by J. Kasper Kramer
I want to believe in ghosts so bad that it hurts.
When I was a child, my parents rekindled their marriage by booking rooms in dusty, old B&Bs, inns, and plantations. They’d creep through the hallways while the owners were sleeping. They’d hold their K2 EMF Meter up to glass-eyed, cracked porcelain dolls, gasping when their Infrared Digital Thermometer started detecting a change. They’d snap pictures of dark, empty rooms to peruse over later, always searching for things unexpected, things hiding among the antique furniture and the yellowed wallpaper.
When I was a child, my parents would take my brother and me on family vacations like these. We got a kick out of the whole thing, ate it right up. Once, Connor found a face in a photo he took, staring back from a mirror in the far, far right corner of a mess hall we had explored as a team. The new hobby was as good for our relationship as it was for theirs, but we didn’t sleep for the rest of that trip.
I want to believe in ghosts so bad that it hurts, but I don’t.
Less than a year after moving to Japan, a shift in the higher-ups of the language school where my husband Dustin and I worked meant that we had to, quite suddenly, find a new place to live. We were hoping to move in somewhere cheaper than our overpriced, cramped Leopalace apartment—a company as famous for housing bachelors and college students as IKEA is for furnishing their bedrooms. Dustin wanted to rent a house near a train station. My one nonnegotiable was that the new place allow pets, because I could no longer suffer life without cats.
At the time, we spoke little Japanese, so one of our coworkers introduced us to a foreigner-friendly rental company in a rural neighborhood. We toured two properties and, a bit dismayed at the prospects, contemplated whether the second would do. Since there was nowhere to park our car at the residence, the rental company associates discussed where we might park it instead.
Our coworker translated for us.
“How about the carport of the house next door?”
“That might work—wait a moment! You don’t think, since they’re foreigners, that they might want to see it?”
“Why not show them?”
They came back with the paperwork and set it down in front of us. My hands, lifting a cup of hot green tea, went still. Classic Japanese architecture. Sloping, tiled roofs. Three tatami rooms, sliding paper doors, painted fusuma. A traditional garden with bonsai and stone steps leading up to a covered front porch. It was big. It was gorgeous. The price was half what we paid for our Leopalace.
The woman’s words came out hesitant, slow, and our coworker’s face lit up, surprised. His translation came slow, too.
“She says… something happened there,” he told us.
And just like that I was decided. This house was the one. Ju-on could have been shot behind those old walls and that overgrown yard. I sat through the story wide-eyed.
An elderly couple. Their adult son. The father died upstairs in the bedroom from sickness. The son strangled his mother to death in the tatami room on the first floor. Across the street, he leapt off the bridge into the river, but the water was too shallow, and he did not die. He was arrested, sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
No one had lived in the home since the murder. Locals wouldn’t rent it.
Six years it had sat empty, waiting for us.
After finishing the story, the associate looked up, uncomfortable.
“Well, what do you think?” she asked. Simple questions like that I could understand fine.
And the only question I had, I could ask on my own.
“So, cats are okay?”
I want to believe in ghosts so bad that it hurts, but I don’t. So I lie on the tatami floor when I’m drunk and stare up at the ceiling. I wonder if this is the spot where the old woman died.
My husband is passed out in the next room on the couch. The house is dark and I am still. I try to make myself frightened. I try to listen for creaking footsteps or distant weeping or something equally supernatural to give the spirits away.
Dustin’s snores break the ambience.
Before I give up, I whisper, “Is anyone there?”
When I get no reply, I try again in Japanese, just to be sure.
There are things about the house that are unsettling. When the builders put in some of the planks, the wood must still have been wet from the stain. Handprints pattern the ceiling above our bed in the room where the old man passed away. Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I tilt my head back and count them.
My mother Facetimes me often. She is always curious, always excited, always asking how I feel, if I have heard anything strange. My father wants to know if I have an EMF detector. He advises me on ghost-hunting apps that I might buy for my phone.
Once, a couple weeks after we moved in—before we got our first of two cats—I came home alone late at night, and a sound caught me off guard. I flipped on the light. I set down my bags in the stone genkan where you take off your shoes. I froze when the sound came again.
A thud. Then a scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch.
It was coming from inside the square, knee-high closet under the stairs.
I was brave enough to get a flashlight and creep forward. I was brave enough to open the door. But when the sound came once more, from inside the walls of the closet itself, I bolted out of the house and sat on the front porch, chain-smoking till Dustin came home.
The noises continued for almost five years. My husband, always the nonbeliever, insisted a Japanese weasel lived in our walls.
It would not be the most unlikely of additional roommates. Nor would it be the last.
That first summer we discovered a protected species of bat nesting in the high ceiling rafters of our entranceway. They would swoop down around our heads in the evening, their babies dropping onto our hardwood floor where the cats would smack them back and forth like small, furry hockey pucks.
The old house was inhabited, for sure. And not all the occupants were invited.
But no ghosts that I knew of. No ghosts.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real.
Though we have been back in the States for almost a year, the house in Japan still follows me, always lurking. It whispers in the darkness as I lie in bed, staring at my Stucco apartment ceiling when I’m unable to sleep. It calls to me when I hear a thud in the walls, put my ear up to listen, excited, and then realize it’s only the neighbors.
I checked Google Street View a few months after we moved. It had not updated. Our car was still in the carport. Our trash still by the gate. The flowers and herbs in my pots were still growing.
Last week I checked again, and it was the house that they showed us in the pictures that day, when my hands stilled around the hot cup of green tea.
The carport is empty now. The shutters are closed. The garden is overgrown.
Our home on the other side of the world will not let me rest in peace. I am reminded in spring of the blossoms by the porch, in summer of the bats diving for mosquitoes, both outside and in. In fall, I can hear the screech of the storm doors closing for typhoons. In winter, I can feel the chill of the wide, drafty halls.
My kitchen floor was bright green and orange linoleum. My downstairs toilet was pink. My Japanese-style bathroom had tiny blue and white tile.
I did not think of ghosts as I sat in my tub, so deep the water came up to my neck, windows open and candles flickering in the breeze. Nor did I think of them when I climbed out the upstairs window onto my shaking, aluminum balcony to hang clothes, watched Mt. Fuji in the distance on clear, blue-skied days. There was nothing frightening about the fruits and vegetables that I grew by my carport. There was nothing sinister when you first stepped inside and were greeted by the smell of old wood, by the great, wall-sized mirror for dressing in kimono, opposite our sliding front doors.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I cannot rid myself of them.
Our Halloween parties in Japan were enormous. Guests came from far away—police officers, too. Each year we told the story of the two deaths in our home. Each year, things got more and more out of control: fog machines, cemeteries, live DJs, so much alcohol left behind that we’d be stocked up for months.
One friend in particular, no matter how much everyone urged, always refused to attend. He believed in ghosts, just like my mother and father and brother. He said he was able to sense their presence. He thought we were crazy for living in the place that we lived.
But finally, after much reassurance, we got him to come.
And when that friend who was sensitive to things supernatural—when he was good and sloshed and sitting on the tatami floor where the old woman had died, perhaps right in the very same spot—that friend smiled and said, “You aren’t haunted. There’s too much love here.”
He was only half right.
J. Kasper Kramer is originally from Nashville. She spent five years teaching and writing while living in Ibaraki, Japan. She is currently back in her home state with her husband and two well-traveled cats, pursuing an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. When she’s not curled up with a book, her passions include gaming and researching movies for her podcast. You can find her online at jkasperkramer.com and on Twitter @JKasperKramer.