(Photo by (c) Photo AC)
(Photo by (c) Photo AC)
A mountain path
The geography in Japan is mountainous. Expressways have a lot of tunnels all around. People nowadays have a nice drive with a car stereo on at a high volume and enjoy delicious dishes at a service area (Reference to the site; Japan’s expressways are full of entertainment). And they reach their destinations while spending times in an air-conditioned car. Driving at night on the expressway is one of the exciting opportunities.
On the other hand, imagine your life without an automobile a long, long ago. A tunnel at the present day suggests the difficult pass of old days where travelers had to get over but avoid dangerous move at night. One reason was, of course, to keep away robbers. Another was that people were bad in directions in dark mountain paths depending on moonlight. There must have been an eerie feel to well-wooded ways in mountains.
Just listening to hoot and noise foxes or raccoons made among the weeds might have made even the brave a fright. Besides, the animals were especially believed to change themselves into human beings and befool travelers. The Japanese people of the past thought yokai or various supernatural monsters inhabited nature, mountains, rivers, ponds, and even houses.
Kappa (It literally means a kid in a stream.)
Umibozu (It literally means a man with a clear-shaved head.)
It is said that 8 million deities exist in Japan. In the same way, the number of yokai is uncountable as well.
At the beginning, let’s visit watersides where “kappa” inhabit the area. Their backs are like turtle shell and plates on their head keep water. If it vapors, the happening is fatal to them. The image of 5 is a famous stream, in Tono city, Iwate Prefecture (Link to the location), where kappa are said to appear. The name is “Kappa Stream”. If you want to capture them, you will require license for the price of \200 (Approx. $2) issued by the local tourist association. Not just only this place, the stories about kappa also have been handed down throughout the country. Apart from the authenticity, the Image 4 is a picture of a kappa “who” was actually captured in Ibaraki Prefecture (Link to the location) in 1836.
Kappa sometimes commit crimes to drown people to the death but they have been popular among people and the goods featuring them are often in the market. For your information, their favorite food is cucumber. A kind of sushi is called “kappa maki” which is a cucumber rolled in rice and sea weed.
When a drowned body was founded in a river or pond, it used to be viewed as the work of kappa. I am sure that the “existence” of kappa was a good lesson for children who loved playing in the river in summers, which decreased accidents in swimming.
“Umibozu” of the Image 6 is a typical yokai appearing in the sea. Bozu means clean-shaven heads which are associated with the heads of Buddhist monks. In navigation, it is said that a huge Umibozu suddenly comes out of the sea and makes the ship capsize. Interestingly, however, he runs away when he is blown by cigarette smoke. He was thought out to be a “criminal” when a mysterious accident at sea happened in spite of good weather.
(Photo by (c) フリー写真素材ぱくたそ)
Konaki-jiji (It literally means crying old man like a baby.)
Konaki-jiji of the Image 7 is said to appear deep in the mountains in Tokushima Prefecture (Link to the location). A traveler walking in a mountain path hears a baby cry and thinks it is strange. In approaching the spot he finds the baby whose face is old man. He is called Konaki-jiji. Holding the baby in his arms is fatal to a traveler. Some say he is to be killed by the yokai and others say he is transformed into Konaki-jiji himself and continue to cry until a new victim comes.
The prefecture is the near place where I grew, so I was very terrified to hear the story. However, the true identity is said to be a strange old man letting out a strange noise in a mountain. A lore can often trace back to an unexpected but simple fact.
Another yokai is Yuki-onna or Snow Woman. Though snow men are worldwide famous, in Japan snow women have been frightened.
A man trekking in the snow comes across a beautiful woman in a white cloth. When she breathes on the man, in that moment, he freezes to death. Like kappa, parents used to warn their children playing in the snow, saying that when you went out in the deep snow, a snow woman appeared. Or it may be a cautionary lesson for men who fancy themselves as a lady-killer when they are accosted by even a strange woman.
Yokai were ways to easily explain potential perils in nature and have been formed as each definite shape. As folklore develops, a variety of theories on their origins are put forward. The origin of Konaki-jiji is a laughing matter in the now.
In the Houses
(Photo by (c) いらすとや)
Zashiki-warashi (It literally means a kid in a Japanese-style parlar.)
Neko-mata (It literally means a folk-tailed cat.)
While you are relaxing at your home, it seems that yokai stay close by you. That does not always mean they do something wrong. In the Tohoku (North East) Region in Japan, much concrete lore about incarnate yokai in the shape of human children has come down. They are called Zashiki-Warashi, sometimes boys and sometimes girls. They often play trick on humans but they are believed to a kind of the guardian angels of a household and treated well.
Zashiki-Warashi show any sign of their existence or make a noise but rarely make their appearance. It is said that family which Zashiki-Warash stay with will become prosperous and some people even make an offering to them. And once the kid departs the family, they are to go to ruin.
There is a famous inn where a Zashiki-Warashi appears and it is hard to make a reservation. Though, I have never heard anyone take a photo of Warashi.
Next, imagine your cute house cat becomes a yokai. Unlike dogs, cats assume neutral attitude to humans. If you kill a cat, the animal is said to haunt you and your children. The mysterious image of cats create more scary stories than those of dogs.
A representative cat yokai is Neko-Mata. When a domestic cat get old, the cat transforms itself into folk-tailed yokai. How old is your cat? The older the cat is, the more possibly the cat becomes Nekomata. Be careful!
Night Parade of a Hundred Kinds of Yokai
Night Parade of a Hundred Kinds of Yokai
Picture scroll depicting Night Parade of a Hundred Kinds of Yokai
A hundred kinds of yokai often walk around in procession at midnight. Medieval people actually believed in the parade and had a great fear of night trips.
What on earth should I do when I come across them in a deserted mountain path at night? Running from them? It would be futile if they run faster than I. I would hide myself in the weeds and could only pray for time quickly passing while being frightened. When a dog bites me, I have to stand the pain and cannot let out my voice.
I hear they will vanish into air when you chant a Buddhist sutra. Unfortunately, I don’t know any sutra by heart. Searching a sutra with a smartphone? No way! Wi-Fi is not available in a mountain pass. To look at the picture of the “Night Parade of a hundred yokai”, you can easily imagine how frightened the people of the past were.
Change the idea! It may be enjoyable to see the yokai parade along the Broadway in Manhattan. TV crews and uncountable New Yorkers would come in crowds and have a field day with them.
New types of Yokai still come into the world.
Comic Artist Shigeru Mizuki
Popular comic character “Kitaro” and his father (on his head) created by Shigeru Mizuki
Yokai did not always exist in the past when civilization did not progress yet. Urban legends also give birth to new types of yokai. An interesting example is “Turbo-Grandma”. When you drive a car on the expressway, you suddenly hear a knock at a glass window. Then it is said that an older woman gazed at you while riding a motorbike so fast.
In the act of driving and looking at her, you may lead poor driver performance. Some traffic accidents could possibly been caused by a Turbo-Grandma”. Hey, what do you think about?
As I wrote this article, I happened to hear the news that a famous comic artist Shigeru Mizuki passed away at the age of ninety three years old. He researched legendary hundreds of yokai and created comics about them. So he is famous and loved for a Yokai artist. His merits were to portray specific figures of yokai who appeared only in the old literature. His hometown has a museum featuring his works and yokai monuments standing along “the Yokai Street”.
Yokai are not ghosts but live things. It may be Japanese culture in that people co-exist with monstrous yokai and have funniness and affection for them.
(Photo by (c) いらすとや)