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


A-Yokai-A-Day: Hoko

Slipcases were made available on the Kickstarter project yesterday, and I am in the process of coming up with more slipcase designs for the other two hardcovers. In addition, more t-shirt and hoodie designs will be posted soon, so if you’re interested in yokai apparel, you have something to get excited about!

On to today’s yokai!

“evergreen lord; refers to the penghou”

Hoko, from the Wakan sansai zue

It is said that an old man once cut a camphor tree with an axe, and blood came out from the tree. Inside that tree lived a hōkō.

The hōkō comes from China and appears in a number of Chinese and Japanese chronicles. It is a nature spirit which inhabits 1000-year old trees. It resembles a black dog with no tail and a human-like face. Being a tree spirit, it is said to be similar to a kodama or a yamabiko, although Toriyama Sekien goes out of his way to specifically mention that it is a separate animal from the yamabiko. (Understandable, since it does resemble the yamabiko quite a bit.)

Hōkō are recorded as being edible; the ancient Chinese records that mention them include accounts of them being stewed and eaten. Apparently they taste sweet and sour, and similar to dog meat.

Toriyama Sekien’s hoko

Hōkō is the Japanese pronunciation of its Chinese name, Penghou, and thus does not translate perfectly into Japanese. Legends of the creature generally refer to it being found inside of camphor trees. However, the first characters in its name can refer to a different kind of evergreen: the sakaki (Cleyera japonica), which is an important sacred tree in Shinto. The second character in its name was used as a title for feudal lords. It’s not really clear that these were the intended meanings in the original Chinese though. Supposedly, its name was first recorded in the Hakutaku zu (“The Book of the Hakutaku”), a book written many thousands of years ago which has since been lost to history—so the true meaning of its name is difficult to decipher.

Hoko, from The Book of the Hakutaku

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!

“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
“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