A-Yokai-A-Day: Hangonko

This is it folks, the last yokai of A-Yokai-A-Day 2017! And also your last day to back The Book of the Hakutaku on Kickstarter! Collectors editions and stretch goals won’t be available in stores, so don’t miss your chance to get them as part of the Kickstarter!

I like to save my favorite and scariest yokai of the month for last. Today’s yokai won’t make you scream and won’t make you cringe in disgust. It won’t take your breath away… But it may just bring you true dread. Read on to find out why this is my pick for scariest yokai of the month!

“spirit calling incense”

Toriyama Sekien’s Hangonkō

Hangonkō is a legendary incense from ancient China which has the power to bring forth the spirits of the dead before those who burn it. Those who burn the incense will see the spirits of the dead within the smoke.

The incense was famously used by Emperor Wu (Japanese: Butei) of the Han dynasty in China. After his beloved concubine Li Furen (Japanese: Rifuren) passed away, the emperor fell into deep depression. A Taoist sorcerer, in an attempt to ease the emperor’s grief, provided him with a bit of hangonkō so that he might see Lady Li one more time.

Hangonkō was a popular subject in Japanese literature as well. It appears in a number of Edo period works, from ghost story books to theater, kabuki, rakugo, bunraku/ningyō jōruri puppet theater… The Japanese versions star different characters; for example a man whose beloved prostitute dies is overcome with grief, and a taikomochi recommends he try using hangonkō—a secret incense handed down by the onmyōji Abe no Seimei.

Hangonkō is made from the hangonjū, a magical tree with leaves and flowers that resemble those of a maple or Japanese oak. Its smell can be picked up from over 100 ri away. To make hangonkō, you steam this tree’s roots until the sap comes out. Then you knead the sap to make the incense. A small piece of this resin is said to be effective at recalling the spirits of those who died from sickness or disease.

There is, of course, a catch. Hangonkō only returns the spirit for a short time; and they only exist in the smoke of the burning incense. All of the different versions of the story share the same ending: the person using the incense meets their lover’s spirit one last time, but it only leaves them sadder and more grieved than they were before. It doesn’t alleviate their loneliness, it makes it worse.

There’s an allegory here. Smoke often symbolizes delusion. And in Buddhism the the strongest delusion is attachment to material things—like the inability to let go of a loved one after death. Delusion is said to be the ultimate cause of all suffering.The smoke of the incense prevents those using it from properly letting go of their loved ones and moving on. They’re stuck in the past, in a delusion, and will be miserable until they learn to let go.

To me, there’s nothing comforting about this story. No good moral, no reconciliation, not even a punchline. It just evokes pure, existential horror; the horror of losing a loved one too soon. How do you get over that? Either you do or you don’t… One of my best friends says that their greatest fear is to die alone. Staying alive, however, seems even worse.

Happy Halloween!

Hangonkō, from The Book of the Hakutaku

A-Yokai-A-Day: Kurobozu

Those of you long-time readers of A-Yokai-A-Day will probably know that I like to build up towards Halloween, with the scariest and most thematically-appropriate yokai saved for the end. This past week we’ve seen yokai dressing up in costumes, old hags, monsters hiding under your floor, the ghosts of people burnt at the stake (sort of), just to name a few. Today’s yokai is one that I find pretty spooky, a little funny, but mostly just darn creepy.

Be warned: kurobōzu is nightmare fuel. If you are the type of person who has to have your blanket tucked under your feet before you can fall asleep (I know I am!) then you might want to not read this before bed!

“black monk”

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s depiction of the kurobōzu, from the Hōchi Shinbun issue #663.

As we’ve seen, there’s no shortage of bōzu (priest or monk-shaped) yokai. Heck, even black monk yokai are not in short supply. Kuro bōzu stands out those, because it is a relatively modern yokai. While the others come from the depths of folklore, this one appeared in the early Meiji period, in a newspaper article in the Hōchi Shinbun. It’s a good transitional link between the yokai of old and modern-day urban legends. The report came from the Kanda neighborhood of Tokyo:

At a certain carpenter’s house in Kanda, every night at 12 midnight, a dark, black, shadowy figure resembling a monk would appear in the house.

The creature would creep into their bedroom and stick its tongue in the ears and mouth of the carpenter’s sleeping wife, licking her all over.

The creature smelled so fowl, like rotting raw fish or garbage. The smell was so noxious that the family became ill.

The wife could not put up with this nightly treatment, so she left the house to go live with her relatives. After she left the house, the black monk never returned.

So what was the kurobōzu? Some yokai-ologists say it was a kind of nopperabō, due to its vague and indiscernible features. Others say it was related to a yamachichi, and it was sneaking into houses to steal the breath of sleeping humans.

Of course, less supernatural minded people might jump to the even more fearsome conclusion that some sort of homeless pervert was sneaking into the house and assaulting the wife. Or maybe it was even a hallucination caused by the unwanted advances of a drunk, disgusting husband? Who knows… Whatever it was, it’s difficult to imagine that poor woman’s trauma, and it’s hard to believe she had a good night’s sleep for a long time after that…

Kurobōzu. This one is going to be fun to paint!

Halloween is the final day of the Kickstarter for The Book of the Hakutaku! Don’t miss out on the chance to have over 100 yokai paintings and descriptions in glorious paperback, hardcover, or art prints!

A-Yokai-A-Day: Todaiki

There’s only a few days left in the Kickstarter project! In fact, Kickstarter is now counting the hours, not the days! So if you’ve been waiting until the end of the project, now is a good time to back. As we meet more stretch goals, more yokai designs will be added to the t-shirt and hoodie options.

“spirit candlestick”

Toriyama Sekien’s Tōdaiki

Today there are all kinds of urban legends about people traveling to foreign countries, staying in hostels, and then waking up in a bathtub of ice with surgical stitches and missing a few internal organs. As much as that sounds like a product of modernization and the trend of global tourism, urban legends like this have existed for as long as people have traveled. Tōdaiki is a fun example of such a legend; although, it deals with dark magic instead of amateur organ harvesting…

According to Sekien, long ago, a government minister named Karu no Daijin was sent on a mission to Tang China. This was a period of great movement of culture and ideas between China and Japan, so nothing is strange about that. However, when the envoy failed to return to Japan long after they were overdue, the minister’s son, Hitsu no Saishō, began to worry.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s print of Hitsu no Saishō encountering the tōdaiki

Hitsu no Saishō traveled to China to search for his missing father. He traveled far and wide, and in one particular location he came across something he had never seen before: a tōdaiki—a candlestick fashioned out of a living human being! By some combination of strange drugs and sorcery, the man’s ability to speak had been removed. His body was covered in tattoos, and a large candle had been placed in his head. He had been installed on a fancy little stand like a piece of furniture.

As Hitsu no Saishō looked in puzzlement at the strange sight, the human candlestick began to shed tears. Unable to speak, the man bit into he tip of his finger until it began to bleed. He scrawled out a few characters in his own blood. Upon reading them, Hitsu no Saishō realized in horror: the tōdaiki was his own father who he had come to China to search for!

The people involved in this story are real. Hitsu no Saishō was the nickname of Fujiwara no Arikuni, a Heian period noble who lived from 943-1011 CE. Although the story about the tōdaiki is a fabrication, it’s an interesting example of where fact and folklore intersect. Because this early urban legend involved real people who were well known to educated readers, it gives the story much more weight. It’s not really any different from the story about George Washington and the cherry tree when you think about it… well, except that this one is far more terrifying!

Don’t miss out on your chance to become a backer for The Book of the Hakutaku, and get Kickstarter-only special collectors editions of the book, as well as other awesome yokai goods.

A-Yokai-A-Day: Kidomaru

I love yokai stories that reference other yokai stories. There are a lot of recurring characters, especially heroes, among yokai tales; especially among tales from the Kamakura period, when the legends of brave samurai from the previous era were popular. The rise of the military caste during this period is probably responsible for the popularity of amazing warrior stories from that time.

Cross-referencing other yokai seems to give a little bit of credence or believability to folk tales. We see Toriyama Sekien do this a lot when he makes up new tales. Some of the really famous yokai, such as Tamamo no Mae and Shukaku trace their roots all the way back to India and China, linking their Japanese versions to famous folk tales from those countries, and adding more depth to their biographies.

In a way, it’s almost like a folkloric “expanded universe” or fandom, where sometimes contradictory stories exist, but they still feel correct despite the irregularities.


Toriyama Sekien’s Kidōmaru

Kidōmaru is the name of an oni who appears in Kokon chomonjū (“A Collection of Notable Tales Old and New”), a Kamakura period complication of myths and legends of the Heian period. Kidōmaru is his name, so I haven’t listed a translation, but the characters used roughly translate to “Oni Boy.” It sounds like a nickname, almost like “Billy the Kid.” I’m sure you could translation it a number of fun ways: “Li’l Oni” “Oni the Kid” or anything along those lines, but I will just call him Kidōmaru.

When speaking of oni, it is impossible to fail to mention Shuten Dōji, the king of the oni. We’ve also covered his right-hand man (woman?) on this blog: Ibaraki Dōji. Kidōmaru is another member of Shuten Dōji’s clan, and is sometimes said to be Shuten Dōji’s son!

His story takes place after the legendary samurai Minamoto no Yorimitsu (aka Raikō) and his party of heroes had subjugated Shuten Dōji and freed all of the women captured by the oni’s clan. The women were grateful to the samurai for rescuing them, and returned home to their villages. One of the women, however, didn’t return to her home. Instead, she traveled to the village of Kumohara, where she gave birth to a baby oni—Shuten Dōji’s son!

Utagawa Kuniyoshi depicts Kidōmaru training in his cave and developing his magical powers

The boy was named Kidōmaru. He was born with a full set of teeth, and an oni’s strength. When he was only 7 or 8 years old, he was strong enough to kill a deer or a boar by throwing a single rock. By the time he had grown to an adult, he decided to get revenge on those who had slain his father.

Some versions of his story say that he was apprenticed as a temple servant to Mt. Hiei, just like his father was. And just like his father, he was eventually expelled from the temple for being a wicked, wretched little boy. He fled into the mountains and lived in a cave. He turned to robbing people to survive, and studied magic and honed his powers in his cave hideout.

Time passed, and the next thing we hear about Kidōmaru occurs when Raikō was visiting his younger brother, Minamoto no Yorinobu. Yoribonu had captured Kidōmaru in his bathroom—the story doesn’t say how or why this happened, but somehow, Yorinobu had locked the oni in the bathroom.

Raikō scolded his little brother for being so careless and not properly tying Kidōmaru up in ropes and chains. He then tied up the oni in chains to make sure he couldn’t escape and to show his brother how it was done. Raikō spent the night there just to make sure everything was OK.

During the night, Kidōmaru easily broke the chains that were holding him with his supernatural strength. He wanted to get his revenge on the cocky Raikō. He snuck up to Raikō’s door and spied on him. Raikō, however, noticed Kidōmaru spying on him. In a loud voice, he told his attendants that tomorrow morning they would ride to Kurama to make a pilgrimage to the temple there.

Hearing this Kidōmaru went ahead to set a trap for Raikō. He set up an ambush on the road near Ichiharano. He slaughtered a cow in one of the fields and climbed inside of its body to hide and wait for Raikō.

When Raikō and his companions arrived at Ichiharano, they easily saw through the oni’s disguise. Raikō’s best archer, Watanabe no Tsuna (the same Watanabe no Tsuna who cut off Ibaraki Dōji’s hand) shot an arrow through the cow’s body, injuring Kidōmaru.

Kidōmaru emerged from the cow’s corpse and charged at Raikō with all of his might. However, Raikō was too fast for him. He cut Kidōmaru down with a single stroke of his blade.

Kidōmaru, to be painted later this year!

A-Yokai-A-Day: Taki Reio

Who else is excited for season two of Stranger Things coming out today? I know I am!

What does Stranger Things have to do with yokai, you might ask? Well, nothing really, at least on the surface. However, there are some parallels that can be drawn between the world of that show and yokai lore. For example, both the Upside Down and ikai, the world of the yokai, are normally separate, but some people can cross between them at certain times and/or places. Also, the demogorgon may seem to be be evil, but in fact it is just behaving according to its own nature. It’s not evil in the sense that many horror monsters actively seek to destroy humanity. In that way it is like yokai, most of whom are not necessarily evil, but just doing their own natural thing.

But most of all, it’s the fact that they don’t explain (or at least they haven’t yet) the true nature of the strange things happening in the show. It’s presented as is, without the typical backstory that seems required by Hollywood and most TV productions. There is a monster, there is a weird world, and there are some strange things going on, but we’re not given the omniscience treatment; we are left to wonder just as the characters are. In that sense, the show shares something in common with yokai, whose primary draw and power lie in the fact that they are unexplained (and maybe unexplainable).

I’m hoping that in season two they give us more of the good stuff without killing the magic by over-explaining things. Sometimes the best mystery is the one that remains a mystery!

Taki reiō
“waterfall spirit king”

Sekien’s taki reiō

Taki reiō is an apparition that can be seen in the basins of certain waterfalls found throughout various nations. It is so powerful that all types demons, spirits, and yokai, bow down before it!

Toriyama Sekien’s illustration for taki reiō looks exactly like Fudō Myōō, one of the most important Wisdom Kings in Japanese Buddhism. (Fudō Myōō is the Japanese name for the Buddhist/Hindu deity Acala.) Like most Buddhist gods, he takes on many different forms. For instance, he is said to appear as one of the judges of Hell. so it’s not entirely strange that he might appear as a strange spirit king in certain waterfalls, and certainly not surprising that demons, yokai, and other spirits would bow before him. Further supporting theory this is the fact that Sekien’s entry references Seiryōso (“The Seiryū Commentaries”), an annotated version of the Diamond Suttra from China.

Fudō Myōō appears in a waterfall in this print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Murakami Kenji and other yokai scholars have gone so far as to say that taki reiō is not actually a yokai, but just an image of Fudō Myōō himself. Which takes us back to the timeless question: what is and what isn’t a yokai?

This is one of those times when I use “yokai” in its most broad definition. Normally, most Japanese would probably not include Buddhist gods like Fudō Myōō among yokai. However, strange occurrences and phenomena certainly are considered yokai. So what do you call the strange occurrence of a Buddhist god appearing in a waterfall? And what about a yokai who looks exactly like Fudō Myōō? Where do you draw the line? Is yokai such a derogatory word that it can’t be used to refer to holy beings or phenomena? Each person you ask will probably have a different answer.

Incidentally, the connection between Fudō Myōō and waterfalls is not isolated only to this yokai. There are a number of waterfalls in Japan with Fudō Myōō connections. Some of them are thought to be a possible inspiration for this particular yokai, however there isn’t any hard evidence to prove which one in particular inspired Toriyama Sekien to come up with Taki reiō.

Some waterfalls with Fudō Myōō statues include Iwadani waterfall in Ikoma, Nara; Takitanifudō waterfall in Ida, Nara; Nageshi waterfall in Higashiyoshino, Nara; Momo’o waterfall in Tenri, Nara… just to name a few.

Myōō-in, a Buddhist temple in Ōtsu, Shiga has a statue of Fudō Myōō which was allegedly made by the the high priest Sōō who lived from 831 to 918 CE. He is said to have carved it from a holy tree taken from the basin of a nearby waterfall. According to Mizuki Shigeru, the legend of this Fudō Myōō statue may also have been the inspiration for Toriyama Sekien’s taki reiō.

It seems likely that we’ll never know what Sekien had in mind with this yokai; why he made it; if it was inspired by any real-world stories; what makes it different from Fudō Myōō… But that’s just part of its mystery and what makes it special!

Taki reio, to be painted in the coming months

A-Yokai-A-Day: Jakotsu Baba

Today the Kickstarter reached a new high: 2000% funding! Thank you all so much for supporting my project! It’s clear that the reach of yokai is spreading around the world, and that there are a lot of people out there like me who just can’t get enough of them! 🙂

Today’s yokai was invented in Japan, but has false foreign origins. Even though yokai are traditionally viewed as something “Japanese,” it’s clear that even back in the Edo period, their international appeal was well known. Yokai artists often relied on foreign texts to import foreign yokai into Japan, or even to invent new ones based on foreign texts. Globalization has been going on for much longer than we think!

Jakotsu babā
“snake bone hag”

Toriyama Sekien’s jakotsu babā

Jakotsu babā is an old hag and a shaman. She is described as carrying a blue snake in her right hand and a red snake in her left hand. According to Toriyama Sekien, she was the wife of a man named Jagoemon, earning her the nickname Jagobā (i.e. “Jago’s wife”). Over time, her name became corrupted into Jakotsu babā.

Because she carries two snakes, Toriyama Sekien speculates that Jakotsu babā originally came from the country of Bukan (also called Fukan; Wuxian in Chinese). Bukan was a land of myth. It is recorded in the Shan hai jing, which Toriyama Sekien uses as his source for this record. It was supposedly located far to the west of China on the Asian continent. The race of people living in Bukan were shamans, using snakes to master the art of divination.

It’s not quite clear where the yokai originally comes from. “Jagoemon” is not a famous figure that Sekien is referencing, so his own explanation seems like something he made up just for fun. She was published by Sekien in 1780. Prior to that, the name “jakotsu babā” appears in pulp fiction and kabuki plays of the 1760’s and 1770’s—although it was just used as a vulgar slang word for an old woman, rather than a yokai. Some yokai scholars belief that Sekien may just have taken a popular buzzword of his time, transformed it into a yokai and attached a simple backstory to it.

Jakotsu babā, from The Book of the Hakutaku

A-Yokai-A-Day: Kazenbo

There’s now just one week left in the Kickstarter for The Book of the Hakutaku. The final clock is ticking down. If you’ve been on the fence, now is the time to sign up. If you’ve already joined, you can help spread the word on social media for the final push!

“monk in the flames”

Toriyama Sekien’s kazenbō

There is a mountain in Kyoto called Toribeyama. During the Heian period, it was an important burial/cremation ground for royalty and nobility. During major epidemics, it was said that the smoke rising from mountain from all the burning bodies was unending.

Towards the end of the 10th century, a number of priests decided to offer themselves up in ritual sacrifice by fire, in hopes to achieve enlightenment. The ceremony was open to the public, and a large number of people came to witness the event.

A number of these priests did not actually achieve enlightenment due to their improper attachments to the material world. Instead, they still haunt Toribeyama, appearing in ghostly flames as beggar-monks wreathed in the fires of ignorance and sin.

Honestly, this yokai creeps me out more than many of the other ones we’ve seen this month. The idea of death by fire, and particularly self-immolation is so horrifying to me. They say burning is among the most painful ways to die. The super-heated air makes your lungs burn and blister while you are still conscious, causing you to simultaneously suffocate and drown in your own blood. Meanwhile every pain receptor in your burning skin is firing at maximum power. And then to have the entire purpose of your death be rendered meaningless because of some “worldly attachment” (a.k.a. “you didn’t want to die in a fire”), causing you to remain forever as a vengeful onryō; never dying, always burning… That’s pretty awful.

Kazenbō, for The Book of the Hakutaku