The Neon Witches of Shibuya


I lived in Iruma in Japan, just a forty-five minute express train ride through concrete and hills dotted with statues of former trees shaded with white snow from Tokyo, a place they still call the biggest city in the world. In my view, it is most certainly the biggest city in the world since the city began in my town, of course they don’t say it does but there is not a break in civilisation along the Seibu-Ikebukuro line. Aerials look like winter branches. Shiseido is a cliff face. Ebisu is a smiling giant I have never been scared of. Tokyo’s tendrils extend, most will not agree, along the tracks of the Shinkansen, the bullet train, to Shizuoka and a basin where all of Tokyo’s exhaust goes. The dark side of Fuji, where Tokyo can’t see the poor Shizuokans.

You might not know this, but witches exist in Tokyo. And I do not say this in cruelty, the pejorative usage of the word does no justice to the real existence of Yamamba, the witches of the mountain. I too think it strange that a fashion centre like Shibuya, one of the primary shopping districts and entertainment centres of Tokyo, teeming with pretty boys and girls vying for their own stretch of bench in full view of the millions that cross the neon-lit crosswalk, would be the new home of the Yamamba. It is a place replete with their wannabes, their imitators: the Ganguro.

I was lucky enough to meet some real Yamamba, though in the city of Maebashi, far closer to Akagi mountain, like many other great mountains one of the origins of the Yamamba. Few account for these Yamamba. They are clearly exiles from their mountains and many have come farther than Maebashi, convening in the most visible parts of Tokyo. Is it possible they sought the neon edifices of Shinjuku? Neon lights glistening with the colours of their hair? Tokyo has always had a strange relationship with the regions beyond it.

Here are the two young Yamamba I met in Maebashi below. If I look nervous it is because the Yamamba are notorious for dining on human flesh. These two seemed amicable enough.

Witches of Shibuya
Neon Witches of Shibuya

But they do seem better placed in the cities than mountains like Akagi. I was struck by the austerity and fearlessness of that mountain, its knobbled crown bashed against the sky, it had obviously tried to go too high. It is no Fuji, that great aristrocrat, garbed in tapered clothing, Akagi has been brought down before, it seems, and though standing tall against the sky, proudly bares its scars. A rich husband, though obstinate, for our Yamamba.

Though uncontested in Maebashi below the mountain, in Tokyo they must live amongst mimicry and ridicule. It is just the lights they seek, and when the salarymen tire them with their incredulous stares they can take the Yamanote line to Shinjuku, where at least they can hide in the crannies and stare up at the buzzing, the buzzing of kinship in colour. If the Yamamba still eat people, I would say they must be eating the Ganguro, those who blacken their skin as the young Yamamba once did when they gave themselves over to the neon but whose clothes are conventional. Their hair blonde or brown or silver, the Ganguro have no affinity with the city whatsoever. Their countenances are just barely painted and so disappear amongst everyone else into the forest of suits and footsteps. These Ganguro only stand out when in a group, sipping cool drink and avoiding the eyes of young men with electric hair. The Yamamba scoff at them and laugh without restraint. They throw pink beads at their feet. They kidnap Ganguro from the side entrance of Shibuya 109, mecca of Ganguro fashion, and eat them behind pachinko parlours. The industrial clamour of those pouring ball-bearings hides the Ganguros’ alleyway screams.

But is it really the neon, the omnipresent glowing light, the true guide for the Yamamba? The event I will divulge took place on a lovely spring day and I had chosen to visit Harajuku and perhaps catch a glimpse of one of the many variations of the Yamamba. Harajuku is a web of finer, hair-like streets drenched in the scents of crepes and plastic. Unlike Shibuya, Harajuku teems with sub-cultures mixed beyond apprehension. If you believe you can track the genealogy of a Lolita to a Goth-Lolita and then to those Little-Bo-Peeps in funereal black then I must say you are grossly simplifying things. After watching crowds of pink, red and black goths flutter by, I crushed my cardboard crepe-holder and threw it to the bin and then attempted to exit Takeshita Ave as best I could in the direction of Yoyogi Park.

There is a bridge over the train tracks to one entry of Yoyogi Park and every kind of performer frequents this place. Portrait artists. Puppeteers. But on this day my perspective on the Yamamba changed. Here, just metres from my place of rest, I had thought I had found their king. This strange being I can call neither person nor creature. Perhaps a god, or a demi-god, but nevertheless living amongst the people of Tokyo. From what cloud she descended, I do not know. I say “she” in respect for the intended gender although I could not be sure of any sex at all. This nameless demi-god had no imitator and certainly no partner. I stood and watched as this six foot tall figure, face and hands pitch black though the lips, eyes and ankles were bright white, moving slowly around a circle of string and clapping with a fan in hand in time with an archaic Japanese music. She was imitating the gestures of a Bon-Odori dance, a dance performed to acknowledge one’s ancestors as they come back to Earth during August.

At first, I was terrified! The breasts, which of course were fabricated, jutting out like horns, looked straight through me, and the pink lipstick looked much like the neon worn on the wrists and necks and in the hair of Yamamba. The god’s dance was a fumbled attempt at the dance performed during Bon-Odori and if I wasn’t mistaken the gestures were obtuse and farcical. And the skin was painted, what to make of that? Who would tolerate such conspicuous imitation? Could this supernatural being of jest be the Yamamba’s king? The neon kimono certainly lead me to believe so. But who wants a god who mocks its servants?

I had my reservations but then I thought again to the Ganguro. It was them who needed mocking. Them who needed to be dined upon. Careful thought is needed here. Am I siding with the Yamamba? The ones who would readily chew on my bones if I turned my back on them? I might be. Coming to see the god dancing in jest was mistakenly informed, this was not the Yamamba’s king but rather their servant, their jester. The Yamamba cannot eat all the Ganguro. The Ganguro have been multiplying like flies. It takes a god to mock them into submission.

Your thoughts?