There is a well-known noh theatre piece by Zeami called Izutsu. The play is based on an older story that appeared in the 10th century in the Ise Monogatari.
The story revolves around the relationship between a boy and girl who grow up together and eventually form romantic feelings. As they grow up, they measure their heights against the local well.
Eventually they marry, but the man finds a lover in a town on the other side of a mountain. He visits his new lover so often that he can no longer keep the relationship a secret. He tells his wife, but she makes no great protest. He concludes that she too must have a lover.
On one stormy night as he sets out to see his lover, he decides to turn back and spy on his wife to see if he can find out who her lover is. He finds her pining for him, and worrying for her husband in the foul weathered night. He realises her fealty to him and decides to change his ways and return his heart to her.
Wells in Modern Japanese Stories, Films and Anime
In relatively recent times, the well has featured in Japanese storytelling as not just a place to descend into the underworld but more as a portal to a different dimension. In this way, ancient folklore storytelling has mixed with the sci-fi penchant for exploring parallel worlds and alternate universes.
Some examples include
Japanese Wells in Anime
In this anime, the opening episode shows a young girl who ventures down to a basement well to help her brother who believes he has seen something. The girl is half-pulled, half falls into the gaping abyss at the top well. When she reaches the bottom, she finds herself in an olden-world Japan where agrarian, shinto worshipping townspeople live amongst yokai and mystical beings that do battle.
In this archetypal story of a Japanese well as a portal another world ID: Invaded revolves around the concept of an “id well” as a mental plane that can be entered to collect clues regarding a killer’s victims, crime scenes, and motives.
The sights and actions of a person as they move through an id well are projections of the real world for investigators to analyze in real-time. Everything within an id, including people and locations, can only be temporarily put together by someone who is investigating the id well, since a person’s unconscious thoughts are rarely organized. id wells can only be entered by people who have been killed.
Japanese Wells in Film & Novels
リング The Ring
In Japanese folklore, wells are a frequent device used in ghost stories. They appear in many Japanese horror films and urban legends. In the world of The Ring, a well is a place where people go to die. It is the place of death for those who have been pulled into the well by Sadako’s long hair, which can grow to a length of up to 2 kilometers (6,562 ft) or more.