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Gagoze

Gagoze元興寺
がごぜ

TRANSLATION: none; named for the temple which he haunted
ALTERNATE NAMES: gangōji no oni, gagoji, guwagoze, gangō, gango
DIET: children

APPEARANCE: Gagoze is a reiki, or demon ghost, who haunted the temple Gangō-ji many centuries ago. He appears as a hideous demon dressed in monks robes, crawling about on all fours. His legend is preserved at Gangō-ji, which was founded in 593 by Soga no Umako.

LEGENDS: Long ago in Owari Province, during the time of Emperor Bidatsu, a thunder god fell out of the sky in bolt of lightning. A peasant investigated the spot where the bolt struck, and discovered the thunder god in the form of a young boy. The peasant raised his cane with the intention to kill the creature, but the god pleaded to spare his life. The thunder god promised to give the peasant and his wife a young boy as strong as a god if the peasant would help him. The peasant agreed, and helped the thunder god to build a boat which allowed him to return to heaven.

Shortly after, the peasant and his wife had a child. Just as promised the child was as strong as a thunder god. As the boy grew, he became renowned far and wide for his superhuman strength. By the time he turned 10, he had grown so powerful and boastful that he challenged a prince to a contest of strength and won. This attracted attention of the imperial court, and the boy was apprenticed to Gangō-ji.

Shortly after he joined Gangō-ji, the temple’s young apprentices began dying strange deaths one by one. Every morning, the fresh corpse of one of the boys would be found by the temple’s bell tower. The monks decided that an evil spirit was infiltrating the temple at night and committing the murders. The peasant’s son resolved to solve the mystery. He volunteered to catch whatever was killing the boys.

That night, the boy placed covered lanterns in the four corners of the bell tower. He instructed an older monk to wait by the lanterns and uncover them once he grabbed the evil spirit. The boy waited by the bell tower. At midnight a hunched creature came crawling towards the tower. It saw the boy, however, and ran away.

A few hours later, hunger got the better of the creature and it slinked back. The boy sprang and caught it by the hair, but the monk was too scared to uncover the lanterns. Summoning his superhuman strength, the boy dragged the creature to each corner of the tower and uncovered the lights. In the lamplight, he could see that the creature was a reiki—the ghost of an oni.

The reiki pulled back so hard that it ripped off its own scalp. Once free, it scampered away into the darkness, leaving its hair in the boy’s hand. When morning came, the priests followed the bloody trail left by the creature. They found the grave of a lazy, wicked servant formerly employed by the temple. The servant’s spirit had transformed into the demon ghost that was responsible for the murders.

After that, the reiki never returned to the temple again. The monster’s scalp became one of the holy treasures of Gangō-ji. The boy became famous far and wide. He used his superhuman strength to irrigate the temple’s fields, and eventually took the name Dōjō and became a splendid priest. After he died, he was enshrined as one of the gods of Gangō-ji.

Aka manto

Akamanto赤マント
あかまんと

TRANSLATION: red cloak; red vest
ALTERNATE NAMES: aoi manto, akai kami, akai hanten, akai chanchanko, akai te
HABITAT: school toilets
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Aka manto is an urban legend related to toilets—particularly those in elementary schools. This phenomenon is known all over Japan, with countless variations on the same theme. It usually takes place in a specific stall in a specific bathroom in the school. Usually it is an older or seldom used bathroom, often in a stall with an older style squat toilet.  Often the fourth stall is the cursed one, as the number four is associated with death.

Most stories follow this general pattern: while at school late in the evening, a student suddenly finds him or herself in desperate need of a toilet. The closest restroom available is one that is normally avoided by the students; it is older and less well-kept, separated from the rest of the school, and is rumored to be haunted. But with no time to search for a different restroom, the student enters. He or she does their business, and when they have finished, they reach for the toilet paper only to find that there is none. Then they hear a strange voice: “Do you want red paper? Or blue paper?” The student answers, “Red paper,” and a moment later is stabbed and sliced up so violently that blood sprays everywhere, soaking their body and making it look as if they were wearing a bright red cloak. Some time later, another student finds him or herself in need of a toilet in a similar situation. They know the rumors that a student died in the restroom, but they have no choice and use the bathroom anyway. Sure enough, a voice asks them, “Red paper or blue paper?” Remembering the legend, this student says, “Blue paper.” Then, all of the student’s blood is sucked out of their body, leaving them dead and blue-faced on the floor.

Plenty of variations of this legend exist, each with minor differences. The true identity of Aka manto is one of these. Sometimes it is said to be a person hiding in the adjacent stall—a serial killer in many stories. Other times it is a ghost who appears as a tall man with a sickly, bluish-white face. In some places it is even blamed on a hairy yōkai called a kainade who lives in the toilet and likes to stroke people’s rear ends with its hand. In the kainade’s case, the end result is markedly less violent: a hairy arm of the chosen color rises out of the toilet to stroke the student’s behind.

In some cases, instead of draining your blood, “blue paper” gets you strangled until your face turns blue. Sometimes answering “red paper” gets your skin flayed so that it hangs off of your back like a red cape (a play on the “aka manto” name). In other versions, instead of being killed, the student’s skin color will change permantly to whatever color he or she chose. Sometimes those who survive and tell the story to others fall terribly ill and die shortly after. And sometimes the consequences are worse than death, such as being dragged into the netherworld, never to be seen again.

The questions have many variations as well, including “red vest or blue vest,” “red hand or blue hand,” or “red tongue or blue tongue.” Sometimes the colors are red or white, instead of blue. When the choices are red or white paper, red often results in a red tongue rising up out of the toilet to lick the student’s rear end, while white results in a white hand rising up to stroke the student’s rear end. Less common choices are red paper or purple paper: choosing purple allows the student to escape unharmed, while choosing red causes the student to be pulled down through the toilet into the plumbing.

As with many urban legends, there is usually no escape from your horrible fate—though that doesn’t stop people from trying. Clever students who bring extra toilet paper with them discover that it vanishes before they are able to use it, and still find themselves having to answer to Aka manto. People who choose a different color other than those offered in hopes to confuse the spirit are met with an equally horrible death (one common version has a student say “yellow paper,” and the result is that their face is pushed down into the dirty toilet water and held there until they drown). In some instances, students have been able to escape by saying “I don’t need any paper,” buying them just enough time to run out of the bathroom before anything happens.

ORIGIN: Tracing the origin of urban legends can be difficult. Aka manto is fairly old as far as urban legends go. It is recorded as a popular schoolyard rumor as early as the 1930’s, and its popularity hasn’t faded even as newer toilet legends (such as Toire no Hanako-san) have come into existence. One explanation for Aka manto’s origin and continued popularity is in its nature. It may be a reflection of the anxiety inherent in being a student. Aka manto asks children an impossible question to which any answer results in something terrible. That feeling is not too different from having to answer a difficult problem on a test, or a teacher’s question in front of the whole classroom when you don’t know the answer.

Aka manto’s appearance has changed over time along with the Japanese lexicon. Today, manto is the Japanese word for a cloak or a cape, and so aka manto is usually depicted wearing a long red hooded cloak. However, in the 1930’s when this urban legend was born, manto referred to a shorter, sleeveless kimono jacket. As a result, different generations have different visual impressions of what Aka manto looks like.

Onikuma

Onikuma鬼熊
おにくま

TRANSLATION: demon bear
HABITAT: mountain forests
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: A bear which has lived for a very long time and transformed into a yōkai is called an onikuma, or demon bear. Onikuma continue growing and reach sizes much larger than even the largest natural bears. They walk on two legs and are large enough to carry off cows and horses, and can easily move aside boulders than ten men could not budge. They are so powerful that they can even crush a monkey with the palm of their hand.

BEHAVIOR: Onikuma behavior is very similar to that of ordinary bears. They live deep in the mountains, far away from humans. They are nocturnal. They hunt and scavenge and are able to eat just about anything. They rarely venture out of their habitats, but like ordinary bears, will occasionally emerge from the forests into villages to look for food.

INTERACTIONS: Due to their reclusive nature, encounters between onikuma and humans are very rare. When they do happen, however, they are often violent. Onikuma sometimes wander into human-inhabited areas when there is easy food to be had—this usually means livestock. Onikuma are capable of stealing cows and horses and walking off into the forest with them in hand. When this happens, the villagers have no choice but to try to hunt and kill the onikuma.

To hunt an onikuma, special tactics are required. First, hunters use strong timber to build a sturdy wooden structure resembling a square well casing. This is covered with wisteria vines and inserted to plug up the entrance of the onikuma’s den. Then, sticks and brush are pushed in through the narrow openings around the den plug. The onikuma will pull these things into the den and pile them up in the back, like a nest. As more and more are inserted, the den will fill up until there is no more space, and the onikuma will push its way out through the vine-covered plug. Then, it is stabbed with a long spear and shot with a rifle.

Such a tactic was used during the Kyōhō era (1716-1736) to kill an onikuma. The hide taken from the beast was large enough to cover more than six tatami mats.

Shussebora

Shussebora出世螺
しゅっせぼら

TRANSLATION: promoted giant triton
HABITAT: migrates from mountains, to valleys, and finally to seas
DIET:

APPEARANCE: Like many animals, giant tritons (Charonia tritonis)—a kind of sea snail similar to a conch—can turn into yōkai after living for a very long time. When a giant triton reaches an age of several thousand years old, it turns into a draconic creature called a shussebora.

BEHAVIOR: Long ago, it was believed that giant tritons lived deep in the mountains. They spend their lives buried under the earth. They grow larger and larger, until after three thousand years they descend from the mountains into the valleys during landslides. They spend three thousand more years living near human villages, until they finally burrow into the sea. After three thousand more years underwater, they transform into a mizuchi—a kind of sea dragon.

INTERACTIONS: Because they spend their years buried in the earth or deep in the sea, shussebora very rarely ever interact with people. However, the caves they leave behind during their migrations serve as a testament to their existence. All over Japan, after landslides people have discovered large caves which shussebora were thought to have lived in. These discoveries were even documented in newspapers during the Meiji period.

The flesh of a shussebora was said to bring very long life to anyone who eats it. However, as there is no documented evidence of this, and nobody who has actually eaten a shussebora has come forth, this is thought to be just rumor.

ORIGIN: Because of the ambiguous nature of these creatures—the rumors about their life-giving meat, and the lack of any evidence other the caves they allegedly lived in—the phrase “hora wo fuku” (“to blow a conch shell”), meaning “to brag,” is said to have originated from this yōkai.

Kōjin

Koujin鮫人
こうじん

TRANSLATION: shark person
ALTERNATE NAMES: samebito
HABITAT: oceans; particularly the South China Sea
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: Kōjin are aquatic humanoids that closely resemble ningyo. Unlike the merfolk of Western legends, Asian merfolk are monstrous in appearance. Kōjin have black, scaly shark-like bodies, and ugly, human-like facial features and arms.

BEHAVIOR: Kōjin are native to the South China Sea, where they live a life similar to other merfolk. They are well known for their skill at weaving, and they spend much of their lives working on their looms. The sea silk that they weave is of the finest quality and doesn’t get wet even in the water. They are very emotional, and cry frequently. When they cry, pearls (or precious gems, by some accounts) fall from their eyes instead of tears.

ORIGIN: The kōjin is better known in the West by the alternate reading of its kanji—samebito. This is because of Lafcadio Hearn, who included a story about a samebito in his book of Japanese folk tales, Shadowings.

LEGENDS: Long ago, a man named Tawaraya Tōtarō lived on the shore of Lake Biwa. One day, he came across a strange looking creature crouching near the base of a bridge. It resembled a man, but its body was inky black, it had the face of a demon and the beard of a dragon, and its eyes were like green emeralds. Although Tōtarō was scared, the green eyes seemed gentle to him, and so he approached the creature. The creature introduced himself as a samebito. He had served as an officer under the Eight Great Dragon Kings in the dragon palace of Ryūgū-jō, but was banished from the palace and exiled from the sea due to a small mistake he had made. Since then, he had been wandering, unable to find food or shelter. He begged Tōtarō for help.

Tōtarō pitied the samebito. He took the samebito back to his home, where he had a small garden with a pond. He told the samebito that he could live there for as long as he wanted, and he could have as much food as he wanted to eat. For six months they lived together, and every day Tōtarō brought the samebito fresh food fit for a sea creature.

During the seventh month, Tōtarō went to a festival at Mii-dera, where a great pilgrimage of women had come. There, he met a woman of extraordinary beauty and refinement, with skin as white as snow, and a voice like a nightingale. Her name was Tamana, and Tōtarō fell in love with her at first sight. Totaro followed Tamana home, and discovered that she lived in the same town in which he had met the samebito. He also learned that she was unmarried, and that her family wanted her to marry a man of rank. They demanded as a betrothal gift a casket of ten thousand jewels from whomever wished to marry Tamana.

Tōtarō fell into despair, knowing that even if there were ten thousand jewels in all of Japan, he would never be able to procure them. Though it seemed impossible that he could ever make Tamana his wife, he could not get her lovely face and sweet voice out of his mind. It haunted him so much that he refused to eat or sleep, and became so ill that he could not even lift his head from his pillow. It seemed that he would die of a broken heart. The samebito, whom Tōtarō had cared for in his time of despair, entered the house to care for Tōtarō in his last days. Tōtarō apologized to the samebito, fearing that after his death, the samebito would lose his home and his means of survival, and would die as well. The samebito was so touched by Tōtarō’s compassion that he began to cry. Great tears of blood spilled from his green eyes and down his black cheeks, but by the time they hit the floor they had hardened into splendid rubies.

At this sight, Tōtarō instantly found new strength, and began to gather the jewels. The samebito, astonished at Tōtarō’s recovery, stopped crying. Of course, the flow of jewels also stopped. Tōtarō begged the samebito to continue crying until he had ten thousand jewels, but the samebito regretfully replied that he could only weep when he felt true grief in his heart. Seeing that Tōtarō’s sickness was cured, the samebito was filled with nothing but relief, and thus could not cry anymore. The samebito suggested that they visit the bridge where they had first met to reminisce, and perhaps he could cry again.

The next day, Tōtarō and the samebito visited the bridge. They ate fish and drank wine, and watched the setting sun. Seeing the sun set over the sparkling sea, and with a little help from the wine, the samebito thought about his former life in the sea and his happy days in the dragon palace. He was overcome with homesickness and began to weep profusely. A great shower of jewels covered the bridge. Tōtarō began gathering them up. When he had collected ten thousand jewels he shouted for joy. At the same moment, a delightful song was heard far away in the sea. Like a cloud, a glorious palace made of coral the color of the setting sun rose out of the water. The samebito leaped with joy. He explained to Tōtarō that the Eight Great Dragon Kings must have granted him amnesty and were calling him back home. He bade his farewell to Tōtarō, thankful for his kindness and their friendship, and then dove into the sea.

Tōtarō never saw the samebito again. He brought the casket of ten thousand jewels to Tamana’s family and presented them as a betrothal gift. Shortly after, Tōtarō and Tamana were married.

Ono no Takamura

Ono no Takamura小野篁
おののたかむら

APPEARANCE: Ono no Takamura was a noble, scholar, poet, and government official who lived in the first half of the 9th century. He is famous for being clever, quick-witted, and somewhat insolent. But he is even more famous for his side job in hell as an attendant to Great King Enma.

LEGENDS: Near the temple Rokudōchinnō-ji in Kyōto, there is a spot where the boundary between the world of the dead and the world of the living can be crossed. There are many stories in that area of ghosts returning to this world and trying to buy candy from stores, or visiting lost relatives. Ono no Takamura knew of this, and discovered a way to travel freely between the world of the dead and the world of the living. He would enter the underworld every night by climbing down a well located in the garden of Rokudōchinnō-ji, and return every morning by climbing out of a well located in the temple Sagano Fukusei-ji.

According to one legend, a nobleman named Fujiwara no Yoshimi fell very ill and died soon after. His soul crossed the Sanzu River, and traveled to Meido to be judged. When he reached the court of King Enma, a familiar voice spoke up from the darkness next to the judge and said, “I know this soul. In life, he served as an imperial minister, and was a noble and virtuous man. Please trust my judgment and return him to life.” When Yoshimi raised his head, he saw that the voice belonged to Ono no Takamura—and he was serving as one of King Enma’s councilors! King Enma replied, “Well, if you say so I suppose it can’t be helped,” and ordered his hell-guards to return Yoshimi to the world of the living.

A few days later, Fujiwara no Yoshimi approached Ono no Takamura at the imperial court. When Yoshimi asked Takamura about what he saw in Meido, Takamura appeared troubled and replied, “My work there is actually a secret, so please don’t tell anybody else about what you saw…” Afterwards, Yoshimi began to grow more and more fearful of Takamura’s power and position. Rumors spread through the capital that Takamura was King Enma’s right hand man. Many feared him.

Rokudōchinnō-ji still stands in Kyōto today. In the Enma Hall, right next to the statue of Great King Enma is another statue—one of Ono no Takamura. The well which Takamura used to enter the world of the dead still remains on the temple garden; however Sagano Fukusei-ji no longer stands, and the place where Takamura’s exit well once stood is now a bamboo forest.

Meido

Meido冥途
めいど

TRANSLATION: dark way; the underworld

APPEARANCE: When someone dies, they either go to Tengoku (heaven) or Jigoku (hell). If they lived an exceptionally good or an exceptionally evil life, they may go straight to Tengoku or Jigoku. However, for most people—who have done both and good and evil in their lives—the soul travels to Meido. There they face a test by the judges of the dead, each of whose true form is that of a buddha or a god. They are then sent either to Tengoku or Jigoku. Meido is a terrible place—though nowhere near as terrible as Jigoku. It is dark, windy, and full of horrible sights, sounds, tests and trials. It is a long journey, with no place to rest or find comfort.

To enter the underworld, the soul much first find and cross the Sanzu River, the River of Three Crossings, which marks the boundary between this world and the world of the dead. The Sanzu River is said to be located somewhere on Mount Osore, literally Mount Fear, a desolate volcano located in northern Japan. Despite its appearance—covered in blasted rocks, bubbling pits of dark liquid, and open vents spewing out toxic gas—Mount Osore is one of the three holiest places in Japan. Itako, blind shamanesses, communicate with the dead as they approach the mountain. The itako take hallucinogenic mushrooms known as skull mushrooms (ōdokurodake—big skull mushrooms; himedokurodake—princess skull mushrooms; and onidokurodake—demon skull mushrooms) which sprout only on the crags of this caldera.

INTERACTIONS: There are many variations on what exactly happens after this life ends. These are often depicted in graphic hell scrolls kept at temples. The depictions differ greatly from tradition to tradition and place to place. A typical explanation may go like this:

Upon dying, souls are visited by three oni who escort them on a seven day journey to Meido. The journey is harsh and terrible. It is dark, and a strong, howling wind rages constantly. The corruption of the living world materializes into swords on this plane, which pierce the bodies of the travelers, turning the surrounding terrain into a sea of blood.

A few days along the way, the souls are assaulted by horrible birds, which tear at their skin and pluck out their eyes. All the while the birds taunt them and scream at them to hurry up. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? I would have hurried from the start!” cry the souls of the dead. “What is this stupid soul saying!” cry the birds. “We were perched on his roof since three days before he died, warning him to start saying his prayers! That fool only said, ‘The crows are being extra noisy today. The old woman next door must be dying. Go bring her some sugar.’ Well the old woman is still alive, happily licking her sugar!”

Next, the souls come to an enormous mountain which scrapes the clouds, covered in sharp thorns. The path up the mountain is steep and impossibly long. The souls cry out, “I was sick and weak in life, how can you expect me to climb such a mountain now?” To which the oni reply, “What is this stupid soul saying! This is the mountain of your greed! Every time you wanted something your neighbor owned, or desired some earthly possession, you added to this mountain! You built it, now you can climb it!” Anyone who lags behind gets hit with the oni’s terrible iron club.

Finally, after seven days, the souls arrive at the Sanzu River and face the first trial put forth by the first judge, King Shinkō (whose true form is that of Fudō Myōō; who is known as Acala in English). Shinkō judges the souls on how much killing they have committed, down to every bug that was squashed and every fish that was caught. Those whom Shinkō judges to be wicked go straight to Jigoku. Others may cross the river depending on how well they fared in the trial. To cross the Sanzu River, a toll of 6 mon (an old form of currency) is required. This is buried with the deceased during the funeral. Those whose funerals were not properly performed and did not receive the 6 mon cannot cross. This is the reason that the seventh day after death is an important day in Japanese funerary services. The services and prayers performed for the deceased aid them in this trial and allow them to cross the river.

One part of the Sanzu River is crossed by a great bridge. Another part of the river is shallow and fordable. The rest of the river is wild and deep, and filled with poisonous snakes. The souls with the most good deeds are allowed to cross the bridge. Those with a mixture of both good and evil may ford the river in the shallow part. The worst of the souls may only cross by swimming through snake-filled rapids. The crossing of the Sanzu River takes seven days.

After crossing the river, the souls encounter Datsueba and Keneō. These two oni take the heavy clothes from each soul, wet from the crossing of the river, and hang them on a tree. The amount the branch bends under the weight of the clothes serves as a measure of the weight of the sin on each soul, to be used as evidence in the trials to come. If a soul arrives with no clothes—perhaps having discarded them while swimming in the river—Datsueba flays his or her skin and hangs it from the tree instead.

The second trial takes place fourteen days after death, and is overseen by King Shokō (whose true form is Shaka Nyōrai, or Siddhartha Gautama). Shokō judges the souls on how much they have stolen. As with the previous trial, he sends the most grievous offenders straight to hell, while allowing the good to pass on to the next trial. Again, the fourteenth day after death is an important day for family members to perform ceremonies in honor of the deceased, in order to help him or her pass this trial.

Before the third trial, each soul must pass through a fortified gate which is guarded by a fierce oni. The oni wields large blades, which he uses to haphazardly chop off the arms and legs of the souls, saying, “That hand helped you to sin. I’ll cut if off for you!” The souls must then cross an enormous bay, wider than the Sanzu River, and filled with boiling liquid. The river gives off foul smelling fumes in all directions for many miles.

The third trial takes place 21 days after death, and is overseen by King Sōtei (whose true form is Manji Bosatsu, or Manjusri). Sōtei judges the souls on their sins of lust and sexuality, using a cat and a snake. The cat judges the souls of men; it bites at their penises, and the degree of the injury—from a slight scratch to completely severed—is used as a measure of one’s sexual sin. The snake judges the souls of women; it is inserted into the woman, and the depth to which it can enter is used to determine the depth of her sin. As before, some will go on to hell, while others—with the aid of funerary services from their surviving family members—will pass on to the next trial.

The fourth trial, 28 days after death, is overseen by King Gokan (whose true form is Fugen Bosatsu, or Samantabhadra). Gokan judges the dead on the number of lies they told in life. He weighs each soul against a large, heavy stone. The number of stones it takes the balance the scale determines the weight of one’s sins. Excessive liars are damned—those who are not may continue on to be judged again. Once again, the family holds a funerary service to aid their beloved departed in this trial, hoping to sway the mercy of the judge.

Next, the souls must cross a vast blasted, desolate landscape of unfathomable length. Balls of red-hot iron fall constantly like rain from the sky, burning the skin of the souls and causing their feet to blister as they walk the path to the next trial.

The fifth trial, 35 days after death, is overseen by Great King Enma, the ruler of the underworld (whose true form is that of Jizō Bosatsu, or Ksitigarbha). Enma’s judgment is the final chance to appeal one’s fate through the prayers and memorial services performed by the living relatives. Enma shows each soul a large mirror, in which the individual’s former life is reflected back at them, with all of their sins and transgressions clearly laid out. Enma’s job is to decide, based on his and the previous trials, which of the six Buddhist realms each soul will be reborn into: the realm of heaven, the realm of humans, the realm of ashura, the realm of beasts, the realm of gaki (or hungry ghosts), or the realm of hell.

After 42 days, the souls which have made it this far now face the judgment of King Henjō (whose true form is Miroku Bosatsu, or Maitreya). Henjō decides the location of each soul’s rebirth based on the reports from Enma’s mirror and Gokan’s scale.

Next, the souls must cross a dark land, full of strange animals whose cries pierce the darkness and fill the atmosphere with dread. Strange birds attack the souls, breathing flames at them and piercing them with their sharp beaks.

On the 49th day after death, the souls reach the trial of King Taizan (whose true form is Yakushi Nyōrai, or Bhaisajyaguru). The 49th day memorial service is an important one, with many family members attending to pray for the deceased; Taizan’s trial is the final chance to avoid going to hell. He uses the information from the previous judges to determine the remaining conditions of each soul’s rebirth.

Upon completion of this trial, each soul moves on to a road with six unmarked torii gates, each representing one of the Buddhist realms. There is no way to tell which gate leads to which realm, and each soul must decide for him or herself which gate to choose. Upon passing through the gate, the soul travels along an enormous frozen river, and leaves Meido for the next world, whichever one it may be. For many, the journey ends here. Those who have been judged worthy may find themselves in Tengoku. Others are reborn as humans, animals, or worse. For those deemed unworthy for even the lowest forms of rebirth, more trials await in the realm of Jigoku.

ORIGIN: The origins of Meido are strongly rooted in Chinese Buddhism. When Buddhism was brought from India to China it took on a structure of its own, merging many aspects with Chinese philosophy and Taoism. This mixture of Chinese Taoism and Indian Buddhism was imported to Japan, after which it began to develop its own uniquely Japanese features as well.

Hanzaki

Hanzaki鯢魚
はんざき

TRANSLATION: Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus)
ALTERNATE NAMES: ōsanshōuo, hanzake, hazako
HABITAT: rivers and streams
DIET: mainly insects, frogs, and fish

APPEARANCE: Hanzaki are monstrous versions of the Japanese giant salamander. These animals normally grow up to one and a half meters long, however the yōkai versions of this animal can grow much larger. They have rough, mottled, brown and black skin, tiny eyes, and enormous mouths which span the entire width of their heads. They live in rivers and streams far from human-inhabited areas.

INTERACTIONS: Hanzaki and humans rarely come into contact with each other. When they do, it is usually because the hanzaki has grown large enough to eat humans or livestock and is causing trouble to nearby villagers.

ORIGIN: The name hanzaki is a colloquialism for the Japanese giant salamander. They are called hanzaki for their regenerative powers; it was believed that a salamander’s body could be cut (saku) in half (han) and it would still survive. The call of the salamander was said to resemble that of a human baby, and so the word is written with kanji combining fish () and child ().

LEGENDS: There was once a deep pool in which a gigantic hanzaki lived. The hanzaki would grab horses, cows, and even villagers, drag them into the pool, and swallow them in a single gulp. For generations, the villagers lived in fear of the pool and stayed away from it.

During the first year of Bunroku (1593 CE), the villagers called for help, asking if there was anyone brave enough to slay the hanzaki. A young villager named Miura no Hikoshirō volunteered. Hikoshirō grabbed his sword and dove into the pool. He did not come back up; he had been swallowed by the hanzaki in a single gulp! Moments later, Hikoshirō sliced through the hanzaki and tore it in half from the inside out, killing it instantly. The slain creature’s body was 10 meters long, and 5 meters in girth!

The very day the hanzaki was slain, strange things began to happen at the Miura residence. Night after night, something would bang on the door, and something screaming and crying could be heard just outside the door. However, when Hikoshirō opened the door to check, there was nothing there at all.

Not long after that, Hikoshirō and his entire family died suddenly. Strange things began to happen through the village as well. The villagers believed the angry ghost of the dead hanzaki had cursed them. They built a small shrine and enshrined the hanzaki’s spirit as a god, dubbing it Hanzaki Daimyōjin. After that, the hanzaki’s spirit was pacified, and the curse laid to rest.

A gravestone dedicated to Miura no Hikoshirō still stands in Yubara, Okayama Prefecture. The villagers of Yubara still honor Hanzaki Daimyōjin by building giant salamander shrine floats and parading them through town during the annual Hanzaki Festival.

 

Ichijama

Ichijama生邪魔
いちじゃま

TRANSLATION: living evil spirit
ALTERNATE NAMES: ichimabui, ikimaburi
HABITAT: Okinawa and islands in southern Kyūshū

APPEARANCE: Ichijama is a curse from Okinawa. It is a type of ikiryō—a spirit of a still-living person which leaves the body to haunt its victim. The magic which summons this spirit, the person who casts the spell, and the family line of that person are all referred to as ichijama. Not only people, but cows, pigs, horses and other livestock, as well as crops can be cursed by an ichijama.

INTERACTIONS: An ichijama is summoned by praying to a special doll known as an ichijama butokii. The ichijama butokii is boiled in a pot while reciting the name of the body part which is to be cursed. After the ritual is performed, a spirit which looks exactly like the person casting the spell visits the home of the intended victim. It delivers a gift to its target—usually fruit or vegetables such as bananas, garlic, or wild onions. After receiving the gift, the target develops an unidentifiable sickness in whichever body part was chanted during the spell. If untreated, the victim will die.

Omyōdō did not exist in Okinawa, so this curse could only be overcome with the help of Okinawan magic, by shamans known as yuta. This was accomplished by performing yet another curse. The yuta would bind the victim’s thumbs together and hit them with a nail while chanting bad things about the curse victim. Performing this curse would drive out the ichijama from its victim.

ORIGIN: The ability to summon an ichijama is a hereditary secret passed down from mother to daughter. Families with such magical power are said to be very beautiful and have a sharp look in their eyes. The ability to use black magic carries a strong social stigma in Okinawa. Marrying into one of these families should be avoided at all costs. But it is difficult to tell; ichijama clans are often careful about hiding their family secret.

Shikigami

Shikigami

式神
しきがみ

TRANSLATION: ceremonial spirit
ALTERNATE NAMES: shikijin, shiki no kami
DIET: varies

APPEARANCE: Shikigami are servant spirits used by onmyōji in rituals for various purposes. Some are used as charms for good fortune, some are used as amulets for protection, and some are used as curses. To call a shikigami means to call a god, a demon, a yōkai, or a ghost and to utilize its power for some deed or another.

INTERACTIONS: Shikigami can be powerful and dangerous. They come in many forms. The most common are enshrined in small objects, such as strips of paper or amulets. Others may come in the form of animal possessions, using the bodies of chickens, cows, or dogs as vessels. The most dreadful shikigami take the form of humans, ghosts, yōkai, or oni.

While shikigami are powerful and terrifying, perhaps their most horrifying aspect is that they never act under their own will; they are slaves in the service of human magic users who tell them what to do.

Katashiro

Katashiro形代
かたしろ

TRANSLATION: form substitution

APPEARANCE: Katashiro are human-shaped dolls. They are usually made of paper, but sometimes of wood, straw, or metal. There are different shapes and designs of katashiro to suit the many purposes they serve.

INTERACTIONS: Katashiro are a type of yorishiro—ceremonial objects used as a substitution for someone or something. Specifically they are used as a substitution for a person during a ritual. They are commonly used in purification rituals, where a person’s sins are transferred into the katashiro. The karashiro is then discarded into a river or body of water, taking the sin away with it.

Katashiro are also frequently used to ward off evil in a similar fashion. If you are suffering bad luck, a katashiro can be used to absorb the bad luck from you or prevent bad things from occurring. If you suspect that you are going to be targeted by a curse, a katashiro can be prepared as a substitute target for your person. The doll will receive all of the evil effects in place of the intended target.

Katashiro can even be used in spells or curses as a substitution for a real human target. Usually this involves inscribing the name, birthdate, and other personal information on the paper doll. The spell is performed on the doll, after which the intended effects happen to the actual person.

Abe no Seimei

Abe no Seimei安倍晴明
あべのせいめい

APPEARANCE: Abe no Seimei is perhaps the most famous onmyōji in Japanese history. A descendent of the famous poet Abe no Nakamaro, he lived from 921 to 1005 CE. Due to his success as an astrologer and diviner, he was widely believed to be a genius—and a wielder of magical powers and secret knowledge.

ORIGIN: Abe no Seimei’s fame comes from the success he had as an onmyōji in the 10th century. He was a student of Kamo no Tadayuki and Kamo no Yasunori, and succeeded Yasunori as astrologer and diviner for the imperial court. Seimei’s duties included foreseeing the gender of unborn babies, diving the location of objects, advising on matters of personal conduct, conducting exorcisms and crafting wards against dark magic and evil spirits, and analyzing and interpreting events such as celestial phenomena. He wrote numerous books on divination and fortune telling, including Senji Ryakketsu, containing six thousand forecast and thirty-six fortune telling techniques using shikigami, and a translation of Hoki Naiden, detailing secret divination techniques.

Abe no Seimei was so renowned that the Abe family remained in control of the Bureau of Onmyō until it was shut down in 1869. After his death, stories about Seimei began to spread rapidly and continued to do so for hundreds of years. Eventually, the details of his life became so intertwined with countless legends that the truth was no longer distinguishable from myth.

LEGENDS: It was believed that Abe no Seimei’s magical aptitude derived from a supernatural lineage. His mother was said to be a kitsune, making him half-yōkai. Seimei’s father, Abe no Yasuna, saved a white fox which was being chased by hunters. The fox transformed into a beautiful human woman and said her name was Kuzunoha. Out of thanks for saving her life, Kuzunoha became Yasuna’s wife and bore him a son, Seimei.

By age five, Abe no Seimei’s yōkai lineage was becoming apparent. He was able to command weak oni and force them to do his bidding. One day, he witnessed his mother in her fox form. Kuzunoha explained to Seimei that she was the white fox his father once saved. She then fled into the forest, never to return again. Kuzunoha entrusted her son to the onmyōji Kamo no Tadayuki in order to ensure that he would not grow up to be evil.

Abe no Seimei had many rivals. One of them was a famous priest from Harima named Chitoku Hōshi. Chitoku was a skilled sorcerer, and wanted to test Seimei to see if he was truly as great as people said he was. Chitoku disguised himself as a traveler and visited Seimei’s house, and asked Seimei to teach him magic. Seimei saw through the disguise instantly. Even more, he saw that the two servants Chitoku had brought with him were shikigami—summoned servant spirits—in disguise.

Seimei decided to have a little bit of fun with Chitoku. He agreed to train him, but said that it was not a good day, and that he should come back tomorrow. Chitoku went back to his home, while unbeknownst to him, Seimei unsummoned both of the shikigami. The next day, Chitoku realized that his servants were gone, and he approached Seimei to ask him to return his shikigami. Seimei laughed at him, angrily scolding him for trying to trick him. Any other person, he said, would not be so kind to return shikigami that were employed against him! Chitoku realized that he was in way over his head; not only could Seimei see through his disguise, but he was able to manipulate all of his spells as well. He bowed low, begged for forgiveness, and offered to become Seimei’s servant.

Abe no Seimei’s chief rival was a sorcerer from Harima named Ashiya Dōman. Dōman was much older than Seimei, and believed that there was no one in the land who was a better onmyōji than he was. Upon hearing of Seimei’s genius, he challenged him to a magical duel.

On the day of the competition, many officials and witnesses came to watch. The two sorcerers met in the imperial gardens for the contest. First, Dōman picked up a handful of sand, concentrated over it for a moment, and threw it into the air. The particles of sand turned into countless swallows which began to flit around the garden. Seimei waved his folding fan one time, and all of the swallows turned back into grits of sand.

Next, Seimei recited a spell. A dragon appeared in the sky above. Rain began to fall all around them. Dōman recited his spell, however as hard as he tried, he could not cause the dragon to vanish. Instead, the rain grew fiercer and fiercer, filling the garden with water up to Dōman’s waist. Finally, Seimei cast his spell again. The rain stopped, and the dragon vanished.

The third and final contest was a divination challenge: the contestants had to guess the contents of a wooden box. Dōman, indignant at having lost the previous round, challenged Seimei: “Whoever loses this round will become the other’s servant!” Dōman confidently declared that there were 15 oranges inside of the box. Seimei contradicted him, saying that there were 15 rats in the box. The emperor and his attendants who had prepared the test shook their heads, for they had put 15 oranges in the box. They announced that Seimei had lost. However, when they opened the box, 15 rats leaped out! Not only had Seimei divined the contents of the box, he had transformed the oranges into rats, tricking Dōman and the entire court. Victory went to Seimei.

Ashiya Dōman continued to hold a grudge against Abe no Seimei, and continued to plot against him. He seduced Seimei’s wife and convinced her to tell him Seimei’s magical secrets. She showed him the stone box in which Seimei kept Hoki Naiden, his book of spells. Hoki Naiden was a book of secrets which had been passed down since time immemorial from India to Tang, China. It came into the possession of the Japanese envoy, Kibi no Makibi. When Kibi no Makibi returned to Japan from Tang, he presented the secret book to the relatives of his friend Abe no Nakamaro, who remained in China. From there it was passed down and eventually inherited by Abe no Seimei.

One night when Seimei returned home, Dōman boasted that he had acquired Seimei’s secret magic book. Seimei scolded him, saying that was impossible. So impossible, in fact, that if Dōman did have the book, he could cut Seimei’s throat. Dōman triumphantly presented the book, and Seimei, realizing that he had been betrayed by his wife, offered his throat to Dōman. Dōman gladly cut it open. Seimei died.

When Seimei was murdered, Saint Hokudō—the Chinese wizard who had given Hoki Naiden to Kibi no Makibi—sensed the loss of a great sorcerer. He traveled across the sea to Japan, collected Seimei’s bones, and restored Abe no Seimei to life. The pair of them set out to get revenge on Dōman and Seimei’s ex-wife, who was now married to Dōman.

Saint Hokudō paid a visit to Seimei’s home, where Dōman and his wife were now living. He asked if Abe no Seimei was home, to which Dōman replied that, unfortunately, Abe no Seimei had been murdered some time ago. Saint Hokudō said that was impossible, for he had just seen Seimei earlier that day. Dōman laughed at him, saying that was impossible. So impossible, in fact, that if Seimei was actually alive, he could cut Dōman’s throat. Saint Hokudō called out to Abe no Seimei, who presented himself. He then promptly cut open the throats of Ashiya Dōman and his wife.

Today, Abe no Seimei is worshipped as a god at many shrines throughout Japan. His main shrine is located in Kyōto, and sits on the site of his former house.

Maneki neko

Manekineko招き猫
まねきねこ

TRANSLATION: inviting cat
HABITAT: towns and cities
DIET: carnivorous; as a regular cat

APPEARANCE: The maneki neko is a popular variation of the bakeneko which brings good luck and fortune. It is most commonly seen in the form of decorative statues in homes and stores. It is depicted with one or both paws in the air in a beckoning motion.

ORIGIN: Cats have long been connected with the supernatural in Japan. While some superstitions link cats with bad luck, curses, and strange fires, there is also a long tradition of cats being revered and seen as good creatures. Particularly in agricultural and sericulture, where cats would eat mice and other pests who attack crops and silkworms, cats were seen as lucky creatures, and images of cats were used as charms.

Statues of maneki neko became popular items in the urban areas of Japan towards the end of the Edo period. Cats with their right hand raised are said to bring economic fortune, while cats with their left hand raised are said to attract customers. The cat’s colors of the can be significant as well. Long ago, black cats were said to be lucky cats due to their ability to see in the dark, and so black maneki neko were used as talismans against evil spirits. Red was believed to repel smallpox and measles, so red maneki neko were used as talismans against sickness.

The origins of these statues lie in folkloric tales about strange cats who bring riches to their masters, or who save their masters from disaster. There are a number of famous stories based on variations of these themes.

LEGENDS: In the Yoshiwara please district of Edo, there lived a very famous courtesan named Usugumo. Usugumo was a tayū (the highest rank of oiran) in the esteemed brothel of Miura Yashirōzaemon. Usugumo was a cat lover, and was particularly fond of her tortoiseshell cat whom she always carried with her wherever she went. So great was her love for her cats that rumors began to spread that Usugumo had been possessed or bewitched by a cat.

One day, as Usugumo tried to visit the bathroom, her tortoiseshell cat began acting extremely clingy. It refused to leave her side, clawing at her dress and meowing noisily. Seeing this, the brothel owner thought that the cat was attacking Usugumo. He quickly drew his sword and slashed at the cat. The cat’s head flew through the air into the bathroom, and sunk its teeth into a large venomous snake which was hiding out of site near the toilet.

Usugumo was overcome with grief for her pet cat, which even in death had saved her life. To ease her sadness, the brothel owner had a statue in the likeness of her cat made by the finest woodcarver out of the finest wood. The carving was so masterfully done and so lifelike that Usugumo was overjoyed and was able to find her happiness once again.

Everyone who saw the carving of the cat wanted one just like it. That year, copies of the figure were sold in the Asakusa markets. This is often thought to be the origin of the maneki neko statue.

 

Tatarimokke

Tatarimokke祟り蛙
たたりもっけ

ALTERNATE NAMES: tatarimoke
TRANSLATION: curse child
HABITAT: lives inside of owls
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: A tatarimokke is the spirit of a dead baby which inhabits the body of an owl. Visually they appear no different than ordinary owls. Tatarimokke remain near the homes of the families they once belonged to. The hooting of the owls is said to actually be the sound created by the spirit of the dead baby.

INTERACTIONS: Tatarimokke are treated with respect by the families which they haunt, just like zashiki warashi. Houses that have lost a child recently will take care of any owls that appear near their homes and treat them as if they are the spirit of the lost child. In most cases, these spirits are beloved by the families they haunt, and they do not cause any harm.

In some cases, however, tatarimokke can be dangerous to people. The souls of babies whose bodies were carelessly discarded into rivers, babies who were killed by their parents to reduce the number of mouths to feed, and even the spirits of aborted fetuses could retain a grudge against the living. People passing through the places where these resentful spirits haunt might hear eerie sounds and feel unsettling sensations, see strange phenomena like floating fireballs, or may stumble on a rock and hurt themselves.

In the most extreme cases, tatarimokke truly do bring terrible curses upon those who are perceived as having wronged them. Particularly in the case of people who were murdered in particularly violent and gruesome fashion. In these cases, the tatarimokke is not the spirit of a newborn baby, but instead is the spirit of the murder victim. These tatarimokke lay a curse their assailant so powerful that it not only brings ruin to the murderer, but to his entire family, for generations to come.

ORIGIN: Long ago in Japan, babies were not considered fully human until some time after they were born. Therefore, when a newborn died, it was not given a proper funeral and placed in a cemetery, but was usually buried quietly in or around the house. The spirits of these children would float out, and were believed to easily get “stuck” to owls, thus becoming a tatarimokke.

The name tatarimokke comes from tatari (curse) and moke, which means “infant” in some northern dialects. It is usually written phonetically, but is sometimes also written with characters that mean “curse” and “frog.” In this case, the character for frog is actually read as “moke,” and refers to the local word for a newborn baby.

Tennyo

Tennyo天女
てんにょ

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.

Genbu

Genbu玄武
げんぶ

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.

Suzaku

Suzaku朱雀
すざく

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.

Seiryū

Seiryuu青竜
せいりゅう

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.

Amemasu

Amemasu雨鱒
アメマス

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.

Uwabami

Uwabami蟒蛇
うわばみ

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.

Atuikakura

Atuikakuraアトゥイカクラ
あトぅいかくら

TRANSLATION: the Japanese reading of its Ainu name, atuy kakura
ALTERNATE NAMES: atsuuikakura
HABITAT: Uchiura bay in Hokkaido
DIET: mainly a scavenger; occasionally eats ships

APPEARANCE: Atuikakura is an enormous sea cucumber which lives deep in Uchiura Bay in Hokkaido.

BEHAVIOR: Atuikakura is rarely seen due its underwater lifestyle. It spends most of its time deep in the water, occasionally attaching itself to chunks of driftwood and floating to other parts of the bay.

INTERACTIONS: Despite rarely being seen, Atuikakura can be very dangerous to ships on the bay. When Atuikakura gets startled, it thrashes about wildly, smashing or capsizing ships which happen to be bear it. It also sometimes mistakes a wooden boat for a piece of driftwood, attaches its mouth to it, and drags the ship under the waves.

ORIGIN: Atuikakura is the Japanese transcription of its Ainu name, atuy kakura. Atuy is the Ainu word for the sea, and kakura means sea cucumber. According to local legend, Atuikakura was formed when a mouru—the traditional undergarment of Ainu women—washed down a river and into the bay. The mouru settled at the bottom of Uchiura Bay and and turned into a giant sea cucumber.

Akkorokamui

Akkorokamuiアッコロカムイ
あっころかむい

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.

Tomokazuki

Tomokazukiトモカヅキ
ともかづき

TRANSLATION: together-diver; diving with
ALTERNATE NAMES: umiama
HABITAT: coastal areas where shellfish are found
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Tomokazuki are aquatic yōkai who are found underwater and appear to ama, the deep-diving women who gather oysters, urchins, and other sea creatures. They appear on cloudy days. They are a kind of diving doppelganger; they take on the appearance of the ama who see them. The only way to tell them apart from actual women is the length of the headbands they wear; tomokazuki have much longer headbands.

INTERACTIONS: Tomokazuki appear to divers deep underwater. They beckon the divers closer to them, offering shellfish and sea urchins as a way to lure them deeper. They continue to lure the divers deeper and farther away from safety. Eventually the divers are either lured too deep or too far from the shore, and they drown.

In order to protect themselves from tomokazuki, superstitious ama will carry magic charms with them while diving; usually in the form of the seiman and dōman symbols on their headbands.

ORIGIN: One popular explanation among believers is that tomokazuki are the ghosts of drowned ama. Since they are only ever seen by ama deep under the water, belief in tomokazuki is not common. Most of the time, tales of tomokazuki encounters are written off as hallucinations or delirium brought on by the stresses of deep diving—high pressure, lack of oxygen, physical exhaustion, and the fear of being swept away.

In one story from Shizuoka, an ama and her husband took a boat out to sea to dive for shellfish. While deep underweater, the ama saw a tomokazuki and quickly surfaced to tell her husband. He mocked her for believing such stupid things, and ordered her to keep working. The ama dove back down as her husband commanded. She was never seen again.

In Fukui Prefecture there is yōkai called an umiama, which is very similar to a tomokazuki. When an ama dives down to the sea floor, the umiama surfaces. Then, when the ama surfaces, the umiama dives down to the sea floor. Because of this, it is very difficult to spot this yōkai. However, those unlucky few who do manage to see it become gravely ill shortly afterwards.

Akateko

Akateko赤手児
あかてこ

TRANSLATION: red child’s hand
HABITAT:  Japanese honey locust (Gleditsia japonica) trees
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: The akateko appears—just as the name implies—as a red, disembodied hand belonging to a child. It is found hanging in Japanese honey locust trees.

INTERACTIONS: Akateko drops down from trees as people pass underneath them. Aside from giving its victims a nasty surprise and the general creepiness of a disembodied red child’s hand, it is not known for causing any great harm.

Some people have seen the figure of a furisode-wearing beautiful girl of 17 or 18 years standing underneath an akateko’s tree. Those who witness her are immediately struck with a powerful fever. It is not clear what relationship she has to the akateko, if she is part of the same apparition or another spirit entirely.

ORIGIN: The origin of akateko is usually given as a certain tree in front of an elementary school in the city of Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture. However, there are local versions of it in Fukushima and Kagawa Prefectures as well. In these prefectures, akateko sometimes work together with another yokai called aka ashi. They grab at the feet of pedestrians, causing them to stumble and fall. It has also been suggested that akateko and aka ashi are two forms of the same yokai.

Tsurara onna

Tsuraraonnaつらら女
つららおんな

TRANSLATION: icicle woman
ALTERNATE NAMES: tsurara nyōbō
HABITAT: snowy areas; only seen during winter
DIET: loneliness; can also eat ordinary food

APPEARANCE: Tsurara onna are beautiful woman that are created from the loneliness of single men during the winter time. When a man gazes longingly at a strong, beautiful icicle hanging from a roof and reflects upon his loneliness, a tsurara onna may appear shortly afterwards. On the surface, a tsurara onna appears to be an ordinary—though exceptionally beautiful—woman. They are very similar in appearance and behavior to yuki onna, which inhabit the same areas during wintertime. When the winter snows melt and icicles can no longer be seen hanging from roofs, tsurara onna disappear along with the cold weather.

INTERACTIONS: Despite their icy origins, tsurara onna can be quite warm and loving spirits. In fact, many stories of tsurara onna involve one which has fallen in love with and married a human. These marriages invariably end in tragedy. The beautiful bride inevitably leaves when the spring comes, leaving her mate confused and heartbroken. And any future encounters the following winter usually do not end well for either party, if the legends are to be believed.

Because they look and behave like ordinary human women, it is often very difficult to identify a tsurara onna. One recognizable warning sign is an unwillingness to enter a bath. Occasionally, stories tell of a woman who refuses to take a bath no matter how much her husband pressures her. Eventually, tired of fighting, she relents and enters the bath. When the husband checks on her later, all he sees are a few tiny shards of ice floating in the tub, and his wife is nowhere to be found.

LEGENDS: There are countless tales of tsurara onna. They are found in every prefecture where snow falls, and each one has its own unique twist. However, there are a few common motifs found in most versions of the story. Many of them are similar or even identical to yuki onna stories. Themes of love, marriage, and betrayal are common.

One iconic example from Echigo Province—modern day Niigata Prefecture—goes like this: a young, single man gazed out his window on a cold, snowy night. He sat there, wistfully admiring the lovely winter scene. He wished in his heart that he could find a wife as beautiful as the icicles hanging from his roof. Suddenly, he heard a knock at his door. A woman’s voice called out, and it was as beautiful and clear as ice.

“Excuse me! I was traveling along this road, but the snowstorm became too fierce and I cannot journey any further. Might I lodge at your house for the night?”

The young man of course accepted (what young man would refuse such a request?), and he was delighted to see the woman’s face was as beautiful as her voice. He worked hard to make sure her stay was as enjoyable as possible.

Several months later, the woman was still staying at the house… In fact, she and the young man had fallen deep in love and she forgot about her journey entirely. They had gotten married and were very happy together.

One spring morning, the beautiful young bride went out shopping. That night she did not return. The young man waited her return night after night. The snows melted, the plum blossoms bloomed, and soon it was spring. The young man asked everyone he met if they had seen his wife. He searched all around, but there was no sign of her at all. Nobody he met could tell him anything either. He slowly forced himself to accept that she had left him. Over time, the young man’s broken heart healed, and he was remarried to young woman from his village.

The following winter, during a snowstorm, the young man found himself looking out the window at the long icicles hanging from his roof. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. The beautiful woman from the previous winter was standing outside of his house. The young man was shocked.

“I searched for you every day! What is the meaning of this? How could you just vanish like that without a word?” he cried.

The woman replied, “People have different circumstances you know… But we promised to love each other forever. You said that our bond was as long and as solid as the beautiful icicles hanging from your roof. And yet… you have remarried.”

The beautiful woman left the house with a sad look on her face. The young man started after her, when suddenly there was a voice from inside the house. It was his new wife, asking what was going on.

“It’s nothing. Stay inside.”

Suddenly there was loud crash followed by a shriek near the front of the house. The new wife ran to the front door to see what had happened. There, lying in the front yard, was her husband. He was dead, pierced through the brain by an enormous icicle which had fallen from the roof.

Amazake babā

Amazakebabaa

甘酒婆
あまざけばばあ

TRANSLATION: amazake (a sweet, low-alcohol content form of sake) hag
ALTERNATE NAMES: amazake banbā
HABITAT: dark streets at night, particularly in urban areas
DIET: amazake and sake

APPEARANCE: Amazake babā is a haggardly old woman from northeastern Japan. She is practically indistinguishable from an ordinary old woman, which makes her difficult to recognize as a yōkai until it is too late.

INTERACTIONS: Amazake babā appears on winter nights and travels from house to house. She knocks on doors and calls out, “Might you have any amazake?” Those who answer her, whether the answer is yes or no, fall terribly ill. A cedar branch hung over the door is said to keep the amazake babā from approaching your house.

A variation of amazake babā from Yamanashi prefecture is called amazake banbā. She travels from house to house trying to sell sake and amazake. The consequences of replying to her are the same as with amazake babā, but the way to keep her at bay is slightly different. If you hang a sign at the front door that says “we do not like sake or amazake,” she will leave you alone and go on to the next house.

ORIGIN: Originally amazake babā was considered to be a god of disease—specifically smallpox. During smallpox outbreaks, there was a large increase in amazake babā sightings in major urban centers across Japan, not just in the northeast. Rumors of old women roaming the streets at night selling sake and bringing sickness were rampant in large cities such as Edo, Kyōto, Osaka, and Nagoya. Fear of smallpox was a major concern in urban centers, and contributed to the popularity of amazake babā rumors.

Since the eradication of smallpox, the sickness spread by amazake babā’s has changed from smallpox to the common cold. Even today, statues of her can be found in cities. Mothers visit these statues to leave offerings of sake and amazake so that that their children will not become sick.

Kuzunoha

Kuzunoha葛の葉
くずのは

TRANSLATION: kudzu leaves
ALTERNATE NAMES: Shinodazuma (the Wife of Shinoda)

ORIGIN: Kuzunoha is a byakko, or white kitsune. She is most famous for being the wife of Abe no Yasuna and the mother of Abe no Seimei. Her story is preserved in a number of kabuki and bunraku plays. The Inari shrine near where Abe no Yasuna first met Kuzunoha still stands today, and is popularly known as the Kuzunoha Shrine.

LEGENDS: During the reign of Emperor Murakami (946—967 CE), the onmyōji Abe no Yasuna sought to rebuild his family house. The Abe family had once been a rich and powerful one, but their land and status were lost years before by Yasuna’s father, who had been tricked by con men. While rebuilding his house, Yasuna regularly traveled to the Inari shrine in Shinoda, Izumi Province, to pray for the god’s blessings.

One day, while walking through the woods of Shinoda, a beautiful white fox jumped in front of Yasuna’s path. It was being chased by a hunter, and it asked Yasuna to save it. Yasuna knew that white foxes were holy to Inari, and he helped the creature to escape. Shortly afterwards, the hunter came to where Yasuna was and the two got into a fight. Yasuna was wounded in the fight, and fell to the ground.

After the hunter left, a young woman came out of the forest to Yasuna’s side. She told him her name was Kuzunoha. She took Yasuna all the way back to his home, and nursed him back to health. The woman continued to visit Yasuna, caring for him and checking up on his recovery. At some point during her visits, Kuzunoha and Yasuna had fallen in love, and so when he was better they got married.

Eventually Kuzunoha became pregnant, and she bore Yasuna a son. They three of them lived happily for some time. However, when their son was five years old, he witnessed something strange. Some say it was when she looked in a mirror, others say it was while she was sleeping; but his mother accidentally let her true form appear for a brief second: she a white-furred kitsune!

Her secret having been discovered, Kuzunoha had no choice but to leave her beloved family. Holding a brush in her mouth, she wrote a farewell tanka on the paper door and vanished:

If you love me, come and visit, in the forest of Shinoda in Izumi, the resentful kudzu leaf

When Yasuna read her poem, he realized that his beloved wife was the fox whom he had saved years earlier. He and their son traveled to the forests of Shinoda, where Kuzunoha had first entered the world of humankind. There, Kuzunoha appeared before them one last time. She presented them a crystal ball and a golden box as parting gifts, and then she left her human family forever.

Kuzunoha and Yasuna’s son grew up to become a powerful sorcerer, thanks to the magical gifts his mother had given him, her yōkai lineage, and his father’s onmyōji training. He took the name Abe no Seimei, and became the most powerful onmyōji in all of Japanese history.

Myōbu

Myoubu命婦
みょうぶ

TRANSLATION: a high ranking title for court ladies
ALTERNATE NAMES: byakko (white fox)
HABITAT: shrines and places sacred to Inari
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: Myōbu are celestial fox spirits with white fur and full, fluffy tails reminiscent of ripe grain. They are holy creatures, and bring happiness and blessings to those around them.

INTERACTIONS: Myōbu statues are most often found at Inari shrines, taking the place of the koma inu which adorn other shrines. These foxes act as both guardians and symbols of good luck and blessing. People often leave offerings of holy sake, sekihan (red rice and red beans), inarizushi, and fried tofu at these shrines. These foods are all said to be foxes’ favorites.

ORIGIN: Foxes were considered holy animals since long before recorded history began in Japan. The farmers of ancient Japan revered foxes, which preyed on the mice and rats which destroy crops. Foxes have long been associated with Inari, the god of the harvest. Inari is said to use foxes as servants and messengers, and the majority of the foxes in his employ are the holy, white-furred kind known as myōbu.

Myōbu statues are commonly found at Inari shrines. They often carry sacred objects in their mouths, such as the round jewel often carried by koma inu in other shrines. Myōbu can also be seen carrying spiral keys, sheaves of grain, and scrolls. These all carry special significance in Inari worship. The round jewel represents both the soul of Inari, and its form is a symbol of a grain storehouse. The spiral key is an archaic design of the keys used with traditional farm warehouses. The key represents the desire to unlock the storehouse; i.e. soul of Inari. The sheaves of grain represent the five grains (wheat, rice, beans, awa millet, and kibi millet) which are important in East Asian traditions. Finally, the scroll represents knowledge and wisdom.

Unagi hime

Unagihime, Takonyuudou

鰻姫
うなぎひめ

TRANSLATION: eel princess
ALTERNATE NAMES: ōunagi
HABITAT: lakes and deep ponds, especially in Miyagi Prefecture
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: Unagi hime are large, shape-shifting eels which take on the appearance of beautiful women.

BEHAVIOR: Unagi hime live at the bottom of lakes and ponds. Very little is known about them, and stories about them are short and lacking in detail. Sometimes they are said to weave clothing on looms at the bottom of their ponds. The clacking sound of a loom can be heard near the banks of a pond where an unagi hime lives.

INTERACTIONS: Unagi hime rarely interact with humans due to the fact that they live deep underwater. When human fishermen come in contact with an eel yōkai, they usually leave the area where it was encountered alone and try not to disturb it. Fishermen who catch eels near a ponds inhabited by unagi hime are scolded by their peers.

ORIGIN: In Miyagi Prefecture, eels were believed to be guardians of the ponds they inhabit. A number of local legends tell of eels which battle with other guardian animals such as crabs and spiders. The eels usually take the form of beautiful women and try to recruit the help of humans in their fights. Sometimes the human is a famous warrior or priest, other times he is unnamed, but in most stories the eel loses the battle.

LEGENDS: There is a pond nearby which a warrior named Genbē lived. One rainy summer night, Genbē took a walk around the pond. The eel who owned the pond appeared before Genbē in the form of a beautiful woman. She told the warrior that on the following night, the spider who owned a nearby pond would come and fight her. She begged the warrior to stay by the pond and protect her, for with his help she would surely win the battle. Genbē promised to help. However, on the following evening, he grew cowardly and stayed at home, shaking. The next morning, he returned to the pond and found the severed head of a giant eel. Its unblinking eyes stared at him with such hatred that he lost his mind. He threw himself into the pond and drowned.

Tako nyūdō

Unagihime, Takonyuudou

蛸入道
たこにゅうどう

TRANSLATION: octopus priest
ALTERNATE NAMES: tako bōzu
HABITAT: Sea of Japan; particularly near Shimane Prefecture
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: Tako nyūdō is an octopus yōkai which takes on a vaguely humanoid form. It has a bulbous octopus-like head with the face of a bearded old man. It has eight tentacles, and wears human clothing. It looks like an old, bald priest, hence the name.

BEHAVIOR: Little is known about the natural behavior of tako nyūdō. A famous scroll called the Bakemono Emaki, painted in 1666 by Kanō Munenobu, depicts a tako nyūdō dangling a fish above the head of an unagi hime. It appears to be teasing or perhaps seducing her, however no description or story accompanies the painting. Like the regular octopus, this yōkai octopus’s natural habitat is hidden from the human world, leaving its lifestyle a mystery.

INTERACTIONS: In Shimane Prefecture, tako nyūdō are feared by fishermen who live along the Sea of Japan. They are said to attack boats, grabbing fishermen off of them and dragging them down beneath the waves.

ORIGIN: The phrase tako nyūdō is sometimes used to mockingly refer to bald-headed old men, as their smooth scalps resemble the heads of octopuses.

Sunekosuri

Sunekosuri

脛擦り
すねこすり

TRANSLATION: shin rubber
ALTERNATE NAMES: sunekkorogashi, sunekkorobashi, sunekajiri
HABITAT: inhabited areas
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Sunekosuri are small, mischievous spirits from Okayama Prefecture. They appear on rainy nights in streets and alleys where people travel. They are most often described as dog-like in appearance, though they are also occasionally said to resemble cats.

INTERACTIONS: Sunekosuri run up behind people walking on dark, rainy nights. They rub against their shins, weave in and out of their legs, nuzzle against the knees, and otherwise make it difficult to walk. They do not intentionally cause any harm to humans, although occasionally their rubbing is strong enough to make a person stumble or even knock them down.

A few local of the local variations are slightly more aggressive than the sunekosuri. The sunekkorogashi and sunekkorobashi both mean “shin toppler.” The sunekajiri means “shin biter.” Although not as violent as other kinds of yōkai, these spirits are blamed for the occasional bruise or bloody nose.

ORIGIN: Sunekosuri is a relatively modern yōkai. It did not appear in writing until the 1935 yokai encyclopedia Genkō Zenkoku Yōkai Jiten, although it is impossible to tell how far back oral traditions go. Despite its relative recentness, it is a fairly well-known and well-loved yokai, most likely due to its cute depictions and manga and film.

Teke teke

Teketeke

テケテケ

TRANSLATION: onomatopoeic; the sound of her walking on her hands
ALTERNATE NAMES: shaka shaka, pata pata, kata kata, koto koto, hijikake babā
HABITAT: urban areas and roads
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Teke teke is a ghost who appears in a number of urban legends. Teke teke are almost always women (though in a few versions of the urban legend, the ghost is male). She has no lower half; she runs about on her arms, creating the distinctive “teke teke” sound from which she gets her name.

INTERACTIONS: Teke teke chases its victims down dark roads. Despite having no legs, a teke teke can run incredibly fast—so fast, in fact, that it can even catch up to victims who are speeding away in cars. When it catches them, something terrible happens—the legends are not always clear what. In some variations of the story the teke teke carries a sickle. It slices its victims in half at the waist and steals their legs.

ORIGIN: Like with most urban legends, there are so many versions of the teke teke story that it is impossible to know what the original story was or where it began. Every locality has its own version with different details. In some stories, the teke teke was the victim of a tragic accident; in others, it was suicide. In some stories, certain magic charms can protect you from its wrath; in others nothing can protect you and you will certainly die. In some versions, the teke teke’s victims become teke teke themselves. There are a number of threads in common between many of the variations, and the most common ones point towards a woman from Hokkaidō named Kashima Reiko.

LEGENDS: In the years after World War 2, an office worker in Muroran, Hokkaidō was assaulted and raped by American military personnel. That night, she leaped off a bridge onto the railroad tracks and was hit by an oncoming train. The impact was so forceful that her body was torn in half at the waist. The severe cold of the Hokkaidō night caused her blood vessels to contract and prevented her from bleeding out quickly. Instead, she squirmed and wriggled about for help for several minutes. She crawled all the way to a train station and was seen by an attendant. Instead of trying to help her, the station attendant just covered her with a plastic tarp. She died a slow, agonizing death.

According to legend, three days after hearing this story, you will see the ghost of a woman with no lower half. The ghost is that of the woman hit by the train. The ghost will try to catch you, and escape is impossible even in a car; the ghost can crawl at speeds of up to 150 km per hour. Some say that the ghost is searching for her legs, which were lost when she was cut in half. Others say that she is angry at humanity for not helping her when she was dying, and that she is simply out to slaughter as many people as she can. When she catches you, she will tear you in half and steal the lower half of your body.

Shortly after hearing the legend, she will ask you a riddle, either in a dream, or in a mysterious phone call. The only way to escape death is to answer her questions exactly the right way. She will ask you: “Do you need your legs?” You must reply: “I need them right now.” Then, she will ask you: “Who told you my story?” You must reply: “Kashima Reiko. Ka as in mask (仮面), shi as in death (), ma as in demon (), rei as in ghost (), and ko as in accident (事故).” If you answer her riddles without mistake, she may just let you live.

Sutoku Tennō

Sutoku Tennou崇徳天皇
すとくてんのう

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
すがわらのみちざね

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.

Tatarigami

Tatarigami祟り神
たたりがみ

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.

Ushi no koku mairi

Ushinokokumairi丑の刻参り
うしのこくまいり

TRANSLATION: shrine visit at the hour of the ox
ALTERNATE NAMES: ushi no toki mairi

APPEARANCE: Ushi no koku mairi is one of the most famous and dreaded black magic spells. It takes place between 1:00 and 3:00 in the morning, during the hour of the ox. This is the period of darkest night, when the border between the world of the living and the world of the dead is weakest. During this hour, evil spirits are at their greatest power.

INTERACTIONS: There are a number of complicated steps required to perform this curse ritual, and they vary from account to account. In general, you must first construct a wara ningyō containing a small piece of the intended target’s body—a piece of hair, blood, fingernails, or skin, for example. Alternatively, you may use an image of their target, or a piece of paper with the target’s name written on it. Then, you put on the ceremonial dress—a white kimono and obi, with thick white face powder. An upturned trivet is placed on your head, and you attach tapers to its legs and light them. Tall, single-toothed geta are worn on your feet. A mirror is carried over your breast, a dagger is tucked behind the obi, and a comb is held between your teeth.

Thus prepared, you must sneak into a shrine during the hour of the ox and approach the shrine’s sacred tree. Then, you hammer a long iron nail through the wara ningyō into the tree—symbolically breaking the barrier between the world of the living and the spirit world. You call out to evil spirits, demons, and yōkai to come into the world. This ritual must be repeated every night for many nights, and it is very important that the person performing the curse not be seen. If there are any witnesses, they must be killed immediately. Otherwise the evil of this curse will rebound onto the caster.

Once the ritual is completed, something—it is not clear what—terrible happens. According to some accounts, the curse victim dies an agonizing death upon completion of the ritual. In other accounts, the entire process is torture for the victim, causing days of suffering while the curse is being performed. In some stories, the curse summons yōkai which haunt the victim, and in other stories, the person performing the ritual transforms into a powerful oni or kijo.

LEGENDS: A few shrines are well-known for this sort of black magic. Kifune Shrine and Jishu Shrine in Kyōto, and Ikurei Shrine in Okayama Prefecture (old Bitchū Province) are the most famous ones. In the old days, these were popular locations for jealous lovers to perform this curse. Even today, every now and then, shrine officials find wara ningyō hammered into trees at these shrines.

Hitobashira

Hitobashira人柱
ひとばしら

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.

Oboroguruma

Oboroguruma朧車
おぼろぐるま

TRANSLATION: hazy cart
HABITAT: city streets, late at night
DIET: the lingering anger of ancient nobles

APPEARANCE: On misty, moonlit nights, residents of Kyōto occasionally hear the squeak of an oxcart in the street. Stepping outside to check and see, they discover a half-transparent, ghost-like oxcart with an enormous, grotesque face parked outside of their home.

ORIGIN: Carriage yōkai have existed in picture scrolls for hundreds of years. They may originally have been a kind of tsukumogami, or object-turned-yōkai. Most of these scrolls were created for their vivid imagery rather than for any particular story. Oboroguruma may have initially been created without any backstory. When Toriyama Sekien published his yōkai bestiaries, he included the oboroguruma and gave a description. He linked it to a famous scene in The Tale of Genji when Lady Rokujō and her rival Lady Aoi competed for a parking space and got into a carriage fight.

Long ago, sightseeing in the capital was accomplished by means of oxcart taxis. When it got crowded—particularly during festival seasons—the taxi drivers got into carriage fights. They slammed their carriages against each other to grab the best spots for sightseeing. Just like parking can be a problem in cities today, parking in ancient Kyōto was a huge source of frustration.

The resentment of nobles who didn’t get the prime sightseeing spot they wanted was something to be feared. The negative feelings could build up and become a powerful force of their own, which is where these yōkai come from. Oboroguruma materialized out of the wrath of nobles who lost these carriage fights and were not able to reserve the sightseeing spots that they wanted.

Kosodate yūrei

Kosodateyuurei

子育て幽霊
こそだてゆうれい

TRANSLATION: child-rearing ghost
HABITAT: towns, cities; anywhere it can find people to haunt
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Kosodate yūrei are the ghosts of mothers who died in childbirth or shortly after childbirth. They return to the world of the living because of their strong attachment to their child, and their lingering motherly duties. Like all yūrei, these ghosts appear as faint images of their former selves. They often appear wearing burial clothing, or else the clothes that they wore in their lifetime. However, kosodate yūrei often appear less horrific—even slightly loving—when compared to scarier types of yūrei. They appear to shopkeepers or travelers on the road at night, and often return to the same place over and over again.

INTERACTIONS: Kosodate yūrei exist to fulfill one purpose: to see to the well-being of their child. They try to do this by buying candy or other things for their children. They have no money, so they pay with whatever they can—sometimes even with dead leaves. They seek out living people, whom they try to lead back to the location of their waiting baby. If the baby is discovered and taken care of, the kosodate yūrei can finally rest. Until then, though, she will appear every night to find help for her child.

LEGENDS: Kosodate yūrei stories are very common. Although the details vary from place to place, one common version goes like this:

One rainy night, a shopkeeper was closing up his shop when he heard a tapping sound at the window. Looking out, he saw a woman standing pathetically in the rain, cold and drenched. He asked her if she needed help, but all she said was, “One candy please.” Even though the shop was closed, the shopkeeper felt sorry for the poor woman, so he sold her the candy. She paid him one mon—a very low denomination coin—and vanished into the night.

The next night, she came at the very same time, looking forlorn and disheveled. Again, she asked the shopkeeper, in a voice almost too faint to hear, “One candy please.” The shopkeeper gave her a candy, and again she paid with one mon, and left just as quietly as she had come.

Every night for six nights, this exact scenario played out. On the seventh night, she returned, but this time had no money. When she asked “One candy please,” she presented a handful of leaves. The shopkeeper told her that he could not accept leaves as payment. “Then take this instead,” she said, handing him her coat. The shopkeeper protested, but she insisted. Finally he gave in and accepted the trade.

The next day, a merchant from a neighboring village passed through the town. He stopped in his friend’s shop, and the shopkeeper told him of the strange woman who came visiting every night, and of the coat that she gave him as payment. When the merchant saw the strange woman’s coat hanging in the shop, he went pale. “That is the coat of my friend’s wife!”

“Really? Perhaps it was she who came to the store?”

“That is impossible! She died one week ago. She was buried in this coat!”

The merchant and the shopkeeper looked at each other in disbelief. They went to the temple where she was buried to tell the head priest what the shopkeeper had seen. The priest scolded them for believing in such superstitions. Afterwards he took them to the woman’s grave to show them that all was okay. When they reached the grave, however, they heard the unmistakable screaming of a newborn baby coming from under the earth!

They dug up the grave and discovered that it was indeed the corpse woman who had been visiting the shop! What’s more, entwined in her arms, a living baby wrapped up in cloth. The woman had given birth posthumously in her coffin. Wrapped up with the baby were the six mostly-eaten pieces of candy, which had kept the baby from starving during the week. Its mother had bought the candy with the six mon traditionally placed with a corpse to pay the guardians of the underworld.

They took the baby from the corpse and returned it to its family. When they reburied the woman’s body, the corpse had a serene expression on its face. And the ghostly visitor to the candy store was never seen again.

Kanbari nyūdō

kanbarinyuudou加牟波理入道
かんばりにゅうどう

TRANSLATION: kanbari priest; the meaning is unknown
ALTERNATE NAMES: ganbari nyūdō
HABITAT: bathrooms
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Kanbari nyūdō is a perverted ghost-like yōkai which lurks outside of bathrooms on New Year’s Eve. It has a roughly priest-like appearance, with robes and a tonsured haircut. Its body is covered in thick hairs. Kanbari nyūdō blows a cuckoo out of its mouth. As it only comes out once per year, very little is known about this yōkai.

INTERACTIONS: There are many conflicting accounts about what kanbari nyūdō actually does. What is certain is that it lurks outside of bathrooms on New Year’s Eve, and peeks into the window at people using the toilet. What happens next varies from place to place. In general, this yōkai brings bad luck in the coming year. In more recent stories, kanbari nyūdō tries to stroke or lick the person using the toilet. Sometimes, it inflicts constipation upon those who see it.

ORIGIN: Kanbari nyūdō’s history and origins are confused and convoluted. According to Toriyama Sekien, this yōkai originally comes from the Chinese god of the toilet, Kakutō. Because the characters used to write Kakutō are similar to the characters used to write the Japanese word for cuckoo, this may have been intended as a pun on Sekien’s part. However, Kakutō was not, in fact, a Chinese toilet god. He was actually a 15th century Ming general.

The cuckoo connection does actually trace back to China. It was considered bad luck to hear a cuckoo’s call in the toilet—if you hear a cuckoo while using the toilet, you have to bark like a dog to counter the curse.

This yōkai’s name is also a mystery. It can be written in many different ways using many different kanji, although none of them have a particular meaning. They appear to be ateji—kanji chosen solely for their phonetic readings. Jippensha Ikku, an Edo period author, wrote about ganbari nyūdō using kanji meaning “stretched eyes”—very appropriate considering this yōkai’s propensity for peeping. However, as no earlier stories use those kanji for the name, it is certainly his own (very clever) fabrication. Ganbari may also be connected to the word ganbaru, which means to try hard and persevere—which may or may not be related to certain bathroom activities. But this is almost certainly a connection made after the fact, rather than being the origin of this yōkai’s name.

LEGENDS: Stories about kanbari nyūdō differ wildly from region to region. According to some local legends, if you enter an outhouse on New Year’s Eve at the hour of the ox, between 1 and 3 am, and peer down into the hole and chant “ganbari nyūdō” three times, a human head will appear in the hole. If you then take that head and insert it into your left kimono sleeve and then take it back out, it will turn into a koban—an oval-shaped gold coin. In other regions, the human head must instead be wrapped up inside of a silk cloth and taken back to one’s room. When the cloth is unwrapped, it will be filled with gold.

In most areas, kanbari nyūdō are thought to be bringers of bad luck. If one enters the toilet on New Year’s Eve and chants the spell, “ganbari nyūdō, hototogisu!” (“ganbari priest, cuckoo!”) this yōkai will not appear, and thus the following year will not be unlucky. On the other hand, in other areas, chanting the same phrase or even remembering those magic words is unlucky enough to guarantee an entire year of bad luck.

Gaki

Gaki餓鬼
がき

TRANSLATION: hungry ghosts, preta; suffering spirits from Buddhist cosmology
HABITAT: Gakidō, a realm of suffering, starvation, and thirst
DIET: gaki will try to eat anything, but are never able to find nourishment

APPEARANCE: Gaki are spirits which live in horrible torment and are afflicted with constant suffering. They look vaguely human, but they have distended, bulging bellies and tiny, inefficient mouths and throats. They inhabit a parallel realm called Gakidō. It is a barren place, full of deserts, wastelands, and other inhospitable terrain.

BEHAVIOR: Gaki are eternally hungry and thirsty. There are many kinds of gaki, each of which suffers in a different way related to the sins he or she committed in a past life. Some are unable to eat or drink anything at all. Whenever they try to eat, the food instantly bursts into flames and vanishes. These gaki are only able to eat food which has been specially blessed for them in Buddhist services. Some gaki are able to eat only unclean things, such as feces, vomit, corpses, and so on. Others have no trouble eating anything they please. However, no matter how much they wolf down, their hunger and thirst are never sated.

INTERACTION: In some Buddhist traditions, a special ceremony called segaki is performed during the Obon season, to help ease the suffering of the gaki. In this ceremony, offerings of rice and water are laid out on special altars, out of sight of any statues of the gods or Buddha. The gaki are called to come and eat, while prayers are said to ease some of their suffering.

ORIGIN: The realm of the gaki is considered one of the four “unhappy” rebirths. In the cosmology of birth and rebirth, the realm of the gaki is only one step above the realm of Jigoku—the main difference between the inhabitants of Jigoku and the gaki being that those in Jigoku are confined to their prison. Gaki may roam free as they suffer.

Today, the word gaki is also a very nasty term for a child. This comes from the perception of children always wanting more food and never feeling satisfied with what they get.

Amanojaku

Amanojaku天邪鬼
あまのじゃく

TRANSLATION: heavenly evil spirits
ALTERNATE NAMES: amanjaku

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.

Shiranui

Shiranui不知火
しらぬい

TRANSLATION: unknown fire
HABITAT: along the shores of Kyūshū

APPEARANCE: Shiranui are a specific type of kaii known as a kaika, or mysterious fire. They appear in bodies of water around Kyūshū on dark, calm nights—particularly at the end of the 7th month according to the old lunar calendar. They are most visible during the strongest ebb tide, around 3 am, and appear roughly 8 to 12 kilometers off shore. They can be seen from elevated parts of the coast, but not from sea level.

BEHAVIOR: Shiranui begin with one or two distant fireballs, called oyabi, floating just above the surface of the sea. The oyabi sway left and right, splitting apart and multiplying until finally there are hundreds or thousands of fireballs swaying in the distance. This line of fireballs can stretch out for many kilometers.

ORIGIN: Shiranui were thought to be manifestations of the lanterns created by Ryūjin, the dragon god of the sea. On days that shiranui appeared, local villages were forbidden to catch fish in the same area as the kaika. Boats that tried approaching shiranui reported that no matter how long they sailed, the fireballs remained far away on the horizon.

Ryūtō

Ryuutou龍燈
りゅうとう

TRANSLATION: dragon lights
HABITAT: oceans, coasts, lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Ryūtō are kaika which appear just above the surface of the water on calm, peaceful nights. They create no heat, nor do they burn anything. They are only found in bodies of water which are home to dragons.

BEHAVIOR: Ryūtō start out as single orbs of flame which hover a few meters above the surface of the water. They soon begin to multiply, until there are countless orbs. These fireballs float about aimlessly along the water, stretching and shrinking and morphing their shapes. Some of them sink back into the water. Others float up into the sky or nestle into the treetops. At dawn, they merge back together into one orb before vanishing back into the sea.

INTERACTIONS: Ryūtō are considered by the Japanese to be a manifestation of light caused by the dragons which inhabit bodies of water. Areas where ryūtō routinely appear often have shrines near them, and the lights themselves are considered sacred. On nights that ryūtō appear, people gather along the shore to watch these dancing and changing holy flames.

LEGENDS: The Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima Prefecture (old Bingo and Aki Provinces) is not only one of the most famous shrines in Japan, but also a popular sightseeing location for watching ryūtō. The lights appear on the tranquil surface of Hiroshima Bay for about a week starting on New Year’s Day. They are believed to appear because the Itsukushima Shrine is dedicated to the gods of the sea and thus is connected with Ryūjin.

Sōjōbō

Soujoubou

僧正坊
そうじょうぼう

TRANSLATION: high priest
ALTERNATE NAMES: Kurama tengu, Kurama sōjōbō

APPEARANCE: Sōjōbō is the name given to a daitengu who lives on Mount Kurama in the northern part of Kyōto. His home is in Sōjōgatani—”the valley of the high priest”—located deep within the interior of the mountain. He has long, white hair, an incredibly long nose, and possesses the strength of one thousand tengu. Sōjōbō is first in rank among the tengu, and is often referred to as their king.

ORIGIN: Sōjōbō is known through his connection to Kurama Temple, an isolated temple which practices a unique branch of esoteric Buddhism. Kurama Temple has long had a connection with yamabushi and ascetic mountain religions, and the tengu which these religions worship. Because Sōjōbō resides there, Mount Kurama is also considered to be the most important mountain to tengu. According to Kurama Temple, Sōjōbō is either one rank below Maō-son—one third of the holy trinity which is central to the Kurama faith—or is in fact another form of Mao-son.

LEGENDS: Not much is written about Sōjōbō, although his name is well known. The most famous legend about Sōjōbō is that he trained a young boy named Ushiwakamaru. As the king of the tengu, Sōjōbō possesses a knowledge of magic, military tactics, and swordsmanship unsurpassed by any other. The young Ushiwakamaru wished to learn from him, and traveled deep into Sōjōgatani to undergo a long and arduous training. This was a very dangerous quest, as tengu are fierce and unpredictable, and Sōjōbō was rumored to eat children who wandered too deep into the forest. However, Sōjōbō was impressed with the young boy’s bravery and agreed to train him.

Ushiwakamaru grew up to become Minamoto Yoshitsune, who lived from 1159-1189 CE. Yoshitsune remains of Japan’s most celebrated warriors, and is one of the main heroes in the Tale of the Heike. His umatched swordsmanship is credited to the training he received from the tengu of Mount Kurama.

Namahage

Namahage

なまはげ

TRANSLATION: from a phrase meaning “peeled blisters”
ALTERNATE NAMES: amahage, amamehagi, namomihagi, appossha
HABITAT: mountainous regions in northern Japan
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Namahage are a frightful demon-like yōkai which live in the mountains along the northern coast of the Sea of Japan. They look like oni, with bright red or blue skin, wild hair and eyes, large mouths full of sharp teeth, and often have horns sprouting from their forehead. They wear straw leggings and raincoats, and carry large blades.

INTERACTIONS: Once a year, during koshōgatsu—the first full moon of the New Year—the namahage descend from the mountains to scare villagers. They go from door to and brandish their knives, saying things like, “Any bad kids here?” They particularly enjoy scaring small children and new brides. Despite their ferocious appearance and behavior, they are actually well-meaning yōkai. They are sent down from the mountain as messengers of the gods to warn and chastise those who have been lazy or wicked.

ORIGIN: The name namahage comes from another taunt the namahage use: “Have your blisters peeled yet?” In the cold winter months, a lazy person who spent all of his or her time in front of the fireplace would get blisters from being too close to the heat for too long. Namomi is a regional name for these heat blisters, and hagu means to peel. The combination of those words became namahage.

Today, the namahage play a major part in New Year’s festivities in Akita Prefecture (old Dewa Province). Villagers dress up in straw raincoats and leggings, don oni masks, and wield large knives. They go from house to house and play the part of namahage. Residents visited by these namahage give presents such as mochi to their “guests,” while the namahage chastise kids and warn them to be good. Newlywed couples are also harassed by these namahage. They are expected to give an account of all of the evil deeds they did during their first year together, as well as serve sake and food to the namahage before sending them off.

While the name namahage is unique to Akita Prefecture, very similar yōkai are known by many different local names in neighboring regions: in Yamagata Prefecture they are known as amahage, in Ishikawa Prefecture they are known as amamehagi, and in Fukui Prefecture they are known as appossha.

Obariyon

Obariyonおばりよん

TRANSLATION: a local phrase meaning “give me a piggyback ride”
ALTERNATE NAMES: bariyon, onbu obake, ubariyon, obosaritei
HABITAT: inhabited areas, roadsides
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Obariyon is a child-sized monster from Niigata prefecture which loves to ride people piggyback style.

BEHAVIOR: Obariyon lurks in bushes and trees by the side of the road, and when a traveler walks by, it leaps out onto their back crying out, “obariyon!” If the traveler relents and carries the obariyon on his back, the monster becomes heavier and heavier with each footstep, nearly crushing the traveler under its weight. In addition, this mischievous yokai chews the scalp of a person good enough to carry it, further adding to his misery. In order to protect against the head-chewing that obariyon inflict, some villages developed a custom of wearing metal bowls on their heads for protection.

INTERACTIONS: According to some tales, as the obariyon becomes heavier and heavier, it eventually crushes its victim under its weight. However, more commonly, when a person has dutifully carried the obariyon the whole way home, he or she finds that the strange burden was a sack of money all along, and becomes incredibly rich.

ORIGIN: The name obariyon comes from a phrase in local Niigata dialect meaning “give me a piggyback ride!” Differences in local dialects are reflected in the many different local names for this spirit. Though its name varies from place to place, it is always a local variant for a childish request to be carried piggyback style.

Although the exact origins of this particular creature are unclear, folk tales about yokai which demand to be carried or cared for are quite common across Japan. There is a recurring theme among folk tales that those who persevere when dealing with children will prosper. Just as those who put up with the strange demands of the obariyon may find themselves blessed with a bag of gold, those who manage to deal with the demands of raising young children will eventually reap treasures beyond belief. Obariyon is probably a direct metaphor about child-rearing. While the demands of the obariyon may be selfish and extremely burdensome, those who are willing to put up with it for the entire journey find the payoff was well worth the investment.

Ippondatara

Ippondatara一本踏鞴
いっぽんだたら

TRANSLATION: one-legged bellows
HABITAT: mountains
DIET: unknown, but kills humans one day per year

APPEARANCE: Ippondatara has one thick, trunk-like leg and a single saucer-like eye. It lives deep in the mountains of Japan. It is especially well-known in the mountains bordering Wakayama and Nara Prefectures (old Kii and Yamato Provinces), though sightings have been reported in other neighboring prefectures as well.

BEHAVIOR: Ippondatara is a shy yōkai, and tends to stay away from inhabited areas. It moves about by hopping around and doing somersaults. It avoids humans, though on winter days it is not uncommon to find the unique prints of this yōkai’s large, single foot in the snow.

INTERACTIONS: While it is mostly harmless, once per year on December 20th, the ippondatara turns violent. Those entering the mountains on that day who run into the ippondatara are squashed flat under its powerful foot. Because of this, December 20th is considered an unlucky day in the areas where this yōkai lives. People stay out of the mountains then.

ORIGIN: The name ippondatara comes from tatara, the bellows that a blacksmith would use in the old days. This yōkai is said to resemble a master blacksmith who lost the use of one eye from years of starting at the intense flames, and lost the use of one leg from years of heavy work pumping the bellows.

There are many theories about the origin of this yōkai. In some villages, it is considered to be a cousin of a certain breed of kappa called gōrai which—every winter—transform from river spirits into mountain spirits called kashambo until they return to the rivers in spring. Ippondatara is said to be a kind of kashambo.

Other explanations describe the ippondatara as the ghost of a woodcutter who cut off one of his legs in penance for some crime. Or it may be the ghost of a famous one-legged, one-eyed robber named Hitotsudatara who lived in the mountains of Wakayama and had supernatural strength. It may even be the ghost of a giant boar who used to roam the mountains killing hunters. A high priest was able to bind the boar’s spirit and keep it from harming people, but the conditions of the magic that binds this ghost allow it to roam free one day per year—on December 20th.

It has also been suggested that it is a kind of mountain kami which was corrupted over the ages and became a yōkai. A single eye is a common feature among mountain spirits, and other one-eyed yōkai (such as hitotsume kozō) originated as mountain kami as well.

Yamata no Orochi

Yamata no Orochi

八岐の大蛇
やまたのおりち

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.

Abura akago

Aburaakago油赤子
あぶらあかご

TRANSLATION: oil baby
HABITAT: human-inhabited areas
DIET: lamp oil

APPEARANCE: Abura akago are yōkai from Ōmi Province. They are a type of hi no tama, or fireball, but can also take on the shape of a baby.

BEHAVIOR: Abura akago first appear as mysterious orbs of fire which float aimlessly through the night sky. They drift from house to house and—upon entering one—transform into small babies. In this baby form, they lick the oil from oil lamps and paper lanterns, known as andon. They then turn back into orbs and fly away.

ORIGIN: Like many other oil-related yōkai, abura akago are said to originate from oil thieves. While the particular circumstances of these oil thieves are lost to time, they mirror so many other yōkai that we can infer that these thieves died and—instead of passing on to the next life—turned into yōkai as a penalty for their sins.

Kekkai

Kekkai

血塊
けっかい

TRANSLATION: blood clot
ALTERNATE NAMES: kekke
HABITAT: under the floorboards of its birth house
DIET: its own mother

APPEARANCE: Kekkai are a kind of sankai—childbirth monster—from Saitama, Kanagawa, and Nagano prefectures. They are small and ugly, resembling a monkey. Their hair is said to grow in backwards, and they have two tongues: one red and one white. They are sometimes born from pregnant mothers instead of human babies.

BEHAVIOR: When a kekkai emerges, covered in blood and amniotic fluid, it quickly scampers away from its mother and tries to escape. This is most often accomplished through the irori, or earthen hearth, a common feature in old country houses. It either burrows down beneath the floorboards, or climbs up the long pothook which hangs above the irori and flees. If the kekkai is able to escape, it will return later to kill its mother while. It does this by burrowing up through the floorboards and into its sleeping mother, tearing her apart.

INTERACTIONS: A few traditional precautions exist to protect against kekkai. The most important is preparation. A large shamoji—a spatula—is placed by the irori. When the kekkai tries to climb up the pothook, it must be swatted down and caught before it has a chance to escape.

Another common precaution is to surround the floor around the mother with byōbu—folding screens—to prevent a kekkai from escaping. This practice is the source of a play on words surrounding this yōkai’s name: the byōbu creates a spiritual barrier, or kekkai (結界), which prevents the kekkai from escaping.

ORIGIN: Kekkai are almost certainly a way to explain the dangers surrounding childbirth and the existence of birth defects. Before modern medicine was invented, death from complications relating to childbirth was not uncommon. A grieving family might be easily convinced that a mother’s death was caused by some evil spirit—some kind of spiritual punishment for the family’s sins. Similarly, it is not hard to imagine how earlier cultures might have seen premature, stillborn, or deformed babies as monsters. Referring to them as yōkai may have been an attempt to understand the unknown and unexplainable.

Sesshō seki

Sesshouseki

殺生石
せっしょうせき

TRANSLATION: killing stone

APPEARANCE: Sesshō seki is a large boulder that stands in the plains of Nasuno, Shimotsuke (modern day Tochigi Prefecture). Around it is a desolate, lifeless field, filled with toxic gasses and the skeletons of animals who strayed too near.

ORIGIN: Sesshō seki was formed when the evil nine-tailed kitsune Tamamo no Mae was slain. Her hunters returned triumphantly, bearing her body to the capital. Her spirit, however, attached itself to a large boulder near where she fell. It continued to kill long after her death. Any living thing that wandered close enough to the stone died instantly. Sesshō seki remained a deadly landmark until 1385 CE, when Tamamo no Mae’s spirit was put to rest once and for all.

LEGENDS: One day, a high priest named Gennō was traveling through Shimotsuke Province when he noticed a peculiar sight—the birds in the air fell to their deaths whenever they passed over a certain boulder in the plain of Nasuno. At the base of the stone was a pile of dead birds. Gennō wondered what could cause such a phenomenon. Not long afterwards, a local woman appeared near the priest, and he asked her about the stone.

The woman explained that Sesshō seki was haunted by the spirit of Tamamo no Mae. She told him the story of the fox courtesan, and then vanished. Gennō realized that the woman had been the ghost of the infamous kitsune. He performed a Buddhist memorial service over the stone, and suddenly Tamamo no Mae’s spirit reappeared and confessed all of her sins, going back thousands of years all the way to India and China. After hearing Gennō’s pure words and Buddhist teachings, Tamamo no Mae repented all of her evils and swore never again to do wrong, and then disappeared. Her spirit, exorcised from the rock, never harmed anyone again.

Gennō—whose name means hammer—hit the rock and it burst into many pieces. The pieces flew all across Japan, where many of them remain today. The base of the rock still stands in Nasu, Tochigi. Other chunks flew to Okayama, Niigata, Hiroshima, and Ōita where they were enshrined. Smaller fragments landed in present-day Fukui, Gifu, Nagano, Gunma, and parts of Shikoku, where they were picked up and used as magical amulets to perform charms or curses.

Tamamo no Mae

Tamamo no Mae

玉藻前
たまものまえ

TRANSLATION: a nickname literally meaning “Lady Duckweed”

APPEARANCE: Tamamo no Mae is one of the most famous kitsune in Japanese mythology. A nine-tailed magical fox, she is also one of the most powerful yōkai that has ever lived. Her magical abilities were matched only by her trickiness and lust for power. Tamamo no Mae lived during the Heian period, and though she may not have succeeded in her plan to kill the emperor and take his place, her actions destabilized the country and lead it towards one of the most important civil wars in Japanese history. For that reason, Tamamo no Mae is considered one of the Nihon San Dai Aku Yōkai—the Three Terrible Yōkai of Japan.

ORIGIN: Tamamo no Mae appears in numerous texts and has been a popular subject throughout Japanese history. Her story is portrayed in literature, noh, kabuki, bunraku, and other forms of art. There are several variations on her story.

LEGENDS: Tamamo no Mae was born some 3,500 years ago in what is now China. Her early life is a mystery, but she eventually became a powerful sorceress. After hundreds of more years she became a white faced, golden furred kyūbi no kitsune—a nine-tailed fox with supreme magical power. In addition, she was an expert at manipulation. She used her charms and wit to advance her standing and influence world affairs.

During the Shang Dynasty Tamamo no Mae was known as Daji. She disguised herself as a beautiful woman and became the favorite concubine of King Zhou of Shang. Daji was a model of human depravity. She held orgies in the palace gardens. Her fondness for watching and inventing new forms of torture are legendary. Daji eventually brought about the fall of the entire Shang Dynasty. She managed to escape execution, and fled to the Magadha kingdom in India in 1046 BCE.

In Magadha, she was known as Lady Kayō, and became a consort of King Kalmashapada, known in Japan as Hanzoku. She used her beauty and charms to dominate the king, causing him to devour children, murder priests, and commit other unspeakable horrors. Eventually—whether because she ran out children to eat or because Kalmashapada began to turn away from her and towards Buddhism—she fled back to China.

During the Zhou Dynasty she called herself Bao Si, and was known as one of the most desirable women in all of China. In 779 BCE she became a concubine of King You. Not satisfied as just a mistress, she manipulated the king into deposing his wife Queen Shen and making Bao Si his new queen. Though she was beautiful, Bao Si rarely ever smiled. In order to please his beautiful new wife, King You committed acts of such evil and atrocity that eventually all of his nobles abandoned and betrayed him. Eventually, King You was killed and Bao Si captured and the Western Zhou Dynasty was brought to an end in 771 BCE. Somehow Bao Si managed to escape again; she went into hiding for many years.

Little is known of her activities until the 700s, when she resurfaced disguised as a 16-year old girl named Wakamo. She tricked the leaders of the 10th Japanese envoy to the Tang Dynasty—Kibi no Makibi, Abe no Nakamaro, and Ganjin—as they were preparing to return home to Japan. Wakamo joined their crew and took the ship to Japan, where she hid herself away for over 300 years.

In the 1090s, she resurfaced once again. This time she transformed herself into a human baby and hid by the side of the road. A married couple found the baby and rescued it, taking her in as their daughter and naming her Mizukume. She proved to be an exceedingly intelligent and talented young girl, and was so beautiful that she attracted to attention of everyone around her. When she was 7 years old, Mizukume recited poetry before the emperor. His imperial majesty immediately took a liking to her and employed her as a servant in his court.

Mizukume excelled at court, absorbing knowledge like a sponge. There was no question she could not answer, whether it was about music, history, astronomy, religion, or Chinese classics. Her clothes were always clean and unwrinkled. She always smelled pleasant. Mizukume had the most beautiful face in all of Japan, and everyone who saw her loved her.

During the summer of her 18th year, a poetry and instrument recital was held in Mizukume’s honor. During the recital, an unexpected storm fell upon the palace. All of the candles in the recital room were snuffed, leaving the participants in the dark. Suddenly, a bright light emanated from Mizukume’s body, illuminating the room. Everybody at court was so impressed by her genius and declared that she must have had an exceedingly good and holy previous life. She was given the name Tamamo no Mae. Emperor Toba, already exceedingly fond of her, made her his consort.

Almost immediately after she became the emperor’s consort, the emperor fell deathly ill. None of the court physicians could determine the cause, and so the onmyōji Abe no Yasunari was called in. Abe no Yasunari read the emperor’s fortune and divined that he was marked by a bad omen. After that, the highest priests and monks were summoned to the palace to pray for the emperor’s health.

The best prayers of the highest priests had no effect, however. The emperor continued to grow worse. Abe no Yasunari was summoned again to read the emperor’s fortune. This time, to his horror the onmyōji discovered that the emperor’s beloved Tamamo no Mae was the cause of his illness. She was a kitsune in disguise, and was shortening the emperor’s life span in order to take over as ruler of Japan. Emperor Toba was reluctant to believe the diviner’s words, but agreed to test Tamamo no Mae just to be sure.

To save the emperor’s life, Abe no Yasunari prepared the Taizan Fukun no Sai, the most secret and most powerful spell known to onmyōdō. Tamamo no Mae was ordered to perform part of the ritual. They reasoned that an evil spirit would not be able to participate in such a holy ritual. Though she was reluctant to participate, the emperor’s ministers persuaded her. They told her that it would increase her standing an admiration among the court. She had little choice but to accept.

When the ritual was performed, Tamamo no Mae dressed even more beautifully than normal. She recited the holy worlds as expected and played her part extremely well. But just as she prepared to wave the ceremonial staff, she vanished. Abe no Yasunari’s divination was confirmed. The court flew into an uproar.

Soon after, word arrived that women and children were disappearing near Nasuno in Shimotsuke Province. The court sorcerers determined that Tamamo no Mae was the cause, and it was decided that she must be destroyed once and for all. The emperor summoned the best warriors in all of the land and then charged the most superb of them, Kazusanosuke and Miuranosuke, to find Tamamo no Mae. The warriors gladly accepted the honor. They purified themselves and set out with an army of 80,000 men to slay the nine-tailed kitsune.

Upon reaching Nasuno the army quickly found the kitsune. The warriors chased her for days and days, but the fox used her magical powers and outsmarted them time and time again, easily escaping. The army grew weary, and frustration set in. It seemed that nothing they did was working. However, Kazusanosuke and Miuranosuke would not accept the shame of defeat and vowed to press on. They practiced harder, honing their tactics, and eventually picked up the kitsune’s trail.

One night, Miuranosuke had a prophetic dream. A beautiful young girl appeared before him, crying. She begged: “Tomorrow I will lose my life to you. Please save me.” Miuranosuke adamantly refused, and upon waking the warriors set out again to find Tamamo no Mae. Sure enough, the next day they caught her. Miuranosuke fired two arrows, one through the fox’s flank and one through its neck. Kazusanosuke swung his blade. It was over, just as the dream had said.

However, Tamamo no Mae’s evil did not end with her death. One year after she died, Emperor Konoe died, heirless. The following year, her lover and former Emperor Toba died as well. A succession crisis ignited between forces loyal to Emperor Go-Shirakawa and forces loyal to former Emperor Sutoku. This crisis started the Fujiwara-Minamoto rivalry that led to the Genpei War, the end of the Heian period, and the rise of the first shoguns. As if that were not enough, Tamamo no Mae’s spirit haunted a massive boulder which killed every living thing that touched it.

Osakabe hime

Osakabe hime長壁姫
おさかべひめ

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.

Tanuki tsuki

Tanukitsuki

狸憑き
たぬきつき

TRANSLATION: tanuki (raccoon dog) possession

APPEARANCE: Spirit possession can be caused by humans and ghosts, but frequently it is the work of animals with supernatural powers. One of the most common animal possessions is called tanuki tsuki—possession by tanuki spirits.

INTERACTIONS: When tanuki possess human beings, their victims develop strange new personality traits. One of the most common changes is gluttony. Victims become intensely hungry and eat and eat, even going so far as to eat spoiled and ruined food. Although possessed humans grow vast waists from this gluttony, all of the nutrition goes to the tanuki spirits. Victims only grow weaker and weaker until finally they die from malnutrition. Other common symptoms of tanuki possession include unexplained illness, melancholy, becoming overly talkative, sudden outbursts of violence, or abnormally increased libido.

Tanuki possess humans for various reasons, but common ones include revenge for destroying the tanuki’s den, or simply just as a prank. In rare cases, some human families have harnessed the power of animal possession for their own use. Some legends tell of people offering food to old, wild tanuki, taming them, and then using their spirits to possess their enemies.

Because tanuki are powerful yōkai, it is difficult to escape tanuki tsuki. Either the tanuki must leave of its own will, or it must be driven out by a powerful yamabushi, priest, or onmyōji. Another solution is to deify the tanuki. A tanuki elevated to the level of a kami will no longer possess humans. Many villages—particularly in Shikoku—have built shrines to worship particularly troublesome tanuki.

Ōnamazu

Oonamazu

大鯰
おおなまず

TRANSLATION: giant catfish
ALTERNAtE NAMES: jishin namazu (earthquake catfish)
HABITAT: rivers, seas, oceans, and subterranean caverns
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: As their name suggests, ōnamazu are gigantic catfish which live in the muck and slime of the waterways around Japan. They also inhabit large caverns deep underground.

BEHAVIOR: Ōnamazu behave much like their smaller cousins. They dig in the muck, and thrash about when disturbed or excited. Due to their titanic mass, the thrashing of ōnamazu is considerably more violent than ordinary catfish, to the point where they are dangerous to humans. When these monstrous fish get excited, they shake the earth with their violent thrashing, causing devastating earthquakes in the areas near where they live.

INTERACTIONS: Ōnamazu do not normally interact with people, however during the Edo period they were popularly depicted in newspaper illustrations. Usually these pictures showed a huge, grotesque catfish being subdued by a large number of people, gods, or even other yokai, desperately trying to calm its thrashing.

ORIGIN: Long ago, common belief was that earthquakes were caused by large dragons which lived deep in the earth. During the Edo period, the idea of catfish causing earthquakes gradually began to displace dragons in popular lore as the origin of seismic activity. By the 1855 Great Ansei Earthquake, the ōnamazu had become the popular culprit to blame for earthquakes. This was due mostly to the hundreds of illustrations of thrashing catfish which accompanied newspapers reporting the news of that disaster. They were so popular they spawned an entire genre of woodblock print: namazu-e (catfish pictures).

The reason catfish came to represent earthquakes was due to a large number of witnesses observing catfish behaving oddly—thrashing about violently for seemingly no reason—just before the earthquake. Rumor quickly spread that that catfish had some kind of ability to foresee the coming disaster. Since then, the catfish has regularly appeared as a symbol for earthquakes—either as the cause or as a warning sign of the coming disaster. Recent studies have shown that catfish are in fact very electrosensitive and do become significantly more active shortly before an earthquake hits—showing that there is more to this myth than meets the eye!

LEGENDS: The Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki prefecture is the source of a famous story about ōnamazu. The deity of the shrine, a patron deity of martial arts named Takemikazuchi, is said to have subdued an ōnamazu. He pinned it down underneath the shrine, piercing its head and tail with a sacred stone which still remains in the shrine today—the top of the stone protrudes from the ground. Earthquakes that take place during the 10th month of the lunar calendar—”the godless month,” when the gods all travel to Izumo—are said to be due to Takemikazuchi’s absence from the shrine.

During the 2011 Tōhoku disaster, the Kashima Shrine was badly damaged by an earthquake. The large stone gate was destroyed, stone lanterns were knocked down, and the water level in the reflecting pond changed. The gate was rebuilt in 2014.

Kudan

Kudan


くだん

TRANSLATION: none; written with characters that mean “human” and “cow”
HABITAT: farms across Japan, but particularly in Kyushu and western Japan
DIET: milk; rarely lives long enough to eat anything else

APPEARANCE: Kudan are prophetic creatures that take the form of baby cows with human faces. Very rarely, they are also said to take the reverse appearance: a cow’s face on a human body. They are born from cows, and their birth is often said to be an omen of some significant historical event. A kudan never lives for more than a few days.

BEHAVIOR: Kudan are able to speak human languages from the day they are born. Immediately upon being born, a kudan gives one or more prophecies. The content of their prophecies varies. Some kudan have spoken of great harvests or terrible famines, some have foretold plagues and droughts, while others have predicted wars. The prediction of a kudan never fails to come true. Upon delivering its prophecy, a kudan immediately dies.

ORIGIN: Kudan are a relatively recent yokai, having entered the public zeitgeist during the end of the Edo period. This was a period of great social and political upheaval. The fall of the shogunate and the return of imperial authority, combined with the rapid changes brought about by the opening of trade with the West were responsible for a lot of uncertainly and turmoil throughout Japan. During this time, stories of kudan being born popped up up in newspapers all across the country.

Kudan sightings continued through the end of the Edo period until after World War 2. Among some of the events supposedly predicted by kudan are the Russo-Japanese War and the Pacific War. Because of their uncanny ability to predict the future, the word of a kudan was viewed as absolute truth. During the Edo period, newspapers looking to add credibility to a story would include the words “kudan no gotoshi,” or, “as if a kudan had said it” to their articles. This phrase remains in use in the Japanese language today as a way of assuring the reader of the truth of a story.

Because of its reputation for honesty, images of kudan were used as talismans for good luck, prosperity, and protection from sickness and disaster. Newspapers advised their readers to hang the printed images of kudan on their houses for protection and good fortune. Kudan were such popular yokai that their mummified remains were often carted around in traveling sideshows. These “kudan” could be made of stillborn deformed calves, or of different animal parts stitched together to create a chimera-like stuffed animal. Visitors paid a small fee to gawk at these specimens and hopefully receive some of their good luck. A few of these mummified remains survive in museums today.

Taira no Masakado

Taira no Masakado平将門
たいらのまさかど

APPEARANCE: Taira no Masakado was a samurai of the Heian period, a powerful warrior, and a great leader. He was born either in the late 800s or early 900s CE and was killed in 940. After his death, his spirit is said to have returned as a vengeful ghost and brought destruction across the country. Along with Emperor Sutoku and Sugawara no Michizane, he is one of the Nihon San Dai Onryō—Three Great Onryō of Japan.

Though Taira no Masakado’s birth date is unknown, he is believed to have been born sometime around when Sugawara no Michizane died. A Meiji period biography of Taira no Masakado suggests that he may have been Sugawara no Michizane’s reincarnation; his revolt against the emperor may actually have been a continuation of Michizane’s curse.

ORIGIN: Taira no Masakado was born into the Kanmu Heishi, the clan of Taira descended from Emperor Kanmu. It was an elite family. Masakado had a privileged childhood in the capital, after which he settled down in Shimosa Province in Eastern Japan, northeast of modern day Tokyo. His troubles only began after his father died. Inheritance laws at this time were not firmly established, and his uncles tried to steal most of his father’s land. They claimed their royal lineage gave them the right to do so.

In 935 CE, the dispute with his family members broke into outright battle. Masakado was ambushed by one of his uncles and a number of Minamoto warriors. But Masakado was a powerful warrior. He quickly defeated them, and then took his revenge by burning their lands, ravaging the countryside, and slaughtering thousands. This brought him into conflict with other relatives by blood and by marriage, who brought their dispute to the emperor.

Taira no Masakado was summoned to court to answer charges of the relatives of the dead Minamoto warriors. Masakado was not only brave, he was also smart. He had taken great pains to remain within the law and proved that he had good reason for his killings. After only a few months, he was fully pardoned when the court offered a general amnesty in commemoration of Emperor Suzaku’s coming of age.

Taira no Masakado returned to his home, but soon found himself under attack. This time, it was his father-in-law and his relatives. Again, Masakado quickly defeated them. To avoid stirring up more political trouble, Masakado received a warrant to apprehend his attackers. Now, with legal sanction for his military action, he stormed into their lands on a quest for revenge.

In 938 CE, Taira no Masakado received another court summons for questioning about a quarrel with one of the cousins who had attacked him. This time, Masakado ignored the summons. He raised a large force and invaded Hitachi Province. He conquered eight provinces: Shimotsuke, Kozuke, Musashi, Kazusa, Awa, Sagami, Izu, and Shimosa. The whole time, he maintained his innocence, insisting that his campaign was legal under the terms of his warrant.

The government was seen as ineffectual and the nobles as abusive by the peasants of the time. Taira no Masakado, on the other hand, treated the peasants of his conquered domains much better than their former masters did. His insurrection was seen as a salvation by many peasants. They welcomed him gladly. The court feared that Taira no Masakado was preparing to overthrow the government and declare himself the new Emperor of Japan. He was condemned as a rebel and a traitor.

A number of warriors—including Masakado’s ally Fujiwara no Hidesato and some his own relatives—were commissioned by the government to take his head. They caught up with Masakado’s army in Shimosa province on the fourteenth day of the second month of 940 CE. They attacked during a night ambush and quickly defeated the rebels. Masakado’s men were outnumbered ten to one. Masakado was beheaded, betrayed by his friends and family. The head was brought back to Kyoto to be displayed in the east market as a message to would-be rebels.

LEGENDS: Strangely, Taira no Masakado’s head did not decompose. Many months after it was first displayed in the east market, it still looked as fresh as the day it was severed. The eyes had grown fiercer, and the mouth twisted up into a hideous grimace. Night after night the head would call out, “Where is my murdered body!? Come here! Reattach my head and let me fight once again!” And then things got really strange.

One night the head began to glow. It flew off into the sky, across the country, towards Shimosa. The head eventually grew tired and landed to rest in a fishing village called Shibazaki (which would one day grow into the city of Edo). The villagers who found the head cleaned it and buried it. A shrine was erected over the grave and named Kubizuka—the mound of the head. Masakado was honored and worshipped by the peasants as a true warrior, a symbol of justice who stood in heroic defiance of a corrupt and lazy nobility. He was seen as an underdog who was repeatedly betrayed and eventually murdered by those he should have been able to trust. Despite his deification and popularity among the lower classes, his ghost was not appeased. A few years after his head was buried, the ghost of a samurai began to be seen in the neighborhood of his shrine.

In the early 1300s, a great plague struck Edo. Many people died. The plague was attributed to Taira no Masakado’s anger. In order to appease him, his spirit was moved from his small shrine to the larger and more prestigious Kanda Shrine. He was designated one of the main gods, and his spirit was placated—for a while. In 1874, Emperor Meiji visited the Kanda Shrine. It was viewed as inappropriate for an enemy of the imperial family like Masakado to be honored when the emperor was visiting, and so his deity status was revoked. His shrine was moved to a smaller building outside of the main shrine.

Taira no Masakado’s anger returned in 1928. After the Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed much of the city, the site of his Kubizuka was chosen as the temporary location for the Ministry of Finance. Shortly afterwards, the Minister of Finance became sick and died. Over a dozen other employees died, and even more became sick or were injured in falls and accidents in the building. Rumors about the curse ran began to spread. The Ministry of Finance building was demolished and a memorial service for Masakado was held at the Kanda Shrine.

Throughout the 20th century, a number of other accidents, fires, sicknesses, and mysterious sightings were attributed to the curse of Taira no Masakado. Each time, purification rituals were performed. Finally, in 1984, in response to public pressure, his deity status was reinstated. Today, great pains are taken not to anger his ghost. For example, it is common practice for television stations to visit the grave of his head, still located in what is now Otemachi, Tokyo. They pay their respects to him before his character appears on any show. The Kubizuka is maintained by an organization of local businesses and volunteers who have taken on the responsibility of upkeeping of his grave.

Takiyasha hime

Takiyashahime滝夜叉姫
たきやしゃひめ

TRANSLATION: Princess Takiyasha; literally “waterfall demon princess”

APPEARANCE: Takiyasha hime is the daughter of Taira no Masakado and a sorceress who raised an army of yōkai and attempted to conquer Japan. Her story became popular in the Edo period, and is depicted in novels, woodblock prints, and kabuki. The details of her story vary quite a bit from version to version.

LEGENDS: After Taira no Masakado was defeated and his rebellion quashed, the imperial court declared Masakado’s entire family to be traitors and ordered their execution. Two of Masakado’s children, Yoshikado and Satsuki hime, somehow managed to escape their execution. They remained in hiding at a temple at the base of Mount Tsukuba for years. Satsuki hime became a devoted nun, but her brother was not interested in religion. He spent his time exploring the mountain and playing at being a samurai.

One day while exploring Mount Tsukuba, Yoshikado encountered a mysterious wizard named Nikushisen. Nikushisen informed Yoshikado that he was the heir of Taira no Masakado, and gave him a magic scroll containing the secrets of frog magic. Yoshikado returned to his sister, and told her everything Nikushisen had said. He gave her the scroll. She studied it and also became a master of frog magic, and took the name Takiyasha hime. The two of them decided to fulfill their father’s dream of overthrowing the emperor and ushering in a new order.

In a different version of the story, instead of Yoshikado meeting Nikushisen, Satsuki hime secretly began to perform the dreaded curse ushi no koku mairi—the shrine visit at the hour of the ox. Every night, she snuck into the Kifune Shrine and performed the ritual. After twenty-one nights, she awakened the aramitama—the violent, wicked spirit—of the Kifune Shrine. The aramitama spoke to her, granting her the knowledge of onmyōdō, and instructing her to take the name Takiyasha hime.

Takiyasha hime and Yoshikado returned to their father’s fortress of Sōma Castle in Shimosa province. They called on the surviving soldiers who remained loyal to their father’s cause. Using her newly acquired black magic, Takiyasha hime raised an army of yōkai to continue her father’s rebellion against the emperor.

Ōya no Tarō Mitsukuni, a warrior who was knowledgeable about onmyōdō, had heard of Takiyasha hime’s plans and set out to Sōma Castle to investigate if the rumors were true. When he arrived, Takiyasha hime disguised herself as a prostitute and tried to seduce Mitsukuni. However, Mitsukuni suspected a trap and told her about the brutal death of Taira no Masakado. Takiyasha hime could not contain her emotion, and she fled from Mitsukuni. That night, she ambushed him with an army of skeletons and yōkai. According to Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s famous ukiyoe print, Takiyasha hime unleashed a gashadokuro upon him—a gigantic skeleton as tall as a castle.

Riding into battle on top of a giant toad, Takiyasha hime assaulted the brave warrior Mitsukuni. In the end, despite her magic, she was defeated just as her father was. Her short rebellion was snuffed out just as his was.

Today, many statues of frogs decorate Taira no Masakado’s gravesite in Kubizuka. The Japanese word for frog, kaeru, is a homophone of the word meaning “return.” Masakado’s severed head longed to return to his hometown, and patrons hope that Masakado’s spirit will “kaeru,” return, to heaven—and not cause any more harm on Earth. It is also said that this reflects the “frog magic” that Nikushisen taught to his daughter, Takiyasha hime.

Ōkaburo

Ookaburo大禿
おおかぶろ

TRANSLATION: big kamuro (an apprentice oiran)
ALTERNATE NAMES: ōkamuro
HABITAT: brothels
DIET: herbs and dew from chrysanthemums

APPEARANCE: Ōkaburo are cross-dressing yōkai found in brothels. They take the appearance of oversized kamuro, little girls employed as a servants in brothels. Only they are much larger than a typical girl of 5.

ORIGIN: The origins of this yōkai are vague. Ōkaburo are best known for their depiction by Toriyama Sekien. His ōkaburo is actually a male yōkai dressed up as a young kamuro, wearing a chrysanthemum-patterned kimono. His description makes an allusion to Peng Zu, a legendary Taoist wizard from China. Peng Zu lived past the age of 700 by having lots of sex with both women and men, and keeping a strict herbal diet which included licking the dew off of chrysanthemums. For this Peng Zu took the nickname Kiku-jidō, or chrysanthemum boy. Sekien likely intended his ōkaburo to be a pun referring to homosexual brothels in which young boys were dressed up as kamuro and offered to male patrons. Aside from the obvious connotations of having a young boy dressed up as a kamuro, the chrysanthemum was used as a secret symbol for homosexuality; the shape of the petals was supposed to represent an anus. The nickname chrysanthemum boy, the chrysanthemums on the kimono, and the image of licking the dew off of “chrysanthemums” leave little to the imagination as to what Sekien was alluding to with this yōkai.

A story of an ōkamuro with very different origins comes from a pleasure house in Hiroshima, where a particularly short-tempered oiran was employed. One day, her ohaguro (a tea-like mixture of hot water and iron filings used to blacken the teeth of courtesans) had been improperly prepared. The color would not stick to her teeth. Enraged, she grabbed the nearest kamuro and poured the entire pot of boiling liquid down the little girl’s throat. The girl, vomiting up her insides, smeared her bloody handprints along the wall as she died in anguish. Ever since, it was said that the voice of that young kamuro could be heard at night, calling out for vengeance against the oiran.

Kosenjōbi

Kosenjoubi古戦場火
こせんじょうび

TRANSLATION: ancient battlefield fire
ALTERNATE NAMES: kosenjō no hi
HABITAT: ancient battlefields
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Kosenjōbi are a type of onibi, or demon fire. They gather in places were bloody battles have been fought. Kosenjōbi appear as countless orbs of flame which float about aimlessly through the air.

BEHAVIOR: Kosenjōbi are formed from the blood of the countless warriors and animals which died in battle and never passed on to Nirvana. The blood soaks into the earth and rises up into the air at night. It creates fiery shapes. Kosenjōbi occasionally take on the form of wounded warriors and animals. These phantoms search for their missing body parts or just wander forlornly across the battlefield.

Though eerie to look at, kosenjōbi do not harm the living.

Itsumade

Itsumade以津真天
いつまで

TRANSLATION: “until when?”
ALTERNATE NAMES: itsumaden
DIET: the lamentation of the dead

APPEARANCE: Itsumade are kaichō, or strange birds. They have the face of a human with a pointed beak, and the body of a snake with wings, and terrible claws. Their wingspan is 4.8 meters.

BEHAVIOR: Itsumade appear in the night sky during times of trouble—such as plagues and disasters, or flying over battlegrounds where many have died. In particular, they fly over places where there is suffering or death, yet little has been done to alleviate the pain of the living or pacify the spirits of the dead. The strange birds fly about in circles all night long, crying out in a terrible voice.

ORIGIN: Itsumade make their first recorded appearance in the Taiheiki, a fictional history of Japan written in the 14th century. According to the Taiheiki, a terrible plague spread during the fall of 1334. The suffering of the plague victims is what summoned the itsumade.

Itsumade’s name is not written in the Taiheiki; it was added later by Toriyama Sekien. He named this yōkai for its horrible cry of “Itsumademo?” which means, “Until when?” The birds appear to be asking those below how long will this suffering go unnoticed. It is thought that the spirits of the dead and suffering form into onryō which take the shape of these birds. They demand recognition of their suffering and torment.

LEGENDS: One night during the fall of 1334, the itsumade suddenly appeared above the hall for state ceremonies, crying out, “Itsumademo? Itsumademo?” Panic erupted amongst the people of the capital. The same creature came back the next night, and every night thereafter. Finally, the imperial court decided that something had to be done. They recalled Minamoto no Yorimasa’s triumph against the nue many years earlier, and decided to summon the warrior Oki no Jirouzaemon Hiroari. Hiroari was an expert archer. He used a signal arrow that let off a loud whistle as it flew, and shot the monster out of the sky. Afterwards, Hiroari was given the name Mayumi, meaning true bow.

Mayumi Hiroari went on to become a famous warrior, and settled down in what is now Mayumi, Miyama City, Fukuoka Prefecture, where his grave still stands. The area was renamed in his honor after he died.

Onmoraki

Onmoraki陰摩羅鬼
おんもらき

TRANSLATION: shadowy unpious demon
HABITAT: temples and places where people have recently died
DIET: impiety

APPEARANCE: Onmoraki are bird-like monsters with black feathers, bright eyes that shine like lanterns, and a ghastly human face. They are skilled mimics, and shake their feathers as they give off their shrill, terrifying call.

INTERACTIONS: Onmoraki appear near temples, particularly in the presence of neglectful priests. They sneak up on sleeping priests and surprise them, scolding them in a perfect imitation of their own voices. When the priest wakes up and flees in terror, the onmoraki vanishes into the shadows.

ORIGIN: Onmoraki come from the bodies of the recently deceased. When people die but do not receive enough memorial prayer, their life energy can transform into this grotesque, bird-like demon. The name onmoraki comes from a play on words emphasizing demonic interference with achieving Buddhist enlightenment. The first part of the name, on, comes from onmyō, the Japanese word for yin and yang. On represents yin, the shadow, the unseen, and hidden, secret things—in this case it refers to demons which live in the shadows and in the hidden parts of the world. The second part of the name, mora, refers to Mara, a Buddhist demon who personifies unskillfulness, impiety, and the death of the spirit—a reference to the poor quality of memorial services which cause this yōkai to come forth. The last part of the name, ki, simply means demon—emphasizing the fact that this monster truly is a demon.

Kurote

Kurote黒手
くろて

TRANSLATION: black hand
HABITAT: toilets
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: A kurote is a bizarre, hairy yōkai from the Noto peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture.

LEGENDS: Long ago in the province of Noto, there was a samurai named Kasamatsu Jingobei. He lived in a nice house, as was typical of samurai at the time. One day, his wife went to use the bathroom, and something strange happened. While using the toilet, she felt a hand reach up from the darkness and stroke her behind. She told her husband, who suspected the work of a mischievous tanuki or kitsune. Jingobei drew his katana and entered the bathroom. Sure enough, as he stood over the toilet, something moved—an arm, covered in thick, black hair, reached up out of the darkness and began making a stroking motion. With one swing of his sword, Jingobei sliced the hand clean off. He put it into a box.

Several days later, three yōkai disguised as priests appeared at Jingobei’s house. Not realizing their true form, Jingobei invited them in. The first priest said, “There is a strange presence in this house…”

Jingobei brought out the box and showed them the hand. The second priest said, “This is the hand of a creature known as a kurote who lives in humans’ toilets.”

The third priest examined the hand closely and snarled, “This is my hand which you cut from my arm!” He immediately transformed into a 9-foot tall, black-haired monster. He snatched the hand away, and then all three priests vanished.

Sometime later, while Jingobei was walking home late at night, something like a quilt fell down from the sky on top of him. Wrapped up and unable to move, Jingobei was lifted up seven feet into the air and then violently slammed to the ground. When he came to, Jingobei noticed that the sword he was carrying on his belt—the one which he used to cut off the kurote’s hand—was missing.

Amefuri kozō

Amefurikozou雨降小僧
あめふりこぞう

TRANSLATION: rainfall priest boy
HABITAT: found throughout Japan; appears during rainy weather
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Amefuri kozō resemble young boys. They wear children’s kimonos, wooden clogs, and wide-brimmed straw hats or umbrellas on their heads. They are not particularly cute, and have pudgy, upturned noses.

BEHAVIOR: Despite their childish appearance, amefuri kozō are charged with the very important task of causing rainfall. Wherever they go, they cause clouds to form and rain to come down. In ancient China, amefuri kozō were thought to be the servants of the god of rainfall, who is known as Ushi in Japanese.

INTERACTIONS: Amefuri kozō are shy and rarely interact directly with people. However, they enjoy stealing people’s umbrellas and wearing them as hats. They then cause rain showers to fall upon their victims.

ORIGIN: Amefuri kozō became widely known thanks to the printing boom during the Edo period. They were common characters in the cheap, pocket-sized publications sold by street vendors known as kibyōshi, or yellow covers. Kibyōshi were satirical comics, heavy on illustrations, depicting urban life with easy-to-read prose. Amefuri kozō and other priest boy yōkai became popular in these adult-oriented comic books. People enjoyed their grotesque, silly, yet somewhat cute appearance.

LEGENDS: Rain that falls while the sun is out is known in Japan as kitsune no yomeiri—fox weddings. Kitsune (fox yōkai) hold their weddings during sun showers. Before getting married, kitsune will say a prayer to the amefuri kozō for rain on their wedding day.

Hiyoribō

Hiyoribou日和坊
ひよりぼう

TRANSLATION: weather priest
ALTERNATE NAMES: teruteru bōzu
HABITAT: mountains (only appearing on sunny days)
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Hiyoribō is a yōkai from Ibaraki prefecture who calls forth the sun and creates good weather. It lives deep in the mountains, and can only be seen on sunny days. During rain or in bad weather, this yōkai remains hidden.

ORIGIN: Hiyoribō strongly resembles another weather yōkai from China known as the hiderigami. It may be that hiyoribō is simply another form of the hiderigami.

Ōkubi

Ookubi大首
おおくび

TRANSLATION: giant head
HABITAT: hiding in large barns, or flying around in the sky
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Ōkubi appear as enormous, severed heads, which fly through the sky. In most accounts they are female in appearance. Quite commonly they have blackened teeth.

INTERACTIONS: Ōkubi are little threat to humans. Their most common activity is to fly about harassing people: grinning at them, blowing away their umbrellas, or otherwise scaring them. According to some accounts, if an ōkubi breaths on any body part, that part will become inflamed. However, stories about serious injuries or deaths are rare to nonexistent.

LEGENDS: Eyewitness accounts of ōkubi were common during the Edo period. In a story from Inou Mononoke Roku, the protagonist Inou Heitarō opens the door to his storage house. He discovers that an enormous head of an old woman—the size of the entire storage house—has taken up residence inside. Curious, he pokes at the head with a long chopstick. Instead of bumping against the forehead of the ōkubi, the head is sticky and mushy and the chopstick slides right in.

Rokujō no Miyasundokoro

Rokujou no Miyasundokoro六条御息所
ろくじょうのみやすんどころ

TRANSLATION: Lady Rokujō; Miyasundokoro is her given name
ALTERNATE NAMES: Rokujō Miyasudokoro

ORIGIN: Lady Rokujō is a woman who appears in the noh play Aoi no Ue, which is based on the 11th century novel The Tale of Genji. The novel revolves around the life of Hikaru Genji, a noble living in the height of the Heian period. Lady Rokujō’s transformation from noblewoman to demoness has made her one of the most well-known monsters in Japanese theater. Her name comes from Rokujō, the area of Kyoto in which she lived.

LEGENDS: Lady Rokujō was the daughter of a minister living in the capital during the Heian period. She was high ranking, extremely beautiful, elegant, sophisticated, and intelligent. She had been married to the crown prince and would have become empress upon his ascension. However, when her husband passed away Lady Rokujō lost much of her power and standing among the court, robbing her of her ambitions. She sent their daughter away to Ise to become a shrine princess, and became a courtesan of the imperial court.

The widowed Lady Rokujō soon became one of the mistresses of an aspiring nobleman named Hikaru Genji. She fell deeply in love with him. But because of her age, rank, beauty, and refinement, Genji was reluctant to return her affections. Lady Rokujō also could not express her true feelings as she wished without breaking court decorum. Instead, she repressed her feelings of jealousy, which began to transform her into a demon.

One night, while sightseeing during the Hollyhock Festival, Lady Rokujō’s carriage collided with the carriage belonging to Genji’s rightful wife Lady Aoi. After already losing her place to Genji’s wife, Lady Rokujō discovered that Lady Aoi was pregnant with Genji’s child. The insult was too much. Her repressed jealousy escaped from her body and transformed into an ikiryō, which haunted Lady Aoi every night. Eventually, the ikiryō was witnessed by Genji, who purchased herbal charms for his wife to protect her against evil spirits.

Lady Aoi gave birth to Genji’s son, but shortly afterwards became possessed by Lady Rokujō’s vengeful spirit. (This possession is the subject of the noh play Aoi no Ue.) The ikiryō was finally exorcised by a shugenja, but the possession took its tool of Lady Aoi and she passed away.

Lady Rokujō had hoped to become Genji’s next wife, but she discovered that her own hair and clothes carried the odor of Genji’s herbal charms. She realized that she had been responsible for the hauntings. Thinking that Genji could never love her after murdering his wife, Lady Rokujō left the capital and joined her daughter at the Ise Shrine.

Six years later, Lady Rokujō returned to Kyoto with her daughter and became a nun. Shortly afterwards, she fell very ill. Genji came to visit her, and was stricken with her daughter. Lady Rokujō, still deeply in love with Genji, begged him not to take her daughter as a lover. Lady Rokujō passed away, and Genji adopted her daughter as his ward. They moved into her old villa at Rokujō.

Even in death, Lady Rokujō’s jealousy remained as a vengeful shiryō, which appeared at the Rokujō villa. It haunted Genji, attacking his new wife Lady Murasaki and the other ladies of the house. Upon hearing of the hauntings, Lady Rokujō’s daughter became sad that her mother had still not found peace in death. She performed the necessary memorial services to finally put her ghost at ease.

Kiyo hime

Kiyohime清姫
きよひめ

TRANSLATION: Princess Kiyo

APPEARANCE: Kiyo hime is one of the most famous antagonists in Japanese literature, and an example of a honnari hannya—a demon woman who has attained the maximum level of power. She appears in The Legend of Anchin and Kiyo hime, or Princess Kiyo, an ancient tale from Wakayama prefecture. Versions of the story appear in a number of ancient books. Her tale is retold in the famous noh play Dōjō-ji.

LEGENDS: Long ago, during the reign of Emperor Daigo, the young priest named Anchin was traveling from Mutsu to Kumano on a pilgrimage. Every year he made the journey, and every year he would lodge at the manor of the Masago no Shōji family. He was an incredibly good looking young man, and he caught the eye of Kiyo hime, the manor lord’s daughter. She was a troublesome young girl. Anchin joked to her that if she were a good girl and behaved herself, he would marry her and take her back to Mutsu.

Every year Kiyo hime waited for Anchin to come again for his pilgrimage. When she came of age arrived, she reminded him of his promise and asked him to marry her. Anchin, embarrassed that she had taken his word seriously, lied that he would come for her as soon as he finished his pilgrimage. On his return, he avoided the Masago no Shōji manor and headed straight for Mutsu.

When Kiyo hime heard of Anchin’s deception, she was overcome with grief. She ran after the young priest, barefoot, determined to marry him. Anchin fled as fast as he could, but Kiyo hime caught him on the road to the temple Dōjō-ji. There, instead of greeting her, Anchin lied again. He pretended not to know her and protested that he was late for a meeting somewhere else. Kiyo hime’s sadness turned into furious rage. She attacked, moving to punish the lying priest. Anchin prayed to Kumano Gongen to save him. A divine light dazzled Kiyo hime’s eyes and paralyzed her body, giving Anchin just enough time to escape.

Kiyo hime’s rage exploded to its limits—the divine intervention had pushed her over the edge. She transformed into a giant, fire-breathing serpent. When Anchin reached the Hidaka River, he paid the boatman and begged him not to allow his pursuer to cross. Then, he ran to Dojō-ji for safety. Ignoring the boatman entirely, Kiyo hime swam across the river after Anchin.

Seeing the monstrous serpent, the priests of Dōjō-ji hid Anchin inside of the large, bronze temple bell. However, Kiyo hime could smell Anchin inside. Overcome with rage and despair, she wrapped herself around the bell and breathed fire until the bronze became white hot. She roasted Anchin alive inside the bell. With Anchin dead, the demon Kiyo hime threw herself into the river and drowned.

Hannya

Hannya般若
はんにゃ

TRANSLATION: wisdom; specifically the Buddhist concept of Perfect Wisdom

APPEARANCE: Hannya refers to demons or oni; more specifically to female demons called kijo—even more specifically to those kijo which appear in noh theater. They were once human women who were consumed by jealousy and transformed into demonesses. The name hannya also refers to a specific type of demon mask used in noh theater.

There are three grades of hannya: namanari, chūnari, and honnari. Namanari hannya are kijo that still resemble human women. They have small horns and use dark magic to perform their evil deeds, such as summoning ikiryō to attack their enemies. They are not completely evil; there remains a chance for these beginner demons to return to humanity. Chūnari hannya are mid-level demons. They have long, sharp horns, tusk-like fangs, and more powerful magic. However, they are still vulnerable to Buddhist prayers. Honnari hannya are true demons and the most powerful of the three. They have serpentine bodies and breathe fire. Honnari hannya have embraced their jealousy so deeply that there is no calming their fury.

ORIGIN: Hannya originate from the Sanskrit term for wisdom—specifically Prajñāpāramitā, the highest form of Buddhist wisdom which leads to enlightenment. The juxtaposition of the highest form of wisdom and creatures who represent direct opposition to that wisdom comes from the use of the hannya mask in noh. In the play Aoi no Ue, a shugenja (an ascetic mystic) exorcises the spirit of the hannya Lady Rokujō from Lady Aoi. As it is driven away, the evil spirit cries out, “Oh, how horrible! The voice of wisdom is like a demon!” Since then, demon masks and wisdom have been associated with each other.

The three most famous hannya from Japanese literature are Lady Rokujō from Aoi no Ue, Kurozuka from Kurozuka, and Kiyo-hime from Dōjō-ji.

Nyūnai suzume

Nyuunaisuzume入内雀
にゅうないすずめ

TRANSLATION: imperial palace-penetrating sparrow
ALTERNATE NAMES: sanekata suzume (Sanekata sparrow)
HABITAT: the imperial palace of ancient Kyoto
DIET: all of the emperor’s breakfast

APPEARANCE: Nyūnai suzume has the appearance of an ordinary russet sparrow, but in reality it is the ghost of an imperial attendant named Fujiwara no Sanekata.

LEGENDS: During the reign of Emperor Ichijō (960-1011 CE) lived a nobleman named Fujiwara no Sanekata. One day he got into a quarrel over some gossip started by Fujiwara no Yukinari, and in a rage, Sanekata snatched Yukinari’s hat and threw it away. For his bad temper, Sanekata was demoted and exiled far away to a solitary island in Mutsu province in the northeast. There, Sanekata nursed his resentment towards those back in the court at Kyoto, growing ever more resentful of them. Three years into his exile, he died, with thoughts of vengeance poisoning his heart.

When the news of Sanekata’s death reached Kyoto, a strange thing began to happen: every morning, when the servants would place food out for the imperial court to eat at the Seiryōden palace, the nyūnai suzume would swoop in and gobble up all of the food in an instant, and then fly off. No matter how much food was laid out, the sparrow would devour every grain of rice, leaving nothing for the palace inhabitants.

It was not long before the court began to grow very scared of this bird. It began destroy all of the crops in the fields, as well, and nobody knew how to stop the sparrow’s attacks.Rumors began to spread that the sparrow could only be the vengeful ghost, or onryō, of Fujiwara no Sanekata, desperate to return and take revenge upon the imperial court.

At the same time, the high priest of Kangaku-in, Saint Kanshi, had a sparrow visit him in a dream. The sparrow identified itself as the spirit of Sanekata, desperately longing to return to his beloved Kyoto, and asked the priest to chant and pray for him. The next morning, Kanshi discovered the body of a single sparrow lying dead at the base of a tree on the temple grounds. He recognized the sparrow as the transformed spirit of Fujiwara no Sanekata, and built a small grave for the sparrow, mourning it and praying for its soul.

After the sparrow’s grave was built, the attacks stopped. Years later, Kangaku-in’s name changed to Kyōjaku-ji, or Sparrow Temple, and while the Kyoto has changed dramatically since that time, the little grave where the sparrow was buried still remains to this day.

Fujiwara no Sanekata’s legacy lives on, too, in the common Japanese name for the russet sparrow: nyūnai suzume.

Dodomeki

Dodomeki百々目鬼
どどめき

TRANSLATION: hundred hundred eye (i.e. many-eyed) demon
HABITAT: cities, towns, and especially marketplaces
DIET: as a human

APPEARANCE: Dodomeki are cursed women with very long arms covered in tiny bird eyes. They were once human girls who developed a penchant for stealing money. Because of their wicked actions, one day hundreds of tiny bird eyeballs sprout out of their arms and they transform into this monster.

ORIGIN: When Toriyama Sekien first described this yokai, he inserted a number of puns. The dodomeki is described as being a woman with long arms — having “long arms” in Japanese is a figure of speech meaning somebody who likes to steal a lot. Thus, the dodomeki has long arms, both figuratively and literally.

The copper coin, or dōsen, had a hole in the middle of it, and was colloquially known as a chōmoku, or “bird’s eye,” due to its shape. This play on words is the reason that this yokai grew birds’ eyes as a result of stealing copper coins. Money was also sometimes referred to as oashi, or “feet,” because it comes and goes as if it had its own feet.

The phrase ashi ga tsuku is a common idiom which means “to catch someone who has committed a crime.” Very clever readers would have noticed that if the word ashi, which can also mean money, is replaced with chōmoku, which can also mean money, the phrase changes to mean “covered in bird eyes.”

LEGENDS: Long ago, in what is now Tochigi prefecture, lived a nobleman named Fujiwara no Hidesato. He had just been granted the title of kokushi of Shimotsuke province for his valor in defeating the rebel Taira no Masakado. One day while hunting in his newly acquired countryside, Hidesato was approached by an old man, who warned him that some kind of oni had been sighted at the horse graveyard at Utsunomiya. Hidesato grabbed his bow and arrow and went to investigate.

Hidesato reached the horse graveyard and waited until nightfall. When the hour of the ox came, an enormous demon appeared and ravenously began devouring horse carcasses. The demon stood over ten feet tall, had sharp, spiked hair, and was covered in glowing eyes all over its body. Hidesato carefully aimed an arrow at the brightest glowing eyeball and fired. The arrow hit its mark, and the demon roared in pain, fleeing into the woods until it finally collapsed at the foot of Mount Myōjin.

The battle was not over, for although the demon was near-fatally wounded, it still had power left. From its body erupted a torrent of flame. Its mouth split open and poisonous fumes spewed forth. The toxic air and intense heat proved too much for Fujiwara no Hidesato, who had to give up and return to his palace. When Hidesato returned the next day, the ground was blackened and burnt over a large area, but there was no sign of the demon.

400 years later, during the Muromachi period, the dodomeki finally reappeared. A village had sprung up on the northern slope of Mount Myōjin, and strange things had begun happening. The temple’s head priest had been suffering mysterious injuries and unexplained fires began to break out at the temple. A new head priest, the virtuous and holy Saint Chitoku, was called to discover what the cause of the strange problems was.

Saint Chitoku noticed that one young woman stopped by the temple frequently whenever he preached his sermons, and recognized it as the dodomeki in disguise. The demon, terribly wounded, had retreated into some caves nearby to heal. It transformed into a young woman, and had been visiting the site where it fell, gradually sucking back up all of the noxious fumes that it had breathed out, and collecting all of the blood that it had bled in the battle with Fujiwara no Hidesato. The village temple had been built on top of the battle site, and the dodomeki caused the fires and attacked the priest to scare them away.

One day, Saint Chitoku confronted the demon in disguise, and she finally revealed her true form was a dodomeki. She did not attack him, however; while frequenting the temple, she had overheard Chitoku’s powerful sermons, and they had stuck with her. The dodomeki promised that she would never again commit any act of evil. Since then, the area around Mount Myōjin has come to be known as Dodomeki.

Furutsubaki no Rei

Furutsubaki no Rei古椿の霊
ふるつばきのれい

TRANSLATION: old tsubaki spirit
HABITAT: tsubaki trees
DIET: water, soil, and sunlight

APPEARANCE: In Japanese folklore, almost anything, upon reaching an old age, can develop a spirit and become a yokai. When a tsubaki tree (Camellia japonica, or the rose of winter) reaches an old age, it’s spirit gains the ability to separate itself from its host tree, along with other strange and mysterious powers, which it uses to bewitch and trick humans.

ORIGIN: The tsubaki is an evergreen tree which has the strange behavior of not losing its flowers gradually, petal by petal, but dropping them all at once to the ground. As a result, it long been associated with death and strangeness in Japan (and is also taboo to bring as gifts to hospitals or sick people).

LEGENDS: Long ago in Yamagata prefecture, two merchants were walking along a mountain road when they passed a tsubaki tree. Suddenly a beautiful young woman appeared from out of nowhere on the road beside one of the merchants. She breathed on him, and instantly he transformed into a bee. She then disappeared into the tsubaki tree, and the bee followed her and landed on a flower. The fragrance of the tree had turned into poison, however, and as soon as the bee smelled it, it dropped to the ground. The flower soon fell off of the tree too. The other merchant picked up both the bee and the flower and rushed to a nearby temple to save his friend. The priest recited prayers and read the sutras over the bee, but it sadly did not return to life or to its former human form. Afterwards, the surviving merchant buried the bee and the flower together.

In Akita prefecture, long ago, a man heard a sad and lonely voice coming from the tree one night. A few days later, a disaster befell the temple. This happened again and again, and soon the priests at the temple realized that the tsubaki would cry a warning every time something bad was going to happen. The tree was dubbed Yonaki Tsubaki, or “night-crying tsubaki,” and still stands today in the temple Kanman-ji, where it has stood for over 700 years.

In Ōgaki, Gifu, there is an ancient burial mound. One year, historians excavated the burial mound and discovered some ancient artifacts, including a mirror and some bones; however, shortly after the man who discovered the artifacts died. The locals blamed it on a curse, and returned the artifacts to the mound, planting a tsubaki on top of it. When the tsubaki grew old, it transformed into a yokai tree. Since then, the glowing figure of a young, beautiful woman has been seen by the roadside near the burial mound at night.

Mōryō

Mouryou魍魎
もうりょう

TRANSLATION: mountains, trees, streams, and rocks spirits
ALTERNATE NAMES: mizuha
HABITAT: streams, rivers, mountains, forests, graveyards, and wild areas all over Japan
DIET: humans, particularly corpses

APPEARANCE: Mōryō is a general term, like chimi, for a large number of nature spirits that live in the wilderness. In particular, while chimi refers to mountain and swamp spirits, mōryō refers to water spirits. They are said to look like children about three years old, with red or black skin, red eyes, long ears, and long, beautiful hair.

INTERACTIONS: Mōryō feed upon the bodies of dead humans. As such, they like to rob graves, digging corpses up out of the ground to feast upon the rotting innards. They also interrupt funerals, using magic to distract the attendees and stealing the corpses from their coffins while nobody is looking. Because of these behaviors, they are especially troublesome, and so special methods have been invented to prevent such disturbances to the deceased.

Mōryō are afraid of oak trees and tigers. As a result of this, in ancient China it was common to plant oak trees in graveyards, and to adorn the roads leading into and out of graveyards with stone tigers. Additionally, prior to interring a casket in the ground, a servant would enter the grave hold and prod around with a spear to make sure no mōryō were hiding in the grave. These practices did not catch on in Japan.

ORIGIN: Mōryō first appear in ancient Chinese records, where they are said to be minor nature spirits or demons. In Japan, they are said to be water kami, and cooperate alongside chimi, minor kami of the mountains. Many kinds of yokai can be classified as mōryō, one of the most famous examples being the kappa.

LEGENDS: In Mimibukuro, a collection of folktales collected during the Edo period, a story of a mōryō disguised as a human is recorded. A government official named Shibata had a very loyal servant, who one evening, out of the blue, informed Shibata that he would be leaving his service. When asked why, the man replied that he was not actually a human, but a mōryō in disguise, and his turn had come up to steal corpses; thus, the next day he would have to travel to a nearby village and due his duty as a mōryō. Sure enough, the next day, the servant had vanished, and at the same time, in the village he had mentioned, dark clouds suddenly descended upon a funeral service. When the clouds cleared away, the corpse was missing from the coffin!

Hihi

Hihi狒々
ひひ

TRANSLATION: none; based on the Chinese name for the same creature
HABITAT: deep in the mountains
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: The hihi is a large, monkey-like beast which lives deep in the mountains. It has long, black hair and a wide mouth with long, flapping lips. Old legends say that a monkey which reaches a very old age will transform into a hihi.

BEHAVIOR: Hihi can run very fast and primarily feed on wild animals such as boars, battering them down and snatching them up just as a bird of prey snatches up small animals. The hihi gets its name from the sound of its laugh. When it sees a human it can’t help but burst into laughter. letting out a loud, “Hihihihi!” When it laughs, its long lips curl upwards and completely cover its eyes.

INTERACTIONS: While hihi primarily feed on wild beasts, they will also prey on humans if given the opportunity. They are known to catch and run off with human women in particular. If a hihi catches a human there is only one way to escape: by making it laugh. While it is laughing and blinded by its own lips, it can be taken down by striking it in the middle of the forehead with a sharp spike.

Hihi are sometimes confused with other monkey-like yokai that live in the mountains, such as yamawaro and satori. The hihi is much bigger, more violent, and far more dangerous than these. Some stories say that, like satori, hihi have the ability to speak human words and read human hearts and thoughts. They are valued for their blood, which is a vivid, bright red. If used as a dye, the bright red color will never fade or run. If drunk, the imbiber is said to gain the ability to see demons and spirits.

ORIGIN: The hihi’s origins lie in ancient Chinese mythology, where it was believed to be a supernatural monkey that lived in the mountains. It was brought over to Japan by folklorists during the middle ages. In modern Japanese, hihi is the word for baboon, which takes its name from its resemblance to this yokai.

Shiryō

Shiryou死霊
しりょう

TRANSLATION: dead ghost
ALTERNATE NAMES: shirei
HABITAT: inhabited areas
DIET: none; thrives solely on its emotions

APPEARANCE: Shiryō are the ghosts of the dead, and are contrasted with ikiryō, the ghosts of the living. The word is generally synonymous with yūrei (“faint spirit”), as they both refer to the classic Japanese ghost. However while yūrei can be creepy sometimes and beautifully mysterious at other times, shiryō is almost exclusively used to refer to unpleasant, malevolent spirits. The inclusion of the kanji for “death” in the name is the clue that this ghost is not to be romanticised.

INTERACTIONS: Shiryō act in similar ways to ikiryō, appearing to relatives or close friends of the deceased. While ikiryō usually appear in the moments just before death, a shiryō appears in the moments just after death. When one appears, it is most often to give one last goodbye to its loved ones before departing… however, shiryō do not always appear in order to say goodbye; sometimes they come to take their loved ones away with them into the world of the dead.

LEGENDS: Belief in shiryō goes back to before recorded history, and has long been a staple of Japanese folk superstition. One famous account is recorded in the Tōno Monogatari, a 1910 collection of folk beliefs which gave birth to the field of academic folklore research in Japan. In this story, there was a young girl who lived together with her father. After her father died, his shiryō appeared before the young girl and tried to take her with him into the world of the dead. The girl narrowly escaped and fled from the house to ask for help. Every night, various friends and distant family members agreed to stay overnight in the house with her and watch over her, and every night without fail, her father’s shiryō came looking for her, to try to take her away. Only after a whole month of sleepless, terrifying nights did the ghost stop appearing, and finally the girl was left in peace.

Ikiryō

Ikiryou生霊
いきりょう

TRANSLATION: living ghost
ALTERNATE NAMES: shōryō, seirei, ikisudama
HABITAT: inhabited areas
DIET: none; lives off its owner’s emotions

APPEARANCE: Ikiryō are the souls of still-living people which have temporarily left their bodies and move about on their own. They appear just as the living person from which they spawn; sometimes they take on a ghostly, translucent form, while other times they are indistinguishable from a living person.

INTERACTIONS: There are a number of common ways for ikiryō to appear: during a near-death-experience, fainting, intense passion or desire, intense hatred, or even as part of a curse. Ikiryō most commonly appear due to some intense emotion or trauma, and the owner of the soul is almost always unaware of the ikiryō’s existence. This can lead to some very awkward situations and misunderstandings.

Folk superstitions about ikiryō go back to before recorded history. According to ancient superstition, just before death the soul leaves the body and is able to walk around, making strange noises and doing other things outside of the body. This is especially common during wartime, and the ikiryō of soldiers even in far off lands are said to appear to their friends and loved ones moments before or after their deaths, in their war uniforms, to give one last goodbye. The souls of the soon-to-die and recently-deceased are also sometimes seen visiting nearby temples and praying for a few days after their deaths.

During the Heian period, ikiryō were a popular subject of stories. They were sometimes attributed to intense feelings of love. When a person (usually a woman) felt such intense passion and love, her spirit would detach from her body and haunt the object of her affection, whispering sweet things into his ears. Depending on the strength of her feelings, the ikiryō could even physically move her lover around. This was not romantic, however — people haunted in this way were often tormented to the point of extreme sickness by these ghosts.

The most common form on ikiryō is one born of rage and vengeance. Just as the ghosts of the dead can go after those who wrong them in life, an ikiryō can manifest from one living person to curse another. These are also usually unconscious manifestations, however a few famous examples of conscious manifestations of ikiryō curses exist. The pilgrimage of the hour of the ox (ushi no koku mairi) and ichijama (from Okinawa) are ceremonial curses in which a person consciously sends their soul from their body to hurt or to kill their enemies. Of course, this sort of black magic often has dire consequences for the performer as well as the target.

During the Edo period, ikiryō were considered a symptom of certain illnesses, such as the aptly-named rikonbyō, or “detached soul syndrome,” and kage no yamai, or “shadow illness.” These horrifyingly-named diseases were Edo period terms for sleepwalking and out-of-body experiences. For carriers of these illnesses, it was said that the soul could depart from the body at night, taking the person’s consciousness along with it. This would cause them to experience things from the ikiryō’s perspective as if they were actually doing it. A person might have false memories of things he didn’t do, or be accused of things he didn’t remember. Some people even experienced meeting their own selves, as if they had a doppelganger.

Superstitions about ikiryō have persisted into modern times, particularly those dealing with people appearing to family members and friends on or around the times of their deaths. The idea of the soul leaving the body and experiencing things during out of body experiences persists as well, and remains an unexplained phenomenon.

Suiko

Suiko水虎
すいこ

TRANSLATION: water tiger
ALTERNATE NAMES: sometimes mistakenly referred to as kappa
HABITAT: rivers, lakes, ponds and waterways; found throughout Japan
DIET: omnivorous; prefers human blood and souls

APPEARANCE: Suiko are found in both China and Japan and are often confused with kappa, which they closely resemble. However, suiko are far more dangerous, violent, and hot-tempered than their kappa cousins. Suiko have the body of a small child and are covered in extremely tough scales like a pangolin’s. They have sharp, hook-like growths on their kneecaps which resemble a tiger’s claws. They live near riverbanks and in large bodies of water.

BEHAVIOR: Suiko rank above kappa in the hierarchy of water goblins, and as such are sometimes placed in charge of them, with one suiko placed in charge of 48 kappa. (They are sometimes called the oyabun, or yakuza bosses, of kappa.) In turn, suiko report to the Ryū-ō, the dragon king, who lives in his palace, Ryū-gū, at the bottom of the sea. The reason suiko kill humans is to look tougher among the other suiko and increase their standing with the dragon king. (Likewise, when kappa attack humans, it is to make them look tougher and increase their standing with their suiko boss.)

INTERACTIONS: Suiko who live in inhabited areas like to sneak out of the water at night to play pranks oh humans, knocking on doors and running away, or possessing people and making them do strange things. Like kappa and other water spirits, suiko enjoy using their superior strength to pull humans into water and drown them, although unlike kappa they have no concern for the shirikodama. Instead, suiko drain their victims of blood like vampires, then eat their souls (reikon) and return the dead, drained body to the surface.

It is possible to keep suiko at bay by leaning a sickle against the side of a house and sprinkling flax seeds or black-eyed peas on the ground outside. Suiko are afraid of these and will keep away.

There is one known method to kill a suiko. It involves the corpse of a person who has had their blood drained by a suiko. First, a small hut made of grass and straw is built in a field. Then the body, instead of being buried, it is laid on a wooden plank and placed in the hut. The suiko who sucked that person’s blood will be drawn to the hut, where it will start running around and around in circles. (Suiko have to ability to become invisible, so it is likely that it will only be heard rather than seen; or else only its footprints will be visible.) As the dead body gradually decays, so will the suiko. By the time the body has rotted completely, the suiko will have died, its magic will have ceased, and the decayed corpse of the suiko will be visible on the ground near the body.

Eritategoromo

Eritategoromo襟立衣
えりたてごろも

TRANSLATION: standing-collar clothes

APPEARANCE: Eritategoromo is a a Buddhist high priest’s kimono that has transformed into a yokai. It still looks mostly like the high-collared ceremonial robes of a priest, however the long, pointed collar has transformed into a long, pointed nose, and it has sprouted eyes and a beard.

ORIGIN: Eritategoromo was once the kimono which was worn by Sōjōbō, King of the Tengu, who lives on Mount Kurama, north of Kyoto. Sōjōbō is a fearsome, powerful, wise, god-like monster, with the strength of 1000 ordinary tengu. He is a master swordsman, and was responsible for training a number of famous legendary heroes of Japan, such as Minamoto no Yoshitsune. Though he is an ascetic yamabushi and great teacher, like any tengu, Sōjōbō has an evil side too: he is said to feed on children who wander too deep into the mountains.

Sōjōbō was not always a tengu. He was born a human, and became a well respected high priest. He was also proud, and he mistakenly believed that he had achieved satori, or enlightenment. Though he expected to become a Buddha when he died, he transformed instead into a demonic tengu. Even as a tengu, the proud Sōjōbō continued to live as a Buddhist priest, training daily, and wearing his ornate priestly vestments. Either due to Sōjōbō’s extreme pride, or due to being worn by a magical tengu, some spirit became attached to his high-collared robes and they transformed into this yokai.

Ouni

Ouni苧うに
おうに

TRANSLATION: ramie peat (named for her resemblance to these plants)
ALTERNATIVE NAMES: wauwau
HABITAT: deep in the mountains
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Ouni looks like an ugly old woman with an angry face and a body covered in long, black hair. She is a kind of yamauba, or mountain hag. She lives deep in the mountains, away from civilization, and only occasionally appears before humans.

INTERACTIONS: Unlike most yamauba, ouni are friendly towards humans who treat them kindly. They occasionally visit rural houses or mountain huts late at night. When this happens, the ouni asks the owners of the house to give her free lodging and a meal for the night. If they are kind and invite her in, during the night she spins an enormous amount of thread for the family and then vanishes without a trace.

ORIGIN: Ouni’s name comes from the Japanese word for ramie, a fibrous plant that is used to make thread, and peat, the rotten muck found in swamps that comes from rotting plant matter. The first part of her name comes from the thread which she spins at night, usually in the form of ramie, as well as the long, black hair which covers her body and resembles thick threads. The second part refers to her filthy, black, hairy body, which makes her look like she is covered in dead vegetation.

Umi zatō

Umizatou海座頭
うみざとう

TRANSLATION: blind man of the sea
HABITAT: the waters surrounding Japan
DIET: ships and sailors

APPEARANCE: Umi zatō are mysterious, gigantic yokai which look like blind guilds-men, or zatō, who wander the seas at night, tapping the waves with their long canes.

INTERACTIONS: Very little is known about the mysterious umi zatō. They are usually considered to be harmless and leave people alone. However, according to some tales, umi zatō harass fishermen out at sea. They are said to beckon ships towards them, and when the ships draw close, they flip them over and capsize them. They also occasionally swallow entire boats whole. They do have a congenial side, however. If the people on a ship reply to an umi zatō in a polite and docile manner, the umi zatō will vanish and leave them alone.

ORIGIN: Because there are so few legends about the umi zatō, almost all of what we know about them is only speculation. They are sometimes considered to be cousins of the similar-looking umi-bōzu, but it is very likely that umi zatō is an invented yokai thought up by Edo-period artists solely for decorating old picture scrolls.

Sakabashira

Sakabashira逆柱
さかばしら

TRANSLATION: upside-down pillar
HABITAT: houses
DIET: resentment at being upside-down

APPEARANCE: Sakabashira are the angry spirits of tree leaves which manifest inside houses where one of the pillars has been placed upside-down — that is to say, in the opposite direction of the way the tree was pointing when it was living. These spirits manifest their grudge late at night, and bring misfortune upon those living in the house.

BEHAVIOR: Sakabashira are most well-known for making noises. They creak and moan, imitate the sounds of wooden beams cracking, and sometimes even speak in sentences like, “My neck hurts!” They can cause houses to shake, and the leaf-spirits residing in the tree can manifest as yanari, acting like poltergeists and breaking things around the house. Sakabashira can be so loud that families often move out of a house that is haunted by one, for these yokai cause not only strange noises, but also terrible luck. People who stay in a house haunted by a sakabashira often lose their family fortunes, or even lose all of their possessions to great conflagrations which consume and destroy the cursed house.

ORIGIN: It has long been a folk belief that a pillar erected in the upside-down position will bring misfortune to a family, and a sakabashira is usually the result of a careless mistake on the part of the construction crew. In order to prevent this yokai from appearing, folk superstition tells us that a pillar must be erected in the same orientation as the tree had when it was alive. However, sometimes support pillars are actually installed this way on purpose. The reason for this is another folk belief: “The moment a house is completed, it starts to fall apart.” As a kind of ward against bad luck, Japanese buildings were sometimes only almost completed, with the final step being left out, or purposefully made into a mistake. The famous Tosho-gu shrine at Nikko is such an example, having been built with just one pillar purposefully pointing in the opposite direction. This same superstition was followed when building the imperial palace — placing the final pillar in an upside-down position. During the Edo period, house builders commonly “forgot” to place the last three roof tiles for the same reason.

Makuragaeshi

Makuragaeshi枕返し
まくらがえし

TRANSLATION: pillow flipper
ALTERNATE NAMES: makura kozō
HABITAT: bedrooms
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Makuragaeshi are a kind of zashiki-warashi: a child ghost which haunts specific rooms of a house. They are found all over Japan, though details about them vary from region to region. They take the form of a small child dressed as a Niō, a monk, or a samurai, and appear in bedrooms late at night.

BEHAVIOR: Makuragaeshi gets it is named for its primary activity: flipping pillows. People who sleep in a room haunted by a makuragaeshi often wake up to find that their pillow has been flipped and is now at their feet. Makuragaeshi are also known for other minor pranks, such as running through ashes and leaving dirty footprints around the rooms they haunt.

While most stories about makuragaeshi present them as harmless pranksters, there are a few stories that describe scarier powers. Some don’t flip the pillow, but lift up and flip people instead. Others pick up entire tatami mats that people are sleeping on and bounce them around.  Still others are said to sit on their victim’s chest while he or she sleeps, pressing down hard and squeezing the wind out of the lung. They occasionally cause kanashibari, or sleep paralysis. The most extreme stories say that anyone who sees a makuragaeshi loses consciousness, after which the makuragaeshi steals their soul, leaving them dead.

ORIGIN: There are as many theories as to where makuragaeshi come from as there are variants of zashiki-warashi. Most often they linked to the ghosts of people — particularly children — who died in the room they come to haunt. As makuragaeshi are generally lower in rank than zashiki-warashi, they are often the result of ghosts which died tragically, such as murder victims. However, some makuragaeshi have also been attributed to shape-shifting, prank-loving yokai such as tanuki or saru. Others still have attributed this spirit to the actions of monster cats such as kasha.

Yanari

Yanari家鳴
やなり

TRANSLATION: house squeaker
HABITAT: wooden houses, especially new construction
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Yanari are miniature oni which appear in houses late at night. They appear most often in wooden houses — especially those of cheap or new construction in which all of the parts have not had time to settle yet. They often carry miniature weapons or tools, such as mallets or iron clubs.

BEHAVIOR: Yanari only do one thing, and they love doing it: making noise. They come out from the floors, ceilings, and the woodwork late at night when everyone is in bed, and they run about the house performing mischief. Specifically, they bang the furniture, the walls, floors, ceilings, and anything else they can find. Occasionally they even break objects, although their activity is usually non-destructive. Yanari delight in the work, and take it very seriously. Although tiny, they have a strong work ethic and do their best to perform their duty of making noise to the fullest.

LEGENDS: Long ago, in what is now Hyogo, a group of ronin decided to test their courage by spending a night in a haunted house. Late at night, when they were all fast asleep, the entire house suddenly began to shake violently. The ronin, thinking it was an earthquake, dashed outside for safety, however they soon realized that it was only the house that was shaking…

The next day the group of ronin visited a wise man who lived nearby and told him of their experience at the haunted house. The wise man offered to stay with them that night to see for himself. Sure enough, late at night, the entire house began to shake violently just as before. The wise man looked carefully at the floor. Locating the area where the most violent shaking was originating, he stabbed his dagger deep into the tatami mat. Suddenly, the shaking stopped entirely.

The next morning, the ronin and the wise man examined the house. Under the floor where the wise man had stabbed his dagger, they found a strange gravestone dedicated to the memory of a bear. Where the knife had penetrated the stone tablet, blood was trickling out.

The wise man asked others in the neighborhood what the strange gravestone could mean, and they explain that some time ago, there was a bear in these parts who frequently broke into peoples’ houses at night. One night it broke into that particular house, and the man who lived in there killed it. In order to appease the spirit of the bear he killed and protect himself from the vengeful ghost of the bear, he had a gravestone placed in the house dedicated to the bear’s memory. The ghost of the bear must have possessed that gravestone, which is what had been causing the yanari to appear every night and shake the house for years.

Noderabō

Noderabou野寺坊
のでらぼう

TRANSLATION: wild temple priest
HABITAT: abandoned, ruined temples
DIET: sadness

APPEARANCE: Noderabō are forlorn, grotesque ghosts of fallen priests dressed in tattered rags. They appear late at night in abandoned, overgrown, ruined temples, forlornly haunting the temple grounds and occasionally ringing the large temple bells.

ORIGIN: Noderabō were once priests who committed some kind of sin and died in dishonor. Most often they are those who fell to vices forbidden to priests, such as attachment to women or money. No longer welcome in towns and cities, they flee to abandoned temple ruins located out in depressed rural areas and transform into yokai.

LEGENDS: In Saitama there is a place called Nodera. Long ago, a prankster decided to steal the large bronze bell from the town’s temple. However, he was spotted in the act by one of the local townspeople and fled, dropping the bell into a pond, where it got stuck. The pond became known as Kanegaike (“Bell Pond”). Some time later a lazy monk-boy was given a job by the high priest of the temple, but instead of doing what he was bid he spent the day playing with other neighborhood children. When it came time for him to face the high priest, he was so ashamed that he became depressed and threw himself into Kanegaike and drowned. After that, every night the villagers could hear the sound of crying echoing off of the great bronze bell, coming from deep within Kanegaike pond. The monk-boy became known as the ghost of Nodera, or the noderabō.

Satori

Satori
さとり

TRANSLATION: enlightenment
ALTERNATE NAMES: kaku, yamako, kuronbō
HABITAT: deep in the mountains of central Japan
DIET: carnivorous; occasionally humans

APPEARANCE: Satori are strange, intelligent ape-men found in the mountains of Gifu. The are roughly man-sized, and appear similar to larger versions of the native monkeys found in the region.

INTERACTIONS: Satori appear to travelers on mountain roads, or folks living in mountain huts far from civilization. If the opportunity presents itself, they gladly dine on anyone they can get their hands on. In cases where they encounter a lone human female, they often take her away into the mountains and rape her. Satori are most well known for their uncanny ability to read people’s minds and then speak their thoughts faster than the individuals can get the words out themselves. This makes it very difficult to hunt, trick, or escape from a hungry satori. However, should something unforeseen happen, such as being unexpectedly hit by an object, satori grow very frightened and run away. One of the only ways to avoid being eaten by one of these yokai is to completely empty one’s mind; with no mind to read, the satori grows bored and wanders away.

ORIGIN: The name satori literally means “enlightenment” in the Buddhist sense. The satori, with its uncanny ability to read thoughts, comes across as a kind of enlightened being to scared travelers, which is how it got its name. This also relates to the method of escaping a satori — true enlightenment comes from emptying one’s mind of distracting, worldly thoughts, just as salvation from the hungry satori comes from an empty, zen-like mindset.

The origin of the satori is not entirely clear. Edo-period encyclopedias relate satori with yamako, apes from western China and captures women to rape or to eat. It has also been theorized that satori are cousins of yamabiko, a small monkey-like yokai. The satori’s ability to read people’s minds and the yamabiko’s ability to mimic their words are rooted in the same folklore. More recent folklorists have suggested that satori are fallen mountain gods of the ancient proto-Shinto religion which have been corrupted into yokai over the ages.

Katsura otoko

Katsuraotoko桂男
かつらおとこ

TRANSLATION: katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) man
HABITAT: the moon
DIET: vampiric

APPEARANCE: Katsura otoko is an incomparably beautiful man who lives in the face of the moon. He appears on moonlit nights as gazes back down at those who gaze up at him. His beauty is said to be so enchanting that those who gaze at him find it difficult to turn away, even to their own peril.

INTERACTIONS: If one gazes long enough at a katsura otoko, he will extend his hand and beckon, calling the moon-gazer towards him. With each shake of his beckoning hand, his viewer’s lifespan shrinks. If one stares long enough at katsura otoko, he or she may drop dead right on the spot!

ORIGIN: Katsura otoko originates in Chinese mythology, where there is said to be a man who lives in a great palace on the moon and spends his time pruning and chopping away at a gigantic katsura tree which grows there. As he prunes the tree, the shape of the moon grows smaller and less round until there is almost nothing left, and then the tree slowly grows its branches back — sort of a just-so-story to explain the waxing and waning of the moon.

Kasha

Kasha火車
かしゃ

TRANSLATION: fire cart
HABITAT: populated areas
DIET: fresh human corpses

APPEARANCE: Kasha are a type of bake-neko, or monster cat. They are large, bipedal felines as large as or larger than a human. They are often accompanied by hellish flames or lightning. They like to appear during rainy or stormy weather, and most often during the night. Their name sometimes causes confusion with other yokai; while their name means “fire cart,” they do not use vehicles of any kind.

INTERACTIONS: Kasha, being bake-neko, often live among humans, disguised as ordinary house cats or strays. However, they reveal their true forms during funeral services, when they leap down from rooftops to snatch corpses out of their coffins. Kasha are occasionally employed as messengers or servants of hell, in which case they are tasked with collecting the corpses of wicked humans spiriting them off to hell for punishment. Other times, they steal corpses for their own uses — either to animate as puppets or to eat.

It is nearly impossible to retrieve a person’s remains after they have been snatched by a kasha. This makes passing on to the next life difficult. The best defense is to be prepared; temples in areas where kasha are said to prowl have devised unique ways of defending against these monster cats. In Yamagata, clever priests have taken to holding two funeral ceremonies for the deceased. The first ceremony is a fake — the casket is filled only with rocks, so if a kasha comes for the body it will end up with nothing. The real ceremony takes place afterwards, when the risk of a kasha encounter is lessened. In Ehime, a head shaving razor may be placed on top of the coffin as against kasha. In Miyazaki, priests chant, “baku ni wa kuwasen” and “kasha ni wa kuwasen” (“don’t be eaten by a baku, don’t be eaten by a kasha”) twice times in front of the funeral procession in order to keeps evil spirits away. In Okayama, the priests play a myōhachi — a type of cymbal used in religious ceremonies — in order to keep the kasha away.

ORIGIN: Kasha were once ordinary house cats. Like other animals, as they age in years and their tails grow longer, cats begin to develop magical powers. Some turn into bake-neko, more powerful cats turn into neko-mata, and beyond that some turn into kasha. Fear of such demonic cats has long existed in Japan, and since ancient times, folk wisdom tells us, “Don’t let cats near dead bodies,” and, “If a cat jumps over the coffin, the corpse inside the coffin will rise.” Fears such as these have given rise to superstitious traditions such as cutting a cat’s tail short in order to prevent it from learning magic.

Ubagabi

Ubagabi姥ヶ火
うばがび

TRANSLATION: old hag fire
HABITAT: riverbanks

APPEARANCE: Ubagabi is a kind of hi-no-tama, or fireball yokai. It appears on rainy nights near riverbanks, and takes the form of a 1 foot diameter ball of flame with the face of an old woman in it. It can also appear as a chicken, but does not remain in this form for long. They are created out of the ghosts of old women who were caught stealing oil and died of shame.

BEHAVIOR: Ubagabi have the uncanny ability to fly long distances — up to 4 kilometers — in the blink of an eye. Occasionally they graze a person’s shoulder and then continue off into the darkness. The unfortunate people whom they bounce off of invariably end up dying somehow within three years. However, if one is quick enough and shouts, “Abura-sashi!” (oil thief) just as an ubagabi comes flying towards him or her, the yokai will vanish. The shame at being called out as an oil thief is too much to bear even in death, apparently.

LEGENDS: Long ago in Osaka there lived an old woman who was very poor. In order to make ends meet, she resorted to stealing oil from the lamps at Hiraoka shrine — a terrible crime in an age when oil was so rare and precious. Eventually she was caught by the shrine’s priests and her crime was exposed. From then on, the people of her village shunned her, and would shout out at her for being an oil thief. So great was the old woman’s shame that she went to the pond behind the shrine and committed suicide. Such unclean deaths never turn out well, and instead of dying properly she turned into an yokai. To this day, the pond behind Hiraoka shrine is known by locals as “Ubagabi-ike” (the pond of the ubagabi).

Furaribi

Furaribiふらり火
ふらりび

TRANSLATION: aimless fire
ALTERNATE NAMES: buraribi, sayuribi
HABITAT: riverbanks
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Furaribi is a small, flying creature wreathed in flames. It appears late at night near riverbanks. It has the body of a bird, and its face is somewhat dog-like. It is a type of hi-no-tama, or fireball yokai. It does very little except for float about aimlessly, which is how it got its name.

ORIGIN: Furaribi are created from the remains of a soul which has not properly passed on to the next life. This is most often due to not receiving proper ceremonial services after dying. In Japan there are a number of important ceremonies performed at fixed intervals which occur for many years after someone’s death — missing even one of these could cause a soul to become lost and be unable to rest. Furaru-bi is one of these lost souls.

LEGENDS: In the late 16th century, Toyama was ruled by a samurai named Sassa Narimasa. Narimasa kept a very beautiful concubine named Sayuri in his household. Sayuri was not well liked by the female servants and other women in Sassa Narimasa’s household. They were jealous of her beauty and of Narimasa’s love for her. One day, these women conspired against Sayuri and started a rumor that she had been unfaithful to Narimasa with one of his own men. Narimasa flew in a fit of jealous rage, murdered Sayuri, then took her body down to the Jinzū river. He hung her corpse from a tree and proceeded to carve it into pieces with his sword. Then he captured Sayuri’s entire extended family — 18 people in all — and executed them in the same manner. Afterwards, their tortured souls aimlessly wandered the riverbanks every night as furaribi.

It is said if you go down to the riverside and call out, “Sayuri, Sayuri!” late at night, the floating, severed head of a woman will appear, pulling and tearing at her hair in a vengeful fury. As for Sassa Narimasa, he was later defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Some have attributed his defeat by Hideyoshi to the vengeful curse of Sayuri’s ghost.

Shirime

Shrime尻目
しりめ

TRANSLATION: butt eye
ALTERNATE NAMES: nuppori-bōzu
HABITAT: city streets, late at night
DIET: none; it just enjoys scaring people

APPEARANCE: From a distance, shirime appears to be a normal human being. When close enough, however, it becomes apparent that it is a yokai. It has no facial features, but located in its butt hole is a large eye which shines like lightning.

BEHAVIOR: Shirime approaches travelers on the road late at night, looking like a man wearing a kimono. Once it has their attention, it asks them if they have a moment to spare. Before they can answer, the shirime drops its kimono to the ground and bends over, spreading its butt cheeks and revealing the giant, shining eye located inside of its butt hole.

Other than its very startling behavior, shirime does not do anything harmful. It appears to thrive solely on the joy of scaring people.

ORIGIN: Although there are very few documented encounters, because of its alternate name (nuppori-bōzu) and its shocking behavior, it is very likely that shirime is a close relative of the noppera-bō, another faceless ghost. In this case, shirime’s true form may simply be a shapeshifted animal playing a practical joke on humans.

Shōgorō

Shougorou鉦五郎
しょうごろう

TRANSLATION: “Gong-goro,” or ghost gong, depending on the reading

APPEARANCE: A shōgorō is a kind of tsukumogami, a spirit which inhabits a household item. In this case, it is an animated shōgo (鉦吾) — a small, bowl-shaped gong that is struck with a mallet and used in Buddhist services. A shōgo gets a lot of use, being used multiple times every service. It is made of metal, and so can last a long time before breaking. A gong which has long worn out and stopped playing its note pleasantly, and gets put into storage until it is forgotten (or perhaps one is the witness to some horrible crime) is an ideal candidate for awakening into a yokai.

BEHAVIOR: Like nay tsukumogami, shōgorō are not dangerous. At most, they are startling, as they wander around at night like some kind of metal turtle, striking their bodies and ringing their notes out into the night. It is enough perhaps to cause loss of sleep, but not much else.

ORIGIN: The name shogorō is a pun. It is a combination of shōgo, the gong, and gorō, a very common part of a boy’s name. The word can also be read as a combination of shōgo and goryō (御霊), the ghost of a noble or an aristocrat from ages past. Goryō are a grade of ghost above yūrei, and play a large part in many Japanese ghost stories.

LEGENDS: In the early 18th century, there was a wealthy merchant family called Yodoya living in Osaka. For many generations, the Yodoya were the kings of the rice trade, raking in unbelievable amounts of cash. The 5th generation boss, Yodoya Tatsugorō, had so much money and lived a life of such extreme opulence that he attracted the attention of the bakufu (regional shogunate officials, something like military police).

The bakufu decided that the Yodoya family had accumulated too much wealth. They were only a merchant family, and it was improper for a lower class to hold so much wealth. Their economic power was above their station in life, and so the bakufu stripped Yodoya Tatsugorō of everything he had: his rice, his business, his house, his every last possession. The Yodoya family fell into ruin, and Tatsugorō became destitute. Even his favorite possession, an unbelievably rich and indescribably splendid golden chicken called kogane no niwatori (金の鶏, literally “golden chicken”), was taken from him. The loss of his precious golden chicken caused Tatsugorō so much grief that he died, and because of the unhappy circumstances of his death, his ghost was unable to pass on.

Normally, when a ghost lingers like this, it attaches itself to the object of its desire, be it a person, a place, or (in this case) a thing. Tatsugorō’s soul meant to attach itself to his precious kogane no niwatori. In Japanese, the words for “gong” and “golden” can both be read “kane.” Poor Tatsugorō’s ghost must have gotten confused and attached itself to a nearby shōgo instead of his chicken, and the instrument turn into a tsukumogami.

Teratsutsuki

Teratsutsuki寺つつき
てらつつき

TRANSLATION: temple-pecker
HABITAT: Buddhist temples
DIET: rage

APPEARANCE: Teratsutsuki is the onryō of a man who lived in the 6th century CE, Mononobe no Moriya. It was sighted at Hōryū-ji and Shitennō-ji temples, where it took the form of ghostly woodpecker and tried to destroy the temples until it was driven away by Prince Shōtoku.

LEGENDS: Long long ago, when Japan was still called Yamato and the capital was located in what is today Nara, the nobility was divided into two different types: shinbetsu, clans that claimed to be descended from the gods, and kōbetsu, clans that claimed to be descended from the imperial family. The highest ranking titles in these groups were Muraji, for the shinbetsu clans, and Omi, for the kōbetsu clans. In the 6th century CE, when Buddhism was brought to Yamato from China, it caused a great deal of rivalry between the shinbetsu and kōbetsu nobility.

Mononobe no Moriya was the leader of the Mononobe clan and a Muraji. The Mononobes, a shinbetsu clan, strongly supported the old Shinto religion. His rival, Soga no Umako, was an Omi, and supported the promotion of Buddhism throughout Yamato. Mononobe no Moriya and Soga no Umako held considerable power in the imperial court. During the reign of Emperor Bidatsu (572-585), Mononobe no Moriya held higher favor with the emperor, but when Emperor Yōmei took power in 585, Moriya’s favor fell and Soga no Umako’s rose, as the new emperor was a Buddhist.

Emperor Yōmei died in 587, after which the Mononobe clan and Soga clan tried their best to influence the succession of the imperial title. Each of them supported a different prince to become emperor, and they fought bitterly for their clans’ interests. Finally, war broke out between the two rival clans. Mononobe no Moriya set fire to Buddhist temples and tossed the first statues of the Buddha brought to Yamato into the canals in his fight to purge the foreign religion from his homeland. Moriya and Umako mustered their armies and met on the battlefield in Kawachi. There, at the Battle of Mount Shigi, Mononobe no Moriya was killed by Soga no Umako and Prince Shōtoku, and the Mononobe clan was almost completely exterminated. Afterwards, the Soga clan rose to even higher prominence, and Prince Shōtoku, a devout Buddhist, began the construction many new Buddhist temples.

The spirit of defeated Mononobe no Moriya did not rest, though. As he lay dying in hatred and resent, Moriya transformed into an onryō. His ghost took the form of a ghostly woodpecker, which would later be seen at the temples built by Prince Shōtoku. The bird pecked furiously at the wooden buildings, determined even in death to destroy the heretical new religion. Prince Shōtoku was finally able to drive away this teratsutsuki by magically transforming into a hawk and attacking it. After that, the ghost of Mononobe no Moriya was never seen again.

Tenome

Tenome手の目
てのめ

TRANSLATION: eyes on hands
HABITAT: open fields and gravyards at night
DIET: human bones, fresh from the body

APPEARANCE: Tenome takes the appearance of an elderly zato, a kind of blind guildsman. Its face has no eyes at all; instead, it has eyes on the palms of its hands.

BEHAVIOR: Tenome wander through open fields or graveyards at night, hunting for tasty humans. They wait until their prey is very close before attacking. By the time one is able to recognize that they are face-to-face with not a zato but a yokai, it is often too late to escape. Tenome can run very quickly, and while their vision is not particularly strong, they have a powerful sense of smell which helps them follow their victims in the dark.

ORIGIN: Tenome’s true nature is not known, but they are most likely the ghosts of blind men who were robbed and murdered by thugs. This explanation can be traced to a folk tale, in which a man is attacked at night by a monster with eyes on its palms but none on its face. The man flees to a nearby inn for shelter. He tells the innkeeper what he saw, and the innkeeper replies that a few days ago, a blind man was attacked and robbed out in that field. As the man lay dying in the grass, he cried out with his last breath, “If only I could have had once glace at their faces! If I only had eyes that worked — even if only on the palms of my hands…!” The old blind man’s resent-filled death caused him to be reborn as a yokai — with eyes on the palms of its hands, just as he wished.

LEGENDS: In Shichi-jo, Kyoto, a young man entered the graveyard at night as a test of his courage. From out of the darkness, a blind old man approached the young man. When the elderly figure got close enough to be seen in detail, the young man saw that it had eyeballs on the palms of his hands, and it was coming after him!

The young man ran as fast as he could to a nearby temple and begged the priest for sanctuary. The priest hid the man inside of a long chest and locked the lid. Shortly afterwards, the monster entered the temple, sniffing loudly as if it was hunting. The young man could hear he sniffing noise getting closer and closer, until it stopped right next to the chest he was hiding in. Then, there was a strange slurping sound, like the sound of a dog sucking on an animal’s bones. A little while later, the eerie sounds vanished, and all was quiet. The priest opened up the chest to let the young man out, but all that was inside of the chest was the loose, empty skin of the young man. His bones had been completely sucked out of his body!

Tsurubebi

Tsurubebi釣瓶火
つるべび

TRANSLATION: well bucket fire
ALTERNATE NAMES: tsurube otoshi, tsurube oroshi
HABITAT: coniferous trees deep in the forests of Shikoku and Kyushu
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Tsurubebi are small tree spirits which appear at night, deep in coniferous forests. They take the form of blueish-white orbs of fire which bob up and down in the branches, occasionally dropping to the forest floor and floating back up into the trees. Their name comes from the way they bob about in the trees, which is supposed to resemble a well bucket swinging back and forth. Sometimes the vague shape of a human or bestial face can be seen in the flames.

BEHAVIOR: Tsurubebi do very little other than bob up and down or drop from branches. Their flames produce no heat and do not burn the trees that they live in; nor do these yokai pose any other known threat. While tsurubebi is most often considered to be a tree spirit, it has also been suggested that it is closely related to another yokai named tsurube otoshi. These two yokai share many similarities, including their names, coniferous habitat, and dropping-down behavior. However, while tsurube otoshi is malevolent and dangerous, tsurubebi appears to be entirely benign and uninterested in humans.

Tesso

Tesso鉄鼠
てっそ

TRANSLATION: iron rat

LEGENDS: Long ago, during the reign of Emperor Shirakawa (1073-1087 CE), there lived a monk named Raigō. Raigō was the abbot of Mii-dera, a monastery in Shiga prefecture at the foot of Mount Hiei, and well known for his piety.

The Emperor, having no heir, was concerned about his line of succession. One day, he approached Raigō and asked him to pray to the gods and Buddha in his place for an heir. Raigō prayed long and hard, and finally in 1074 a royal son, Prince Taruhito, was born. The grateful Emperor promised to give the abbot anything he wished in return for his prayers. Raigō asked that a splendid new ordination building be constructed at Mii-dera so he could train new priests. The Emperor gladly agreed, however Mii-dera had a powerful rival temple — Enryaku-ji, on top of Mt. Hiei — which wielded great political power as well as having a powerful army of warrior monks at its disposal. Enryaku-ji could not abide such a gift being granted to a rival temple, and so it exerted its great pressure on the Emperor. Bowing to Enryaku-ji, the Emperor reneged on his promise to Raigō.

Raigō began a hunger strike in protest of the Emperor’s broken promise, but the Emperor would not, or could not, go against Enryaku-ji’s will. On the 100th day of his hunger strike, Raigō passed away, his heart full of rage towards the unfaithful Emperor and the rival monastery of Enryaku-ji. So great was the hatred in Raigō’s heart when he died that he transformed into an onryō, a ghost driven by pure vengeance. Shortly after Raigō’s death, a ghostly vision of the abbot was seen hovering near young Prince Taruhito’s bed. A few days later the young prince died, leaving the Emperor heir-less once again. But Raigo’s vengeance did not end there.

Raigō’s twisted spirit transformed into a gigantic rat. Its body was as hard as stone and its teeth and claws as strong as iron. The monstrous spirit, Tesso as it came to be called, summoned a massive army of rats which poured through Kyoto, up Mt. Hiei, and arrived at Enryaku-ji. There, the rat wreaked Raigō’s vengeance upon the monks. The army of rats poured through the monastery complex, chewing through the walls and doors, tearing up the roofs and floors, and attacking the monks. They devoured Enryaku-ji’s precious sutras, scrolls, and books, eating and despoiling everything they found — they even ate the precious statues of the Buddha.

Nothing could stop Tesso and the army of rats until finally a shrine was built at Mii-dera to appease Raigō’s spirit, and Raigō’s shrine still stands at Mii-dera today. An interesting footnote to the story: while Buddhist buildings are typically built facing the east, Raigo’s shrine is built facing the north. It points to the top of Mt. Hiei, directy at Enryaku-ji, the target of his rage.

Yamajijii

Yamajijii山爺
やまじじい

TRANSLATION: mountain geezer
ALTERNATE NAMES: yamanji, yamachichi (“mountain father”)
HABITAT: deep in the mountains of Shikoku
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Yamajijii look like eldery men about 3-4 feet tall, with only one leg and one eye. In actuality, they have two eyes, but one of them is so huge and the other so tiny that they appear to have only one eye. Their bodies are covered in fine gray hair, and they can be found wearing old clothes, tattered rags, or nothing at all. Their teeth are sharp and very powerful — a yamajijii’s bite is said to be strong enough to crush the bones of wild boars or monkeys.

BEHAVIOR: Yamajijii live in the mountains far from human settlements. They rarely appear before humans, but their tracks are easily recognizable. They leave deep, sunken footprints about 12 inches long every 6 to 7 feet (from their hopping about on one leg). Because their bite is so strong, hunters would sometimes tame yamajijii and use them to drive away wolves. They also have the uncanny ability to read peoples’ thoughts as they think of them. They are most well known, however, for their powerful voices. The cry of a yamajijii is so powerful it blows the leaves off of branches, splits trees and moves rocks, reverberates through the mountains, and shakes the heavens and the earth. They enjoy shouting contests, and will occasionally allow a human to challenge them; however, humans who are close to a yamajijii when it shouts sometimes have their eardrums burst, or even die.

LEGENDS: A legend from Shikoku tells of a brave hunter who challenged a yamajijii to a shouting contest. On the hunter’s turn, he fired his rifle when he shouted, winning the contest. Later, the yamajijii realized he had been tricked, shape-shifted into a spider, and sneaked into the hunter’s bed to attack him in his sleep. In some versions of the tale, the clever hunter prepares for the shouting contest by praying to the gods of Ise and crafting a special holy bullet inscribed with their names. This bullet had a very special power: when fired it would never miss its target. Because of its magic, whenever the hunter carried it with him it would invariably attract the attention of yokai; however, any time a yamajijii came near enough to threaten him, the hunter would display the bullet, and the yamajijii would flee in terror.

A tale from Tokushima tells of a group of woodcutters warming themselves by a fire in a cabin when yamajijii suddenly appeared to them. The woodcutters were terrified and all thought of the same idea: kill the yokai! The yamajijii read each one of their minds one by one and learned of their thoughts, when suddenly one of the logs in the fire split with a loud snap! The yamajijii thought that there must be a mind he could not read among the hunters, and he quickly fled the cabin in terror.

A story from Kochi tells of a kind yamajijii who gave a sorghum seed to a poor farmer as a gift. The farmer sowed the seed and that year was blessed with an incredible harvest. That winter, the yamajijii returned and asked for some mochi to eat. The grateful farmer gladly gave the yamajijii as much mochi as it could eat. The next year another great harvest followed, and again the yamajijii came back in the winter to ask for mochi. Each year, the yamajijii was able to eat more and more mochi, until it was able to eat 3 huge barrels-full. The farmer became afraid of losing his fortune, and gave the yamajijii a pile of burned stones, passing them off as yaki-mochi. The yamajijii ate them, but soon began to feel sick and hot. The farmer offered a cup of hot oil, passing it off as tea, but the yamajijii realized the farmer’s trick. Surprised and hurt, it fled into the woods, but died before it could get back to its home. Afterwards, the farmer’s family fell into ruin and was never rich again.

Hashihime

Hashihime橋姫
はしひめ

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.

Sōgenbi

Sougenbi叢原火 or 宗源火
そうげんび

TRANSLATION: Sōgen’s fire
HABITAT: spotted at Mibu-dera in Kyoto
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Sōgenbi is a type of hi no tama, or fireball yokai. It appears as the anguished head of an old monk, covered in flame, and flying about the sky.

LEGENDS: Long ago, at the temple of Mibu-dera in southern Kyoto there lived a monk named Sōgen. Sōgen was a wicked monk, for he would steal money out of the temple’s saisen bako, a large wooden box which holds offerings. He also made off with precious oil, which was to be used as an offering for the gods, and sold it in secret, keeping the money for himself. This went on for many years, until eventually Sōgen grew old and died. Because of his wickedness, he was reborn in hell to pay for his sins. Shortly after his death, it was said that the flaming head of old Sōgen could be seen floating about in the vicinity of Mibu-dera.

Tōfu kozō

Toufukozou豆腐小僧
とうふこぞう

TRANSLATION: little tofu boy
HABITAT: urban areas
DIET: omnivorous; loves tofu

APPEARANCE: Tōfu kozō are small yokai who closely resemble human children except for their large heads and clawed fingers and toes. They wear little boys’ kimonos and wide-brimmed hats — the typical outfit of a tōfu-selling young boy of the Edo period. They are usually depicted with two eyes, but in some illustrations they appear as having only one eye. They are usually found in urban areas in close proximity to people.

BEHAVIOR: Tōfu kozō are timid and weak yokai, and are not known to be aggressive towards humans. On rare occasions, a tōfu kozō may follow a human home on a rainy night, but for the most part they shy away from any confrontation.

INTERACTIONS: Tōfu kozō are first and foremost servant yokai. Even among other yokai, they are often bullied and teased for their lack of strength. They get no respect from those above them; at most, they act as menial servants to more powerful yokai.

ORIGIN: Prior to the Edo period there are no known stories about tōfu kozō, and so their origin is a mystery. Some say that they are just one of many forms taken by an itachi, a shape-shifting weasel yokai. Others say that they are the offspring of a mikoshi-nyūdō and a rokuro-kubi. Another possibility is that they are an invention of a creative artist looking to sell illustrated storybooks. Stories of tōfu kozō first appeared in the penny-novels and pulp fiction of Edo in the 1770’s, and became incredibly popular among the Edo upper class. These silly stories helped to spawn the explosion of yokai-related fiction that appeared in the later half of the 18th century.

Tōfu kozō bears a very strong resemblance to another yokai called hitotsume kozō — the chief difference being that hitotsume kozō has only one eye and a very large tongue, while tōfu kozō has two eyes and carries a plate of tofu. Both of these yokai are somewhat weak, child-like creatures who act as messengers to more powerful monsters. In some literature the two yokai are used interchangeably for each other, therefore it has been suggested that tōfu kozō may be closely related to, or may even have been copied from hitotsume kozō. However, there is not enough evidence either way to say where this yokai comes from.