But no taxi driver can take these ghost passengers where they want to go...

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Settling into the back of the taxi, the young woman put her bag on the empty seat next to her and undid her warm coat.

‘Can you take me to Minamihama, please?’ she asked the driver.

The driver was puzzled.

‘There’s nothing at Minamihama anymore,’ he said.

For a brief moment, there was silence. And then the passenger spoke again.

‘Have I died?’ she asked.

The driver turned to look at her – but she’d disappeared.

And so it’s been for years for the taxi drivers of Ishinomaki – a small city in the north-east of Japan.

Ever since Friday 11 March, 2011, when – at 2.46pm – a massive earthquake struck under the sea, 40 miles off the coast.

Magnitude Nine, it lasted 6 whole minutes.

No one had seen it coming.

And, in its wake, it brought the tsunami. Triggered by the underwater quake, a wall of seawater rushed towards the shore.

Waves of 10 meters pummelled the coastline and surged six miles inland. Buildings were destroyed, roads torn apart, rail lines wrecked.

Whole towns obliterated…

Aftermath of the disaster

Aftermath of the tsunami (Photo: PA Photos)

And then, more disaster.

The nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant failed. There was a fire, an explosion – radioactive chemicals spewed into the atmosphere.

It was the worst nuclear accident in human history.

Official records show 15,893 died that day. And 2,572 are still missing.

The coastal city of Ishinomaki was one of the worst hit by the tsunami with 3,000 killed.

Entire districts were flattened by the wall of water, including Minamihama.

Police search for the missing

Police search for the missing (Photo: PA Photos)

In the last five years, the people of Ishinomaki have tried to rebuild their lives.

Some services have started again.

Schools have opened. Shops have begun trading. Buses have started running.

And taxis.

But the taxi drivers of Ishinomaki have started picking up many young passengers…who don’t seem to be of this world any more.

There was the young woman who wanted to go to Minamihama.

Another driver reported picking up a man in his 20s who said he wanted to go to Hiyoriyama. A hill overlooking Ishinomaki, it’s the best place to see the vast destruction caused by the tsunami.

Later, the driver pulled over outside the park to find his passenger had disappeared.

Another passenger asked to be taken to a residential address, where the driver found the house rubble, flattened on that day in March 2011.

‘Are you sure this is the right place?’ he asked the passenger.

But the passenger was gone.

The reports from these taxi drivers were collected and studied by Yuko Kudo, of the Tohoku Gakuin University.

She interviewed a further 100 taxi drivers and noticed strange connections between each reported incident.

Every time, the taxi drivers believed they were picking up real, genuine, living passengers. Because, every time, they started their meters.

As soon as a driver starts the meter, they are liable for the fare. When the passengers vanished, the drivers had to cover the cost of the lost fare.

Another connection was the age of the passengers – all were young.

Yuko says those who die before their time feel deep disquiet.

So were the passengers shadows of the people lost on 11 March 2011?

Yuko continues, ‘As they want to convey their bitterness, they may have chosen taxis, which are like private rooms, as a medium to do so.’

Strangely, not one of the taxi drivers who’d encountered any of these ghost passengers had reported feeling scared.

Rather, they welcomed the meetings, said they’d be happy to meet their phantom fares.

But are these passengers really ghosts?

Are they, perhaps, glimmers of the people who died? Or of the people still missing?

Psychiatrist, Keizo Hara, believes there are no ghost passengers, no shadows of lost souls. Instead, he says the ‘missing’ passengers are simply signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

‘Ghost sightings are perhaps a mental projection of the terror and worries associated with those places,’ he says.

But, for each taxi driver, the encounters are real.

Death, to them, is no stranger since the tsunami. And when they pick up a passenger from the other side, they’re happy to perhaps help ease the pain of those young spirits. Take those passengers. To drive the unquiet shadows to their old lives – wherever it is they wish to go…

The Phantom Hitchhikers of America

Young man hitchhiking at roadside

Young man hitchhiking at roadside (Photo: iStockphoto)

In the early 1940s, two anthropologists called Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey investigated 79 reports of phantom hitchhikers in 60 locations across the USA. Motorists were picking up hitchhikers who’d climb into the car only to vanish at a later stage of the journey…