A-Yokai-A-Day: Ubagabi

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Now, on to today’s yokai:

Ubagabi (姥ヶ火, うばがび)

Ubagabi is another kind of hi-no-tama, or fireball yokai, a topic we’ve seen quite a few of on this blog. The name literally means “old hag fire.” Ubagabi is found on rainy nights in Osaka, and appears as a 1 foot diameter ball of flame with, just as the name suggests, the face of an old woman in it. There are a couple of stories connected to it:

According to one account from Osaka, a man was walking the road late at night when an Ubagabi flew out of the darkness and hit him in the face. Afterwards, when he got a closer look at the thing that hit him, it turned out to be a chicken… However, while he was inspecting the chicken closer, it turned back into an ubagabi and flew away.

The story ends there, but while it may seem that the man got away safely, he probably didn’t. According to legend, ubagabi have the uncanny ability to fly up to 4 kilometers in the blink of an eye, bounce off of someone’s shoulder, and then carry on into the darkness. However, anyone they bounce off of like that ends up dying within three years. However, if you are quick, and you shout “Abura-sashi!” (oil thief) just as she comes flying at you, she will vanish. The reason for that follows:

Long ago there was an old woman in Osaka who stole the precious lamp oil from the Hiraoka shrine. (You’ll remember from Sōgenbi the other day how terrible a crime it is to steal oil!) She was caught by the shrine’s priest and her crime was exposed, and after that the people of her village shunned her for being an oil thief. So great was her shame that she went to the pond behind Hiraoka shrine and committed suicide, after which she turned into an ubagabi. To this day, the pond behind Hiraoka shrine is called “Ubagabi-ike” (the pond of the Ubagabi). And that is why if you see an ubagabi and accuse it of being an oil thief, it will vanish out of shame and embarrassment.


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