A-Yokai-A-Day: Shihofuki

Today’s yokai continues the theme of the week: aquatic yokai.

I painted this yokai earlier this year at the request of one of my Patreon backers. He had found it in the book Yokai Museum, and asked me to explain more about it. Yokai Museum is a cool book showcasing some of the collection of yokai scrolls and paintings belonging to Yumoto Koichi—yokai researcher, professor, and former curatorial director of the Kawasaki City Museum. This particular yokai exists solely in his collection; it appears only on the Bakemono tsukushi emaki, a yokai scroll painted in 1820. What’s interesting about this scroll is that it contains a lot of yokai which don’t appear anywhere else in folklore. Most likely they were entirely made up by the artist. However, since he didn’t give any explanation text along with his illustrations, we can only speculate about these yokai. I wish we knew more, because the illustrations in that scroll are fantastic!

A lot of yokai work is like that—guesswork. Usually it’s not too hard to get a general idea of the yokai’s concept, because so many of them are puns or plays on previously created yokai. Of course, it helps to have a bit of knowledge of other yokai, the author’s personality, and the context in which it was written. That’s not so hard with Toriyama Sekien’s yokai, because he had a very distinct sense of humor. But with this particular scroll, we don’t have much of that, so we have to rely on the names.

Shihofuki pretty much literally means “salt sprayer,” and judging by its appearance, we can picture it leaping out of the water and spitting salt at passing boats. Maybe it is the creature that sprays you with water when you sit too close to the edge of a boat.

I really love this yokai, partially because it is so adorable, but also in part because of its mysterious nature. People often ask me to elaborate on a yokai’s “powers” or “abilities” as if they were creatures in a video game with specific abilities. But yokai can not be so well-defined. They are by their very nature and definition mysterious. They exist in the spaces that we don’t know and don’t understand. Their whole appeal is their mystery. When you define them too much, they start to lose their mystique, and the very essence of “yokai-ness.” Shihofuki, and the others for which we have literally no information at all, will always remain ill-defined, and so will always be excellent examples of true yokai.

Click below to read about shihofuki on yokai.com:

Shihofuki

Shihofuki

More Publicity

The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons show opened up last Friday, and it’s been a great success so far. Everyone’s reactions have been very interesting — from kids insisting that they aren’t scared while gritting their teeth and refusing to look anywhere but at the floor, to adults doing pretty much the same thing. I’m really enjoying meeting fans and hearing what they have to say about the book. One family brought in their tattered copy for me to sign. Their kids love it so much they take it everywhere they go, and it looked like it could have been 20 years old instead of only a couple of months.

Here are a couple of articles about the show. The first one is from Urala, Fukui prefecture’s monthly magazine. They got my website address wrong (.com instead of .net), but oh well. The article looks nice anyway, and it’s an honor to be in Urala:

Urala article

Urala, August 2012

On the first day of the show, a reporter who really loves yokai came from the Fukui Shinbun to take some photos and write an article. He was squirming and making faces while reading each yokai description, and letting out yelps and shouts. But he stayed for an hour and came back again later in the day. He said really enjoyed the show, and he wrote a great article to go with it:

Fukui Shinbun article

Fukui Shinbun, July 28, 2012

If you haven’t come to the show yet, please do! I’ll be there every weekend and sporadically throughout the week until August 16th!

Night Parade Gallery Show at Space Oichi

日本語版はこちらです。

In Japan, summer is the season for scary things (unlike in the US, when horror revolves around late fall and Halloween). Summer is when the new scary movies come out, when ghost stories are told, and when creatures from beyond are said to return to our world. The idea is that being scared chills your body and helps you beat the summer heat, but this also has more ancient roots going back thousands of years — the same roots that lead to the superstitions of the dead returning to our world and the boundaries of the spirit world being weaker during the Obon holiday.

As such, summer is the perfect time to talk about yokai! And in the spirit of keeping everyone cool, I’m having a gallery show featuring illustrations from The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons next month in Fukui City.

The show will feature a broad range of yokai, from the funny and cute, to the weird and creepy, to the downright terrifying. If you can make it to Fukui city this summer, definitely come check it out!

Hyakki Yagyou poster

Hyakki Yagyou, 7/26-8/16 @ Space Oichi

The full dates of the show are July 27 until August 16, 11 am to 7:30 pm. The location is Space Oichi, Apple Building 2F, right behind Seibu and above Seatle’s Best Coffee and Theatre Cinque. Hope to see you there!

Internet Sales are the Same Everywhere…

We’re finally making the move this weekend, though we’ve been sending boxes in loads every weekend so it feels like it’s been going on for almost a month now. Today we called to set up internet service at the new apartment, and had some trouble.

Japan is a pretty high-tech country, and in recent surveys it’s been shown to be leaps and bounds ahead of the US in internet connectivity (of course when you have half the population of the US crammed into an island the size of California, with only 18% habitable land area, it makes it easier to connect everyone). Bandwidth costs here are also pennies to the dollar compared with the US — the last time I purchased internet service was almost 3 years ago, and I ended up paying $60 a month for speeds 120 times faster than what people in the US were paying $150 a month for. So I admit that even I fell into the false assumption that people in Japan should know what they’re talking about when it comes to net service.

We had a very long conversation on the phone about prices and setting it up and all, and eventually they asked me what OS I use. I should’ve just lied and said Windows, but I managed to say Ubuntu without thinking, and immediately regretted that mistake. The sales lady didn’t know what that was, and said that they don’t support it, and I should buy their tech support program for an extra monthly fee. I told her it was okay and I knew what I was doing, but she kept insisting that their internet service won’t work on my PC. I tried to explain that service is service, and it doesn’t matter what the PC is running, but then tried to explain that their cables won’t work with non-Windows computers and I should buy their tech support service. Later she asked me how many machines I would be setting up, and I said two, but she told me that was also impossible without their tech support service and a Windows PC. At this point there really wasn’t anything more I could explain to her… I said it was okay and I didn’t need the tech support, and she told me that they will have in investigate the building to see if they’ll be able to install the internet service or not. This will take approximately 3 weeks.

It seems that telecommunication company incompetence is a global, cross-cultural phenomenon.

Reconstructing Fukui Castle

I love history. When my mind wanders, one of the things I constantly go back to is imagining different worlds if history had been different. You know, like if you could go back in time and give Julius Caesar a modern chemistry textbook, or warn the American Indians about the crap the Europeans are trying to pull. Japan has an amazing and rich history, and riding my bike through town usually ends up with me daydreaming about different time periods here (a little dangerous perhaps). Particularly here in Fukui prefecture, where the modern world has just barely taken a foothold, there are so many places where the land is untouched by foreign influence or the modern global culture. It’s easy to get lost in one’s imagination.

Historically, Fukui was a very important military and cultural center of Japan for many centuries. After the feudal period its power waned considerably, but in its heyday it was one of the top population centers in Japan. Sadly, though, that history is mostly buried here. All of the castles have been leveled and paved over, the aqueducts filled in and turned into streets and real estate, and most of it has been forgotten even by the residents.

Fukui castle is one of the sites that almost brings tears to my eyes when I think how much history has been squandered. Currently the prefectural capital and largest city in the prefecture, Fukui used to be a rural swampland called Kitanosho. In the late 1500’s a castle was built here, and soon afterwards war came. The first castle was burnt down after 8 short years, and in 1606 a new castle was built at a nearby site. The whole city was designed and developed into a paragon of a castle town. Moats and canals were dug all over town separating it into many districts, walls and gates were erected all over for defense, and walled samurai towns sprung up. Looking at the old maps of Fukui city, it looks like it must have been completely impregnable.

Although the town was never taken after that, a fire destroyed the main keep in 1669 and it was never rebuilt. The innermost walls remained, as did the noble’s houses on the castle grounds, though, and it continued to be an important castle town until the Meiji Restoration. Sadly, the remaining walls and palaces were burned down when Fukui was firebombed in World War 2. A few years after the city was burnt to the ground by bombers, a huge earthquake struck and re-leveled the city once again. The stone walls of the castle still bear the marks of that earthquake. During the second reconstruction, the cityscape was changed and it lost its identity as a castle town. The aqueducts and moats were paved over with cement and a lot of important cultural heritage was lost. While other cities on Japan reconstructed their castles and turned them into parks and tourism centers, Fukui erased its past, even going so far as to build a hideous government building on top of the remains of the castle palace.

Today the city is expanding, and as it grows and new construction takes place, workers are constantly finding old walls and remnants of the castle town. Thankfully, some work has been done to restore these artifacts when they have been found, and there are plaques scattered about the city wherever a historical remnant has been uncovered. Whenever I run into one of these I stop for a while and try to picture what the city could have looked like if the people in charge of reconstructing the city had had a little more foresight (and hindsight) about preserving their history.

A few years ago, a minor reconstruction at the castle grounds took place. One of the rotting wooden footbridges was reconstructed into its original, beautiful form. On the day it opened, I went to visit it, and it was just superb. Even though it was only a bridge, the smell of the new timber and the authentic reconstruction of the ancient building stirred my imagination. I decided I wanted to paint a view of what the town might look like if the castle had never burned down, and if it had been preserved properly.

I started this painting two years ago and got about halfway done when I hit a big roadblock: I couldn’t find any reference of what the castle looked like! I thought about making up a new facade for the castle based on the other castles I have visited, but that just didn’t seem right. Each castle is unique, and that wouldn’t be fair to Fukui castle or the castle I would have copied. I had to put the painting on hold until I could accurately reconstruct it.

For the past two years I have visited libraries, history museums, and done countless image searches trying to build up a database of images I could use to reconstruct the castle. Every now and then I would find a goldmine. One store was selling postcards with pre-WW2 photographs of the town. I could finally reconstruct the outer walls! At another store I found a few old woodblock prints with images of the castle, printed back when the castle was still around! But sadly the perspective was way off and it was hard to get an accurate measuring from them. I did a lot of research and discovered a whole lot about Fukui’s history as well — not just the castle. It was like unfolding a mystery that was hidden all around me; in the street names, the rivers, under the streets, and the property lines remnants of the old castle town were still evident. From one of the paintings, I learned that one of my friend’s apartments was actually built right on top of one of the old gateways into the city!

Fukui Castle scale model

A scale model of Fukui Castle I stumbled upon while climbing Mt. Asuwa. Who hides such a beautiful piece of artwork in a field behind a parking lot on top of a mountain??

Old photo of Fukui Castle

A pre-war photo showing the walls of Fukui castle

Old photos of Fukui City

Photos showing various shots of old Fukui

An old painting of Fukui castle

A very old painting showing the castle before it burned down

A diagram of Fukui Castle

A diagram of the main keep located on a plaque outside of the castle ruins

3D digital image of Fukui Castle

3D digital recreation of Fukui Castle

Finally, I discovered a website that created some 3D images of old castles, and lo and behold, they recreated a shot of Fukui castle! It was the final bit of reference I needed to be able to reconstruct what the castle might have looked like. I spent the better part of this week putting together my references and sitting down to finish this two-year-old painting, and here is the result. The only part I was unable to faithfully recreate is the gatehouse beyond the bridge, as none of the references I found were able to give me a good image of it. So I did my best to recreate what it may have looked like, based on other castles’ gatehouses.

Fukui Castle, if it were still around today

Fukui castle, seen from the south, during cherry blossom season (click for a larger version)

In one week, I will be moving back to Echizen city after spending a year here in Fukui. Even though Echizen is only 30 minutes away from Fukui, I’m especially happy that I was able to finish this painting now, rather than later. I feel like I can present it now, saying thank you to the city that has struck my imagination so strongly. (After all, after I return to Echizen I’m going to resume obsessing over that city’s own rich, forgotten history.)

Whatcha Lookin’ At?

The Gangster

The Gangster

It’s been a busy month, what with studying for the JLPT, organizing things for the move, such as shutting off the utilities and turning them on at the new apartment, and packing things up. I really haven’t had that much time to paint (hopefully I can make up for that with ample painting time starting next month). I did manage to get one done this month though: a new chicken, The Gangster!

I recently ran a Call of Cthulhu game set in 1920’s Boston and NYC, and the final game had a pretty fun car chase/shoot out with a bunch of cultists/bootleggers/gangsters. I had such vivid images in my head after that I really wanted to paint a gangster, so I sketched out this chicken one day and spent this week painting it. I didn’t use any lemon yellow this time so it didn’t have any trouble drying. On the other hand, though, as it’s a pretty dark painting, it was really hard to get the colors and values right in the scan. They’re pretty close to the real image, though the bricks on the wall are just a bit bluer than in the real painting.

3 Years in Japan

Today marks the end of my 3rd year in Japan and the start of my 4th. Wow! It’s hard to believe I’m working on my 4th year now. And it’s been one year since I stopped teaching English full time and moved to Fukui city. Then again I’ll be moving back to Takefu in a couple of weeks… And this has been one year of painting nearly full time for me. And although I haven’t gotten any big breaks or major projects yet, I feel like I’ve noticeably improved as a painter. And I’ve had a little bit of success as a freelance painter, even if nothing big. Moving to Takefu next month, I hope I can improve on that. I’ll finally have a studio and a place to hold my art (rather than stacking it in a pile in the center of this tiny one-room apartment), and I’m planning to try starting up a small painting circle and teaching some lessons.

Time certainly flies, doesn’t it! 光陰矢のごとし。