A-Yokai-A-Day: Kokuri baba

Old hag yokai are not in short supply in Japanese folklore, as I’m sure you’re well aware if you’ve been reading A-Yokai-A-Day for the past few years. For some reason, folklore loves to hear the story of a beautiful, upstanding young woman transform into a hideous, murderous witch. It’s often the deep, profound love of a pure and upstanding woman which is seen as the most potent catalyst to drive a person mad with jealousy or resentment—transforming them from human into demon. There’s a saying in Japanese: onnagokoro to aki no sora—“women’s hearts and autumn skies.” At least in folklore, women are said to be as fickle as the weather in fall.

Kokuri babā
“old temple hag”

Toriyama Sekien’s kokuri baba

“Baba” or “babā” is a suffix you’ll find on lots of yokai. It just means old woman. Kokuri is made up of “ko” meaning old and “kuri” which is the priest’s quarters in a temple. So this is an old hag who haunts the living quarters of an old temple. Kokuri babā is a fine example of a creepy old hag. In fact, in Toriyama Sekien’s description of her, he says that she is even more scary than Datsueba, the old woman who flails off your skin when you reach the underworld!

The reason she haunts is actually a tragic tale of love turned sour: she is the widow of the priest who used to work at a remote, rural temple. Once, she was a wonderful wife, helping out her beloved husband to run his temple, tending to the needs of the parishioners, cooking, cleaning, washing, and taking care of the temple grounds. However, after her husband died, she retreated into the temple’s living quarters and became a shut in. To survive, she steals the offerings of food and coins left behind by people visiting the temple. Over time, she gradually changes into a yokai. She starts to acquire meat from the corpses of the recently dead. When there are no fresh corpses available, she digs up the buried and peels off chunks of their rotting skin off to gnaw on.

It’s a tragic tale not only because she was widowed and forced to live by herself in the temple, but also because none of the temple parishioners ever lifted a finger to help her. You have to wonder how long it took for her to get this bad. If they had paid her a little more attention might she have remained human?

Although, now it does seems like she could make a nice pair with this guy. They at least have a common food interest…

Kokuri babā

A-Yokai-A-Day: Chochinbi

One of the largest yokai subgroups is one called hinotama, or “fireballs.” If you’re not totally new to yokai, then you’ve probably noticed that there is a huge amount of fireball-type yokai. Just to name a few off the top of my head which have appeared on this blog: onibihitodamaubagabisogenbikitsunebifuraribiminobihakanohi… the list goes on. In general, they each have one unique feature that separates them from the others, whether it’s a backstory, or one particular behavior, or what creature or thing allegedly creates the fire.

Differentiating between different types of hinotama can be sometimes be fairly easy—hitodama, for example, has a long tail which sets it apart from the others. Other times it can be very hard—onibi and kitsunebi look pretty much exactly the same; the definiting characteristic of kitsunebi is that it was created by a fox, but that’s about it. And of course, we see supernatural fireballs in cultures all around the world: St. Elmo’s Fire, will o’ the wisps, jack o’ lanterns, ball lightning, and so on. You could probably make a case that these are all different ways of describing the same phenomenon, rather than each one being a separate, unique apparition.

So what really separates, say, kitsunebi from a will o’ the wisp? Even if they are the same thing, it’s the folklore and stories that spring up around them that make them different. The subtle differences in each naming and each incarnation of the same phenomenon reflect the unique features of the locations and times in which those things appear. You can’t say will o’ the wisp without thinking of twisted, dark forests of the British Isles, and jack o’ lantern is so intrinsically connected with Halloween that the two are almost inseparable. That same rule applies to similar yokai. While the differences between any two hinotama might be very minor, they do tell you specific things about the people and places which named them.

Keeping that in mind, I’m about to introduce to you a very simple fireball yokai that does not stand out too much in comparison with all the others.

“paper lantern fire”

Toriyama Sekien’s chōchinbi. Note the silhouette of the kitsune underneath the fireball!

Chōchinbi is a small fireball that looks like distant lanterns being carried by yokai wandering in the night. Chōchinbi float in the air about one meter above the ground, bobbing lazily to and fro. Sometimes they appear in long chains like strings of lightbulbs. When a person approaches them to investigate, they disappear.

Minor details vary from place to place. Chōchinbi is most commonly said to be the work of a tanuki, and thus it is sometimes referred to as tanukibi. Kitsune are sometimes said to be responsible, but that is just as often called kitsunebi instead. Chōchinbi usually appears in rural areas along the footpaths that separate the fields, but is also said to appear alongside rivers and streams, or to travel between one graveyard and another.

Hosukai depicts Oiwa’s ghost appearing from a burning chōchin

Chōchinbi also appears as a common device to create a spooky atmosphere in theatrical ghost stories. It is usually accompanied by eerie flute sounds. In this case it is often depicted as strangely colored fires burning inside or next to an old dilapidated paper lantern. Sometimes the lantern itself is a yokai: the chōchin obake, a tsukumogami of an old paper lantern. Oiwa’s ghost could even be said to be a kind of chōchinbi when it appears inside of a burning lantern.

I couldn’t tell you exactly what makes a chōchinbi different from a kitsunebi (especially if a kitsune is the one responsible for creating it!) or an onibi. They’re all eerie and otherworldy, connected to and caused by the spirit world, and potentially dangerous. The difference may be entirely arbitrary, depending only on who is telling the story and where they are from. Or maybe there is something substantial, but we as humans can’t understand it. Maybe if you asked a tanuki or a kitsune what the difference was, they would laugh at you for asking such a silly question…

A-Yokai-A-Day: Hososhi

Greetings readers!

Today’s entry is a long one, but hopefully it’s an interesting one. I won’t do much in the way of introduction, so I’ll let you get right into the juicy details! Have at it!

“Minister of the Four Directions”

Toriyama Sekien’s Hōsōshi

Hōsōshi is a pretty difficult word to translate, but “Minister of the Four Directions” is the closest I can get to the idea of the word without overdoing it. A professor of Heian period court life or East Asian folk religions could probably come up with a better translation than that, but I think it will do for our purposes. In any case, I’m going to give you a further explanation:

Hōsōshi was an official government title, thus the “Minister” part, but they were also a kind of priest. Hōsō was a religious concept related to divination, the four directions, and the barriers between our world and the spiritual world. East Asian temples often have important architectural features related to the geographical directions, and of course there is a lot of symbolism related to the directions (the directions are associated with colors, seasons, various gods and Buddhas, mythical creatures, body parts, medicine, and just about anything else you can think of). The concept of hōsō was related to creating directional boundaries and barriers. This could mean something like planting trees or placing stones in the four corners, or utilizing existing features like rivers, highways, etc. to serve as boundaries. It’s sort of a way of dividing a place into a square for spiritual reasons.

The concept originated in ancient Chinese folk religion, and the hōsōshi is the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese fangxiangshi, a sort of exorcist. Folk religion eventually became mixed with Buddhism and Taosim, and then made its way to Japan. In Heian period Japan, the Hōsōshi was a priest in the imperial court whose duties included leading the coffins during funeral processions, officiated at burial ceremonies, and keeping yokai (like the corpse-eating mōryō) away from burial mounds. The Hōsōshi’s most famous duty is a specific ritual related to the end of the year purification ceremonies.

A Tsuina ceremony

Tsuina was an important purification ritual held every year on the last day of the year. This day was called Ōmisoka. The Hōsōshi performed the ritual with one servant, and a number of government officials. In China, the Hōsōshi  wore a bearskin with four eyes. In Japan, the Hōsōshi’s costume consisted of an oni mask with four golden eyes. The mask was to scare away demons, and the four eyes were so he could see in all four directions. He also wore special robes, and carried a spear in his right hand and a shield in his left hand. The Hōsōshi and his servant would chant and run around the imperial palace grounds (i.e. “the four directions”), warding the area against oni, yokai, and other evil spirits. Meanwhile the attending officials would shoot arrows into the courtyard around the Hōsōshi from the palace buildings, defending the palace against evil spirits. Other observers would play hand drums which also had ritualistic cleansing significance.

Over time, the ritual evolved even further away from its Chinese roots. The Hōsōshi became associated not with the imperial side, keeping the oni at bay, but with the oni itself. Rather than exorcising the oni, the Hōsōshi became the oni, and it was the other officials who chased away and exorcised the Hōsōshi (thus symbolically chasing the demons away too). Religious scholars believe this may have been because of changing perceptions during the Heian period about the concept of ritual purity and uncleanliness. The Hōsōshi, who was associated with funerals and dead bodies, changed from being a purifier into one who was ritually unclean. It would be inappropriate for such a person to be on the same “side” as the emperor, so he became the oni instead.

throwing beans

mamemaki at the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto; the descendant of the Tsuina ritual

If you’re familiar with Japanese holidays, you may be thinking “A winter holiday that involves chasing demons away and is tied to the four directions? That sounds like Setsubun.” And you’d be right! That ritual is the descendant of the Tsuina ritual. Today, Setsubun is celebrated in February, but in the old lunar calendar system Setsubun marked the beginning of the new year. That is why it falls so close to Chinese New Year—it used to be the same holiday! As the start of the new year, Setsubun was a very important holiday for purification rituals. Setsubun was the beginning of the year, and Ōmisoka was the last day of the year; so these holidays used to be right next to each other. With the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, New Year’s Day was observed on January first. Since Ōmisoka is last day of the year, it naturally came to be observed on December 31st. Setsubun remained attached to the traditional start of Spring in East Asia, aka Chinese New Year, which takes place around February. Today there is an entire month separating these two holidays which used to be right next to each other!


A-Yokai-A-Day: Ushirogami

The fall weather is in full swing here, with chilly breezes, cold rain, cloudy skies, and trees changing color all around! It’s the perfect weather for getting in the Halloween mood. It’s also exactly the kind of weather that makes me feel like a yokai or a ghost might be just around the corner… or just behind me! If you ever get that feeling, maybe it’s one of today’s A-Yokai-A-Day subjects following you around.

“behind spirit”

Toriyama Sekien’s ushirogami

This yokai is a bit of a play on words, so before I get into it I just wanted to introduce the words that make it up. Ushiro is Japanese for “back” or “behind,” as in, “Look behind you!” Kami in this case means “spirit” or “god,” but written with a different character it can also mean “hair.” So keep that in your mind as you read the rest of the yokai’s description.

Ushirogami is a ghost-like yokai that sneaks up behind you and causes fear. It is reminiscent of buruburu, and is generally thought to be an okubyо̄gami—a spirit that causes cowardice, or that specifically haunts cowardly people. Its most distinguishing features are its single eye nestled in the top of its head, and its long, acrobatic body. It sneaks up behind you and pulls on your neck hair, but when you turn around, it’s not there anymore!

Ryūsai Masazumi’s ushirogami

Ushirogami appears behind people and messes with them. It will stick its icy cold hand on the back of your neck, or breath its hot breath on your neck instead. It will pull on the hairs on the back of your neck to make you jump. They particularly like going after cowardly young women walking the streets at night. They sneak up behind them and untie their hair, causing it to fall all over the place; or they run their hands through the woman’s hair and muss it around, causing it to get all tangled. Sometimes they call up a strong gust of wind and pull your umbrella away.

There’s a phrase in Japanese that goes “ushirogami wo hikakareru“—to be pulled by the hairs on the back of one’s head. It means to do something with painful reluctance. It’s easy to imagine having to do something that you really want to do, so as you move foward you keep looking back—as if the hairs in the back of your head were being metaphorically pulled—searching for some sort of escape or other way of doing it.

It’s easy to see the wordplay here. The ushirogami (spirit) is pulling on your ushirogami (hair), causing you to become cowardly and not want to do something. You turn around to see, but there is nothing back there. In this way, it can be viewed both as an external spirit messing with you, or even as the internal personification of your own cowardice or reluctance.

Ushirogami, to appear in The Book of the Hakutaku

A-Yokai-A-Day: Shukaku

One thing that I enjoy showing on my blog is not just different types of yokai, but specific examples of those types. For example, we’ve looked at oni in general, but also at Shuten Doji, Ibaraki Doji, Gozu, Mezu, and so on. We’ve also looked at kitsune in general, but then more closely at Tamamo no Mae. We have a general layout of kijo and hannya, but we also have the specific examples of Kurozuka, Kiyo hime, Rokujo ni and Miyasundokoro. We’ve looked at tatarigami, then of course at Taira no Masakado, Sutoku Tenno, Sugawara no Michizane, and others. And of course yurei and onryo, and you get the point…

Today is another specific example, this time of a tanuki!


Toriyama Sekien’s “Morinji no kama”

This story is a well known one which comes from Tatebayashi City in Gunma Prefecture. There is a temple there called Morinji (technically Morin Temple, but usually—and redundantly—called Morinji Temple) which is the origin of the famous Edo period stories Bunbuku chagama, and Morinji no kama.

Morinji was founded in 1426 by a priest named Dairin Shōtsū. While he was traveling through various countries on pilgrimage, he befriended a priest named Shukaku, and they traveled together. After Morinji was built, Shukaku stayed on to act as a head priest there.

In 1570, an important gathering of priests was held at Morinji. Many priests from all over traveled and stayed at Morinji, and so of course a great number of tea kettles were needed to serve such a large crowd. Shukaku (yes, he was apparently still alive and kicking 144 years after his arrival) brought his favorite tea kettle to help serve the priests.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s version

This tea kettle was a miraculous object, for no matter how many times you dunked a ladle in it, it was always brimming with enough hot water to make tea. It also stayed hot for many days after heating it! The kettle was given the name “bunbuku chagama;” chagama being the word for tea kettle, and bunbuku meaning “to spread luck.” The name was a bit of a pun as well—the sound of boiling water is bukubuku, which sounds very much like bunbuku.

Thanks to Shukaku’s marvelous tea kettle, the event was a great success, and the bunbuku chagama went on to be used to great success for many years. Shukaku, as well, continued to work at Morinji for many years after that. However, one day, in 1587 (February 28, 1587, according to Morinji’s records), while Shukaku was taking a nap, a monk walked in on him. He noticed that Shukaku had a tanuki’s tail! Thus, Shukaku’s great secret was uncovered: he was not a human, but a tanuki. A tanuki who had lived for many thousands of years, in fact. He had traveled through India, and through China, and then eventually he met Dairin Shōtsū, who brought him there to Morinji, where he used his magic to serve the temple as best as he could.

The Bunbuku Chagama

His secret uncovered, Shukaku decided it was time to leave Morinji. To make up for the great trouble he had caused, he gave them a parting gift: he used his magic to present the story of the Battle of Yashima, one of the final clashes of the Genpei War. To show their gratitude for Shukaku, the priests of Morinji enshrined him there as a local deity.

There are a couple of variations of this story floating about, and of course the concept of transformed animals hanging about with humans and doing favors for them is a common one in Japanese folklore. This one in particular has an added bit of interest, being so closely tied to a specific temple that is still around today. The bunbuku chagama is even on display at Morinji’s shrine to Shukaku. Visitors can look at it, but no word if you can heat it up and make infinite tea with it though.


Click on the cute little tanuki to go to the Kickstarter page for The Book of the Hakutaku, where you’ll find a bunch more yokai just like this one!

A-Yokai-A-Day: Basho no sei

Today the Kickstarter passed 1400% funding! More slipcases have been unlocked, so if you’re already a backer, make sure to check out the update with the additional slipcase images.

Today’s yokai is a plant yokai. Rocks, plants, animals, people… I love that there’s no subject left untouched by yokai!

Bashō no Sei
“Japanese banana spirit”

Musa basjoo

Bashō is the Japanese name for the Japanese banana tree (Musa basjoo). It originated in China and is found in China, Taiwan, Okinawa, and other tropical parts of East Asia. This tree is well known for its huge, broad leaves. It is a popular ornamental tree, and it is often found in gardens. It was also cultivated for its giant leaves, which could be turned into textiles.

A bashō no sei is a yokai born from this tree. They usually take the form of a human face appearing in the leaves of the tree, which then surprises people in one way or another. Stories of bashō spirits playing tricks on humans were popular during the Edo period in Japan. According to Toriyama Sekien, stories of this phenomenon go back to ancient times in China, but spread as far as Japan, even to become the subject of a noh play, Bashō (“The Bashō Tree”). In this story, a woman appears from a bashō tree next to a priest and asks him if inanimate objects like plants can go to heaven.

Toriyama Sekien’s bashō no sei

One famous story was recorded by an Edo period herbalist named Satō Chūryō. According to him, in Ryūkyū (present day Okinawa), bashō are planted in such large numbers that plantations will plant miles and miles of rows of the trees. If you walk past them at night, you are guaranteed to experience something strange. The spirits that come out of the bashō do not cause any direct harm to people other than spooking them, but nevertheless you can avoid them if you are carrying a sword. His theory was that the bashō wasn’t necessarily unique in this particular ability, but that because its leaves are so incredibly large, it is particularly easy to humans to notice these tree’s spirits (and easy for these tree spirits to notice people, apparently).

Women in Ryūkyū were warned not to go walking among the bashō trees past 6 pm. If they did, it was said that they would certainly meet some kind of yokai among the thick leaves; either a monster, or a handsome young man. After that, the woman would become pregnant. The baby would be born 9 months later as normal, however it would have tusks or fangs like a demon. What’s more, the following year and again every year after that, the woman would give birth to demon after demon after demon. If a demon child like this was born, it would have to be killed by feeding it a poisonous drink made of powdered kumazasa (a type of bamboo grass); this is supposedly the reason why kumazasa are commonly found growing near houses in Okinawa.

A story from Nagano tells of a priest who was sitting outside and reciting suttras when a beautiful young woman appeared and attempted to seduce the priest. The priest grew angry and stabbed the woman with his sword, and she ran away. The next morning, the priest found the blood trail left by the woman he had stabbed. The blood trail lead all the way to the temple’s gardens and to the bashō tree, which was lying on the ground, cut down. The priest realized that the woman had been the spirit of the bashō tree.

I wonder, if he had known that earlier, would he have not stabbed her? Was it okay to stab a woman, but not a tree? I’m not quite sure what the moral of the story is…

“Can even inanimate objects like plants can go to heaven?”

A-Yokai-A-Day: Yonaki ishi

It’s Friday the 13th!!! Which has absolutely nothing to do with yokai… :\ Oh well…

Just a quick update on the Kickstarter before moving on to today’s A-Yokai-A-Day: we will be working with Backerkit to manage pledges after the funding period is over. This should make it a lot easier to choose your add-ons and alter your pledge level if you decide later that you should have gotten the collector’s edition, for example.

Now, for the good stuff. It’s yokai time!

Yonaki ishi
“night crying stone”

Toriyama Sekien’s yonaki ishi

This is not the first “yonaki” yokai we’ve looked at, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. It’s also not the first strange stone yokai we’ve looked at. But it is a very famous supernatural phenomenon that is found in folklore all across Japan.

In short, yonaki ishi are stones or boulders which cry loudly at night. In many cases, the stones cry because they are possessed by the spirit of someone who was murdered and seeks revenge. However, in some cases it is the stone itself that cries and not a person’s spirit haunting it.

The most famous yonaki ishi comes from Kakegawa City in Shizuoka Prefecture. (Kakegawa is also home to Kakegawa Kachoen, an amazing zoo and probably one of the my favorite places that I have ever been to. I’m sure there’s lots of night crying going on there even today, although I’d wager it’s more from all the various bird calls and less from possessed rocks…) This story is known as one of the “Seven Wonders of Shizuoka:”

Long ago, a pregnant woman was walking home through the steep mountains. She had reached the Sayononakayama Pass when she needed to stop for a rest. She leaned against a large round boulder to catch her breath, but suddenly a bandit appeared. He slashed at her with his blade, and would have cut all the way through her if the sword hadn’t also struck the large boulder she was leaning against. The bandit grabbed her purse and fled into the night. The wound was a fatal one—the woman bled to death.

Thanks to the blade striking the rock, her baby was not hurt by the attack. It emerged from her body through the stab wound. Although the mother was dead, her soul was so driven by the need to protect her child that it got stuck in the boulder. From then on, every night the rock would wail and cry loudly. A priest from a nearby temple heard the rock’s cry, and when he went to investigate it, he discovered the newborn baby. The priest took the baby to the temple and raised him, naming him Otohachi. The crying rock was from then on known as the yonaki ishi.

Sayononakayama’s yonaki ishi, accessible from Kakegawa, Shizuoka

There’s an interesting epilogue to this story: Otohachi grew up and was apprenticed to a sword sharpener. After many years he became an accomplish sword sharpener as well. One day, a samurai appeared before Otohachi and commanded him to repair his chipped katana. Otohachi was surprised by the terribly crack in the blade. The samurai absentmindedly explained that the blade had been chipped many years before when it struck a stone in the Sayononakayama Pass. Otohachi realized that this samurai was the bandit who murdered his mother. Otohachi stood up, gave his name, and then took his revenge!

My yonaki ishi, which will be painted in the coming months