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Then you should try my new book! Easy Stories in English is a collection of 10 short stories, with vocabulary descriptions and images. You can get it in four levels: beginner, pre-intermediate, intermediate and advanced. And you can even reread the same stories in each level, and really level up your vocabulary.
To get the book, go to EasyStoriesInEnglish.com/Book.
Take your English to the next level today!
Welcome to Easy Stories in English, the podcast that will take your English from OK to Good, and from Good to Great.
I am Ariel Goodbody, your host for this show. Today’s story is for intermediate learners. The name of the story is A Holiday Gone Wrong. You can find a transcript of the episode at EasyStoriesInEnglish.com/Holiday. That’s EasyStoriesInEnglish.com/Holiday. This contains the full story, as well as my conversation before it.
So, if you didn’t know already, you now definitely know because of the introduction, but: my book is out! You can go and buy my book now. And just a reminder, the link to buy the book is EasyStoriesInEnglish.com/Book. Or just go to EasyStoriesInEnglish.com and I’ll have a picture up on the main page where you can buy the book.
Unfortunately, I am recording this episode in advance, so I can’t tell you yet how the book launch went. Hopefully, it went really well! But I want to make sure that I can have a nice rest during release week, and that I don’t have to record another episode, so I’m recording this in advance.
Anyway, I’m sure the book launch went fine! If it went horribly, or if it went brilliantly—either way, you’ll find out next week. And again, you can go to EasyStoriesInEnglish.com/Book to buy it, and please consider leaving a review! That would be fantastic.
And if you can’t buy the book now, or you don’t feel like it, that’s absolutely fine! Just by listening to the podcast you are already massively supporting me. So thank you so much!
Today’s story is inspired by one of my favourite Japanese animated TV shows, Higurashi no naku koro ni. Higurashi is a horror series, so it’s very scary. It has lots of blood, killing and torture, and it’s definitely not for children. So DON’T listen to this episode if you don’t like horror stories or if you’re young or you’re playing this episode to your kids—watch out! ’Cause this is a scary story.
What I love about Higurashi as a series is, not only does it have this horror element, it also has lots of really fun comedy and slice of life scenes.
So a ‘slice of life’ show is a show that gives you a slice of life, a piece of real life. So basically, just seeing the characters interact in their normal life and having fun.
But it also has time travel, which is one of my favourite things in a TV show or a book. I’m quite picky about the kind of time travel I like. I only like quite specific kinds of time travel stories, and Higurashi is just the perfect kind of time travel for me. I absolutely love it.
Another really cool thing about this show is it’s set in a Japanese village and it’s actually based on a real village. So all of the locations from the show exist in real life. You can go and see them in this traditional Japanese village… in Japan. Obviously!
So I really want to visit this place, and when I was in Japan in 2013, I almost did, but it’s a bit hard to get to. Luckily, my girlfriend wants to go to Japan with me at some point, so I will definitely go then.
But, I don’t know, after writing this story, maybe I shouldn’t go? You’ll see what I mean…
OK, I’ll just explain some words that are in today’s story.
A curse is an evil spell, evil magic. When you curse something, you change something about it, and the curse must be broken to get it back to normal. For example, a witch or wizard might curse a prince so that he dies on his eighteenth birthday. To break the curse, the prince has to have true love’s kiss.
Shinto is one of the religions in Japan. In Shinto, people believe that there are gods, or spirits, that live in many things, such as trees, stones and animals. Shrines are holy buildings, similar to churches. So a Shinto shrine is basically a church, but for Shintoism and not Christianity. Shinto shrines have big red gates outside, which are very famous outside of Japan. There is a beautiful Shinto shrine on an island called Miyajima, which ‘floats’ on the water at high tide. I’ve been there, and it’s pretty amazing!
Mecca is a city in Saudi Arabia. Mecca contains Hajj, a holy place in Islam. Muslims are supposed to do a pilgrimage to Hajj at least once in their lives. This means that they should take a holy journey to Hajj. In English, we often use ‘Mecca’ to speak about Hajj. We also use ‘Mecca’ in a wider sense, to talk about a place that is special and important to visit for a certain group of people. For example, Disney World is a Mecca for many people who love Disney films. For me, the village mentioned in this story is a personal Mecca—it is a place I really want to visit.
Guts are your insides, the bits of your body below your stomach. When you eat food, it goes into your stomach. Then it goes into a long part of your body called your intestines—you have a small intestine and a large intestine. There is another part of your body called your liver, which removes poisons from the body. These are all your guts. Hopefully, you’ll never get to see your guts, because if you can see your guts then something horrible has happened!
A cicada is a type of insect that is found in warm countries. Cicadas have long wings that you can see through. Cicadas sit on trees and make a loud sound in the summer. This sound involves clicking and chirping. Cicadas live underground. At a certain age, they fly out and moult, lose their old skin, so that they can use their wings.
When you fly a long way, for example from the UK to Japan, you will probably have jet lag. Jet lag is when your body still thinks it’s the same time as at home, so you can’t get to sleep at a normal time in your new country. For example, if I leave the UK at 8am and fly 12 hours to Japan, it will be 12pm when I arrive. However, my body will think it’s 8pm, so at 2pm, I’ll be ready to go to bed. Jet lag is a serious problem for frequent travellers.
In many Asian countries, people usually do not eat with knives and forks, but instead chopsticks. Chopsticks are small wooden sticks that you hold in your hands and use to pick up food. If you’ve never used chopsticks before, they can be a bit hard to use, but some food is much better to eat with chopsticks, like sushi.
Incense are wooden sticks that you burn because they make a nice smell. Actually, incense comes from the gum of trees, or certain spices, but when you buy it it comes as a stick. Incense is particularly popular in India and Japan. Incense is traditionally burned as a part of Buddhist ceremonies. For example, in Japan, during Buddhist funerals, incense sticks are put in a bowl and burned.
A crow is a black bird with a big black nose. Crows are very intelligent. For example, they can tell each other about where to find food, and can learn to talk. Crows open their beaks to make a loud sound, [caws], which we call a caw. To be honest, crows are very similar to ravens. The main difference between ravens and crows is that ravens are a bit bigger.
When you do a series of things in a specific order and way, that’s a ritual. For example, your morning ritual might be to make coffee in a specific way and enjoy it while looking out of the window. Rituals are often an important part of religion. For example, marriage is an important ritual for many people, as you say things and do things in a very specific way.
If you enjoy the podcast and want more, you can support me on Patreon. For just $2 a month you can get exercises with each episode, and for $5, you get an extra story every month, as well as Elevenses with Ariel, a daily conversational podcast for intermediate learners.
July’s bonus story is a levelled-up version of a beginner story, Stone Soup. In this pre-intermediate version of the story, you get more details about the main character, and find out about the awful war that drove him to trick poor people to make him soup. Well, he still dies in the end, but that happens in a lot of my stories!
A big thank-you to my new patrons: 亜由美 山成, Evgenia Iun, Manuela and Chris Auer. Thank you so much. Your support really means a lot to me.
OK, so listen and enjoy!
A Holiday Gone Wrong
It had taken me a 12-hour flight and a four-hour bus journey, but I was finally here.
Shirakawa-go, a traditional Japanese village hidden among the mountains in the centre of Japan. It had peaceful rice fields, thick mountain forests and charming traditional houses, but I wasn’t here to get away from the fast pace of Tokyo.
No, I was here because of murder, madness and ancient curses.
That made it sound awfully dramatic. Really, I was here because of my favourite Japanese animated series, Higurashi no naku koro ni. The series was set in the village of Hinamizawa, but everything, from the old wooden houses, the Shinto shrine and the arrangement of trees and rivers was almost exactly identical to the village of Shirakawa-go.
This made it the perfect Mecca for fans of the series, but this wasn’t some cute, relaxed show about life in the countryside. It was a time-travelling psychological horror series with just as much blood and guts as cute girls and comedy scenes.
As I walked into the village, already sweating under the 35-degree weather, I heard the clicks and chirps of the cicadas. Normally, this would be a sign of lazy summer days, but to fans of the show, it had a completely different meaning. The title of the show meant ‘When the cicadas cry’, which had as much to do with the chirps of the insects as the cries of victims being murdered. I couldn’t help but shiver as I heard them, even though it was so hot I had a headache.
The cicadas’ chirping meant I had arrived.
Unfortunately, although reaching my very own Mecca had been such an important goal for me, I hadn’t planned things so well. I thought coming off season would mean cooler temperatures, but I’d managed to choose one of the hottest summers in recent history for Japan. Not only that, but without the usual number of tourists, many shops were closed, and I found myself with nothing to eat and drink but a bottle of water and a single onigiri, a rice ball.
I also hadn’t had the best luck on my trip so far. I’d stayed the first few nights in Tokyo, trying, unsuccessfully, to get over my jet lag. Instead, I’d just gotten sick off the heat and the sudden change in diet. Apparently, eating cheap ramen and Japanese sweets all day wasn’t good for your body.
But my worst mistake came on the first night, when I was still half-dead with jet lag, and I got a bowl of rice and meat in a restaurant. Halfway through eating my meal, I stuck my chopsticks into the rice to check my phone.
Only seconds later, an old woman walked up to me, shouting in fluent Japanese. I had been studying as hard as I could, but no textbook could prepare me to understand an angry old woman telling me I’d just done something extremely offensive. As I learned after getting help from Google Translate and apologising endlessly, chopsticks stuck in a bowl of rice looked very similar to incense sticks stuck in a bowl, a key part of a traditional Buddhist funeral. It was bad luck to do so, and I felt like an idiot tourist for days afterwards.
Still, it was all going to be worth it, because I was finally here, in Shirakawa-go. I wasted no time, and immediately started climbing the stone stairs up the hill. I passed by the Shinto shrine, an important location from the TV series. A group of crows was sitting outside, which was very suitable, because in a memorable—and horrible—scene in the show, one of the characters was found dead outside the shrine, crows eating her guts.
I decided to go into the shrine later. I wanted to get to the top of the hill before the midday sun beat down in full force. It wasn’t such a big climb, but in the heat it felt like Mt. Fuji, and my lungs were exploding by the time I got to the top. I barely stopped to rest, though. Looking out over the village, I compared the real life image to the animated shots I had seen so many times watching the show. I remembered everything that had happened here—all the fights, the tense conversations, the murders…
I hated looking like a tourist, but nobody was around, and I had to take something to remember this. So I leant back against the fence and took out my phone to take a picture of myself. It was hard to get myself and the whole view in shot, so I leant back further, and then—
I fell, landing in the grass and then rolling. I was so surprised I didn’t even cry out, but as I kept rolling, I picked up speed. I rolled over grass, then dirt and rocks, until I rolled right off a big rock.
I flew several feet into the air, still unable to scream, and I landed precisely on my right leg.
Pain exploded through me, and now the screaming came. It felt like my leg had been torn apart, and when I looked down, I saw the white flash of bone. I immediately rolled over and threw up, which was worse, because it put more pressure on my leg.
I panted wildly, the smell of my breakfast—bread with sweet bean paste—attacking my nose. It smelled like blood.
Once I’d calmed down a bit, I looked around me. I had fallen far, so far that the top of the hill was just a distant dot above me. I was in the woods which climbed up one side of the hill, and everything was quieter than before. I couldn’t hear the crows, or the sound of human voices.
All I heard were the clicks and chirps of the cicadas.
Panic gripped me.
‘Help, help!’ I screamed. ‘Tasukete, tasukete!’
When I’d studied Japanese, I’d had no idea I would actually need that phrase, but it didn’t matter. I screamed for what felt like hours, but nobody came.
There was no doubt about it. I had broken my leg, and I needed to get to help.
I tried standing up on my left leg, but the hill was steep, and every time I tried to stand I fell over. I couldn’t lean on my right leg, which meant it was impossible to get enough balance. It didn’t help that I was sweating like a pig and shaking with panic.
I saw my phone a few feet away from me, and my brain started working again. Thank God, it hadn’t fallen far from me, and it didn’t look broken, either. If I could just get to it, I could call for help.
Crawling on my hands and knees, I made my way over to the phone. Every time a stick or a rock brushed against my broken leg, I gasped with pain, but finally, I made it to my phone.
And then I remembered something. I had a British phone, that worked on British telephone waves. Japan used a different system, meaning my phone was useless. I checked just to see if there were any Wifi networks nearby, but of course there weren’t.
I was going to have to get to help on my own.
Well, going down was easier than going up. I checked nothing had fallen out of my bag, took a big drink of water, and started moving down the hill.
As I passed through the trees, I remembered a scene from the show, Higurashi. One of the characters had gone mad, because of a disease that affected people in the village. He ran through the forest, holding a baseball bat, chasing after one of his friends with the intention of breaking her head open. I suddenly realised that I was completely unprotected here. If a crazy murderer, or even a wild animal, wanted to attack me, I could do nothing to stop them.
Suddenly, the TV show that had brought me here felt terrifyingly real.
I crawled faster, and eventually I made it out of the trees. I cried for help, but with the river nearby, nobody would hear it. After resting for a while, I kept going. By this point, it felt like my leg was on fire, and every movement drove the flames even higher. Part of me wanted to find a sharp rock and cut my leg off, and I wondered if the madness had taken me, too.
In the show, the villagers all spoke of ‘Oyashiro’s curse’. Oyashiro was the local god, who the villagers respected and feared. Each year, one person would die and another would disappear, and the people whispered that Oyashiro had taken them.
Had I become victim to Oyashiro’s curse? Had I offended him in some way, and now he was punishing me with a slow and cruel death? I had never believed in such things before, but now it was seeming more and more likely.
I passed by a traditional building, and it took me a moment to realise what it was. It was the ritual tool shed, exactly the same as how it looked in the show.
Inside, the villagers kept horrible devices to punish anyone who offended Oyashiro: machines to tear your nails out, beds to tie people to and stretch them out, and a sharp tool that was used every year in the town’s summer festival. In the modern day, it had acquired a much more innocent use, as part of a ritual dance, but in the village’s history, it was used to tear out people’s guts.
At one end of the room, a statue of Oyashiro looked down, judging all who entered. Even though I couldn’t see inside the shed, I felt his eyes burning through me.
No, I reminded myself. None of that was real! There was probably nothing like that inside. That was fiction, and this was reality. But still, as I crawled past the shed, inch by inch, I felt my guts itch, like they were trying to escape.
I left the ritual tool shed, and the cruel eyes of Oyashiro, but my journey wasn’t over yet. Now I came to the river, where, in the show, the village’s yearly festival took place. Here, the villagers tore out cotton from old beds and sofas and threw it into the river. The innocent tradition had a much darker history, though. Thousands of years before, it wasn’t cotton, but a victim’s guts that were torn out and thrown into the river as an offering to Oyashiro.
Now that I was out in the open, away from the trees, I tried shouting for help again. I screamed until my body shook, to make sure I was heard over the sound of the river.
But still, nobody came. I hadn’t seen a single person since I climbed the hill. When had that been? It had probably only been a few hours, but it felt like decades of my life had passed, trapped in an endless punishment as I crawled through the trees.
I made the mistake of looking behind me, and saw a thin trail of blood on the ground, from where my broken leg had been. I hadn’t lost that much blood, but it was enough to make me want to throw up again, and I had to try hard to keep my food down.
Was this how I was going to die, as a stupid tourist abroad, falling down a cliff while trying to take a picture? I wouldn’t have minded it so much—there were far worse places to die. Except Shirakawa-go, my Mecca, this peaceful part of the past, was a living cemetery, where the bloody ghosts of a fictional TV show haunted me.
I didn’t think I could ever watch the show again after this. That was, if I survived this. The midday sun was beating cruelly on me now, and I had been stupid enough to crawl out of the shade, without the energy to return. If I didn’t get help soon, I would pass out and…
‘Young man, what are you doing? Oh! You’re hurt!’
I looked up, hardly able to believe it. I was hearing a human voice, an old man’s voice, and despite the awful situation, I was able to understand his Japanese.
I blinked, watching the figure slowly approach me, walking almost as slowly as I had crawled.
‘Tasukete…’ I murmured.
I was safe… wasn’t I? Or had this man come to end things? I couldn’t tell if he was holding a walking stick, or a weapon.
Not that it mattered. It was too late. My whole body was collapsing, and everything went black.
I woke up and saw a red sky. The clouds sat above me, and then they started moving quickly. I thought I must be dreaming, until I realised I was the one moving. I was lying down, being carried into an ambulance.
‘Oi, daijoubu? Are you OK?’
I looked to my left and saw one of the men in the ambulance. There was a woman to my right, putting something on my leg. Everything felt strange, like I was wrapped in cotton. I wondered if they had given me some drugs. In the series, one of the characters, an evil nurse, gave people a drug that made them go mad and kill themselves and others around them.
‘It’s OK,’ I said quietly. ‘I’m too tired to kill anyone.’
The ambulance workers looked very confused, but I was too tired to explain. To me, it made perfect sense.
‘I wonder if this is because of Oyashiro’s curse. Oyashiro-sama no tatari kana…’
The ambulance workers’ confusion turned to anger.
‘Young man,’ said the one on my left. ‘Don’t joke about that. Joudan janai zo.’
‘What, you really believe in that?’ I said.
The two workers looked at each other, then at me.
‘Stop talking,’ the right one said. ‘You should rest.’
They finished working on me, closed the doors, and we drove away.
Through the sound of the engine, I could hear something, but I couldn’t tell what it was. It wasn’t until we got to the hospital that I realised.
It was the cicadas’ cries.
Even inside, when they were treating my leg, I could hear it. It got louder and louder over the week, until I could hear it every minute of every day.
I didn’t tell anyone about it. Who would believe me? I just told myself that it was an unusually hot summer, and that there were more cicadas than usual.
It didn’t take me long to recover, and I was forced to end my holiday and go home early. Travelling around Japan with a broken leg wasn’t going to be any fun, and my mum insisted that I come home so she could look after me.
When I got onto the plane, I finally had a break from the cicadas. The engine was too loud to hear anything else. It would all be fine when I got home, I told myself.
But when I landed, the cicadas’ cries still rang in my ears. They followed me, day and night, and even in the comfort of my family home, I couldn’t sleep with them.
I tell you this, dear reader, as a warning. If you hear of a curse, a haunted place, or a god’s anger, do not ignore it. Sometimes, reality is stranger than fiction.
My leg has healed now, but I still hear the cicadas in my ear, day and night. And sometimes, in the dark of the night, I feel my guts itching.
Like they want to escape.
If you enjoyed the story and want to say thank you, you can buy me a coffee on Ko-Fi. Just go to EasyStoriesInEnglish.com and click the orange button that says Buy me a coffee! Then you’ll be able to send me $3 so that I can buy a coffee, but really, I’ll probably get a bubble tea. And I’ll think of you while I drink it! Thank you for listening, and until next week.