A few years back I learned of a shocking legend: when elders in rural Japan reached age 70 their sons carried them up a sacred mountain and left them on top to die of exposure and starvation. Obasute-yama, or “granny-dump mountain” is mentioned by a mysterious 11th century writer named Lady Sarashina and the 17th century haiku master Matsuo Basho. The practice also forms the plot of Shohei Imamura’s stunning 1983 film, The Ballad of Narayama. Sweet old Orin is slated to be granny-dumped but her son Tatsuhei protests. Orin scolds him: a baby is on the way, food is short, winter approaching; the elderly must go. Reluctantly, Tatsuhei straps Orin on his back and sets out for granny-dump mountain, an arduous trek up a razorblade ridgeline that leads into the mist. In a clearing filled with skeletons being picked clean by crows Tatsuhei lays his mother down on a tatami mat and tearfully says goodbye. Orin tearlessly assumes the lotus position. Snowflakes begin falling.
It is difficult to imagine a more shocking exit, it’s also difficult to imagine a more elegant one. To sacrifice yourself for your children and grandchildren, to be carried to your final resting place by your son, to face death with prayer and to try, amidst a swirling snowstorm on a lonely mountaintop, to attain serenity and die with grace. But did obasute-yama really exist? If it did, there would be evidence, like a mountaintop littered with bones, I imagined as I excitedly contemplated the legend from the Brooklyn couch that at the time served as both my bed and office. I was eager to find that bone-covered mountain, and figuring I had a damn good story, quickly typed up a magazine pitch. Only, editors didn’t bite. As a freelance journalist I had to go with stories that actually paid the bills, and so I moved on.
Soon after, I found myself sleeping on the deck of a cargo ship packed with rotting coconuts, semi-nude Micronesians and a coffin, steaming for a string of coral atolls known as the Outer Islands of Yap. A rising Pacific Ocean was destroying crops and threatening starvation; I had won a reporting grant from the Nation Institute and was writing the story for Time. One morning I awoke to find a pack of wailing women crawling toward the coffin on their hands and knees. Though the sea was swallowing this dead man’s mall parking lot-sized homeland, his relatives had undertaken a tremendous journey to have him buried there. We cling to our traditions of death, I realized, even as the future erases them. Suddenly, my search for granny-dump mountain didn’t seem so silly. Magazine assignment be damned, I would foot the bill myself and find that bone pile! I spent the next several months in Micronesia, reporting stories for Time and saving money by living in a hut, then set off for Japan.
Killing the elderly is called senicide, and Japan was not the only culture once familiar with the practice. In India, the Padaeans put to death old people and ate them while in North Africa, Trogodyte elders no longer able to tend their flocks asphyxiated themselves by fastening the tail of an ox around their necks. The Bactrians, who inhabited present-day northern Afghanistan, threw the old and sick out into the streets, where they were eaten by dogs. The Derbiccae, who lived east of the Caspian Sea, murdered males at age 70 and ate them; women were merely strangled and buried. The Heruli of Germany stabbed elders and burnt them on a pyre. In southern France, the Ligurians threw their parents, when they were no longer useful because of old age, off a cliff. And in the Arctic, the Inuit and other tribes, up until the last century, abandoned their elders on ice flows, shut them inside igloos to freeze to death or killed them in ways even more shocking. “For our custom up here,” wrote the epic Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen, “is that all old people who can do no more, and whom death will not take, help death to take them.”
The trouble with these stories is they are difficult to confirm. We know about tribes like the Padaeans and Bactrians from Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian famous for telling tall tales. And the few research papers that document senicide among Arctic tribes are so grotesque as to be unbelievable. For example, a 1955 article in the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology describes how the Inupiat, living on small islands off the coast of Alaska, once shot, stabbed and hung their elders. One of the article’s most memorable passages is the story of a 12 year-old boy who killed his father with a large hunting knife. “He indicated the vulnerable spot over his heart, where his son should stab him,” the paper states. “The boy plunged the knife deep, but the stroke failed to take effect. The old father suggested with dignity and resignation, ‘Try it a little higher, my son.’ The second stab was effective.”
In Japan, I hoped to obtain equally vivid details.
A few days after arriving in Tokyo I sat down for coffee at a café on the campus of the prestigious University of Tokyo—Japan’s Harvard—with a tall orange-headed German named Eric Schicketanz. He was a PhD student at the university’s Institute of Death and Life Studies. To my dismay, neither he nor any of his colleagues took the legend of granny-dump mountain seriously. “Have you heard of ‘The Man-Eating Myth?’” Shicketanz asked me, growing steadily suspicious of my mission. I hadn’t. It was a controversial anthropology text from the late 1970s that refuted cannibalism. Popular cannibal stories, from the Carib Indians of half a millennium ago to the Papua New Guinean highlanders who supposedly ate their enemies well into the last century, all came from missionaries and explorers who misconstrued the events they saw or made things up entirely. No credible Westerner had ever seen a group of natives eat the flesh of another human. “It is a myth made to satiate a theory,” said Schicketanz. “There were no cannibals.” And, I perceived, there was no granny-dump mountain, either.
But a mustached anthropologist in a tweed jacket at the National Museum of Japanese History gave me hope. There was a part of Japan where myths and stories still reigned so powerful that it was often impossible to separate legend from reality, explained Dr. Takanori Shintani. If granny-dump mountain existed anywhere it would be here, said Shintani, pulling a map from a pile of junk on his desk and indicating a hinterland region called Tohoku. The area, which was devastated by the 2011 tsunami—I was there the year before—was like Japan’s Appalachia. Inhabitants spoke with a twang, had less electronic gadgets and their own chapter in joke books. Basho ambled through these parts three and a half centuries ago. “I wanted to see places I had long heard about but never visited,” he wrote in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. But the road was rough. “It seemed to me instead,” Basho continued, “that I should be fortunate if I managed to come home alive.”
I prepared for my own trip north, and with translation help from some Japanese friends read up on Tohoku. While Buddhism seeped into Japan in the sixth century, following major river valleys and trading routes, the remote mountains of Tohoku held onto animistic beliefs well into the nineteenth century. In this charmed but dangerous world, humans became animals, river rocks became humans and mischievous spirits and goblins abounded. The stories attracted Kunio Yanagita, a charismatic and bushy eyebrowed anthropologist with Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce. Yanagita is now hailed as the father of Japanese ethnology, having published nearly one hundred books about his country, but his most famous one remains The Legends of Tono, a series of stories gathered in a particularly remote section of Tohoku. Yanagita first visited Tono in 1909, travelling on a horse covered in seaweed—to keep away flies. “There were more tombstones along the roadside than I had seen in other areas,” he wrote, a prophetic observation.
All of Yanagita’s legends are dark, though some have their charm. A young girl kills her older sister with a kitchen knife because she got the better half of a potato, later they both become birds. A mountain woman eats a bride then steals her identity by wearing her skin; she is murdered by the girl’s parents, tipped off by an observant rooster. Other legends are just grim, perhaps because they seem more true. A peasant girl gathering chestnuts is kidnapped by a mountain man who forces her to bear his children then eats them. The book has a version of obasute-yama and it falls into this latter category. Villagers over 60 were left to die on a hill outside town called dannohana. Elders were lonely, bored and hungry on their isolated hilltop. At night they snuck into fields below to steal crops. Scholars have dismissed these stories as mere legends but Yanagita has fervently defended them. “The legends of Tono reveal facts that exist before our eyes,” he said. “This alone is their raison d’etre.”
But in my research I also learned that some historians believed granny-dump mountain’s raison d’etre was as a Confucian teaching tool—Confucius, the 5th century BC Chinese philosopher, spread a lasting message of morality across eastern Asia. Obasute-yama, the thinking went, was actually a lesson of exactly what not to do to your elders. In other words, there was no granny-dump mountain in real life, it was just a story. But by then I had reached the reporter’s point of no return, where things that could implode the story only made me press on harder.
On a cloudy spring day I took a bullet train north from Tokyo and into the Japanese countryside. By the time I reached Shirakawa, 120 miles north of Tokyo, it was snowing. Further north, in Sendai, where streets were lined with child-sized snowdrifts, I spoke to yet another round of dubious university anthropologists. Then, I ate a meal of raw cow tongue and drank a cold beer, because that’s what you do when you are depressed in Sendai. I continued north to Hanamaki, where I switched to a tiny local train and took a seat beside a dozing student and a man in an orange work suit. We followed a swollen black river lined by muddy rice paddies. Dark ragged mountains sat on the horizon like hats. I stared longingly at the snow-capped peaks.
It just so happened that the week I showed up in Tono the town was preparing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Legends of Tono. Street lamps were strung with banners honoring the book and curio shops were loaded with Legends’ paraphernalia. Mischievous water-dwelling spirits called kappa, whom appear in several legends, had become the town mascot. Their button-eyed lizard-like faces smiled at me from travel posters, shop windows, stone carvings and fancy boxes of bean curd sweets, which were sold virtually everywhere. The Legends had become kitsch. I was just another tourist coming to peck at the past. I checked into the only spot in Tono I could afford, a pleasant family-run ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. The place offered what smelled like a delicious home-cooked dinner, unfortunately I couldn’t afford it.
Instead, I devoured shiny colorful prepared meals right out of their plastic containers alongside a group of old men watching Japanese soccer on TV in a gigantic supermarket. Back at the ryokan I slept fitfully on my tatami mat, dreams of discovering mountaintop bone piles becoming nightmares of not finding them. I was up early to meet a pair of local museum guides: Saori, a bookish young curator who spoke little English and wore an interesting beret and her boss Yayoi, who wore thick purple lipstick and double-checked her English on an electronic dictionary. I can’t say I wasn’t a bit disappointed. I had imagined tramping up an icy ridgeline to granny-dump mountain like Tatsuhei. Instead, we drove around in a silver sedan, visiting tourist sites: a museum where actors reenacted rural life, a kappa-themed restaurant, and another museum, which featured an enormous straw penis, the kind once burnt to incite a good harvest. At last, we arrived at a flat hill rimmed with fading snowdrifts. Dannohana.
Saori led the way on a paved path through fields of rice just beginning to send up shoots. Yayoi followed, trailing a cloud of perfume. You’d think I would have been charging ahead, but I was practically embarrassed to be there, like going to a rock concert with your uncool parents. When we reached the top, Yayoi pointed across a mowed field to a straw hut. “The End of Life house,” she said. Inside, an iron kettle hung over a stone fire pit and fat smiling animist Gods decorated a shelf. Yayoi picked a soda can off the dirt floor. There were absolutely no bones. I asked the ladies how folks died at dannohana. “There was nothing to write on,” said Yayoi, struggling to read her electronic dictionary in the dim light. “So we don’t know how they died.” Meanwhile, Saori had stepped outside and was ranting loudly in Japanese.
“She is complaining because it isn’t historically accurate,” Yayoi explained to me. Apparently, the recreation of the End of Life house hadn’t fulfilled Saori’s vision of how it should look, and like an architect examining the final product and realizing the workers had screwed up the design, she was furious. Of course, the End of Life house hadn’t fulfilled my expectations either. In fact, it seemed that all the well-informed people who had told me I would find nothing were right. But no matter, deliriously, I pushed on.
On a whim I visited Mutsu, a town at the base of a sulfurous volcano on a frigid hook-shaped peninsula in far northern Tohoku where each summer hordes of Japanese came to be connected to their dead relatives via mediums. I figured a medium could connect me with one of granny-dump mountain’s ghosts. Upon arriving in town I was first accidentally led into a suit shop—the Japanese word for suit apparently being similar to the word for medium—then later found a medium, though she wouldn’t see me without a phone reservation. “But, I am here,” I argued. “Can’t I make the reservation now?” “No,” the medium’s handler replied flatly. I searched for other mediums, but they were all on holiday. Snow began to fall.
I examined the volcano looming over Mutsu. The mountain supposedly provided the portal for which the mediums drew their netherworld information, and as I watched the peak become enveloped by the snowstorm I became suddenly convinced that this was granny-dump mountain. Despite the building storm and 20 some odd feet of snow that already blanketed the volcano, I set out for the summit. In retrospect, I think what I was trying to do was granny-dump myself. Fortunately, a woman in a red raincoat whisked me into her car and drove me to a gorgeous Buddhist temple where she told me to get down on my knees and pray. The correct path would become apparent, she said. I indeed had a vision: Return to Tokyo.
Dozing in an upper bunk on a southbound sleeper train, dressed in the railroad company’s bathrobe, I realized there was one last chance, the town of Obasuteyama, in the mountainous Nagano region. But the name was a misnomer, as soon as I got off the train I knew there was nothing there. The town overlooked a valley dense with suburban homes, the pace was modern. I walked slippery steps to a temple whose ancient caretaker supposedly knew about the legend. But the temple was deserted. Like Basho, I was wearied by the thing that drew me—“On, on I travel,” he wrote in The Narrow Road to Oku, “though I fall and die.”
On a balmy spring night back in Tokyo, following up on a lead from a newspaper article, I met a baby-faced man in a black suit named Taichi Yoshida outside Heiwajima train station. We exchanged greetings as evening shoppers drifted in and out of a bright mini mall selling chocolate and cosmetics. His office was a short walk; under an overpass, down a dark street. At a large garage door Yoshida carefully typed in a code. Inside were half a dozen moving trucks, stacks of boxes, racks of clothes, an enormous Minnie Mouse doll and a giant stuffed animal Winnie the Pooh. The items had been taken from the homes of dead people. Yoshida pointed to a tatami mat in the corner, rolled up and wrapped in plastic. As we approached it I noticed the smell of dampness, like a garden after rain. Beneath the plastic was a large coffee-colored splotch, the remains of a human corpse.
Back in 1994, Yoshida was running a small moving company when he began noticing that many of his jobs involved people who had just died. Then he started noticing something else; thick, dark human body-shaped stains. They were the residue of liquids excreted by decomposing corpses, otherwise known as “lonely deaths”. The phenomenon was first described in the 1980s and lately has become more common. Some lonely deaths involved middle-aged men who had recently lost their jobs but most involved the elderly. Lonely death victims often have family, but the family never visits, in fact no one ever visits. When the people died their bodies lay on the bed—or carpet or tatami mat—and slowly turned to sludge. Sometimes no one finds the bodies for weeks or months and in one case, ten years—it had become a skeleton. In 2008 in Tokyo, more than 2,200 people over age 65 died lonely deaths. Many of them lived in tall government apartment buildings. Japanese newspaper articles have referred to these buildings as ‘modern-day obasute-yama’.
And so there it was at last, granny dump mountain, right under my nose. But there was no victory champagne. The images Yoshida showed me on his laptop of ‘lonely death’ corpses will forever haunt me: A human body-shaped stain on the floor, beside it crumpled clothing and dirty dishes; a human stain tucked beneath a flowery bedspread; a stain that began on the wall and oozed down to the floor—a popular method of suicide among businessmen was to sit with one’s back flat against a door and hang oneself by tying their tie around the doorknob. I would have left Japan utterly deflated, had I not returned to the University of Tokyo and met with a gerontology professor named Dr. Hiroko Akiyama.
She wore a purple brooch and lightly dusted makeup, with thin elegant wrinkles that scrambled one’s age-reading apparatus; she could have been 40, or 100. We spoke at a wooden table with a view of the overcast city as an attendant brought coffee in plastic cups and cake with a green center and white edges. Akiyama delicately folded and refolded her napkin as she told me about growing up with her grandmother, which had inspired her interest in the elderly. She pursued a PhD on aging at the University of Illinois. Her prime subject was a lonely 78 year-old mother of 13 who lived in a converted garage with no heat and walls covered with pictures of her grandkids. Akiyama couldn’t understand why they never visited, and the woman was too proud to tell them to. She died alone.
Akiyama returned to Japan, shocked at the way Americans treated their elderly parents. But now her country’s citizens were falling into the same trap. Japanese elders once lived in the same homes as their kids and grandkids, but no longer. Just like in America, younger people wanted their own space, and everybody was too busy to take care of mom and dad. Nursing homes exist in Japan, but there is a shortage of them, in part because of high rents in cities like Tokyo but also because thanks to strict immigration policies, there’s a shortage of nursing home workers. In 1980 less than 1 million Japanese over 65 lived alone; by 2006 that figure had quadrupled. All this adds up to lonely death, an obasute-yama based not on sacrifice, but a broken system. And the problem has the potential to only get worse. The Japanese have the highest life expectancy on earth. Today, one in five Japanese is over 65; by 2030 it will be one in three.
The beauty of granny-dump mountain, I realized, is that it turned the process of dying into a fantastic journey. It really didn’t matter if the practice actually happened or not, the horrors of growing old and dying in our modern world had made it attractive. And Akyiyama, for one, thought we needed to change the way we died.
“We design our lives,” she said, her purple brooch gleaming in the sunlight beginning to spread across the city. “I think we should be able to design our deaths.”
On the plane ride back across the Pacific I thought again about the Outer Islands of Yap, slowly being subsumed by the sea. We can only cling to traditions for so long, eventually the future arrives. As the stewardess came by with the drinks cart I fell asleep, dreams of future deaths swirling through my head. I imagined humans leaping from endless precipices, blowing away like sand until they were no more, burning up in the core of the sun, or simply becoming star dust.
Justin Nobel is the author of Standing Still in a Concrete Jungle. He’s presently at work on the second book in his Places trilogy, a shamanistic travel guide to the American South.