Tonight’s yōkai is another serpent like the one we saw a couple of weeks ago. Contrary to my normal pattern of leaving yōkai names untranslated, I use English words like snake or serpent in these stories because the Japanese terminology is often inconsistent. In yōkai stories, the word for serpent is usually 大蛇, which can be pronounced daija, ōhebi, or orochi. The word means giant snake, but to add even more confusion it is often used as a analogy for a dragon, which can be written 龍 or 竜 and can be pronounced ryū or tatsu. What’s more, the terms are often mixed around in the same story, making it confusing as to whether the creature in question is a giant snake or a dragon.
The truth is that in folklore, there’s not much difference. With our modern understanding of biology, giant snakes and dragons are clearly two different things. But lines are not as clearly drawn between animals in Japanese folklore. You may be familiar with a folkloric creature called like the mami, which is sometimes a tanuki, sometimes a mujina, and sometimes its own thing altogether. Old mami can evolve into nodeppō, which spit bats from their mouths, and bats can evolve into nobusuma, which can later evolve into yamachichi or momonjii. Yōkai biology is less like a family tree and more like a tangled ball of yarn.
One of the things I like to say when talking about yōkai stories is that we must accept that they are contradictory and unknowable by nature. And that’s something we just have to accept to enjoy them. So is it a giant snake or is it a dragon? Yes, it is.
How Unshō, a Monk from Shima Province, Escaped from a Poisonous Serpent
When a monk named Unshō was traveling on pilgrimage from Kumano to Shima Province, he discovered a cave with a beautiful seaside view. He took up a temporary residence in this cave to practice asceticism, dutifully reciting the nenbutsu everything morning and evening. However, there was an overwhelming stink of fish emanating from deep within the cave.
Unshō was frightened by the smell. Then suddenly, while reading a sutra and reciting prayers, an enormous serpent emerged from the depths of the cave. It opened its mouth wide as if to devour Unshō. However, upon hearing the sutra and nenbutsu, it closed its mouth and lowered its head, then retreated back into the cave.
Unshō resumed his prayers and recitations. Shortly after, a man wearing an ancient kimono and head-dress emerged from the cave, approached Unshō, and bowed.
“I am the lord of this cave. I have lived here for tens of thousands of years. I have preyed upon men and beasts in uncountable numbers. Now that a noble monk has come here and I have heard the voice of the Buddha, all of my evil thoughts have been extinguished. The rain that falls tonight is my tears of joy. Let it be proof of the greatness of my form. Henceforth, I will turn from my evil ways and follow the Buddha’s path with gratitude.”
Saying this, the man put his head to the ground, thanked the monk, and disappeared.