My wife’s brother happened to get married in December, which provided us the perfect excuse to go back to Japan for a short trip. With the Christmas and New Years holidays around the corner as well, it made sense to extend the vacation a bit and spend the whole month in Japan. This was awesome not only for the wedding, but because I got to spend my birthday, Christmas, and New Years (the absolute BEST Japanese holiday) in Japan, as well as having the chance to tour around and do some yokai research and collect visual reference for my next book.
My wife’s family lives in Echizen, Fukui prefecture, which is way off the beaten path and not a tourist spot by any means. But what I love about that is that there is very little Western influence, and it feels like “old Japan,” whatever that actually means. However, despite being almost unknown (even in Japan) it has a rich history. There is a shrine there dedicated to the goddess of Japanese paper (washi) and a small village dedicated to preserving the traditional methods of washi-making. The site was even immortalized in a hanga print by one of my favorite artists, Tōshi Yoshida:
I didn’t quite catch the same angle, but you can see how the place almost hasn’t changed at all.
While the wedding and family time was awesome, I want to show you some of the other cool yokai- and folklore-related places I visited:
Mizuki Shigeru Yokai Road
Mizuki Shigeru Yokai Road is a street in Sakaiminato, Tottori — the town where legendary manga artist and yokai-ologist Mizuki Shigeru comes from. I expected a tourist trap when I came here, but I was pleasantly surprised. While it certainly was tourist-y, it wasn’t a trap. The street, about a mile long, was covered all over with yokai themes — or rather I should say GeGeGe no Kitaro (Mizuki’s yokai-themed comic) themes. Mizuki’s characters covered every store, the street lamps, the post office, the sewer lids… even the taxis were GeGeGe no Kitaro-themed. There wasn’t much to do there but shop and soak in the atmosphere, and it wasn’t really a “research” place, but it was a really fun pilgrimage spot for a yokai fan like me.
Matsue Castle Town
The main purpose of this road trip for me was to visit the “home” town of Lafcadeo Hearn, world-famous researcher and author on Japanese topics. Hearn is the author of Kwaidan and was a chronicler of Japanese folklore and legends. He wasn’t the first to write about Japanese lore in English, but he is considered one of the best — primarily because while other authors came to Japan and wrote about what they heard and saw, they wrote from the perspective of a foreigner living in a foreign country. Hearn moved to Japan, married a Japanese woman, took a Japanese name (Koizumi Yakumo), and made this land his home. Of all the Western authors on Japanese topics, he is the most insightful and most heartfelt.
Hearn lived in Japan a hundred years ago, and stayed in Matsue, Shimane for a year, where he met his wife. Matsue Castle Town is a very well-preserved castle town, with many of the old buildings kept up just as they were back in Hearn’s time. The house where Hearn stayed is even still there, and you can visit it. There are also traditional samurai houses set up for you to see what life was like back then, and Matsue Castle is a glorious specimen of Japanese castlery (is that a word?). Himeji Castle gets all the credit for being Japan’s most famous castle, but I was much more impressed by Matsue Castle due to its rustic-ness and the preserved castle town in which it remains.
Izumo Taisha is one of the major and most holy shrines in Japan. There was a lot of history here, too much to go into in one blog post, but it was really interesting. It also made me really glad I did those paintings of Japanese kami a few years back, because a lot of those names popped up and I knew who they were. I actually ended up having to explain to my wife some of the intricate relationships between the gods. It wasn’t a yokai-related site, but as far as history goes, wow, what a site! The history museum next door to the taisha was also quite cool, and full of little dioramas depicting Japanese history. I simply can’t get enough when it comes to dioramas…
Iwami Ginzan was an amazing surprise. We stopped there on the way from Izumo to Hiroshima, as it was along the way. In its heyday a few hundred years ago, this tiny mountain valley was home to over 20,000 citizens who were all employed by the massive silver mine here. The mine was so profitable that its silver was exported all over the world, and silver from this mine accounted for some very large percent of all the silver in the world during the 1700’s (I can’t remember how much it was…) — which is why this is now a World Heritage site. Long ago a massive flood washed all of the houses, temples, and infrastructure away, and eventually the place was abandoned. Today, almost no trace remains of the enormous city that was once here, and it looks like a totally natural mountain valley. If you didn’t have a guide, you’d never even know… fortunately we had a guide who pointed out all of the amazing things hidden in plain site. Almost every square inch of forest here is growing on top of chiseled stone walls — the former foundations of houses. Roof tiles are buried all through the foliage, as are graves which had been toppled in floods. While today it is a serene picture of nature, in its heyday, nearly every square inch would have been filled with homes, temples, shops, etc., and it would have been packed like the streets of Tokyo today. Hard to imagine! Of the 600 silver mines that were dug in this valley, only two are safely accessible today, and we got to go in one of them.
Itsukushima, also known as Miyajima, wasn’t the last stop on our roadtrip, but it was the last one related to yokai and mythology. Itsukushima is an island off of Hiroshima dominated by the enormous “floating” shrine, which appears on land when the tide is low and floats above the sea when the tide is high. It reminds me a lot of St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall (or Mont San Michel in France).
Itsukushima is dedicated to Benzaiten, one of the seven lucky gods. It also has strong connections to Ryuujin, the dragon god of the sea, and through that it is related to Kappa, Suiko, and a number of other aquatic yokai. I also learned about a new yokai while I was there: ryuutou, a collection of eerie lights which appear over the water at Miyajima on New Years Eve. Sadly I was there just before New Years Even and did not get to witness this yokai, but I will be including it in my book!
Miyajima is also fun because of the tame wild deer which inhabit the island. Much like the “wild” deer in Nara, you can walk right up to them, and they will try to steal food from people and shops.
Phew! We visited a couple of other spots on the trip, and it was a grueling 3-day road trip, but it was totally awesome, and I got to hear a lot of ghost and yokai stories from each location. The rest of my Japan trip was spent back in Fukui, with a cold, drawing and inking yokai illustration for the book. It’s going to be great, so keep checking back here for more updates!