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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.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




TRANSLATION: blood clot
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.



TRANSLATION: literally “maple leaves;” used as a name

ORIGIN: The tale of Princess Sarashina/Momiji is famous in Japanese theater. The noh play Momijigari (“Hunting Momiji” or “Fall-Leaf Hunting”) first appeared hundreds of years ago, during the Muromachi period. During the Meiji period it was remade as a kabuki play. Momijigari was made into a film in 1899, becoming the first narrative film in Japan. It was designated an Important Culture Property in 2009.

LEGENDS: Long ago a powerful witch named Momiji lived in the mountains of Nagano prefecture. Her story takes place during the season of fall-leaf-viewing, when groups of people would gather in the mountains for festivals and parties under the falling red, orange, and gold leaves.

During this time, a samurai named Taira no Koremochi was charged by a local Hachiman shrine with hunting oni. His hunt had taken him to Togakushi mountain, where a particularly nasty kijo was said to live.

Koremochi and his retainers climbed the beautiful mountain, and they came upon a small group of aristocrats having a leaf-viewing party. Koremochi sent one of his retainer ahead to investigate. The retainer approached to inquire about the party, and was told that a noble princess was hosting it; however the ladies in waiting would not tell him the princess’ name. Just as Koremochi and his retainers decided to continue on their mission, one of the ladies-in-waiting approached and told them that her mistress had heard of Koremochi before, and she wanted to invite them to her party. Despite his mission Koremochi could not rudely turn down a princess, so he and his companions agreed.

At the party, the warriors were introduced to Princess Sarashina, an extremely beautiful young woman. They all sat and enjoyed watching the leaves, drinking sake, and dancing. Koremochi asked the princess if she would dance for him, and she did. Soon the men became drunk and sleepy, and dozed off under the beautiful trees.

As he slept, Koremochi dreamed of Hachiman and his mission. The god told him that Princess Sarashina was actually the kijo Momiji in disguise, and that he must kill her with the holy katana, Kogarasumaru (“Little Crow”). When Koremochi woke up, the sword he dreamed of was in his hand — a gift from Hachiman — and he knew that what he dreamed had been real. He chased after the women, and all of a sudden a huge firestorm broke out. Flame and wind lit up the mountain. Suddenly a ten foot tall kijo with horns made of burning trees appeared, and an intense battle between the samurai and the demoness took place. In the end, thanks to his magical sword, Koremochi was successful, and slew the Witch of Togakushi Mountain.



TRANSLATION: ogress, demoness
HABITAT: Hell; remote mountains, caves, islands, secluded huts
DIET: omnivorous; anything and anybody, particularly travelers

APPEARANCE: Kijo are female demons. They resemble human women in most ways, although they are usually hideously ugly to behold. Most kijo were, in fact, once human women, but hatred, or jealously, a curse, or a wicked crime corrupted their souls their bodies into monstrous forms. Some have red or yellow eyes, blue skin, sharp horns, long claws, or other supernatural features. Usually they dress in rags and wear their hair long and unkempt, living like savages far from civilization.

BEHAVIOR: Kijo refers chiefly to women who have been transformed from humans into horrible monsters – either out of intense jealousy, wicked crimes committed, or a terrible grudge that twists the soul into pure hatred. These transformed women retreat from common society into more secluded places where they continue to perpetrate their wicked deeds. They can be found living in remote mountain caves, abandoned houses, or along mountain roads where they can receive a steady supply of victims. Kijo are stronger than most humans, though their strength pales in comparison to oni. Where these demonesses excel is in magic. They accumulate powerful spells over their long lives, and are capable of bestowing hexes and curses, the ability to brew poisons and potions, and the weaving powerful illusions. Some kijo dedicate themselves to personal vengeance or some political goal, but just as often they keep to themselves and go unnoticed by humankind for centuries.

INTERACTIONS: Like oni, kijo are the stuff of Japanese legends. Innumerable fairy tales, bedtime stories, kabuki plays, films, and so on have been created to entertain, to caution, and to preach morality. Women who do bad things might turn into kijo, and men who go after unscrupulous women might be heading to their deaths unknowingly.

ORIGIN: Kijo is a very broad term that in its most general sense encompasses any female demon, just as the term oni can technically refer to any male demon. Indeed, the name kijo is formed simply by combining the two kanji for “oni” and “woman.” Though their name might suggest that kijo are the female counterparts to the male oni, there is nothing substantial to support this. While tales point to oni working either as tormentors of the damned or as menaces to human society in the living world, kijo do not seem to have any connection to Hell or the afterlife; kijo generally work solo and have their own motives. Further, kijo and oni are not commonly seen together, and little to nothing is known about how either creature reproduces (or if they even do). Rather, it is likely that kijo are entirely separate creatures from oni, other than the fact that both are commonly born from a corrupted human soul.

Kama itachi


TRANSLATION: sickle weasel
HABITAT: primarily the Japan Alps, but potentially anywhere that weasels are found
DIET: carnivorous; feeds on small wild animals

APPEARANCE: The mountainous regions of Yamanashi, Nagano, and Niigata are known for a particularly dangerous kind of itachi. In these areas, grandparents warn their grandchildren to beware of kama itachi, or “sickle weasels.” These itachi have learned to ride the swirling whirlwinds of this cold region. They have claws that are as strong as steel and as sharp as razors. Their fur is spiny like a hedgehog, and they bark like a dog. They move so quickly that they are invisible to the naked eye, and they come and go with the wind.

INTERACTIONS: Kama itachi travel and attack in threes, striking out at people from thin air. The first kama itachi slices at its victim’s legs, knocking him to the ground. The second one uses its fore and hind legs to slice up the prone victim with thousands of dreadful cuts. The third one then applies a magical salve which heals up the majority of the wounds instantly, so that none of them proves fatal. It is said that the Kama itachi strikes with such precision that it can carve out entire chunks of flesh from its victims without causing even a drop of blood to be spilled. The attack and the healing happen so fast that the victim cannot perceive them; from his perspective he merely trips and gets up with a bit of pain and a few scratches here and there.

ORIGIN: One theory about the kama itachi’s origin is that it is only a joke: a play on words based on a sword fighting stance known as kamae tachi. However, legends of invisible beasts that ride the wind and attack humans in a similar manner are found in all regions of Japan, and the sickle weasel remains a popular explanation for these incidents throughout the country.