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Oni hitokuchi


TRANSLATION: one bite from an oni
ALTERNATE NAMES: kamikakushi (spirited away)

APPEARANCE: When people vanish without warning or without a trace, their disappearance is often blamed on evil spirits. There are a number of different words describing this phenomenon. When a person is said to have been kidnapped and taken to the other world by spirits, they are said to be a victim of kamikakushi, or spiriting away. These victims often come back to the world many years later, profoundly changed by the traumatic experience. Sometimes, however, a person never returns after going missing. In these cases, the victim is often said to have been taken–or rather eaten–by an oni. Oni hitokichi describes such a situation, where the victim was gobbled up in a single bite, never to be seen again.

LEGENDS: A famous example of oni hitokuchi appears in the Heian Period story collection Ise monogatari. Poet and playboy Ariwara no Narihira lusted after a beautiful and high ranking noble lady named Fujiwara no Takaiko. Because of the her high social status, it was impossible for them to have a legitimate relationship. To Narihira’s dismay, their affair could only be conducted in secret. Unhappy with the situation, one night Narihira snuck into Takaiko’s room and kidnapped her. He fled into the wilds with the girl, when a terrible storm struck. They discovered a cave and sheltered there. Takaiko stayed in the far back end of the cave, and Narihira stood watch by the entrance with his bow and arrow ready. In the morning, when the storm had cleared, Narihira went to retrieve Takaiko from the cave, but she was not there. An oni who lived in it had gobbled her up, and there was not even a single piece of her left. Her screams had been drowned out by the sounds of the storm during the night.



TRANSLATION: spirit calling incense

APPEARANCE: Hangonkō is a legendary incense from ancient China which has the power to bring forth the spirits of the dead before those who burn it. Those who burn the incense will see the spirits of the dead within the smoke.

ORIGIN: Hangonkō is made from the hangonjū, a magical tree with leaves and flowers that resemble those of a maple or Japanese oak. Its smell can be picked up from over 100 ri away. To make hangonkō, you steam the hangonjū’s roots until the sap comes out. Then you knead the sap to make the incense. Even a small piece of this resin is strong enough to recall the spirits of those who died from sickness or disease. There is a catch, however. Hangonkō only returns the spirit for a short time, and they only exist within the smoke of the burning incense.

LEGENDS: The incense was famously used by Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty in China. After his beloved concubine Li Furen passed away, the emperor fell into deep depression. A Taoist sorcerer, in an attempt to ease the emperor’s grief, provided him with a bit of hangonkō so that he might see Lady Li one more time.

Hangonkō was a popular subject in Japanese literature as well. It appears in a number of Edo period works, from ghost story books to theater, kabuki, rakugo, and bunraku. The Japanese versions star different characters connected to famous Japanese figures; for example in one story a man is overcome with grief at the death of his beloved prostitute, and a hōkan—a male geisha—recommends he try summon her using a secret incense handed down by the onmyōji Abe no Seimei.

All of the variations of the story share the same moral: after the person uses the incense to meet their lover’s spirit, it only leaves them sadder and more grieved than they were before. Hangonkō doesn’t alleviate their loneliness, it makes it worse. This story is an allegory. Smoke can be a symbol of delusion, such as attachment to the material world, or the inability to let go of a loved one after death. In Buddhism, this delusion is the ultimate cause of all suffering. The smoke of this incense prevents people from properly letting go of their loved ones and moving on. They’re stuck in the past, in a delusion, and will be forever miserable unless they learn to let go.



TRANSLATION: torch shadow
ALTERNATE NAMES: shokuryū (torch dragon)
HABITAT: Mount Shō
DIET: none; he does not need to eat, nor drink, or breathe

APPEARANCE: Shokuin is a mighty god with the face of a human, and the body of a red dragon. His body is said to be 1000 ri long (an ancient unit of distance which varies quite a bit from age to age and place to place)—an immeasurable distance, meaning that he is impossibly large. He lives at the foot of Mount Shō, near the northern sea. His eyes glow like beams from a lighthouse, and his breath is so strong that it changes the seasons.

BEHAVIOR: When Shokuin opens his eyes, day falls upon the earth. When he closes them, it becomes night. When he inhales it becomes summer. When he exhales it becomes winter. Shokuin does not need to eat, drink or breathe to survive, but when he does decide to breathe it causes huge gusts of wind.

ORIGIN: Shokuin originally comes from China. Shokuin is the Japanese pronunciation of the characters that make up his name; in China he is known as Zhuyin or Zhulong. Many yōkai were lifted straight from Chinese by Japanese authors—some of them more or less word for word, others undergoing quite a bit of a transformation and reinterpretation, depending on how much liberty the authors decided to take. Toriyama Sekien’s description of Shokuin doesn’t undergo too much of a change from his source: the Sengaikyō (Chinese: Shanhaijing), an encyclopedia of fantastical Chinese mythological creatures. However, Shokuin appears in a number of other Chinese books, many of which contain contradictory statements about precisely where he lives and other details about him. It isn’t clear where exactly his home of Mount Shō is located, but Toriyama Sekien describes it as being near the Arctic Ocean.

Due to his size and the effects that his blinking and breathing has on the day/night and seasonal cycles, Shokuin may have been an ancient Chinese solar or fire deity, or even a personification of the sun. It has also been suggested that Shokuin may have been the aurora borealis. An ancient Chinese name for the northern lights was “red spirit,” and the location of Shokuin far to the north further supports this theory. To the ancient Chinese, the aurora may have looked like a giant red dragon thousands of kilometers long writhing across the northern sky.

Jakotsu babā


TRANSLATION: snake bones hag
HABITAT: Bukan, a mythical country far to the west
DIET: as a human

APPEARANCE: Jakotsu babā is a scary old hag and a shaman with the power to control snakes. She is described as carrying a blue snake in her right hand and a red snake in her left hand.

BEHAVIOR: Very little is recorded about jakotsu babā’s history or life, so her behavior is the subject of speculation by storytellers. Generally, she supposedly lives near a place called “the snake mound.” She scares those who stay too close to her home by attacking them with her snakes.

ORIGIN: It’s not quite clear where this yōkai originally comes from. She was recorded in 1780 by Toriyama Sekien in his book Konjaku hyakki shūi. Because she carries two snakes, Sekien speculated that Jakotsu babā originally came from the mythical country of Bukan (also called Fukan; known as Wuxian in Chinese). Bukan is recorded in the Shan hai jing, which Toriyama Sekien uses as his source for this record. It was supposedly located far to the west, past China on the Asian continent. The race of people who lived in Bukan were shamans, and they used snakes prominently in their divinations.

According to Sekien, long ago there was an important man in Bukan named Jagoemon who lived in a place known as “the snake mound.” His wife was known as Jagobā (i.e. “Jago’s wife”). Over time, her name was corrupted into jakotsu babā. Jagoemon is not a famous historical or mythical figure, so Sekien’s reference may have just been invented for fun. Prior to Konjaku hyakki shūi, the name jakotsu babā appears in various pulp fiction and kabuki plays of the 1760’s and 1770’s—although it was just used as a vulgar slang word for an old woman, rather than a yōkai or a shaman. Some scholars believe that Sekien may just have taken a popular buzzword of his time, transformed it into a yōkai and attached a simple backstory to it.

Kokuri babā


TRANSLATION: hag of the old temple living quarters
HABITAT: old, dilapidated temples
DIET: human flesh

APPEARANCE: A kokuri babā is an old hag which inhabits temples deep in the mountains. She hides herself away in the back of the temple and feeds off of human corpses.

BEHAVIOR: A kokuri babā was once a priest’s widow at a remote, rural temple. While her husband lived, she was a dutiful wife, helping run the temple, tending to the needs of the parishioners, cooking, cleaning, washing, and taking care of the temple grounds. However, after her husband’s death, she retreated into the temple’s living quarters and became a shut in. When her food stores ran out, she began to steal the offerings left behind by people visiting the temple. Because of this grave sin, she transformed into a yokai, unable to pass on to the next life. From then on, she developed a taste for human flesh. She survived by carving up meat from the corpses of the recently dead. When there were no fresh corpses available, she would unearth previously buried corpses and peel off chunks of their rotting skin off to gnaw on.

INTERACTIONS: Kokuri babā do not usually interact with people, preferring to stay hidden away in the back rooms of their temples. However, when traveling monks pay a visit to their temple, they do not pass up the chance for some fresh meat. People who encounter a kokuri babā usually realize too late that they are in danger.

ORIGIN: Kokuri babā was invented by Toriyama Sekien for his book Konjaku hyakki shūi. Although it is written with words that literally mean “hag of the old temple living quarters,” Sekien was well known for using wordplay in his yōkai names, and this yōkai was no exception.

Kokuri is reminiscent of a popular folk phrase “Mukuri kokuri,” which is used as a metaphor for something scary. Indeed, Sekien points out in his description that kokuri babā is even more fearsome than Datsueba, the skin-flaying hag of the underworld. Parents would scold misbehaving children with, “Mukuri kokuri, a demon will come (if you don’t stop misbehaving)!”

Mukuri kokuri has a long history, originating in the the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. The Mongols under Kublai Khan had conquered China and Korea, and they had set their sights on Japan. The invaders were viewed by most people as the living embodiment of demons. Japan’s victory against the Mongols—thanks in no small part to two typhoons (believed to be kamikaze, or “divine winds” sent from the gods) which eradicated the two major Mongol invasion fleets—ended Mongol expansion and is had a profound impact on the identity of Japan as a nation. The memory of the invasions remained strong for generations, and became a part of folklore. The fear of invading Mongols was the basis for the phrase “Mōko Kōkuri no oni ga kuru” (“The Mongolian-Korean demons are coming!”), which over the centuries was corrupted down to just mukuri kokuri.



TRANSLATION: smokey fabric
HABITAT: chimneys, bonfires
DIET: combustible materials

APPEARANCE: Enenra is a yōkai made up of wisps of smoke, which rise up into the sky from a fires, such as the takibi bonfires which farmers light to dispose of the remains of their harvests. As the smoke rises, human-like faces appear and disappear in its form.

BEHAVIOR: Enenra is essentially just a personification of smoke. It floats about as it climbs into the air, billowing in the wind, and appearing as fragile as a piece of delicate silk dancing in the breeze. It is mesmerizing and relaxing to watch.

ORIGIN: Enenra was invented by Toriyama Sekien for his book Konjaku hyakki shūi. It seems to be loosely based on a passage in Tsurezure gusa which describes the smoke rising from fires burned in the summer to keep mosquitoes away. Contemporary yokai scholars have also pointed out that this yōkai’s name sounds similar to the name Enma, the lord of hell and judge of the dead. As hell is a place of fire and smoke, it has been suggested that instead of the spirit of smoke itself, enenra may actually be the spirits of the dead rising up along with the smoke. For that reason, enenra only appears before those who are calm and pure of heart and mind.



TRANSLATION: minister of the four directions; one who sees in all directions

APPEARANCE: In ancient times, a hōsōshi was an official government minister and a priest in the imperial court. He wears special robes (the particular outfit varies depending on which shrine the ritual is being performed at), and carries a spear in his right hand and a shield in his left hand. The name also refers to a demon god which this priest would dress up as during yearly purification rituals. This god appears as a four-eyed oni who can see in all directions, and punishes all evil that it sees.

BEHAVIOR: During the early Heian Period, the hōsōshi’s duties included leading coffins during state funeral processions, officiating at burial ceremonies, and driving corpse-stealing yōkai away from burial mounds. By donning the mask and costume, the hōsōshi (priest) became the hōsōshi (god) and was able to scare away evil spirits. The hōsōshi’s most famous duty was a purification ceremony called tsuina.

Tsuina was performed annually on Ōmisoka—the last day of the year—at shrines and government buildings (such as the imperial palace). In this ritual, the hōsōshi and his servant would run around the shrine courtyard (covering “the four directions”), chanting and warding the area against oni and other evil spirits. Meanwhile, a number of attending officials would shoot arrows around the hōsōshi from the shrine or palace buildings, symbolically defending the area against evil spirits. Other observers would play small hand drums with ritualistic cleansing significance.

ORIGINHōsō was a concept related to divination, the four directions, and the magical barriers between the human world and the spirit world. It dealt with creating and maintaining these boundaries and barriers. It including things like planting trees or placing stones in the four corners of an area, or utilizing existing features like rivers and roads, which serve as natural boundaries. By maintaining these natural boundaries, the spiritual boundaries between the worlds could also be maintained, with the ultimate goal of keeping the imperial family and other government officials safe from supernatural harm.

The concept originated in ancient Chinese folk religion, where it is called fangxiang. The fangxiangshi wore a four eyed mask and a bear skin, and acted as a sort of exorcist. Chinese folk religion eventually became mixed with Buddhism and Taoism, and made its way to Japan. The Japanese hōsōshi’s rituals and costume were derived from this folk belief.

Over time, the Japanese version evolved further away from its Chinese roots. The hōsōshi came to be seen not as a god which keeps oni away, but as an oni itself. Rather than exorcising evil spirits, the hōsōshi became an evil spirit, and it was the imperial officials who chased away and exorcised the hōsōshi (thus symbolically chasing all evil spirits away). This may have been due to changing perceptions during the Heian period about the concept of ritual purity. The hōsōshi, who was associated with funerals and dead bodies, came to be viewed as unclean. It would be inappropriate for such a creature to be on the same “side” as the imperial household, so it became the target of the ritual instead of the officiator.

While the governmental position of hōsōshi no longer exists today, some shrines still perform annual tsuina rituals involving the hōsōshi. The celebration of Setsubun, in which beans are thrown at people wearing oni masks, is also derived from this ancient ritual.


Byōbu nozoki


TRANSLATION: folding screen peeper
HABITAT: wealthy homes

APPEARANCE: Byōbu nozoki is a depraved spirit which emerges from the decorative folding screens known as byōbu. It is very tall, stretching well over two meters (tall enough to peer over any sized folding screen). It’s body is long and lithe, and it wears white robes resembling those of a ghost. It has long black hair and blackened teeth. Despite the resemblance, byōbu nozoki it is not a yūrei, but is actually the tsukumogami of a folding screen.

INTERACTIONS: As its name suggests, a byōbu nozoki’s chief activity is leering over folding screens at the people on the other side—particularly if the people are engaged in romantic activities.

ORIGIN: Byōbu nozoki was invented by Toriyama Sekien for his book Konjaku hyakki shūi. According to him, this spirit manifests from a very old folding screen which has witnessed many years of sexual activity.

Sekien invented a fake history connecting it with Chinese history. Sekien describes the byōbu nozoki as tall enough to peer over a folding screen seven shaku (a unit of length approximately 30 cm) high. This recalls a story about the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang, in which he leaped over a 7 shaku tall byobu to escape an assassination attempt. This legend which would have been well known to his readers during the Edo period. With this reference, Sekien both invents a funny narrative and finds a way to connect this amusing yōkai with history, legitimizing it as more than something he just made up.

Bashō no sei


TRANSLATION: Japanese banana spirit
HABITAT: the Ryūkyū archipelago
DIET: sunlight and soil

APPEARANCE: Bashō no sei are the spirits of Japanase banana trees (Musa basjoo). They are native to the islands of Okinawa, but are common in ornamental gardens across Asia. They usually appear as a human face amongst the broad, flat banana leaves.

INTERACTIONS: Bashō no sei are not particularly hostile or threatening towards people. They generally limit themselves to merely scaring humans by suddenly appearing next to them. For example, in one story a bashō no sei takes the form of a young woman, appears next to a meditating monk and asks him, “Can even inanimate plants attain buddhahood?”

They are not completely without danger, however—some local legends tell of bashō no sei assaulting and even impregnating humans. Women were warned not to walk near banana trees past 6 pm. If they did, they would run into a yōkai among the broad leaves—sometimes a monster, other times a handsome young man. Shortly after, the woman would become pregnant. When the baby was born 9 months later, it would have tusks or fangs like a demon. What’s more, the following year and again every year after that, the woman would give birth to another demon. Whenever a demon child was born, it would have to be killed by feeding it a poisonous drink made of powdered kumazasa (a type of bamboo grass); this is supposedly the reason why kumazasa is commonly found growing near houses in Okinawa.

ORIGIN: Stories about banana tree spirits are numerous across Japanese, Chinese, and Ryūkyūan folklore. The Edo period herbalist Satō Chūryō recorded his observations about these spirits in an essay. According to him, Ryūkyū’s banana orchards were so large that they contained rows of trees many miles long. If you walked past them at night, you were guaranteed to experience something strange. He observed that the spirits that come out of the banana trees did not cause any direct harm to people other than spooking them, but nevertheless could be avoided if you carried a sword. Chūryō’s theory was that banana trees weren’t necessarily unique in having spirits, but that because their leaves are so large and they were planted in such large numbers, it is particularly easy for humans to see these trees’ spirits. He believed that was the reason for the large number of superstitions about banana trees compared with other plants.

LEGENDS: A story from Nagano tells of a priest who was sitting outside and reciting suttras when a beautiful young woman appeared and attempted to seduce him. The priest grew angry. He stabbed the woman with his sword and she ran away. The next morning, the priest found a bloody trail left by the woman he had stabbed. The trail lead to the temple’s gardens, where a bashō tree was lying on the ground, cut in two. The priest then realized that the woman was actually the spirit of the tree.



TRANSLATION: monk in the flames
HABITAT: Toribeyama, a mountain in Kyōto
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Kazenbō is a ghostly apparition which resembles a monk wreathed in flames, being burnt alive. They appear on a mountain in Kyoto called Toribeyama, which has been used as a grave site for many centuries

BEHAVIOR: Kazenbō appear occasionally to visitors to the mountain. They don’t do anything harmful, but their horrific appearance is very disturbing. They materialize, appear to suffer in flames which never completely consume them, and then disappear.

ORIGIN: During the Heian period, Toribeyama was an important burial ground and cremation site, especially for the nobility of the city. During major epidemics, many diseased bodies were burned there. It is said that there was an unending column of smoke rising from the mountain from all the burning bodies.

Towards the end of the 10th century, a number of monks decided to offer themselves up in ritual sacrifice by fire. They believed that in doing so, they would rid themselves of their worldy attachments, along with their bodies, and achieve enlightenment. The ceremony was open to the public, and a large number of people came to witness the event. However, it would seem that a number of these priests did not actually achieve enlightenment. They must not have been able to truly give up their attachments to the material world. So now, instead, their ghosts are doomed to haunt Toribeyama, appearing in ghostly flames as beggar-monks wreathed in the fires of ignorance and sin.



TRANSLATION: wind tanuki
ALTERNATE NAMES: fūseijū, fūbo, heikō
HABITAT: mountains and cliffs
DIET: omnivorous; feeds primarily on spiders and incense

APPEARANCE: Fūri are wild beasts from the mountains of China. They are about the size of a tanuki or a river otter, and their shapes resembles a monkey. They have red eyes, short tails, black fur with a leopard-like pattern, and blue-greenish manes which run from nose to tail.

BEHAVIOR: Fūri are nocturnal, and spend the daylight hours sleeping. At night they leap from tree to tree, or cliff face to cliff face, with soaring jumps. They can moves as quickly as the wind, and resemble flying birds when they leap. They can clear the distance between two mountains in a single leap.

Fūri’s diet consists of spiders and the fragrant wood from incense trees, however they have also been observed hunting. They use a special kind of grass (the species is unknown) and climb to the top of a tree. They hold the grass out in their hands to try to attract a bird. When a bird comes for the grass, the fūri is able to catch and eat the bird.

INTERACTIONS: Fūri are extremely fast, but Chinese records say that it possible to capture one with a well-placed net. A captured fūri will act embarrassed, lowering its head and looking up with big, pitiful eyes in an attempt to convince a person to release it. They are very fragile, and die immediately if they are struck. However, if you try to slice them up with a sword or knife, the blade will not cut through their skin. If you try to roast them with fire, their bodies will not burn. They have the amazing ability to revive from death merely if wind blows into their open mouths. However, they cannot revive if their skull has been broken, or if their nose is stuffed with leaves of Japanese rush (Acorus gramineus), a wetland shrub.

ORIGIN: Fūri appear in various Chinese atlases of herbology and medicine. These were referenced by Japanese authors during the Edo period, causing fūri to be incorporated into Japanese folklore. The original description of the fūri is most likely based on the colugo—a gliding mammal native to Southeast Asia. There are no colugo in Japan, which is likely why Japanese folklorists described them as a subspecies of tanuki.

Himamushi nyūdō


TRANSLATION: oven bug monk
HABITAT: houses; specifically under the floorboards
DIET: lamp oil

APPEARANCE: Himamushi nyūdō is a grotesque yōkai which lives under floorboards and crawls out at night time. It vaguely resembles a Buddhist monk, but it has a long neck, sharp claws, a body covered in thick, dark hair, and a very long tongue which it uses to lap up the oil from lamps.

INTERACTIONS: Himamushi nyūdō bothers people who are working hard or studying late at night by jumping out of the darkness and scaring them.  Although it doesn’t directly attack people, its presence is disturbing enough. It blows out the lights suddenly, and it licks up the precious lamp oil, making it difficult to continue working.

ORIGIN: According to Toriyama Sekien’s description of this yōkai in Konjaku hyakki shūi, himamushi nyūdō is born from those who were lazy in life, carelessly wasting time from birth to death.

The word “oven bug” in its name is probably a reference to cockroaches. The hima kanji in this yokai’s name can also be read kama—and likely refers to the kamado, a traditional Japanese oven. Cockroaches have quite a few nicknames in Japanese; among them himushi (“fire bug”) and hitorimushi (“lamp bug”), both of which sound similar to himamushi. Cockroaches and other pests would have fed on the fish oil in Edo period oil lamps; just like this yōkai. Cockroaches live in dark, warm spaces, such as underneath a kamado; just like this yōkai. And they crawl out of the floorboards to scare those working late at night; just like this yōkai.

Himamushi nyūdō’s name contains a number of puns. According to Toriyama Sekien, it was originally called himamushiyo nyūdō (“monks who waste time at night”). Over the years, the pronunciation gradually morphed, and it became associated with hemamusho nyūdō—a popular Edo period word doodle in which a monk is drawn using the characters in its name: ヘマムショ入道. The connection with this cartoon character would probably have amused readers during Sekien’s time.



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

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

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

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

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

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



TRANSLATION: behind spirit
HABITAT: haunts cowardly people
DIET: fear

APPEARANCE: Ushirogami looks like a ghost with long black hair, and a large single eyeball located on the top of its head. It doesn’t have feet, but instead has a long, twisting body which allows it to leap high into the air.

INTERACTIONS: An ushirogami’s favorite tactic is to scare people by leaping out and appearing right behind them (thus its name). They like to tug on the hairs on the back of a person’s neck and then vanish just as they turn around to see touched them. Other pranks that ushirogami enjoy include placing their icy cold hands or breathing their hot breath onto the necks of their victims. Ushirogami particularly like going after cowardly young women walking the streets at night. They sneak up behind them and untie their hair, causing it to fall all over the place; or they run their hands through the woman’s hair and mess it around, causing it to become tangled. Sometimes they call up strong gusts of wind to blow umbrellas away.

ORIGIN: Ushirogami is thought to be a kind of okubyо̄gami—a spirit that causes cowardice, or that specifically targets cowardly people. Its name comes from the words ushiro (behind) and kami (spirit). However, there is a hidden pun in its name: ushirogami also means the hair on the back of your neck, and the phrase ushirogami wo hikikaeru (to have the hairs on the back of your neck pulled) means to do something with painful reluctance. It describes a person who has to do something that they really don’t want to do. As they search for some way out of it, they turn around and look behind them as if the hairs in the back of their head were being metaphorically pulled. The pun is that the ushirogami (spirit) is pulling on your ushirogami (hair), causing you to become cowardly and not want to do something. You turn around to see who pulled your hair, but there is no one back there. Thus the ushirogami can be explained as both an external entity which causes fear, or as the internal personification of your own cowardice or reluctance.



TRANSLATION: light rain monk
HABITAT: mountain roads
DIET: as a human (likely follows a monk’s diet)

APPEARANCE: Kosamebō are yōkai which look like Buddhist monks. They loiter about on empty mountain roads at night. As their name implies, they only appear during nights when light rain is falling.

INTERACTIONS: Kosamebō accost travelers and beg for alms such as spare change or bits of millet to eat. Though frightening—and perhaps a bit annoying—they do not pose any real danger to humans.

ORIGIN: Kosamebō appears in Toriyama Sekien’s yokai encyclopedia Konjaku hyakki shūi. Sekien describes them as appearing on the roads going through Mount Omine and Mount Katsuragi, two holy mountains in Nara Prefecture which have popular pilgrimage trails. They are also part of the local folklore of the Tsugaru region of Aomori Prefecture.



TRANSLATION: raincoat fire
ALTERNATE NAMES: minomushibi, minoboshi, etc.; varies widely from place to place
HABITAT: wet rural areas

APPEARANCE: Minobi is a phenomenon that appears on rainy days in rural areas, particularly during the rainy season. Often it appears near bodies of water such as rivers or lakes, such as Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. Minobi appears as a number of tiny fireballs which glow like fireflies. They float about in the air and tend gather in large numbers.

INTERACTIONS: Minobi gets its name from its tendency to gather around people wearing mino (traditional straw raincoats). It sticks to the raincoat and burns. When someone attempts to brush off or swat out the fire, the minobi instead multiplies, growing larger and larger. Eventually the person is forced to strip off the raincoat and leave it on the road.

ORIGIN: Minobi is found all over Japan, although often by different names and with different explanations. Sometimes this phenomenon is thought to be caused by natural gas escaping from the ground (as with other mysterious fireballs like onibi and kitsunebi). Most often it is said to be the work of a mischievous kitsune, itachi, or tanuki. Because it appears more frequently during the rainy season, sometimes minobi’s true form is believed to be a firefly or other insect, such as the minomushi (bagworm moth).



TRANSLATION: human face tree
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.



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.



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.