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Shukaku

Shukaku守鶴
しゅかく

APPEARANCE: Shukaku was a tanuki who lived in disguise as a human priest. He worked at Morinji, a Buddhist temple in Gunma Prefecture for many decades. Shukaku is best known for his miraculous tea kettle, known as the bunbuku chagama, which he left to the Morinji as a gift.

ORIGIN: Shukaku’s story has been told by Morinji for centuries, but different versions and variations have sprung up over the years. Its popularity spread during the Edo period thanks to a booming publishing industry, and it became well known across Japan. Although Shukaku is associated with Morinji, the structure of his story—a magical animal presenting a wonderful gift to humankind—is a recurring motif throughout Japanese folklore.

LEGENDS: Morinji was founded in 1426 by a priest named Dairin Shōtsū. While he was traveling through various countries on pilgrimage, he befriended a priest named Shukaku, and they traveled together. After Morinji was built, Shukaku stayed on to act as a head priest there for many years.

In 1570, an important religious gathering was held at Morinji. Priests from all over the country traveled to Morinji. When it came time to serve tea, the priests realized that they did not have enough kettles to serve such a large gathering. Shukaku—still serving the temple 144 years after his arrival—brought his favorite tea kettle to help serve the priests.

This tea kettle was a miraculous object, for no matter how many times you dunked a ladle in it, it was always brimming with enough hot water to make tea. It also stayed hot for many days after heating it! The kettle was given the name “bunbuku chagama”—chagama being the word for tea kettle, and bunbuku meaning “to spread luck.” The name was a pun as well: the sound of boiling water is bukubuku, which sounds very much like bunbuku. Thanks to Shukaku’s marvelous tea kettle, the gathering was a great success. The bunbuku chagama continued to be used by the temple for many years. Shukaku, as well, continued to work at Morinji for many years after that.

According to Morinji’s records, On February 28, 1587, a monk walked in on Shukaku while he was taking a nap. The monk noticed that Shukaku had a tanuki’s tail! Thus, Shukaku’s great secret was uncovered: he was not a human priest, but a tanuki in disguise. He had been living among humans for thousands of years. Long ago he had traveled through India and China. Eventually he met Dairin Shōtsū, who befriended him and brought him to Morinji, where he used his magic to serve the temple as best as he could. After his secret was uncovered, Shukaku decided it was time to leave Morinji. To apologize for the great shock he had caused Morinji, he gave them a parting gift: he used his magic to present the story of the Battle of Yashima, one of the final clashes of the Genpei War. To show their gratitude for all that he had done, the priests built a shrine to Shukaku, where he is still worshipped as a local deity. And the bunbuku chagama, which Shukaku left behind, is on display in his shrine at Morinji.

Tenjōname

Tenjouname天井嘗
てんじょうなめ

TRANSLATION: ceiling licker
HABITAT: cold, dark homes with tall ceilings
DIET: dirt, dust, and ceiling grime

APPEARANCE: Tenjōname is a tall yōkai with a very long tongue. It appears in houses with tall ceilings, particularly in the cold months when light cannot reach all the way to ceiling and casts weird shadows into the rafters. It’s body is covered with strips of paper which resemble a matoi—the paper flags carried by Edo period firemen.

BEHAVIOR: Tenjōname is named for its primary activity: licking ceilings. The older a house gets, the more dust and grime collects in hard-to-clean places such as the ceiling. This attracts tenjōname, who lick the dirty ceilings to feed on the filth. The telltale sign that a tenjōname has been licking a ceiling is the appearance of dark stains and splotches on ceilings, walls, and support pillars.

ORIGIN: Tenjōname first appears in Toriyama Sekien’s Hyakki tsurezure bukuro, although its appearance seems to be inspired by older yōkai scrolls. Like many of the entries in that book, it appears to be a pun based on one of the essays in Yoshida Kenkō’s Tsurezure gusa. Essay number fifty five gives advice on building a house, and states that too high a ceiling would make winters feel too cold and lamplight seem to dark. Toriyama Sekien references this essay in his description of tenjōname. Although it is not specifically stated, based on its appearance and the fact that most of the yōkai in Hyakki tsurezure bukuro are tsukumogami, it is likely that tenjōname is a transformed matoi.

LEGENDS: Since tenjōname was created in the 18th century, older folktales about it do not exist. However, since then a number of stories have been invented. One such story claims that a samurai from Tatebayashi Castle (the ruins of which are in present-day Gunma Prefecture) captured a tenjōname and used it to clean all the spiderwebs and grime from the ceilings of the castle. More recent legends claim that the stains left by tenjōname take the form of hideous human faces. Staring too long at these stains—particularly when they appear above your bed—can lead to madness and even death.

Shumoku musume

Shumoku musume撞木娘
しゅもくむすめ

TRANSLATION: hammer girl
HABITAT: mountain passes
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Shumoku musume has a head which resembles that of a hammerhead shark or a snail. She has large eyes which extend out from the sides of her head. She wears a furisode kimono, usually worn by young, unmarried women.

ORIGIN: Shumoku musume is not a major yōkai, yet her image is fairly well known. This is because she was included in obake karuta, a yōkai-themed version of the popular card matching game karuta. Although no story accompanies her in obake karuta, her card says that she appears on the Usui Pass, which separates Gunma and Nagano Prefectures.

The word shumoku refers to the wooden hammers used to strike temple bells. It is not clear if shumoku musume is a tsukumogami of a bell hammer, or if her name merely refers to the fact that her head resembles a wooden hammer’s head.

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.

Azuki babā

Azukibabaa小豆婆
あずきばばあ

TRANSLATION: the bean hag
ALTERNATE NAMES: azukitogi babā (the bean grinding hag)
HABITAT: forests and occasionally villages in Northeast Japan
DIET: humans

APPEARANCE: The people of Miyagi prefecture tell of a much more sinister member of the azuki family of yokai. Rather than the benign and cute azuki arai known throughout most of the country, this northeastern variation takes the form of a fearsome old hag dressed all in white, singing in a husky, ugly voice. Azuki babā only appears at twilight – particularly on rainy or misty autumn nights. Their song is similar to the azuki arai’s, except that azuki babā usually follow through on the threat to catch and eat humans.

BEHAVIOR: Witnesses of azuki babā who have survived to tell their experience describe and eerie white glow visible through the thick white mist. From the mist, the husky voice of an old hag can be heard singing her ghastly song and counting beans as she washes them in the river with a strainer. Those who don’t turn back at this point never make it back.

INTERACTIONS: Despite their ferociousness, azuki babā are much more rare than their harmless bean-washing counterparts, and are usually just used as stories to scare children into behaving properly. Of all the variations of azuki-related yokai, this one is the most likely to actually be a shapeshifted an evil itachi, tanuki, or kitsune, imitating the harmless azuki arai in order to attract a curious child to catch and eat.