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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.



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.



TRANSLATION: earth prison; hell

APPEARANCE: Souls who are deemed unworthy of rebirth in the five upper Buddhist realms find themselves in the worst afterlife of all—Jigoku, or Buddhist hell. Though it is described as one realm, Jigoku is not just one place. There are countless different hells, which are usually separated into eight hot hells and eight cold hells. These are further subdivided into many other smaller planes and demi-planes—more than 64,000 according to some counts—and each one has a uniquely specialized form of punishment and length of stay, tailor-made to the sins of its inhabitants. While there are many different levels of hell in Japanese Buddhism, the general term Jigoku usually refers to the eight hot hells, also known as the eight great hells. The eight great hells are as follows:

Tōkatsu Jigoku, the reviving hell, is the plane of hell reserved for those who commit the sin of killing. Those who kill without remorse go to this hell. Even the killing of lesser creatures such as mosquitoes, flies, or ants—unless repented—will cause a soul to go to this hell. In addition, people who were particularly pugilistic in life, and those who died in mutiny or uprisings will also fall into this hell. Here, the ground is ever hot and burning. Denizens of this hell must fight each other with iron claws, tearing each other to pieces. Terrible oni roam the land, smashing, and pulverizing souls with their iron clubs. As soon as a soul dies, a cool breeze blows and it is instantly revived, and must fight to the death again. Souls here experience the pain of being killed countless times, for a life span in the reviving hell lasts 500 years. However, time in hell is measured differently than in the world of the living: one day in this hell is equivalent to 500 years in the realm of the Four Heavenly Kings, while one day there is equivalent to 50 years on earth. Therefore, a soul in Tōkatsu Jigoku must continue this punishment for over 1.6 trillion human years.

Kokujō Jigoku, the hell of black threads, is reserved for those who have not only killed but also committed the sin of theft. Here, oni knock the souls onto the hot ground and mark lines on their body with black threads. Then, using axes and saws, the bodies are hacked to pieces along the markings made by the threads. Others are made to carry heavy piles of hot iron across a tightrope suspended over a giant frying pan. When the victims fall, they are boiled and hacked to pieces in the pan. One life span here lasts a thousand years; however, a day in this hell is equivalent to 1000 years in the realm of Tōriten, while one day in Tōriten is equivalent to 100 years in the human realm. This works out to about 13.3 trillion human years.

Shugō Jigoku, the crushing hell, is reserved for sinners who have killed, stolen, and also committed the sin of lewdness. The suffering here is ten times greater than that of Kokujō Jigoku. Denizens here are crushed repeatedly between mountains of iron, being pulverized into a bloody jelly. When the mountains separate, life is restored and the process begins again. Trees with razor-like leaves dot the landscape, and beautiful men and women beckon to the souls from the tree tops. The lustful inhabitants climb the trees, slicing their bodies up in the process, and when they reach the treetops the beautiful men and women reappear at the bottoms of the trees, beckoning them back down. As blood and severed organs spout from the bodies, giant demons and beasts rush in to gobble of their entrails and pound the souls into a bloody mush. Fellators have their tongues stretched out and nailed to their ears. Pedophiles have molten copper pumped into their anuses until it pours out of their mouths. Homosexuals see their lovers covered in flames, and are forced to embrace them, only to be burned and torn into pieces themselves. Souls remain here for 2000 years; however, one day here lasts 2000 years in the realm of Yamaten, and one day in Yamaten lasts 200 human years. Thus, a lifetime here is equivalent to over 106 trillion human years.

Kyōkan Jigoku, the screaming hell, is for murders, thieves, lechers, and alcoholics. The suffering here is ten times stronger than in the previous hell. Here, sinners are thrown into boiling pots or locked up in iron chambers and roasted by oni. Those who committed crimes while drunk have their mouths wrenched open and molten iron is poured into their bellies. The cries of anguish of the denizens only serve to anger the oni further, and they fire arrows at the souls or bash them with iron clubs to make them stop, at which point they only revive and resume their suffering. One lifetime here lasts 4000 years, of which one day is equal to 4000 years in Tosotsuten, of which one day is equal to 400 human years. Thus, a condemned soul will spend over 852 trillion years in Kyōkan Jigoku.

Daikyōkan Jigoku, the hell of great screaming, contains murderers, thieves, debauchers, drunks, and liars. The suffering inflicted here is ten times worse than in the previous hell. Here, the tongues of the damned are pierced with iron nails and stretched and torn from their bodies, after which they grow back and are immediately pierced and torn again. This continues for 8000 years, one day of which equals 8000 years in Kerakuten, where one day is equivalent to 800 human years. The damned in Daikyōkan Jigoku suffer for an equivalent of roughly 6.8 quadrillion years.

Jōnetsu Jigoku, the burning hell, contains killers, robbers, perverts, drunkards, liars, and those who have held thoughts or beliefs contrary to Buddhist teachings. Here, the tortured souls are beaten with red-hot iron clubs. They have hot skewers thrust through their mouths and out their anuses, and are broiled over a great sea of fire. A life span in this hell lasts 16,000 years, one day of which equals 16,000 years in Takejizaiten, where one day is equivalent to 1,600 years on earth. A damned soul here spends the equivalent of 54.5 quadrillion human years.

Daijōnetsu Jigoku, the hell of great burning, is much the same as Jōnetsu Jigoku, only much hotter. The suffering here is equivalent to ten times more than all of the higher hells combined. This plane of hell is reserved for sinners who have committed all of the crimes listed previously in addition to physical crimes against Buddhist clergy—for example, raping a nun. The screams of the tortured souls here are so terrible that they can be heard up to 24,000 miles away. The power of this hell is so great that those who are to be sentenced here begin to feel their suffering up to three days before they actually die. The punishment on this level of hell lasts one half of an antarakalpa—a unit of time in Indian cosmology that is so unfathomably long that it defies mathematical description.

Mugen Jigoku, the hell of uninterrupted suffering, is the eighth and deepest circle of hell. It is reserved for the worst of the worst—murders of their own parents; killers of saints; those who have betrayed every single Buddhist precept. The souls down here are so hungry and thirsty that they tear apart their own bodies and drink their own blood in a useless attempt to ease their suffering. Words literally cannot describe how awful this hell is; if Mugen Jigoku were ever accurately described, both the reader and the writer would die from the sheer horror of it. It is so deep that it takes 2000 years of falling, non-stop, at terminal velocity, for a soul to descend all the way into this hell. Some say that those who are sent here never come back, while others say that the term of punishment here lasts one full antarakalpa, after which the soul may reincarnate again; although, even after a soul is finally released from this hell, its punishment is said to continue on into its next lives.

INTERACTIONS: Because Jigoku is so terrible and the buddhas so merciful, the tortured souls in Jigoku are allowed a few more trials like the ones they received in Meido to see whether they can be released from hell early or not—or at least have their existence “upgraded” to a less torturous one. On specific days, Buddhist memorial services are held by the deceased’s surviving relatives. While the specifics of what exactly happens in Jigoku vary between different Buddhist traditions, this is one explanation of the trials:

100 days after death marks the first trial in Jigoku. These trials are not so much judgments, as the soul is already being tortured in hell. They are more like appeals, where the soul (and his or her still-living family) get to appeal to the gods and the buddhas for one more chance at salvation. During the first of these trials, the soul is brought before King Byōdō (whose true form is Kannon Bosatsu, also known as Guanyin or Avalokitesvara in English).

On the 1 year anniversary of the death, the soul is once again brought to trial. This time the judge is King Toshi (whose true form is Seishi Bosatsu, or Mahasthamaprapta).

On the 2nd year anniversary of one’s death (the beginning of the third year after death), the soul is granted another chance for salvation by trial. King Godō-tenrin (whose true form is Amida Nyōrai, or Amitabha) presides over this judgment. In Chinese Buddhism, this tenth trial is the last chance for salvation; however, in some forms of Japanese Buddhism the soul still gets three more chances for salvation from Jigoku.

The next trial occurs 6 years after death, and is presided over by King Renge (whose true form is Ashuku Nyōrai, or Akshobhya).

Another trial occurs 12 years after death, and is presided over by King Gion (whose true form is Dainichi Nyōrai, or Vairocana).

The thirteenth and final trial occurs 32 years after death. This last trial is presided over by King Houkai (whose true form is Kokūzō Bosatsu, or Akasagarbha). Those who fail all three of these final tests, either through their own faults or from lack of prayers by their living relatives, are damned to remain in hell for a very, very long time before they can be reborn into one of the five other realms.

ORIGIN: Like Meido, the Japanese concept of Jigoku derives from Chinese Buddhism—specifically the concept of Diyu, which is in turn derived from the Indian Buddhist concept of Naraka. After being imported to Japan from China, it developed other uniquely Japanese features, although it never merged with the native Shinto concept of hell, Yomi.

Ono no Takamura

Ono no Takamura小野篁

APPEARANCE: Ono no Takamura was a noble, scholar, poet, and government official who lived in the first half of the 9th century. He is famous for being clever, quick-witted, and somewhat insolent. But he is even more famous for his side job in hell as an attendant to Great King Enma.

LEGENDS: Near the temple Rokudōchinnō-ji in Kyōto, there is a spot where the boundary between the world of the dead and the world of the living can be crossed. There are many stories in that area of ghosts returning to this world and trying to buy candy from stores, or visiting lost relatives. Ono no Takamura knew of this, and discovered a way to travel freely between the world of the dead and the world of the living. He would enter the underworld every night by climbing down a well located in the garden of Rokudōchinnō-ji, and return every morning by climbing out of a well located in the temple Sagano Fukusei-ji.

According to one legend, a nobleman named Fujiwara no Yoshimi fell very ill and died soon after. His soul crossed the Sanzu River, and traveled to Meido to be judged. When he reached the court of King Enma, a familiar voice spoke up from the darkness next to the judge and said, “I know this soul. In life, he served as an imperial minister, and was a noble and virtuous man. Please trust my judgment and return him to life.” When Yoshimi raised his head, he saw that the voice belonged to Ono no Takamura—and he was serving as one of King Enma’s councilors! King Enma replied, “Well, if you say so I suppose it can’t be helped,” and ordered his hell-guards to return Yoshimi to the world of the living.

A few days later, Fujiwara no Yoshimi approached Ono no Takamura at the imperial court. When Yoshimi asked Takamura about what he saw in Meido, Takamura appeared troubled and replied, “My work there is actually a secret, so please don’t tell anybody else about what you saw…” Afterwards, Yoshimi began to grow more and more fearful of Takamura’s power and position. Rumors spread through the capital that Takamura was King Enma’s right hand man. Many feared him.

Rokudōchinnō-ji still stands in Kyōto today. In the Enma Hall, right next to the statue of Great King Enma is another statue—one of Ono no Takamura. The well which Takamura used to enter the world of the dead still remains on the temple garden; however Sagano Fukusei-ji no longer stands, and the place where Takamura’s exit well once stood is now a bamboo forest.



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

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.



TRANSLATION: dark way; the underworld

APPEARANCE: When someone dies, they either go to Tengoku (heaven) or Jigoku (hell). If they lived an exceptionally good or an exceptionally evil life, they may go straight to Tengoku or Jigoku. However, for most people—who have done both and good and evil in their lives—the soul travels to Meido. There they face a test by the judges of the dead, each of whose true form is that of a buddha or a god. They are then sent either to Tengoku or Jigoku. Meido is a terrible place—though nowhere near as terrible as Jigoku. It is dark, windy, and full of horrible sights, sounds, tests and trials. It is a long journey, with no place to rest or find comfort.

To enter the underworld, the soul much first find and cross the Sanzu River, the River of Three Crossings, which marks the boundary between this world and the world of the dead. The Sanzu River is said to be located somewhere on Mount Osore, literally Mount Fear, a desolate volcano located in northern Japan. Despite its appearance—covered in blasted rocks, bubbling pits of dark liquid, and open vents spewing out toxic gas—Mount Osore is one of the three holiest places in Japan. Itako, blind shamanesses, communicate with the dead as they approach the mountain. The itako take hallucinogenic mushrooms known as skull mushrooms (ōdokurodake—big skull mushrooms; himedokurodake—princess skull mushrooms; and onidokurodake—demon skull mushrooms) which sprout only on the crags of this caldera.

INTERACTIONS: There are many variations on what exactly happens after this life ends. These are often depicted in graphic hell scrolls kept at temples. The depictions differ greatly from tradition to tradition and place to place. A typical explanation may go like this:

Upon dying, souls are visited by three oni who escort them on a seven day journey to Meido. The journey is harsh and terrible. It is dark, and a strong, howling wind rages constantly. The corruption of the living world materializes into swords on this plane, which pierce the bodies of the travelers, turning the surrounding terrain into a sea of blood.

A few days along the way, the souls are assaulted by horrible birds, which tear at their skin and pluck out their eyes. All the while the birds taunt them and scream at them to hurry up. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? I would have hurried from the start!” cry the souls of the dead. “What is this stupid soul saying!” cry the birds. “We were perched on his roof since three days before he died, warning him to start saying his prayers! That fool only said, ‘The crows are being extra noisy today. The old woman next door must be dying. Go bring her some sugar.’ Well the old woman is still alive, happily licking her sugar!”

Next, the souls come to an enormous mountain which scrapes the clouds, covered in sharp thorns. The path up the mountain is steep and impossibly long. The souls cry out, “I was sick and weak in life, how can you expect me to climb such a mountain now?” To which the oni reply, “What is this stupid soul saying! This is the mountain of your greed! Every time you wanted something your neighbor owned, or desired some earthly possession, you added to this mountain! You built it, now you can climb it!” Anyone who lags behind gets hit with the oni’s terrible iron club.

Finally, after seven days, the souls arrive at the Sanzu River and face the first trial put forth by the first judge, King Shinkō (whose true form is that of Fudō Myōō; who is known as Acala in English). Shinkō judges the souls on how much killing they have committed, down to every bug that was squashed and every fish that was caught. Those whom Shinkō judges to be wicked go straight to Jigoku. Others may cross the river depending on how well they fared in the trial. To cross the Sanzu River, a toll of 6 mon (an old form of currency) is required. This is buried with the deceased during the funeral. Those whose funerals were not properly performed and did not receive the 6 mon cannot cross. This is the reason that the seventh day after death is an important day in Japanese funerary services. The services and prayers performed for the deceased aid them in this trial and allow them to cross the river.

One part of the Sanzu River is crossed by a great bridge. Another part of the river is shallow and fordable. The rest of the river is wild and deep, and filled with poisonous snakes. The souls with the most good deeds are allowed to cross the bridge. Those with a mixture of both good and evil may ford the river in the shallow part. The worst of the souls may only cross by swimming through snake-filled rapids. The crossing of the Sanzu River takes seven days.

After crossing the river, the souls encounter Datsueba and Keneō. These two oni take the heavy clothes from each soul, wet from the crossing of the river, and hang them on a tree. The amount the branch bends under the weight of the clothes serves as a measure of the weight of the sin on each soul, to be used as evidence in the trials to come. If a soul arrives with no clothes—perhaps having discarded them while swimming in the river—Datsueba flays his or her skin and hangs it from the tree instead.

The second trial takes place fourteen days after death, and is overseen by King Shokō (whose true form is Shaka Nyōrai, or Siddhartha Gautama). Shokō judges the souls on how much they have stolen. As with the previous trial, he sends the most grievous offenders straight to hell, while allowing the good to pass on to the next trial. Again, the fourteenth day after death is an important day for family members to perform ceremonies in honor of the deceased, in order to help him or her pass this trial.

Before the third trial, each soul must pass through a fortified gate which is guarded by a fierce oni. The oni wields large blades, which he uses to haphazardly chop off the arms and legs of the souls, saying, “That hand helped you to sin. I’ll cut if off for you!” The souls must then cross an enormous bay, wider than the Sanzu River, and filled with boiling liquid. The river gives off foul smelling fumes in all directions for many miles.

The third trial takes place 21 days after death, and is overseen by King Sōtei (whose true form is Manji Bosatsu, or Manjusri). Sōtei judges the souls on their sins of lust and sexuality, using a cat and a snake. The cat judges the souls of men; it bites at their penises, and the degree of the injury—from a slight scratch to completely severed—is used as a measure of one’s sexual sin. The snake judges the souls of women; it is inserted into the woman, and the depth to which it can enter is used to determine the depth of her sin. As before, some will go on to hell, while others—with the aid of funerary services from their surviving family members—will pass on to the next trial.

The fourth trial, 28 days after death, is overseen by King Gokan (whose true form is Fugen Bosatsu, or Samantabhadra). Gokan judges the dead on the number of lies they told in life. He weighs each soul against a large, heavy stone. The number of stones it takes the balance the scale determines the weight of one’s sins. Excessive liars are damned—those who are not may continue on to be judged again. Once again, the family holds a funerary service to aid their beloved departed in this trial, hoping to sway the mercy of the judge.

Next, the souls must cross a vast blasted, desolate landscape of unfathomable length. Balls of red-hot iron fall constantly like rain from the sky, burning the skin of the souls and causing their feet to blister as they walk the path to the next trial.

The fifth trial, 35 days after death, is overseen by Great King Enma, the ruler of the underworld (whose true form is that of Jizō Bosatsu, or Ksitigarbha). Enma’s judgment is the final chance to appeal one’s fate through the prayers and memorial services performed by the living relatives. Enma shows each soul a large mirror, in which the individual’s former life is reflected back at them, with all of their sins and transgressions clearly laid out. Enma’s job is to decide, based on his and the previous trials, which of the six Buddhist realms each soul will be reborn into: the realm of heaven, the realm of humans, the realm of ashura, the realm of beasts, the realm of gaki (or hungry ghosts), or the realm of hell.

After 42 days, the souls which have made it this far now face the judgment of King Henjō (whose true form is Miroku Bosatsu, or Maitreya). Henjō decides the location of each soul’s rebirth based on the reports from Enma’s mirror and Gokan’s scale.

Next, the souls must cross a dark land, full of strange animals whose cries pierce the darkness and fill the atmosphere with dread. Strange birds attack the souls, breathing flames at them and piercing them with their sharp beaks.

On the 49th day after death, the souls reach the trial of King Taizan (whose true form is Yakushi Nyōrai, or Bhaisajyaguru). The 49th day memorial service is an important one, with many family members attending to pray for the deceased; Taizan’s trial is the final chance to avoid going to hell. He uses the information from the previous judges to determine the remaining conditions of each soul’s rebirth.

Upon completion of this trial, each soul moves on to a road with six unmarked torii gates, each representing one of the Buddhist realms. There is no way to tell which gate leads to which realm, and each soul must decide for him or herself which gate to choose. Upon passing through the gate, the soul travels along an enormous frozen river, and leaves Meido for the next world, whichever one it may be. For many, the journey ends here. Those who have been judged worthy may find themselves in Tengoku. Others are reborn as humans, animals, or worse. For those deemed unworthy for even the lowest forms of rebirth, more trials await in the realm of Jigoku.

ORIGIN: The origins of Meido are strongly rooted in Chinese Buddhism. When Buddhism was brought from India to China it took on a structure of its own, merging many aspects with Chinese philosophy and Taoism. This mixture of Chinese Taoism and Indian Buddhism was imported to Japan, after which it began to develop its own uniquely Japanese features as well.

Taizan Fukun no Sai

Taizan Fukun no sai泰山府君祭

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.



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.



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).



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.



TRANSLATION: white tiger
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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



TRANSLATION: asura; warrior demons from Buddhist cosmology
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.



TRANSLATION: shadowy unpious demon
HABITAT: temples and places where people have recently died
DIET: impiety

APPEARANCE: Onmoraki are bird-like monsters with black feathers, bright eyes that shine like lanterns, and a ghastly human face. They are skilled mimics, and shake their feathers as they give off their shrill, terrifying call.

INTERACTIONS: Onmoraki appear near temples, particularly in the presence of neglectful priests. They sneak up on sleeping priests and surprise them, scolding them in a perfect imitation of their own voices. When the priest wakes up and flees in terror, the onmoraki vanishes into the shadows.

ORIGIN: Onmoraki come from the bodies of the recently deceased. When people die but do not receive enough memorial prayer, their life energy can transform into this grotesque, bird-like demon. The name onmoraki comes from a play on words emphasizing demonic interference with achieving Buddhist enlightenment. The first part of the name, on, comes from onmyō, the Japanese word for yin and yang. On represents yin, the shadow, the unseen, and hidden, secret things—in this case it refers to demons which live in the shadows and in the hidden parts of the world. The second part of the name, mora, refers to Mara, a Buddhist demon who personifies unskillfulness, impiety, and the death of the spirit—a reference to the poor quality of memorial services which cause this yōkai to come forth. The last part of the name, ki, simply means demon—emphasizing the fact that this monster truly is a demon.



TRANSLATION: the three corpses; the three spirits
HABITAT: inside the human body
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: The sanshi are three spiritual worms found inside of humans. Each is about 6 centimeters long. These worms live in their hosts from the moment they are born to the moment they die. They work hard to cause their hosts to do evil things.

INTERACTIONS: The names of the sanshi are Jōshi, Chūshi, and Geshi, meaning upper worm, middle worm, and lower worm.

Jōshi lives in your head and looks like a Taoist wise man. He is responsible for making your eyes grow weak, creating wrinkles, and growing white hairs. Chūshi lives in your torso and looks like a wild beast. He is responsible for damaging internal organs, making you overeat and overdrink, and causing bad dreams. Geshi lives in the lower half of your body and looks like a human foot with a cow’s head. He drains the will and shortens the life of his host.

The number 60 is an important number in Chinese astrology, and every sixty days the sanshi leave the body to visit the King of Heaven while their host human sleeps. They report their host’s wicked deeds for the year to king. Depending on this report, the King of Heaven shortens each human’s life span by a certain amount.

To escape the King of Heaven’s sentence, Kōshin practitioners do not sleep every 60th night, so the sanshi are never able to leave the body and give their report. Additionally, spells and charms are chanted to prevent any harm done by the sanshi. The following spell is said to defeat the sanshi’s power:

ホウコウシ、ホウジョウシ メイコシ シツニュウヨウメイイチュウ キョリガシン

Finally, if you find yourself drowsy and unable to stay awake, the following spell must be chanted before falling asleep to prevent harm:

シヤムシハ、イネヤサリネヤ ワガトコヲ ネタレゾネヌゾ ネネドネタレルゾ



TRANSLATION: a pun meaning both “free staff” and “exactly as you please”

APPEARANCE: Nyoijizai is a nyoi, a kind of priest’s staff, which has turned into a yokai after existing for many many years. It also bears a very strong resemblance to a mago-no-te, (literally “granchild’s hand”) a backscratcher. Its only power is its ability to scratch that itchy spot on your back which you just can’t seem to reach, no matter how hard you try.

ORIGIN: Nyoijizai’s name is a play on words. While nyoi is a term for a priest’s staff, it can also mean “as you wish;” and jizai means “freely” or “at will.” While this name evokes an animated staff, its also literally means, “exactly as you please.” Thus, nyoijizai is an animated back-scratching staff that allows you to freely scratch any place you wish, exactly as you please.



TRANSLATION: standing-collar clothes

APPEARANCE: Eritategoromo is a a Buddhist high priest’s kimono that has transformed into a yokai. It still looks mostly like the high-collared ceremonial robes of a priest, however the long, pointed collar has transformed into a long, pointed nose, and it has sprouted eyes and a beard.

ORIGIN: Eritategoromo was once the kimono which was worn by Sōjōbō, King of the Tengu, who lives on Mount Kurama, north of Kyoto. Sōjōbō is a fearsome, powerful, wise, god-like monster, with the strength of 1000 ordinary tengu. He is a master swordsman, and was responsible for training a number of famous legendary heroes of Japan, such as Minamoto no Yoshitsune. Though he is an ascetic yamabushi and great teacher, like any tengu, Sōjōbō has an evil side too: he is said to feed on children who wander too deep into the mountains.

Sōjōbō was not always a tengu. He was born a human, and became a well respected high priest. He was also proud, and he mistakenly believed that he had achieved satori, or enlightenment. Though he expected to become a Buddha when he died, he transformed instead into a demonic tengu. Even as a tengu, the proud Sōjōbō continued to live as a Buddhist priest, training daily, and wearing his ornate priestly vestments. Either due to Sōjōbō’s extreme pride, or due to being worn by a magical tengu, some spirit became attached to his high-collared robes and they transformed into this yokai.



TRANSLATION: “Gong-goro,” or ghost gong, depending on the reading

APPEARANCE: A shōgorō is a kind of tsukumogami, a spirit which inhabits a household item. In this case, it is an animated shōgo (鉦吾) — a small, bowl-shaped gong that is struck with a mallet and used in Buddhist services. A shōgo gets a lot of use, being used multiple times every service. It is made of metal, and so can last a long time before breaking. A gong which has long worn out and stopped playing its note pleasantly, and gets put into storage until it is forgotten (or perhaps one is the witness to some horrible crime) is an ideal candidate for awakening into a yokai.

BEHAVIOR: Like nay tsukumogami, shōgorō are not dangerous. At most, they are startling, as they wander around at night like some kind of metal turtle, striking their bodies and ringing their notes out into the night. It is enough perhaps to cause loss of sleep, but not much else.

ORIGIN: The name shogorō is a pun. It is a combination of shōgo, the gong, and gorō, a very common part of a boy’s name. The word can also be read as a combination of shōgo and goryō (御霊), the ghost of a noble or an aristocrat from ages past. Goryō are a grade of ghost above yūrei, and play a large part in many Japanese ghost stories.

LEGENDS: In the early 18th century, there was a wealthy merchant family called Yodoya living in Osaka. For many generations, the Yodoya were the kings of the rice trade, raking in unbelievable amounts of cash. The 5th generation boss, Yodoya Tatsugorō, had so much money and lived a life of such extreme opulence that he attracted the attention of the bakufu (regional shogunate officials, something like military police).

The bakufu decided that the Yodoya family had accumulated too much wealth. They were only a merchant family, and it was improper for a lower class to hold so much wealth. Their economic power was above their station in life, and so the bakufu stripped Yodoya Tatsugorō of everything he had: his rice, his business, his house, his every last possession. The Yodoya family fell into ruin, and Tatsugorō became destitute. Even his favorite possession, an unbelievably rich and indescribably splendid golden chicken called kogane no niwatori (金の鶏, literally “golden chicken”), was taken from him. The loss of his precious golden chicken caused Tatsugorō so much grief that he died, and because of the unhappy circumstances of his death, his ghost was unable to pass on.

Normally, when a ghost lingers like this, it attaches itself to the object of its desire, be it a person, a place, or (in this case) a thing. Tatsugorō’s soul meant to attach itself to his precious kogane no niwatori. In Japanese, the words for “gong” and “golden” can both be read “kane.” Poor Tatsugorō’s ghost must have gotten confused and attached itself to a nearby shōgo instead of his chicken, and the instrument turn into a tsukumogami.


Kyourinrin, Chouchinobake. Suzurinotamashii経凛々

TRANSLATION: awe-inspiring sutra

APPEARANCE: Kyōrinrin is a spirit of knowledge formed from ancient scrolls, books, and scriptures which have been gathering dust, unstudied by their owners. These tomes gather together, compelled by the wisdom of the ages, into a dragon-like spirit. Kyōrinrin is often ornate, like the scrolls that make up its body. It decorates itself with the most ornate volumes, wearing them like a kimono, and uses scrolls with tassels as head decorations. It develops a bird-like beak and long, extendible arms, which it uses to assault the ignorant owners who let such priceless treasures and knowledge fall into disuse.



TRANSLATION: mole cricket spirit
HABITAT: rooftops, temples; only appears every sixty nights
DIET: wicked humans who try to outsmart the gods

APPEARANCE: The shōkera is a very large, dark-skinned, three-toed demon which spends most of its time lurking about on rooftops. Not much is known about this fearsome beast aside from its hunting practices, though it is believed to be some kind of demon with connections to Kōshin, an esoteric Japanese folk religion with origins in Taoism.

INTERACTIONS: Shōkera only appear on Kōshin-machi, a special night in the Kōshin faith which occurs every sixty nights. A shōkera spies through windows, doorways, or skylights in houses, watching for the inhabitants to do wrong or impious things, after which it pounces down in a vicious attack. Because Kōshin is no longer a very widespread religion, and because victims of shōkera attacks would only be implicating themselves as wicked by admitting to seeing one, little else is known about the shōkera’s specific mannerisms.

ORIGIN: According to Kōshin, there are three spiritual worms or insects, called the sanshi, which live inside every human body. Every sixty nights, on a special night called Kōshin-machi, these worms leave the body while their host human sleeps. The sanshi travel to Heaven to report on the good and bad deeds of their human. The emperor of Heaven then uses this information to lengthen or shorten people’s lives according to their deeds. While good people have nothing to fear from Kōshin-machi, the wicked might try to circumvent having their bad deeds reported by staying awake and reciting prayers all night long during these special nights so that the sanshi cannot leave the body. The shōkera lurks about on rooftops during these nights, peering into windows and hunting for anyone violating the laws of heaven in this way.