A-Yokai-A-Day: Kyokotsu

There’s only one more day until Halloween, which means that after tonight, there is only one more day of A-Yokai-A-Day left, and only one more yokai after this one.

Tonight’s yokai was requested on Patreon earlier this year. Kyokotsu was invented by Toriyama Sekien, as many many yokai were. I think it’s an interested creation, because most of his puns were cute or bizarre, while this one is genuinely pretty creepy looking. The original illustration by Toriyama Sekien is hard to be when it comes to disturbing illustrations!

In the illustration, the kyokotsu is seen rising out of a well. Wells have been a staple of Japanese horror for centuries. When talking about Japanese ghosts in wells, it’s hard to ignore the most famous well-ghost of all, Okiku. A number of other less-known well stories exist, though, like the ghost of the violet well, and even some taka onna stories, in which a man sees his wife fall down a well and easily hop back out again. And of course, today probably the most well-known (no pun intended) famous well-ghost is found in Sadako of The Ring.

Click below to read more about kyokotsu, and stay tuned tomorrow for the last A-Yokai-A-Day of 2016!



A-Yokai-A-Day: Akateko

Today I gave another yokai presentation at Shofuso Japanese House and Garden. Tonight, instead of a yokai lecture like last night, I was able to hold a modern-day hyakumonogatari kaidankai, or ghost-story-telling party. I picked a handful of my favorite yokai and ghost stories, and told them as the sun set and night overtook the sky. The 17th century Japanese teahouse was lit by LED tea lights, which were the perfect safe alternative to lighting 100 candles and snuffing them out after each story. Thanks to everyone who came out and helped make the event awesome!

Earlier this week we looked at a tree-yokai called the ninmenju. A few other tree-based yokai have been featured on A-Yokai-A-Day in the past, including jubokko and sagari. Today I’m featuring another tree yokai, one that is slightly creepier than ninmenju.

There’s something special about this yokai that isn’t obvious on first look. Akateko actually successfully straddles the realms of old yokai and contemporary urban legend. While it does have its roots as an old yokai in the Edo period, it still remains popular today as a schoolyard rumor. Not many yokai have that staying power, but akateko does. It think part of it is the simplistic nature of the story. It’s easy to understand, yet avoids specific details that make it feel connected to any particular era.

To read more about this really cool half-old half-modern yokai, click below.



A-Yokai-A-Day: Donotsura

Today was a fun night for yokai. I gave a lecture at Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. The combination of cool fall air and the twilight sky, with the fall colors every, and the 17th-century Japanese tea house and garden made the perfect atmosphere for talking about yokai.

lecture at shofuso

Thanks to everyone who came out and took part in my lecture! Tomorrow night I’ll be at the same place, telling a bunch of ghost stories in a mini hyakumonogatari kaidankai!

Tonight still needs a yokai, though, and I have a great one. It fits the punny theme we’ve been looking at this week.

Donotsura is another one of those yokai with no description, just a name and an image. But it’s not terribly difficult to guess where he comes from. It’s a great play on words, and very pun-tastic. I’ll let you click on the link below to read about it, as I go into the meaning of his name on the yokai.com page.



A-Yokai-A-Day: Nigawarai

Like the shiro ukari, today’s yokai is one that started out just as an illustration. Unlike shiro ukari, though, nigawari originally didn’t even have a name to serve as a clue to its meaning. It started out as just a creepy looking phantom on 15th-16th century yokai scrolls.

It’s not hard to see why this particular guy was copied over and over by successive yokai painters. He looks absolutely hilarious, while simultaneously creepy and disgusting. Eventually, the name nigawarai was slapped on to this yokai, and from there the meaning became clear.

Nigawarai refers to a sarcastic or bitter smile in Japanese. The kind of laugh or smile that slips out by accident when something bad happens to someone you hate. The sarcastic snort you give when your racist uncle makes a joke you find offensive. All of those fake, bitter smiles that cause your stomach to turn as you hold down your bile—these are caused by nigawarai.

Yokai are often named or blamed for the bad things that humans do. It’s sort of the Japanese equivalent of “the devil made me do it.” So when you give a yokai a name like nigawarai, there’s an instantaneous understanding of what its intention is. It’s not quite a pun in the way that shiro ukari is, but there’s definitely an element of humor in it. Hey, maybe there’s a yokai for that feeling too! And even though he was originally an unnamed monster, I think that whoever finally named him found the perfect name to go with the illustration; this is pretty much exactly the way I would picture the embodiment of bitter laughter to look.

Click below to read all about nigawarai:




A-Yokai-A-Day: Shiro ukari

Tonight’s yokai is a really special one, very close to my heart. It’s funny, I feel like every time I post a yokai I say “this one is really special” or “I really love this yokai” or something along those lines. It’s true, though! There are plenty of yokai that I’ll briefly chuckle at, or that I find only moderately amusing. But there are so many yokai that really hit the spot—they find that one little slice of life to satirize, and they do it better than anything else. In some ways, a yokai is like a walking, breathing pun. With just a name and an illustration, you can get across an entire joke, and never even need to explain the punchline.

Those are the truly special yokai.

And shiro ukari is one of them.

Shiro ukari has a visual charm to him that makes it impossible not to like him on first sight. And after you see him and want to know more, the next thing you get to hear is his name… “shiro ukari…” Shiro means white, and ukari has a sort of floating, light, aimless meaning to it. Even it’s definition is hard to pin down, which is pretty much the definition of the word itself. Lovely!

So what does shiro ukari do? Well, obviously he is a white thing… that floats around… Beyond that there is no description at all! Why would someone create this guy and give him this intriguing name, only to leave it completely unexplained?

Well that’s pretty common with yokai actually, and it’s part of the fun: deciphering what on earth the artist meant when he came up with this character.

I go a little more into the meaning of his name on the writeup, so I won’t repeat it all here on the blog. But the yokai that you have to guess have a really special charm to them, especially when you’re pretty sure you’ve figured it out. Because there is such a comic, layered, and punny nature to yokai, part of the joy of studying them is trying to solve the riddle.

Click on the shiro ukari to visit yokai.com and read more about him:

Shiro ukari

Shiro ukari

A-Yokai-A-Day: Onikuma

Last week the State of New Jersey mourned for a tragic loss: Pedals the Walking Bear was dead.

Pedals was a 333-pound wild American black bear who had deformed forepaws. He held his small, weak paws close to his chest, and was unable to walk on them. Instead, he walked on two feet like a human, making him a sensation to all who saw him. Pedals was beloved by the North Jersey residents who frequently filmed and photographed his trips through the towns.

Of course this all sounds very silly and harmless today; but before modern times a wild bear—deformed or not—walking through a town would not be a charming thing. Bears only really come into human-inhabited areas when they need food, and that means taking something from people. Today it usually means trash, but obviously bears are capable of taking much more than that if they are hungry enough.

So that brings us to today’s yokai. Certainly this is no Pedals the Walking Bear. This is a gigantic monster bear who walked through towns in old Japan on two legs just like Pedals, but he was not at all beloved. This bear could pick up cows and horses and walk away with them! It could lift boulders than ten men could not budge! In short, this was a scary animal!

But chances are, this yokai started out in much the same way as Pedals did—just a wild animal that happened to come too close to a human settlement. And with yokai bears, just as with bears today, that usually doesn’t end up good for anybody.

Click below to read all about onikuma, the demon bear. And join my Patreon to learn more about strange and scary yokai throughout the year, not just in October!



A-Yokai-A-Day: Omagatoki & Hinode

Today’s yokai aren’t actually yokai at all. However, they are strongly associated with yokai lore and yokai scroll paintings.

These illustrations and writeups appear in my book, The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits. Omagatoki, which literally means “the hour of meeting evil spirits,” is a poetic way of referring to twilight—that moment just after sunset when the sky is still light but fading fast. This is the time when yokai were believed to cross over from their world into ours. Hinode, which means sunrise, is of course the moment when the rule of evil spirits ends, and the world once again belongs to man.

In many yokai scroll paintings, the final scene of the night parade of one hundred demons is broken up by the blazing sun rising to banish the evil spirits back into their world. I went for that same effect in The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits, starting off the whole thing with Omagatoki and ending with Hinode as the final illustration.

There is some other important symbolism to consider with Hinode banishing the evil spirits. After all, the sun is the symbol of Japan itself, appearing on the flag and even in the name of the country. The sun goddess is also the most central figure in Shinto, and it is her descendants who supposedly founded the imperial dynasty which is in place in Japan today. That said, yokai work is not particularly used as political propaganda; the opposite in fact, as it was used more often than not as satire. And yokai are connected more with Buddhism than with Shinto, so there is not necessarily any connection between this sun and the goddess Amaterasu. It’s just something interesting to consider, and nothing more.

Incidentally, the city in the painting below is my own adopted hometown of Echizen in Fukui, Japan. And the mountain that the sun is peeking over is Mt. Hino.

Click on the images below to read their entries on yokai.com: