Gozu 牛頭, or translated as “cow’s head”, is an urban legend told in Japan about a story that is so utterly terrifying, it leads to the demise of the reader or listener by fear. No known copy of Gozu in text is known to exist, while some believe it may still exist in an oral tradition.
I first discovered the book on a rainy day during early fall two years ago in Kobe.
Being deeply interested in literature, I was drawn to second hand book shops since the beginning of my stay. I was working as a part-time English teacher after I abused my visa to receive legal residence, which freed up a lot of time to research and generally pursue my own hobbies.
After getting settled in, I dug around my mobile phone to find some apps to help me locate the occult. There were more than a few apps floating around linked through other occultist’s blogs, and soon I had one installed on my phone.
The app was a simple interface conveying a group chat, people picking nicknames and sharing information about strange news at certain locations, coordinates to find abandoned places, as well as some leading to the even less regulated Asian Deepweb.
Most of the chats were jokes, and some malicious at that. Due to the anonymity, a few people warned about abandoned coordinates, as some people intentionally give you coordinates to dangerous areas.
It was a rainy morning when I was stretched out on my futon watching TV and idly browsing the chat. Most people were bitching about the weather and more than a few were cracking jokes about “rain ghosts”. I received a private message from a garble of a nickname (huire2918js, for example) and I have translated as follows.
“There is something terrible at Kinomiya book store. It is about ten minutes away from Sannomiya station. You will find it on the third shelf to the left.”
At first, I was a little shocked that someone was able to know where I was located. However, checking my phones status, I realized that I had left the locator on (I was prone to getting lost), and thought nothing of it. Kinomiya is a small second hand book store run by an elderly couple at the basement of a large department store. I had been there many times, as they sold international books translated to Japanese for times I wanted to revisit those stories. International books averaged around 3,000 Yen for the brand new copy, and the elderly couple also gave me hefty discounts at half that price.
Thinking that I had nothing to lose, besides getting a little wet by the rain, I ate a simple breakfast and made my way to Sannomiya station.
Nothing was different when I entered Kinomiya, the musty smell of old books, cigarettes, and stale coffee was the same as always. Aging, sagging wooden shelves supported large volumes that definitely voided their manufacture warranties. The elderly couple immediately struck up a conversation the minute I entered the door, offering me a smoke and some coffee.
I sat down with the elderly couple and we talked lightly of television shows, why I’m still not married (”I’m only 23″ is not a valid reason apparently), and of course, books. The elderly wife was a lover of fantasy and romance, while the husband was a lover of historical novels, particularly of the Meiji era.
It was when our conversation centered around books, I asked him if he had encountered any strange books. The wife’s face blanched suddenly, while the old man threw back his head and laughed, much to my surprise.
He skirted the question for a few minutes, then told me this:
“Books, some believe, are windows to other worlds. But that’s not necessarily true, if the book is poorly written, yes, it can only serve as a window. A well written book on the other hand, will put you in that world.”
The conversation kind of petered out there, and I finished my coffee and cigarette. I returned to browsing the bookshelves, and noticed that for the first time, the old couple was watching me closely.
They were quite discrete about it. I doubt they thought that I would steal any books, but being a NYC native, I know when I’m being watched by store owners. Nonetheless, I slipped out of their view to the shelf that the message had told me about. I have never stolen anything in my life (except a bottle of Tabasco from my university’s dining hall once, but for $4,000 a semester for sub-par food I decided I just wanted to get my money’s worth), yet for reasons unknown I quietly slipped an unknown book from the bottom shelf into my bag.
After saying my farewells and stating that there was nothing that caught my eye today, the old couple seemed to return to their normal cheery selves. They waved me out the door and told me to stop by anytime for a coffee and chat. I promised that I would.
I decided to take the bus back to my apartment. The rain had increased to steady downpour and my umbrella felt heavy from the amount of endless water. It was only on the empty bus that I took a look at what I had pilfered.
It was a book without a title.
I arrived home with my precious cargo in tow. I had stopped at the convenience store at the corner of my block to grab a few snacks and got to work folding my futon into a makeshift couch. I grabbed a few more blankets, a dictionary, and of course my trusty journal.
At that point, had I really expected to find anything of the occult or paranormal nature? Absolutely not. Due to the watchful gaze of the elderly couple, the best that I could do was grab a book, any book, and be quick with my exit.
Now that I had my illegally procured book, I scanned over the untitled cover. I originally believed the cover to be made of leather, hardened over time into brittleness. What I discovered instead upon closer inspection was an aged wooden cover, with a traditionally carved illustration. I was immediately overjoyed.
The book had to be Kusazoshi (草双紙) for those unversed in Japanese literary history, Kusazoshi were books written during the Edo era mainly, with some written even before the Edo period. Kusazoshi isn’t exactly the pinnacle of Japanese literature, but are extremely difficult to find in this day and age. Actual Kusazoshi and not reprints are kept at museums or private collections, never second-hand book stores.
Kusazoshi are divided into different colors, which denotes themes. There are Blue, Red, Yellow, and Black books to name just a few. The book I was dealing with was a Kurohon (黒本), which translates directly into “Black Book.” Kurohon deals with mature themes, usually great myths or the demons, particularly those that were written during the early 1800′s.
The cover was rather unremarkable. I was not exactly able to guess which type of wood the cover was made of, but the book had suffered some damage. The corners were warped slightly, and the border facing the binding was cracked in a few places, but the engravings on the cover constituting the illustration was in marvelous condition.
The engraving was of a sleepy village nestled between two mountains, with thick bamboo groves surrounding it. For reasons unknown, the engraving produced goosebumps all over my arms.
When I flipped the wooden cover, I would be lying if I didn’t say I didn’t scream like a little girl. A yellowed slip of paper fell out of the book and into my lap. Laughing, I gave the note a cursory glance. I have translated the note to the best of my ability, and unfortunately, I have not made a note of the original Japanese in my notes.
“This is the last remaining copy of the story known as Gozu, a tale of terror and desperation. It is a story with no morals, messages, or treasures to the reader. Its contents malicious, the writer unknown, and the owners lost, it offers nothing and takes everything.” -Showa 40 (1965).
Although now I have familiarized myself with Gozu, I could hardly take the note seriously. How could the Japanese equivalent of Bigfoot be found at a small second hand bookstore in Kobe? I would be more prone to believe a far-fetched conspiracy story of the Japanese government holding a vault of cursed relics.
While the story was written in Japanese that is far from its modern form, it was mostly written in Hiragana, which made the going easier than I had initially feared. With my limited knowledge of literature during that period, I still came across something that was not usually found within Kusazoshi. After the flyleaf, there seemed to be a record of what appeared to be the villagers concerning the story.
Now, this wasn’t particularly odd, Buddhist temples since the 1600′s in Japan used to keep detailed consensus records. Kusazoshi, particularly Kurohon were usually set in fiction, and the names listed within the consensus bore no relations with any particularly famous names or places throughout Japanese history.
After carefully scanning the consensus page, I took a deep breath (and opened another bag of chips), and settled in for a story of a lifetime.
Gozu began with the village depicted on the cover as the central setting, mainly going over the village’s internal economy and state of life. While for some historians this would be a treasure cove of information for cultural studies, Japan recorded its history early on since 900 A.D, so there was nothing within the immediate beginning that seemed to be a unique find.
The village (which simply called itself “village”) was surrounded by a thick grove of bamboos on to the east, west, and north with mountains to the south. This effectively made travel nigh impossible, as it took a strong man a few days to traverse through the bamboo groves. The mountains would take a strong man three days, and would lead to nowhere but the coast and sea.
The people of the village followed their own version of the “Bakufu” system (a system modeled upon the shogunate), but since they were isolated from any direct contact with the high court, had to fend for itself. Being isolated meant that the village was unharmed during the slew of civil wars and uprisings that followed, but it was a certain catch-22. The isolation also meant that during times of famine or pestilence they could not rely on the central government for support.
The village subsided mainly on their small rice paddies made on land they were able to clear of bamboo, and some small domesticated livestock. Many of the villagers were afraid to step too deep into the bamboo groves, as it was easy to lose track of oneself. Thus, small game and foraging for wild foodstuff were generally kept to a minimum.
The village carried on its peaceful tranquility, when during a rather rough summer the village was struck a crippling blow. Both their rice crops and livestock began to wither and die. While from the explanations it was quite obvious to the modern reader that the rice was hit with a bacterial blight and the livestock began to suffer from lung disease, the villagers jumped to the conclusion that the gods must not be pleased.
The village council decided that it was too rash to begin invoking any spirits or rites, and decided to try and tough out the remainder of time till the next harvest season.
When fall arrived and the harvest provided much more meager stocks than previously anticipated, many people in the village began to brave entering the bamboo groves to forage for wild mushrooms and tender bamboo shoots, as well as hunt and trap wild game. The village stockpiled their foraging together and it seemed that while the oncoming winter was not pleasant, no great famine would strike.
As the foraging carried on, the wild foodstuff growing closest to the village was the first to be depleted. The village quickly devised a system to forage deeper in the bamboo groves and minimizing the chances of getting lost. The women quickly wove a thin yet durable hemp rope, woven together so compactly that it was almost invisible to the naked eye unless the sunlight caught on it. They would tie it to the shrine at the center of the village, and holding the rest of the rope coiled in one hand, venture into the grove. The women were able to produce three long ropes in total, each rope was long enough for a person to encircle the entire village seven times before running taut.
The system was a success, holding onto the coil, the foragers were able to carefully retrace their tracks even during the dead of night, while some complained of broken noses caused by accidentally walking into bamboo trees headfirst. You have to break an egg to make an omelette.
This new system came to a screeching halt when one of the young women of the village, Aguri, entered the grove early one morning. Around midday, when the sun was the hottest, the men of the village were sitting together near the shade of the grove, cursing the blight and disease. Aguri came dashing out of the grove, her clothing in tatters, and her usually well-done hair in disarray. Although the men called out to her in surprise, she would not stop running until she prostrated herself at the end of the rope, at the foot of the shrine.
The village attempted for three days to nurse Aguri back to health. She would not stop mumbling about something in the woods that was trying to track her down. On the third day, she wailed so loudly that the families at the edge of the village heard her. Many rushed to Aguri’s house to see what the issue was, and found her aged mother, her only family member, kneeling on the front porch sobbing. Aguri had taken the hemp rope and hung herself.
After comforting the mother, the village council was finally able to procure an answer from Aguri’s mother. Aguri had found a small slope in the bamboo grove, and much to her surprise, found a large ginseng growing by a batch of light green bamboo shoots. The ginseng at that size would be potent enough to cure any disease or ailment, and the bamboo shoots of that color was highly prized, their taste akin to white rice. Aguri thanked the gods and took to harvesting, when she noticed something watching her.
Aguri had called it Gozu, and the mother was unsure where she had heard such a name. The mother never told any stories of the supernatural, as that invoked bad spirits. Aguri described it as a broad man, twice as broad as any man in the village, with great rippling muscles. However, his head was that of a cow.
Aguri had dropped all the bamboo shoots and even the ginseng, holding onto the hemp rope as tightly as she could while she ran frantically. The Gozu began to run alongside her, and Aguri had stared into the cow’s eyes. Aguri noticed that the Gozu was not staring at her, but rather the hemp rope she was holding, then ran quicker than her, disappearing into the grove, his hand holding onto the hemp rope.
Aguri had committed suicide, not out of fear, but out of guilt. She knew that if she had cut the hemp rope before the Gozu had disappeared into the difference with her sharp trowel, the rope would of been impossible to find. Aguri had let fear control her mind, and hoped that she would be saved. She had led the Gozu back to the village.
The village council remained silent.
Everyone in the village began to hotly debate the next course of action to take after Aguri’s demise. As much as the council tried to keep the incident that occurred in the grove a secret, the news spread throughout the entire village before nightfall.
When nightfall finally came, the men wore white hoods and carried brightly burning torches. In the midst of them was a corpse covered with a simple white shroud. Aguri’s body.
The council had deeply debated how to handle the situation at hand, and it was unanimously voted that her body was to be disposed of in the woods. The reason being twofold, she had committed a dishonorable suicide, she could find no repose in her family grave. The council also secretly hoped that disposing of Aguri in this manner would appease whatever creature lived in the woods.
The men held a simple rite for Aguri. She was a rather plain and honest girl, and there was not much to say. The men returned to the village before long, their hoods draped around their shoulders.
For a while the village returned to its old style of life. The groves were now forbidden to enter, and the council held sentry from the shrine. Two out of the three ropes had been coiled back from the bamboo forest, the one Aguri had taken with her on the fateful day remained out in the forest. The men were afraid of what they would find if they tried to recoil it.
The village had managed to supplement their meager harvest with the bounty of the groves, and it had seemed that peace had returned to the village. This all changed when Aguri stumbled back out of the grove and into the village.
It was at this point in the book that I heard my doorbell chime. I nearly jumped out of my skin, the chips I had forgotten on my lap spilled all over the floor. I rushed to the door, feeling uneasy.
Checking through the peephole, I was relieved to see it was my friend Shouta. His family owned a temple in a nearby area, Amagasaki to be exact, and was a paranormal geek like myself. He was much more deeply versed in East Asian culture and folklore than I, and I saw him something akin to a mentor.
Shouta stepped into the room, ignoring the chips and stepping directly onto them. He was a rather hard friend to like.
I cracked open a few beers while we discussed our day, I conveniently left out everything that had happened since the message earlier that morning. I gave a half-assed story about being locked in a p**n coma for the majority of the day. He snorted.
We spoke of work, the shows we caught the night before, and sooner or later the topic drifted back to the paranormal. Shouta began to tell me of a trip he took earlier that week to Iwate, when I thought of the perfectly “safe” question to ask him regarding Gozu.
I asked him if there were any legends or particularly held superstitions regarding forests, groves, or nature. Shouta looked down at his beer for a moment to what appeared to be in deep thought. I have transcribed his answer as best as I can:
“Forests exist everywhere around the world. Well, most parts where people began to live in anyways. Every culture and people have their own superstition concerning ‘the woods.’ There are still some startling similarities that can be seen as a global phenomenon. I was reading a fascinating book about this topic last year, but I can’t recall any other than this one. Every culture or people in the world that had some kind of dense foliage near the birth of their civilization warn of following the call of your voice in the woods. Its odd, even us Japanese have a version of it. We believe that there are malicious foxes (Kitsune) that call someone’s name, usually in the voice of a loved one, to bewitch them further and further away from a safe path. They lead the traveler to their demise, then assume their shape to wreak havoc.”
“The Malays on the other hand are even more careful than us Japanese, and their spirits even more malicious. Before a group of travelers embark onto a forest path, they give each other “code names,” and they are careful to never use the same code names in succession. Travelers, even tourist groups, are astounded when they hear their actual names being called throughout the forest, when no one knows their actual names.”
Shouta finished his beer, and began to get up. I walked with him back to my front door, wishing him a good night and thanking him for the information. It was not exactly an answer I was looking for in relation to what happened within Gozu, but it set even more gears turning in my head.
I returned to the book.