The creature in tonight’s story is referred to as a shiryō. This is essentially identical to the term bōrei, which we’ve seen several times so far this month. The word literally means “death ghost.” The significance of that is that this is the spirit of a human who has died, as opposed to the spirit of someone still living (called an ikiryō) or another kind of monstrous spirit or demon altogether.
I feel like this story is a pretty classic spooky tale, and it has some great visual language. As Halloween is a mere one week away, it’s great for a story that really fits the Halloween horror mood.
The Samurai’s Shiryō from Sendai
A samurai from Sendai in Ōshū disobeyed his master’s orders and committed seppuku at a temple called Tōganji. During the samurai’s funeral, his body was placed in a coffin and attended by ten monks. As the night grew late, all of the monks went to sleep around the coffin.
While the two lowest ranking monks had not yet fallen asleep, the corpse crawled out of the coffin and went over to a lamp. It tore the paper covering off the lamp and twisted it into a paper wick. Then, using the wick, it first licked up the lamp oil out of the oil jug. Then it crawled over to the highest-ranking monk, dipped the paper wick into his nose, and licked it. One by one the corpse did this to each of the monks in descending rank, until finally it came next to the lowest ranking monks.
The two monks were so surprised that they ran away to the kitchen and told everyone what had happened. Everyone was suspicious, so they went to investigate. They found all of the monks lying just as they were, dead. The coffin was still there, but the corpse was gone.
The first place that I lived in Japan was Fuchū, Echizen, so this story is very special to me. Although I never encountered any yōkai when I lived there, it’s nice to know that I was that close to one.
The yōkai in today’s story is called a rokurokubi, however based on the description and the illustration in the original Shokoku hyakumonogatari, it is more accurate to call it a nukekubi. The main difference being that with a nukekubi the head actually detaches and flies around, while with a rokurokubi the neck stretches as far as it needs to go, but still connects the head and body—a minor difference that very likely did not exist back when this was written.
The Rokurokubi of Fuchū, Echizen Province
A man from Kita District in Echizen Province had urgent business in Kyōto. He traveled even through the night, and when he was passing through a field known as Sawaya there was a large stone pagoda. A chicken came out from behind the pagoda and blocked the road. When he took a closer look, it wasn’t a chicken, but a woman’s head.
The head looked up at the man and smiled at him. The man kept his cool, drew his sword, and slashed at the head. The head flew away southwards, and the man chased after it. The head entered the window of a certain house in Kamiichi, Fuchū.
The man was suspicious, so he stood at the front gate for a while. He peeked inside and listened what was going on. He heard the voice of a woman speaking to her husband: “Oh my, how terrifying! I just dreamed that I was passing through the field of Sawaya, and a man attacked me with a sword! I ran from him and somehow managed to make it back here.”
When the man heard this, he knocked on the door and entered the house.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but just now I came from Sawaya and encountered a creature which I chased all the way back here…”
The man told the whole story in detail.
“Is that so? I am so ashamed of my sins!” the woman exclaimed. Shortly after, she left her husband and journeyed to Kyōto, cut off her hair, and entered a hermitage in Saga to pray for her soul.
And so people say, “There really is such thing as a rokurokubi.”
The yōkai in tonight’s story is unnamed, but it is referred as both a bakemono and a henge. The assumption, then, is that it is probably a shapeshifted animal of some kind.
The story mentions the “hour of the ox.” The hour of the ox was the deepest, darkest part of the night. It was around 2 am or so. In olden times, Japan did not use the same clock that we use today. The days were divided into 12 “hours” roughly 120 minutes long, based on the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. The hour lengths varied depending on the seasons and the amount of sunlight. The hours were anchored around sunrise, high noon, and sunset. In the summer, due to the increase in sunlight, the 6 daytime hours were longer while the 6 nighttime hours were shorter. And in winter, the daytime hours grew shorter and the nighttime hours became longer.
The hour of the ox was the time when evil spirits were at their strongest. The name also evokes the famous ushi no koku mairi curse, and has long been associated with yōkai and the supernatural. So it’s no wonder that tonight’s bakemono happens to come out at during the hour of the ox.
The Bakemono of Onoderamura in Sagami Province
In the village of Onoderamura in the province of Sagami there was a house in which bakemono lived, and in which no human was willing to live. One day, a traveler came from the capital and stayed in this village. The innkeeper owner spoke with him about many things, among them the house with the bakemono.
The traveler was a brave warrior, and so he said, “This is a rare thing. I will see what kind of bakemono it is, and then I will have a great story to bring back to the capital.”
The innkeeper tried to stop him. “There’s no reason to do such a thing!” But the traveler did not listen.
Around midnight, the traveler entered the house. He closed the door tightly and locked it from the inside, taking up a strategic position. He waited in a room 8 tatami mats in size, with a window in the eastern wall. About 110 meters past the window there was a thickly wooded grove.
That night, at around the hour of the ox, something flashed like a bolt of lightning from the grove. The traveler thought, “Oh my!” and drew his sword and waited.
After some time, the grove lit up like it had before. The room also lit up as bright as noon. The traveler looked around and saw a man of about 40 years old. He was shimmering like hot air, emaciated, and had a pale, lifeless face. He was clinging to the window, breathing heavily, and starting at the traveler inside. The horror was beyond description.
But the traveler was a military man, and so with a smooth motion he drew his sword and waited, ready to slay the man if he came inside.
The bakemono said, “There is no door here. I will enter through the kitchen.”
He easily kicked down two, then three doors, and entered the house. The traveler thought it would be hard to slay this man if he were some kind of henge, and so he decided to try and grab him. He jumped at the bakemono, but it kicked him in the chest. The traveler was knocked unconscious by the kick, and the creature got away.
The next morning the innkeeper and several villagers were worried about the traveler and went to the house to check on him. The found him fainted in the floor. The villagers were astonished and gave the traveler medicine to revive him. The tried to restart his breathing, and finally the traveler came to. When they asked what had happened, the traveler told them the whole story. The villagers checked the doors that the bakemono had kicked in, but the latches were all in place just as they had been the night before. There was nothing anyone could do but say how strange it all was.
Afterwards, people were even less willing to live in that house.
The title of this story refers to a goze. Goze were a female counterpart to zatō, who we looked at earlier this month. The women were traveling entertainers who told stories, sang, and played the drum, biwa, or shamisen. They were usually blind women, although some goze had varying levels of sightedness.
It’s not clear whether the woman in this story was an actual blind goze. The title calls her a goze, but in the story and the illustration found in the original book she seems to be sighted. She may just be an ordinary woman who is being compared to a goze for her singing and playing.
The Attachment of a Goze at an Inn in Mitsuke, Tōtōmi Province
A man traveling from Kyōto to the east stopped at an inn in Mitsuke, in the province of Tōtōmi. Late at night, he heard a woman’s voice singing a ballad and playing the shamisen in the adjacent room. The song was so beautiful and tender that he could hardly bear to listen to it. Overcome with feelings of nostalgia, the man slipped into the adjacent room to see the singer. However, the room was unlit. Thinking this terribly strange, the man called out:
“What kind of person is staying in this room? I am a man from Kyōto, but I have never heard such music even in the capital. I could no longer contain myself, so I crept into this room. Isn’t this truly a meeting brought about by the gods and buddhas? Please allow me to sleep with you and let us talk throughout the night.”
The woman replied, “How could one as lowly as I appear before a guest from the capital?”
Her reply was so sweet and so humble that the man’s yearning for her grew even stronger.
“Why do you hold back? I am not yet married, but I would pledge myself to you for my next two lifetimes!”
The woman replied, “If you truly feel that way, and if you swear to the gods that you will take me as your wife for the rest of your life, then I will do whatever you say.”
The man swore by the names of all of the gods across Japan, speaking terrifying oaths in order to persuade the woman. She was so moved by his words that she opened her heart to him, and they spent the night together as if it were one thousand nights.
Soon dawn broke. When the man looked at the woman’s face and saw how ugly she was, he was so shocked that he ran out of the inn without even paying the innkeeper. He ran towards the east, but thinking that she would probably follow him, doubled back and returned to the capital. When he reached the ferry at Tenryū, he looked back and saw that the woman was chasing him.
The man was desperate. “Please, kill the woman following me and dump her in the river!” he asked the ferryman. Then he handed the ferryman a sword and 10 ryo in gold coins. The ferryman was so pleased with the money that he stabbed the woman and then drowned her in the depths of the water. The man was so pleased that he hurried back to the previous inn to spend the night.
In the dead of night, an unknown person knocked violently on the inn’s gate. The innkeeper went outside, and he saw a woman who looked very different from most people.
“I want to see the man from the capital staying at this inn!” she demanded.
The innkeeper was so startled that his hair stood on end. He replied, “There is nobody staying at this inn.” Then he closed the door and let the traveler hide in his storehouse, then he pretended not to know he was there.
The woman kicked open the front gate and went inside. She searched all over for the man. At one point the innkeeper heard a scream coming from the storehouse, but he was too scared to investigate.
In the morning, the innkeeper checked inside the storehouse. He found the man torn into two or three pieces. He was shocked and appalled, and completely at a loss for words.
Today’s yōkai is another generic-sounding “bakemono.” It may have been a shapechanged kitsune or tanuki, although they often prefer to play tricks rather than outright kill their victims. It could have been a ghost, although ghosts usually give off a creepier vibe before they do their thing. The fact is that many yōkai simply do not have names, and their victims never know what they are until it is too late—just as we readers will never be able to know what they are. Enjoying yōkai means embracing the ambiguity and accepting that not knowing is part of what makes them so enticing.
How Denzaemon from Amagasaki Met a Bakemono at a Hot Spring
It a placed called Amagasaki in Settsu Province there lived a man named Denzaemon. One day he went to the hot springs at Arima, when a beautiful woman came out of nowhere.
“Please met me join you in the bath,” she said.
Since she was a woman, Denzaemon let her enter the bath.
Then she said to Denzaemon, “Let me clean your back for you.”
The woman scrubbed and scratched Denzaemon’s back so pleasantly that he soon dozed off. Before he knew it, there was not one bit of flesh left on his back. The woman had scratched him all the way down to his bones, and then she disappeared.
Well, even hot springs have bakemono, as the old saying goes.
These days shunoban is commonly known as shunobon. It appears as shunobon on yokai.com and in my book The Fox’s Wedding. The reason for the spelling change is that it’s how this yōkai was written by Mizuki Shigeru, the comic artist whose work introduced yōkai to most of Japan’s population. Mizuki fell in love with yōkai as an adult, and decided he wanted to preserve these stories and share them with others.
I can definitely relate to that desire. My goal has always been to share yōkai with the world. When I moved in Japan over 15 years ago, there were virtually no books written in English on the subject of yokai. Since the time of Lafcadio Hearn and Yei Theodora Ozaki, 100 years ago, the subject has barely been touched. This shocked me as a lifetime lover of folklore, especially when I saw just how expansive the world of yōkai is. I thought there must be others out there who want to know more about yōkai, but for whom the subject is “locked” behind the Japanese language. And I was right. Yōkai have exploded in popularity all over the globe in the past decade. It seems as awareness in other languages of Japanese folklore increases, the demand increases as well. It makes me happy to contribute in some way to that.
The Bakemono Called Shunoban at the Suwa Shrine in Aizu
At a shrine called Suwa in Aizu there was a fearsome bakemono called shunoban.
One evening at dusk, a young samurai about 25 or 26 years old passed by Suwa. He had heard there was a bakemono there, and so he felt uneasy.
Another young samurai of about 26 or 27 was also passing by. Thinking he would make a good traveling companion, the first samurai joined the second.
“There is a famous bakemono called shunoban who lives here. Have you heard this legend?” he asked.
The second samurai replied, “Does the monster look like this?”
His face suddenly changed. His eyes became as round as saucers and a horn sprouted from his forehead. His face became scarlet, and his hair became like wire. His mouth split from ear to ear, and his teeth gnashed with the sound of thunder.
The samurai took one look and fainted. For about hour he lay as if dead, but then he gradually recovered. Looking around, he saw he was right in front of the Suwa Shrine. He managed to get up and walk to a nearby house to beg for a sip of water.
A woman greeted him. “Why do you need water?” she asked.
The samurai told her all about his encounter with the shunoban.
After listening, the woman replied, “Now then, that is a terrifying thing that you encountered! Did this shunoban look like this?”
As she spoke, her face transformed into the same bakemono that the samurai had just met. The samurai blacked out once again. He woke up after some time, but on the third day after that he died.
Tonight’s story may seem a bit weird to Western readers with its focus on “killing.” What may seem to some as simple hunting or fishing, whether for fun or for sustenance, is considered by others to be a grave sin. The Japanese word used in this story is sesshō (殺生), which literally means the destruction of life. It’s a Buddhist word, and it is used throughout this story as a reminder that all killing, no matter how insignificant it may seem to us humans, is an obstacle to spiritual growth.
In Buddhist cosmology all beings reincarnate forever. Thus, any creature you kill, whether it is a fish, a chicken, or even a mosquito, could potentially have been your own mother in a past life. Any time you kill a living being, it is like killing your own mother. And although it may be impossible to go through life without killing anything at all (How many ants have we unknowingly stepped on?), one should refrain from the conscious act of taking life whenever humanly possible. Taking joy in it, even something as seemingly harmless as fishing, is like taking joy in killing one’s own mother.
That is why this story’s phrasing may seem odd or even hyperbolic when describing the samurai’s love of fishing as “killing.” It’s referring to the sin of sesshō, and the storyteller clearly has a religious message in mind with this story.
How Killing Turned a Man’s Hair White
In the area of Takada in Echigo Province lived a famous samurai named Higuchi Mokuzaemon. He was a man of both martial and literary prowess. However, he had a fondness for killing.
Several miles from his estate there was a temple to Benzaiten. In front of the temple there was a large pond. Every night Mokuzaemon and his servants would visit this pond with nets in hand and catch and kill fish.
One night, Mokuzaemon went to the pond without a single companion, to kill fish by himself. A young woman of about sixteen years approached the samurai from across the pond.
Mokuzaemon felt suspicious, and called out, “Who goes there?”
The girl replied, “I am a servant just across the pond from here. I came this way to use a nearby kitchen, but I forgot something. I’m sorry, but would it be alright if I asked you to watch something for me while I go retrieve what I forgot?”
Mokuzaemon thought it was a strange request, but he replied, “It’s no problem.”
The woman took out a round, white object and placed it in Mokuzaemon’s hand.
Mokuzaemon was baffled. He looked over the object. It gave off an overpowering fishy stench. He could not make any sense of what it was, but it just smelled fishy. But before long the woman returned and took back the mysterious object, thanked Mokuzaemon, and then left.
Although Mokuzaemon was trained in both literature and warfare, he was left unsettled by the whole experience. He left his nets and went straight home.
Mokuzaemon got back to his house, and when he tried to enter, his wife brandished a naginata and tried to stab him with it.
Mokuzaemon called out, “What are you doing? It is I, Mokuzaemon! How dare you attack me!”
His wife was started. She replied, “What is the meaning of this?”
She pulled out a mirror and showed it to Mokuzaemon. His hair, beard, and sideburns were as white as snow. Mokuzaemon became even more puzzled, and he told his wife about everything that had happened that evening.
“The woman from this evening was a servant of Benzaiten! She must have been upset that I was catching fish in that pond, and that is why she did this to me. From now on, I will stop killing!”
After that, Mokuzaemon followed the Buddhist path. Today, his descendants are serving in various public roles all over the place, as we all know.