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Otsuyu

Otsuyuお露
おつゆ

TRANSLATION: a girls’ name meaning “dew”

APPEARANCE: Otsuyu is the ghost from Botan dōrō—The Peony Lantern. Along with Oiwa and Okiku, she is one of the Nihon san dai kaidan—Japan’s Big Three Ghost Stories. Although her story was originally a Chinese folk tale, it was adapted into Japanese in the 17th century. It was later adapted for rakugo and kabuki, with various changes, extra characters, and more details added to flesh out the story. Her story takes place during Obon, when the dead are believed to return to the land of the living. Otsuyu’s story is rare among Japanese ghost stories, as her tale is one of love rather than of vengeance.

LEGENDS: Long ago lived a man named Ogiwara Shinnojō, who was recently widowed. On the first night of Obon, Ogiwara saw a beautiful woman and her servant walking down the street, carrying a lantern with a peony motif. Ogiwara was instantly smitten with the beautiful woman and invited her into his home. Her name was Otsuyu. That night they made love. Otsuyu stayed with Ogiwara until long after the moon had set and the lamplight had grown faint, when she reluctantly bid him farewell and left into the early morning.

To Ogiwara’s delight, Otsuyu and her servant returned the following evening, carrying the same peony lantern. Ogiwara fell deeply in love with Otsuyu. He quickly lost interest in seeing anybody but her. Ogiwara no longer left his house, and stopped taking care of himself. Night after night, Otsuyu visited Ogiwara’s house. Each night they made love, and each night she left before dawn.

Twenty days passed. Ogiwara’s neighbors began to grow concerned for him. Next door to Ogiwara lived a wise old man. One night, the old man heard laughing and singing coming from next door. He peeked through a hole in Ogiwara’s wall. However, instead of a beautiful woman, he saw Ogiwara entwined in the boney arms of a skeleton. When Ogiwara spoke, the skeleton nodded its head and moved its arms and legs. When the skeleton’s jaw opened, a haunting voice came from where its mouth should have been. The old man was horrified.

As soon as day came, the old man called for Ogiwara. He warned Ogiwara that Otsuyu was really a ghost, and told him to go to a temple at once. Ogiwara heeded the old man’s advice. At the temple, Ogiwara discovered Otsuyu’s grave, with her old and tattered peony lantern draped across it. The priest warned Ogiwara that he must resist Otsuyu, and gave him a magical charm to place on his house, which would keep him safe from the ghost. Ogiwara rushed home and placed the charm on his door. The charm worked perfectly, and Otsuyu no longer came to visit Ogiwara.

Although he was safe, Ogiwara became despondent. He missed Otsuyu dearly. One night, days after her last visit, Ogiwara became drunk. He carelessly wandered to the temple where he discovered Otsuyu’s grave. At the temple gate, Otsuyu appeared to him, and led him to her home: her coffin. Later, when Ogiwara had been missing for some time, the priest opened up Otsuyu’s grave. Inside was the dead body of Ogiwara, wrapped up in the boney arms of a human skeleton.

Kyōkotsu

Kyoukotsu狂骨
きょうこつ

TRANSLATION: crazy bones
HABITAT: wells
DIET: none; it is powered solely by vengeance

APPEARANCE: A kyōkotsu is a ghostly, skeletal spirit which rises out of wells to scare people. It is wrapped in a ragged shroud, with only its bleached skull and tangled hair emerging from its tattered clothes.

BEHAVIOR: Kyōkotsu are formed from bones which were improperly disposed of by being discarded down a well. The bones may come from a murder or a suicide victim, or someone who died after accidentally falling into a well. The lack of a proper burial—and the egregious disrespect shown by discarding bones in this manner—creates a powerful grudge in those bones. This transforms the deceased into a shiryō. Like other ghosts, they pass their grudge on to those they come in contact with. A kyōkotsu lies at the bottom of its well until it is disturbed, then it rises up to curse anyone unfortunate enough to be using the well.

ORIGIN: Kyōkotsu was invented by Toriyama Sekien for his book Konjaku hyakki shūi. In his description, he writes that this yōkai’s name is the origin of the word kyōkotsu, which means fury and violence. While there is a word in a local dialect of Kanagawa which does match this description, there is no evidence actually linking it to this yōkai. It is more likely that Toriyama Sekien—who was fond of wordplay—actually created this yōkai based on words in local dialects and just made up a false etymology to make the story more interesting.

Hone onna

Honeonna骨女
ほねおんな

TRANSLATION: bone woman
HABITAT: dark streets, alleys, graveyards
DIET: none; though has a large sexual appetite

APPEARANCE: Not all who die turn into vengeful beings of grudge and jealousy. Hone onna retain an undying love that persists long after their flesh has rotted away, allowing them to continue to be with the object of their affection despite having died. These ghosts appear as they did in life – young, beautiful women in their prime. Only those unclouded by love or with strong religious faith are able to see through their disguise to their true form: rotting, fetid skeletal corpses returned from the grave.

INTERACTIONS: At night, a hone onna arises from the grave and wanders to the house of her former lover. Her appearance is a great shock to those who had believed her to be dead. This shock quickly turns into such joy that it blinds them to any clues that something might be wrong. Even the hone onna herself does not know of her condition, as she is driven only by love; she exists as a ghost only to continue the love she had in life. She spends the night and leaves in the morning, and this unholy coupling can continue for days or even weeks without being noticed. Each night she drains some of her lover’s life force, and he grows ever sicker and weaker. Without intervention, he will eventually die, joining his lover forever in death’s embrace.

In most cases, a friend or a servant of her lover will see through her illusion and alert someone to her true identity. Though her human lover may be repulsed by her when the truth is revealed to him, the ghost never realizes her condition and continues to visit every night. A home can be warded with prayers and magic charms against entry by ghosts, but they only work as long as the master of the house wills them to. As her body decays further, her enchanting allure only increases, and eventually most men succumb and let her into their homes one last time, sacrificing their own lives to the ghost of the woman they loved.

LEGENDS: Perhaps the most famous hone onna story is the of Otsuyu from Botan Dōrō, the Tale of the Peony Lantern. It has been adapted into puppet shows, kabuki plays, rakugo, and film, and remains a famous and influential ghost story today.

Gashadokuro

Gashadokuroがしゃどくろ

TRANSLATION: onomatopoeic; rattling skull
ALTERNATE NAMES: ōdokuro (giant skeleton)
HABITAT: any; usually found near mass-graves or battlegrounds
DIET: none, but enjoys eating humans anyway

APPEARANCE: Gashadokuro are skeletal giants which wander around the countryside in the darkest hours of the night. Their teeth chatter and bones rattle with a “gachi gachi” sound, which is this yokai’s namesake. If they should happen upon a human out late on the roads, the gashadokuro will silently creep up and catch their victims, crushing them in their hands or biting off their head.

ORIGIN: Soldiers whose bodies rot in the fields and victims of famine who die unknown in the wilderness rarely receive proper funerary rites. Unable to pass on, their souls are reborn as hungry ghosts, longing eternally for that which they once had. These people die with anger and pain in their hearts, and that energy remains long after their flesh has rotted from their bones. As their bodies decay, their anger ferments into a powerful force – a grudge against the living – and this grudge is what twists them into a supernatural force. When the bones of hundreds of victims gather together into one mass, they can form the humongous skeletal monster known as the gashadokuro.

Too large and powerful to be killed, gashadokuro maintain their existence until the energy and malice stored up in their bodies has completely burnt out. However, because of the large amount of dead bodies required to form a single one, these abominations are much rarer today than they were in the earlier days, when wars and famine were a part of everyday life.

LEGENDS: The earliest record of a gashadokuro goes back over 1000 years to a bloody rebellion against the central government by a samurai named Taira no Masakado. His daughter, Takiyasha-hime, was a famous sorceress. When Masako was eventually killed for his revolt, his daughter continued his cause. Using her black magic, she summoned a great skeleton to attack the city of Kyoto. Her monster is depicted in a famous print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.