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.
TRANSLATION: crazy bones
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.