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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.

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.

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.

Waira

Wairaわいら

TRANSLATION: a regional corruption of kowai, meaning “scary”
HABITAT: forests, mountains, shrines, and temples
DIET: small animals and wicked people

APPEARANCE: The waira is a rare and reclusive yokai, of which very few have ever been encountered. It is an ugly beast with a large body similar to that of a cow, bearing a single sharp claw on each of its four long limbs. According to the few accounts that exist, males of the species are mottled in earthy brown colors, while females are red.

BEHAVIOR: Waira live deep in the mountains, near heavily wooded temples and shrines. They are usually found near otoroshi, and are believed to guard temples and shrines in a similar manner. They uses their tough claws to dig up and catch small animals, such as moles, mice, and rabbits.

ORIGIN: From the colorings and environments where they are found, it is believed that waira are transformed yokai, born from the common toad after it reaches an advanced age. It has also been speculated that the waira is closely related to the otoroshi, as they share the same habitat and are occasionally seen together.

The waira’s name, as with the otoroshi’s, is a subject of some confusion. However, the most commonly accepted theory is that it is a corruption of a variant of the word kowai, meaning “scary.” This further supports the contention that the waira and the otoroshi may be somehow related.

Nukekubi

Nukekubi抜け首
ぬけくび

TRANSLATION: removable neck
ALTERNATE NAMES: frequently referred to as rokurokubi
HABITAT: occurs in ordinary women
DIET: regular food by day, blood by night

APPEARANCE: This variant type of rokurokubi, known as the nukekubi, is similar in most respects to the first type, except that the head detaches itself completely from the body rather than stretching out on an elongated neck.

BEHAVIOR: Nukekubi are often much more violent than rokurokubi. Because their heads are detached, they can travel farther distances than the rokurokubi’s head can. Additionally they often possess a thirst for blood. The flying head usually sucks the blood of its victims like a vampire, but occasionally brutally bites humans and animals to death.

ORIGIN: Uncured, this curse has the potential to tear a family apart, particularly due to the more violent nature of this variant. A diagnosis reveals that nukekubi suffer from an infliction similar to somnambulism; only instead of walking about at night, the patient’s entire soul and head depart from the body. Treatments for the curse of the rokurokubi and nukekubi have been long sought after, particularly because these women can often pass their curse on to their daughters, who begin to shows signs of it as they mature. Girls afflicted with this curse were usually sold off to live in brothels or human circuses, or else forced submit to an honorable death by suicide to preserve their families’ honor.

LEGENDS: A famous account from Echizen tells of a young woman afflicted with the curse of the nukekubi. Her head flew about the capital city at night, chasing young men through the street and all the way back to their houses. Locked out, the head would scratch and bite their doors and gates during the night, leaving deep gashes in the wood. When the young girl eventually discovered her curse, she was so ashamed that she asked her husband to divorce her. She ritually cut off all of her hair in repentance for her curse, and then committed suicide, believing it was better to die than to live the rest of her life as a monster.

According to lore from Hitachi, a man married to a nukekubi heard from a peddler that the liver of a white-haired dog can remove the curse. He killed his dog and fed its liver to his wife, and sure enough she was cured of the affliction. However, her curse had been passed on to her daughter, whose flying head took to biting white dogs to death. Other accounts claim that by removing the sleeping body to a safe place during the night, the head will not be able return, and will eventually die – however this is not a cure that most families are happy to try.

Aosagibi

Aosagibi青鷺火
あおさぎび

TRANSLATION: blue heron fire
ALTERNATE NAMES: goi no hikari (night heron light)
HABITAT: rivers, wetlands; wherever herons and other waterbirds can be found

APPEARANCE: Many birds transform into magical yokai with eerie powers when they reach an advanced age. Aosagibi is the name for a bizarre phenomenon caused by transformed herons – particularly the black-crowned night heron. Other herons and wild birds, such as ducks and pheasants, are able to develop this ability as well, though it is most commonly attributed to the nocturnal night heron. This heron is found all along the islands and coasts, preferring remote areas with heavy reeds and thick woods. Aosagibi is most commonly seen at night in the trees where the herons roost, by the rivers where they hunt, or as the birds fly in the twilight sky.

BEHAVIOR: Long-lived herons begin to develop shining scales on their breasts, which are fused together from their feathers. They begin blow a yellow iridescent powder from their beaks with each breath, which scatters into the wind. During the fall, their bodies begin to radiate a bluish-white glow at night. Their powdery breath ignites into bright blue fireballs, which they blow across the water or high in the trees. These fireballs possess no heat and do not ignite anything else, eventually evaporating in the wind.

INTERACTIONS: Like most wild birds, night herons are very shy and usually flee from humans. Even after transforming into yokai, they retain their shyness. While the sight of a colony of wild birds breathing blue flames and making strange calls on a cool autumn night can be rather disconcerting, aosagibi does not post any threat to humans. However, because it appears very similar to other fireball-like phenomena, caution should be taken to avoid confusing aosagibi with oni-bi or other supernatural lights.