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The Sengoku or Warring States period in Japan was a time of great social upheaval and political intrigue. It was during the Onin War (1467–1477) that Aoyama Tessan, the chief retainer of Kotera Norimoto, lord of the magnificent Himeji Castle, plotted intrigue against the lordship.
No one would have suspected if Okiku, one of Aoyama's young maids had not overheard him discussing his plans with his follower, Chonotsubo Genshiro, for Lord Kotero held him in high esteem and had even given him a fine mansion within the castle walls and a set of priceless porcelain dishes from Heibei Province.
Aoyama was very pleased with his spacious mansion. He was especially impressed with its protective wooden walls, which, like the impregnable castle, were covered with white plaster for fire protection. He also treasured his new set of dishes, which immediately became a valued family heirloom and declared so precious that anyone who broke one risked being put to death.
Smitten by the beauty of Okiku, he entrusted the dishes to her safekeeping, which she locked in silk-lined wooden chest. He hoped that by honouring her with his trust, he would win her affections. There were ten dishes in the set: three cups, three saucers, three plates and a teapot. They were made of the most delicate, translucent, snow-white porcelain she had ever seen.
Okiku was indeed honoured by Aoyama's gesture, but she was not sure of her new master's intentions. He was a famous samurai, after all, and far above her station. What could he possibly want with her, other than a fleeting romance? So she steadfastly refused his advances.
Besides, she was already secretly betrothed to the handsome young samurai Kinugasa Motonobu. They met every night by the castle's main well while everyone slept, and there pledged their love for one another in the light of the moon god Tsukiyomi no Mikoto.
When she overheard Aoyama plotting against Lord Norimoto, she knew in her heart that she was right to have refused him. That night by the well, she told Kinusaga Aoyame's plans.
He vowed seek an audience with Lord Noritomo. Unfortunately for the young lovers, Aoyama's mother had followed Okiku to see why she was sneaking about the castle in the dark. She scurried back to the mansion and told her son what she had heard and seen and heard.
Burning with jealousy and furious that a mere maid would dare defy him, he ordered his mother to remove one of the dishes from Okiku's chest without her knowledge. Terrified for her own life, the old woman bowed herself out the door. When she was out of his sight, she relaxed her guard and cackled to herself over how simple a task it would be, as female head of the household, to steal a dish from one of her maids.
Having seen to the maid's demise, Aoyama sent for his faithful follower Chonotsubo and instructed him to keep Kinugasa too busy to report to Lord Noritomo; and, if possible, he was to discreetly arrange for him to have a fatal accident.
Once his plans were set in motion, he asked to see the dishes. To Okiku's horror, the teapot was missing! Devastated by her own carelessness, the young maid ran out of the castle and wept by the well. She knew the price she would have to pay for losing or breaking one of the mansion's priceless dishes was death.
After three days and nights of letting Okiku suffer fear of death and loss of her lover's company, Aoyama went to her and offered to forgive her if she would become his lover. Knowing that her life would be forfeit if she refused him this time, she threw herself into the well and drowned.
In the afterlife, she lived in the well and wandered restlessly throughout the mansion clothed in her white burial kimono. When she learned of Aoyama's deception, she became vengeful. Her apparition appeared in the early hours of the morning and hovered over his sleeping form. Then she woke him by slowly counting to nine and shrieking in the most hideous voice, "Where is my teapot Aoyama?"
She continued to torment the samurai in this way for months, until he became so wan and thin from lack of food and sleep that he could barely walk, let alone lift his sword. Wracked with guilt over her hand in her son's misery, his mother devised a plan. She hid behind the screen in his bedroom and waited for Okiku's nightly visitation. When the ghost counted to nine, she jumped out and yelled, "Ten!"
Okiku was so startled by the rude interruption, her mouth snapped shut and she could not open it to shriek. Frustrated, she shook her fists and glared at Aoyama, but the old woman stood in front of him and glared back.
Go back to your well and stay there, Okiku," she commanded. "Just look at poor Aoyama. He's not half the man he used to be, and now he's roaming around like one of the living dead. You've had your revenge. Leave us in peace."
Okiku listened and nodded, but she was not quite satisfied. She needed one final symbolic act of revenge. She snatched the precious porcelain teapot and disappeared into the well. From that night forward, her sad voice could be heard counting to nine. The locals whisper that if you linger by the well under a full moon long enough to hear her shriek, you will age nine years and go mad. Many years later, Okiku was enshrined in this city as the goddess of Junisho Shrine.