Harbingers of disaster and death, these residents of the in-between feed off fear, disease and anger. But on the flip side, harmless mischief-makers and protectors also exist to maintain the balance.
These unpredictable beings are the yokai or ayakashi.
Okay, maybe yokai-shaped bread is more delicious than scary. However, there is no doubt that their colourful personalities have led them to be featured in many forms of media, in the past and in the now. Fans have even created yokai trails to explore the areas they reside in. Academics have also studied them to no end.
Here are 10 interesting yokai you need to know!
1. Fox (Kitsune キツネ)
The tofu-loving, shapeshifting fox is probably one of the most well-known and -loved yokai. They can be wicked tricksters, delighting in mischief but also protectors of humans and return favours (the good foxes, that is). It is said that kitsune are abundant in the West of Japan, and are rarely found in Kyushu or Shikoku. One of the most famous shrine dedicated to Inari-sama (The Japanese deity of foxes) is Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine. Try spotting a kitsune there!
2. Raccoon Dog (Tanuki たぬき)
Rivalling the kitsune’s shapeshifting powers is the tanuki. This yokai is often compared to the kitsune as they are equally mischievous and powerful. However, it is believed that the tanuki frolick in Eastern Japan – places where kitsune avoid. Moreover, tanuki love alcohol. Perhaps they are more easily found at an izakaya – keep your eyes peeled when you are enjoying a cup of sake and who knows, you might spot one.
3. Kirin 麒麟
While the homonym refers to a giraffe, this is one of the most magnificent creatures that you will definitely want to see. Don’t let its chimerical appearance of a stag with dragon scales and holy fire for its mane deceive you. A holy beast; the kirin is said to appear during peaceful eras or signal the appearance of a sage. But you may just perhaps catch a glimpse of it while downing a can of kirin beer.
4. Kasha 火車
While the kanji characters for kasha represent “fire chariot”, the kasha illustrated by an 18th century Japanese folklorist, Toriyama Sekien, was of a demon cat in flames. Unlike the ordinary cat, the kasha is a man-eating demon with strong predatory instincts as it seeks human flesh, with numerous appearances at funeral rites. Take care to have a sharp weapon when you visit one.
5. Otoroshi おとろし
Similar to the word “osoroshii”, which means “scary”, this creature guards holy places like shrines and temples from wicked people. Despite their grotesque appearance, they only appear to punish evildoers. Just remember to behave at holy places like these and all will be fine.
6. Koma inu 狛犬
Another guardian of holy areas, they are more like watchdogs than scary beasts like the Statues of the koma inu are ubiquitous in Japan. They come a long way from India via the spread of the dharmic philosophies. As a result, the koma inu can be found in China (shishi), and Korea (haechi).
7. Chimi 魑魅
Mountain climbing and nature trail lovers, beware of the chimi! They possess human-like faces but their beastly bodies give them away. They inhibit most wilderness in Japan, lying in wait to lure an unsuspecting traveller away. Once the traveller is lost and isolated, the chimi can attack.
8. The God of Poverty (Binbogami 貧乏神)
If this deity enters your living space even once, you will be plagued with poverty and trouble. It was notorious for bringing bad luck since ancient times. Hence, people have believed in various methods to keep the Binbogami at bay. For example, don’t shake your legs while eating or eat food with vinegar on the last day of the year. It is also important to clean your house regularly and not let the passing breeze “clean” it!
9. Mountain Dog (Yamainu 山犬)
If you meet a stray dog that follows you all the way down the mountain, chances are it could be a yamainu. Rumour has it that the yamainu were once deities that fell from the skies. While they are not known to be dangerous, take care not trip in your haste to get away as the mountain dog attacks at moments of weakness. Also remember to thank the yamainu for “sending you off” so as not to be followed again the next time.
10. Tsuchinoko 槌の子
When a person full of resentment dies, they turn into a tsuchinoko, a creature that looks like a fat snake. This yokai attacks at night. When the tsuchinoko grabs hold of passers-by’s ankle, the person loses their voice and is paralysed on the spot until morning. This situation can be horrifying depending on where you are caught – but the Yokai Watch version of the tsuchinoko is too cute to be scary.
That’s not all, the Japanese have amassed an enormous collection of fascinating yokai tales throughout history. Make it a mission to find out about as many yokai as you can!