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Enma Daiō

Enma Daiou閻魔大王

TRANSLATION: Great King Enma

HABITAT: Jigoku and Meido

APPEARANCE: Enma Daiō is the ruler of hell (both Jigoku and Meido) and the foremost of the 13 judges of the dead. He has dresses in the robes of an ancient government official from the Chinese Tang Dynasty, and wears a fearsome expression upon his face. He is served by two secretaries, Shiroku and Shimyō, as well as a number of other demonic servants—the chiefs of which are Gozu and Mezu. His name often is invoked by parents who scold their children, “If you tell a lie, Enma will rip out your tongue!”

BEHAVIOR: Enma’s chief duty is to judge the souls of the newly dead and send them on to their next location. He keeps a great scroll in which he records all of the good and evil deeds of each and every person to use as evidence against them when their time of judgment comes. He oversees the torturing and suffering in hell, making sure that each soul gets enough punishment.

ORIGIN: Like many demonic figures in Japanese folklore, Great King Enma has a honji, or “true form,” which is that of a Buddha or bodhisattva. Enma’s true form is Jizō Bosatsu, the guardian of the underworld, god of travelers, and protector of children. Jizō is a warm and compassionate, beloved across Japan, deity who made a solemn vow not to become a full Buddha until all souls have been freed from suffering in hell. It is not uncommon to see small, red-bibbed, stone Jizō statues along roads and paths, and in graveyards all over Japan. While Enma may seem fearsome and terrifying, at heart, he is a kind and compassionate god, and he truly wishes to save each soul from damnation—this may be why the souls of the dead are given so many tests and trials to avoid going to hell.

Enma’s origins lie in India. In Vedic mythology he is known as Yama, the god of death. From the Vedas, the idea of Yama spread into Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Buddhism traveled to China, bringing Yama with it, and mixed with local religions and superstitions before being brought to Japan during the Tang Dynasty. As Chinese Buddhism mixed with Japanese religions and superstitions, he gradually developed into the god known as Great King Enma.



TRANSLATION: heavenly woman, celestial woman
HABITAT: Tendō, the realm of heaven in Buddhist cosmology
DIET: as a human

APPEARANCE: Tennyo are extraordinarily beautiful creatures who resemble human women. Aside from their unparalleled grace and elegance, and supernaturally attractive faces and figures, there is little way to differentiate them from ordinary women. They wear beautiful gowns called hagoromo (literally “feather cloth”), which allow them to fly.

BEHAVIOR: Tennyo are servants and courtesans for the emperor of heaven, and companions of buddhas and bodhisattvas. They sing, dance, play music, recite poetry, and do much of the same things as their earthly counterparts in human imperial courts; though they do them all with more grace, refinement, and beauty. They aid and entertain the other inhabitants of heaven, and they even occasionally fly down to earth to visit.

ORIGIN: Tennyo are a female-only subgroup of tennin, one of many celestial races native to Tendō. They are based on the Indian apsaras, celestial nymphs from Hindu and Buddhist mythology. They were brought to China from India along with Buddhism, where they developed into the tennyo we know today. The Chinese Buddhist tennyo was later brought over to Japan.

LEGENDS: Tennyo are a popular subject of folklore throughout all of Japan. Legends often involve love stories and marriage between tennyo and human men. The most famous story is the Noh play Hagoromo.

Long ago, in what is today Shizuoka, a fisherman named Hakuryō was walking along the pine-covered beaches of the Miho peninsula. It was a beautiful spring morning, and Hakuryō stopped for a moment to admire the beautiful white sand, the sparkling waves, the fluffy clouds, and the fishing ships on the bay. A pleasant fragrance filled the air, and it seemed that ethereal music was dancing on the winds. Something caught his eye; draped over a nearby pine branch was a robe of the most splendid fabric he had ever seen. It was made of a soft, feathery material, and was woven in fantastic colors, so he decided to take it home and keep it as a family heirloom.

Just as Hakuryō was preparing to leave, a young woman of breathtaking beauty appeared in the nude before him. She had flowers in her hair, and smelled just as beautiful as she looked. She said that he was holding her hagoromo robe, and asked him to return it. Hakuryō realized that this beautiful maiden was a tennyo. He refused to return to robe, saying it would bring good luck and fortune to his village.

The woman grew sad, and lamented that she would not be able to fly home to heaven without her robe. She dropped to her knees and cried, her tears falling like beautiful pearls into the sand. The flowers in her hair wilted. She looked up at the clouds above, and heard a flock of geese flying by, which only saddened her more as they reminded her of the celestial karyōbinga birds back home in heaven.

Hakuryō was moved by the beautiful maiden’s sadness. He told her that he would return her robe, but first she must perform a celestial dance for him. She agreed to perform the dance, but told Hakuryō that she needed her hagoromo to perform the dance. Hakuryō refused to return the robe. He thought she would just fly off to heaven without performing for him. The tennyo replied to him that deception was a part of his world, not hers, and that her kind do not lie. Hakuryō  felt shame, and returned the dress to her.

The tennyo donned her hagoromo and performed the dance of the Palace of the Moon. She was accompanied by celestial music, flutes, koto, and the wind in the pines. The moon shown through the trees and sweet fragrances filled the air. The waves grew calm and peaceful. Her long sleeves danced upon the wind, and she danced in sheer joy. As she danced, she slowly floated up into the sky. She flew over the beach, higher and higher, above the pines, through the clouds, and beyond the top of Mt. Fuji. She disappeared into the mists of heaven.



TRANSLATION: derived from the Hindu deity Garuda
ALTERNATE NAMES: konjichō (golden winged bird)
HABITAT: Shumisen (aka Mount Meru)
DIET: dragons

APPEARANCE: Karura are a race of enormous, fire-breathing demigods. They are humanoid in appearance, with the heads and wings of eagles. They have red skin, and red and gold feathers. Karura are fearsome. They breath fire from their beaks. The flapping of their wings sounds like thunder, and creates gusts of wind so strong they can dry up lakes, knock down houses, and cover entire cities in darkness. Their gigantic wingspans are 330 yojanas wide, and they can leap 3,360,000 li in a single bound. (The lengths of one yojana and one li vary greatly from country to country and era to era—a yojana can measure anywhere between 1.6 km to over 13 km long, and one li can measure anywhere between 400 m and 3.9 km.)

BEHAVIOR: Karura inhabit Tendō, the realm of heaven. They are found on Shumisen (known as Mount Meru in English), a sacred mountain with five peaks which exists at the center the universe. They make their homes in trees, and live in cities rules by kings. They are the mortal enemies of the naga—a group of beings which includes dragons and serpents—and feed upon them as their main diet.

INTERACTIONS: Karura are are worshiped in some branches of esoteric Buddhism. Because karura are the enemies of dragons and serpents, they are seen as a counter to things associated with these creatures. They are guardians who keep venomous snakes and dragons away. They protect against poison and disease. They are even helpful against excessive rains and typhoons. Because they are such fierce predators, they are also viewed as destroyers of sin, devouring the spiritual impurities of the faithful just as they devour dragons.

ORIGIN: Karura comes from the Hindu deity Garuda, a giant eagle who served as the mount of Vishnu. Garuda was incorporated into Buddhist folklore, where he became a race of powerful eagle-like devas. They were then later brought along with Buddhism to China, and finally to Japan. The name karura comes from the Japanese pronunciation of Garuda.

Karura are one of the hachi bushū—the eight legions. These are the eight classes of supernatural beings who were converted to Buddhism by Buddha. The eight races of the hachi bushū are the ten (deva in Sanskrit), tatsu (naga), yasha (yaksa), kendatsuba (gandharva), ashura (asura), karura (garuda), kinnara (kimnara), and magoraka (mahoraga). All of these creatures are inhabitants of Tendō (the highest state of existence) except for the ashura, who live in Ashuradō (the third highest state of existence).



TRANSLATION: dark warrior
ALTERNATE NAMES: genten jōtei (dark emperor of the heavens), showan’ū
HABITAT: the northern sky

APPEARANCE: Genbu is a large tortoise or turtle combined with a snake. Sometimes he is represented as two creatures—a snake wrapped around a tortoise—and sometimes he is represented as a single creature—a tortoise-snake chimera. His home is in the northern sky. He spans seven of the twenty-eight Chinese constellations, taking up one quarter of the entire sky. The constellation which makes up the snake’s neck is located in Sagittarius. The constellations which makes up the tortoise’s shell are located in Capricornus, Aquarius, and Pegasus. The constellations which make up the snake’s tail are located in PEgasus and Andromeda.

INTERACTIONS: Genbu is one of the shijin, or Four Symbols, which are important mythological figures in Taoism. Genbu is the guardian of the north. He is associated with the Chinese element of water, the season of winter, the planet Mercury, and the color black. He represents the virtue of knowledge. He controls the cold. He is enshrined in the Genbu Shrine, north of Kyoto’s Imperial Palace.

ORIGIN: Genbu is named differently than the other shijin; rather than directly describing a color and animal, i.e. Black Tortoise, his name is written as gen, meaning dark, occult, or mysterious, and bu, meaning warrior. The word tortoise is not used for his name, because it was also used as a slur in China. So this euphemistic name was used to refer to the Black Tortoise. His name comes from Chinese mythology, where it is with the Taoist god Xuan Wu (the Chinese pronunciation of Genbu). Xuan Wu was a prince who lived in prehistoric northern China. He lived in the mountains, far from civilization, where he studied Taoism as an ascetic. He learned that to achieve full divinity, he would have to purge both his mind and body of all impurities. While his mind had become enlightened, he still had to eat earthly food, and so sin remained in his stomach and his intestines. So he cut them out and washed them in a river to purify them. When he did this, his stomach turned into a large demon tortoise and his intestines into a demon snake. The demons began to terrorize the countryside. Xuan Wu subdued them, and instead of destroying them he allowed them to atone for their sins by serving him. They became his generals: a snake and a tortoise. It is these two generals which became Xuan Wu’s—and Genbu’s—symbols.

Genbu is associated with yin energy—the forces of darkness and shadow—and in ancient China was worshipped as a god of the moon (another strong yin force) in addition to being the god of the north. Because the shell of a tortoise is like a suit of armor, Genbu is also viewed as a warrior deity. The tortoise shell is a symbol of heaven and earth, with the flat part of the lower shell representing the world and the dome of the upper shell representing the heavens. As tortoise shells were a popular tool in divination, Genbu was also viewed as having soothsaying powers and the ability to travel between the lands of the living and the dead. The tortoise is a symbol of longevity and immortality, while the snake is a symbol of reproduction and multiplication. It was believed that all tortoises were female and had to mate with a snake to reproduce. The intertwining of the two was a symbol not only of long life and fertility, but also of the balance of yin and yang.

In later centuries, as belief in onmyōdō waned, the Four Symbols were gradually replaced by the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. Genbu and his symbols were largly absorbed and supplanted by the Buddhist king Tamonten.



TRANSLATION: vermilion bird
ALTERNATE NAMES: sujaku, shujaku, chūchue
HABITAT: the southern sky

APPEARANCE: Suzaku is a large, scarlet, phoenix-like bird. His home is in the southern sky. He spans seven of the twenty-eight Chinese constellations, taking up one quarter of the entire sky. The constellation which makes up the left wing of the bird is located in Gemini. The constellation which makes up his head feathers or comb is located in Cancer. The constellations which make up his head, beak, and body are located in Hydra. The constellation which makes up his right wing is located in Hydra and Crater. The constellation which makes up his tail feathers is located in Corvus.

INTERACTIONS: Suzaku is one of the shijin, or Four Symbols, which are important mythological figures in Taoism. Suzaku is the guardian of the south. He is associated with the Chinese element of fire, the season of summer, the planet Mars, and the color red. He represents the virtue of propriety. He controls heat and flame. The ancient capitals of Fujiwara-kyō, Heijo-kyō and Heian-kyō were each guarded on the south by a large gate called Suzakumon (Suzaku Gate). Beyond Suzakumon was a wide avenue called Suzaku Boulevard, which served as the main north-south road. In Kyoto, this road ran from the Imperial Palace to the gate at the southern end of the city, Rashōmon. Today, though the gates are long gone, Suzaku Boulevard (now called Senbon Avenue) remains an important road in the city.

ORIGIN: Suzaku and the other shijin were brought to Japan from China in the 7th century CE. They are strongly associated with Taoism, feng shui, astrology, the five element theory, and other forms of Chinese mysticism. Japan’s ancient capitals were built in correspondence to these beliefs, with each of the quadrants of the city dedicated to one of the Four Symbols. Excavations of ancient burial mounds in Nara has revealed paintings of Suzaku and the other shijin on the tomb walls.

In later centuries, belief in astrology waned, and worship of the Four Symbols was gradually supplanted by worship of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. Their use as symbols, however, continued.

Because they look very similar, Suzaku is often confused with hōō, the Chinese pheonix. The attributes and symbolism of one are sometimes mixed or swapped with each other. Though it has been suggested that they may share a common origin—perhaps going back to the mythical bird Garuda in Indian mythology—there is no strong evidence linking these creatures to each other.



TRANSLATION: azure dragon
ALTERNATE NAMES: shōryū, seiryō, sōryū, chinron
HABITAT: the eastern sky

APPEARANCE: Seiryū is a large blue-green dragon with a long tongue. His home is in the eastern sky. He spans seven of the twenty-eight Chinese constellations, taking up one quarter of the entire sky. The constellations which make up the horn and neck of the dragon are located in Virgo. The constellation which makes up the chest of the dragon is located in Libra. The constellations which make up his heart, belly, and tail are located in Scorpius. The final constellation makes up his dung, and is located in Sagittarius.

INTERACTIONS: Seiryū is one of the shijin, or Four Symbols, which are important mythological figures in Taoism. Seiryū is the guardian of the east. He is associated with the Chinese element of wood, the season of spring, the planet Jupiter, and the colors blue and green. He represents the virtue of benevolence, and symbolizes creativity. He controls the rain. He is enshrined in Kyoto at Kiyomizu Temple, in the eastern part of the city.

ORIGIN: Seiryū and the other shijin were brought to Japan from China in the 7th century CE. They are strongly associated with Taoism, feng shui, astrology, the five element theory, and other forms of Chinese mysticism. The ancient capitals of Fujiwara-kyō, Heijo-kyō, and Heian-kyō were built in correspondence to these beliefs, with each of the quadrants of the city dedicated to one of the Four Symbols. Excavations of ancient burial mounds in Nara has revealed paintings of Seiryū and the other shijin on the tomb walls.

In later centuries, belief in astrology waned, and worship of the Four Symbols was gradually supplanted by worship of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. Their use as symbols, however, continued.



TRANSLATION: eight-span (i.e. giant) crow
ALTERNATE NAMES: sansokuu (three-legged crow), kin’u (golden crow)
HABITAT: the sun
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Yatagarasu is a three-legged which inhabits the sun. It is found across East Asian folklore.

ORIGIN: A three-legged crow has been used as a symbol of the sun since neolithic times in China. It may have originated as a personification of sunspots by ancient astronomers. In Japan, the crow has also been a symbol of the sun since ancient times, appearing in Japan’s earliest written works. It is a holy creature and a servant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu. The name Yatagarasu means “eight span crow.” One “span” was the length between the outstretched thumb and middle finger—roughly 18 centimeters—but this moniker is mainly just a poetic way to say “very large.” Originally Yatagarasu was depicted with two legs, but in the 930’s CE, the Chinese myth of the three-legged crow was merged into the story of Yatagarasu. Since then, Yatagarasu and the three-legged crow have been synonymous with each other.

The three-legged crow has long been used in religious and astrological symbolism across China and Japan, particularly among those involved with sun worship and onmyōdō. The three legs of the bird represent heaven, the earth, and humanity, while the crow itself represents the sun. This symbolizes that heaven, earth, and mankind all come from the same sun, and are like brothers to each other. They are also said to represent the three virtues of the gods: wisdom, benevolence, and valor. The three legs may also represent the three powerful clans of ancient Kumano—Ui, Suzuki, and Enomoto—who use a three-legged crow as their clan crest.

LEGENDS: Yatagarasu is an important figure in the mythical history of Japanese. According to the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest written history, Yatagarasu is an incarnation of the god Kamo Taketsunumi—today enshrined in Kyoto’s Shimogamo Shrine. As Yatagarasu, he led Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, through the mountains to establish his country.

Jimmu’s clan originated in Kyushu, in present-day Miyazaki Prefecture. He and his brothers led an eastward migration from along the Seto Insland Sea, looking for a better homeland, and subduing the various tribes they encountered along the way. They suffered many hardships. When they reached Naniwa (present-day Osaka), Jimmu’s older brother Itsuse, leader of the expedition, was killed in battle. Jimmu realized that they had lost because they were fighting facing eastwards, fighting against the sun. He led his troops around the Kii peninsula, to Kumano (present-day Mie Prefecture), and began a westward push. His expedition became lost in the mountains of Kumano. Seeing this, Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and Takamimusubi, one of the creator gods, ordered Kamo Taketsunumi to act as a guide to Jimmu. Kamo Taketsunumi took the form of a giant crow, and flew to Jimmu’s side to show him the way. With Yatagarasu leading the way, Jimmu was able to navigate the mountains of Kumano and reach Yamato (in present-day Nara Prefecture), where he would found his capital and become Japan’s first emperor.

According to legend, Jimmu’s great-grandfather Ninigi was the grandson of Amaterasu. Thus, Jimmu, and the entire Japanese imperial line are the direct descendants of the sun goddess. Yatagarasu, as a guide to Jimmu, played a small roll with a very big impact on the future of the imperial dynasty.



TRANSLATION: white-spotted char; literally “rain trout”
HABITAT: cold streams and lakes, occasionally seagoing
DIET: carnivorous, ranging from small fish and plankton up to and including large boats

APPEARANCE: Amemasu is the Japanese name for the white-spotted char (Salvelinus leucomaenis leucomaenis), a species of trout which is found in Northeast Asia. They are a popular target of game fishing and are also raised in fisheries.

BEHAVIOR: Amemasu spend most of their lives in the water, away from humans. They are found mostly in rivers and streams, but seagoing varieties exist as well. They are more common in Hokkaido, the northern parts of Honshu, and along the Sea of Japan—however legends of amemasu are occasionally found in the southern parts of Japan as well. They feed on whatever they can eat—from plankton to insects, to fish and any other aquatic lifeforms they can fit into their mouths. Yōkai amemasu can grow to colossal sizes, sometimes spanning an entire lake from head to tail. These giant amemasu also occasionally thrash and sink ships, devouring any poor souls who happened to be on the ship. In Ainu folklore, the wild thrashing of giant amemasu is believed to be what causes earthquakes—much like giant catfish are thought to cause earthquakes in the rest of Japan.

INTERACTIONS:  Amemasu can transform into human shape and walk about on land. They usually take the form of young, beautiful women in order to seduce young men. Shape-changed amemasu can be identified by their skin, which feels cold and clammy like that of a fish.

LEGENDS: A number of lakes in Hokkaido are believed to be the home of giant amemasu. According to Ainu folklore, these amemasu are thought to be the guardian deities of their respective lakes. Lake Mashū is home to an amemasu the size of a whale. Lake Shikotsu contains an amemasu so large that its head touches one end of the lake and its tail touches the other.

A legend from Minabe, Wakayama Prefecture tells of a mysterious whirlpool that appeared in a deep pond. A giant amemasu lived in the pond. Every spring, she would emerge from the pond in the form of a beautiful woman. For two or three days she would catch young men and take them away—where to nobody knows, but they were never seen again. The only way to know that it was a fish and not a woman was from her cold, clammy skin. One day, a cormorant dove into the pond to go hunting. The giant amemasu swallowed the bird in a single gulp. However, after a short time, the amemasu’s body floated up to the surface of the pond, dead. The cormorant burst out of its stomach. A shrine was built at that spot to honor Konpira-san, which still stands today.



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.



TRANSLATION: this is the Japanese version of its Ainu name, Atkor Kamuy
HABITAT: Uchiura Bay in Hokkaido
DIET: omnivorous; it can swallow ships and whales whole

APPEARANCE: Akkorokamui is a gigantic octopus god which resides in Hokkaido’s Uchiura Bay. When it extends its legs, its body stretches over one hectare in area. It is so big that it can swallow boats and even whales in a single gulp. Its entire body is red. It is so large that when it appears the sea and even the sky reflect its color, turning a deep red.

INTERACTIONS: Any ship foolish enough to sail too close to Akkorokamui will be swallowed whole. Therefore, for generations, locals have stayed away from the water when the sea and sky turn red. Fishermen and sailors who had no choice but to be on the waters would carry scythes with them for protection.

ORIGIN: Akkorokamui comes from Ainu folklore, where it is known as Atkorkamuy. Its name can be translated as “string-holding kamuy.” String-holding likely refers to the octopus’s string-like tentacles, while kamuy is an Ainu term for a divine being—similar to the Japanese term kami. In Ainu folklore, Akkorokamui is both revered and feared as a water deity, specifically as the lord of Uchiura Bay.

LEGENDS: Long ago, in the mountains near the village of Rebunge, there lived a gigantic spider named Yaushikep. Yaushikep was enormous. His great red body stretched over one hectare in area. One day, Yaushikep descended from the mountains and attacked the people of Rebunge. He shook the earth as he rampaged, destroying everything in his path. The villagers were terrified. They prayed to the gods to save them. The god of the sea, Repun Kamuy, heard their prayers and pulled Yaushikep into the bay. When the great spider was taken into the water, he transformed into a giant octopus, and took over charge of the bay as its god. Ever since then, he has been known as Atkor Kamuy, or Akkorokamui in Japanese.



TRANSLATION: none; this is his name

APPEARANCE: Shōki (also known by the Chinese rendering of his name, Zhong Kui) is a legendary hero and deity from ancient China. He is ugly, with a large, hulking body, a long, flowing beard, and fearsome, piercing eyes. He is usually shown carrying a sword and wearing a court official’s cap. Shōki is known as “the demon queller” for his ability to vanquish, exorcise, and even control oni and other demons. He is so feared by oni that even his image is said to scare them away. The demons he defeats sometimes become his servants. It is said that he commands 80,000 demons.

ORIGIN: Shōki originated in ancient China during the 700’s. His story reached Japan by the late Heian period, and his popularity reached its height during the Edo period. Paintings and statues of him are still used as a good luck charms. His image appears on flags, folding screens, and hanging scrolls. Small statues of him can sometimes be seen on the roofs of older houses in Kyoto as well. Shōki is strongly associated with Boys’ Day, a holiday in May. He is revered as a god of protection from demons and sickness (particularly smallpox, which was believed to be spread by evil spirits), and also as a god of scholarship.

LEGENDS: Shōki lived in Shanxi Province in China during the Tang dynasty. His life’s goal was to become a physician in the court of Emperor Xuanzong. Shōki was a smart and diligent student. He trained hard and passed all of the exams to become a physician. He placed first out of all of the applicants and should have easily received the position. However, Shōki was a very ugly man. When the emperor saw his face, he immediately rejected Shōki’s application even though he was the most qualified for the job.

Shōki was devastated. His dreams shattered, he committed suicide on the steps of the imperial palace. The emperor was moved by Shōki’s dedication. He felt great regret for denying the application of such a talented and brilliant man on account of his looks. The emperor ordered that Shōki should receive a state burial of the highest rank—usually only reserved for royalty—and posthumously awarded him the title “Doctor of Zhongnanshan.”

Years later, the emperor became gravely ill. Delirious with fever, he dreamed that he saw two oni. The larger one was wearing the clothing of a court official. It grabbed the smaller oni, killed it, and ate it. Then, it turned to the emperor and introduced itself as Shōki. He vowed to protect the emperor from evil. When the emperor woke up, his fever was gone.

Xuanzong commissioned the court painter to make an painting of Shōki based on his dream. Shōki became a popular deity across China (and later, Japan). He was revered as a god of scholarship for his great devotion to his studies, and as a protector against disease and evil spirits.

Sutoku Tennō

Sutoku Tennou崇徳天皇

TRANSLATION: Emperor Sutoku

APPEARANCE: Sutoku Tennō is one of the three most famous yōkai to ever haunt Japan. After he died, he transformed—some say into a terrible onryō, some say into a great tengu—and inflicted his wrath upon the imperial court at Kyōto. Along with Tamamo no Mae and Shuten dōji, Emperor Sutoku is one of the legendary Nihon San Dai Aku Yōkai—the Three Terrible Yōkai of Japan. Along with Sugawara no Michizane and Taira no Masakado, he is one of the legendary Nihon San Dai Onryō—the Three Great Onryō of Japan.

ORIGIN: Prince Akihito was born in 1119 CE, the first son of Emperor Toba. At least that was on the official registry. It was an open secret, known by everyone in the court, that Akihito was actually sired by the retired former Emperor Shirakawa. Akihito was not well liked by his “father,” who constantly referred to him as a bastard. His true father Shirakawa may have been the former emperor, but he still wielded considerable power in his retirement. When Prince Akihito was 5 and Emperor Toba was 21, Shirakawa forced Toba into retirement. Akihito became Emperor Sutoku.

After Shirakawa died in 1129, retired Emperor Toba began orchestrating his trap against Emperor Sutoku. He convinced him that the cloistered life of retired emperor was much better than being the actual emperor. He suggested that Sutoku adopt Toba’s son Prince Narihito, and retire. In 1142, Sutoku finally did so. Toba oversaw the process, and made sure to record that the emperor was retiring and passing the throne on to Narihito instead of his own progeny. This ensured that Sutoku would wield no power over the young emperor, nor would any future son ever become emperor. The 3-year old Narihito became Emperor Konoe, and the retired Emperor Toba wielded all of the power behind the throne. Toba sent Sutoku’s allies to distant provinces, and filled the capital with his own allies. There was nothing Sutoku could do.

Emperor Konoe remained sickly and childless his whole life. He passed away without an heir in 1155 at the age of 17. By this time, Sutoku had his own son. He saw an opportunity to recover his standing. Sutoku and his allies claimed that the throne should pass on to Sutoku’s son. Instead the imperial court declared that Toba’s fourth son would become Emperor Go-Shirakawa. When Toba died the following year, this dispute escalated into a miniature civil war known as the Hōgen Rebellion. The war was decided in a single battle. The forces of Go-Shirakawa were victorious.

After the Hōgen Rebellion, Go-Shirakawa’s forces were merciless. Those who fought against the emperor were executed, along with their entire families. Former Emperor Sutoku was banished from Kyōto and forced to spend the rest of his days exiled to Sanuki Province. He shaved his head and became a monk, devoting himself copying holy manuscripts to send back to Kyōto. The court feared that the deposed Sutoku would attempt to curse them. It was rumored that he had bitten off his own tongue and wrote the manuscripts in his own blood, imbuing them with his hatred for the merciless imperial court. The court added insult to injury by refusing to accept any of his manuscripts.

In 1164, Sutoku passed away, defeated, deposed, and humiliated—and most importantly full of rage for the imperial court. When news of his death reached Emperor Go-Shirakawa, the emperor ignored it. He ordered that nobody should go into mourning, and that no state funeral would be held for such a criminal.

LEGENDS: After his death, strange things began to happen. Sutoku’s body was set aside while its caretakers awaited funeral instructions from the emperor. After 20 days, his body was still as fresh as it had been on the day he died. While his coffin was taken to be cremated, a terrible storm rolled in. The caretakers placed the casket on the ground to take shelter. After the storm passed, the stones around the casket were soaked with fresh blood. When his body was finally cremated, the ashes descended upon Kyōto in a dark cloud.

Afterwards, for many years, disaster upon disaster struck the capital. Go-Shirakawa’s successor, Emperor Nijo, died suddenly at age 23. Storms, plagues, fires, droughts, and earthquakes all pounded the capital. Imperial power weakened. Clan rivalries set into motion by the Hōgen Rebellion escalated. Many of Go-Shirakawa’s allies were killed in battles, and the country stepped closer and closer to all-out civil war. In 1180, the Genpei War broke out. In 5 bloody years, the power of the imperial court had vanished, and the Kamakura shogunate took over Japan. All of this was attributed to Emperor Sutoku’s vengeance.

Sutoku finally returned to the capital during the Meiji era. In 1868, he was enshrined as a kami in the Shiramine Shrine in Kyōto. The Takaya Shrine in Kagawa also enshrines one of the stones onto which Sutoku’s blood flowed during the rainstorm before his cremation. Despite this, there are still rumors that his curse might still linger. In 2012, when NHK broadcast the drama Taira no Kiyomori, an earthquake struck the Kanto region right at the moment when Emperor Sutoku transformed into an onryō.

Sugawara no Michizane

Sugawara no Michizane菅原道真

APPEARANCE: Sugawara no Michizane was a scholar, poet, and politician who fell out of favor with the emperor and died in exile. He lived from 845 to 903 CE, and is considered one of the greatest scholars and poets in all of Japanese history. After his death, he returned from the grave as a wrathful onryō to wreak his vengeance upon those who had wronged him in life. This earned him a position among the Nihon San Dai Onryō—the Three Great Onryō of Japan.

ORIGIN: Sugawara no Michizane was born the eldest son of a high-ranking family of scholars. From a very early age, he showed his brilliance, composing elegant poems by the age of five. He was well-educated and lived a privileged life, gradually climbing the ranks of the bureaucracy and increasing his public standing.

Sugawara no Michizane was an excellent student and scholar. Passing the highest level of government exams at age 26, he received the equivalent of a PhD at age 33. Michizane was selected to be governor of Sanuki Province in 886. During his time as governor he composed a great deal of poetry. In 888, during the Akō Incident, he supported Emperor Uda in his rivalry with Fujiwara no Mototsune. This action earned him a great deal of political clout. When the Emperor consolidated his power, he demoted officials from the Fujiwara clan and promoted officials from the Minamoto clan. Michizane was not a noble, but he too was rewarded. Hs rank rose even further, and he picked up many important court titles, including Ambassador to the Tang Dynasty. This caused unrest among the nobles—particularly the Fujiwaras. They felt indignant that a non-noble scholar should be elevated to such elite ranks.

When Emperor Uda abdicated to Emperor Daigo, Sugawara no Michizane’s fortunes declined rapidly. Both Michizane and Fujiwara no Tokihira—the son of Fujiwara no Mototsune, whom Michizane had censured years ago—were the emperor’s primary advisors. Tokihira advised the emperor that he should pacify the indignant Fujiwara nobility by sending Michizane away. The emperor listened. Michizane lost his rank and titles, and was demoted from his high position to very minor regional government post at Dazaifu, Chikuzen Province. There, he experienced a thankless life of hard work under much stricter and more severe conditions than in Kyōto.

Despite his humiliation and exile to Kyūshū, Sugawara no Michizane continued to work hard and earnestly for the sake of the country. All the while he prayed for the well-being of the imperial family and the safety of Japan. His hard work was never acknowledged, and he never regained his prestige. He regretted his demotion, and longed for his beloved Kyōto for the rest of his life. Late in the second month of 903, as the plums were blossoming, Michizane died. His heart was filled with loneliness and resentment.

LEGENDS: After Sugawara no Michizane’s death, a series of disasters struck Kyōto. Plague and drought spread over the city. His rival Fujiwara no Tokihira died at the age of 39. The sons of Emperor Daigo became sick and died one after another. A lightning bolt struck the Seiryōden palace, causing a fire which killed a number of the officials who had participated in Michizane’s demotion and exile. A few months later, Emperor Daigo himself became sick and died. Everyone in the capital had become convinced that Michizane’s ghost had become a thunder god and was punishing those who had wronged him.

Sugawara no Michizane’s onryō continued to curse the capital with disaster upon disaster. Eventually, the emperor built a shrine to his spirit and posthumously restored his rank and office. He removed any mention of Michizane’s exile from the official records. However, it did not appease his spirit, and the disasters kept coming. Finally, in 987, during the reign of Emperor Ichijō, Sugawara no Michizane was promoted and deified as the highest rank of state kami. A special shrine was built for him in northern Kyōto, and a festival was established in his honor. Michizane became known as Tenman Tenjin, the god of scholarship. The curse was finally appeased.

Tenjin remains a popular god to this day. Paintings of him are hung in homes across the country, and students from all over Japan visit his shrines to pray for luck on their school examinations. Tenjin shrines commonly hold festivals in late February, when plum trees start to bloom, and when school examination results are posted. The plum tree is commonly associated with Tenjin, as it was his favorite tree. Shrines dedicated to him commonly have plum trees on their grounds. Legend has it that while in exile in Dazaifu, he longed so deeply for his favorite plum tree that one night it flew from Kyōto to Kyūshū to be with him. That tree still stands today at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Fukuoka.



TRANSLATION: curse god, curse spirit
DIET: vengeance

APPEARANCE: Tatarigami are powerful spirits which bring death and destruction, fire and famine, plague, war, and all forms of calamity. They are some of the most powerful evil spirits that haunt Japan, and have done much to shape the culture and politics over the country’s long history. Tatarigami can refer to powerful gods of destruction, or to the ghosts of powerful people. Famous tatarigami include gods such as Emperor Gozu, the bull-headed demon god, and Yamata no Orochi, the eight-headed eight-tailed dragon. Also included are the onryō of important historical figures such as Mononobe no Moriya, Emperor Sutoku, Sugawara no Michizane, and Taira no Masakado. In the case of historical figures, they are almost always ancient nobles who died in anguish and transformed into onryō.

INTERACTIONS: Tatarigami wreak havoc upon those who wronged them—usually other nobles. In order to appease their vengeful spirits, shrines honoring them have been built across Japan. Through proper appeasement, their curses can be lifted, or at least abated.

The Gion Matsuri in Kyōto, one of the most famous festivals in Japan, is an example of a ceremony initially designed to appease a tatarigami. During the Heian period, Kyōto suffered a number of outbreaks which were thought to be caused by Susanoo and Gozu tennō—two powerful gods of disease and destruction. In order to appease their wrath, a festival was held in their honor at the Yasaka Shrine in Gion. To keep the city free from disease, the festival was repeated every year. Eventually the connection to Susanoo and Emperor Gozu was lost, but the festival traditions remain to this day.

The appeasement of tatarigami remained an important part of religious life throughout the Heian period and beyond. The duty of pacifying these curse spirits fell to the onmyōji, and popular belief in this superstition helped onmyōdō rise in power.



TRANSLATION: human pillar
HABITAT: found in bridges, castles, dams, and other large constructions

APPEARANCE: Hitobashira refers to the gruesome practice of burying a living human being in the foundations of important buildings—bridges, dams, tunnels, and particularly castles. It was a common practice during large construction projects from ancient times through the 16th century. However there is evidence that hitobashira were still being used in some construction projects during the 20th century.

BEHAVIOR: This form of sacrifice was used as a magical ward for the building being constructed. It was believed that the sacrifice of a human soul would appease the nature spirits in an area—particularly the river spirits in areas where flooding was common. They were also used to ward castles against assault, fire, and other disasters both man-made and natural.

ORIGIN: Although hitobashira literally means human pillar, the actual meaning is more complicated. Pillars and Shinto have a long relationship—kami can be enshrined in pillar-like sacred trees, the oldest shrines were built upon pillars, and hashira, in addition to meaning pillar, is also used as the josūshi—Japanese counter word—for kami. The bashira in hitobashira refers not to a literal pillar, but actually to this counter word. The human was enshrined in a manner similar to a kami of the building to which he or she was sacrificed, becoming both a literal pillar and a connection to the gods. Very often, small stone memorials were erected in honor of the hitobashira who were sacrificed to a building. Some still stand today.

LEGENDS: A few famous castles in Japan are connected to legends of hitobashira. Maruoka Castle in Fukui Prefecture (old Echizen Province), one of the oldest surviving castles in Japan, is said to contain a hitobashira in the central pillar of the keep.

While Maruoka Castle was being constructed, its walls kept collapsing no matter how many times they were repaired. It was decided that a person should be sacrificed and made into a hitobashira in order to improve the stability of the castle. A poor, one-eyed woman named Oshizu was selected for the honor of becoming a hitobashira. As a reward for her sacrifice, she was promised that her son would be made a samurai. After she was sacrificed the castle was completed. However, before her son could be made a samurai, the castle’s lord was transferred to another province, and the promise was left unkept.

Every year thereafter, the castle’s moat overflowed when the heavy spring rains came. The people of Maruoka blamed this on Oshizu’s vengeance, and called this rain “tears of Oshizu’s sorrow.” Afterwards, a cenotaph was erected for Oshizu inside the castle grounds to calm her spirit.



TRANSLATION: asura; warrior demons from Buddhist cosmology
HABITAT: Ashuradō, one of the celestial realms
DIET: carnivorous; they thrive on violence and destruction

APPEARANCE: Ashura are fearsome demon gods with multiple faces and arms. They are roughly human-like in appearance, though their size, strength, and numerous appendages distinguish them from mere mortals.

BEHAVIOR: Ashura are warriors above all else, and live for battle. They love combat, war, and destroying things. They have enormous egos; ashura always desire to be better than others, have no patience for those weaker than they are, and prefer to solve any problem with violence.

There are many different kinds of ashura. Some are considered to be gods and others demons. Ashura are strong, powerful, and magical. In many ways they are far superior to humans. They experience more pleasure than those in the human realm, and live much longer. However, they are controlled by such intense passions—wrath, pride, violence, and greed—that despite their pleasure-filled existence they are constantly fighting and never at peace. Ashura are also wracked with jealousy; to be reborn as an ashura means to be constantly reminded how much better life would have been if you had been reborn in a heavenly realm instead of Ashuradō.

ORIGIN: In Japanese Buddhism, after someone dies, they are eventually reborn in one of the 6 Buddhist realms: Tendō, the realm of heaven; Ningendō, the realm of humans; Ashuradō, the realm of ashura, Chikushōdō, the realm of animals; Gakidō, the realm of hungry ghosts; and Jigokudō, the realm of hell. Of these, only two realms are considered to be “happy” rebirths—the heavenly realm and the human realm. Of the remaining realms, the realm of Jigoku is the worst, followed by Gakidō. The realm of animals is not a good rebirth because animals are ruled by their desires and thus cannot obtain enlightenment. Ashuradō, the realm of the ashura, is the least unpleasant of the “unhappy” rebirths.

In some Buddhist traditions, the realm of ashura is considered to be the lowest level of heaven, and gets included among the “happy” rebirths. However, because ashura are so controlled by their emotions, it is almost impossible for them to achieve enlightenment, become buddhas, and escape the cycle of endless reincarnation. Souls who are reborn here are usually humans who lived good lives up to a point, but committed some wicked deed which prevents them from being reborn in the realm of heaven.



TRANSLATION: heavenly evil spirits

APPEARANCE: Amanojaku are wicked monsters which have been known since before written history in Japan. They are described as evil kami, minor oni, or yōkai who cause mischief and perform evil deeds. In particular, they are known for provoking humans into acting upon the wicked, impious desires buried deep within their hearts. They spread spiritual pollution wherever they go.

ORIGIN: Although they predate Buddhism in Japan, amanojaku are frequently depicted in Buddhist imagery as symbols of wickedness being defeated by righteousness. In particular, the Four Heavenly Kings are depicted as standing on top of demons, squashing them—those squashed demons are said to be amanojaku. The god Bishamonten’s armor is also decorated with demonic faces, which are said to be this evil spirit.

Amanojaku originate in ancient mythology. Though their true origins are a mystery, they appear to have developed out of ancient myths of wicked Shinto deities. Amanozako, Amenosagume, and Amenowakahiko all share aspects of this spirit’s undermining nature. It is widely believed that amanojaku originated from one or even all of them.

LEGENDS: The most well-known tale about amanojaku is the story of Uriko hime. In this story, a childless elderly couple discovered a baby girl inside of a melon. They took her home and raised her as their own, and named her Uriko hime. She grew into a beautiful young woman, and one day a request for her hand in marriage arrived. Delighted, her parents went off to town to purchase her dowry and prepare for her wedding. Before leaving, they warned her not to open the door for anybody, no matter what!

Shortly afterwards, Uriko hime heard a knock at the door. “Uriko hime, please let me in!” She refused to open the door. The voice replied, “If you won’t open the door, then at least open the window a crack…”

Reluctantly, Uriko hime opened the window just a crack. As soon as she had done so, a long, clawed finger slipped into the crack and smashed the window open. It was an amanojaku! The amanojaku leaped at Uriko hime, tearing at her clothes. The young woman fought for her life, biting and kicking at the demon, but she was not strong enough. The amanojaku snapped her neck, and she died.

The amanojaku didn’t stop there, however. It flayed Uriko hime’s skin and wore it like a suit, hiding itself in her clothes and disguising itself as the young girl. When the girl’s parents came home, they were fooled into thinking their daughter was still alive.

Finally the wedding day arrived. The elderly couple brought the amanojaku-in-disguise to its husband-to-be. However, a crow in a nearby tree called out, warning the couple that their daughter was not what she seemed. They grabbed the bride tight and held her down. They washed her body until the flayed skin sloughed off, and the amanojaku was revealed.

The amanojaku ran for its life, but the elderly couple chased after it. More and more people joined them, until a whole host of villagers chased the demon through the village. Finally, the townspeople caught up to the amanojaku and hit it with sticks, stones, and tools. They beat the demon into a bloody mess, and it died.



TRANSLATION: she who opposes everything in heaven
ALTERNATE NAMES: amanozako hime, onna tengu, metengu, tengu kami
HABITAT: heaven

APPEARANCE: Amanozako is a terrifying and powerful demon goddess. She is roughly human in appearance, but has a bestial face with a long, tengu-like nose, dangling ears, sharp teeth, and protruding tusks.

BEHAVIOR: Amanozako’s hideous appearance is matched only by her foul, contrarian temper. She loves to go against the crowd, and does exactly the opposite of what is expected. She frequently possesses the hearts of humans, causing clever people to become overly proud and haughty, or foolish people to lose control over their tempers.

Amanozako is extremely picky and particular. When things do not go exactly the way she wants them to, she flies into a horrible rage. When angered, she can hurl even the most powerful gods distances of over one thousand villages in a single throw. Her powerful teeth can tear apart even the strongest blades. Nobody can stop her wrath.

ORIGIN: Amanozako was born from the temperamental storm god Susanoo. He had let his ferocious spirit and bad feelings build up inside of him until they formed into a large ball, which he eventually vomited up. That ball of ill-feeling became this goddess.

Stories about her are ancient, going back to long before recorded history. She is thought to be the ancestor deity of tengu, amanojaku, and other yōkai which share her penchant for disagreeability and short temper.

Amanozako has one son, Amanosaku. In keeping with her obstinate nature, she spawned him all by herself without any partner. Her son proved to be just as obstinate as she, and was such trouble that all eight million gods in heaven could not put up with him. Amanosaku was so terrible and disobedient that he was eventually made ruler over all the disobedient and malevolent kami.

Yamata no Orochi

Yamata no Orochi


TRANSLATION: eight-branched serpent
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Yamata no Orochi is a gigantic serpent with eight heads and eight tails. It has bright red eyes and a red belly. The beast is so large that its body covers the distance of eight valleys and eight hills. Fir and cypress trees grow on its back, and its body is covered in moss.

ORIGIN: Yamata no Orochi appears in the earliest written Japanese documents, the Kojiki and the Nihongi. Without a doubt, the legend goes back even farther into pre-history.

LEGENDS: Ages ago, the storm god, Susanoo, was thrown out of heaven and descended to earth at Mount Torikama near the Hi River in Izumo Province. There, he came upon an elderly couple of gods named Ashinazuchi and Tenazuchi, who were weeping. When Susanoo asked why they were crying, they explained that they once had eight daughters, but every year the eight-headed-eight-tailed serpent Yamata no Orochi demanded one as a sacrifice. They were now down to their eighth and final daughter, Kushinada hime. Soon it would be time for Yamata no Orochi to demand a sacrifice.

Susanoo explained that he was the elder brother of the sun goddess Amaterasu, and offered to slay the beast in return for Kushinada hime’s hand in marriage. The elderly couple agreed, and Susanoo set in motion his plan to defeat the serpent.

First, Susanoo transformed Kushinada hime into a comb, which he placed in his hair. Then, he had Ashinazuchi and Tenazuchi build a large fence with eight gates. On each gate they raised a platform and on each platform they placed a vat. They poured extremely strong sake into each vat. When this was finished, everyone waited for the serpent to arrive.

When Yamata no Orochi appeared, the great serpent slithered into the fence and noticed the powerful sake. It dipped its eight heads into the vats and drank the alcohol. Soon, the monster fell into a deep, drunken sleep. Susanoo used this chance to make his attack. He sliced the enormous beast into tiny pieces with his sword. The carnage was so great that the Hi River flowed with blood. When Susanoo had cut the creature down to its fourth tail, his sword shattered into pieces. Examining the part of Yamata no Orochi’s tail which broke his sword, Susanoo discovered another sword within the creature’s flesh: the legendary katana Kusanagi no Tsurugi.

Susanoo eventually offered Kusanagi as a gift to his sister, Amaterasu, and was allowed to return to heaven. The sword was passed down through the generations in the imperial line of Japan. It is one of the three pieces of imperial regalia, along with the mirror Yata no Kagami and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama. Today, the sword which came from Yamata no Orochi’s tail is said to be safeguarded in the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya.

Osakabe hime

Osakabe hime長壁姫

TRANSLATION: the lady of the walls
HABITAT: secret areas of Himeji Castle

APPEARANCE: Osakabe hime is a reclusive yōkai who lives high up in the keep of Himeji Castle. She takes the appearance of a majestic old woman wearing a 12-layered kimono.

BEHAVIOR: Osakabe hime is a powerful yōkai, capable of manipulating people like puppets. She is extremely knowledgeable about many things and controls a multitude of kenzokushin—animal-like spirits who act as messengers. She can read a person’s heart and see their true desires. She can then manipulate them any way she pleases. It is rumored that anybody who sees her face will die instantly.

INTERACTIONS: Osakabe hime absolutely hates meeting people. She spends most of her time hidden away in secret areas of Himeji Castle. However, once a year, she comes out of hiding to meet with the castle lord and foretell the castle’s fortune for the next year.

ORIGIN: Osakabe hime’s true identity is a mystery. By popular account, she is actually an elderly nine-tailed kitsune who takes the form of this yōkai. According to other accounts, she may be a snake spirit, or the ghost of one of Emperor Fushimi’s favorite courtesans. She may even be the sister of Kame hime, a similar yōkai who lived in Inawashiro Castle in Mutsu Province.

Another common legend is that she was originally the kami of the mountain upon which Himeji Castle was built. When Himeji Castle was expanded by Hideyoshi in the 1580s, the shrine dedicated to the local goddess of Mount Hime, Osakabegami, was removed. The goddess was re-enshrined in Harima Sōja, a shrine dedicated to several gods. In the 1600s, when the lord of the castle, Ikeda Terumasa, fell mysteriously ill, rumors arose that his sickness was due to the goddess’s anger at having been removed. In order to appease her, a small temple was built in the keep and Osakabegami was re-enshrined at the top of her mountain. Osakabegami may be the true identity of Osakabe hime.

LEGEND: During the Edo period, a young page named Morita Zusho went on a dare to go see if a yōkai really lived in the upper floors of Himeji Castle. He waited until nightfall, and then—paper lantern in hand—he climbed to the top of the keep. As brave as he was, Zusho couldn’t help imagining what would happen to him if there really was such a creature up there. Finally, when he reached the top floor, he saw a faint light coming from a door in the attic. He peeked in, but whoever was inside had heard him. A woman’s voice called out, “Who’s there!?”

Zusho was paralyzed with fear. He heard the sound of a kimono rustling. The door opened up to reveal a beautiful, elegant woman in her thirties wearing a splendid 12-layered kimono. Zusho felt his strength return and politely introduced himself and explained his reason for coming.

Amused, the yōkai replied, “A test of bravery, you say? You will need some proof that you actually saw me.” She gave him a neck guard of a helmet— piece of his master’s own family heirloom armor—to show his master as proof that he met Osakabe hime.

The next day, Zusho told the story of what had happened to his master. Everyone had trouble believing him because they had always heard that the yōkai took the form of an old woman and not a young one. But when Zusho presented the neck guard, his master was shocked and had no choice but to believe the story.




TRANSLATION: none; this is the creature’s name
HABITAT: oceans, seas, and lakes
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Wani are sea monsters that live in deep bodies of water. They have long, serpentine bodies, fins, and can breathe both air and water. Wani are able to shapeshift into humans, and there are even tales of wani and humans falling in love.

BEHAVIOR: Wani are the rulers of the oceans and gods of the sea. They live in splendid coral palaces deep on the ocean floor. Wani have a complex political hierarchy which mirrors that of the surface world. There are kings and queens, princes and princess, courtesans, servants, and so on. Ōwatatsumi, also known as Ryūjin, is the greatest of them. He rules the sea from his palace Ryūgū-jō. He controls the ebb and flow of the ocean using the tide jewels kanju and manju.

ORIGIN: Wani appear in the earliest written records of Japanese myths, the Kojiki and Nihon shoki. Their stories almost certainly date back even further, into the mists of prehistory. Scholars disagree over whether the earliest legends of wani originated in Japan or were imported from other cultures, citing similarities between wani and the Chinese long or the Indian naga. Wani play an important role in Japanese mythology, including in the mythological founding of Japan.

The word wani first appears in the Kojiki written with man’yōgana (an archaic phonetic syllabary). Later it came to be written with the kanji . Wani came to refer to sharks and other “sea monsters” that sailors and fishermen might encounter out at sea. The sea was a dangerous and mysterious place, and sailors may have thought that sharks were the powerful serpents of legends. Over time, the meaning of the word expanded to include to crocodiles as well as sharks, and then shifted to refer only to crocodiles. Today both the kanji and the name wani mean “crocodile” and are rarely used to refer to sea dragons.

LEGENDS: One of the most famous wani legends is the story of Toyotama hime, the daughter of Ōwatatsumi. She married a surface dweller named Hoori. Hoori and his brother Hoderi were grandchildren of Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun. One day Hoori borrowed and lost Hoderi’s fish hook. Hoderi insisted that Hoori find and return the lost hook, so Hoori went into the ocean to look for it. He was unable to find the hook, but instead he discovered the palace where the dragon king of the sea, Ōwatatsumi, lived. Hoori visited the palace and asked Ōwatatsumi for help finding the hook. With the dragon god’s help, Hoori found the hook, but in the meantime, Hoori had fallen in love with Toyotama hime, the daughter of the dragon god.

Hoori and Toyotama hime were married, and they lived together at the bottom of the sea for three years. Eventually, Hoori became homesick and longed to see country again. Together, he and his wife returned to the surface world with Hoderi’s lost hook. While on land, Toyotami hime gave birth to a son. When she went into labor, she asked Hoori not to look upon her, because she had to change into her true form in order to bear her child. Hoori became curious and sneaked a peak at his wife while she gave birth. He was shocked to see, instead of his wife, a huge wani cradling their newborn son. The wani was, of course, Toyotama hime in her true form. Toyotama hime was unable to forgive his betrayal, and was so ashamed that she fled back into the ocean and never saw Hoori or her son again.

Although Toyotama hime abandoned her son, her sister Tamayori came to raise him in her absence. The boy, Ugayafukiaezu, grew up to marry Tamayori, and together they had a son. Their son was Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan.



TRANSLATION: drought spirit
ALTERNATE NAMES: batsu, kanbo (“drought mother”), shinchi
HABITAT: mountains
DIET: moisture

APPEARANCE: Hiderigami is a grotesque, hairy humanoid which stands between two and three feet tall. It has a single eye on the top of its head. It only has a single arm and a single leg, although it can run as fast as the wind. All hiderigami are female.

BEHAVIOR: Hiderigami are rarely encountered by humans. They live deep in the mountains and only rarely travel out into human-inhabited lands, but when they do their presence can be strongly felt over a wide area. A hiderigami’s body exerts such a strong heat that everywhere it goes the ground dries up, clouds fail to form, and rain cannot fall. Despite the incredible danger that they pose, it is said that throwing a hiderigami into a toilet will kill it.

ORIGIN: Hiderigami originated in southern China, and come from a goddess. Their origin is recorded in some of the oldest ancient Chinese records. When the legendary Yellow Emperor of China fought the warlord Chi You, he summon a powerful goddess named Batsu to aid him in battle. Batsu contained an supernatural heat inside of her, and when she released her power, the battle was quickly and decisively won in the emperor’s favor; however, she had used so much of her power up that she was unable to return to Heaven or contain her heat. While Batsu was nearby, the waters all dried up and rain would not fall, and so her presence became a terrible problem for the emperor. Unable to kill her or to send her back to heaven, the emperor exiled the goddess to a far-away mountain and forbade her to return. Whether Batsu became the mother of the hiderigami or became corrupted and transformed into this yokai herself is unknown.



TRANSLATION: lady of the bridge
HABITAT: very old, very long bridges
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Hashihime are intensely jealous goddesses who inhabit bridges — in particular, very old and very long bridges. As goddesses, hashihime may take different forms depending on occasion, however they are commonly depicted wearing white robes, white face-paint, an iron trivet, and carrying five candles. This is a ceremonial outfit used to perform curses.

INTERACTIONS: Hashihime ferociously guard the bridges they inhabit. As with most gods connected to a location, they are very competitive and jealous.  If one praises or speaks positively about another bridge while on top of a hashihime’s bridge, or if one recites lines from certain Noh plays that feature a woman’s wrath as the main theme, something terrible is likely to happen to that person.

Despite their fearsome nature, they are highly honored by the people who live nearby, and shrines are established in their honor near the bridges they inhabit. In times of war, residents will beseech their local hashihime to guard the bridge against invaders. In times of peace, hashihime are goddess of separation and severing, and are asked to aid people in things such as break-ups, divorce, and severing bad luck. So strong is their power of severing that it is considered taboo for lovers to pass in front of a hashihime shrine together, or for wedding processions to pass in front of one. If newlyweds need to cross a bridge inhabited by a hashihime, they will instead pass underneath it on a boat rather than risk cursing their marriage.

LEGENDS: The most famous hashihime story comes from Tsurugi no Maki, in The Tale of the Heike, and is retold in the noh play Kanawa.

A woman visited the the Kifune-jinja in Kyoto at the hour of the ox (roughly 2 am), filled with rage and jealousy towards her ex-husband who had thrown her away for another woman. Night after night she visited the shrine, praying to the gods enshrined there to turn her into a powerful demon. The woman wanted nothing else other than to see her ex-husband destroyed, even at the cost of her own life. After seven nights of pilgrimage, her prayers were answered: the gods told her that if she immersed herself in the Uji river for twenty-one nights, she would become a living demon.

The woman did as she was bid. She donned a white robe and tied her hair up into five horns. She painted her face and covered her body in crimson dye. She placed an upturned trivet on her head and attached torches to each foot. She lit a torch on both ends and placed it in her mouth. She immersed herself in the Uji river and for twenty-one days she kindled the hatred in her heart. Then, just as the gods told her, after twenty-one days she transformed into a terrible kijo with supreme power. She had become the hashihime of Uji.

That night, her husband awoke from a horrible dream with a premonition of danger. He quickly sought out the famous onmyōji, Abe-no-Seimei. Seimei recognized the dream as a sign that the man’s former wife would come and destroy the couple that very night, and promised to save them. He went to their house, recited magical prayers, and crafted two katashiro — magical paper doll representations of the man and his wife, meant to be used as substitutionary targets for the kijo’s rage. That night, as Seimei had predicted, the demon appeared. She attacked the two katashiro instead of the real couple, and Seimei’s magic worked: her power was reflected back upon her and she was driven away. The demon woman, realizing that she could not overcome Abe-no-Seimei’s magic, vanished, threatening that she would come back  another time.



ALTERNATE NAMES: ryū, ryō, wani; known by many specific individual names
HABITAT: rivers, waterfalls, mountains, lakes, seas, and palaces deep in the ocean
DIET: capable of eating anything

APPEARANCE: Tatsu, Japanese dragons, are very similar in appearance to the dragons of China and the rest of the world. They have long, scaled bodies, serpentine tails, sharp teeth and claws, and often have horns, antlers, spines, and beards. They are strongly connected to water – be it rain, rivers, seas, or oceans – and are considered to be water gods. Some have multiple limbs or heads, and many disguise themselves as humans and are never seen in their natural forms.

BEHAVIOR: Tatsu live in splendid palaces at the bottom of deep seas, or in other secluded places. They usually live far from human-inhabited areas, but occasionally they live near Buddhist temples. They hoard vast amounts of treasure and keep powerful magical artifacts in their homes, occasionally allowing worthy heroes to visit them, or lending their magical items to noble warriors. Many are great villains, tormenting mankind out of spite, while others are pure and kind, offering their wisdom and power to those seeking it.

INTERACTIONS: Tatsu rarely concern themselves with human affairs unless they affect them directly, but they do accept worship and sacrifices from humans. Many temples maintain the holy grounds of local dragons, and countless Japanese make pilgrimages to holy mountains inhabited by tatsu every year. Tatsu receive prayers for rain, protection from floods, and other water-related requests. Fireworks festivals, ritual dragon dances, and other local celebrations in honor of these dragon gods occur all over the Japanese islands.

ORIGIN: Tatsu are one of the oldest supernatural creatures known in Japan; the first recorded stories go back to the Kojiki and the Nihongi, the earliest written accounts of Japanese history and mythology. Over the centuries, more dragon legends were imported from other countries, incorporating the Chinese long and Indian naga into Japanese mythology. Today’s Japanese dragons are an amalgamation of these imported myths with the indigenous water deities of prehistoric Japan.

LEGENDS: The Japanese imperial family, the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world, is supposedly descended from dragons (as well as other gods). The monarchy is said to have been founded in 660 BCE by Emperor Jimmu, the legendary first ruler of Japan. His father was the son of Toyotama-hime, who in turn was the daughter of Ryūjin, the dragon god of the sea. So the emperor of Japan is, according to legend, the direct descendant of a dragon.



TRANSLATION: none; based on the Chinese name for the same creature
HABITAT: paulownia trees; only appear in lands blessed by peace and prosperity
DIET: only bamboo seeds

APPEARANCE: Hōō are beautiful, peaceful phoenix-like creatures which are honored across East Asia and worshiped as divine spirits. They are described as having the beak of a rooster, the jaw of a swallow, the head of a pheasant, the neck of a snake, the back of a tortoise, legs of a crane, and the tail of a peacock. They are brilliantly colored with the five colors of the Chinese elements – white, black, red, yellow, and blue – and have five distinctive tail feathers.

BEHAVIOR: Hōō are creatures of utter peace and they never cause harm to other living things. They eat only bamboo seeds, and nest only in paulownia trees. When a hōō flies, it is said that the wind stops, dust settles, and birds and insects grow quiet. Because of their purity, they only appear in lands that are blessed with peace, prosperity, and happiness – they flee to the heavens during times of trouble. The appearance of a hōō is an extremely good omen, said to signify the beginning of a new era in history.

INTERACTIONS: The hōō is a popular motif in Japanese paintings, crafts, kimonos, and on temples and shrines. As a symbol, it represents fire, the sun, and the imperial family. It also stands for the virtues of duty, propriety, faith, and mercy. Its five colors represent the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

ORIGIN: Hōō come from Chinese mythology, where they are known as fenghuang. Originally they were considered to be two distinct birds: the male hō (feng) and the female ō (huang), symbolizing yin and yang and the duality of the universe. Eventually the two creatures merged into one term and their combined name was used. The combined creature is still considered to be female, and is often partnered with the tatsu, which is considered to be male.

The hōō is one of the most revered and holiest animals in Japan. Second only to the kirin in terms of power, it is the most sacred bird of all.



TRANSLATION: none; based on the Chinese name for the same creature
HABITAT: areas ruled by a wise and benevolent leader
DIET: purely vegetarian; never harms another creature

APPEARANCE: One of the rarest, most awesome, and most powerful creatures ever known in East Asia is the unicorn-like kirin. It is a regal animal, holy and highly revered, and often considered a god in its own right. The kirin is a chimerical beast resembling a deer with scales like a dragon’s covering its body. It has a tail like an ox’s and a flowing mane. Its body and mane are covered in brilliant holy fire. Its face is the picture of utter serenity.

BEHAVIOR: A gentle animal, the kirin never eats the flesh of other beings, and it takes great care never to tread on any living thing, even lowly insects. When it walks, it does so without trampling a single blade of grass. Its beauty is only surpassed by its rarity; kirin only appear during periods of world peace, during the reigns of noble and enlightened rulers, in lands owned by wise and benevolent people, or as heralds of a golden age. Kirin never harm good and pure souls, but they are swift and fierce to attack if threatened, breathing holy fire from their mouths.

INTERACTIONS: Because kirin are beasts of purity and goodness, they have been used in carvings and paintings as symbols of these virtues since early times. They are also seen as symbols of justice and wisdom. Because of their holiness, images of kirin frequently adorn temples and shrines. They are omens of great luck and fortune, and the appearance of a kirin is often believed to be a sign of the arrival of a great leader or a wise man.

ORIGIN: Kirin were originally introduced to Japan via Chinese myths and legend, where they are known as qilin. Over time, the Chinese and Japanese version diverged into slightly different creatures. In Japan, the kirin is considered to be the most powerful and sacred beast of all, surpassing the hō-ō and tatsu in power.

The giraffe is also called kirin in Japanese, named for the traits it shares with the holy kirin. Its long legs, scale-like pattern, gentle nature, and the knobs on its head must have reminded the first Japanese to see a giraffe of this most sacred of beasts.