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.
TRANSLATION: eel princess
ALTERNATE NAMES: ōunagi
HABITAT: lakes and deep ponds, especially in Miyagi Prefecture
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.
TRANSLATION: river otter
HABITAT: rivers, wetlands, freshwater bodies
DIET: carnivorous; feeds on fish and small animals, with a fondness for sake
APPEARANCE: River otters can be found in the wilds all over Japan. They are under a meter in total length, and well-loved for their shy, playful nature and cute faces.
BEHAVIOR: As with most wild animals in Japan, kawauso develop magical powers upon reaching old age. They are particularly skilled at shape-changing and accurately copying sounds. They love alcohol, and are usually only seen in human areas when trying to acquire sake. They are playful yokai, well known for tricks and mischief, but very rarely dangerous.
INTERACTIONS: Kawauso are fond of playing pranks on humans, especially by mimicking sounds and words. They enjoy calling out human names or random words at strangers walking in the street and watching their confused reactions. They are fond of magically snuffing out lanterns in the night and leaving travelers stranded in the dark. Others transform into beautiful young women and try to seduce young men, and then run away laughing.
Occasionally kawauso do commit more violent deeds. In a few instances near castles in Ishikawa, a kawauso dressed up as beautiful young woman was found luring men to the water’s edge in order to catch and eat them, discarding the half-eaten bodies into the moat.
OTHER FORMS: A Kawauso’s favorite disguise is the form of a young beggar child wearing a big straw hat. They use this child form to sneak into towns and try to buy alcohol from shops. The ruse often falls apart when the disguised creature is asked who it is, or where it came from. Caught off-guard, it simply repeats the last word spoken to it, or makes funny nonsensical noises, ruining its disguise and giving away its supernatural nature.
TRANSLATION: the bean hag
ALTERNATE NAMES: azukitogi babā (the bean grinding hag)
HABITAT: forests and occasionally villages in Northeast Japan
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.