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The Yokai of Japan

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Yokai is an umbrella term for the supernatural creatures of Japan. I find them endlessly fascinating and much of what I share on this blog is yokai related. In this post I will provide a quick introduction to some of the most well-known yokai, as well as a linked index to all the yokai posts on this site. I've also included a selection of artwork featuring yokai, and some external links to information that may be of interest to those wanting to learn more.

The Ghost of Oiwa

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'Yotsuya Kaidan' is the story of the ghost of Oiwa. Also knowns as 'The Lantern Ghost, it is one of Japan's most famous ghost stories. It tells the story of the vengeful spirit of a young woman betrayed by her husband. In the beginning of the story Oiwa is married to a samurai named Iemon, but she was very unhappy because her husband was a liar and a thief.

My Lord Bag of Rice

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In Japan there is a tale known as Towara Toda monogatari which tells the story of the hero Fujiwara no Hidesato. One day Hidesato decided to set off in search of adventure. He was heading towards Lake Biwa and on the path ahead of him near the lake, he saw a serpent-like creature blocking the path. Although he hesitated at first, he was a brave man and decided to carry on regardless.

Cat Witches of Japan

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In Japanese folklore there are many tales about cat witches that are connected to yokai known as kaibyo , or supernatural cats. These are not witches in the western sense of the term, but rather evil supernatural spirits that take the form of a cat. They may have been linked to the yokai known as yama uba , or mountain witch, and are also often referred to as tales of the cat stone.

Yama Uba

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If you go exploring in Japanese forests or mountains, keep a watchful eye out for yama uba. These yokai are actually strange old witches that live alone in remote areas. They appear as kind old ladies offering travellers a place to stay, but late at night they magically transform into ugly hags and eat their guests alive.

Musical Yokai

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In Japanese folklore there is a belief that objects that are very old are able to gain a spirit and transform into a type of yokai known as tsukumogami. Sometimes this is because they have been used lovingly for a long time and are rewarded for their service. There are several musical instruments that are believed to transform into yokai if they are played for many years and then neglected by being stored away and not played any more.

Kawa Akago

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Kawa akago (river babies) are the lesser known cousins of Japanese kappa . These yokai lurk near waterways and appear as small red-skinned babies. They hide in the reeds and cry out to passers-by, copying the sound of a human baby. This crying continues until someone comes to investigate.

The Three Brothers and the Oni

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There is a Japanese folktale called 'The Three Brothers and the Oni ' that is similar to the German tale known as Hansel and Gretel. In the Japanese tale, a mother who couldn't afford to feed her three children takes them deep into the woods and asks them to wait while she goes to hunt for food. The three boys soon realised that she was not coming back.

Haka No Hi

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In Japanese folklore there is a strange supernatural phenomenon known as haka no hi, which translates as grave fire. These mysterious fires occur at the base of grave stones and are believed to be the result of the deceased soul being trapped in this world. Some suggest haka no hi may be caused by residual attachments to the material world.

Odin

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Odin is the Norse god of wisdom, healing, magic, poetry and war. He is accompanied by his animal companions, two ravens (Huginn and Muninn) and two wolves (Geri and Freki), who bring him information from all over the world. He rides into battle upon an eight-legged horse called Sleipnir holding a magical sword known as Gungnir.

Azuki Arai

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In Japanese folklore there is a yokai known as a azuki arai. This ghostly phenomenon occurs near water, when the sound of azuki beans can be heard rattling and making a 'shoki shoki' sound. The spirit responsible often sings a song along the lines of 'should I wash my beans or find a person to eat instead?' 

Diamonds and Toads (The Fairies)

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Diamonds and Toads is a French fairy tale by Charles Perrault that was originally titled 'The Fairies.' It tells the story of a grumpy widow and her two daughters. The older daughter Fanny is also bad-tempered and arrogant, and because she was so much like her mother, she was the favoured daughter.

Oni - Japanese Demons

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In Japanese folklore, an oni is a kind of ferocious demon similar to an ogre. They usually have horns, big fangs and sharp claws. Although their skin colour can vary, it is common to see them portrayed as red or blue skinned, club wielding monsters. Oni have extreme strength and it is believed that they form an army of underworld demons.

Itsumade

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Itsumade are strange bird-like chimera in Japanese folklore. They have a human-ish face with a pointed beak, snake's body, sharp claws and huge wings. They appear in the sky at night, flying in circles and crying out 'itsumademo' which means 'until when?' It is said that  they appear during disasters, especially if many people are suffering or dying.



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