A-Yokai-A-Day: The Painted Corpse Wife of Bungo Province

Well we’ve made it. Tonight is Halloween, and thus the final A-Yokai-A-Day post for 2022. I hope you’ve enjoyed these thirty one stories from Shokoku hyakumonogatari. I saved a particularly creepy one for tonight, our last story. If you found them interesting, remember that you can continue to get illustrated yōkai stories in your inbox year-round if you become a Patreon supporter. That’s what allows me to continue my work of sharing Japanese folklore with the world.

This yōkai is a pretty interesting one. In some ways it resembles a nuribotoke, but it has its own unique qualities as well. It also resembles in some way the buddhist mummies found in some East Asian countries, which are a bit scary in their own right.

It’s also one of the most terrifying descriptions of a ghost that I’ve read in so few words. For a book written in 1677, the horror in this one feels so fresh and vivid, and it’s easy to imagine it in a modern scary movie.

Happy Halloween everyone!

The Painted Corpse Wife of Bungo Province

There was a certain man in Bungo Province. His wife was seventeen years old and famous for her beauty, and the two of them had a great relationship. During pillow talk, this man always said to his wife, “If you die before I do, I will never marry again.”

Yet, one day his wife became sick with a cold and died. In her last moments she said to her husband, “If you feel pity for me, then there is no need to bury me or cremate me. Instead, rip open my bellow and take out my innards, fill me with rice, then paint my body with fourteen coats of lacquer. Build a small chapel and place me inside, put a gong in my hand, then come pray before me every morning and evening.” Then she died.

The man complied with her final wishes. He opened her belly, filled her with rice, coated her with lacquer, built a chapel and placed her inside. For two years he prayed before her and did not take a new wife. However, a friend eventually convinced him to remarry.

The new wife repeatedly begged the man for a divorce. He tried this and that to soothe her, but she would not listen. “In any case, I will not stay in this house with you,” she said, and then left.

Afterwards, the man took wife after wife, but every one of them said the same thing, and returned back to their families. Thinking this was no ordinary thing, the man made prayers and offerings in an attempt to exorcise whatever curse was following him. Then he married yet another woman.

This time, it seemed as if his prayers were answered. The new wife stayed with him for fifty or sixty days without incident.

Then, one evening when the man was out with his friends, his wife and her handmaids gathered in the house to talk. Late at night, the sound of a hand gong could be heard out front. Everyone grew nervous, and as they listened the sound grew closer and closer, until they could hear it inside of the house. Terrified, the women tightened the lock on the door and shrunk back. They heard the sound of the sliding doors being opened one after the other, until there was only a single door between them. Then a woman’s voice said:

“Open this door.”

But everyone was too afraid to say anything.

The voice spoke again: “It doesn’t matter whether you open the door or not. I will leave for now. But I will come back again and speak with you. And whatever you do, do not tell my husband of my visit. If you tell him, you will lose your life.”

Then the gong rang, and the woman left.

It was such a terrible experience that they had to have a peek though the doors. They saw a woman of seventeen or eighteen, utterly black from her face to her feet, carrying a hand gong. The women were so scared that they could hardly wait for the husband to come home. When he did, however, they remembered the woman’s words. They spoke nothing of that night to him.

However, the next day, the man’s wife told him that she wanted a divorce.

The man was perplexed. “Why all of a sudden do you say such a thing?”

The woman explained everything that had happened the previous night. The husband dismissed her concerns, saying, “That must have been a kitsune.”

“Please give me a divorce!” she said.

The husband tried this and that and eventually soothed her nerves, but after four or five days he had to leave on business again. That night, the sound of a hand gong was once again heard outside the house.

“Oh no!” thought the wife, and she locked the doors.

Then a woman’s voice said, “Open this door. Open it.”

The wife and her handmaids trembled in fear. Then all of a sudden, the handmaids became extremely drowsy, and they all fell asleep in unison. Only the wife was left awake. The sliding doors slid open one by one. Peeking into the next room, the wife saw the woman standing there, painted black, her long hair reaching all the way to the floor and shaking back and forth. She was glaring right at the wife.

“Aah, what a pity. I told you before not to tell my husband of my visit, but you told him so soon afterwards! You detestable wretch!”

As soon as she said this, she leaped at the wife, twisted her neck right off, and left.

The husband heard that something had happened, and he returned home. When he asked what happened, the wife’s handmaids told him everything.

The husband was shocked. He went to the chapel out front and looked inside. There, in front of the lacquered body of his first wife, was the head of his current wife.

“Oh, you bitch!” he said. And he pulled the painted woman down from the altar.

The blackened woman opened her eyes and bit open her husband’s throat, killing him.

A woman's corpse with lacquered skin and wild black hair reaches out to kill someone.

A-Yokai-A-Day: The Farmer in Kumano Whose Wife was Taken by a Henge

Tonight’s yōkai is once again referred to by the generic word henge. Essentially it’s a shape-shifter, although we don’t know what its true form is. However, I find this story somewhat interesting in that it has two supernatural explanations at the end.

One of them deals with a prohibition against women entering certain places (usually sacred mountains). The reasoning behind this relates to kegare, a belief in a kind of spiritual impurity or defilement.

The other supernatural explanation is about a magical sword forged by a legendary swordsmith. We’ve seen this already a couple of times this month (here and here), which let’s us understand just how important these swords were in folklore. In Japan, a sword is not simply a piece of metal to defend yourself with. It’s also a talisman that protects a family like a guardian deity. So it’s no surprise that swords pop up from time to time in yōkai stories, or that a famous sword might keep yōkai at bay just by its existence.

The Farmer in Kumano Whose Wife was Taken by a Henge

A farmer living near Kumano, feeling hard-pressed to pay his annual tribute, gathered his wife and children, and ran away into the wilderness. Before long, the road grew dark, so they were forced to spend the night in a roadside temple. Suddenly a woman appeared out of nowhere.

“Where did all of you come from?” she asked.

The farmer was pleased, thinking this woman was looking for some company. “I am a farmer from this area, but for various reasons we had to leave,” he said.

“In that case, please live here. You can gather leaves and make a fire,” said the woman.

The farmer was pleased and went off to gather leaves. After that the woman grabbed his wife and disappeared.

When the farmer returned, he could not find his wife. He heard her voice screaming from the top of the mountains. Thinking that some henge had transformed into the woman from earlier and absconded with his wife, he went off in the direction of the voice. However, the mountains were deep, and he could not find the spot where her screams were coming from.

While he searched, the dawn began to break. He frantically searched here and there, and he came across a cedar tree. His wife’s body was torn in two halves, hanging from a branch twenty feet above the ground. Seeing this, the farmer screamed and cried, but there was nothing he could do.

Then a lone man approached him.

“What are you grieving about?” he inquired.

The farmer told him everything that had happened.

“What a tragedy! If you hand me the swords you are carrying, I will take down the body from the tree and give it to you,” said the man.

The farmer was grateful. He gave the man his katana, but said, “I will keep my wakizashi.”

“In that case, I’ll try to take her down,” said the man, and he slid up the tree. Then he tore the farmer’s wife into little pieces and ate her, cackling.

“If you had given me your wakizashi, I would have done this to you too!”

Then he flew up into the sky and disappeared.

The farmer was so perplexed that he asked the locals about it. They said to him, “That temple is one in which women are forbidden to enter. That must be why such a thing happened.”

The farmer’s wakizashi had protected him because it was forged by Sanjō Kokaji.

A man in a tree eats pieces of a woman's corpse ripped in two.

A-Yokai-A-Day: How Unshō, a Monk from Shima Province, Escaped from a Poisonous Serpent

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.

A coiling dragon vomits poisonous gas from its mouth.

A-Yokai-A-Day: The Maō Who Turned into a Woman to Hinder a Monk’s Passing

Tonight’s story talks about a maō. This word is made up of two kanji: 魔 (ma; demon, devil, evil spirit) and 王 (ō; king). It’s a generic term that doesn’t refer to a specific yōkai, but is reserved for only the strongest and worst of supernatural forces. The ones so powerful that they rule as kings and are served by legions of lesser spirits.

In this story, our maō is mentioned as being one of the demon kings of the sixth heaven. This part of Buddhist cosmology is often called the deva realm in English. It is the highest heaven and the most pleasurable realm in the cosmos. The residents of this realm are the most powerful beings in the cosmos, and they are ruled by their passions and desires. Anything they want, they can have. They want for nothing. Drinking and feasting, sex, music, slaughter; every pleasure known and unknown to man is at their fingertips.

But all that pleasure comes with a price. They are not immortal and must eventually die after aeons of living in utmost pleasure. When they finally die, because their lives were governed by desires (and not just any desires—the strongest desires in the cosmos!), they have wracked up so much bad karma that they plunge into the deepest hells for their next life or several lifetimes.

So where do maō fit in all of this? And why would a god from heavenly want to bother a monk to prevent him from passing on peacefully?

Well, just because a being lives in heaven doesn’t make them automatically good. The inhabitants of this “heaven” could individually be called gods, demons, devils, angels, and so on. Some are benevolent and righteous, while others simply revel in murdering, killing, raping, torturing, slaughtering, and making war. (Ashura are a good example of this, although technically they live in the fifth realm, not the sixth). They make friends and enemies just as humans do, only on a much more passionate scale. They hold grudges like no other, and they have all the power of the cosmos to enact their revenge, so they like to get creatively vindictive.

Hopefully that provides a bit of context for tonight’s tale.

The Maō Who Turned into a Woman to Hinder a Monk’s Passing

Near the temple of Katsuoji in Settsu Province lived a noble monk. Now the path of sexual desire is hard for even birds and beasts to resist, so this monk kept a woman as a secret lover for many years. However, one day the monk began to consider how terrible it would be for one who follows the path of Buddha to become tainted by mundane pleasures and fall into hell in the next life. He consulted with a fellow monk, repented his actions, and once again dedicated himself to following Buddha’s path with a pure body and mind. However, the woman could not let go of him, and from time to time she came to see him.

The monk was annoyed by this, and he fell ill with anxiety. The only thing he could think of was to ask a friend: “If that woman comes to see me, make up some lie and send her away.”

Sure enough, she came and inquired about the monk. His friend told her, “That monk left last night on an ascetic pilgrimage.” The woman was disheartened and left.

After that, the monk’s illness grew more and more severe, and he finally died.

Because she had been so close to him, the monk’s friends called the woman and explained the circumstances of the monk’s death to her. However, she did not seem the least bit grieved.

“This monk has been my enemy for five hundred lifetimes. When he became a monk and tried to attain Buddhahood, I prevented him from doing so by transforming into many things. If I were here at his time of death, I would not have let him go so peacefully!”

Overflowing with rage, she transformed into a 20-foot tall kijin. Her eyes shone like the sun and moon, and flames shot out from her mouth. She screamed in a loud voice and ascended up into the sky. For a while the clouds flashed, and then she disappeared.

This is what Buddha was talking about when he said that the demon kings of the sixth heaven try to trick sentient beings away from the proper path.

A giant, horned demoness raises her hands in the air as lightning crackles behind her.

A-Yokai-A-Day: The Nekomata of Echigo Province

Animal yōkai are always popular with readers, both abroad and in Japan. I found that with the reaction to my latest book, The Fox’s Wedding! Tonight’s story is not about a fox, though. It’s about a cat!

As many cat owners will tell you, cats seem to live entirely separate lives when humans aren’t watching. Just look at the cat episode of Sandman, or the video game Stray, or even the musical Cats. Supernatural felines seem to exist in every culture and art form across the world. This makes sense considering that cats and humans live in close proximity to one another. Monster cats are no small subject in Japanese folklore. Bakeneko and nekomata are two fairly well-known animal yōkai, and today’s story just happens to feature one.

The Nekomata of Echigo Province

There was a wealthy man living in the province of Echigo. One day there was an extremely gorgeous woman standing outside of his front gate.

“I wish to serve your house,” she said.

When the lady of the house heard this, she said, “What excellent timing. You will be our daughter’s new chamber maid.”

This woman was skilled in many arts, from painting, to flower arranging, and even calligraphy. The man and his wife were both very pleased to have found such a person, and so they treated her very kindly.

One day, the lady of the house walked past the woman’s room and, noticing that a light was lit, peeked inside. The woman removed her own head and placed it on the dresser, applied makeup and tooth black to it, then placed it back on her body and acted like it was totally normal.

The lady of the house was terrified. She summoned the servant woman and made up some excuse to fire her. When she did so, the woman’s countenance changed.

“I thought I made be able to serve here forever, but all of a sudden you fire me… Did you perhaps see something?” she said.

“No, nothing like that. In any case, you are let go. When it is time for my daughter to get married, I will call upon you again,” the lady of the house replied.

“Ah, what a wretched thing to say!”

As soon as she said this, the woman leapt at the lady of the house and bit into her throat. That instant, a servant heard this, drew his sword and slashed at the woman. She collapsed, dead, and the servant sliced her side open. The woman’s once beautiful form transformed in an instant into that of an old cat, with a mouth that split from ear to ear, horns, and two tails. It was the pet cat which had lived in that house for a long time but had gone missing one day. It had transformed into a nekomata.

The lady of the house suffered from her wounds for fifty to sixty days.

A two-tailed cat with horns and a huge mouth lies dead on the floor from a stab wound.

A-Yokai-A-Day: How a Tsuchigumo Turned into a Woman in Kaga

Tonight’s yōkai is a tsuchigumo: an interesting term with a lot of history. Literally it means “earth spider,” and they are depicted in scroll paintings as gigantic monster spiders who can shape-change (often into women), and who are hunted down by heroic samurai. And by the Edo period, this was largely the public conception of tsuchigumo.

However, tsuchigumo was originally a derogatory term for certain tribes that resisted subjugation by the ancient country of Yamato. Those who did not willingly submit to the emperor were forcefully subjugated or exterminated. When the first histories of Japan were written down, the stories of these conquests were recorded as stories of heroic samurai traveling off into the wilderness to slay monsters. The “monsters” were actually populations of people made into demons via storytelling. Tsuchigumo is one famous example of this. Another is Akuru, and some scholars say that Yamata no orochi may be one too. I find these windows into history one of the most fascinating things about studying yōkai.

One more note: this story references a poem about “an ama from Shinobu no Ura.” This is a phrase that will probably not be familiar to most readers today. It is a reference to a line in Tsurezuregusa. To roughly sum up the idea behind this line and the reference, it talks about how a public relationship, such as a formally arranged and publicly-acknowledged marriage, is far less sweet than a relationship in which you sneak off to make love, even though others might be watching you.

Edo period views on sex were quite different than they are today, in the West and in Japan. Marriages were made for practical/political purposes, while sneaking around and having sex out of wedlock was the normal way to find love. In the story below, the woman loves the man, but she is still shy enough that she doesn’t want others to see her sleeping with him.

How a Tsuchigumo Turned into a Woman in Kaga

A certain man had the opportunity to become a public official, so he journeyed from Kyōto to Kaga Province and rented a room in a townhouse. The owner’s daughter was so beautiful that when the man saw her, he fell in love instantly, and he became heartsick for her. The man called for his servant, a samurai, and confessed his strong feelings for her to him.

The samurai took pity on the man and offered to act as an intermediary for him. He courted the girl, and she, being a compassionate woman, soon opened her heart to the man. Even though she was not, as the poets say, an “ama from Shinobu no Ura,” she was uncomfortable with the idea of being seen by others. So night after night, past dark, she snuck into the man’s room to sleep with him.

One night, she visited the man and he was as delighted as ever to see her again, but while they were exchanging deep vows of love, the samurai servant heard the woman’s voice coming from the kitchen. He wondered what was going on, and so he went to investigate and found the house owner’s daughter was actually in the kitchen. The samurai was so surprised that he quietly called out to the man and told him what he had seen.

“In that case it must be a henge which is trying to seduce my heart!” the man said.

The man went back into his room, grabbed the girl, and stabbed her with his sword.

“Ah!” she screamed and then disappeared from sight.

When dawn broke, they followed a blood trail leading out of the room. It led to the mountains about 4 kilometers away. They searched deeper and deeper into the mountains, and they found another blood trail that ended at a rocky cavern. Inside, they found the girl’s dead body.

The man was even more bewildered. He took the girl’s corpse back to the townhouse and watched it for a few days, but her form never changed. It just remained as the daughter and withered away.

Meanwhile, the house owner’s daughter remained healthy and unharmed, it is said.

It is a story strange beyond words.

A trail of blood leads to a woman lying dead in a cave.

A-Yokai-A-Day: How Rokutan no Genshichi Saved an Adulterous Woman

While yesterday’s story was quite Halloween-ish and creepy, today’s is a bit more amusing. It still has plenty of creepy elements though. Since Shokoku hyakumonogatari is written as a collection of stories told by different people around a lamp on a spooky night, it’s fun to have stories that vary in length, mood, and humor. It really gives the impression that there are different speakers telling each tale, and each storyteller has their own style.

How Rokutan no Genshichi Saved an Adulterous Woman

In the capital of Kyōto there was a famous gambler called Rokutan no Genshichi. One day he decided to travel to eastern Japan in search of a good opponent. While he was on the road it grew dark, and he stopped at a certain village and asked around for lodging to rent.

Somebody told him, “In this village it is forbidden to rent rooms to people. You can find a room about 10 kilometers down the road from here.”

Genshichi had no choice but to go there, but there was no house to be found. He searched here and there, and as the night grew darker, he came across a shrine in a forest, with just a few candles for light. Feeling lucky to have found such a place, he decided to spend the night there, and lay down beside the shrine.

Just after midnight, he saw a faint firelight coming from the east. Genshichi wondered what it could be, and as he watched the direction of the fire, it came closer and closer to the shrine. Eventually, a man of about 30 years carrying a large sword and a paper lantern came to the shrine and entered it.

Genshichi’s hair stood on end, and he shrunk back in fear. The man looked around the shrine, and then climbed up to the 2nd floor. Genshichi became even more afraid and wondered what was up there when he heard a woman scream from the second floor of the shrine. A short time later, the man came back down carrying his paper lantern, and went back the way he came.

Genshichi began to worry who was on the second floor. He lit a light from the shrine’s candles and went upstairs to see. He discovered a beautiful woman of about 20 years, covered in wounds and tied up. Genshichi was horrified.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“I am no henge. I am ashamed to say this, but I am a woman who has cheated on my husband. Because of this, he punishes me every night by doing this to me. I’m sure he will kill me soon. Please have mercy on me. If you cut these ropes and save me, I will never forget it for all of eternity.” The woman cried in anguish.

Genshichi wondered about the situation, but he felt such pity for her that he cut her bindings. The woman was so overjoyed that she clasped her hands together.

“Well now, I am so grateful! I would leave here immediately, but I cannot walk even a single step. Would you please carry me on your back? My parents’ house is about five and a half kilometers from here, so please take me there.”

Genshichi felt he had no choice, so he hoisted her up onto his back and carried her down and out of the shrine. After carrying her about five or six hundred meters the woman said, “I forgot something back at the shrine. Please take me back there.”

Genshichi felt sorry for her, so he took her back to the shrine and placed her back inside the shrine. Then the woman crawled underneath the veranda. As Genshichi was seething with the feeling that he had been deceived, the woman crawled back out from under the veranda carrying a package wrapped in paper. So Genshishi put the woman back on his back and they continued their journey.

Before long they arrived at her parents’ house. Genshichi explained what happened to her parents, and they were overjoyed. “You are a savior!” they said and treated Genshichi to many things.

As Genshichi was saying his farewells, the woman came out after him, politely bowed, and then presented the paper-wrapped package.

“This is my lover’s head. Please turn it over to a temple somewhere.”

She handed the package as well as 30 ryo in gold to Genshichi.

Genshichi accepted the package and left. About two kilometers away, he dumped the package into a river and kept the gold for himself. Instead of heading east, he turned back to towards the capital. He told everybody that he was able to acquire so much money because he was a brave man.

A man gives a piggyback ride to a woman who points the direction.