A-Yokai-A-Day: Hangonko

This is it folks, the last yokai of A-Yokai-A-Day 2017! And also your last day to back The Book of the Hakutaku on Kickstarter! Collectors editions and stretch goals won’t be available in stores, so don’t miss your chance to get them as part of the Kickstarter!

I like to save my favorite and scariest yokai of the month for last. Today’s yokai won’t make you scream and won’t make you cringe in disgust. It won’t take your breath away… But it may just bring you true dread. Read on to find out why this is my pick for scariest yokai of the month!

“spirit calling incense”

Toriyama Sekien’s Hangonkō

Hangonkō is a legendary incense from ancient China which has the power to bring forth the spirits of the dead before those who burn it. Those who burn the incense will see the spirits of the dead within the smoke.

The incense was famously used by Emperor Wu (Japanese: Butei) of the Han dynasty in China. After his beloved concubine Li Furen (Japanese: Rifuren) passed away, the emperor fell into deep depression. A Taoist sorcerer, in an attempt to ease the emperor’s grief, provided him with a bit of hangonkō so that he might see Lady Li one more time.

Hangonkō was a popular subject in Japanese literature as well. It appears in a number of Edo period works, from ghost story books to theater, kabuki, rakugo, bunraku/ningyō jōruri puppet theater… The Japanese versions star different characters; for example a man whose beloved prostitute dies is overcome with grief, and a taikomochi recommends he try using hangonkō—a secret incense handed down by the onmyōji Abe no Seimei.

Hangonkō is made from the hangonjū, a magical tree with leaves and flowers that resemble those of a maple or Japanese oak. Its smell can be picked up from over 100 ri away. To make hangonkō, you steam this tree’s roots until the sap comes out. Then you knead the sap to make the incense. A small piece of this resin is said to be effective at recalling the spirits of those who died from sickness or disease.

There is, of course, a catch. Hangonkō only returns the spirit for a short time; and they only exist in the smoke of the burning incense. All of the different versions of the story share the same ending: the person using the incense meets their lover’s spirit one last time, but it only leaves them sadder and more grieved than they were before. It doesn’t alleviate their loneliness, it makes it worse.

There’s an allegory here. Smoke often symbolizes delusion. And in Buddhism the the strongest delusion is attachment to material things—like the inability to let go of a loved one after death. Delusion is said to be the ultimate cause of all suffering.The smoke of the incense prevents those using it from properly letting go of their loved ones and moving on. They’re stuck in the past, in a delusion, and will be miserable until they learn to let go.

To me, there’s nothing comforting about this story. No good moral, no reconciliation, not even a punchline. It just evokes pure, existential horror; the horror of losing a loved one too soon. How do you get over that? Either you do or you don’t… One of my best friends says that their greatest fear is to die alone. Staying alive, however, seems even worse.

Happy Halloween!

Hangonkō, from The Book of the Hakutaku

One thought on “A-Yokai-A-Day: Hangonko

  1. Plot Twist: the mistress of the owner of the house that summoned the Ao Andon in Night Parade of One Hundred Demons died during the game as a result of the Ao Andon’s attack and so her lover burned some Hangoko to see her again

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