A-Yokai-A-Day: The Arrogance of Ukita of Bizen Province’s Widow

Tonight’s story describes the workings of one of the most popular yokai there is: a tengu. But first, there’s a few cultural terms to talk about in this story.

First, the subject of the illustration: a kamuro. Kamuro (also sometimes kaburo, as with the yokai ōkaburo) is a word that describes several things depending on the era; a hairstyle involving a mostly-shaved head that was common in the late Edo period; a hair style that was not shaven, but instead bobbed used until the middle Edo period; the children who wore such hairstyles; and young girls employed as handmaids in high end brothels. Since this book was written in the early Edo period, kamuro would have referred to a child, who would have had a bobbed hairstyle.

Secondly, the comment “They would never let Benkei do that all by himself.” This is a reference to a massively famous legendary warrior monk about whom many stories were written. One of his most famous legends is about how he died. After the Genpei War and the destruction of the Heike, the brothers Minamoto no Yoshitsune and Minamoto no Yoritomo fought with each other over who would be the ruler of Japan. Benkei was one of Yoshitsune’s retainers, and fought by his side at the Battle of the Koromo River. When Yoshitsune’s army was encircled and all but defeated, Benkei told his master to flee, then stayed behind and single-handedly held off the enemy army by guarding a bridge. Not one of Yoritomo’s men was brave enough to cross the bridge to fight the legendary monk. Instead, they rained arrows down upon him. When dust cleared and the arrows stopped falling, they looked out and saw Benkei still standing on the other side of the bridge. Eventually, they found the courage to cross the bridge, and they discovered that the brave monk had died standing up! Talk about epic.

Now on to the yokai… Although we don’t actually see the tengu in the story — we just see the results of its magic and its personality. Tengu are famous for their disdain of prideful people, just as was the case in the tengu story we saw earlier this month. Tonight’s story is no exception. Imagine having the pride and boldness to walk on top of a child and then use the toilet right in front of their face!

The Arrogance of Ukita of Bizen Province’s Widow

In Bizen Province there was a certain woman who was known as the widow of Ukita. One night, to alleviate her boredom, she had some dancers perform for her. They performed “Takadachi,” and as she listened to them recite the part where Benkei makes his final stand, she chortled, “They would never let Benkei do that all by himself…” Then, laughing, she stepped out into the courtyard to use the outhouse.

When she opened the door of the outhouse, there was a kamuro about twelve or thirteen years old lying across the floor. The kamuro looked up at the widow and grinned. The widow was dauntless by nature, so without hesitation, she locked the door, trampled across the kamuro, and then leisurely relieved herself. Then she coolly left the outhouse and walked several meters, when she heard a dry cackle behind her that pierced right through her ears. She thought she was going to be pulled backwards, but she fell flat on her face right where she stood.

Everybody was surprised, and they ran outside to find the widow fainted. When they somehow managed to revive her, she came to her senses and told them what had happened. It is said that a tengu arranged this punishment because the widow was so arrogant.

a child in a kimono lies on the floor and grins at the viewer

A-Yokai-A-Day: The Elder of Saikōji in Bungo Province Who Was Attached to Gold

Tonight’s story is another example of a problem caused by attachment to material things — the core sin of Buddhism. That this story takes place at a temple, and to a temple elder, serves to underline that fact. Even priests are susceptible to this most basic of human faults, and can become undead monsters as a result of it.

The last part of the story points out that everyone slandered this elder after the money was found. But it’s not simply the fact that he was attached to the money that was the problem. The key lies in the amount: one thousand ryō. You don’t have to be an Edo period accountant to imagine that this is an obscenely large amount of money. One thousand gold coins is going to be worth a lot no matter what time period or country this takes place in. The value of gold fluctuated a lot over the Edo period, and it’s hard to place the exact time for this story, but since Shokoku hyakumonogatari was published in 1677, it’s safe to say this took place probably somewhere between 1600 and 1670. Currency Museum of the Bank of Japan, at the beginning of the Edo Period, one ryō was worth approximately 100,000 yen in today’s money. So this temple elder had a secret buried stash worth one hundred million yen. That kind of money isn’t something a priest is normally going to get his hands on, so there’s a strong implication that he was doing some immoral things to gather and hide that much gold. So the slander was almost certainly deserved, although the story never tells us just what this man did to get that money.

The Elder of Saikōji in Bungo Province Who Was Attached to Gold

At a temple called Saikōji in Bungo Province, an elder who was about seventy years old fell ill, and said in his final days, “When I die, leave me as I am for seven days, and after that, cremate me.” After that, he died.

His disciples obeyed his last will, and had him washed and placed in a coffin. At around midnight on the third day, there was a rustling sound inside of the coffin. Then the lid of the coffin opened up, and the elder, wearing a black hood, crawled out of the coffin and walked into the tatami room. The disciples were amazed, and they watched to see what would happen. The elder went out to the veranda and pointed a finger towards the northwest corner of the garden. The disciples were so afraid that they ran away and hid in the kitchen. Eventually the elder went back into his coffin.

The following night, the elder did the same thing as the night before. The disciples held a meeting to discuss the matter. They dug up the northwest corner of the garden and they discovered an incredibly beautiful jar. When they looked inside, they found one thousand ryō in gold coins had been placed inside.

Afterwards, everyone disparaged the elder because of his lingering attachment to this gold.

a corpse wearing a black kerchief stands on a veranda and points into the night

A-Yokai-A-Day: The Bakemono of Iga Province During the Keichō Era

Tonight’s story is a short and strange collection of happenings that occurred at the house of “a certain samurai” in Iga Province during the Keichō era. Iga was located on the famous Tōkaidō highway running east-west linking Kyōto with Edo, and due to its location right on the border of the capital, it was a major thoroughfare and a gateway to the east. During the Heian period it was under control of the Taira clan, but in the middle ages it changed hands many times and was owned by several different families. In 1608, after Tokugawa Iyeyasu united the country, Iga was put under the control of Tōdō Takatora.

Takatora was a skilled and clever warrior who rose rapidly from the ranks of a mere foot soldier all the way to become a daimyō. He was also a brilliant engineer and is especially known for designing twenty different castles. So why would such weird hauntings take place under his rule? The storyteller doesn’t bother to speculate, but the question lingers on my mind. One …possibility… is that it was some kind of supernatural punishment or cause-and-effect. You see, Takatora was not just a great warrior, he was also politically smart. Over his career, he changed his allegiance often, serving under several different lords until finally remaining loyal to Tokugawa Iyeyasu for the remainder of his life. Swapping sides that often might be good politics (and certainly it’s better for your health!), but that’s the kind of treachery that might just get one’s lands haunted!

The Bakemono of Iga Province During the Keichō Era

During the Keichō era (1596 – 1615 CE), strange things happened at the residence of a certain samurai in Iga Province. At dusk, a beautiful woman wearing a fine silk katsugi would walk by his front door, and sometimes she would be headless, and only her body would walk by. One time, at noon, the woman and a giant monk were up on the roof peeking out of the chimney. And once, four or five emaciated women, with disheveled hair and wearing thin white kimono, danced around.

There were so many dreadful things like this that nobody would live in this residence. Nowadays such things do not happen anymore, but people hear stories about the old days and still will not live there.

a headless woman wearing a katsugi appears on the other side of a door

A-Yokai-A-Day: The Old Tanuki Disguised as a Samurai’s Wife

Tonight’s story features a tanuki, a yokai that is beloved by almost everyone. I have to wonder what the tanuki was thinking when it decided to do what it did… Maybe it saw how sad the samurai was and thought if it did something to cheer him up, it might get some food. Of course, as you can see by the illustration, even good intentions often end up in disaster when yokai and humans are involved.

The Old Tanuki Disguised as a Samurai’s Wife

In Bishū, there was a samurai with an income of 2000 koku who lost his beloved wife, and every night he thought only of her. One night, when he put out his lamp to go to sleep, his dead wife came to his bedchamber, looking as beautifully dressed as ever, and nostalgically pulled back the bedsheets to climb inside.

The samurai was startled and asked, “Have the dead come back to visit me?” He took his wife, pulled her to him, and stabbed her with his sword. She vanished into thin air. His retainers rushed into the room, lit lamps, and searched everywhere, but found nothing.

When dawn broke, they looked again, and there was some blood on the door hinge. They followed the mysterious blood trail to a hole beneath some bushes in the northwest corner of the estate. When they dug up the hole, they discovered an old tanuki, dead from a sword wound.

an old tanuki lies dead at the end of a blood trail, with a stab wound

A-Yokai-A-Day: The Illness of Lord Ikeda Sanzaemon of Harima Province

Tonight’s story is based on events that took place in 1611 in one of the most haunted locations in Japan: Himeji Castle. But first, two vocabulary words that appear in the story:

kijin: We’ve seen oni already during A-Yokai-A-Day. Kijin is written with the character for oni plus the character for a god. So kijin can be translated into something like “demon god.” The word can be used for any spirit that is extremely powerful and fearsome. Some kijin are good, acting like defenders of the faith and use their wrath and ferocity to protect the weak. Others are thoroughly wicked. And some are just excessively proud, and punish those who insult them.

gongen: This refers to any god in Shinto-Buddhist syncretism. When Buddhism was spreading throughout in Japan, Shinto kami were interpreted as incarnations of various buddhas and figures from Buddhist cosmology. Due to this, virtually every Japanese god has an Indian counterpart. This can be confusing, but for the purposes of story a gongen is the same as a god.

Now, a little background on the story:

Ikeda Terumasa (referred to in the story as Ikeda Sanzaemon) was the first daimyō of Himeji Domain, and a rich and powerful ruler. After basing his clan in Himeji City, he set about renovating and expanding the castle, transforming it into the grand fortress and icon of Japan that it is today.

The castle’s renovations were completed in 1608, and almost immediately afterwards, strange things began happening there. They were blamed on the fact that, during the castle’s expansion, Lord Ikeda dismantled the shrine to a local god called Osakabe, which was located on the castle grounds, and had it re-enshrined on the outskirts of town in a large, communal shrine housing many gods. Osakabe’s wrath was said to be the source of these hauntings.

In 1611, Lord Ikeda fell gravely ill. This, too, was said to be the work of the vengeful Osakabe. In order to appease the god, Ikeda relented and re-enshrined Osakabe in the castle. You can still see her shrine today, on the top floor of the keep in Himeji Castle.

The yokai in tonight’s story is none other than Osakabe. (Incidentally, I’ve written about Osakabe before, in my book The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits, which you can get from Amazon or on the yokai.com shop.) Though she is not named in the story, the figure appears in the guise of a strange woman in the main keep of Himeji Castle and refers to herself as “the famous gongen of this land.” That can be none other than the god of the land Himeji Castle is built upon: Osakabe.

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The Illness of Lord Ikeda Sanzaemon of Harima Province

When Lord Ikeda Sanzaemon, ruler of Harima Province, became ill and was in critical condition, a high priest was called from Mount Hiei to perform various prayers for seven days and seven nights. At midnight on the seventh night, a woman of about thirty years of age, wearing light makeup and a fine silk kimono, turned to the high priest and said, “Who do you perform such prayers? He cannot be helped. Stop this immediately.” Then she stepped up onto the altar and stood glaring at the high priest.

The high priest, by nature a noble monk, said, “Who are you that speaks to me in the form of a woman?” And he asked her several questions. Suddenly the woman revealed her true form: a six meter tall kijin. The high priest grabbed the sword that was beside him and tried to stab her.

“I am the famous gongen of this land!” said the kijin. Then she kicked the high priest to death and disappeared into thin air.

This story is told by the samurai of the Ikeda clan.

a giant demon goddess wearing Chinese style armor and carrying a trident stomps on the viewer while lightning strikes behind her

A-Yokai-A-Day: The Ao Oni of Kaga Province

Tonight’s story is rather brief, but it’s rather funny. The idea of all the bravest samurai from the three provinces of Kaga, Etchū, and Noto (comprising all of today’s Ishikawa and Toyama Prefectures) were gathered together and yet all they could do was scream is worth a chuckle. But can you really blame them? Oni are terrifying, and a six meter tall one is definitely not something to trifle with.

Tonight’s oni is specifically described as an ao oni, or a blue oni. It’s not often that the color is explicitly stated, which makes this story a bit intriguing. Why blue? What is the meaning?

According to folklorist Yagi Tōru, oni come in five colors, which are specifically related to Chinese philosophy and the five hindrances of Buddhism. Blue oni are related to the element wood and the hindrance of antipathy. Red oni are related to the element fire and the hindrance of avarice. Yellow oni are related to the element earth and the hindrance of disquietude. Green oni are related to the element metal and the hindrance of sloth. Black oni are related to the element water and the hindrance of doubt. These hindrances are problems because they disrupt both meditation and daily life.

Since this was a blue oni, it must have been born out of feelings of hostility and bitterness. The man who died is not actually named in the story, but he is called the chūnagon of Kaga Province. That refers specifically to Maeda Toshinaga, the first lord of Kaga Domain and the second head of the powerful Maeda clan of Kaga. Toshinaga suffered from syphilis late in his life, and he withdrew from society. He died in 1614 either from syphilis, or from suicide by poisoning. The intense aversion he felt due to his terrible illness, which caused him to withdraw from society, is surely responsible for causing the ao oni to appear.

The Ao Oni of Kaga Province
Long ago, when the chūnagon of Kaga Province died, all of the samurai from the three provinces of Kaga, Etchū, and Noto were packed in a great hall. That day, at dusk, an ao oni about six meters tall came out of the back room and into the hall. Then it went to the front entrance, pointed at the front gate, and left. All of the samurai from the three provinces were brave men, but all they could do was scream. Only when the oni had left through the front door did they finally put their hands on their swords.

a blue-skinned oni wearing tiger-skin pants points into the distance

A-Yokai-A-Day: The Three-Way Magic Contest in the Presence of Michinaga

Tonight’s story features several famous figures from Japanese history: Fujiwara no Michinaga (966 – 1028), Kanshū (945-1008), Abe no Seimei (921 – 1005), and Tanba no Shigemasa (946-1011). Not much background on these figures is really necessary to understand the story, but it’s worth knowing that all three of them were established and well-regarded men of their time. Michinaga was a powerful statesman of the Fujiwara clan and the power behind the imperial throne. Kanshū was a Tendai monk  from Mt. Hiei who was appointed as a high priest under Michinaga’s reign. Abe no Seimei was an onmyōji of such fame that his name is practically synonymous with the art. Tanba no Shigemasa was a doctor, acupuncturist, and court physician to Emperor Ichijō. So this is a story about the real big names of the Heian period, and serves as a testament to how masterful their skills were—Seimei’s gift of foresight, Kanshū’s power of prayer, and Shigemasa’s surgical technique.

The Three-Way Magic Contest in the Presence of Michinaga

During the Chōtoku era (995-999 CE), high priest Kanshū of Mt. Hiei, Abe no Seimei, and the doctor Tanba no Shigemasa sat together before Minister Fujiwara no Michinaga. Some melons were served as refreshment.

Seeing them, Seimei prophesied, “One of these melons is poisonous.”

Upon hearing this, Michinaga said, “If that is the case, use your magic to tell which one of these melons has the poison.”

Kanshū faced the melons and gestured with his fingers and incanted. One of the melons moved, and that melon was immediately removed.

Shigemasa produced a needle from his pocket and stabbed the melon, and it stopped moving.

When Michinaga cut the melon open, inside was a snake. The needle had pierced the snake’s eye, and it was dead.

Michinaga was highly impressed by how well-versed all three men were in their skills.

a split open melon containing a snake that was killed by a needle through the eye