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!

Hōkō
彭侯
ほうこう
“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: Shokuin

The Book of the Hakutaku has passed 1000% funding, and more stretch goals are being added. Today’s yokai, Shokuin, will be appearing in the book as one of the over 100 fully illustrated entries.

Shokuin
燭陰
しょくいん
“torch shadow”

Shokuin as he appears in the Shan hai jing

Shokuin is an impressive beast. He originally comes from China, and was brought to Japan in the Sengaikyo (Chinese: Shanhaijing; “The Classics of the Mountains and Seas”), an encyclopedia of fantastical Chinese mythology. In China he is known as Zhuyin or Zhulong. (Shokuin is the Japanese pronunciation of the characters that make up Zhuyin.)

A lot of yokai were lifted from the Shanhaijing by authors like Toriyama Sekien—some of them more or less word for word, others undergoing a bit of a transformation and reinterpretation, depending on how much liberty the authors decided to take. Shokuin doesn’t undergo too much of a change from his original form.

Sekien describes Shokuin as a god who lives at the foot of Mount Shō, near the northern sea. He has the face of a human, and the body of a red dragon. His body is 1000 ri long (a ri is an ancient unit of measurement which varies quite a bit from age to age and place to place; and 1000 is a number which means “a whole lot,” so suffice it to say, Shokuin is big—at least a few thousand kilometers long).

Toriyama Sekien’s Shokuin

There’s a bit more information about him in the Shanhaijing which Sekien referenced. When Shokuin opens his eyes, it becomes daytime, and when he closes his eyes, it becomes night. When he breathes in it becomes summer, and when he breathes out it becomes winter. So not only is he big, but he is so big that he is responsible for the seasons and the days! He does not need to eat, drink, or breathe, but if he does breathe it causes huge storms.

Judging by his size and the unique side effects of his blinking and breathing altering the day/night and seasonal cycles, it seems that Shokuin was a personification of the sun, or at least a kind of solar or fire deity in ancient China. He appears in a number of other Chinese sources, but like all good mythology, there are contradictory “facts” about precisely where he lives and other details.

It has also been speculated that Shokuin is a deification of the aurora borealis. This makes sense when we consider that his home mountain is placed in the north sea, i.e. the Arctic circle. It’s also interesting to note that an ancient Chinese word for the aurora was “red spirit.” It’s easy to imagine the feelings an ancient explorer would have felt traveling far north and seeing the northern lights—a giant red line dancing back and forth across the sky. It’s only natural he might think it was a writhing red dragon thousands of kilometers long.

Shokuin, appearing in The Book of the Hakutaku

A-Yokai-A-Day: Raiju

The Kickstarter topped 700% last night, which is amazing, considering we’re not even one week in! My previous two Kickstarters both managed to reach 900% on their final days, and it looks like The Book of the Hakutaku will reach that much earlier. It really is great to see that there are so many more yokai fans today than there were just a couple of years ago!

If you’re enjoying A-Yokai-A-Day, remember to become a backer for The Book of the Hakutaku on Kickstarter! Now, for today’s yokai:

Raijū
雷獣
らいじゅう

Raijū is an interesting yokai. Once upon a time it was one of the most well known and most feared supernatural creatuires in Japan. Yet today it is relatively minor, or even practically unknown to the average person. Why the sudden change? Science of course!

Japan’s history is filled with natural disasters. Earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, floods, and fires have done more than their fair share of destruction to the country. While we know much about the physical causes of natural disasters today, in earlier eras they were mysterious, considered to be the work of gods. Only gods had the power to move the earth, or send fire from the sky. Lightning, for example, occurs so fast and so randomly that it is all but impossible to observe. Only its aftereffects can be observed—the terrible sound that shakes the world, the weirdly shaped burns on the thing it strikes, and the fires that it starts. Particularly in old Japan when homes were all made of wood and closely packed together, a single lightning strike can cause a lot of damage!

The raijū was the personification (animal-ification?) and embodiment of lightning. They were seen as a kind of god, or at least akin to the thunder gods (raijin). They live in the sky, which was a world which was totally off limits to pre-flight humans. They rode bolts of lightning to earth. For seemingly no reason at all, they would strike buildings, start fires, and cause mass destruction. Nothing was known about them, and nothing could be known about them except that they were fast, merciless, and deadly. Whenever lightning struck, people believed that a raijū had been sent by the gods to punish them for some reason or another.

Raijū took on lots of forms over their history. Generally, they were thought to look like wolves, dogs, tanuki, or even weasels or cats. They had long, sharp claws and ferocious faces. Far more fanciful forms existed too. Sometimes raijū were said to look like little dogs, but with four rear legs and two tails. Sometimes they were said to look like insects or crustaceans. They would burrow into your belly button to hide from the angry thunder gods (which is where the Japanese superstition of covering your belly button when thunder claps comes from!). Others looked like miniature dragons. Even more exotic versions were chimerical monsters composed of many different animals, like the nue (who is really a kind of raijū when you think about it).

Because they were so scary, raiju were often presented in stories as beasts to be slain, just like oni. The nue, as mentioned above, is one such example. Another example involves the historical samurai Tachibana Dōsetsu. One night he was taking shelter from a storm under a tree. Lightning struck him, but he drew his sword just in time to strike the bolt, slaying the raijū who came with it. Afterwards, he named his sword Raikiri, or “lightning cutter.”

During the Edo period, “real” raijū were popular sideshow attractions, along with “real” kappa and mermaids. Mummified remains of cats, monkeys, and dogs presented as raijū were often toured around the country in traveling shows. People would pay a few coins to get a quick glimpse at the horrific corpses. Surely many must have realized that these were just man-made taxidermied monstrosities, but their popularity boomed anyway due to the sheer horror that they evoked.

During the Meiji period, with the rapid changes tranforming society thanks to the influx of foreign science and technology, yokai were one of the first victims. People were actively discouraged from bringing up “silly” superstitions because they were perceived as an embarrassment to the country—they were examples of how parochial and backwards the Japanese were in the previous era. New understandings about electricity and lightning, and the invention of the airplane made the raijū’s most important features—its life in the mysterious sky, and its attachment to lightning—suddenly no longer mysterious. Once those mysteries were gone, the raijū had nowhere left to live.

I’ve talked a lot before about how yokai are necessarily creatures of mystery. They live in the borderlands between life and death, light and shadow; they’re aren’t creatures of death, and they aren’t creatures of the night. They’re something intangible and unknowable. We can’t classify them the way we classify animals, because their very nature is that they are unclassifiable. Once we know too much about them, they cease to be interesting.

The raijū was a victim of probably the one thing that can truly kill a yokai: understanding.

Raiju, from The Book of the Hakutaku

A-Yokai-A-Day: Gumyocho

Hello everyone! Today a few new stretch goals were added to the Kickstarter: a few more options for yokai-themed bookmarks to go with my previous yokai books, as well as yokai t-shirts! Click here to visit the Kickstarter page.

Now, on to A-Yokai-A-Day!

Gumyōchō
共命鳥
ぐみょうちょう
“connected life bird”

the six birds of nirvana – note the human-headed gumyōchō

As a huge bird lover, I have a special spot in my heart for all bird yokai. The gumyōchō is one of six bird species which are said to inhabit nirvana—the others being white swans, peafowl, parrots, mynah birds, and karyōbinga (one of these things is not like the others…). I painted the karyōbinga a few months back, and she appears in a few places in The Book of the Hakutaku’s Kickstarter. The gumyōchō will take its rightful place by her side in the finished book.

The gumyōchō is a beautiful two-headed bird that resembles a pheasant. Occasionally it is depicted as having two human heads instead of two bird heads. Like the karyōbinga, it is said to have an exceedingly beautiful voice. It and the other heavenly birds sing the holy scriptures in nirvana, and those who listen to them can achieve enlightenment. Gumyōchō is interesting not only because it is beautiful and has an amazing voice. Its story is also an important Buddhist parable.

Long ago, a gumyōchō lived in the snowy mountains of India. It had two heads and one body. One head was named Karuda, and the other head was named Upakaruda. The bird’s two heads had different personalities and desires. When one head was sleepy, the other one wanted to play. When one head was hungry, the other one wanted to rest. Eventually, the two heads began to resent each other.

One day while Upakaruda was sleeping, Karuda feasted on delicious fruits and flowers until he was stuffed and could eat no more. When Upakaruda woke up, he wanted to eat too, but he was already full because they shared one stomach. He could not enjoy any of the food.

Upakaruda decided to punish Karuda. While Karuda slept, Upakaruda found a tree with poisonous fruit. Because they shared a stomach, Upakaruda ate the fruit in order to make Karuda sick. Sure enough, when Karuda woke up, the poison had already taken effect. Karuda writhed and suffered, and then died. Of course, because they shared one body, Upakaruda also became sick, felt the agony of the poison, and then died.

Just before dying, Upakaruda  realized his foolishness. All the while that he had resented his other head, he failed to recognize that his own life depended on it. Just the same, by harming his other head, he was also harming himself. Upon realizing this, he understood one of the core tenets of Buddhism—interconnectedness—and was reborn in nirvana.

The gumyōchō is of course a metaphor for humanity. Our own selfishness often blinds us to the fact that our wellbeing and happiness is dependent on the wellness and the happiness of others. Sometimes we don’t care about what happens to those who we don’t know personally, or we want to hurt those who bother us. But we are acting as foolishly as Upakaruda. When we hurt someone else, we are hurting ourselves; when we refuse to help someone else, we are hurting ourselves. It’s only through caring for others that we can really take care of ourselves.

Although the story is ancient, it seems even more relevant today in the context of globalization. It’s easy to forget about the well-being of others and focus only on ourselves, or our friends and families. But when the food we eat is grown in different states, and the products we use every day are made in foreign countries, by people we will never meet, it’s important to keep in mind how interconnected we are. Our lives really do depend on each other, just like Karuda and Upakaruda. When people ignore global warming, the threat of nuclear war, mass shootings, natural disasters, and other problems that are affecting millions of lives today, they are missing the truth that those lives are the same as their own.

Gumyōchō – to appear in The Book of the Hakutaku

A-Yokai-A-Day: Okikumushi

Well, the Kickstarter blew up! In less than twenty four hours we passed 400% funding, and we are now approaching 500%! That’s much faster than my two previous Kickstarters. I think it goes to show that yokai are becoming more and more well known around the world, and that more and more people want to learn about and share this fantastic folklore!

Now, on to A-Yokai-A-Day!

Okikumushi
於菊虫
おきくむし

Toriyama Sekien’s Sarakazoe

Today’s yokai is an interesting one because of its relation to a yokai we looked at recently as part of my Patreon project. In August, we looked at the Three Big Ghost Stories of Japan. One of these, Okiku, is so famous that she spawned a number of other yokai. While Okiku has appeared on A-Yokai-A-Day before, the new painting of her will appear in The Book of the Hakutaku, along with the other ghosts we looked at in the Patreon project.

Toriyama Sekien included a yokai based on Okiku in his book Konjaku gazu zoku hyakki: the sarakazoe, or “dish counter.” Sarakazoe doesn’t really differ much from the original tale of Okiku, so it may have just been Sekien’s attempt at “classifying” the type of ghost that Okiku became when she died, rather than calling it an “Okiku ghost” or something like that.

Okikumushi from Ehon hyaku monogatari

The other famous yokai derived from Okiku is the okikumushi, or “okiku worm.” This yokai appeared in the Ehon hyaku monogatari, published in 1841.

Okikumushi is sort of a post scriptum to Okiku’s story. In most versions of her story, her ghost is laid to rest when a priest shouts, “TEN!” after she counts her ninth plate and before she can unleash her death scream.

In the story of okikumushi, it is said that after her death, her spirit came back as a type of bug, which could be seen crawling around the well where she drowned. Apparently this bug had features that resembled her, and were spawned by whatever part of her grudge remained on this world.

Interestingly, the okikumushi is a real insect. It’s a nickname for Byasa alcinous, or the Chinese windmill. Apparently in the late 18th century this nickname caught on. The chrysalis of this insect was thought to look like a tied up woman’s body. Since legend has it that Okiku was tied up and thrown down the well of Himeji castle, and because these caterpillars were seen in large numbers around the castle’s well, the name stuck. For many years, these bugs were even sold as souvenirs to tourists at shrines near the castle!

Although it’s a bit of a weird tale, it’s not unprecedented. The idea of the souls of the dead having an effect on the shape of living animals was already well circulated. A famous species of crab—the Heikegani—was named for its shell which resembles like a scowling samurai’s helmet. Legend was that the spirits of the slain Heike soldiers turned into these crabs, giving them their remarkable appearance.

No doubt whoever came up with the idea of okikumushi was well aware of her tale’s popularity. Maybe he or she sought to cash in on that and came up with this unofficial sequel to her story. The tourists liked it so much that the name stuck, and okikumushi became an indelible part of yokai folklore!

okikumushi

Okikumushi – from The Book of the Hakutaku

If you liked this story, you’ll definitely want to join my Kickstarter! Not only can you get The Book of the Hakutaku in paperback, ebook, and hardcover collector’s editions, you can also get yokai postcards, bookmarks, and other awesome stretch goals. Don’t miss out!

Kasane

Greetings yokai fans!

It’s been a busy day, but it’s not yet midnight on August 31st and I’ve finished the final ghost for this month. Phew!

I’m not sure why, but I really like Kasane. Maybe it’s the brutal nature of her exorcism, but it’s just a fun story.

The illustration is something that you don’t get to see in the main story: the ghost of Kasane going after the 6 wives of her bastard of a husband. She’s often depicted in ukiyoe as a hideous ghost carrying a bloody sickle. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish her from Oiwa, because they both have messed up faces, but you can usually tell it’s Kasane when you see either the bloody sickle, or a bridge in the background. I find it interesting that Japanese ghosts have these little symbols sort of in the same way that Christian saints do. It makes it helpful to tell them apart that’s for sure!

This is a long one, so be forewarned!

Kasane

kasane

Kasane originally appeared on my Patreon page. Become a supporter and help me make more illustrations and translations of ghost stories!

Otsuyu

Greetings yokai fans!

August is almost over, and 2 more ghosts to go! I guess I won’t be sleeping for the rest of this month… Today’s story is #3 of Japan’s Top 3 Ghost Stories. Technically, Botan doro is actually a Chinese story. It was adapted into Japanese, with the names, places, and time period reimagined (Kyoto during the Onin War) for its Japanese audience.

In the 19th century there were popular theatrical versions of this story made for rakugo and kabuki. The kabuki story is the most famous version, and the main one you’ll find on the internet and in books. I posted it on my blog years ago, Lafcadio Hearn translated that version for his books, and it pretty much dominates the story.

I decided to go back a little further for this version and tell the “original” Japanese remake. I feel like it is a little creepier; in the kabuki version it’s a love story that carries on after death. In the first Japanese version, it’s just a ghost who happens to catch a human. A subtle difference, I know, but I feel like it’s a little purer. It feels more like a folk tale rather than an elaborate drama.

Anyway, here is the tale of Otsuyu, from Botan Doro.

Otsuyu

otsuyu

Eager for more ghost stories? Join my Patreon project to help support me in creating these translations and illustrations!