TRANSLATION: unknown fire
HABITAT: along the shores of Kyūshū
APPEARANCE: Shiranui are a specific type of kaii known as a kaika, or mysterious fire. They appear in bodies of water around Kyūshū on dark, calm nights—particularly at the end of the 7th month according to the old lunar calendar. They are most visible during the strongest ebb tide, around 3 am, and appear roughly 8 to 12 kilometers off shore. They can be seen from elevated parts of the coast, but not from sea level.
BEHAVIOR: Shiranui begin with one or two distant fireballs, called oyabi, floating just above the surface of the sea. The oyabi sway left and right, splitting apart and multiplying until finally there are hundreds or thousands of fireballs swaying in the distance. This line of fireballs can stretch out for many kilometers.
ORIGIN: Shiranui were thought to be manifestations of the lanterns created by Ryūjin, the dragon god of the sea. On days that shiranui appeared, local villages were forbidden to catch fish in the same area as the kaika. Boats that tried approaching shiranui reported that no matter how long they sailed, the fireballs remained far away on the horizon.
TRANSLATION: dragon lights
HABITAT: oceans, coasts, lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water
APPEARANCE: Ryūtō are kaika which appear just above the surface of the water on calm, peaceful nights. They create no heat, nor do they burn anything. They are only found in bodies of water which are home to dragons.
BEHAVIOR: Ryūtō start out as single orbs of flame which hover a few meters above the surface of the water. They soon begin to multiply, until there are countless orbs. These fireballs float about aimlessly along the water, stretching and shrinking and morphing their shapes. Some of them sink back into the water. Others float up into the sky or nestle into the treetops. At dawn, they merge back together into one orb before vanishing back into the sea.
INTERACTIONS: Ryūtō are considered by the Japanese to be a manifestation of light caused by the dragons which inhabit bodies of water. Areas where ryūtō routinely appear often have shrines near them, and the lights themselves are considered sacred. On nights that ryūtō appear, people gather along the shore to watch these dancing and changing holy flames.
LEGENDS: The Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima Prefecture (old Bingo and Aki Provinces) is not only one of the most famous shrines in Japan, but also a popular sightseeing location for watching ryūtō. The lights appear on the tranquil surface of Hiroshima Bay for about a week starting on New Year’s Day. They are believed to appear because the Itsukushima Shrine is dedicated to the gods of the sea and thus is connected with Ryūjin.
TRANSLATION: oil baby
HABITAT: human-inhabited areas
DIET: lamp oil
APPEARANCE: Abura akago are yōkai from Ōmi Province. They are a type of hi no tama, or fireball, but can also take on the shape of a baby.
BEHAVIOR: Abura akago first appear as mysterious orbs of fire which float aimlessly through the night sky. They drift from house to house and—upon entering one—transform into small babies. In this baby form, they lick the oil from oil lamps and paper lanterns, known as andon. They then turn back into orbs and fly away.
ORIGIN: Like many other oil-related yōkai, abura akago are said to originate from oil thieves. While the particular circumstances of these oil thieves are lost to time, they mirror so many other yōkai that we can infer that these thieves died and—instead of passing on to the next life—turned into yōkai as a penalty for their sins.
TRANSLATION: ancient battlefield fire
ALTERNATE NAMES: kosenjō no hi
HABITAT: ancient battlefields
APPEARANCE: Kosenjōbi are a type of onibi, or demon fire. They gather in places were bloody battles have been fought. Kosenjōbi appear as countless orbs of flame which float about aimlessly through the air.
BEHAVIOR: Kosenjōbi are formed from the blood of the countless warriors and animals which died in battle and never passed on to Nirvana. The blood soaks into the earth and rises up into the air at night. It creates fiery shapes. Kosenjōbi occasionally take on the form of wounded warriors and animals. These phantoms search for their missing body parts or just wander forlornly across the battlefield.
Though eerie to look at, kosenjōbi do not harm the living.
TRANSLATION: old hag fire
APPEARANCE: Ubagabi is a kind of hi-no-tama, or fireball yokai. It appears on rainy nights near riverbanks, and takes the form of a 1 foot diameter ball of flame with the face of an old woman in it. It can also appear as a chicken, but does not remain in this form for long. They are created out of the ghosts of old women who were caught stealing oil and died of shame.
BEHAVIOR: Ubagabi have the uncanny ability to fly long distances — up to 4 kilometers — in the blink of an eye. Occasionally they graze a person’s shoulder and then continue off into the darkness. The unfortunate people whom they bounce off of invariably end up dying somehow within three years. However, if one is quick enough and shouts, “Abura-sashi!” (oil thief) just as an ubagabi comes flying towards him or her, the yokai will vanish. The shame at being called out as an oil thief is too much to bear even in death, apparently.
LEGENDS: Long ago in Osaka there lived an old woman who was very poor. In order to make ends meet, she resorted to stealing oil from the lamps at Hiraoka shrine — a terrible crime in an age when oil was so rare and precious. Eventually she was caught by the shrine’s priests and her crime was exposed. From then on, the people of her village shunned her, and would shout out at her for being an oil thief. So great was the old woman’s shame that she went to the pond behind the shrine and committed suicide. Such unclean deaths never turn out well, and instead of dying properly she turned into an yokai. To this day, the pond behind Hiraoka shrine is known by locals as “Ubagabi-ike” (the pond of the ubagabi).
TRANSLATION: aimless fire
ALTERNATE NAMES: buraribi, sayuribi
APPEARANCE: Furaribi is a small, flying creature wreathed in flames. It appears late at night near riverbanks. It has the body of a bird, and its face is somewhat dog-like. It is a type of hi-no-tama, or fireball yokai. It does very little except for float about aimlessly, which is how it got its name.
ORIGIN: Furaribi are created from the remains of a soul which has not properly passed on to the next life. This is most often due to not receiving proper ceremonial services after dying. In Japan there are a number of important ceremonies performed at fixed intervals which occur for many years after someone’s death — missing even one of these could cause a soul to become lost and be unable to rest. Furaru-bi is one of these lost souls.
LEGENDS: In the late 16th century, Toyama was ruled by a samurai named Sassa Narimasa. Narimasa kept a very beautiful concubine named Sayuri in his household. Sayuri was not well liked by the female servants and other women in Sassa Narimasa’s household. They were jealous of her beauty and of Narimasa’s love for her. One day, these women conspired against Sayuri and started a rumor that she had been unfaithful to Narimasa with one of his own men. Narimasa flew in a fit of jealous rage, murdered Sayuri, then took her body down to the Jinzū river. He hung her corpse from a tree and proceeded to carve it into pieces with his sword. Then he captured Sayuri’s entire extended family — 18 people in all — and executed them in the same manner. Afterwards, their tortured souls aimlessly wandered the riverbanks every night as furaribi.
It is said if you go down to the riverside and call out, “Sayuri, Sayuri!” late at night, the floating, severed head of a woman will appear, pulling and tearing at her hair in a vengeful fury. As for Sassa Narimasa, he was later defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Some have attributed his defeat by Hideyoshi to the vengeful curse of Sayuri’s ghost.
TRANSLATION: well bucket fire
ALTERNATE NAMES: tsurube otoshi, tsurube oroshi
HABITAT: coniferous trees deep in the forests of Shikoku and Kyushu
APPEARANCE: Tsurubebi are small tree spirits which appear at night, deep in coniferous forests. They take the form of blueish-white orbs of fire which bob up and down in the branches, occasionally dropping to the forest floor and floating back up into the trees. Their name comes from the way they bob about in the trees, which is supposed to resemble a well bucket swinging back and forth. Sometimes the vague shape of a human or bestial face can be seen in the flames.
BEHAVIOR: Tsurubebi do very little other than bob up and down or drop from branches. Their flames produce no heat and do not burn the trees that they live in; nor do these yokai pose any other known threat. While tsurubebi is most often considered to be a tree spirit, it has also been suggested that it is closely related to another yokai named tsurube otoshi. These two yokai share many similarities, including their names, coniferous habitat, and dropping-down behavior. However, while tsurube otoshi is malevolent and dangerous, tsurubebi appears to be entirely benign and uninterested in humans.
叢原火 or 宗源火
TRANSLATION: Sōgen’s fire
HABITAT: spotted at Mibu-dera in Kyoto
APPEARANCE: Sōgenbi is a type of hi no tama, or fireball yokai. It appears as the anguished head of an old monk, covered in flame, and flying about the sky.
LEGENDS: Long ago, at the temple of Mibu-dera in southern Kyoto there lived a monk named Sōgen. Sōgen was a wicked monk, for he would steal money out of the temple’s saisen bako, a large wooden box which holds offerings. He also made off with precious oil, which was to be used as an offering for the gods, and sold it in secret, keeping the money for himself. This went on for many years, until eventually Sōgen grew old and died. Because of his wickedness, he was reborn in hell to pay for his sins. Shortly after his death, it was said that the flaming head of old Sōgen could be seen floating about in the vicinity of Mibu-dera.
TRANSLATION: fox fire
HABITAT: originates from kitsune and only appears when they are nearby
APPEARANCE: Kitsunebi, or foxfire, is named for the magical kitsune who are said to create it. It appears in large numbers of floating orbs of light, usually only a few centimeters in diameter and less than a meter above the ground. The orbs are as bright as lanterns and in most cases red or orange, or some times blue-green, in color.
BEHAVIOR: Kitsunebi only appears at night, often as a long chain hundreds or thousands of meters long, as if there were lanterns being carried by invisible bearers. Often the kitsune responsible for the fireballs are standing right next to the flames, invisible.
Kitsunebi orbs are formed by foxes, which breath the ball of fire out from their mouths and use it to light their way at night. It is most often a sign that a large number of kitsune are nearby – often during yokai events such as the night parade of one hundred demons, yokai wedding ceremonies, and other processions or meetings.
INTERACTIONS: Kitsunebi is not directly dangerous to humans, however the foxes behind it may be. Sometimes it is used to trick humans off of their paths at night. Other times it is used to lure curious humans into the darkness towards a group of hungry yokai. Following kitsunebi usually leads a person to some place that he or she should not be. Additionally, because of its similarity to other dangerous hi-no-tama, it is generally not considered to be a good sign.
TRANSLATION: blue heron fire
ALTERNATE NAMES: goi no hikari (night heron light)
HABITAT: rivers, wetlands; wherever herons and other waterbirds can be found
APPEARANCE: Many birds transform into magical yokai with eerie powers when they reach an advanced age. Aosagibi is the name for a bizarre phenomenon caused by transformed herons – particularly the black-crowned night heron. Other herons and wild birds, such as ducks and pheasants, are able to develop this ability as well, though it is most commonly attributed to the nocturnal night heron. This heron is found all along the islands and coasts, preferring remote areas with heavy reeds and thick woods. Aosagibi is most commonly seen at night in the trees where the herons roost, by the rivers where they hunt, or as the birds fly in the twilight sky.
BEHAVIOR: Long-lived herons begin to develop shining scales on their breasts, which are fused together from their feathers. They begin blow a yellow iridescent powder from their beaks with each breath, which scatters into the wind. During the fall, their bodies begin to radiate a bluish-white glow at night. Their powdery breath ignites into bright blue fireballs, which they blow across the water or high in the trees. These fireballs possess no heat and do not ignite anything else, eventually evaporating in the wind.
INTERACTIONS: Like most wild birds, night herons are very shy and usually flee from humans. Even after transforming into yokai, they retain their shyness. While the sight of a colony of wild birds breathing blue flames and making strange calls on a cool autumn night can be rather disconcerting, aosagibi does not post any threat to humans. However, because it appears very similar to other fireball-like phenomena, caution should be taken to avoid confusing aosagibi with oni-bi or other supernatural lights.
TRANSLATION: tree spirit
HABITAT: deep in untouched forests, inside very old tress
DIET: none; its life is connected to the life of its host tree
APPEARANCE: Deep in the mountainous forests of Japan, the souls of the trees themselves are animated as spirits called kodama. These souls can wander outside of their hosts, tending to their groves and maintaining the balance of nature. Kodama are rarely ever seen, but they are often heard – particularly as echoes that take just a little longer to return than they should. When they do appear, they usually look like faint orbs of light in the distance; or occasionally as a tiny, funny-shaped vaguely humanoid figure. A kodama’s life force is directly tied to the tree it inhabits, and if either the tree or the kodama dies, the other cannot live.
INTERACTIONS: Kodama are revered as gods of the trees, and protectors of the forests. They bless the lands around their forest with vitality, and villagers who find a kodama-inhabited tree honor it by marking it with a sacred rope known as a shimenawa. Occasionally, very old trees will bleed when cut, and this is regarded as a sign that a kodama is living inside. Cutting down such an ancient tree is a grave sin, and can bring down a powerful curse on any villagers who do so, causing a prosperous community to fall into ruin.
TRANSLATION: human soul
HABITAT: graveyards and near the recently deceased
APPEARANCE: Hitodama are the visible souls of humans which have detached from their host bodies. They appear as red, orange, or blue-white orbs, and the float about slowly not too far from the ground.
BEHAVIOR: On warm summer nights, these strange glowing orbs can be seen floating around graveyards, funeral parlors, or the houses where people have recently died. Most often they are only seen just before or just after the moment of death, when the soul leaves the body to return to the ether. It is most common to see them at night, though they are occasionally seen during the daytime too. Rarely, hitodama can materialize when a person loses consciousness, floating about outside of the body for some time, only to return to the body when the person regains consciousness.
Hitodama are harmless, and so it is important not to confuse them with other fireball yokai, which can be potentially deadly. Hitodama can be distinguished from other hi no tama by the distinctive tails of light which trail behind them.
TRANSLATION: demon fire
HABITAT: grasslands, forests, watersides, graveyards
DIET: life energy
APPEARANCE: One of the more dangerous types of hi no tama yokai, onibi is a beautiful but deadly phenomenon. Its name means “demon fire,” and it certainly earns that moniker. It look likes a small ball of flame, usually blue or blue-white (red and yellow onibi are less common), and often appears in small groups of twenty to thirty orbs. The orbs can range in size from three to thirty centimeters, and usually float around at eye-level. They appear most often during the spring and summer months, and particularly on rainy days. They appear more frequently in places that are surrounded by nature.
Onibi can be found all over Japan. In some areas, they are said to occasionally manifest the faces and even voices of the victims whose life force they have drained. In Okinawa, onibi is said to take the shape of a small bird.
INTERACTIONS: Onibi does not create much heat, but the orbs possess a different danger. Living creatures that draw too close are sometimes swarmed by dozens of orbs, which quickly drain away the life force from their victims. Soon nothing is left of the victim but a dead husk on the ground. During the night, onibi is often mistaken for distant lanterns, and many people have vanished into the forests chasing after phantom lights. Travelers should take care not to be lead off their paths to their deaths by demon fire.
ORIGIN: Onibi usually are created out of the dead bodies of humans and animals, though it is not known what process causes onibi to develop at some times and not others. Intense grudge and malice from one living person towards some other thing is also able to create onibi. It is often considered to be identical to the will-o’-the-wisps of English folklore.