Yokai: Cataloging the Unknowable

Last year I did a virtual talk with the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I gave a brief history of yokai and the tradition of collecting and categorizing them which has existed for hundreds of years and continues to this day. I also spoke about the challenges that arise from even attempting to catalog something that is, by definition, unknowable. I also told a few yokai stories, then took questions from the audience.

It was a really fun talk, and I hope to do it again some time!

You can view the talk on Youtube below:

Mononoke Ichi Report

Last weekend saw the return of the Mononoke Ichi (モノノケ市) yokai flea market in Kyoto. Normally, this event takes place several times per year, with a spring flea market, an autumn yokai parade, and several smaller events at various temples and other locations. However, due to coronavirus, the festival has been on hold since 2019. This was the first Mononoke Ichi in over 2 years. This time, the event was stretched over two days (April 16-17) in order to reduce crowding.

Getting from Fukui to Kyoto is not the longest journey, but it’s still a bit of a haul. It’s a 3 hour drive through the mountains, then along Lake Biwa. During April when everything is blooming it’s an incredibly scenic drive. We left the day before the event so we wouldn’t have to leave before the crack of dawn in order to reach the event in time. Fortunately, Kyoto has lots of AirBnB rentals in the area of the event.

Mononoke Ichi is held at the Daishogun Hachi jinja, an ancient shrine that was originally an Onmyodo/Taoist temple dedicated to the gods of the stars. Astrology and geomancy were a very important part of politics, religion, and society in ancient times, and this temple was established at the northwest extent of Heian Kyo (the ancient name of the capital) in order to protect that direction. Part of the reason for the selection of this site for the festival is that the street it is located on served as the border of the capital in ancient times. Yokai live in borderlands, such as the border between land and sea, dark and light, light and death, and, in this case, the “civilized” capital city and the “barbaric” wilderness beyond it. This road is where yokai were said to appear in those times, and that makes it an ideal location for a modern yokai festival. The shops and residents of the street have embraced this history, and the area is known today as “Yokai Street.” The street is lined with yokai-themed statues and artwork maintained by the shops and businesses operating there. The fact that the shrine itself is dedicated to magic and mystery only adds to the folkloric atmosphere.

Mononoke Ichi is organized by Hyakuyobako, a yokai art group run by Kono Junya, a professor at Kyoto Saga University of Arts. The first thing that greets you at the festival are Kono’s yokai masks, which are sometimes worn by art students who parade around the festival dressed as yokai. Several of these masks are currently on display in the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, while the rest are here at the festival. This year, to prevent crowding, only a limited number of yokai were parading around. However, they leave a very strong impression!

It’s clear the students really enjoy performing as yokai. They’ve each practiced their poses and motions, and bring life to their characters. Part of the joy of this performance is scaring children, and throughout the event the period shrieks and screams of little children crying, “Don’t come any closer!” bring about spontaneous chuckles from all of the vendors and visitors.

The weather was perfect for an outdoor festival. The event was busy, but never so crowded that it felt unsafe. I think that both vendors and guests all felt a sense of excitement to be able to experience events like this once again, after such a long hiatus.

For me, this was especially fun because I so rarely get to participate in events like this. Yokai-themed festivals happen fairly regularly in large cities like Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo, but not in Fukui. So I treasure the opportunity to participate in yokai events that take place not too far from my home.

It’s also thrilling to get to interact with so many yokai fans (or even maniacs) up close and all in one place. Most of the time, my work involves introducing people to yokai for the first time, or sharing my work with English-speaking yokai fans who don’t have access to them in Japanese. It’s a rare thing to encounter fans who can name every yokai I have on display.

One anecdote that illustrates this phenomenon is that when I show my postcards at events, people often ask me why I have a picture of Godzilla among my illustrations. It’s a fun opportunity to explain that it is not Godzilla, but a yokai called hōnengyo that coincidentally looks very much like him. But at Mononoke Ichi several people approached my table and immediately commented that they liked my hōnengyo, without even questioning whether it was Godzilla or not. Witnessing that level of fandom is very satisfying.

Speaking of fans, there was one surprise guest who came to the event unannounced. It was professor Komatsu Kazuhiko, one of the world’s top yokai scholars and creator of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies’ yokai database. I’m pretty sure on any other street in Kyoto he would have been seen as just another man walking down the street, but when he suddenly appeared in the shrine grounds at Mononoke Ichi, everyone’s eyes lit up as if a major celebrity had appeared.

A TV crew followed him around and also interviewed several of the vendors and fans. I had the opportunity to speak to them about my work and my goal of sharing yokai with English-speaking fans around the world.

It was a great event, and it felt especially satisfying to participate again after such a long hiatus due to the pandemic. It helped me feel like life is slowly returning to some kind of normalcy. (And it was also the most exhausting thing I have done in over 2 years!)

You can see more photos and posts from vendors, participants, and fans by viewing the hashtag #モノノケ市2204 on Twitter.

The Fox’s Wedding (limited release) on Amazon

Readers have been asking me for some time now about the status of my 4th yokai encyclopedia, The Fox’s Wedding: A Compendium of Japanese Folklore.

book cover of The Fox's Wedding

The book was funded on Kickstarter in December of 2020, and finished development in 2021. It was originally slated for release in 2021, however, the launch has been delayed several times. Here’s what happened:

Protective measures against coronavirus essentially slowed production down at every step. Smaller staffs working at printing facilities and a reduced number of truck drivers  and warehouse workers added several months of delay to production. Then, the global logistics crisis caused delivery of Kickstarter rewards to be delayed by about half a year while trying to secure space on board a freight ship to the US delivery site. On top of that, the outbreak of war in Ukraine caused parcel systems from Japan to Europe to shut down entirely, so delivery of books to Europe has been halted again.

My intention has been to release The Fox’s Wedding on Amazon once all of the Kickstarter rewards are fulfilled. Thus, while the book has been ready since fall of 2021, the inability to deliver rewards to backers has kept me from doing any kind of general release as well.

If you’ve been following the Kickstarter page, you’ll know that some progress has finally been made on delivering rewards. Space on a freight ship has been secured, and the books will be making their way to the US distribution center later this month.

That is why I am doing a limited release of The Fox’s Wedding in ebook format only. All backers have received their ebooks, and so The Fox’s Wedding will become available on Amazon in DRM-free ebook format next week!

Paperback, hardcover, and collector’s editions will be available at a later date, once all backers have received their rewards.


A-Yokai-A-Day: Hakoiri musume (page 30)

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Happy Halloween!

All good things must come to an end, and so today, Halloween, I present the final page of Hakoiri musume menya ningyo. Kyōden is well known for a number of books; this is not one of them. But I still think it is a fantastic book, not only for its sense of humor and its wonderful illustrations, but for its unique insight into the Edo of 1791.

In Kyōden’s illustration, Heiji and the mermaid are pictured happily married, enjoying some tobacco together. Behind the couple are stacks of boxes containing 1000 ryō, showing how incredibly rich they have become. On top of the stack are two tall bottles of holy sake. The mermaid’s eyebrows are plucked, denoting her married status.

This story took place about seven thousand nine hundred years ago¹. While it sounds like a lie when you hear it at first, it’s all true!

Mermaids are immortal to begin with, and Heiji just recovers his youth by licking his mermaid whenever he gets old, so the couple is still alive and well to this day. In fact, they live next door to the author of this book. I wonder how much longer they will live… They are only one hundred years younger than Tōhō Saku², and they’ve saved up quite a bit of money, so while it’s traditional to end a book with “happily ever after,” this time it truly is a the happiest of endings.

By Santō Kyōden³

  1. Counting from Kyōden’s perspective in 1791. So more than eight thousand one hundred years ago counting from today.
  2. On New Years Day, beggers would go from door to door offering blessings in exchange for money or rice, and one of the songs they would sing was about how Tōhō Saku lived for eight thousand years. Tōhō Saku is the Japanese name for Dongfang Shuo, a legendary Chinese wizard who attained immortality by stealing and eating the peaches of immortality from the Queen Mother of the West.
  3. Kyōden leaves one final joke at the bottom of the page. Beneath his name there is a printed seal which reads “stinky.” It’s a final apology for the mermaid’s fishy smell.

A-Yokai-A-Day: Hakoiri musume (page 29)

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If you thought the story couldn’t get any weirder after yesterday’s scene, you might be surprised by today’s page. It’s a Halloween miracle! It looks like the story will have a happy ending after all!

In Kyōden’s illustration you can see Urashima Tarō, now with a stately mustache (since this takes place some 17 years or so after we last saw him) and Orino, wearing a regular kimono instead of an oiran’s kimono. It seems that they stayed together all this time (I wonder what Otohime thinks about that). They are riding a cloud, which implies that they didn’t walk to Heiji’s place, they just magically teleported in and then teleported away. It’s lucky for Heiji and the mermaid that she has such magical parents!

Heiji’s mermaid wife, as if in response to her young husband’s wish for her to have hands and feet¹, shed her skin just like someone takes off their pants, and underneath were human arms and legs! This is almost too miraculous of a story!

Heiji and his formerly-mermaid wife lived happily and prosperously together. They built a house in Sakaichō, which came to be known as Mermaid Town, but has now come to be mistakenly called Ningyōchō².

Ah yes, and since mermaid skins–unlike cicada shells–are rare, they sold her skin to an apothecary and became even richer! When things are good, good things happen one after another!

  1. This has a double meaning. To “put hands on” someone is slang to have sex with them. Now that Heiji is young and handsome again, he wishes that he had a wife he could sleep with; and subsequently she literally puts on not only hands, but feet as well!
  2. A pun based on ningyo and the town of Ningyōchō, a neighborhood in Tokyo. Kyōden swaps ningyo (mermaid) for ningyo (doll). This pun is reminiscent of the book’s title, Hakoiri musume menya ningyo, as Menya was an actual famous doll shop in Ningyōchō.

A-Yokai-A-Day: Hakoiri musume (page 28)

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Just when all seems lost for baby-Heiji and the mermaid, a familiar pair of faces show up to save the day. Although, if you were very clever and familiar with the story of Urashima Tarō, you might already have figured out what the solution was! Read on to see if you were right…

Tsuribune no Heiji and his wife were at their wits end, when all of a sudden, Urashima Tarō and Orino magically appeared before them!

Urashima Tarō made Heiji open up the tamatebako¹, and the effect was that he aged to about thirty years old–the prime of manhood! Heiji was overjoyed. It was like he had increased his energy by eating eggs and then decreased it by eating kuwai until it was just right². By the way, the tamatebako unveiled at the Fukagawa Hachiman Shrine last year was this very same one³.

Urashima Tarō and Orino vanished, leaving them with some parting wisdom: “Take care of each other, you two! Don’t doubt each other, but on the other hand don’t overly rely on each other either; then you’ll live happily together for many years. Doron doron doro doro doro doro⁴…”

  1. The tamatebako was a gift to Urashima Tarō from Otohime which contained his old age in it. In Urashima Taro’s legend, when he opened the box, he instantly became an old man.
  2. Eating eggs was said to increase vigor, while eating kuwai (a kind of tuber) was said to decrease it. Heiji found the perfect balance, which sort of acts like a fountain of youth here.
  3. Kyōden breaks the fourth wall again with another contemporary culture reference. There was a big sideshow at the shrine in 1790 which purportedly displayed Urashima Tarō’s actual tamatebako.
  4. Urashima Tarō and Orino disappear into the clouds, which you can see in the illustration. Urashima Tarō is verbally making his own sound effects to go with that. This is like the Wayne’s World dream sequence effect.