A-Yokai-A-Day began in October of 2009 as a daily illustration project, presenting one new yokai painting and translation each day of the month in celebration of Halloween. Join in on social media with the hastag #ayokaiaday and celebrate yokai every day during October!
The kitsune is one of the most beloved yokai, and is a pretty common spirit throughout East Asian folklore. If you’ve ever been to Japan, you’ve no doubt seen statues of foxes at many shrines. The fox is considered a magical animal in Japan, and Japanese mythology is full of tales of foxes. There are both benevolent and malevolent foxes — good ones are connected to the god Inari — and they are believed to possess both long life and incredible intelligence, as well as magical powers.
The older a fox gets, the more powerful its magic becomes. It is said that after reaching 100 years of age, a fox learns how to shapeshift into a human; and indeed there are many stores of foxes interacting with humans in this way, including falling in love and even marriage. As foxes increase in age, they are also said to grow more tails. After reaching 1000 years old, a fox receives its ninth tail. At this point, it’s fur becomes white or gold, and it is able to hear and see anything happening anywhere in the world, and it gains infinite wisdom. These foxes are called kyubi no kitsune, and this is what I’ve drawn for you today:
Anyway, kitsune are such an important and interesting part of Japanese folklore, I strongly suggest you search around and read more about them. They’re just plain awesome.
Of all the yokai I’ve heard of, today’s has become my favorite. This is the kamaitachi, or to translate its name into English, the sickle weasel. It’s a pretty dangerous beast; it rides on a gust of wind and slices up its victims legs with its sickles. Another version says that it’s actually a trio of weasel brothers, the first of which knocks the victim down, the second of which cuts the victim up, and the third of which applies medicine to the wounds, making them appear to be only scratches, as if the person had run through brambles.
Aside from the name, which is awesome enough on its own, I think one of the reasons I love the kamaitachi so much is because it really just sounds like whoever made it up couldn’t think of anything good, so he just slapped some knives onto a weasel and called it a day. Though my wife tells me that this is definitely something to be feared, I find it hard not to chuckle at it, just a bit. Anyway, it’s a really cool yokai, so I hope you like my illustration!
Today’s yokai is Azukiarai, a fairly gentle yokai who lives in the mountains. They are very shy and elusive, so it’s quite difficult to see them. Their name means “bean washer,” and that’s exactly what they do — they wash buckets of red beans in mountain streams, singing their bean-washing song, which goes like this:
“Azuki togou ka? Hito tottekuou ka? Shoki shoki.”
“Should I grind my azuki beans? Or should I snatch a person to eat? Shoki shoki (the sound of washing beans in the bucket).”
It sounds scary, but he really just sings it for fun. Azukiarai doesn’t hurt people or cause mischief, though it is said that anyone approaching close enough to see one will inevitably fall in the water just before he runs away.
Yesterday I showed you Zashiki-warashi, which is named for the zashiki — a kind of room in a Japanese house. I mentioned that there are different kinds of zashiki-warashi, and they vary in terms of pleasantness. Most zashiki-warashi appear as young children, and while they love to play pranks and mess around, they’re generally well-liked yokai. Today’s yokai has a much less wholesome image. This isUsu-tsuki-warashi. It’s named for a Japanese millstone, and has a slightly less wholesome image. Usu-tsuki-warashi is connected with ancient infanticide customs, in which an unwanted baby would be buried in a warehouse, in a dirt floor, or underneath the millstone.
Usu-tsuki warashi is said to cause general feelings of unease in houses that it inhabits. It crawls out from beneath the dirt floor and creeps about the house, making noises like someone pounding on a millstone (thus its name). It’s not a malevolent yokai, but it certainly can feel that way.
Unfortunately, it’s like that driving it out of the house would have the same ruinous effects that driving its more-pleasant cousin out would have… so a family with a Usu-tsuki-warashi may have to live with the creepy yokai rather than forcing it to leave.
Today’s yokai is a little less sinister than yesterday’s. This is Zashiki-warashi, a house spirit which looks like a young child. It’s generally a harmless spirit, and it’s said that if you see one in your house, it will bring you good fortune (though it’s also said they are invisible to adults). However, if it ever leaves your house, you will fall into ruin. Zashiki-warashi are pranksters who like to make noise, move things about, and goof off in other ways. They’ll often jump on sleeping guests in the middle of the night, and then vanish before anyone can see them. They also like to play with anything in the house that makes noise, or run around singing Japanese “spirit music.” Another of their favorite pranks to do is to rub their feet in the ashes from the fire place and run around the house, leaving footprints everywhere. In some areas, people leave food out at night for the zashiki-warashi in hopes to keep it happy.
There are a number of variations on zashiki-warashi, and while this one is a prankster, it’s relatively pleasant. We’ll see a less pleasant variation tomorrow.
Today’s yokai is Hyosube. This nasty fellow is a cousin of the much-beloved Kappa, a slightly mischievous river spirit, however, Hyosube is much crueler. Those who cross one of these foul little wretches often find themselves sorry for it. Like the kappa, he lives in rivers most of the time; but he likes to venture in to towns to, among other things, take baths in people’s houses. His body is covered in thick hair, which invariably gets left all over the bathroom, in the tub, and every he’s been. If you’re hairy like me, you know this problem only too well — we Meyers are a hairy bunch — (thankfully my wife likes hyosubes so she doesn’t seem to care).
There are a few stories of people who had unfortunate run-ins with a hyosube. In one story, a woman caught a hyosube who was trashing her eggplant garden. The hyosube got angry and destroyed all of the eggplants, and afterwards the woman turned purple and soon died. In another story, a man who went to take a morning bath found hairs and a horrible smell all over his bathroom, so he made sure to empty all the hot water after his bath that night. In retaliation, the hyosube killed his horse. In a third story, another man found his bathroom befouled by a hyosube and threw the dirty hairs and water out the window. Some of the hairs landed on his horse, which promptly died. (These stories were translated from the Japanese Wikipedia page on hyosube, as the English page just redirects to the page for kappa.)
I really love how this monster as well as yesterday’s monster both sound like stories someone made up to explain away a nasty relative. “Grampa Jim always drinks our beer and smokes all our cigarettes and acts like he owns this place!” could easily be a nurarihyon, while “Uncle Carl is so rude, he stinks, and he leaves his hair all over our bathroom whenever he bathes!” could easily be the origin for a hyosube.
It’s time to unveil my super-secret project that I have been planning in my head for months now, and should most certainly have preceded with more fanfare. I’ve been fascinated with Japanese monsters, yokai, for a very long time now, and October is my favorite month, for the weather, the smells, the sights, and of course, my favorite day of the year: Halloween. So in honor of Halloween, I’ve decided to make October a sort of yokai month. Every single day this month I am going to paint a yokai and post it here. It’s a big project, but it should be a lot of fun!
And that brings me too my first yokai-of-the-month: Nurarihyon. Nurarihyon is a great little guy. It’s said he is the most powerful of all yokai, and some also say he is the leader of the yokai. Nurarihyon looks like an old man with a gourd-shaped head. He sneaks into people’s houses and acts like he owns the place, drinking all their sake and smoking all their tobacco. I have no idea what happens if you walk in on a nurarihyon breaking into your liquor cabinet, but I imagine he’d just act like it was totally natural. The main reason I picked him is because he’s my wife’s favorite yokai, but there’s also something quite fun about painting wrinkly, stinky old men. Incidentally, my nurarihyon is drinking Kirin’s Aki Aji, my favorite beer (probably because of the beautiful can) which is only available in the fall.