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Jinja hime

Jinjahime神社姫
じんじゃひめ

TRANSLATION: shrine princess
HABITAT: deep lakes and oceans
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: A jinja hime is a serpentine creature roughly six meters long. It has two horns on its head, a long tail, a dorsal fin, and flippers. Its face is that of a human woman. It resembles a ningyo, the Japanese mermaid.

BEHAVIOR: Jinja hime spend most of their lives underwater, and as a result rarely interact with humans. They are the servants of Ryūgū, the palace of the sea dragon king.

ORIGIN: Jinja hime was first sighted in Hizen Province (present-day Saga and Nagasaki Prefectures) in 1819 by the Edo period scholar Katō Ebian. He recorded the encounter in his book Waga koromo. According to Katō, he encountered a fish-like creature on a beach in Hizen. The creature spoke to him: “I am a messenger from Ryūgū, called jinja hime. For the next seven years there will be a bumper crop. After that, there will be an epidemic of cholera. However, those who see my picture will be able to avoid hardship, and instead will have long life.” After delivering her prophecy, the jinja hime disappeared into the sea. Katō printed an illustration of the jinja hime in Waga koromo so that all could see it and be protected.

The news of the jinja hime and her prognostication became so popular that it spawned numerous copycat stories across Japan. Not long after the sighting of jinja hime, stories about other yokai with foresight, such as kudan and amabie, began popping up all over Japan. Jinja hime is thought to be the basis for all of these stories.

The giant oarfish strongly resembles the size and description of jinja hime. Its name in Japanese is ryūgū no tsukai, which means “servant of Ryūgū.”

Daidarabotchi

Daidarabotchi大太郎法師
だいだらぼっち

TRANSLATION: giant priest
ALTERNATE NAMES: daidarabō, daidabō, daidara hōshi, daitarōbō, deidarabotchi, dairanbō, dendenbome, reirabotchi, ōki bochabocha
HABITAT: mountains all over Japan
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Daidarabotchi are colossal humanoids which resemble bald-headed priests. They have big, rolling eyes, long, lolling tongues, and pitch black skin. They share a lot of similarities with other giants, like ōnyūdō and umi bōzu, but they are by far the largest giants found in yōkai folklore.

BEHAVIOR: Daidarabotchi are so large that their movements shape the world. They build mountains by piling up rocks and dirt. They even pick up and move mountains to other places. When they walk, they leave lakes and valleys behind in their footprints. Because of this, many places across Japan are believed to have been made by daidarabotchi. Some are even named after them.

ORIGIN: Because daidarabotchi legends are found all over Japan, they have countless local name variations.

LEGENDS: Mount Fuji is sometimes said to have been made by a daidarabotchi. The giant scooped and dug up all of the dirt in Kai Province (Yamanashi Prefecture) to make the mountain, and that is why the area around Mount Fuji is a large basin. He gathered more dirt for the mountain by digging in Omi Province (Shiga Prefecture), and the area he dug became Lake Biwa.

The towns of Daita in Setagaya ward of Tōkyō and Daitakubo in Saitama are named after daidarabotchi. These towns are said to have been created by daidarabotchi.

Daizahōshi Pond in Nagano Prefecture is named after a daidarabotchi, and is believed to have been created by one. Senba Lake in Ibaraki Prefecture is also said to fill the footprint of a particularly large daidarabotchi.

The Takabocchi Plateau in Nagano’s Yatsugatake quasi-national park is said to have been formed when a daidarabotchi lay down to rest his back for a bit.

Ōmukade

Oomukade大百足
おおむかで

TRANSLATION: giant centipede
HABITAT: mountains and caves; any dark and humid place big enough to hold it
DIET: carnivorous
CRITICAL WEAKNESS: human saliva

APPEARANCE: Ōmukade are monstrous mukade–centipedes (Scolopendra subspinipes) with dark bodies and bright orange legs and heads. They are often depicted with dragon-like features. While their non-monstrous cousins can grow up to 20 cm in length, the upper size limit on yōkai mukade is not known.

BEHAVIOR: Like their smaller relatives, ōmukade are vicious and highly aggressive. The bite of a regular mukade is venomous and very painful, but rarely fatal. Ōmukade, on the other hand, are much more venomous and very strong. They have even been known to torment dragons.

An ōmukade’s exoskeleton is so tough that it can’t be pierced by weapons. They do have one weakness though: human saliva is toxic to them. A weapon coated in saliva may be able to pierce through its armor and wound it.

INTERACTIONS: Ōmukade are extremely rare. When they are seen, they pose a threat to all in the area. Throughout history, the responsibility of exterminating these monsters has fallen on the shoulders of brave warriors.

LEGENDS: There is a famous bridge in Shiga Prefecture known as Seta no Karahashi. Long ago, a great serpent appeared on the bridge and would not move. The villagers were too afraid to approach the serpent, and so they could not cross.

One day, the brave warrior Fujiwara no Hidesato came to the bridge. He was not afraid of the serpent, and he crossed the bridge, crunching its great body under his feet. The serpent slithered back into the lake, and the bridge was clear again.

That night, a beautiful woman visited Hidesato. She introduced herself as the daughter of the dragon king of Like Biwa. The dragon king had sent her to Hidesato to ask for his help. Her family was being tormented by an ōmukade who lived on Mount Mikami. She knew that Hidesato must be a brave warrior, because he had so fearlessly trampled her body. Hidesato agreed to help the dragon king. He took up his sword and his bow and headed to the mountains.

Upon reaching Mount Mikami, Hidesato saw an enormous centipede coiled around its top. Its was so long that its body wrapped around the mountain seven and a half times. He fired his arrows at it until only one arrow remained, but he was unable to pierce the beast’s armor. Hidesato coated the tip of the arrow in his saliva, and said a prayer to Hachiman, the god of warriors. This time his arrow struck true, and he brought down the ōmukade.

The dragon king’s daughter was so grateful to Fujiwara no Hidesato that she gave him marvelous gifts: a bag of rice which never became empty no matter how much rice was taken from it; a roll of silk which never ran out no matter how much was cut from it; a cooking pot which always produced the most delicious food without the need for fire; and a large temple bell, which Hidesato donated to Mii-dera. The grateful dragon king also told Hidesato the secret to defeating Taira no Masakado, the rebel whom Hidesato had been charged with bringing down.

Yasha

Yasha夜叉
やしゃ

TRANSLATION: yaksha; demon gods from Buddhist cosmology
HABITAT: rivers, forests, and mountains
DIET: omnivorous; occasionally man-eating

APPEARANCE: Yasha are a race of powerful, high ranking nature spirits which appear in Buddhist cosmology. They are a type of kijin, or demon god–both worshiped as benevolent gods and feared as wrathful demons. They are fearsome warriors, and serve as guardians of the treasures of the earth. They have varied forms, but generally are humanoid in appearance, with brightly colored skin, spiked hair, sharp teeth, and fierce eyes. They are usually depicted carrying weapons and wearing ornate armor.

BEHAVIOR: Yasha are one of the members of the the Eight Legions–eight supernatural races who listened to the sermons of Shaka Nyōrai and converted to Buddhism. Along with the ten, tatsu, kendatsuba, ashura, karura, kinnara, and magoraka, they serve as guardians of the Buddhist teachings.

Yasha serve Buddhism in a number of ways. Most importantly, the Twelve Heavenly Generals (the twelve most fearsome yasha), serve as the personal bodyguards of Yakushi Nyōrai, the buddha of medicine. They wage war on sickness and fight the enemies of Buddhism. They are also important in astrology–as there are twelve of them, they are associated with the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, the hours of the day, the months, and the directions. Their leader, General Kubira, is also an important kami in the Shinto faith. He is believed to be the manifestation of Konpira, a god of fishing, seafaring, and farming. He is enshrined as Ōmononushi in the Kotohira shrine of Kagawa Prefecture, alongside Sutoku Tennō.

Yasha, along with another kind of demon called rasetsu, are used as soldiers in the armies of Bishamonten, one of the Four Heavenly Kings. Bishamonten is often depicted trampling a tiny, evil yasha (called a jaki or amanojaku) under his feet. His armor is also often decorated with scowling yasha faces. In this way yasha also serve as a symbol the triumph of virtue over wickedness.

ORIGIN: Yasha come from Hindu mythology. They were originally benevolent nature spirits and caretakers of the trees and earth. In Buddhism, they were interpreted as evil, ghost-like spirits who preyed upon travelers, but later gave up their wicked ways upon hearing the sermons of the Buddha. The Buddhist version of yasha is very similar to another class of Hindu spirits: the ogrish, man-eating demons known as rasetsu. When Buddhism was brought into China, it mixed with Chinese folk religion and astrology, and yasha grew even further away from their Hindu origins.

When Buddhism was brought to Japan from China, the Chinese interpretation of yasha was brought along with it. In Japan, yasha were often viewed as Buddhist manifestations of local evil spirits, like amanojaku and oni. Yasha took on some of the characteristics of these spirits, and sometimes even became synonymous with them.

Karyōbinga

Karyoubinga迦陵頻伽
かりょうびんが

TRANSLATION: a phonetic rendition of its sanskrit name, kalaviṅka
ALTERNATE NAMES: myōonchō (exquisite sounding bird)
HABITAT: Gokuraku jōdo, a realm of paradise
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Karyōbinga are celestial beings from Buddhist cosmology. They have the head and arms of a bodhisattva, the body of a bird, and long, flowing tail feathers similar to that of a hōō. They live in a realm of paradise called Gokuraku jōdo.

BEHAVIOR: Karyōbinga possess voices of incomparable beauty. They begin singing while still inside of their eggs. After they hatch, they begin to dance and play heavenly musical instruments as well. They sing of the holy scriptures and the words of the buddhas.

ORIGIN: Karyōbinga come from Indian mythology. They originated in Buddhist scripture, which was brought to Japan from China. They differ very little from their Indian counterparts. They are usually used in paintings and sculpture as symbols of paradise and the Buddha’s words. They are a reminder that by living a holy life, one can be reborn into Gokuraku jōdo after their death. Practitioners of Pure Land Buddhism make reaching this paradise their goal. Gokuraku jōdo is a pure land of utter bliss–a celestial kingdom created by Amida Buddha. Its inhabitants can practice Buddhism directly under Amida’s tutelage, listen to the songs of karyōbinga, and achieve enlightenment themselves.

Kotobuki

Kotobuki寿
ことぶき

TRANSLATION: congratulations, long life
HABITAT: unknown
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: The kotobuki is an auspicious chimera whose body contains parts from all twelve animals of the zodiac. It has the head of a rat, the ears of a hare, the horns of an ox, the comb of a rooster, the beard of a sheep, the mane of a horse, the neck of a dragon, the back of a boar, the shoulders and belly of a tiger, the front legs of a monkey, the rear legs of a dog, and the tail of a snake.

ORIGIN: The kotobuki was first documented in the Edo period. Woodblock prints of it were popular gifts. Almost no explanation about the creature was included in these prints, other than that it was said to come from India, it could understand human speech, and was called kotobuki. Merely possessing an image of the kotobuki was thought to be enough to protect a person from sickness and disease.

Good luck charms featuring the animals of the zodiac were popular during the Edo period. Even without a description, customers would recognize the twelve zodiac signs hidden in this beast. Further, the name kotobuki is a celebratory and congratulatory word, which makes this creature instantly identifiable as a powerful and auspicious creature.

 

Kitai

Gyouchuu, Kitai, Mimimushi鬼胎
きたい

TRANSLATION: uterus evil spirit; uterus ghost
HABITAT: the uterus

APPEARANCE: Kitai is a grotesque infectious yōkai which begins as a blood clot the size of a large sake cup. Its life cycle begins in the left abdomen, and as it grows it migrates to the uterus. Gradually, it develops a face that looks like a frightful cow, bright red with black horns. It grows a long body which coils around like a snake’s. Kitai has a very short temper, but moves extremely slowly, like a slug. Because of this it tends to feel a lot of stress, which it passes on to its host.

INTERACTIONS: Once a kitai takes on its adult form it is difficult to recover from. When a kitai slithers about inside of its host, it causes bouts of hysteria. It is difficult to treat with acupuncture, because the needles often cause the kitai to become stressed, which worsens the condition. There are secret ways of treating slow moving bugs like the kitai, but they are passed on orally from master to student.

Gyōchū

Gyouchuu, Kitai, Mimimushi蟯虫
ぎょうちゅう

TRANSLATION: intestinal worm; pinworm
HABITAT: the genitals

APPEARANCE: Gyōchū are infectious yokai with six arms and long red tongues. They are extremely fond of chatting and gossiping. They live and reproduce in the sex organs, making them a sexually transmitted yōkai. Gyōchū reproduce in the sex organs on Kōshin night, a holy night which occurs every sixty days in the esoteric Kōshin religion. Gyōchū leave their hosts on these nights and visit Enma Daiō, the king of hell and judge of the damned. They tattle on their hosts, telling all of their dreams, desires, and sins to Enma, who will inflict his divine wrath on them accordingly.

INTERACTIONS: There is no treatment for a gyōchū infection. The only way to keep safe from this infection is to avoid any chance of contracting an infection by abstaining from sex on Kōshin night. Traditionally, Kōshin night is reserved for praying. Believers gather together and refrain from sleeping for the whole night, so faithful practitioners should have no problem avoiding contracting gyōchū. People who have sex on these holy nights are committing a grave sacrilege, which the gyōchū will report to King Enma. During the feudal era, terrible diseases (leprosy, for example) were believed to be divine punishments for those who disrespect the gods.

Today, the name gyōchū refers to the pinworm.

Mimimushi

Gyouchuu, Kitai, Mimimushi耳虫
みみむし

TRANSLATION: ear worm
HABITAT: the ears and heart

APPEARANCE: Mimimushi is an infectious yōkai with long ears and a spotted, snake-like body. It writhes and slithers back and forth as it migrates between the ears and the heart, causing discomfort in its host.

INTERACTIONS: People infected with mimimushi crave cold foods and avoid hot food. Their stomachs appear swollen and bloated. Infections can be treated with remedies made from the herb byakujutsu (Atractylodes japonica) and the mushroom bukuryō (Poria cocos).

Kenmun

Kenmun水蝹
けんむん

TRANSLATION: water spirit
ALTERNATE NAMES: kenmon, kawataro, yamawaro
HABITAT: the Amami islands
DIET: primarily fish and shellfish
CRITICAL WEAKNESS: octopus and giant clams

APPEARANCE: Kenmun are hairy water and tree spirits from the Amami islands in southern Japan. They look like a cross between a kappa and a monkey. They also closely resemble their Okinawan cousins, kijimunā. Their bodies are covered in dark red or black hair, and they have long, thin legs and arms. They are slightly larger in size than a human child. They have pointed mouths, and on top of their heads is a saucer-like depression which holds a small amount of oil or water. Their bodies smell like yams, and their drool smells terrible.

BEHAVIOR: Kenmun make their homes in banyan trees and spend their days playing in the mountains or near the water in their family groups. They particularly enjoy sumo wrestling, at which they are very skilled. As the seasons change, they migrate back and forth from the mountains to the sea.

Kenmun have a number of strange abilities. They are able to change their shapes. They often disguise themselves as people, horses, or cows. They can change into plants and blend in with the surrounding vegetation, or even disappear entirely. Kenmun can also create light. Their drool glows eerily, as do their fingertips. They have the ability to create fire from the tips of their fingers. Sometimes they use this fire to light the oil in their head-dishes. When mysterious lights are seen in the mountains or on the shores of the Amami islands, it is called kenmun machi by locals.

Kenmun like to hunt at night, lighting up their fingertips to search for food in the dark. They primarily feed on fish and small shellfish. They also enjoy slugs and snails, pulling off the shells and rolling them up like rice balls. (It is possible to identify a banyan tree inhabited by a kenmun by the sheer amount of snail shells piled up among its roots.) They absolutely hate octopus and giant clams, and will have nothing to do with them.

INTERACTIONS: Kenmun stay away from inhabited areas and run away when large groups of people are nearby. They will occasionally aid lone woodcutters and people gathering firewood by carrying heavy loads for them. They remember those who treat them kindly or do them favors. A fisherman who saves a kenmun from being attacked by an octopus is sure to earn its eternal gratitude. Some elderly islanders who have befriended kenmun are to call friendly kenmun out from the mountains to show to their grandchildren.

In general, kenmun do not harm people. They do, however, love competition, and cannot resit the chance to challenge a human to a sumo match. When their head-dish is filled, they have supernatural strength and cannot be beaten. However, kenmun like to mimic people, so if a challenger stands on their head or bows very low, their head-dish will empty out and they can be beaten.

While kenmun are not evil, they do enjoy playing pranks on humans from time to time. They may shape shift into animals and try to scare humans, or offer directions to people that get them totally and helplessly lost. They also have no shame about stealing food or even utensils from humans. Kenmun are very sensitive about being insulted, particularly about their body odors. Because of this, if a person talks about bad smells or farting while in the mountains, any kenmun who overhear it will become upset.

Kenmun do occasionally do wicked things to humans. There are stories of children who wandered into the woods and had their souls stolen by kenmun. Afterwards, the children behaved like kenmun, living in banyan trees and leaping from tree to tree when the villagers tried to catch them. Adults can have their souls stolen by kenmun as well. Kenmun like to force feed them snails, or pull them into rivers. These people are often later found unconscious beneath a banyan tree. If a banyan tree in which a kenmun lives is cut, the kenmun will place a curse upon the woodcutter. The kenmun’s curse causes its victims eyes to swell up, and then go blind. Eventually the cursed person will die.

Some families hang pig foot bones or Japanese pittosporum branches from the eaves of their roofs in order to keep kenmun from coming close. To drive away a kenmun, all it takes is to threaten it with an octopus. Merely threatening to throw an octopus at them is enough to send them running. If an octopus is not available to throw at them, they will also run away from a giant clam, or anything else you throw at them as long as you pretend it’s an octopus.

Hinnagami

Hinnagami人形神
ひんながみ

TRANSLATION: doll god, doll spirit
ALTERNATE NAMES: kochobbo
HABITAT: homes

APPEARANCE: Hinnagami are powerful spirits from Toyama Prefecture. They reside in dolls and grant their owners’ wishes.

INTERACTIONS: A hinnagami will grant its owner any wish that he or she desires. Families who own hinnagami quickly become rich and powerful; and people who become rich and famous very quickly are sometimes suspected of owning hinnagami.

Hinnagami come with a catch: if a new request is not made as soon as a wish is granted, the hinnagami will demand, “What is next?” As soon as that request is fulfilled, the hinnagami demands another, and another, and another. This pattern never ends. Because their creation comes out of human greed and desire, hinnagami cling to their creators obsessively and never leave their sides. A hinnagami’s attachment is so powerful, in fact, that even death cannot separate it from its master. When a hinnagami’s creator dies, the hinnagami will follow them to hell and haunt them for all of eternity.

ORIGIN: Hinnagami are created through a long and complicated ritual. There are a few methods of creating a hinnagami, which vary bit by bit depending on who you hear the story from.

In the most common ritual, the person who wishes to create a hinnagami must begin collecting grave earth that has been trampled on by people during the day. Grave earth must be collected in this way every night for three years. For an even stronger hinnagami, they should take earth from seven different graveyeards in seven different villages. Once collected, the grave earth is mixed with human blood until it becomes clay-like. Then it is molded into a doll shape representing a god or a spirit that its creator worships. This doll is placed and left in a busy road until it has been trampled upon by one thousand people. Then the creator retrieves the doll, which has become a hinnagami.

An alternative method is to collect graveyard stones and carve them into one thousand small dolls, each about nine centimeters long. These dolls are boiled in a large pot until only one of them rises to the surface. The doll that rises is said to contain the combined souls of all one thousand dolls. It becomes a special type of hinnagami called a kochobbo.

Umakan

Umakan馬癇
うまかん

TRANSLATION: horse kan (kind of infection)
ALTERNATE NAMES: shinnoju
HABITAT: the heart

APPEARANCE: Umakan is an infectious parasite with the appearance of a splendid, fast horse. Its head, neck, and back are deep red. It’s tail, belly, and legs are white. It acts up in bright sunlight, or the light from a large fire.

INTERACTIONS: Umakan victims suffer from a weak heart and fainting spells. Upon waking up, they seem perfectly fine with no other problems. To treat this sickness, the victim must continuously build up strength in their heart. There are a number of effective ways to treat it with acupuncture as well, which are passed down orally from teacher to student.

Sori no kanmushi

Sorinokanmushiソリの肝虫
そりのかんむし

TRANSLATION: back-bending liver bug
HABITAT: the liver
DIET: spicy foods

APPEARANCE: The sori no kanmushi is a terrible parasitic bug with wide, bugging out eyes, a blue back, and a white belly. Its hands are like flippers and its tail is brush-like. It likes spicy foods. It lives in the liver, but the symptoms it causes affect the spine.

INTERACTIONS: Sori no kanmushi bites the back of its host, causing great pain. Its victim develops a warped or curved spine, a condition which long ago was called sori (thus this creature’s name). Mokkō (Saussurea costus) and byakujutsu (Atractylodes japonica) are effective medicines against this bug.

Taibyō no kesshaku

Taibyounokesshaku, Kakurannomushi, Kishaku大病の血積
たいびょうのけっしゃく

TRANSLATION: terrible disease blood shaku (a type of infection)
ALTERNATE NAMES: kesshaku, chishaku
HABITAT: the stomach
DIET: blood

APPEARANCE: This yōkai infects hosts after they have suffered from a terrible sickness. It’s body is shaped like a flexible bulb. It has flippers and a broad tail which help it swim about the stomach. Its head it shaped like a hammer, and it uses it to smash through the stomach wall and enter the heart, where it feeds off of its host’s blood.

INTERACTIONS: A person infected with a taibyō no kesshaku becomes pale, with thin and emaciated cheeks. The victim’s entire body becomes weak and worn out. This infection can be cured by vomiting up the taibyō no kesshaku and sprinkling it with shukusha (medicine made from black cardamom seed). When a taibyō no kesshaku is smashed, its body rips open and an enormous blood clot is released.

Kakuran no mushi

Taibyounokesshaku, Kakurannomushi, Kishaku霍乱の虫
かくらんのむし

TRANSLATION: vomit and diarrhea bug
HABITAT: the stomach

APPEARANCE: Kakuran no mushi is a parasitic yōkai which lives in the stomach. It has a black head and a red body. It has tiny legs interspersed across its long body. Its facial expression resembles that of a person who is about to vomit; its mouth is open and its eyes are tiny pinpoints.

INTERACTIONS: People infected with kakuran no mushi suffer symptoms similar to food poisoning: frequent diarrhea and vomiting. This infection can be cured by taking goshuyu, a medicine made from a dried, unripe fruit (Tetradium ruticarpum).

In one record of a kakuran no mushi infection, this yōkai’s head was briefly visible in its host’s mouth during a particularly violent bout of vomiting. A friend of the victim grabbed the kakuran no mushi’s head to try to pull it out, but when he did, the victim became very weak and seemed as if he was about to lose consciousness. The friend let go of the head, and the kakuran no mushi retreated back into its hosts body. Afterwards, the victim died. When an autopsy was performed, the doctor found the kakuran no mushi wrapped up around its host’s liver so tightly that he couldn’t remove it. The doctor ground up shazenshi (Plantago asiatica) and mokkō (Saussurea costus) and sprinkled it on the kakuran no mushi, and the creature disappeared.

Kishaku

Taibyounokesshaku, Kakurannomushi, Kishaku気積
きしゃく

TRANSLATION: mind/spirit/mood shaku (a type of infection)
HABITAT: the stomach
DIET: oily foods

APPEARANCE: Kishaku’s most distinguishing feature is its mouth, which is split three ways. It has a red, furry body with a white stripe and a black tail. It loves greasy, oily foods. It lives in the stomach and feeds off of the oily foods, such as fish and chicken, that its host eats. It completely ignores rice and other foods that it doesn’t like.

INTERACTIONS: People infected with kishaku experience an extreme increase in sexual desire. This sickness can be cured with medicine made from a tiger’s intestines.

Koshō

Koseu, Oozakenomushi小姓
こしょう

TRANSLATION: page, apprentice
ALTERNATE NAMES: koseu
HABITAT: between the heart and the diaphragm
DIET: prefers sweet sake

APPEARANCE: Koshō is a parasitic yōkai with a snakelike body and a child-like face. It has a white, scruffy beard. It has an umbrella-like protrusion on the top of its head. It can speak, and is constantly chattering like a child. It loves sweet sake. In lives in between the heart and the diaphragm, where neither medicine nor needles can reach.

INTERACTIONS: A koshō infection is a terminal illness. Not even the best doctors have ever come up with a way to treat it. The umbrella-like protrusion on its head blocks medicine, and it hides too deep in the body for acupuncture to be effective.

Ōzake no mushi

Koseu, Oozakenomushi大酒の虫
おおざけのむし

TRANSLATION: heavy drinking worm
HABITAT: the abdomen

APPEARANCE: Ōzake no mushi has a bright red body with a number of worm-like appendages branching out. It’s is quite warm, and becomes warmer when its host drinks alcohol. It looks like a lumpy satchel tied up at the top.

INTERACTIONS: People infected with ōzake no mushi become heavy drinkers. If the satchel-like “shell” is broken, the ōzake no mushi erupts with what looks like red sand throughout the body. In fact, these are countless other worms which live inside its red body. Even after its host dies, these parasites will live inside of the abdomen.

Akuchū

Hizounomushi, Akuchuu, Hizounokasamushi悪虫
あくちゅう

TRANSLATION: evil bug
HABITAT: the spleen
DIET: prefers rice

APPEARANCE: Akuchū is a very dangerous bug which infects the spleen. It can easily move throughout its host with its flexible segmented body and broad tail. It has six sharp claws with which it strongly grasps the spleen.

INTERACTIONS: Akuchū clings to the spleen and steals the food that its host eats with its hooked bill. No matter how much food is ingested, it is very difficult to gain weight or receive nourishment while infected with an akuchū.

Akuchū infections can be easily cured with mokkō (Chinese medicine made from a species of thistle).

Hizō no kasamushi

Hizounomushi, Akuchuu, Hizounokasamushi脾臓の笠虫
ひぞうのかさむし

TRANSLATION: capped spleen worm
HABITAT: the spleen

APPEARANCE: Hizō no kasamushi get their name from the bright red cap-like feature on top of their heads. They have a long, worm-like body covered in short red hairs, which ends in a hairy forked tail.

INTERACTIONS: The hizō no kasamushi’s cap interferes with the normal intake of food, so people infected with this worm become pale and weak. It can cause rapid weight loss as well as extreme weight gain.

This bug is very difficult to remove the from body, but its symptoms can be somewhat relieved by taking Chinese medicine made from agi (dried gum from the roots of ferula plants) and gajutsu (made from the stems and roots of turmeric plants).

Hizō no mushi

Hizounomushi, Akuchuu, Hizounokasamushi脾臓の虫
ひぞうのむし

TRANSLATION: spleen worm
HABITAT: the spleen

APPEARANCE: Hizō no mushi lives in the spleen and attacks the liver and muscles. It has a bright red body which is very hot. Its limbs are tipped with sharp claws. It staggers throughout the body on its thin legs.

INTERACTIONS: People infected with hizō no mushi take on some of its characteristics; most notably the staggering style of walking about, with left and right arms spread wide. When hizō no mushi reaches out from the spleen and grasps the liver in its talons, its victims develop hyperthermia. When hizō no mushi grasps the muscles in its talons, the victim’s body becomes hot and he begins to feel dizzy as if hit on the head.

A hizō no mushi infection can be cured by taking Chinese medicine made from mokkō (a species of thistle) and daiō (a kind of rheum).

Hinoshu

Hishaku, Hinoshu脾ノ聚
ひのしゅ

TRANSLATION: spleen shu (a type of infection)
HABITAT: the spleen

APPEARANCE: Hinoshu is microbial yōkai with a lumpy, boulder-like appearance and an extremely large mouth. It infects the spleen.

INTERACTIONS: Hinoshu attacks occur when its host is relaxing outside, and when the host is among a crowd of people. It rolls about inside the body, bruising every part and causing a lot of pain. The victim feels as if he has fallen from a height onto an enormous boulder. Viewing beautiful rocks, such as in a zen garden, causes this infection to act up much more strongly, as the hinoshu becomes excited at all of the beautiful rocks.

When an infection takes this form, it becomes very difficult to recover from this illness.  Traditionally, acupuncture is used to treat it, however the treatment is too complicated to learn in a book. It must be learned orally, from someone who has treated a hinoshu before.

Hishaku

Hishaku, Hinoshu脾積
ひしゃく

TRANSLATION: spleen shaku (a type of infection)
ALTERNATE NAMES: hiki
HABITAT: near the belly button

APPEARANCE: Hishaku is a microbe which lives near the belly button and infects the spleen. It has a fuzzy, yellowish, wolf-like body and a long red tongue. It has no legs. A large red pentagon-like shape appears on the hishaku’s side; this is a representation of the belly button.

INTERACTIONS: Hishaku mainly infect women. They cause in their hosts an extreme fondness for sweets, as well as a yellow tinge in the face. Hishaku hosts tend to hum non-stop. They can cause extremely heavy menstrual bleeding as well as irregular vaginal discharge. Women infected this way have difficulty getting out of bed. Hishaku infections are most likely to occur during the changing of the seasons. This is because hishaku are related to the element of earth in Chinese element theory, and those days are also closely related to the element of earth.

Hishaku can be treated with acupuncture in an area about one centimeter around the belly button. The techniques for this treatment are only passed down orally.

Gyūkan

Haimushi, Haishaku, Kiukan牛癇
ぎゅうかん

TRANSLATION: cow kan (kind of infection)
ALTERNATE NAMES: kiukan, hainoju, haikan (lung kan)
HABITAT: the lungs

APPEARANCE: Gyūkan is a type of kan no mushi—a creature which causes distemper and irritability in children. Kan no mushi can take many shapes and infect many parts of the body. A gyūkan is a kan no mushi which takes the shape of a cow and infects the lungs. It has a long tongue and sharp hooves. The lower part of its body is red.

INTERACTIONS: Gyūkan tend to act up when their hosts eat and drink. From their position in the lungs, they can sense when food enters the throat. They become very excited, and cause their hosts to faint.

There are many of ways to treat it with acupuncture. However, as it grows older its horns become longer and sharper, and recovery becomes more difficult.

Haishaku

Haimushi, Haishaku, Kiukan肺積
はいしゃく

TRANSLATION: lung shaku (a type of infection)
ALTERNATE NAMES: sokuhon
HABITAT: the lungs

APPEARANCE: Haishaku originates under the right armpit and gradually migrates into the lungs. It grows from a smaller larval form into a large, white, lumpy shape that envelops the lungs and causes sickness. Its nose opens directly into the lugs, so it is extremely sensitive to smells.

INTERACTIONS: People infected with haishaku develop smooth, white skin. They begin to dislike strong smells, whether good or bad, and instead prefer raw, fishy smells. They prefer spicy foods over bland ones. They also commonly become pessimistic and depressed. Because the haishaku is shaped like a cloud, their hearts too become cloudy and subdued. Tears will also flow like rain.

Haishaku infections can be treated with very gentle and shallow acupuncture. Anything stronger than that will be too painful for the victim.

Haimushi

Haimushi, Haishaku, Kiukan肺虫
はいむし

TRANSLATION: lung worm, lung bug
HABITAT: the lungs
DIET: cooked rice

APPEARANCE: Haimushi is a tiny moth-like creature with a segmented body and four wings. They live in the lungs most of the time, but occasionally leave the body and fly through the air. They have red faces with a triple-forked mouth, and white bodies like that of a maggot. They have colorful, feathery wings. They feed mainly on cooked rice.

INTERACTIONS: Haimushi infect the lungs and cause various health problems. If a haimushi leaves its host and gets lost, the person will die and the haimushi will transform into a fireball and burn up.

A haimushi infection can be treated with byakujutsu, a traditional remedy made from the powdered root of the herb Atractylodes japonica.

Jikininki

Jikininki食人鬼
じきにんき

TRANSLATION: human-eating ghost
HABITAT: old temples and ruins
DIET: human corpses

APPEARANCE: Jikininki are ghouls which feast on the bodies of the dead. They appear as ordinary humans for the most part, except their features are more monstrous. They have sharp, pointed teeth which they use to peel the flesh off of the recently deceased.

BEHAVIOR: Jikininki are found near villages, usually in abandoned temples or old ruins. They avoid excessive contact with humans, but remain close to human settlements, as humans are their main source of food. Jikininki gain their sustenance by devouring the flesh and bones of the recently deceased. They do not enjoy their existence and do not find pleasure in eating the dead. It merely temporarily relieves some of the pain of their eternal hunger.

Jikininki exist somewhere between the living and the dead. They exhibit some ghost-like traits; they and their dwellings are often invisible during the day, appearing only to unsuspecting travelers during the night. They usually hunt their prey at night as well, slipping into temples when the dead are lain there for funerary prayers.

ORIGINS: Jikininki are closely related to gaki—hungry ghosts of Buddhist cosmology who are constantly starving but unable to eat anything. A jikininki is born when a person performs evil deeds, corrupting his soul. Some jikiniki were corrupt priests who could not properly pass on after their deaths. Others were once humans who, for some reason or another, developed a taste for human flesh. As time went on and they continued eating people, they gradually transformed into these monsters.

LEGENDS: Long ago, a monk named Musō Soseki was traveling on a pilgrimage when he became lost deep in the mountains. As day began to fade, he came across a dilapidated old hermitage, where an elderly monk gave him directions to a village not far away. Soseki traveled on, and just as night fell he arrived in the village.

The son of the village chief welcomed Soseki and invited him to stay in his house as a guest. “However,” he said, “my father passed away earlier today. In our village, we have a custom. When one of us dies, we all must spend the night away from the village. If we do not do this, we will be cursed. But you are tired from your journey, and seeing as you are a priest, and also not a member of this village, I see no reason why you too must leave. Please feel free to stay in my house this night while the rest of us leave the village.” Soseki gratefully accepted. The villagers all left the village, and Soseki was alone.

That night, the monk recited funerary prayers over the body of the village chief. All of a sudden, he felt a presence nearby. Soseki felt his body freeze up, and he was unable to move. Then, a dark, hazy shape crept through the house and up to the body. The creature devoured the remains of the village chief, and then slipped away as quietly as it had arrived.

The following morning, when the villagers returned, Soseki told them what he had seen during the night. The village chief’s son told him that this was just as the local legends say. Soseki was surprsied, and asked why the monk living in the hermitage did not perform the funeral prayers for the village. The village chief’s son seemed confused. “There is no hermitage nearby. What’s more, there haven’t been any monks in this region for many generations…”

Soseki traced his steps through the mountains to the old hermitage he had seen the night before. The old monk welcomed him into the hovel and told him, “I apologize for showing you such a sight last night. The monster you saw in the village chief’s house was me. Long, long ago I was a priest. I lived in that village, and I performed many funeral services for the dead. However, all I could think of was the payment for my services, and not the souls of the deceased. Because of my lack of conviction, when I died I was reborn as a jikininki. Now, I am forced to feed off the bodies of the dead. Please, save my soul and release me from my torment!”

In that instant, the elderly monk and the dilapidated old hermitage both disappeared. Soseki was sitting on the dirt, surrounded by tall grass. The only feature nearby was an ancient, moss-covered gravestone.

Kaichigo

Kaichigo貝児
かいちご

TRANSLATION: shell boy
HABITAT: decorative shell boxes
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Kaichigo is the spirit of a shell box come to life. It takes the form of a small, doll-like boy in a kimono.

BEHAVIOR: Kaichigo haunt the shell boxes used to store beautiful and expensive painted shells. They come out when nobody is around and play with the shells, flipping them over and moving them around into different positions.

ORIGIN: Kaichigo’s origins lie in kaiawase (“shell matching”), a popular Heian period game which uses painted seashells. Beautiful shells of the right size and color were collected and decorated, their insides lined with gold and painted with scenes from popular stories, such as The Tale of Genji. The two halves of the same shell would be painted with the same scene, and players of the game would try to match the two sides. Beautifully decorated shell boxes, or kaioke, were used to store the shells while not in use.

Kaiawase gradually became replaced by other matching games, such as karuta, which use less exquisite playing pieces. The kaioke and shells themselves came to be viewed as precious art objects instead of toys. Because each shell half will perfectly fit its matching half and no other, expensive kaiawase sets came to be used as wedding dowries—symbolizing a perfect and unique match between bride and groom. Some boxes have been passed down from mother to daughter over and over for centuries. Those kaioke which have been around for a very long time and are no longer used as games begin to resent their existence. They grow restless and want to be played with once again, and develop a soul: the kaichigo.

Haradashi

Haradashi腹出し
はらだし

TRANSLATION: belly exposer
HABITAT: old temples and homes
DIET: unknown, but has a fondness for sake

APPEARANCE: Haradashi is a goofy-looking yōkai that can change into various different forms. Occasionally a haradashi will appear as a headless torso with arms, legs, and comical facial features on its belly. Other times it looks like a kind, elderly nun, or a goofy female monster with long black hair. Whatever form it takes, the defining characteristic of a haradashi is the large, silly-looking face which appears on the creature’s enormous stomach.

BEHAVIOR: Unlike most yōkai, haradashi do not do anything harmful. They are cheerful and agreeable yokai, and enjoy amusing others and cheering people up. They frequently disguise themselves as ordinary humans and then use their belly faces to surprise people and make them laugh.

INTERACTIONS: Haradashi appear to sad and lonely individuals, particularly those who are at home drinking alone. Haradashi will slip into these peoples’ houses to cheer them up. When offered a drink, a haradashi happily accepts it, and then bares its belly and performs a ridiculous dance. Those who entertain a haradashi in their homes find that their troubles and worries vanish, and they become filled with hopes and dreams.

Haradashi don’t only perform house calls. They make their homes in old temples and invite in those who need help. They call out to people who are lost or seeking shelter from the snow or rain, and invite them to stay the night in their temple. A haradashi will present its guest with a warm room and a hearty meal, and of course entertain with its signature belly dance.

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.

Ōmagatoki

Oumagatoki逢魔時
おうまがとき

TRANSLATION: the hour of meeting evil spirits

APPEARANCE: Ōmagatoki is the twilight hour between when the sun sets and the sky goes dark. It is not quite day, but not quite night. Shadows swallow everything. Your eyes start to play tricks on your mind. The border thins between sekai—the world we live in, belong to, and recognize—and ikai, the “other” world. Ikai is where the spirits live, a world about which we humans know next to nothing. During ōmagatoki, the evil spirits, the chimimōryō, wake up and move about freely. This is the hour when yōkai, yūrei, and other dark things cross over into our world.

The appearance of yōkai during ōmagatoki is said to be accompanied by a few telltale signs: a cold wind blowing; a strange smell in the air, like that of fish or blood; a sudden onset of darkness; a sudden chill that causes one’s hairs standing on end.

Interactions: Humans and spirits normally have separate existences in different worlds. When those worlds come together, things become chaotic—particularly for humans. In order to avoid meeting the things that prowl the night, people would head home as the sun set and stay inside until morning. Woodcutters sleeping in mountain huts something heard the cutting down of trees at night, but found no evidence of it in the morning. Phantom waterfalls could be heard where there was no waterfall for miles around. Strange laughter and voices of inhuman things echoed throughout the forests. Children who wandered away from the village and got lost in the mountains could be spirited away by otherworldly things and taken to another world. Sometimes they would return years later, changed in some way.

ORIGIN: The first tales of encounters between humans and spirits came from woodsmen, travelers, criminals, and people whose livelihoods forced them away from the safety of their homes and villages at night. These men would return to their villages in the morning with stories of eerie experiences after twilight. Over time, these stories developed into the earliest superstitions, helping shape Japanese folklore, religion, and society into what they are today.

Ōmagatoki can be written two different ways: 逢魔時 literally means the hour of meeting evil spirits; 大禍時 literally means the hour of great calamity. Both of these readings illustrate the fear and apprehension that the ancient Japanese people felt towards the things that came at twilight.

Hinode

Hinode日の出
ひので

TRANSLATION: sunrise

APPEARANCE: Hinode, the break of dawn, signals the end of the power of evil spirits over the waking world. The holy light of the sun banishes yōkai, ghosts, and demons back to the places from which they came. As the morning light fills the shadows, unknown things no longer lurk. As the sun’s rays pierce the dark forests, strange shapes no longer hide among the trees. The time of meeting evil spirits is over. Once again the world is safe for humans.

ORIGIN: The sun has always been a central part of Japanese religion. Amaterasu, the sun goddess, is the most important deity in Shinto and is worshipped across Japan. The importance of the sun in Japanese culture can be seen in Japan’s nickname—the land of the rising sun—on the Japanese flag, and in the native word for Japan itself: Nihon, “the origin of the sun.”

In Japanese artwork, the sun often appears as the final scene in picture scrolls depicting yōkai and the night parade of one hundred demons. Similarly, Toriyama Sekien’s second illustrated yōkai encyclopedia, Konjaku gazu zoku hyakki, opens with ōmagatoki and closes with hinode, depicting the monsters that rule the world from dusk until dawn.

Ninmenju

Ninmenju人面樹
にんめんじゅ

TRANSLATION: human face tree
ALTERNATE NAMES: jinmenju
HABITAT: mountain valleys

APPEARANCE: The ninmenju is a strange tree which bears flowers looking like human heads. These heads cannot speak, but they do smile and can even laugh. In the autumn, they bear face-shaped fruit which tastes sweet and sour.

INTERACTIONS: If a person laughs at the tree, the head-shaped flowers will laugh back at that person. If they laugh too strongly, the heads will wilt and fall off the trees.

ORIGIN: The ninmenju is an example of folklore that has traveled over great time and distance to become what it is.

Ninmenju first appears in Japan in the Edo period encyclopedia Wakan sansai zue, which documents animals, plants, and yōkai from both inside and outside of Japan. The description is paraphrased from the Sancai tuhui, a Chinese encyclopedia published in 1609. Sancai tuhui describes ninmenju as originating in the foreign land of Daishi-koku (大食国). Daishi was the Japanese pronunciation of the Ming Chinese name for the Islamic world, which came from the Persian word tāzī. Tāzī was the Persian word for Muslims, derived from the Tayy, an Arabic tribe which flourished under the Abbasid Caliphate.

The waq waq tree of Islamic folklore is very similar to the ninmenju. This tree was described as bearing fruit shaped like humans and animals. The fruit could speak, but would die a few days after being picked. These trees grew on the mythical island of Waq Waq in the land of Zanj, an area in Africa near present-day Zanzibar. Legend has it that Alexander the Great had his death foretold by one of these trees. The waq waq tree may be the same tree from Daishi-koku that the Sancai Tuhui refers to. Through trade between Ming China along the Silk Road, it is possible that this Arabic myth is the model for what eventually became the ninmenju.

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.

Mezu

Mezu馬頭
めず

TRANSLATION: horse head
ALTERNATE NAMES: mezuki (horse head demon)
HABITAT: Meido and Jigoku

APPEARANCE: In Japanese Buddhism, Gozu and Mezu are the demon generals who guard the gates of hell. They appear as terrible oni with animal heads; an ox head for Gozu, and a horse head for Mezu. They are extremely powerful and have the strength to move mountains. They are servants of Great King Enma, the ruler of hell, and are among the chief torturers and punishers of the wicked.

INTERNACTIONS: Gozu and Mezu are the first demons that one encounters upon entering hell. Should a person manage to escape from hell, Gozu and Mezu are sent out to bring them back.

ORIGIN: Though Gozu and Mezu are the most famous and most commonly depicted in story and art, they are not the only animal-headed demons in Great King Enma’s employ. Deer, tiger, lion, and boar-headed demons are also said to serve among the upper ranks of the guardians of hell. They operate the great torture chambers of Jigoku and oversee the torment of countless souls. Gozu, Mezu, and other animal-headed demons originate in Indian mythology, which was imported along with Buddhism to Japan by way of China.

Gozu

Gozu牛頭
ごず

TRANSLATION: ox head
ALTERNATE NAMES: gozuki (ox head demon)
HABITAT: Meido and Jigoku

APPEARANCE: In Japanese Buddhism, Gozu and Mezu are the demon generals who guard the gates of hell. They appear as terrible oni with animal heads; an ox head for Gozu, and a horse head for Mezu. They are extremely powerful and have the strength to move mountains. They are servants of Great King Enma, the ruler of hell, and are among the chief torturers and punishers of the wicked.

INTERNACTIONS: Gozu and Mezu are the first demons that one encounters upon entering hell. Should a person manage to escape from hell, Gozu and Mezu are sent out to bring them back.

ORIGIN: Though Gozu and Mezu are the most famous and most commonly depicted in story and art, they are not the only animal-headed demons in Great King Enma’s employ. Deer, tiger, lion, and boar-headed demons are also said to serve among the upper ranks of the guardians of hell. They operate the great torture chambers of Jigoku and oversee the torment of countless souls. Gozu, Mezu, and other animal-headed demons originate in Indian mythology, which was imported along with Buddhism to Japan by way of China.

Datsueba

Datsueba奪衣婆
だつえば

TRANSLATION: clothes-stealing old woman
ALTERNATE NAMES: sōzukaba, ubason
HABITAT: Meido, along the banks of the Sanzu River

APPEARANCE: Datsueba and Keneō are a terrifying pair of elderly oni. They guard the bridge and the banks of the Sanzu River. All souls must pass by them before moving on to Meido to be judged.

INTERACTION: During a Japanese funeral, 6 mon (and old form of currency) are placed in the coffin to be used as a toll to enter the underworld. Upon reaching the Sanzu River, the souls must cross either by bridge (if they were good in life), by wading in the shallows (if they were only somewhat good), or by swimming across the deepest part of the river (if they were wicked).

After crossing the river, each soul encounters Datsueba, who accepts the toll and strips the souls of the clothes on their backs. Datsueba hands the clothing to her partner, Keneō, who hangs it from a tree by the riverside. The amount that the branch bends under the weight of the clothes serves as a measure of the weight of the sin each soul carries, and is used as evidence in the trials to come. Of course, the clothes of those who had to ford the river or swim across are heavy and wet, which only makes the branches of the tree sag lower. If a soul arrives with no clothes, Keneō flays his or her skin and hangs it from the tree instead.

Datsueba and Keneō perform a little bit of torture themselves, breaking the fingers of those guilty of theft, and so on. They also roam the banks of the river, tormenting the souls of children who are too young to cross the river and must wait for salvation to come to them instead.

According to some accounts, Datsueba is the wife of King Enma. In the Edo period, she became a popular object of folk worship, and temples dedicated to her began to spring up around Japan. Prayers and charms dedicated to Datsueba were used as wards against disease and coughs, in particular for children’s coughs.

Enma Daiō

Enma Daiou閻魔大王
えんまだいおう

TRANSLATION: Great King Enma

HABITAT: Jigoku and Meido

APPEARANCE: Enma Daiō is the ruler of hell (both Jigoku and Meido) and the foremost of the 13 judges of the dead. He has dresses in the robes of an ancient government official from the Chinese Tang Dynasty, and wears a fearsome expression upon his face. He is served by two secretaries, Shiroku and Shimyō, as well as a number of other demonic servants—the chiefs of which are Gozu and Mezu. His name often is invoked by parents who scold their children, “If you tell a lie, Enma will rip out your tongue!”

BEHAVIOR: Enma’s chief duty is to judge the souls of the newly dead and send them on to their next location. He keeps a great scroll in which he records all of the good and evil deeds of each and every person to use as evidence against them when their time of judgment comes. He oversees the torturing and suffering in hell, making sure that each soul gets enough punishment.

ORIGIN: Like many demonic figures in Japanese folklore, Great King Enma has a honji, or “true form,” which is that of a Buddha or bodhisattva. Enma’s true form is Jizō Bosatsu, the guardian of the underworld, god of travelers, and protector of children. Jizō is a warm and compassionate, beloved across Japan, deity who made a solemn vow not to become a full Buddha until all souls have been freed from suffering in hell. It is not uncommon to see small, red-bibbed, stone Jizō statues along roads and paths, and in graveyards all over Japan. While Enma may seem fearsome and terrifying, at heart, he is a kind and compassionate god, and he truly wishes to save each soul from damnation—this may be why the souls of the dead are given so many tests and trials to avoid going to hell.

Enma’s origins lie in India. In Vedic mythology he is known as Yama, the god of death. From the Vedas, the idea of Yama spread into Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Buddhism traveled to China, bringing Yama with it, and mixed with local religions and superstitions before being brought to Japan during the Tang Dynasty. As Chinese Buddhism mixed with Japanese religions and superstitions, he gradually developed into the god known as Great King Enma.

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.

 

Taizan Fukun no Sai

Taizan Fukun no sai泰山府君祭
たいざんふくんのさい

TRANSLATION: the Taizan Fukun (Lord Taizan) ceremony

APPEARANCE: Taizan Fukun no Sai is one of the most secret and powerful onmyōdō rituals. It is jealously guarded by the few who know it, and strongly coveted by those who don’t.

ORIGIN: This spell was developed in ancient China by Taoist philosophers. It is named for Lord Taizan, the god of the mountain Taishan in Shandong, China and one of the kings of hell. He is one of the most important deities in Onmyōdō. In this ritual, the supplicant beseeches Lord Taizan, Great King Enma, and the other judges of Meido and Jigoku to lengthen a person’s life span, save someone from death, or even restore life to the dead. Gold, silver, silk, saddled horses, and human life—usually substitutes in the form of katashiro, or paper dolls—are offered to the gods. No mantras or magical worlds are spoken; the gods are simply invited to sit down and participate. A formal letter of request is read to them, detailing the offerings and the virtues of the supplicants, and the precise divine intervention desired.

The Abe clan was famous for their knowledge of this spell. It is one of the reasons they were able to maintain a monopoly on the imperial Bureau of Onmyōdō. Under their offices, this spell was routinely performed for the emperors in order to increase their life spans and protect the country.

LEGENDS: Abe no Seimei is particularly famous for his use of Taizan Fukun no Sai. He resurrected his father, who was murdered by Ashiya Dōman, and used it many other times in the service of the emperor and country.

Once, a high ranking monk of Mii-dera known as Chikō fell gravely ill. It was determined that his illness was the result of karma, and thus could not be cured with medicine. Abe no Seimei was summoned. He divined Chikō’s fortune, and discovered that death was imminent. However, Abe no Seimei said that if someone was willing to trade life spans with Chikō, he could perform the Taizan Fukun no Sai and save the priest’s life.

The priests all looked at each other uncomfortably. As much as they loved and admired Chikō, nobody was willing to sacrifice his own life in order to save him. Finally, a young man named Shōkū—an average pupil who had been studying for many years yet had never attracted the attention of Chikō or the other teachers—stepped forward and offered his own life.

Abe no Seimei accepted the offer. He immediately performed the Taizan Fukun no Sai. Shōkū writhed in anguish, his life span shrinking away, while Chikō rapidly began to recover. Finally, Chikō was cured, and Shōkū lay on death’s door. As the young pupil’s last breath left his body, he prayed with all his heart to a nearby painting of Fudō Myōō. Just then, tears poured from the painted eyes of Fudō Myōō, and the god’s voice was heard:

“If you would take the place of your teacher, then let me take your place instead.”

Suddenly, Shōkū and Chikō sat up, both of then restored to life.

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.

Wara ningyō

Waraningyou藁人形
わらにんぎょう

TRANSLATION: straw doll
ALTERNATE NAMES: suge ningyō (sedge doll)

APPEARANCE: Wara ningyō are a popular kind of katashiro made of straw. Wara ningyō most commonly depict humans, but they are occasionally made in the shape of horses or other animals too.

INTERACTIONS: Wara ningyō are used extensively as wards against evil. During the Heian period, wara ningyō would be placed along the sides of the roads for protection against plague. It was hoped that the evil spirits which brought disease would nest in the straw bodies instead of living human bodies. Afterwards, the straw dolls would be discarded into a river, which would also purify the evil spirits.

Wara ningyō are popular devices in a number of dark rituals. They are combined with something from the recipient of the curse, such as a piece of hair. This transforms the doll into a substitute for the intended target. Long nails are pushed through the wara ningyō, harming the subject as well as the doll.

There are specific rules for creating different types of wara ningyō. These detail the materials to be used, the way the dolls are constructed, and the objects to be inserted into them. It can be difficult to find the materials needed to perform curses. The required items are not sold in most stores. However, some websites sell premade curse kits that contain all of the items you might need to perform a specific curse, including a wara ningyō, long nails, a mallet, pre-written curses with blanks for the recipient’s name, and other accessories. Of course, performing such rituals is illegal.

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.

Karura

Karura迦楼羅
かるら

TRANSLATION: derived from the Hindu deity Garuda
ALTERNATE NAMES: konjichō (golden winged bird)
HABITAT: Shumisen (aka Mount Meru)
DIET: dragons

APPEARANCE: Karura are a race of enormous, fire-breathing demigods. They are humanoid in appearance, with the heads and wings of eagles. They have red skin, and red and gold feathers. Karura are fearsome. They breath fire from their beaks. The flapping of their wings sounds like thunder, and creates gusts of wind so strong they can dry up lakes, knock down houses, and cover entire cities in darkness. Their gigantic wingspans are 330 yojanas wide, and they can leap 3,360,000 li in a single bound. (The lengths of one yojana and one li vary greatly from country to country and era to era—a yojana can measure anywhere between 1.6 km to over 13 km long, and one li can measure anywhere between 400 m and 3.9 km.)

BEHAVIOR: Karura inhabit Tendō, the realm of heaven. They are found on Shumisen (known as Mount Meru in English), a sacred mountain with five peaks which exists at the center the universe. They make their homes in trees, and live in cities rules by kings. They are the mortal enemies of the naga—a group of beings which includes dragons and serpents—and feed upon them as their main diet.

INTERACTIONS: Karura are are worshiped in some branches of esoteric Buddhism. Because karura are the enemies of dragons and serpents, they are seen as a counter to things associated with these creatures. They are guardians who keep venomous snakes and dragons away. They protect against poison and disease. They are even helpful against excessive rains and typhoons. Because they are such fierce predators, they are also viewed as destroyers of sin, devouring the spiritual impurities of the faithful just as they devour dragons.

ORIGIN: Karura comes from the Hindu deity Garuda, a giant eagle who served as the mount of Vishnu. Garuda was incorporated into Buddhist folklore, where he became a race of powerful eagle-like devas. They were then later brought along with Buddhism to China, and finally to Japan. The name karura comes from the Japanese pronunciation of Garuda.

Karura are one of the hachi bushū—the eight legions. These are the eight classes of supernatural beings who were converted to Buddhism by Buddha. The eight races of the hachi bushū are the ten (deva in Sanskrit), tatsu (naga), yasha (yaksa), kendatsuba (gandharva), ashura (asura), karura (garuda), kinnara (kimnara), and magoraka (mahoraga). All of these creatures are inhabitants of Tendō (the highest state of existence) except for the ashura, who live in Ashuradō (the third highest state of existence).

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.

Byakko

Byakko白虎
びゃっこ

TRANSLATION: white tiger
ALTERNATE NAMES: baifū
HABITAT: the western sky

APPEARANCE: Byakko is a celestial white tiger. His home is in the western sky. He spans seven of the twenty-eight Chinese constellations, taking up one quarter of the entire sky. The constellation which makes up the rear of the tiger is located in Andromeda and Pisces. The constellations which makes up the middle of the tiger are located in Ares and Taurus. The constellations which makes up his front legs and head are located in Orion.

INTERACTIONS: Byakko is one of the shijin, or Four Symbols, which are important mythological figures in Taoism. Byakko is the guardian of the west. He is associated with the Chinese element of metal, the season of autumn, the planet Venus, and the color white. He represents the virtue of righteousness. He controls the wind.

ORIGIN: Byakko 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 Byakko 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.

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.

Yatagarasu

Kinu八咫烏
やたがらす

TRANSLATION: eight-span (i.e. giant) crow
ALTERNATE NAMES: sansokuu (three-legged crow), kin’u (golden crow)
HABITAT: the sun
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Yatagarasu is a three-legged which inhabits the sun. It is found across East Asian folklore.

ORIGIN: A three-legged crow has been used as a symbol of the sun since neolithic times in China. It may have originated as a personification of sunspots by ancient astronomers. In Japan, the crow has also been a symbol of the sun since ancient times, appearing in Japan’s earliest written works. It is a holy creature and a servant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu. The name Yatagarasu means “eight span crow.” One “span” was the length between the outstretched thumb and middle finger—roughly 18 centimeters—but this moniker is mainly just a poetic way to say “very large.” Originally Yatagarasu was depicted with two legs, but in the 930’s CE, the Chinese myth of the three-legged crow was merged into the story of Yatagarasu. Since then, Yatagarasu and the three-legged crow have been synonymous with each other.

The three-legged crow has long been used in religious and astrological symbolism across China and Japan, particularly among those involved with sun worship and onmyōdō. The three legs of the bird represent heaven, the earth, and humanity, while the crow itself represents the sun. This symbolizes that heaven, earth, and mankind all come from the same sun, and are like brothers to each other. They are also said to represent the three virtues of the gods: wisdom, benevolence, and valor. The three legs may also represent the three powerful clans of ancient Kumano—Ui, Suzuki, and Enomoto—who use a three-legged crow as their clan crest.

LEGENDS: Yatagarasu is an important figure in the mythical history of Japanese. According to the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest written history, Yatagarasu is an incarnation of the god Kamo Taketsunumi—today enshrined in Kyoto’s Shimogamo Shrine. As Yatagarasu, he led Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, through the mountains to establish his country.

Jimmu’s clan originated in Kyushu, in present-day Miyazaki Prefecture. He and his brothers led an eastward migration from along the Seto Insland Sea, looking for a better homeland, and subduing the various tribes they encountered along the way. They suffered many hardships. When they reached Naniwa (present-day Osaka), Jimmu’s older brother Itsuse, leader of the expedition, was killed in battle. Jimmu realized that they had lost because they were fighting facing eastwards, fighting against the sun. He led his troops around the Kii peninsula, to Kumano (present-day Mie Prefecture), and began a westward push. His expedition became lost in the mountains of Kumano. Seeing this, Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and Takamimusubi, one of the creator gods, ordered Kamo Taketsunumi to act as a guide to Jimmu. Kamo Taketsunumi took the form of a giant crow, and flew to Jimmu’s side to show him the way. With Yatagarasu leading the way, Jimmu was able to navigate the mountains of Kumano and reach Yamato (in present-day Nara Prefecture), where he would found his capital and become Japan’s first emperor.

According to legend, Jimmu’s great-grandfather Ninigi was the grandson of Amaterasu. Thus, Jimmu, and the entire Japanese imperial line are the direct descendants of the sun goddess. Yatagarasu, as a guide to Jimmu, played a small roll with a very big impact on the future of the imperial dynasty.

Gyokuto

Gyokuto玉兎
ぎょくと

TRANSLATION: jade rabbit
ALTERNATE NAMES: tsuki no usagi, getto (moon rabbit)
HABITAT: the moon
DIET: unknown; presumably mochi

APPEARANCE: The dark spots visible on the full moon are said to resemble a rabbit who lives in the moon.

BEHAVIOR: In Japan, the rabbit is described holding a wooden mallet which he uses to pound mochi (rice cakes) in an usu, or mortar. The mallet and mortar as also visible as dark spots on the moon. In China, the rabbit is believed not to be creating mochi, but is instead mixing the medicine of eternal youth.

ORIGIN: The myth of the rabbit in the moon is very ancient. The earliest written version comes from the Jātaka tales, a 4th century BCE collection of Buddhist legends written in Sanskrit. The legend was brought along with Buddhism from India to China, where it was blended with local folklore. It came to Japan in the 7th century CE from China, where it was again adapted and adjusted to fit local folklore.

The Japanese word for pounding mochi in a mortar like the rabbit is doing—餅搗き (mochitsuki)—and the word for the full moon—望月 (mochitsuki)—are homophones.

LEGENDS: The Japanese version of the Sanskrit tale appears in Konjaku monogatarishū. A fox, a monkey, and a rabbit were traveling in the mountains when they came across a shabby-looking old man lying along the road. The old man had collapsed from exhaustion while trying to cross the mountains. The three animals felt compassion for the old man, and tried to save him. The monkey gathered fruit and nuts from the trees, the fox gathered fish from the river, and they fed the old man. As hard as he tried, the rabbit, however, could not gather anything of value to give to the old man. Lamenting his uselessness, the rabbit asked the fox and monkey for help in building a fire.  When the fire was built, the rabbit leaped into the flames so that his own body could be cooked and eaten by the old man. When the old man saw the rabbit’s act of compassion, he revealed his true form as Taishakuten, one of the lords of Heaven. Taishakuten lifted up the rabbit and placed it the moon, in order that all future generations could be inspired by the rabbit’s compassionate act. The reason it is sometimes difficult to see the rabbit in the moon is because of the smoke which still billows from the rabbits body, masking his form somewhat.

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.

Namekujira

Namekujiraなめくじら

TRANSLATION: a portmanteau of slug and whale; slugwhale
HABITAT: homes and gardens; as a regular slug
DIET: leaves and plants

APPEARANCE: As its name implies, the namekujira is a very large slug.  Its body is described as reddish-brown in color, with a long stripe running down its back. From its head to its neck, it is covered in black spots.

BEHAVIOR: Namekujira live in gardens and behave just like ordinary slugs. It is their size that makes them so strange. They crawl across doors and fences, leaving behind enormous, silvery slime trails up to 100 hiro in length—almost 182 meters.

ORIGIN: Namekujira is described in the Kujirazashi shinagawa baori, a comical Edo-period book featuring different types of pun-based whale yōkai. Its name is a play on words, combining the words namekuji (slug) and kujira (whale). In addition to its name, this yōkai’s description contains one more pun. There is a dish made from whale intestines called kujira no hyakuhiro. The name literally means “whale’s 100 hiro,” which comes from the great length of the whale’s intestines. So the gag is that while kujira no hyakuhiro refers to a delicious meal, namekujira no hyakuhiro is just a 182 meter long slime trail.

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.

Kyōkotsu

Kyoukotsu狂骨
きょうこつ

TRANSLATION: crazy bones
HABITAT: wells
DIET: none; it is powered solely by vengeance

APPEARANCE: A kyōkotsu is a ghostly, skeletal spirit which rises out of wells to scare people. It is wrapped in a ragged shroud, with only its bleached skull and tangled hair emerging from its tattered clothes.

BEHAVIOR: Kyōkotsu are formed from bones which were improperly disposed of by being discarded down a well. The bones may come from a murder or a suicide victim, or someone who died after accidentally falling into a well. The lack of a proper burial—and the egregious disrespect shown by discarding bones in this manner—creates a powerful grudge in those bones. This transforms the deceased into a shiryō. Like other ghosts, they pass their grudge on to those they come in contact with. A kyōkotsu lies at the bottom of its well until it is disturbed, then it rises up to curse anyone unfortunate enough to be using the well.

ORIGIN: Kyōkotsu was invented by Toriyama Sekien for his book Konjaku hyakki shūi. In his description, he writes that this yōkai’s name is the origin of the word kyōkotsu, which means fury and violence. While there is a word in a local dialect of Kanagawa which does match this description, there is no evidence actually linking it to this yōkai. It is more likely that Toriyama Sekien—who was fond of wordplay—actually created this yōkai based on words in local dialects and just made up a false etymology to make the story more interesting.

Dōnotsura

Dounotsura胴面
どうのつら

TRANSLATION: torso face
ALTERNATE NAMES: akahadaka
HABITAT: unknown
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Dōnotsura’s body appears much like that of a human’s, except that it is missing everything from the neck up. Its extremely large facial features are prominently displayed on its torso, just as its name implies.

ORIGIN: Dōnotsura appears on yōkai picture scrolls, but only his name and illustration appear. Like many picture scroll yōkai, no stories exist explaining what it does or where it comes from. However, its most likely origin is as a play on words. There is an expression in Japanese—”dono tsura sagete“—which is used to scold a person who looks inappropriately calm when they should be ashamed of something they’ve done. The connotation of this idiom is to lower a mask over one’s face, as in, “How dare you come here wearing that face!”; however, taken literally it means to “lower a face,” just as this yōkai’s face has been lowered down to his torso.

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.

Shiro ukari

Shiroukari白うかり
しろうかり

TRANSLATION: white floater

APPEARANCE: Shiro ukari is a ghost-like spirit with a very long tail. It is white, with large eyes that stare off into the distance as if lost in thought. It floats about in the air, aimlessly wandering about.

ORIGIN: Shiro ukari appears on a few Edo period scroll paintings, and nowhere else. It was invented by an artist rather than recorded from folklore. Aside from its name, nothing is written about it. Everything about it, including its behavior and its origin, is unknown and unexplained. However, its name may be a clue to its origin.

While it shiro ukari literally means “white floater,” both of these words carry a number of nuances which could refer to this spirit’s true nature. Shiro not only refers to the color white, but to a state of total innocence or naivety. Whereas ao (blue) is used in many yokai to refer to a novice or an apprentice, shiro can refer to a state of total, absolute naivete. It has a negative connotation, akin to a “fool” or a “country bumpkin” in English. The urban socialites of Edo looked down on the “shiro” people who lived in the rural areas outside of the capital. While not specifically stated, the vacant expression on this yōkai’s face could be an allusion to this alternate meaning of shiro.

Ukari comes from the word for floating, which has a number of different implications. The most literal meaning is to float about from place to place. There is also a nuance of absentmindedness or disconnect from others. Tourists who feel out of place in a strange city might be described as floating about in this way. It can also refer to merrymaking, particularly in a way that is disconnected with the real world. This is the same origin as the word ukiyo, which refers to the “floating world”—the urban, pleasure-seeking lifestyle of old Edo. In a spiritual sense, this word can also refer to spirits which have not been able to pass on to the next world due to the weight of their sins. They float about, but never ascend, and are doomed to haunt this world.

Perhaps shiro ukari is a pun describing the uncouth, naive rural bumpkins who Edo urbanites thought had no business being in their city. Their experience in the capital might be something like a wide-eyed ghost floating from place to place. Perhaps it is a yōkai which seeks out the impermanent pleasures of life just as the humans of old Edo did. Or perhaps it is the spirit of someone who is unable to ascend into the next world, and they are forced by the weight of their sins to float about and wander aimlessly for the rest of their existence.

Shōki

Shouki鍾馗
しょうき

APPEARANCE: Shōki (also known by the Chinese rendering of his name, Zhong Kui) is a legendary hero and deity from ancient China. He is ugly, with a large, hulking body, a long, flowing beard, and fearsome, piercing eyes. He is usually shown carrying a sword and wearing a court official’s cap. Shōki is known as “the demon queller” for his ability to vanquish, exorcise, and even control oni and other demons. He is so feared by oni that even his image is said to scare them away. The demons he defeats sometimes become his servants. It is said that he commands 80,000 demons.

ORIGIN: Shōki originated in ancient China during the 700’s. His story reached Japan by the late Heian period, and his popularity reached its height during the Edo period. Paintings and statues of him are still used as a good luck charms. His image appears on flags, folding screens, and hanging scrolls. Small statues of him can sometimes be seen on the roofs of older houses in Kyoto as well. Shōki is strongly associated with Boys’ Day, a holiday in May. He is revered as a god of protection from demons and sickness (particularly smallpox, which was believed to be spread by evil spirits), and also as a god of scholarship.

LEGENDS: Shōki lived in Shanxi Province in China during the Tang dynasty. His life’s goal was to become a physician in the court of Emperor Xuanzong. Shōki was a smart and diligent student. He trained hard and passed all of the exams to become a physician. He placed first out of all of the applicants and should have easily received the position. However, Shōki was a very ugly man. When the emperor saw his face, he immediately rejected Shōki’s application even though he was the most qualified for the job.

Shōki was devastated. His dreams shattered, he committed suicide on the steps of the imperial palace. The emperor was moved by Shōki’s dedication. He felt great regret for denying the application of such a talented and brilliant man on account of his looks. The emperor ordered that Shōki should receive a state burial of the highest rank—usually only reserved for royalty—and posthumously awarded him the title “Doctor of Zhongnanshan.”

Years later, the emperor became gravely ill. Delirious with fever, he dreamed that he saw two oni. The larger one was wearing the clothing of a court official. It grabbed the smaller oni, killed it, and ate it. Then, it turned to the emperor and introduced itself as Shōki. He vowed to protect the emperor from evil. When the emperor woke up, his fever was gone.

Xuanzong commissioned the court painter to make an painting of Shōki based on his dream. Shōki became a popular deity across China (and later, Japan). He was revered as a god of scholarship for his great devotion to his studies, and as a protector against disease and evil spirits.

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.

Shiofuki

Shihofuki

汐吹
しほふき

TRANSLATION: salt sprayer
ALTERNATE NAMES: shihofuki
HABITAT: oceans and coastal areas
DIET: unknown; probably fish

APPEARANCE: Shiofuki is an elusive aquatic yokai with elephantine ears and a trunk-like mouth. It has human-like arms, but its hands are webbed and resemble the fins of a fish. Its body is covered in fine hairs which the salt in the ocean sticks to.

BEHAVIOR: Shiofuki lives in the ocean far away from civilization. It is only seen when it rises up from the waves to spray salty water into the air. Everything else about the lifestyle and habits of this creature is a mystery.

ORIGIN: Shiofuki is not very well known. In fact, the only reference to it anywhere is the Bakemono tsukushi emaki, a yōkai scroll painted in 1820 by an anonymous author which depicts unique yōkai found nowhere else in folklore. No text accompanies its illustration, so everything about this yōkai is purely speculative.

Kitsune tsuki

Kitunetsuki狐憑き
きつねつき

TRANSLATION: fox possession

APPEARANCE: Some kitsune are able to possess human beings and cause them to behave in strange ways. Compared with other types of animal spirit possessions, kitsune tsuki is a relatively common form of possession in humans. A person possessed by a fox spirit often develops physical features that appear fox-like, such as sharper teeth or a streamlined, pointy face. For much of Japanese history—until modern medicine was introduced—mental illness and insanity were usually blamed on kitsune tsuki.

INTERACTIONS: There are three main types of kitsune possession: possession of an individual, possession of a family, and possession for use as a medium.

When a kitsune possesses an individual, it is often in retaliation for something done to the kitsune—killing one of its family members, for example. The possessing spirit causes its host to behave erratically and emotionally, making them prone to violent outbreaks and hysteria. People possessed by kitsune sometimes run naked through the streets, foam at the mouth, and yelp like a fox. Kitsune can speak through their hosts mouths. Victims are often able to speak and read languages that they previously had no knowledge of. Kitsune can even control their hosts like a puppet, causing them to do all sorts of evil things. According to folklore, women are more susceptible to fox possession than men. Kitsune are also said to possess people who are weak-minded.

When a kitsune possesses a family, that family becomes rich and fertile. These families were called kitsune mochi, and were able to manipulate the possessing kitsune spirits. In addition to bringing prosperity to their owners, kitsune could be used to bring ruin upon a family’s enemies. Kitsune mochi people used these spirits to place curses, possess, or bring sickness to others. Kitsune mochi families kept their fox spirits for generations, handing down their secrets from parent to child. A kitsune mochi family would honor and care for its possessing spirit, for it could just as easily bring the same ruin upon their entire family line. People suspected of belonging to kitsune mochi families were mistrusted for their unnatural abilities and feared by their neighbors. Even today, in some parts of Japan, people belonging to these lineages occasionally have trouble finding marriage partners, as few parents would allow their son or daughter to join such a family.

Kitsune tsuki for use as a medium involves inviting a kitsune to possess a willing person in order to perform divinations. A kitsune would enter the medium’s body and speak through her mouth, predicting the future or giving secret knowledge. This was a very dangerous practice, as it relies on the willingness of the kitsune to leave the body after the possession—and kitsune are very powerful creatures.

Recognizing possession in a person can be difficult if the victim does not display any obvious physical signs. However, there are a few ways to diagnose kitsune possession. Despite living in a human’s body, kitsune retain certain traits which can betray their presence. All kitsune love fried tofu and azuki beans. A possessed person will strongly crave these foods, often eating them large amounts and not filling up. A possessed person also develops a strong fear of dogs. In addition, a small lump can often be found hidden on the victim’s body. This is the place where the fox spirit resides. If pushed or pricked, this lump slips away and hides in another part of the body. It cannot be caught or removed by any physical means.

Because of widespread belief in fox possession, a number of folk cures have been invented over the centuries to deal with it. Exorcism was usually performed at Inari shrines, as foxes are sacred to Inari. One fairly benign treatment included having the victim licked from head to toe by dogs, which foxes fear intensely. Other less fortunate victims were beaten or burned in attempts to drive out the fox spirit. In some cases, priests would burn fresh pine leaves, suffocating the patient in thick, toxic smoke in an attempt to drive out the possessing spirit. Unfortunately this sometimes killed the patient before driving out the kitsune. In the end, even if the victim was cured of the possession, the families of people accused of kitsune tsuki often suffered ostracism and social isolation for the rest of their lives.

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.

Nigawarai

Nigawarai苦笑
にがわらい

TRANSLATION: bitter smile
HABITAT: inhabited areas
DIET: hatred and ill-feelings

APPEARANCE: Nigawarai are large, ugly yōkai with horns and green-tinged, hairy bodies. They wear dirty rags. Their hairy mouths are twisted into what looks like a forced smile. Their hands end in sharp, poisonous claws, which are powerful enough to paralyze small animals.

BEHAVIOR: Nigawarai are created out of the negative feelings of human beings—particularly, ill-humor and forced, feigned amusement. As their name suggests, they are related to the uncomfortable smiles that people make when trying to hide their feelings of discomfort. They cause ill-will, disgust and encourage arguments among those around them. They both feed off of and spread these negative feelings.

INTERACTIONS: When used in cooking, the poison from a nigawarai’s claws makes food terribly bitter. However, it also has the ability to cure stomach pain, making nigawarai a useful yōkai for medicinal purposes.

ORIGIN: The earliest references to nigawarai go back to the Muromachi period, where they appear in monster scrolls. These paintings appeared without description, so the original intent of the artists in describing this yōkai is unknown. Over the centuries, nigawarai continued to appear in other monster scrolls. Through the work of numerous artists, they eventually developed the traits that they are known for today.

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.

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.

Haka no hi

Hakanohi墓の火
はかのき

TRANSLATION: grave fire
HABITAT: tombs, graveyards, and burial grounds
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Haka no hi are mysterious, supernatural fires, or kaika. They spout forth from the base of graves.

ORIGIN: The cause of haka no hi is unknown. It is commonly believed to be a result of failure on the part of the grave’s owner to reach enlightenment and pass on to Nirvana. The flames are thought to be residual energy from worldly attachments, or else feelings of grudge or resentment, coming from the remains interred in the grave.

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.

Ashura

Ashura阿修羅
あしゅら

TRANSLATION: asura; warrior demons from Buddhist cosmology
ALTERNATE NAMES: asura
HABITAT: Ashuradō, one of the celestial realms
DIET: carnivorous; they thrive on violence and destruction

APPEARANCE: Ashura are fearsome demon gods with multiple faces and arms. They are roughly human-like in appearance, though their size, strength, and numerous appendages distinguish them from mere mortals.

BEHAVIOR: Ashura are warriors above all else, and live for battle. They love combat, war, and destroying things. They have enormous egos; ashura always desire to be better than others, have no patience for those weaker than they are, and prefer to solve any problem with violence.

There are many different kinds of ashura. Some are considered to be gods and others demons. Ashura are strong, powerful, and magical. In many ways they are far superior to humans. They experience more pleasure than those in the human realm, and live much longer. However, they are controlled by such intense passions—wrath, pride, violence, and greed—that despite their pleasure-filled existence they are constantly fighting and never at peace. Ashura are also wracked with jealousy; to be reborn as an ashura means to be constantly reminded how much better life would have been if you had been reborn in a heavenly realm instead of Ashuradō.

ORIGIN: In Japanese Buddhism, after someone dies, they are eventually reborn in one of the 6 Buddhist realms: Tendō, the realm of heaven; Ningendō, the realm of humans; Ashuradō, the realm of ashura, Chikushōdō, the realm of animals; Gakidō, the realm of hungry ghosts; and Jigokudō, the realm of hell. Of these, only two realms are considered to be “happy” rebirths—the heavenly realm and the human realm. Of the remaining realms, the realm of Jigoku is the worst, followed by Gakidō. The realm of animals is not a good rebirth because animals are ruled by their desires and thus cannot obtain enlightenment. Ashuradō, the realm of the ashura, is the least unpleasant of the “unhappy” rebirths.

In some Buddhist traditions, the realm of ashura is considered to be the lowest level of heaven, and gets included among the “happy” rebirths. However, because ashura are so controlled by their emotions, it is almost impossible for them to achieve enlightenment, become buddhas, and escape the cycle of endless reincarnation. Souls who are reborn here are usually humans who lived good lives up to a point, but committed some wicked deed which prevents them from being reborn in the realm of heaven.

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.

Amanozako

Amanozako天逆毎
あまのざこ

TRANSLATION: she who opposes everything in heaven
ALTERNATE NAMES: amanozako hime, onna tengu, metengu, tengu kami
HABITAT: heaven

APPEARANCE: Amanozako is a terrifying and powerful demon goddess. She is roughly human in appearance, but has a bestial face with a long, tengu-like nose, dangling ears, sharp teeth, and protruding tusks.

BEHAVIOR: Amanozako’s hideous appearance is matched only by her foul, contrarian temper. She loves to go against the crowd, and does exactly the opposite of what is expected. She frequently possesses the hearts of humans, causing clever people to become overly proud and haughty, or foolish people to lose control over their tempers.

Amanozako is extremely picky and particular. When things do not go exactly the way she wants them to, she flies into a horrible rage. When angered, she can hurl even the most powerful gods distances of over one thousand villages in a single throw. Her powerful teeth can tear apart even the strongest blades. Nobody can stop her wrath.

ORIGIN: Amanozako was born from the temperamental storm god Susanoo. He had let his ferocious spirit and bad feelings build up inside of him until they formed into a large ball, which he eventually vomited up. That ball of ill-feeling became this goddess.

Stories about her are ancient, going back to long before recorded history. She is thought to be the ancestor deity of tengu, amanojaku, and other yōkai which share her penchant for disagreeability and short temper.

Amanozako has one son, Amanosaku. In keeping with her obstinate nature, she spawned him all by herself without any partner. Her son proved to be just as obstinate as she, and was such trouble that all eight million gods in heaven could not put up with him. Amanosaku was so terrible and disobedient that he was eventually made ruler over all the disobedient and malevolent kami.

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.

Ikuchi

Ikuchiイクチ

TRANSLATION: none; just the name for this monster
ALTERNATE NAMES: ayakashi, ikuji
HABITAT: open seas
DIET: unknown; but it is big enough to eat anything it wants

APPEARANCE: Ikuchi are colossal sea monsters that roam the open seas off the coasts of Japan. They appear in numerous stories from the Edo period, where they are described as enormous fish or monstrous serpents of some kind. Their bodies are covered in a slippery oil, which sheds as they swim the ocean.

INTERACTIONS: When an ikuchi’s path crosses a boat’s, the sea monster envelopes the boat in its tentacle-like body. It slithers over the sides and across the deck, slowly sliding its whole body over the boat. Ikuchi are so long—many kilometers, by some accounts—that it can take hours for an entire one to slither over a boat. On a few occasions, boats have been tangled up in this monster for days. During this time, sailors must constantly bail the monster’s oily slime off of the deck to avoid being capsized by the heavy goo.

ORIGIN: An ikuchi is depicted in Toriyama Sekien’s bestiary Konjaku Hyakki Shūi, where it is called ayakashi. This yōkai is often referred to by that name. Ayakashi is more commonly used as a term for other strange creatures and supernatural phenomena and has nothing in particular to do with ikuchi. Toriyama Sekien may have just been listing the ikuchi as an example of an ayakashi. For whatever reason the name stuck.

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

八岐大蛇
やまたのおろち

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.

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.

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 Mikuzume. 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, Mikuzume recited poetry before the emperor. His imperial majesty immediately took a liking to her and employed her as a servant in his court.

Mikuzume 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. Mikuzume 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 Mikuzume’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 Mikuzume’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.

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.