A-Yokai-A-Day: Mekurabe

A few new stretch goals were unlocked for the Kickstarter today. First, the slipcase for the hardcover collector’s edition—a popular request—has been unlocked. Secondly, as we have reached 1200% funding, the book will now be printed via offset printing instead of digital print-on-demand. After the Kickstarter, remaining offset copies will be sold until they are all gone, after which subsequent books will be produced via print-on-demand (as they are currently produced).

Now, on to today’s yokai!

Mekurabe
目競
めくらべ
“staring contest”

Toriyama Sekien’s mekurabe

Mekurabe is found in the same book that many of this month’s yokai come from: Toriyama Sekien’s Konjaku hyakki shūi. In his book, Sekien draws a lot upon history to either invent new yokai or to catalog yokai from famous stories. Many of these come from ancient China, as we’ve seen, as Chinese classics were a big part of Japanese literature. Others, like mekurabe, come from Japanese literature. Mekurabe was not made up by Sekien, although it was named by him. It first appeared in Heike monogatari—an epic poem which chronicles the long conflict between the Heike (aka the Taira clan) and Genji (aka the Minamoto clan). Remember those names! They come up a lot in Japanese folklore!

Mekurabe comes from a story in which Taira no Kiyomori (there’s one of those names!) encounters the creature in his garden. Kiyomori steps out into his garden and is shocked to see it is full of skulls. What’s more, the skulls are rolling about, left and right and all around, tumbling over each other. There are too many to count. Kiyomori shouted for help, but nobody heard him.

Just then, the countless began to gather together in the middle of the garden, clumping together, rolling up each other, and forming one giant mass. The skulls grouped together to create a single enormous skull, close to 45 meters in size!

The giant mass of skulls glared at Kiyomori out of its countless eye sockets.

Kiyomori took a breath, and recovered his bravery. He then glared back at the skulls.

Some time passed. Finally, the mass of skulls crumbled apart, melting like a snowflake in the sun, and vanished leaving no trace behind.

one of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s versions

So Taira no Kiyomori was pretty much a badass. Of course, he went on to establish the samurai-dominated government, which eventually became the shogunate, so (spoiler alert) we all knew he was going to win. I think my favorite part of this yokai is it’s name, which Toriyama Sekien chose masterfully!

Incidentally, the idea of things clumping together to form bigger things (as these skulls did) is not unheard of elsewhere in Japanese folklore. The first one that comes to mind is another yokai, gashadokuro, who not only is made from things clumping together, those things also happen to be skeletons, just like mekurabe. I wonder if they’re cousins? Another famous example is pebbles which are said to grow together and form into boulders over time. One such boulder is in Kyoto’s Shimogamo shrine. These rocks are even referenced in Japan’s national anthem.

And of course, if you’re about my age, you’ll surely remember the Constructicons, which kind of work the same way. When I was a kid I loved them! It always amazed me that someone would have come up with the bizarre idea of robots clumping together to form an even bigger robot. Of course this isn’t just the transformers, but all kinds of Japanese tokusatsu and sci fi movies and tv shows. Looking back at these now, through the lens of folklore, it makes a lot more sense!

My sketch of mekurabe, to be painted later, as part of the Kickstarter project

 

A-Yokai-A-Day: Byobu nozoki

Greetings, oh ye who love yokai!

Today’s yokai cracks me up. There’s no shortage of yokai with a bit of sick or perverted humor (taka onna, shirime, iyaya, kurote, okaburo, just to name a few…) but I am always happy to see more! Just like horror movies need their fair share of sex and comic relief, yokai stories work well when you add in a little bit of crassness and bawdlery.

Byōbu nozoki
屛風闚
びょうぶのぞき
“folding screen (byobu) peeker”

Toriyama Sekien’s byobu nozoki

The byōbu nozoki appears in Toriyama Sekien’s book Konjaku hyakki shūi, his third book of yokai. In fact, a lot of the yokai we’ve looked at this past week come from this book. It includes a lot of yokai that he borrowed from Chinese sources, and some that he made up, but with fake histories connecting them to Chinese history.

Byōbu nozoki is a pretty funny yokai, and fairly straightforward. It is a tsukumogami of a byobu (aka a Japanese folding screen). According to Sekien’s description, this spirit haunts a byobu which has seen its fair share of “nocturnal activities,” shall we say. It is tall enough to peep over a byobu seven shaku high (a shaku is roughly 30 cm long, so this spirit is well over 2 meters tall).

Sekien’s description of a seven shaku byobu specifically references a story about the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang, in which he leaped over a 7 shaku tall byobu to escape an assassination attempt; a legend which would have been known to well-read Japanese during the Edo period. In this way, he invents a nice little narrative and finds a way to give this amusing yokai a fake history, legitimizing it as more than something he just made up.

Below is my sketch of the byōbu nozoki as it will eventually appear in my Patreon project and Kickstarter once it is painted. If you’d like to see the finished painting, consider joining one of those!

My byobu nozoki

A-Yokai-A-Day: Shokuin

The Book of the Hakutaku has passed 1000% funding, and more stretch goals are being added. Today’s yokai, Shokuin, will be appearing in the book as one of the over 100 fully illustrated entries.

Shokuin
燭陰
しょくいん
“torch shadow”

Shokuin as he appears in the Shan hai jing

Shokuin is an impressive beast. He originally comes from China, and was brought to Japan in the Sengaikyo (Chinese: Shanhaijing; “The Classics of the Mountains and Seas”), an encyclopedia of fantastical Chinese mythology. In China he is known as Zhuyin or Zhulong. (Shokuin is the Japanese pronunciation of the characters that make up Zhuyin.)

A lot of yokai were lifted from the Shanhaijing by authors like Toriyama Sekien—some of them more or less word for word, others undergoing a bit of a transformation and reinterpretation, depending on how much liberty the authors decided to take. Shokuin doesn’t undergo too much of a change from his original form.

Sekien describes Shokuin as a god who lives at the foot of Mount Shō, near the northern sea. He has the face of a human, and the body of a red dragon. His body is 1000 ri long (a ri is an ancient unit of measurement which varies quite a bit from age to age and place to place; and 1000 is a number which means “a whole lot,” so suffice it to say, Shokuin is big—at least a few thousand kilometers long).

Toriyama Sekien’s Shokuin

There’s a bit more information about him in the Shanhaijing which Sekien referenced. When Shokuin opens his eyes, it becomes daytime, and when he closes his eyes, it becomes night. When he breathes in it becomes summer, and when he breathes out it becomes winter. So not only is he big, but he is so big that he is responsible for the seasons and the days! He does not need to eat, drink, or breathe, but if he does breathe it causes huge storms.

Judging by his size and the unique side effects of his blinking and breathing altering the day/night and seasonal cycles, it seems that Shokuin was a personification of the sun, or at least a kind of solar or fire deity in ancient China. He appears in a number of other Chinese sources, but like all good mythology, there are contradictory “facts” about precisely where he lives and other details.

It has also been speculated that Shokuin is a deification of the aurora borealis. This makes sense when we consider that his home mountain is placed in the north sea, i.e. the Arctic circle. It’s also interesting to note that an ancient Chinese word for the aurora was “red spirit.” It’s easy to imagine the feelings an ancient explorer would have felt traveling far north and seeing the northern lights—a giant red line dancing back and forth across the sky. It’s only natural he might think it was a writhing red dragon thousands of kilometers long.

Shokuin, appearing in The Book of the Hakutaku

A-Yokai-A-Day: Kosamebo

The Kickstarter rolls along, having completed one full week. Today, a new stretch goal has been unlocked: double the yokai postcards! Check it out!

Kosamebō
小雨坊
こさめぼう
“light rain monk”

Toriyama Sekien’s kosamebō

Kosamebō is a monk/priest yokai which appears in the mountains on drizzly nights. When a traveler passes near this yokai, it accosts them and begs for alms in the form of small change or food.

Toriyama Sekien specifically mentions Mount Ōmine and Mount Katsuragi—two holy mountains in the shugendō religion—as places where kosamebō may be encountered. However, other authors have mentioned kosamebō encountered in the Tsugaru area of Tōhoku, and other mountain ranges, so it does not appear to be limited to specific mountains or religious sects.

It should be noted that this yokai doesn’t do anything other than beg for coins or a bite to eat. It also doesn’t actually summon the rain, like other rain yokai do (ame onna, amefuri kozō)—it just appears on rainy nights. This begs the question: where is the yokai in all of this?? It sounds to me just like a regular old beggar monk!

Still, in his illustration, the kosamebō does look positively monstrous, and it’s fair to say that not all yōkai necessarily perform amazing tricks or feats. I suppose I can give this guy a pass. And far be it for me to question Toriyama Sekien!

My sketch of kosamebo, which will eventually become part of my Patreon project

A-Yokai-A-Day: Enenra

Today the Kickstarter surpassed 900%! This beats my two previous Kickstarters, so I am very happy about that. If you haven’t seen it yet, please check out The Book of the Hakutaku on Kickstarter!

Enenra
煙々羅
えんえんら
“smoke fabric”

Toriyama Sekien’s enenra

There aren’t a lot of smoke yokai. In fact, there’s only one: this one. And rather than being a part of some distant folklore, it was just invented by Toriyama Sekien for his book Konjaku hyakki shui. Still, even if it was just made up by Sekien, it is conceivable that this yokai could have existed as a figment of peoples’ imaginations. Even today, the smoke that billows out of bonfires or incense, or even cigarettes, is truly mesmerizing if you watch it long enough.

Enenra doesn’t come with much in the way of a story or a description. In essence, it is just a personification of smoke. Sekien’s explanation talks about how the smoke from fires burned in the summer to keep mosquitoes away is mesmerizing and relaxing to watch. It floats about as it climbs, billowing in the wind, and appears just as fragile as a piece of ultra-lightweight fabric dancing in a breeze.

It’s pretty easy to imagine a smoke trail as a piece of extremely thin fabric floating about in the air. If you touch it, or if a strong breeze blows it, the fabric tears. This is how fragile this yokai is, and why it is so difficult to see.

Later analysis by yokai scholars has also pointed out that the “enra” in this yokai’s name sounds similar to the name Enma, the lord of hell. Hell, of course, being a place of many fires—and thus, smoke. It has been suggested that instead of being merely a yokai made of smoke, enenra might actually be the spirits of the deceased, temporarily haunting a wisp of smoke. For that reason, only those who are calm minded and pure of heart (as the calm and innocent expression on the enenra’s face in Sekien’s illustration suggests) can see the face of this yokai in the smoke.

Enenra, to appear in The Book of the Hakutaku

A-Yokai-A-Day: Furi

Greetings yokai fans!

Today of course we have a new yokai for you, but before that, I just wanted to mention that The Book of the Hakutaku has now passed 800% of its funding goal! Two new stretch goals have been unlocked and put on the project page: a yokai hoodie and a yokai happi coat! Check them out on the Kickstarter page!

And now, your yokai:

Fūri
風狸
ふうり
“wind tanuki”

Toriyama Sekien’s furi

In Japanese art, we often see thunder gods and wind gods together in the same place. Since we looked at a thunder beast yesterday, today it only follows that we should see a wind beast. And this is one badass beast!

The fūri comes from Chinese folklore but was brought into Japanese lore during the Edo period folklore/yokai boom. It is a mammal about the size of a tanuki or river otter. It looks something like a monkey. It has red eyes, black fur with a leopard-like pattern, a short tail, and a blue-greenish mane which runs from nose to tail. It feeds on spiders and incense.

The fūri is nocturnal. It stays hidden during the day, but at night it soars through the sky like a bird, gliding amongst the trees and rocks. It’s flying ability is so great that in one leap a fūri can glide the distance between two mountains.

Hokusai’s furi

Fūri are extremely fast, but it is possible to capture one in a net. A captured fūri will play embarrassed, lowering its head and looking up with its big eyes in an attempt to convince a person to release it. They are very fragile, and will die immediately if they are struck. If you try to slice them up with a sword or knife, the blade will not cut through their skin. If you try to roast them with fire, their bodies will not burn. They even have the amazing ability to revive from death merely if wind blows into their open mouths. However, they cannot revive if their skull has been broken, or if their nose is stuffed with leaves of Japanese rush (Acorus gramineus), a wetland shrub.

It’s possible that the fūri legend originated from the colugo, an adorable flying mammal from southeast Asia. Colugos are not found in Japan, but as their story was transmitted through folklore books in China and eventually made it to Japan, where it was considered to be a species of tanuki.

Furi, as it will appear in The Book of the Hakutaku (once it’s painted of course)

A-Yokai-A-Day: Raiju

The Kickstarter topped 700% last night, which is amazing, considering we’re not even one week in! My previous two Kickstarters both managed to reach 900% on their final days, and it looks like The Book of the Hakutaku will reach that much earlier. It really is great to see that there are so many more yokai fans today than there were just a couple of years ago!

If you’re enjoying A-Yokai-A-Day, remember to become a backer for The Book of the Hakutaku on Kickstarter! Now, for today’s yokai:

Raijū
雷獣
らいじゅう

Raijū is an interesting yokai. Once upon a time it was one of the most well known and most feared supernatural creatuires in Japan. Yet today it is relatively minor, or even practically unknown to the average person. Why the sudden change? Science of course!

Japan’s history is filled with natural disasters. Earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, floods, and fires have done more than their fair share of destruction to the country. While we know much about the physical causes of natural disasters today, in earlier eras they were mysterious, considered to be the work of gods. Only gods had the power to move the earth, or send fire from the sky. Lightning, for example, occurs so fast and so randomly that it is all but impossible to observe. Only its aftereffects can be observed—the terrible sound that shakes the world, the weirdly shaped burns on the thing it strikes, and the fires that it starts. Particularly in old Japan when homes were all made of wood and closely packed together, a single lightning strike can cause a lot of damage!

The raijū was the personification (animal-ification?) and embodiment of lightning. They were seen as a kind of god, or at least akin to the thunder gods (raijin). They live in the sky, which was a world which was totally off limits to pre-flight humans. They rode bolts of lightning to earth. For seemingly no reason at all, they would strike buildings, start fires, and cause mass destruction. Nothing was known about them, and nothing could be known about them except that they were fast, merciless, and deadly. Whenever lightning struck, people believed that a raijū had been sent by the gods to punish them for some reason or another.

Raijū took on lots of forms over their history. Generally, they were thought to look like wolves, dogs, tanuki, or even weasels or cats. They had long, sharp claws and ferocious faces. Far more fanciful forms existed too. Sometimes raijū were said to look like little dogs, but with four rear legs and two tails. Sometimes they were said to look like insects or crustaceans. They would burrow into your belly button to hide from the angry thunder gods (which is where the Japanese superstition of covering your belly button when thunder claps comes from!). Others looked like miniature dragons. Even more exotic versions were chimerical monsters composed of many different animals, like the nue (who is really a kind of raijū when you think about it).

Because they were so scary, raiju were often presented in stories as beasts to be slain, just like oni. The nue, as mentioned above, is one such example. Another example involves the historical samurai Tachibana Dōsetsu. One night he was taking shelter from a storm under a tree. Lightning struck him, but he drew his sword just in time to strike the bolt, slaying the raijū who came with it. Afterwards, he named his sword Raikiri, or “lightning cutter.”

During the Edo period, “real” raijū were popular sideshow attractions, along with “real” kappa and mermaids. Mummified remains of cats, monkeys, and dogs presented as raijū were often toured around the country in traveling shows. People would pay a few coins to get a quick glimpse at the horrific corpses. Surely many must have realized that these were just man-made taxidermied monstrosities, but their popularity boomed anyway due to the sheer horror that they evoked.

During the Meiji period, with the rapid changes tranforming society thanks to the influx of foreign science and technology, yokai were one of the first victims. People were actively discouraged from bringing up “silly” superstitions because they were perceived as an embarrassment to the country—they were examples of how parochial and backwards the Japanese were in the previous era. New understandings about electricity and lightning, and the invention of the airplane made the raijū’s most important features—its life in the mysterious sky, and its attachment to lightning—suddenly no longer mysterious. Once those mysteries were gone, the raijū had nowhere left to live.

I’ve talked a lot before about how yokai are necessarily creatures of mystery. They live in the borderlands between life and death, light and shadow; they’re aren’t creatures of death, and they aren’t creatures of the night. They’re something intangible and unknowable. We can’t classify them the way we classify animals, because their very nature is that they are unclassifiable. Once we know too much about them, they cease to be interesting.

The raijū was a victim of probably the one thing that can truly kill a yokai: understanding.

Raiju, from The Book of the Hakutaku