A-Yokai-A-Day: Ninmenju

Aquatic week is over, I hope you guys enjoyed looking at some of the lesser known underwater yokai. This week we won’t be looking at a theme, but I’ll be sharing some requests that have been made by my Patreon backers. It’s an interesting mix of yokai that covers the whole spectrum.

Tonight’s yokai is really fascinating. As you saw in my writeup for atuikakura, I really enjoy digging deep and getting into the nitty gritty details about the origins and the history of yokai. Probably the craziest and most difficult yokai I ever had to research was Tamamo no Mae, because the rabbit hole went so much deeper than I ever could have imagined it would. I did a long writeup on her history last year. Even though it took a lot of time and energy, uncovering that folkloric thread that stretched back thousands of years was really satisfying. However, while Tamamo no Mae may have one of the most distant origins in time that I have ever come across, she isn’t the yokai with the most distant origin geographically.

Many years back, I wrote about Fujin, and I mentioned how his origins went back to ancient Greece. Even that, however, does not go as far as today’s yokai does.

I’m really fascinated with these ancient connections between East and West, although it’s important to realize that these were not necessarily conscious transmissions. Stories get passed around locally, and then people exchange them with their neighbors, who exchange them with their neighbors, and so on. This has been going on for thousands of years, and so it’s not surprising when a story gets passed around so much that it travels halfway around the world. But it is still interesting. And that is why I think today’s yokai is so fascinating.

Ninmenju (also commonly known as jinmenju) has the honor being the most geographically and culturally diverse yokai that I have ever come across. It probably originated in Arabia, and describes a mythical tree that was found in the land of Zanj, which is present-day Mozambique! There are legends that take it all the way back to Alexander the Great’s time, although I think those legends may also be Arabic in origin, as I don’t know if any Greek stories about this tree at all.

Tracing “history” like this is pretty apocryphal, and there is a lot of speculation and guesswork involved. It can be hard to tell if a similarity between two particular legends is coincidental, an example of two cultures developing the same myth as each other, or if it was traded from one to the other, or if they both got it from somewhere else. So it’s very hard to say anything truly definitive about the actual path of transmission of a particular yokai. For example, with Tamamo no Mae, even though her history can be traced back to ancient India and China, there’s no way to verify if the stories of her were written back then or if her identity was simply stapled on to existing myths centuries later, sort of retcon-ing her into the story. In fact, I would be much more willing to bet that she was indeed retconned into those myths by a Japanese author than that the Indian and Chinese writers of those stories actually were writing about the same person. Still, that doesn’t make it any less fascinating to me; after all, all folklore is fiction anyway, so a fictional history about a fictional character seems somehow appropriate.

So it goes with ninmenju; whether or not this is the same tree that we see in Persian and Mughal art, that the Arabs described as having spoken to Alexander the Great, we can’t know for sure. However, based on the descriptions, it seems very likely to be the same tree, which means that two very distant parts of the world, which probably had no communication and no or almost no knowledge of each other at the time, are tied together by a thread of folklore.

Click the illustration below to read about ninmenju, and click here to join my Patreon and support the creation of these illustrations and translations.


A-Yokai-A-Day: Tako Nyudo & Unagi Hime

We’ve taken a good look at some awesome Ainu yokai this week, but of course not all aquatic yokai are of Ainu origin. Tonight I want to talk about a pair of yokai from northern Japan. These two go together quite nicely, so I put them in the same illustration.

This pair of yokai was one that I originally discovered in the collection of Yumoto Koichi (which I previously talked about on this blog from the book Yokai Museum). They appeared together in a particular scroll, and it was such a funny image, of this octupus harassing an eel wearing a kimono, that I had to do a writeup on it.

The scroll, like many yokai scrolls, had no explanation to go with the illustration. Luckily, I was able to find a huge number of stories relating to these two yokai on the Nichibunken databases. In almost all cases, individual eels were believed to be the guardians of ponds and small lakes—particularly in northern Japan. There are a number of stories about eels weaving, which we also saw in the story about kojin earlier this week. I found it really interesting how weaving cloth was associated with sea creatures in Japan.

I also found it quite interesting how many stories there were about eels fighting other yokai for domination of their ponds. Often the eels would be put into fights to the death with giant crabs and spiders over who would be the guardian spirit of a particular pond. And the eels would take the form of young women and try to seduce human warriors to fight in their place. This is basically the outline of the writeup I did for unagi hime, but I was surprised how many different variations of this same story I found. It must be a common theme…

I don’t know that many stories put these two together, other than the one particular scroll in Yumoto Koichi’s collection, but personally I feel like they make a good match with each other. Click here to read more about tako nyudo and unagi hime.

unagihime & takonyuudou
Unagi hime & Tako nyuudou

A-Yokai-A-Day: Atuikakura

I know you won’t be surprised to hear that today we are looking at another aquatic Ainu yokai!

This is easily one of my favorite Ainu yokai just for the pure strangeness of it’s origin story. This week we’ve already talked about “promotion” animals yokai like shusseuo and shussebora. And we’ve talked about creatures that morph from one into another like pokemon. And on this site we’ve taken plenty of looks at tsukumogami—household objects sprung to living versions of themselves. But today’s yokai is the only one of it’s kind I’ve ever come across: a pair of women’s underwear that turned into a giant sea cucumber-god. Interestingly, this one actually lives in the same bay as yesterday’s yokai… so I wonder if they have great kaiju battles, or do they get along well? There’s definitely room for a fanfic there…

But what I want to talk about tonight is how atuikakura is a good example of the difficulty in finding accurate yokai information online.

When this yokai was requested by one of my Patreon backers, I was asked to write about “atsuuikakura.” I hadn’t heard of it before, but when I searched around, I found plenty of hits. However, they were a lot of wiki pages, blogs, deviantarts, and even fanfictions. I couldn’t find anything reliable. Even Japanese Wikipedia mentioned atsuuikakura—as a footnote in the entry of akkorokamui. It also gave two ways to write the name in Japanese: アツウイカクラ and アヅイカクラ.

Now, I can read Japanese alright, but I don’t know Ainu at all, so there was a nagging part of me that thought maybe I’m wrong and it’s a totally normal Ainu word. But I had just done all of the research for the other Ainu yokai recently, and something about those names didn’t seem right. The “atsuui” part didn’t sound Ainu, and certainly wasn’t Japanese. The alternate spelling that Wikipedia gave, “azuikakura,” didn’t sound either Ainu or Japanese. Something began to feel fishy (no pun intended) about this yokai—there were no reliable sources, and its name didn’t make any sense.

I started to think this was a case of internet feedback loop—someone writes a blog post, another person copies it to Wikipedia, then other people cite the Wikipedia page, and eventually the first person sees the Wikipedia page and thinks its corroborating evidence, and voila! you have a horrible citation feedback loop with no source at all. Everything I searched for seemed suspiciously similar, which is not usually the case with yokai. There were hints of video game and anime characters spattered about, so maybe he was a boss in some video game, or a monster in some anime that someone mistook for a real legend? At the same time, though, it felt like there was a core source which this all came from, and I wanted to find it.

To get to the bottom of this creature I started with the weird name. I was sure that’s where the problem was. Atsui sounds Japanese, but the double u sound in atsuui is a sound that I have never encountered before in Japanese, or in any of the Ainu dictionaries I was looking.

Now, Ainu is a hard language to transliterate into Japanese. It contains a number of sounds that aren’t normally written using hiragana and katakana. So the result is that over many years, many different ways of transliterating difficult words have come into practice. Nowadays there are standards for writing Ainu in Japanese, but what about fifty years ago? One hundred? I don’t know… but it’s certainly possible that they were written different back then. After all, Edo used to be transliterated into English as Yedo, and kaidan used to be written kwaidan. Maybe the same thing happened for Ainu.

The name felt like it might be a mistyped version of “atuy,” which is found in tons of Ainu creatures. Sure enough, looking at Ainu-Japanese dictionaries and encyclopedias written about one hundred years ago, there was a difference: the word atuy, which today is written in Japanese with a アトゥイ (a-tu-i) used to be written アツゥイ (a-tsu-i). I wondered if maybe the first person to post atuikakura on the internet had found an old document and then mis-write アツゥイ (a-tsu-i) as アツウイ (a-tsu-u-i). The size of that ウ is very important!

I compared the way our previous friend, akkorokamui, was written back then, with the way he is written today, and it confirmed my guess that atuy is written differently today than one hundred years ago. Then looking through some Ainu-Japanese dictionaries I was able to find that kakura was indeed a northern species of sea cucumber! So this creature’s Ainu name was not actually atsuuikakura, but atuy-kakura. With that knowledge, I was able to search around, using all of the various archaic ways of transliterating the name, and did indeed find some old documents referring to the creature. There wasn’t very much, but there was enough to confirm its bizarre origins. These were backed up by an Ainu cultural museum in Hokkaido, which featured the correct spelling of atuikakura in one of its newsletters a few years back (thank you, Google, for your PDF search abilities!).

In the end, it turned out that that the blogs and wikis describing atsuuikakura’s bizarre origins weren’t too far off from the actual Ainu legend. Although it had been filtered and copy-pasted many times, the heart of the story remained intact. Mainly the biggest error was the mistake in transliterating its name. I still don’t know where the misspelling originated, but I am glad that I was able to find the right way to write its name. I feel like I did a tiny good deed for this non-existent supernatural sea cucumber.

Anyway, click below to read the awesome story of this properly spelled Ainu yokai. And if you liked the story about hunting down its proper name, please sign up for my Patreon project!

Atuikakura aka Atsuuikakura

A-Yokai-A-Day: Akkorokamui

Today’s aquatic yokai is another Ainu myth. The last part of his name “kamui/kamuy” is something you’ll see a lot in Ainu tales. It seems to be a cognate of the Japanese word “kami,” as in god, or spirit. I like this guy because he is almost like a pre-modern kaiju. If ever there was a creature worthy of that title, this guy deserves it. I wonder who would win between him and Godzilla…

Akkorokamui is another Patreon request which was made earlier this year. I’ve shared it on social media and yokai.com before, but featuring it in A-Yokai-A-Day gives me the fun chance to dish out a little bit on the yokai creation process, something which usually onmy my Patreon backers get to see, as it doesn’t get posted up here or on yokai.com.

All of my yokai paintings and translations start out with lots of research. In some cases I will go straight to my favorite yokai sources books: yokai encyclopedia’s written by Toriyama Sekien, Mizuki Shigeru, and Murakami Kenji. They often contain references to other books, and I also usually check the Japanese Wikipedia page for the yokai (if there is one) to look for additional source books to check out (Google Book search is often helpful enough to show me the pages I need if I can’t get my hands on a copy). For more obscure yokai, I’ll dive into JSTOR, or one of my favorite locations: the Nichibunken Yokai databases of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto. I also have a few websites I enjoy reading before moving on, such as youkaiwiki and atelier cromagon. For some yokai and urban legends, like the stories that are so widespread as to have thousands of different versions, I have to do a lot of digging on the internet to find when and where they originated, as these are not usually listed in the yokai encyclopedias I use as my primary sources, so sometimes a lot more googling is required.

After I have an idea of the story and description of the yokai, I start brainstorming and doodling to come up with a composition. When I get one I like, I’ll do a pencil sketch. Sometimes this is super rough and noodley, while other times it is very tight and detailed… It all depends on the mood I am in at the time. For this particular painting, it was very loose:


I knew that for this one the painting would be pretty simple, except for the water, so the sketch was mostly to figure out proportions and composition. This sketch also includes gathering a lot of reference images. This takes the form of photos for things like the texture of the octopus’s skin, landscapes that match the location I am painting, and often woodblock prints that serve as starting points for the textures and colors I will use.

My next step is to scan the sketch and start working on it digitally. I have a Wacom Cintiq Companion tablet that I do my yokai on, and it takes all the pain out of digital illustration and most closely replicates the real thing. I do these digital because of the speed I needed to work in and the volume of images I needed to produce for the books. I want to keep the same look across all of my yokai illustrations so I stick to the same medium. I digitally ink the image, playing with any parts that didn’t turn out the way I had hoped they would (and sometimes silently cursing myself for not doing a tighter, better sketch). By the time the “inking” phase is done, it looks something like this:


The last step is to paint. This usually doesn’t take so long if I did a good job planning the sketch and the line work. As with most things, preparation is the majority of the work, so the more time I spend perfecting the early sketches and the line work, the less time I spend painting.

I have the bad habit of getting lost in details, and I have to force myself to keep things simple. Since my main visual inspiration is woodblock prints, I limit my painting to a selection of colors based on the traditional Japanese ink palette. This is challenging at times, but in some ways a limited palette is also liberating. Forcing yourself to simplify is usually a good thing.

I work in layers in my painting, and I try to treat the painting as if it were a woodblock print. Each layer is a single color, and I try to use lots of gradients just as my favorite hanga artists did. My absolute favorite hanga artist is Kawase Hasui, and if you google his artwork you’ll see why. His prints are some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life, and I take a lot of my painting inspiration from him. After many layers and a fair amount of time, the painting is done. I slap on a few layers of texture to give it an older, papery, printed look.

The final final step is to once again go back to all of the source material, re-read it, and then write my yokai entry. I try not to copy any one source, and I don’t directly translate what I read. Instead, I try to digest, understand, and then regurgitate the legends. Because yokai are folklore, most of them have numerous versions, many of which are contradictory. I try to include some of the variations I find most interesting, and of what remains I choose the versions that I like best and cut the rest. I’m one of those people who will nerd out and just ramble on for hours on a topic that I am passionate about (as my wife and friends will attest to), so I again have to force myself to keep it simple. I try to fit all of my yokai entries into a single page when possible, and that limitation helps me to find the real heart of each yokai without going off on etymological tangents.

So the final painting looks like this. Click below to visit yokai.com and read about this awesome octopus. And if this was an interesting post, you should join the rest of my Patreon backers, who get the backstory like this for all of my yokai!


A-Yokai-A-Day: Amemasu

Today and for the next couple of days we’ll be looking at some aquatic yokai from Ainu folklore! Ainu lore is an often overlooked part of the world of yokai. The Ainu have suffered a fair deal under Japanese rule, similar to how Americans treated the American Indians. Efforts were made to “civilize” the Ainu and “Japan-ify” them by erasing their language, religion and heritage. Fortunately, those trends have been reversing in recent decades, and today great effort is being made to protect and revive Ainu culture. Likewise, the yokai of Ainu folklore are becoming a bit more well-known, although they are still relatively obscure. So I’m excited to feature a few Ainu creatures this week.

Where I live we have had an insane October heat wave for a couple of days… 80 degrees outside and we’re almost in November! I can’t believe it! I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but today all I wanted to do was slip into a pool and cool off. So today’s yokai is kind of a cool drink of water. Looking at those deep blues and the underwater scenery helps me to deal a bit with the heat while painting the rest of the yokai for this month.

The amemasu is a gargantuan fish yokai from Hokkaido. And unlike the shusseuo who we discussed last night, this one doesn’t get a new name based on its size—ironically, because it gets so big it certainly deserves one!

One thing that I find quite interesting about this guy is the concept of fish causing earthquakes. In eastern Japan’s lore, giant catfish are quite commonly blamed for causing tremors. However, in northern Japan, the amemasu takes on that role. I don’t know if there is any deeper connection between those myths, but it’s a really interesting parallel.

Anyway, to read more about this amazing Ainu fish, click on the image below:


A-Yokai-A-Day: Shussebora

Today on A-Yokai-A-Day, we continue aquatic week with another Patreon request: a cute little guy named shussebora. It’s not just cute, though, it’s an amazing just-so-story! But first, it will take some explaining, because it’s not readily apparent to people like us today.

In Japan, there are kinds of fish called shusseuo. This is the same shusse as we see in shussebora, and it means “promotion” (uo means “fish” and bora comes from hora which is short for horagai, or “giant triton“). Shusseuo are a strange concept: they are fish who are called by different names at different stages of their lives. As they age, they “promote” from one creature to the next.

A few examples of shusseuo are the amberjack, which sushi lovers will know as buri. Depending on its size and the region, this fish has a number of different names. When it is under 15 cm it is called an wakashi. When it is over 15cm but under 40 cm it is an inada. Around 60 cm it becomes a warasa. And at around 90 cm it become a buri.

The Japanese sea bass, or suzuki, does this as well: oboko -> subashiri -> ina -> bora -> todo. As do a number of other fish, including koi, and tuna. (In case you ever wondered why when you go to a sushi restaurant all the fish have different names but when you look in your dictionary they all say “tuna,” there’s your answer.)

This would probably be a much stranger concept to non-Japanese if not for Pokemon, which of course has made the idea of animals changing from one kind into another very common over here as well. If charmander, charmeleon, and charizard are each different creatures but technically the same too, then why not fish? It’s a concept that is reflected in plenty of yokai as well, which start as one animal and transform into another once they reach a certain age or size. One of my favorite examples of these would be bat -> nobusuma -> yamachichi or momonjii. Another fun one is badger -> nodeppo.

So your average Edo period yokai fan, upon hearing “shussebora,” would immediately recognize the “shusse” part as similar to shusseuo. And the “bora/hora” part would remind him or her of the horagai.

So this reader could figure out that this is some kind of horagai that “promotes” into a different creature. The illustration depicts a dragon, and to evolve from giant triton -> dragon seems like a pretty awesome upgrade to me! It’s a play on words that would seem natural and probably be instantly understandable to the yokai fans of old Japan.

The only question that remains is why on earth would anyone come up with a sea snail that lives in the mountains and migrates to the sea to become a dragon? Well, part of that goes back to a play on the word hora. Hora is also a word for caves that are left behind after mudslides and avalanches. With earthquakes being quite common in Japan, and with the whole country being covered in mountains, it’s easy to imagine that new caves would be uncovered relatively frequently. The hora (shell)/hora (cave) pun would not be lost of clever yokai readers back in the day. The implication is that the caves were the nest spots of big horagai, and are left behind as the tritons migrate from mountain to sea.

But if horagai are sea creatures, why would people think they originated in the mountains? This isn’t explained in the old books, but here’s a theory: the tops of Japan’s mountains were once located underwater, and it is possible to find shell fossils high up in the Japan alps, so 150+ years ago, someone digging in the mountains and coming across a shell would have no idea how it got there. If he or she found enough shells, they’d think they were the shells of creatures that naturally live in the mountains. Adding a bit of credence to that theory, yamabushi—the ascetic monks who live deep in the mountains—often carry large conch shells which they use as trumpets. A lay person seeing such a monk might just assume that the monk got the shell from deep in the mountains as opposed to the sea… And thus, you have things like shellfish and tritons originating deep in the mountains!

Click below to read more about the shussebora. And if you like this story and my explanation above, you should join my Patreon project—its just like A-Yokai-A-Day, but year-round!


A-Yokai-A-Day: Kojin

Last weel’s hell theme is now officially over, I hope you enjoyed it! This week we’re starting a new theme. This has been a popular theme among my Patreon backers, and we even had a few “theme months” where people request more of this type of yokai. So let’s take a look at some of the rarer and weirder ones that you don’t see as often. This weeks theme is: aquatic yokai!

The vast majority of yokai live in the wilds, on the edges of civilization. In Japan, that usually means the uninhabitable forested mountains which cover 73% of the country. A lot of yokai really are like the creatures in Princess Mononoke—strange, scary things that live just out of the realm of civilized knowledge. This is natural; a common theme among folkloric monsters in every culture in the world is that they are creatures that we don’t know or understand. So what better place to come from that the dark and scary forests, where dangerous bears and wolves lurk? Who knows what else might be living in there, where humans cannot go?

Naturally, then, the ocean is a prime place to find monsters, for the same exact reason. Sea monsters are found just about in every culture. We can’t know for sure just what is in lakes, rivers, and the sea, so there might just be a monster there, right? In Japan, there is no shortage of aquatic yokai. There are a lot of giant sea monsters, like bakekujira, isonade, ayakashi, and koromodako. And there are a lot that have strange or silly stories, like wani and sazae oni.

Today we’re going to look at one in particular, the kōjin, aka samebito. One really cool fact about this yokai is that it is mostly known to the world thanks to the work of an Westerner, not a Japanese person. If you guessed Lafcadio Hearn you’re right! Hearn included this story in his book Shadowings, and attributes it to an old Japanese tale he discovered in another book, although his version is the main one that is known today. Kōjin are still quite well known in China as a variant of mermaids, but there are not many Japanese stories about them. Thanks to Hearn, this story became popular and wasn’t forgotten. Unfortunately, like in his story Mujina, he messed up the name a bit in his translation, so the incorrect reading of the name—samebito—is now more common than the actual reading—kōjin.

Click on the illustration below to read about kōjin, and join my Patreon project if you’d like to learn more about awesome aquatic yokai!