For westerners, the words “horror house” and “summer” rarely go together, with this particular brand of entertainment usually reserved for Halloween. However, in Japan, it’s a different story.
Summer in Japan means one thing. Heat. Lots of it. Horror houses (obake yashiki in Japanese) are said to give you chills and cold sweats, and thus relief from the relenting heat. This is an odd logic, for sure, but it’s also a solid one. I suppose another way of looking at it is that you’re so scared you forget the heat! Regardless of reason, we can all agree Japanese horror houses take it to the next level.
What’s it like to visit?
Terrifying! Which is of course the point. They aren’t all the same, they vary from year to year, region to region, and can include popular folk tales and cultural nods. Either way, you have to admire the ingenuity and imagination that goes into them, as well as the physical work. Remember that movie The Ring (as in the Japanese version)? Imagine that but in real life.
A typical visit will start with a backstory, and often includes an interactive part for the participants. Maybe you have to enter because something was lost, and you must find it, or you have to help reseal an unsettled spirit, or you just have to walk through and hold your nerve whilst things jump out at you from every angle. I like the interactive ones, as it gives you something to focus on whilst you go through. Winding your way through can be disorienting thanks to lack of light, use of props, and disconcerting sounds; this all adds to the fun though. Once you’ve made it out, pat yourself on the back for surviving, and maybe grab a drink to calm your nerves!
Like most things in Japan, there’s an etiquette to visiting. First, don’t touch. This includes props and people. A lot of the houses hire actors to add to the thrill, however they won’t touch you, so show them the same courtesy. A lot of the props are painstakingly made, and touching them could damage or destroy someone’s hard work, and spoil it for future visitors. If there’s an interactive element, then it will be made clear before you enter what you are looking for and what you need to touch. Second, follow the rules, and stick with your group. Rushing ahead could spoil the fun for the group in front. Third, no photos. Houses are strict with this, as they want to maintain mystery for all visitors, so no photography or videos without express permission. Finally, enjoy!
This depends on the house. Some are far too scary for kids, whereas some welcome all ages. They’re popular with high school age kids and adults looking to beat the heat! I visited one at Aeon Mall Okinawa with friends, and they welcomed the 2-year-old in our group (who was much braver than the rest of us!). Best advice is to check with the house you want to visit prior to going.
Where to Find Horror Houses
You’ll find them pretty much anywhere there’s people! Malls often have pop-up (pun intended) horror houses, and will advertise them in the months leading up to summer so you know when to try and visit. You’ll also find them at larger summer festivals, again usually makeshift, as well as stand alone concepts put up especially to frighten people. Some, like Fuji Q are open year round and are popular tourist attractions. You’ll also find horror houses set up in abandoned buildings and places said to be rife with spiritual activity (like Asakusa Hanayashiki, which resides in Japan’s oldest amusement park).
Not for the feint of heart. If you’re pregnant, have a heart condition, or suffer with any other medical issues, it may be best to avoid. However, they can be a fun and interesting way to spend a hot afternoon, and it’s definitely better with friends. It would also work as a date idea, although maybe ask rather than make it a surprise!