Hitobashira (人柱, "human pillar"), was the practice of human sacrifice, being buried alive under buildings, dams, bridges, and castles as an offering to the gods in return that the said building would survive against all disasters and attacks. This was a ritual that has been recorded as taking place in Japan up until the latter part of the 16th century.
One famous episode of hitobashira took place at Maruoka Castle, a location which I visited just a few years ago.
Maruoka Castle in Fukui Prefecture, is one of the oldest surviving castles in Japan. The legend is that when Shibata Katsutoyo, the 16th century samurai nephew of Shibata Katsuie, a general to Oda Nobunaga, constructed the castle in 1576 the stone wall of the keep kept collapsing. One of Shibata's vassals suggested making a human sacrifice, hitobashira, to try and calm whatever unease was causing the problem. A poor one-eyed woman name O-shizu volunteered to be the sacrifice on the condition that one of her two sons would be made a samurai at some point in the future. The woman was buried alive under the stones, standing in the position of the central pillar, the base stones were piled around and over here until she was eventually crushed to death. After this the construction stayed solidly in place. Whatever curse had shrouded the castle had now been lifted after the death of O-shizu.
Shibata Katsutoyo's promise to the woman was not kept though. He was transferred to another province and O-shizu's son never became a samurai. The story goes that her resentful spirit made the moat overflow with spring rain when the season of cutting algae came in April every year. It became known as, "the rain caused by the tears of O-shizu's sorrow" and a small tomb was erected to soothe her spirit. A poem handed down reads,"The rain which falls when the season of cutting algae comes Is the rain reminiscent of the tears of the poor O-shizu's sorrow".
Entry into Maruoka Castle is permitted and the upper floor is reached by a steep ladder and rope!
Maruoka Castle is one of just twelve castles in Japan which has managed to keep its original tenshu (keep, highest tower).The former castle grounds are now part of Kasumigajo Park, which contains remnants of the ramparts and moats as well as a small museum displaying arms, armour, and household items related to its former lords. The area is also known for its many sakura trees and an annual cherry blossom festival is held during the first three weeks of April during which the trees are lit up in the evenings by over 300 paper lanterns.