Have you ever seen photos of those charming Japanese monkeys bathing together in steamy mountain hot springs? They’re so cute, but at the same time any tourist will tell you they can be a real menace too, stealing bags, food, and even attacking children and small dogs. Today’s yokai is based on a monkey, and that was the image I had in mind when I first read about this awesome character and its amazing capabilities.
Satori (覚, さとり)
Satori are strange, intelligent ape-men found in the mountains of Gifu prefecture. They appear to travelers on mountain roads, or folks living in mountain huts far from civilization. If the opportunity presents itself, they will gladly dine on anyone they can get their hands on. Satori have the uncanny ability to read people’s minds and speak their thoughts faster than the people can get the words out themselves, making them all the more spooky and dangerous. However, should they be unexpectedly hit by an object, or should something else unforeseen happen to them, they become incredibly frightened and run away. Of course, due to their telepathic abilities, that doesn’t happen too often. It is said that the only way to avoid being eaten by one of these yokai is to completely empty one’s mind, thus boring the satori and causing it to leave.
The name satori literally translates as “enlightenment,” as in the Buddhist-Nirvana kind. The uncanny ability of the satori to read thoughts might certainly come across as a kind of enlightened being to a scared traveler. This also creates an interesting connection with the way to avoid being killed by a satori; true enlightenment comes from emptying one’s mind of distracting, worldly thoughts, just as salvation from the hungry satori comes from an empty, zen-like mindset.
Satori are documented the Wakan Sansai Zue, an illustrated dictionary of Chinese and Japanese life published in 1712. This book, as well as Toriyama Sekien’s Gazu Hyakki Yagyō relates satori with kakuen, a kind of ape that lived in western China (they are also sometimes referred to as yamako or kuronbo) and captures women to rape or to eat. Japanese folklorist Yanagita Kunio suggested that the satori is a cousin of the yamabiko, an adorable little yokai which echoes peoples words. According to Yanagita, the ability to read peoples’ minds and repeat their words have a folkloric connected. Takada Mamoru, a renowned folklore research of Tokyo Metropolitan University, has also posited that satori are fallen mountain gods of the ancient proto-Shinto religion which have been corrupted into a yokai over the millennia (similar claims have been made of yamawarō, hitotsumekozō, and a few other yokai as well).
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