Here I am, reading an untitled poem I wrote based on the Japanese ghost story ‘Banchō Sarayashiki.’ You can read the full story in my post about Himeji Castle.
Read & recorded at Speakin’ Weird open mic night at Spin in Aberdeen, February 2019.
This story was the first assignment I wrote for my undergraduate degree in autumn 2012. It was published in Vortex, the University of Winchester’s creative writing journal, just before I graduated in 2015.
Each day you can admire the moon, the snow and the flowers.
Yet, flowers seldom bloom when it snows, and what if it’s the time of the dark moon? There is no beauty in winter. Once the sunlight and sakura leave, the countryside is rendered drab and austere. I am sure the trees watch us as our car passes; glaring into our wake, envious of our freedom to move. Our tyres grind their amber-coloured leaves into the road, a forced burial without ceremony.
Ryota insisted that we visit his okaasan. Apparently we need some ‘family time,’ which only ever seems to happen when it suits him. If we were at home, I would be hanging omamori from the lamps and on the thresholds. Kaori would be watching, and pestering Hisao to lift her up to get a closer look. I would be standing by, envying the innocence of my children.
One omamori never gets hung up. It stays with me, in my purse, or tied onto my keys or the zip of my bag. Now it sits in my lap, and I twine the frayed string around my fingers as my head rolls towards the car window. This one is a yakuyoke, for protection. Yes, winter can be charming. And we all know to be afraid of charm. I learned that when I met her.
She has many names. Some say she is a goddess, or a spirit. Others describe her as a hag. Many names, many faces. It’s all the same. To me, she will always be a demon. Yuki-Onna, who brings death with the snowfall. I remember her pallid complexion, that seemed to be made of mist. There but also not, obsidian hair the only fully visible part in the white landscape. She hummed a lullaby as she scooped me up from the frozen ground. I can still hear it…
I don’t remember falling asleep, but then I am waking as tyres jolt over the ramp covering the little irrigation canal and the car stops on okaasan’s drive. I shove the omamori into my bag and climb out, steadying myself against the door as a wave of nausea overtakes me and my legs shake.
Breathe. Calm down.
I smile at Ryota over the roof in an attempt to hide my uneasiness. He will be displeased if he sees me like this; I am supposed to be getting better.
We all trudge into the house where okaasan fusses over Ryota and clicks her tongue at how much Kaori and Hisao have grown. If my own mother were still alive she would probably do the same. We sit around the kotatsu and share tea and senbei. I let Ryota do the talking.
The afternoon passes in this way, and when darkness arrives I rise to help okaasan arrange our futons. She waves me away.
“Spend some time with Ryota. Make the most of him, while he’s not at work.”
So I go back to the kotatsu and we sit there, the children between us. After a moment, Kaori rises and goes to the window; presses her chubby palms against the glass.
“Look!” she calls, so the rest of us get up and join her. Outside, the sky is growing dark both from dusk and the heavy clouds. The air has that translucent glow it gets before… before it snows. Then I see it. A speck of white floating down, down. Kaori watches it, enchanted.
When I see the first snowflake fall, I do not just see a snowflake. I see blood, and the stiff corpse of my father staring up at me with glassy eyes. My mother’s lips, cracked and rimmed with frost. I smell their blood as the wind stirred it, and see my messy footprints as I run away. I escaped. I am sure the demon has not forgotten. Back then, I was too young to be afraid of beautiful strangers. Now I know better. Watching that first feathery snowflake drift down from the portentous clouds and hit the windowsill, I turn to Ryota and tell him we have to leave. Irritation flutters across his eyes, eyes I once lost myself in.
“It’s just snow, Hanako.”
His tone is weary; he doesn’t believe in Yuki-Onna. I am shaking again.
I order the children to go with okaasan and get ready for bed. They obey, to my relief and regret. Okaasan frowns at me as she ushers them to the bedroom. She will probably tell me later what I already know, that I should look after them myself. But sometimes I just need them out of the way.
My hands flit between my scraggy ponytail and the omamori, now in my pocket, as I check the window locks. Two presses on each catch until I am satisfied. Curtains drawn, because too many times I have gazed out into the night and seen her face staring back.
Ryota goes to retrieve our bags from the genkan. I want to help, but it’s so near the front door, and the front door is so near the snow… I cannot get the image of Yuki-Onna out of my head. A thread of the omamori comes loose. Ryota returns, as if he read my thoughts. I force another smile; it feels as worn and frayed as an old blanket. He drops the luggage and places a hand on my arm.
“You can get past this. You’ve been doing so well recently, even your therapist said so.”
“I know. I just… had a moment. I’m fine now.” I smile at him again, because it’s all I can think of to do.
“Good. Don’t push me away again, Hanako.”
I nod and pick up my bag.
Sleep evades me. I lie on my back, staring at the ceiling, whispering to the malignant shadows in the corners of the room. They don’t listen. They never listen. Eventually, I tumble into delirium. Of course, Yuki-Onna is there. Waiting. Always waiting.
When I find my way back to reality, it is morning. The bedroom is empty. Ghostly daylight creeps through the shoji, leeching all the colour from the room. I get up and go to the living room, where I find okaasan sitting.
“Hello, Hanako,” she says, handing me a cup of tea.
“He’s good with the children. You shouldn’t worry so much.” She sweeps her thin arm towards the window. “Take a look.”
Slowly, I turn to face the snowy world.
You’re okay, there’s nothing there.
Ryota, Hisao, and Kaori are outside, their booted feet making untidy dents in the white dusting on okaasan’s garden. I watch them scoop up handfuls of it and toss them at one another, and try not to imagine an ivory-skinned woman watching them, too. Ryota laughs when a snowball catches his leg; a wondrous sound my ears cannot remember hearing for a long time. Kaori throws herself down on her back, moving her arms and legs from side to side to make the shape of an angel. Hisao beckons to me…
I don’t bother to put my coat on, or fully lace up my boots. This way I won’t be able to stay outside for too long. They all turn to look as I slip around the front door.
“Morning,” Ryota calls. I wave, and Hisao takes advantage of the distraction and tosses another snowball at his father. Kaori laughs and pushes herself to her feet to join in. I hover beside the house, arms folded, toes brushing against the snow but not quite touching it. The white ground makes the trees at the edge of okaasan’s garden look dark and insidious; a perfect hiding place for a demon…
“The children will get cold, I’m taking them inside,” I tell Ryota, lunging forward to grab Hisao. Kaori evades me, though. She is already running towards the trees, giggling. Before I know what I’m doing, I have let go of Hisao and I am running as well. With each step, my boots make a crunching noise that seems too loud. Kaori keeps running until the trees swallow her. By the time I reach them, my feet ache and my face and arms are numb. I call her name, a frantic warble and wisp of breath, which both dissipate immediately as if I have not spoken. Branches snag at my clothes, like frozen fingers. Leaves rustle like the swish of ebony hair.
She’ll catch you, keep going!
I part my lips to call again, but then I catch sight of Kaori’s purple coat bobbing around a tree trunk. I hurry towards it, and find her crouched in a small clearing, patting handfuls of snow into tiny balls. And there is Yuki-Onna. Every bit as wickedly beautiful as I remember. Standing over Kaori, my snow angel. I shake my head, trying to eliminate the demon. Maybe she’s not real. Ryota doesn’t think so. I trust Ryota.
Then why can you still see her?
Kaori remains huddled on the ground, unaware of the danger. Yuki-Onna bends towards her.
No, she’s not real!
“You’re not real!”
I throw myself at Kaori, crushing her pile of snowballs and encircling her in my arms.
“Leave us alone!” I scream. “Leave, leave…” I clutch Kaori tighter, burying my face in her coat as she wriggles in my arms. I know I must take my daughter indoors, get her warm, but I cannot move. If I close my eyes then maybe the demon will disappear. Failing that, I won’t see her strike. I begin to shake from the cold.
Frozen bodies, found in the woods. A young girl, found wandering…
“No! It’s okay, we’re safe. She’s not real.”
“Who’s not real, mama?”
“Shhhhh, my angel.”
Blood, and snow. A young girl, found wandering…
I barely notice when a warm figure presses against my back and a hand starts stroking my hair. Ryota. He pulls us close, and I lean against him.
“She’s not real,” I whisper.
“I know, Hanako. Come inside.”
He pulls me to my feet and keeps hold of my hand. I grab Kaori’s with my free one, and she reaches for Hisao who was watching from the edge of the trees. I glance over my shoulder; the woods are empty. As we cross the garden, we create four sets of footprints in neat lines.
I glance over my shoulder. I have admired the snow, but there are still no flowers and no moon. There is also no fifth set of footprints heading back into the trees. Only my own as I ran after Kaori. No flash of a porcelain face. Just my own skin, pale from the cold.
Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the University of Essex’s Myth Reading Group to run a session on Japanese folklore. The group is part of the university’s Centre for Myth Studies, which aims to support and promote the study of myth.
For the past two terms, the Myth Reading Group has been focusing on trees in mythology. My session was about sacred trees in Japanese culture and the story of the Takasago pines, which I previously explored in the article I wrote for the Centre for Myth Studies blog earlier this year.
The Takasago story is a popular noh drama (type of classical Japanese theatre) about two pine trees which were planted by the kami (Shinto deities) from the same seed. One stands in Takasago, and the other in Sumiyoshi. A Shinto priest visiting Takasago meets an elderly couple beneath the Takasago pine and asks them about the tree. They tell him about it being related to the one in Sumiyoshi, and that the man travels between the two places to care for the trees and be with his love. The distance between them is insignificant, because their hearts are the same. They also tell him that pine trees are special, because they are unchanging. Where other trees turn brown and shed their foliage in the autumn, pine trees remain evergreen. The priest then asks the couple for their names, and they reveal that they are really the spirits of the Takasago and Sumiyoshi pine trees temporarily in human form.
The priest meets the couple again in Sumiyoshi, and they have a feast to celebrate the relationship between humans and kami.
In Japanese culture, pine trees are revered as symbols of longevity and believed to ward off bad luck and evil spirits. You can often find them in the grounds of Shinto shrines, where visitors will tie omikuji (paper fortunes) to their branches. If the fortune is bad, the pine tree will help to negate its effects. Some larger shrines also mark their perimeters with pine trees to keep out negative energy.
Two ancient pine trees stand in the grounds of Takasago Shrine. They are nicknamed ‘Jo’ and ‘Uba’ (loosely translates as ‘old man’ and ‘old woman’), and many couples visit them to ask for blessings for a long and healthy relationship.
Some of the trees around Shinto shrines are especially prestigious. These trees are called ‘goshinboku,’ which means ‘god trees’ in English, and they are trees where kami are believed to live. You can tell a goshinboku because it will be marked by a shimenawa (rope made from woven rice straw) and shide (lightning bolt-shaped strips of paper).
As well as living in goshinboku, kami also use these trees to travel between the heavens and the earth. Some, like the pine trees in the Takasago noh play, are also reported to have been planted by kami.
Before shrines were built, places of worship were merely natural sites were it was believed kami were present. These were often groves of trees or mountains, called yorishiro. Also, the kanji for shrine 神社 (jinja) and forest 杜 (mori) are very similar. It’s possible that they could have been used interchangeably or meant to mean one and the same thing.
In her story ‘The Wind in the Pine Tree,’ Grace James writes in slow, dreamy prose about a pine tree planted by a kami on the beach in Takasago. It becomes home to a host of nature spirits, and also dark, mysterious creatures from Yomi which is the underworld in Japanese mythology. As the wind blows through the tree’s branches, it disperses the voices of the spirits and positive energy which draws lovers to it. The end of the story repeats this imagery, implying that it is a never-ending cycle of the tree sending out this mystical wind and drawing more positivity to it. The story is only one small part of its steadfast, evergreen life.
Having worked in Takasago, I can definitely vouch for the importance of pine trees in this city. I often found myself picking fallen needles out of my shoes, and many of the local mascots were based on pine cones. During school events, some poor teacher or student would draw the short straw of wearing the pinecone mascot costume and parading around the track in 80% humidity (thankfully never me!) It’s wonderful to see how the story of the pine trees shapes the identity of Takasago, and has made it a place of cultural and folkloric significance.
It was a joy to share this topic at the Myth Reading Group. Thank you to Pietra Palazzolo, executive of the Centre for Myth Studies, for inviting me to do the session. Also thank you to the Myth Reading Group members who attended, and for your enthusiasm during the discussion. It was lovely to meet you all, and I hope to attend more of your meetings in the future!
‘The Legend of the Twin Pines, and Jo and Uba – the Happy Married Couple (尉と媼 Jō-to-Uba)‘ on Japanese Mythology & Folklore
Tottori may be Japan’s least populated prefecture in terms of people, but if it’s yōkai you’re counting then it will come out on top. In the city of Sakaiminato, they have taken over the streets with their somewhat disturbing charm.
In Japanese folklore, yōkai are mischievous supernatural creatures akin to spirits or demons in Western culture. The artist and writer Mizuki Shigeru brought them into the limelight with his 1960s manga series GeGeGe no Kitarō (ゲゲゲの鬼太郎). Shigeru’s work tells the story of a boy named Kitarō, who fights to make peace between the worlds of humans and yōkai, along with his… unusual allies. Most notably Medama-Oyaji, an anthropomorphic eyeball who is also the reincarnation of his father, and Neko-Musume, a young girl who can alter her facial features to resemble a sinister-looking cat.
Mizuki Shigeru spent his childhood in Sakaiminato. To celebrate his work, the area around JR Sakaiminato station and the main road leading off of it has 153 bronze statues of yōkai. You can purchase a guidebook at the station (in Japanese only), which lists each one with some information about it. There are also spaces for collectable stamps, found outside of shops and restaurants along the road. Already being an avid collection of Japanese train station stamps, I was so on that! More so than the elementary school children I frequently found myself queuing with…
I took photos of some of the statues, which I shared on Twitter with the hashtag #dailyyōkai during the summer. For those who missed it, here’s a recap. Just click on the images to make them bigger. All images my own.
In Japanese folklore, it’s sometimes hard to define where yōkai ends and yūrei/obake (ghost) begins. Strictly speaking, the term yūrei should only be used for human spirits and obake for things which are possessed (like the chōchin-obake in my photo above). But in reality, these terms are often used interchangeably and there is much overlap of attributes between all three. This difficulty with defining them makes yōkai a subjective set of creatures, adding to their mystery and appeal. Each has their own identity, composed of their own power, purpose, and motivation. This makes yōkai very relatable – when we are stressed at work we can blame the isogashi, or when our bathroom needs cleaning we can wish for an akaname to appear. And I am sure after a terrible date we can sympathise with the Hari-Onna!
After living in Japan for a year, I thought I was impervious to the stranger sides of Japanese culture. I caught myself watching this Funassyi video and not even flinching; a giant fairy pear running through a minefield seemed perfectly normal. But after visiting Sakaiminato, I’ve discovered that there is still a lot left in this country capable of making me wonder ‘why is this even a thing?!’ Like the sagari – Ghost horse heads which spontaneously drop out of trees and scream at people? Okay. It’s Japan. Don’t question it. Embrace the insanity.
What’s your favourite yōkai? Tweet it to me @amyelize
For more about yōkai, read my tsukumogami post. These are a specific group of yōkai comprised of possessed household objects. Watch out for the boroboroton!
It is said that dogs are our best friends, and if this story is to be believed then that is certainly true. In the city of Ise, on the south east coast of Japan in Mie Prefecture, you will find many shops selling little charms in the shape of dogs. You will also see people walking their dogs along the path to Ise Grand Shrine, and well-kept water bowls outside most establishments.
These things are homage to the Okage Inu (thankful dog) of local legend, who it is said made a pilgrimage to Ise Grand Shrine in his master’s stead. Whilst visiting Ise, I found a small booklet of this story and managed to translate it into English (Japanese reading skills level up!) Generic writer disclaimer – I have added some of my own details to flesh things out, since the translations are very basic and more like a list than a story. So this is my own version of it. As far as I can see, this story is not well-known outside of Japan. So I am happy to share it!
What to do, when you live deep in the country and your husband is gravely ill? When you want to visit the shrine to pray for his health, but you cannot leave his side? When your old bones creak when you walk, and the shrine is so far away…
A wag of a tail. A sloppy, affectionate lick on his master’s feverish cheek.
ワンワン！ワンワン！* I will go, I will go!
Send the dog. Problem solved.
Carrying a banner proclaiming his mission, the faithful dog set out for the shrine. Not just any shrine, either. He was bound for Ise Jingu, the soul of Japan, the most sacred Shinto shrine of them all. It is there that Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun and the Universe, is enshrined.
It was a long journey, but that is not a problem for a Shiba Inu’s spirit. His enthusiasm and loyalty would carry him all the way.
He did not stray from the road – no chasing rabbits, or exploring thickets (I’m sure that those of you who have walked dogs will know what a feat this is – their attention spans are not always the most reliable…)
On the way, the Shiba Inu befriended many travellers. For who doesn’t want to stop and pet a sweet, lonesome dog? People donated money to help him, too. He was given a meal, and somewhere to stay for the night.
Finally, he reached the city of Ise. On he padded, through the streets, beneath he torii gate, over Uji Bridge, and along the gravel path all the way to Amaterasu’s house. He bowed (but of course he couldn’t clap, as it is customary to do at Shinto shrines. I am sure Amaterasu understood) and barked his prayers, and in return he received an ofuda (paper amulet) to take home.
With his mission complete, it was time to begin the homeward journey. Maybe this time he stopped off for some celebratory rolling in grass, or something else dogs do for fun (if it had been my dog, she would not have made it out of the city for stopping to lick everyone’s feet…)
Upon arriving back home, after being made a great fuss of, he presented the ofuda to his master and mistress. Soon his master’s health improved, and the three of them lived peacefully once more. Although, after such a long trip, I am not sure that the Shiba Inu asked for a walk ever again!
* Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound a dog makes, pronounced like ‘wan wan!’ In English it would be ‘woof woof!’
Read more about Ise Grand Shrine and regional Japanese folklore in my article about the ama divers and sea demons on #FolkloreThursday.
So thrilled that this story has now been published by the lovely folks over at Do You Know the Story? and is accompanied by an beautiful illustration by my friend Kimberley Ford. Support them by following on Facebook and Twitter to discover and share amazing stories and artwork from around the world.
Where there are castles, there are also stories. Himeji is no exception. This vibrant, serene city is also home to one of Japan’s most famous ghost stories.
Japan has hundreds of ghost stories, known as 怪談 which is pronounced kaidan. Living near Himeji made it was impossible not to learn a kaidan called ‘Banchō Sarayashiki.’ Its English title is ‘Okiku and the Plates,’ and there are many versions of it throughout Japan. It is often performed as kabuki, which is a traditional style of Japanese theatre.
Himeji castle is one of the most commonly cited locations for ‘Banchō Sarayashiki.’ Let me take you there, and introduce you to Okiku…
DISCLAIMER: As I have said, there are many different variations of ‘Banchō Sarayashiki.’ The one I have written here is taken from the plaque in the grounds of Himeji castle, which I visited and studied myself. In no way do I claim that this is the ‘proper’ version, or that it is my own.
Himeji castle has many names. For over 400 years it has stood, dominating the cityscape with its calm, gleaming white walls. It is called ‘white heron’ or ‘egret’ for its beauty, and ‘miracle’ for its longevity. But for all their majesty, castles are dangerous places for love. They are filled with secrets, and peril. In the 16th century, Himeji was no exception.
Like any good tragedy, this story begins with love. Love between a brave warrior, called Kinugasa Motonobu, and a servant, the beautiful, honest Okiku.
Okiku served a powerful, influential samurai named Aoyama Tetsuzan. He was also the regent of Lord Norimoto, the true ruler of the castle. One day whilst working, Okiku overheard Tetsuzan discussing a plot to kill Lord Norimoto and seize the castle for himself.
Maybe it would have been better if she had never learned of this plot, or if she had ignored it. But when life gives you such choices, you either let them slide and what will be will be, or you take action. And Okiku was not a woman to let anything slide. In that moment, she knew she had to do something. She confided in her lover, Motonobu, and his allies, and they promised her things would be well and that the plot would be foiled.
And indeed it was.
Lord Norimoto was warned of the attack, and he fled the city. But although he was safe, Himeji castle and our lovers were not. In Lord Norimoto’s absence, Aoyama took control. He was furious that Lord Norimoto had escaped, and sought out the traitor. Secrets, secrets in his midst. Who to trust? No-one, no-one.
The only thing awaiting the traitor was death.
Fearing for their own lives, one of the warriors betrayed Okiku. They informed Tetsuzan’s accomplice, a man named Danshirō, of her role in foiling the plot.
It was her, the servant girl. Because of her, Norimoto escaped!
Danshirō was a devious, possessive man. He saw Okiku’s beauty, and planned to make her his own. Instead of informing Tetsuzan of the traitor’s identity, he confronted Okiku himself. Secrets, secrets.
Beautiful Okiku, marry me, and your life will be spared.
But Okiku had already given her heart to Motonbu. She refused Danshirō over and over again.
No, no, I will not marry you!
Not a man to give up, Danshirō tried one final time to gain Okiku’s acceptance. He stole one of 10 valuable plates which were treasured heirlooms of the Aoyama family.
It is easy to frame a servant for theft…
All of the plates were here this morning! Who has been in?
Only the servants, my Lord.
What were they doing?
Cleaning, my Lord. They always dust the plates…
Who dusted the plates today?
Okiku, my Lord.
And where is she now?
Okiku was running. From the otemon gate to the honmaru. In the West Bailey, and in all of the yagura. Through the gardens and every kuruwa, and to the moat and back. Running, searching. She crept into Tetsuzan’s rooms and counted over and over again: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…
Always nine. The missing plate was nowhere to be found.
Seeing Okiku so desperate, Danshirō seized his chance.
Marry me, Okiku. This is the last time I will ask you. Marry me, and I will return the plate and clear your name.
But how could anyone agree to such a proposal, when they are already in love with another? Okiku’s love for Motonobu was true, and she was fearless. The reckless kind of fearless which only the strongest love can bring. She took a deep breath…
No, Danshirō. I belong to another, and I will never, ever marry you.
Danshirō’s jealousy and rage overcame him. This woman, who had foiled their plans and defied him, and still refused his affection no matter what he tried. This woman who dared to risk her own life for her love. Well, she need risk it no longer…
Danshirō drew his sword. One swipe was enough. He was fast; so fast that Okiku didn’t have time to scream or run. By the time she realised what he was going to do it had happened, and her blood was spilling out of her.
Where to hide a body? Somewhere deep, which daylight never shines upon and no human eyes ever glimpse…
Somewhere like… a well?
Yes, the well!
Danshirō gathered Okiku’s body into his arms, and with a last, wistful look at her beauty, a lament to that which he would never own, he threw her into the castle’s well.
Secrets. Leave them to rot in the sombre, damp underground.
Okiku’s absence raised no questions. After all, everyone believed she had stolen the plate and they knew that Tetsuzan took no prisoners. Only Motonobu and his companions continued to fight Tetsuzan. Eventually they were successful. He was overthrown and Lord Norimoto returned to Himeji, and Danshirō’s terrible crime was discovered.
In tribute to her love and bravery, Okiku was enshrined at Jūnisho-jinja. This modest, tranquil shrine is tucked away down a side street, quietly emitting its charm into the city.
As for the well…
Once the sun began to set and the shadows lengthened, people started avoiding it. There was talk of hearing strange sounds, like whispers, from within, and glimpses of the ethereal figure of a woman.
For the few who dared to venture to the well in the darkest hours of the night, if they listened carefully, they would realise that the whispering voice coming from the well was counting. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…
Only to nine, never 10. One missing plate. One restless spirit eternally searching for it, counting every night. Never leaving her watery grave.
For another take on Okiku’s story, have a listen to my poem about her.
Ocean folklore kindles my imagination like nothing else.Salty wind, sandy toes, and the scent of seaweed are my home. Ocean folklore kindles my imagination like nothing else.
Earlier this year, I travelled to Mie Prefecture on the east coast of Japan. It is a reserved, quaint place where the ocean’s influence is inescapable. Here is the city of Ise, home to the most sacred Shinto shrine Ise Jingu, and the Ise-Shima Peninsula, which is famous for the ama divers and abalone shells.
During my trip, I learned stories of sea demons, underwater dragon palaces, and the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. I also got off the beaten track and visited a community of ama divers and a sea folklore museum, which was a fascinating and poignant experience.
I wrote an article about my time in Mie and Japanese ocean folklore, which was published on #FolkloreThursday.
Most people know that rice is a prevalent food in Japan. But apart from being a source of nutrition, rice also has cultural and folkloric significance attached to it.
Much of Japan’s folklore is based on the concept of animism, due to the ancient Shinto belief that every object has a spirit. This belief extends to rice plants, with many Japanese people believing that they contain good energy. Therefore, eating products made from rice will bring good luck. This is especially true at the beginning of a new year. Mochi, a sticky, sweet cake made from pounded rice, is used as a new year decoration and eaten in early January. This type of mochi is called ‘kagami mochi.’ It is composed of two mochi cakes adorned with daidai (bitter orange) and leaves. It is believed that eating the kagami mochi will bring you strength and luck for the coming year.
Mochi making is also popular in January. Many places have events called ‘mochi-tsuki‘ where community members get together to make mochi. As well as the belief that eating mochi is good luck for the new year, mochi-tsuki is a time to come together and have fun!
I was able to attend a mochi-tsuki event in a nearby town, and it was a great experience. I learned how mochi is made, and got to take part in the process. Firstly, the rice is soaked, usually overnight. Then, it is steamed. Fires were lit, and steamers containing the rice were placed over them. After steaming, the rice is moved into a traditional Japanese mortar, which is called an usu. It is then squashed and pounded with a kine, a large wooden mallet. It’s very heavy and awkward to use, and also scary – whilst the pounding is going on, someone has to rearrange to mochi to keep it in shape. Get the timing wrong and they would definitely end up with broken fingers!
After being pounded, the mochi is placed on a tray of flour and separated into small chunks. These are shaped into balls by first pulling them into a circle, then folding the sides together and twisting so they stick. It’s a lot harder than it looks, because the flour makes the outside of the mochi quite dry. But without it, it would be too sticky.
After that, flavourings are added to the mochi before eating it. We used kinako (roasted soy bean flour, yum!) and soy sauce. It was wonderful to see people of all ages working together to make and eat the mochi.
Rice is also associated with another celebration later in the year. In Autumn, dango (a sweet rice paste ball similar to mochi) is eaten during harvest festivals called Tsukimi or Jugoya. These festivals take place on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, which is usually a full moon night in August or September. People gather in gardens and at temples to celebrate the year’s crops and the beauty of the moon. Symbolically, dango represents the moon and is eaten as an offering to bring good health.
Besides good fortune and symbolism, mochi has another connection to the moon. In Western countries, there are stories of the man in the moon. But in Japanese folklore, instead it’s a mochi-making rabbit.
According to legend, an old man who lived on the moon decided to visit Earth. He asked a monkey, a fox, and a rabbit for food. The monkey climbed a tree and brought him some fruit, and the fox caught him a fish. But the rabbit, unable to bring anything, instead built a fire and jumped into it to be cooked. The old man pulled him out and praised his kind sacrifice, and as a reward took the rabbit back to the moon with him.
Other Asian countries also have moon rabbits in their folklore. In China, the moon rabbit is the companion of the moon goddess Chang’e. Instead of pounding mochi, it pounds the elixir of life. In Korea, the moon rabbit also pounds mochi but stands underneath a gyesu tree (Korean cinnamon tree). They also have a mid-Autumn festival to celebrate the moon, which is called Chuseok.
White rabbits are a popular motif in Japan, and can often be found on things like crockery, linen, and chopsticks. Also, fans of the anime Sailor Moon will probably recognise the name ‘Tsukino Usagi.’ Yes – Sailor Moon herself is literally called ‘rabbit of the moon’ in Japanese! That’s also how she ended up being called ‘Bunny’ in the Italian translation.
Personally, I prefer the Asian idea of a rabbit on the moon. As a child, I always found it a little bit creepy to think of the moon as a man’s face watching us every night. Tsukino Usagi is a much-loved and celebrated part of Japanese culture, which combines folklore, food, and nature. Whether eating mochi in January truly brings good fortune or not, it ensures that each new year in Japan begins with community spirit and sharing good food. What a fantastic combination, and hopefully a way for the year to start as it means to go on.
I feel a close affinity with deer. They can be timid creatures, and this lends them an almost mythical reputation in some places. The elusive deer, somewhere in the woods, quiet and unseen. Maybe watching you. No harm in that. Just watching, and then slipping away. Yet underneath that timidness they hold wisdom, and strength. They know their terrain, and when danger is near, and how to protect themselves.
Deer feature in the folklore of many countries. From my travels, I have come across them in Scotland and Japan. Their stories form a link between our world and the animal kingdom, and affect how we interact with these genteel creatures.
Many Scottish legends associate deer with faeries. For one thing, deer already possess fae-like qualities. Their bodies are lean and their movements graceful, and they prefer to be hidden from human eyes. Yet they tolerate the presence of faeries. In the Highlands, red deer are said to be the faeries’ cattle, providing them with milk. In turn, the faeries protect them by targeting hunters with enchanted arrows. To be hit with a faerie arrow is fateful indeed. You’ll likely get a nasty dose of elf-shot, which can be cured by a healer if you’re lucky. If you’re less lucky, you’ll fall down and appear dead to humanity, but your soul will be carried away to Elfhame, the world of the fae.
If a hunter succeeded in killing a deer, the faeries would torment them. There is a story from the Isle of Mull, about a deer hunter called Big Hugh. After killing a deer at Torness, he was carrying it home with his friend who asked him if the deer was heavy. Big Hugh said that it was, and so his friend stuck a penknife in the deer and then asked again. Big Hugh said it felt so much lighter, he could hardly tell that he was carrying it. The extra weight had been put upon him by the faeries, and the penknife counteracted their magic.
Some faerie women also transform themselves into deer, and often encounter hunters whilst in this form. A well-known story from Irish and Scottish mythology tells of Oisín, a great bard of the legendary warriors, the Fianna. His father was Fionn Mac Cumhail, the leader of the Fianna, and his mother was Sadhbh, a woman under a spell which changed her into a deer. Only when in the presence of the Fianna could she regain her human shape. Whilst on a hunting trip, Fionn found Sadhbh and they fell in love. Soon she became pregnant, but their happiness wasn’t to last. The magician who had enchanted Sadhbh returned and tricked her into leaving Fionn. Once more a deer, she ran away and gave birth to her baby boy in the forest. He was found many years later by his father, and named Oisín which means ‘little deer.’
In Scottish folklore, there is a slightly different version of events. Oisín’s mother was a woman called Grainnhe. After being tricked away from Fionn, she was transformed into a white hind and kept under the magician’s power. When Fionn found Oisín, he had a patch of deer’s hair on his forehead. After Grainnhe’s death, her body was released by the magician. The Fianna buried her on the Isle of Skye.
In the city of Nara, the old capital of Japan, deer roam free. These are sika or spotted deer, which are native to East Asia and have white spots on their backs. At the end of a lantern-lit path, where Nara Park begins to disintegrate into the Kasuga Primeval Forest, stands Kasuga-Taisha. This Shinto shrine is a sacred place for deer, with a deer statue adorning its temizuya (purifying water fountain) and a variety of deer omamori (charms) for sale. There are four deities enshrined here, one being Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto, the god of thunder from Kashima in Ibaraki Prefecture. According to Japanese mythology, Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto came to visit Nara riding upon a white deer. Since then, the deer of Nara were believed to be messengers of the gods. At Kasuga-Taisha you can also purchase white deer figurines with omikuji (fortunes). Apart from being adorable, these also hark back to this belief. They are literally holding divine messages about your future in their little porcelain mouths. Choose wisely.
The reputation of Nara deer became so prolific that until the 1600s, harming one was an offence punishable by death. Today they are considered national treasures, and as such are well protected. They are also well fed, since thousands of tourists visit Nara to give them shika senbei (deer crackers). The protocol for feeding a Nara deer is first to bow, and then wait for the deer to bow in return before relinquishing the cracker. However, in practice, I just got ganged up on by a group of excited, hungry deer… so unfortunately I cannot vouch for their manners!
Meeting the Nara deer was a profound experience. It was the closest I had ever been to a wild animal, and they were gentle and sweet, but unlike domesticated animals you could simultaneously see their wariness. Their delay before approaching, and how they remained still and poised, as ready to flee at any moment as they were willing to accept my affection. I wanted to reassure them; to make them feel safe. But without their wildness, they wouldn’t be the same. And not all humans bare good intentions, so what good would I be doing if I taught them to trust and then the next people they encountered were less compassionate?
I have made many trips to Nara. My friends and colleagues in Japan jestingly nicknamed me ‘shika-onna‘ (deer lady) because I love them so much. One trip which sticks in my mind is New Year’s Eve 2016. It was around 11pm, and dark. I was alone, just behind Todaiji Temple, and I saw a torii gate leading into darkness. Everywhere else was lantern lit, except for this path. I took it. I crept up a hill gnarled with tree roots and deer tracks. I could hear them, rustling in the trees on either side of me. When I reached the top, there was a small clearing with a closed shrine (I later learned its name is Tamukeyama-Hachimangu). It was only me, with the trees, the stars, and the hidden deer. In that moment, I felt at home with them. Away from the other humans, out in the forest. I wasn’t afraid. The deer were not afraid. I trusted them.
In the Grimms’ fairy tale ‘Little Brother and Little Sister,’ two siblings run away into the forest. The brother drinks from an enchanted stream, and the water transforms him into a deer. His sister cares for him and refuses for them to be separated. Even in death, her spirit returns to check his wellbeing and ultimately break the spell. It’s almost as though they are two parts of one being, which simultaneously cannot be complete alone and cannot co-exist as a whole. In his book The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim writes that ‘they represent the animal and spiritual sides of our personality, which become separated [in the story] but must be integrated for human happiness.’ Bettelheim doesn’t state which way round he intends the roles to be, leaving readers to make their own decision. The deer can represent the ‘animal’ part of us; the part which is wild and carefree, whereas the human sister is the seeing and thinking spirit. But these roles could also easily be reversed: The deer can be seen as spiritual for his innocence and closeness to nature, and the sister animalistic for her contentment with living alone in the forest away from other human company.
Deer are often described as guardians of forests, especially stags who are akin to royalty in the woodland animal hierarchy. The brother becoming a deer comes with a certain amount of status. However, whilst the sister grows into a woman, he remains a fawn. As noted by Heidi Anne Heiner in SurLaLune’s annotations for the story, ‘the sister is the adult figure,’ having to arrange food and shelter and make decisions for them both, whilst as a deer the brother is free from responsibility. Eventually the sister becomes a princess, whilst the brother never gets to rut and have the chance to rule the forest. The spell does more than merely change his physical form. It freezes him in time, taking away his progression into adulthood. This story reminds us of the connection to our animal and spiritual sides, and also the need for learning and new experiences to move forward in life.
Deer have much impact on how we view natural spaces, and the stories which come out of them. Whether they truly are messengers of the gods or not, deer are creatures with flesh, blood, and feelings – not just characters from folk tales. That magical, tenuous moment in Nara when they chose to stay beside me reminded me that, for all our stories about wild animals, the only way to understand them is to see them.
Imagine going to boil some water, but your kettle transforms into a raccoon and runs away. Or turning a light on, to find your paper lampshade grinning at you and waggling a long tongue. You might have a spirit problem, but these are no ordinary poltergeists. Meet the tsukumogami.
Tsukumogami (付喪神) is the collective name given to a type of yōkai (Japanese spirits or monsters) which are haunted household objects. It’s a Shinto belief that everything has a spirit, so in Japanese folklore it’s possible for inanimate objects to become sentient. The transformation occurs on their one-hundredth birthday, as only after serving people for a century can objects gain souls. If the object has been mistreated in that century, it becomes vengeful and causes havoc for its current owner. So if you buy second-hand things, beware! If their previous owner was unkind, unfortunately you’re the one they’ll unleash their wrath on. Tsukumogami’s powers range from mildly irritating to murderous, and they are known for teaming up to maximise their scare factor. They also like to wander the streets at night to meet others of their kind.
If a household object exists, there is likely to be a tsukumogami version of it. Here are some of the most notorious...
Japanese-style houses feature room dividers called shōji, which are paper screens. If there are holes in the shōji, it is believed that ghostly eyes can fill them and watch the residents of the house. These are called mokumokuren, and although harmless they are very creepy. Mokumokuren literally translates as ‘many eyes.’ They are one of the staple inhabitants of any haunted Japanese house. Thankfully it’s easy to get rid of them; all you have to do is repair the holes.
If you hear noises in the night, then it’s most likely a pair of bakezōri. Traditional Japanese sandals, called zōri, are a type of flip flop made from rice straw. If they are old and mistreated, they are likely to grow arms, legs, and one eye to transform into bakezōri. These tsukumogami enjoy running around in the dark and causing mischief. They also repeat this chant: Kararin! Kororin! Kankororin! Managu mittsu ni ha ninmai!
Managu mittsu ni ha ninmai translates as ‘three eyes and two teeth.’ Zōri have three holes where their straps are attached, so ‘three eyes’ perhaps refers to these. ‘Two teeth’ makes a little less sense, unless they are geta sandals which have two wooden blocks on their soles. The other words are nonsensical.
Iron tea kettles are used in Japan to heat water on stoves to make tea. The Morinji-no-kama is a tea kettle with a spirit trapped inside. A well-known Japanese folktale called ‘Bunbuku Chagama’ is about a tanuki (Japanese raccoon) which transforms into a tea kettle.
Sticking with the theme of kitchen appliances which transform into animals, this one is my favourite. Purely because it’s so bizarre. The name yamaoroshi is a pun of sorts – yamaarashi is the Japanese word for porcupine, and oroshi is the word for grater (as in cheese or vegetable grater). Put them together, you get a yamaoroshi. A porcupine grater. Apparently, when a grater becomes dull and can no longer be used, its slicers transform into spines and it grows legs.
I’m confused as to why this tsukumogami even exists, because I’m pretty sure that there’s no cheese in Japan which is actually big enough to grate… I once bought what I thought was a tub of cream cheese, but when I opened the box it was actually individually-wrapped chunks about the size of my thumbnail. You can barely even spread that, let alone grate it! It was a sad day. Also, the rule is that a household object has to be 100 years old to become a tsukumogami. Who keeps a grater for over 100 years?! That would be some random family heirloom. I can just imagine it on the Antiques Roadshow, ‘yes, here’s my century-old grater. Careful, it could turn into a porcupine at any moment!’
If you’re a dressmaker, beware of this one! Ittan-Momen is a long sheet of cloth used to make clothes, which flies around at night and attacks people by wrapping itself around them. Sometimes it smothers them, if it goes for the face. This malicious tsukumogami is most commonly found in Kagoshima Prefecture.
Chōchin lanterns are the iconic paper or silk lanterns with bamboo frames which are a common sight in Japan. Because of their fragility, when they get old they are likely to split. These splits form eyes and a wide mouth with a long tongue hanging out of it. Chōchin can also become inhabited by vengeful spirits. If such a chōchin is lit, the spirit will be released and attack the lighter.
If neglected, old umbrellas will become kasa-obake. There are one of the most commonly-known yōkai, but strangely there are no stories about them. They only exist in folklore and images. It is thought they were created by oral storytellers in the Edo period, when there was a demand for new folklore characters. Kasa-obake are closed umbrellas with one eye, and they jump around using the handle as a leg.
Futons are Japanese bedrolls. If they are not well cared for, then they may turn into a Borobororton. When the owner is asleep, the Borobororton wraps itself around them and strangles them in revenge for its mistreatment. It then stumbles around the house and strangles any other sleepers it finds. One of the first things I did when I moved into my Japanese apartment was air the old futons!
Next time you clean your house, think about airing your mattress and giving those old shoes in the bottom of your wardrobe a clean. Hang pictures over holes in your walls, and make sure any rolls of fabric are tightly bound. And be sure to look after your cheese grater. Just in case.