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TRANSLATION: giant snake, great serpent
ALTERNATE NAMES: orochi, daija
HABITAT: wilderness
DIET: carnivorous, very fond of alcohol; gluttonous

APPEARANCE: Uwabami are enormous serpents. Apart from their incredible size, they closely resemble ordinary snakes. They make their homes in the wilderness, far from civilization.

BEHAVIOR: Uwabami’s most notable feature is their appetite. They are capable of eating things that are much larger than their bodies, and in quantities that seem like more than they should be able to eat. They are also extremely fond of drinking, and can consume huge quantities of sake. Like many animals, snakes are believed to have a variety of magical powers. They can shape-shift into various objects and creatures, including humans. They can even control the elements to some extent. Natural disasters such as floods and rock slides are often attributed to uwabami.

INTERACTIONS: In addition to eating large volumes of food and alcohol, uwabami also like to feed on people. They set up ambushes and assault travelers in mountain passes. Because of their size, they can easily swallow a full grown human whole—and they often do. However, they are sometimes outsmarted by clever people, who live to tell others of what they saw.

ORIGIN: Snakes have been a part of Japanese mythology since the earliest times, in part to their peculiar behaviors. Snakes are symbols of life and death, and eternal youth—the shedding and regrowing of their skin was viewed as a magical ability. Because they can slip into the tiniest cracks, and can penetrate deep, dark places that are inaccessible to humans, they are viewed as tenacious and clever creatures. Because of these traits, snakes have long been considered to be kami or yōkai. During different periods of history, they have been referred to as orochi, daija, and uwabami, but all of these refer to the same creature.

The name uwabami has roots going back to archaic Japanese. The first part of the name, uwa, meant skillful or superior. Gradually this shifted to a similar sounding word, uha, which meant great or large. The second part of the name is from an archaic word for snake, hami. This word derives from the word for eating, hamu, which refers both to the snake’s fondness for biting and its ability to eat things that appear much larger than it. So uwabami were “skillful eaters” which over time became “giant snakes.”

Another linguistic point of interest is that the word “uwabami” also has the colloquial meaning of “heavy drinker.” The reason for this is the uwabami’s great love for sake and its ability to drink in far alcohol more than even a creature as large as it should be able to.

LEGENDS:  A famous tale comes from Ōnuma Lake in Nagano Prefecture.

Long ago, there was an daija who lived in Ōnuma Lake. Every year he would transform into an extremely handsome young man and travel to the eastern mountains to view the cherry blossoms. One spring, he spied a beautiful young woman all by herself under the blossoms. The woman was Kuro hime, the daughter of Takanashi Masamori, a powerful lord of Shinano Province. Kuro hime also spied the handsome man who was watching her and found him irresistable. The two became acquainted and soon fell in love.

Some time later, the handsome young man paid a visit to the castle of Takanashi Masamori. He introduced himself as the great snake who lives in Ōnuma Lake, guardian deity of the Shiga Highlands. He explained that he and Kuro hime were in love, and asked the lord for her hand in marriage. Masamori immediately snapped that he would never give his daughter to someone that was not human.

The young man did not give up, and returned day after day to ask for Kuro hime’s hand in marriage. Finally, the lord relented and gave his conditions: “If you can keep up with me on horseback and complete seven laps around my castle, I will give you my daughter.” The young man eagerly accepted and agreed to return to the castle in a few days for the race.

Masamori was not about to let his daughter marry a snake. He devised a plan to kill the creature so it would leave him and his daughter alone forever. He had his servants plant swords in the grass all around the castle. Masamori was an expert rider and knew where the swords were hidden, so he would easily be able to avoid the traps.

When the day of the race came, the young man showed up at the castle as promised. The race began, and Takanashi Masamori spurred his horse into action. He was indeed an expert rider, and the young man could not keep up with the lord. He had to transform back into a snake in order to keep pace with the horse. The swords planted around the castle perimeter pierced and tore the snakes body, but he did not give up. Finally, the lord and the snake completed their seven laps. The snake’s body was ragged, and rivers of blood flowed from his body. Immediately upon finishing his final lap, the daija collapsed. Masamori’s trap had worked.

After some time had passed, the daija awoke. It looked around, and seeing nobody it realized that Masamori had lied. Trembling with rage, the daija returned to the Shiga Highlands. It summoned all of its family, servants, and clan members. All of the spirits of the Shiga Highlands arose and summoned a great storm. Rain the likes of which had never been seen before fell. Ōnuma Lake swelled in size and burst forth, flooding everything around. All of the villages surrounding the lake were annihalated. Houses were knocked down. Fields were flooded and washed away. No humans or animals were able to escape destruction. However, the mountains around the Takanashi Masamori’s castle acted like a shield, and the castle stood firm.

Kuro hime looked down from the castle and watched the torrent wash away wash away the entire region. She heartbroken when she saw the destruction. Realizing that only she had the power to stop the disaster, she left the castle by herself and traveled down to Ōnuma Lake. Kuro hime threw herself into the flood and was never seen again. When the daija realized what had happened, it immediately scattered the storm clouds and caused the flood to recede. Ōnuma Lake shrank back to its original borders.

The daija is still worshiped today as the guardian deity of the Shiga Highlands. There is a small shrine called Daija Jinja located near Ōnuma Lake where the snake is enshrined. Every August, the villagers gather there to perform the Daija Matsuri and remember the story of Kuro hime.

Shuten dōji


TRANSLATION: a nickname meaning “little drunkard”

LEGENDS: There are three monsters who are considered the greatest and most evil yokai in all of Japanese folklore: the ghost of Emperor Sutoku, the nine-tailed kitsune Tamamo no Mae, and the dreaded king of the oni, Shuten dōji.

Shuten dōji was not born an oni. There are many stories about how he came to be, but most of them say that he was originally a human boy who was born over a thousand years ago either in present-day Shiga or Toyama. His mother was a human woman and his father was the great dragon Yamata-no-Orochi. How he changed from boy to demon varies greatly from story to story, but the one popular version goes like this: There was a young boy who was supernaturally strong and abnormally intelligent for his age. Everyone around him constantly called him a demon child due to his incredible strength and wit, and he gradually became terribly anti-social and resentful of others. At age six, even his own mother abandoned him. Orphaned, he became an apprentice priest at Mt. Hiei in Kyoto. Naturally, he was the strongest and smartest of the young acolytes, and he grew resentful of them as well. He slacked off on his studies as a result and got into fights. He also fell into drinking, which was forbidden to monks; however he could out-drink anyone and everyone who was willing to sit down and drink against him. Because of his fondness for alcohol, he became known as Shuten dōji, “the little drunkard.”

One night there was a festival at the temple, and Shuten dōji showed up very drunk. He put on an oni mask and went around playing pranks on his fellow priests, jumping out from the darkness to scare them and such. At the end of the night, he tried to take off his mask but found he couldn’t — to his horror, it had fused to his body! Ashamed, scared, and scolded by his masters for being drunk, he fled into the mountains where he would no longer have to interact with other humans, whom he saw as weak, foolish, and hypocritical. He lived there on the outskirts of Kyoto for many years, stealing food and alcohol from villagers, and drinking vast quantities of alcohol. His banditry eventually attracted groups of thieves and criminals, who stuck with him loyally and became the foundation for his gang.

Living in exile, Shuten dōji grew in power and knowledge. He mastered strange, dark magic, and taught it to his thugs. He met another demon child like him, named Ibaraki dōji, who became his chief servant. Over time, the young man and his gang gradually transformed into oni, and eventually he had a whole clan of oni and yokai thugs who prowled the highways, terrorizing the people of Kyoto in a drunken rage. He and his gang eventually settled on Mount Ōe, where, in a dark castle, he plotted to conquer the capital and rule as emperor.

Shuten dōji and his gang rampaged through Kyoto, capturing noble virgins, drinking their blood and eating their organs raw. Finally, a band of heroes led by the legendary warrior Minamoto no Yorimitsu assaulted Shuten dōji’s palace, and with the help of some magical poison, were able to assault the oni band during a bout of heavy drinking. They cut off the drunken Shuten dōji’s head, but even after cutting it off, the head continued to bite at Minamoto no Yorimitsu.

Because the head belonged to an oni and was unholy, it was buried it outside of the city limits, at a mountain pass called Oinosaka. The cup and bottle of poison that Minamoto no Yorimitsu used are said to be kept at Nariai-ji temple in Kyoto.



TRANSLATION: none; based on the Chinese name for the same creature
HABITAT: coasts, islands, and shallow waters; found throughout Japan
DIET: omnivorous; extremely fond of sake

APPEARANCE: Along the mountainous coasts of Japan lives a race of ape-like, intelligent, red-haired sea spirits known as shōjō. They look like man-sized apes, with long, shaggy red hair, and reddish faces blushed with alcohol. They are bipedal like humans, and occasionally wear clothes or skirts made of seaweed.

BEHAVIOR: Shōjō spend their lives playing in the sea and on the sand of secluded beaches, drinking large quantities of alcohol. They revel in drunken silliness, singing, dancing, and enjoying life. Despite their silly appearance and demeanor, they are said to be very wise. They are extremely fond of sake and other types of alcohol. In fact, they are excellent brewers themselves, and can distil a powerful brine wine from seawater. The taste of the wine varies depending on the imbiber; if he is a good person, the wine will be delicious, but if he is a wicked person it will taste like a foul poison, and even may kill him if he does not change his evil ways.

INTERACTIONS: Shōjō can understand human languages and even parrot a number of words, and they are curious and gentle towards friendly humans. They are generally gentle and peaceful, and keep to themselves, preferring to remain apart from the world of mankind. Occasionally there have been stories of groups of shōjō harassing sailors and ships which stray too close to their homes, but these stories are rarely violent. Usually the shōjō flee into the water after they have stolen a few barrels of sake from the ship.

ORIGIN: The name shōjō is the Japanese version of the Chinese name for these ape-like spirit. Its name connotes liveliness, a fitting match for the lively personality of this creature. These days, the name is applied to the orangutan in both Japan and China, due to the ape’s physical resemblance to this yokai. Additionally, the term shōjō can be used to refer to a person who is a heavy drinker. The famous artist and yokai painter Kawanabe Kyōsai jokingly referred to himself as a shōjō in this way.