Category Archives: Folklore and Urban Legends

Japan has many interesting and sometimes disturbing urban legends and folklore. Discover harvest festivals, myths, and even bathroom ghosts!

Wanyûdô, The Wheel Monk

fairy-tale-contest-winnersJasmin Boehm writes about an encounter with one of Japan’s ancient haunters, the Wheel Monk.

This story won our Japanese Fairy Tale Contest. She won the book Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide.

It is a strange event that I will tell you of, a moments when I was brushed by the shadow of something other. Do not shake your head. You know what I mean. I am sure of it; you, too, have once inadvertently hurried your step when you found yourself alone, in a silent place, in the murky light of an overcast sky, or you felt a strange shudder passing a bridge, or you saw something, in the corner of your eye, and then told yourself there was nothing, that there could not possibly have been anything… Am I right?

But they are rare, now. With every passing century, the twilight beings have receded further; I think they need a loneliness and silence lost to us. Who knows, now, what real darkness feels like, or utter silence? So, they no longer parade the streets or terrorize the traveller. But sometimes, I believe, they still lurk in the corners of our world, at borders and crossroads; when day turns to night, when summer’s heat and night’s cool intermingle in the streets during the short nights of summer, or when the sun blinds you over New Year’s snow. They may be without form, but they are waiting. Still waiting, on the threshold to elsewhere, to claim those foolish or ignorant enough to challenge them.

I was the happiest person on the planet the day they told me I won the scholarship for an exchange semester in Kyôto. Five months to explore the city, its countless temples and shrines – I would walk through the incense-infused half-light glimmering on the arms of a thousand thousand-armed gilded statues of Kannon, and sweat on the steep steps of Fushimi Inari’s mountain trek rimmed by Torii shrine gates, orange and red in the lush emerald forest, during the plum rain. And so I did. Every weekday was spent in language school, one day of every weekend I was round and about, exploring.

kyoto-streetOne day in July, I was on my way back from the south of the city, cycling up Higashi Ôji, the Great Eastern Road. It was dreadfully hot, this stuffy kind of heat you get in a city walled in by mountains, and the sun was blazing on the concrete. Then something caught my eye. It was a plastic GeGeGe no Kitarô figurine, perhaps half a metre tall, which was mounted on a sort of balcony around the first floor of one of the shops ahead. Coming nearer, I saw that this balcony was more than odd. The house was panelled with dark wood all over the first floor, and a curious mixture of old, discoloured and broken things was stacked along the slim balcony which ran all around the house. Next to the Kitarô figurine hung a couple of Tengu masks, a broken clock and what appeared to be steel helmets of American WWII soldiers. Around the corner were a number of carriage wheels, the head of a Buddha, some faded anime character posters, a beckoning cat, and a blue robot statue.

I was intrigued. Even more so, I was fascinated, for myth and fantasy have always been a subject close to my heart. So, although I had no idea what I hoped to find in the shop, I just dragged by bike up to the pavement, locked it to a cable pole and walked up to the entrance.

I looked in.

No, I can’t tell you what I saw, my memory is all but blank. Sometimes I think there was a man behind the counter, and another man he was talking to, standing with his back to me. But I don’t remember their faces, and I don’t remember hearing their voices either. All I can recall, so vividly it still gives me nausea when I remember it, is a wave of repulsion washing over me, an impulse so strong I was driven off like a leaf before the wind. I took a step backwards, turned, and almost broke into a run, my heart clutched by an invisible fist of fear. Unlocking my bike, I swung onto it, and tread the pedals like someone hunted by something invisible. And maybe I was. It did not occur to me to question my behaviour until I had reached the student accommodation where I lived. I guess I should have been glad they were content to scare me away… But that’s now how people are, right?

kyoto-cornerSo, the strange shop stayed in my mind, and curiosity reared its head, as soon as fear stopped barking. I could not understand what had happened to me, and that made me even more keen to return, so, after dinner, I was back on my bike. Down Teramachi Road I went, with the wind whispering in the trees of the Imperial Gardens, probably whispering about my folly; then I turned left into Marutamachi and crossed Kamo River. There were still a lot of people around, enjoying the cool at the waterside. I turned right after the bridge and followed the Kamo southward for a while.

Kyôto has a long, rich and sometimes bloody history, and I wondered – had it been a summer night like this, near to a hundred and fifty years ago, when Kondô Isami took a fraction of the men of the Shinsengumi militia into what should be their most famous fight – the slaughter of the rônin conspirators at the Ikedaya Inn? They were only up against men, and they were trained warriors, while I was but a nosey girl; yet here I was, going to confront what might be anything from yakuza to yôkai. Gangsters or Monsters! What the hell am I doing, I thought, but at that point going back would have felt even more foolish.

Unsurprisingly, Gion was still pretty lively. I hadn’t done much exploring in the ancient pleasure quarters yet, but I had visited the Yasaka Shrine only a few hours ago. As I passed it again, the doglike stone lions atop the stairs watching the main entrance seemed more significant to me, and less ridiculous. I retraced my steps northward on the Great Eastern Road and finally left my bike at a lamp post in a side street, a crossing or two before the weird shop. There was a great big sign telling me it was forbidden to leave bikes there, but I just hoped the Kyôto Police wouldn’t come around in the next half hour or so. Slowly, I walked on, my heart suddenly beating in my mouth as those cartwheels came back into my mind. I knew which yôkai that could be, from a book entry I had read back home. Wanyûdô, the head of a man, perhaps a monk, sitting in the middle of a burning wheel, who had murdered a woman’s child because she looked at the Night Parade of a Hundred Demons, instead of her baby. Probably there was a sutra to defend against him. Not that that would help me, now.

There were still a few pedestrians about, even though the shops were closed, and occasionally a car passed by. Yet I felt quite alone when the place I was looking for came in sight. Generally, the Japanese lit their cities as brightly as Christmas trees – but this particular house was sitting in what must have been the only comparably dark corner between here and the Pacific Ocean! That did not bode well. Warily, I approached, looking out for – what, foxfires? But no. It was just a dark, closed shop and quite prosaic on second glance, Kitarô figurine and all. I had probably only felt compelled to leave because the owner had glared at me, disapproving of a blue-eyed ginger Westerner sticking her head into his premises, I reasoned.

So I stood there for a minute or two, feeling both embarrassed and embarrassingly relieved. I had been so quick in running away before, I hadn’t even noticed what kind of shop this was! The sign, half-hidden by the junk around the upper level, was written in fading white paint, hard to read in the dark. I crossed the street, went up to the front to see better, and raised an eyebrow. The paint was not just faded; it was more like someone had tried to scrub it off, and given up halfway. But it definitely said ‘eye’ and ‘way’, and I remembered that the latter character was used in a couple of yôkai names, Wanyûdô among them. What was worse, up close the thing looked a lot like the signs used to indicate the names of temples. Where they selling leftovers from a dismantled holy site? When I went to the other side of the shop-front, squinting my eyes to peer through the gloom, I found some familiar-looking broken up carved boards up there, too. Not grey like this, but painted, brilliantly blue and green, offset with white against the orange building, such boards formed the eaves of many a temple. What might have happened to bring them here?

‘Hey, you.’

Every hair on my back stood on end. Someone had just addressed me in not-too-respectful Japanese, and there was a soft orange glow coming from behind me, a light which had not been there before and which was just strong enough to highlight a few items on the façade in front of me… and one grey, naked space. In front of the blue robot, a cartwheel was missing.

I did not turn. I did not think. I ran.

If I had been afraid in this afternoon, that was nothing compared to what I felt now. Judging by the flicker, the flames were already right behind me when I wrenched open my bike lock and jumped into the saddle, and I rushed down the street as fast as I possibly could. I did not even pause to put away my lock, instead holding it in my hand as I flew through the brightly lit streets, unaware of direction – until the steps with the stone lions appeared to my left.

This was the wrong way! I was going south, not north; away from the fragile promise of shelter in my home, instead of towards it. Panic had me in its claws, sharp and bitter. I didn’t bother to lock my bike anywhere, just left it on the side and ran up the steps, two at a time, no matter how steep they were. As I flew past bewildered late-hour shrine visitors, dark heads turned and someone said something in a disapproving tone, but I just kept going. I had no plan, no notion of where I was headed. I don’t think my conscious self had anything to do with it.

When I finally ran out of breath and clutched a stone torii for support, I found myself at a small Inari Shrine. The light of a single lamp shone on two white stone foxes guarding the entrance. Composing myself, I entered through the torii gate and walked up to them.

I have always likes these shrines. Foxes are the messengers of Inari, the god (or sometimes goddess) of rice – or alternatively, s/he likes to take their form her/himself. So, the shrines are guarded by stone foxes instead of the usual lions, making them easy to recognize. I was fond of foxes even before I came to Japan, and learning about the magic powers of the Japanese kitsune and how it grows an extra tail every hundred years of its long life, had quite intrigued me. I knew that foxes were often tricksters and shape-shifters and not exactly cuddly. But looking now upon the snarling jaws, the muscular bodies and strangely alive eyes of Inari’s foxes, I felt much safer than before. I passed the statues and walked up to the shrine proper. A small building of wood it was, of orange lacquered beams, filled in with white, their tips painted black, and the traditional bulky bronze roof was clean and shiny. Atop the miniature stairs of the shrine, in front of the gold-inlayed doors of the sanctuary housing the deity, stood a perfectly round polished mirror in a wooden stand. It reflected nothing but the bell on the rope which hung above the wooden box of offerings, but I wondered if I was looking upon a shintai – mirrors, like jewels and swords, often serve as such ‘god-bodies’ and become inhabited by the deity in rites and festivals. But would the priests expose it this way, instead of keeping it inside the sanctuary, behind the tiny golden doors?

When I pushed my hands into my pockets, I found a few coins. Small change from one of the rice cakes, mochi, I had become addicted to and bought far too often, no doubt. I bowed twice before the mirror and prayed, as good as I could. Inari-sama. I might have offended someone, but I am very sorry. Please help me. Protect me. I did not know the right words, and I was pretty sure you were supposed to address a deity in the most elaborate polite speech, but this way the extent of my Japanese proficiency, especially under duress. So I pulled the money out of my pocket, threw it into the offertory box and pulled the rope so that the bell rang merrily. Then I bowed again, took a deep breath and passed the stone foxes, leaving the way I came.

The thing was waiting for me as I stepped onto the walkway.

It was a grotesquely huge male head, twice the size of a human’s, mounted in the middle of a cartwheel; the spikes sprang from his cheeks, his temples, his chin, the crown of his head. Weirdly enough, I wasn’t even afraid now, despite the orange, strangely silent flames dancing all over the wheel, the spikes, and the grim face with its rolling eyes and enormous, yellow teeth.

‘You cannot run away!’, he said. His voice rumbled, like, well, like a cart on a bad road, and his speech was old-fashioned (or as I later assumed, regional dialect), but I recognized the word stem and the negation suffix.

‘It looks like it’, I replied after a pause. That seemed to surprise him. He stared rolling, circling me, drawing closer, and I stated back. ‘The barbarian girl speaks?!’ he thundered. Or maybe, ‘can speak?’ Evidently he had not expected me to be able to understand him, or even respond. Hope flickered up in my heart.

‘Yes.’ I lowered my head, then remembered I was in Japan and bowed, deeply, without rising. ‘I am sorry.’

He said something I didn’t quite understand, but he sounded more puzzled than angry. So I put everything on the line. I went down to my knees and cowered on the ground. ‘I am sorry I tried to enter the shop. I am sorry I came back to look at it. I am sorry I have… (I could not remember what ‘to offend’ meant) made you angry. Please forgive me.’ My heart was beating painfully now. Please, please, let this work… Please, make him go away.

‘Quite impressive’, a different voice said. Startled, I looked up, followed the gaze of the Wheel Monk, who looked surprised himself, and found a slender little fox sitting on top of Inari’s shrine gate. Now it descended, running down the post vertically for a bit, like a cat, before it jumped onto the footpath. Its red and white fur glistened in the light of the lamps in copper, gold and silver.

‘Do you still have a quarrel with this human, Wheel Monk?’ the fox asked. It spoke in the same, old-fashioned regional dialect as the Monk, but from now on I understood every word, although afterwards I have never been able to recall the words, only the meaning.

The Monk’s fiery brilliance seemed somewhat dimmed. ‘No’, he finally said. ‘I accept the apology.’

‘Then be gone’, the fox told him. ‘Your place is not here.’

So he rolled away, shimmering and fading as he went, until he was gone, like a mirage born of summer heat on the streets.

‘Thank you, thank you so much’, I said to the fox. It tilted its head and look up into my face.

‘You did well, all things considered’, it said. ‘But you called for help, and so I came. Be more careful from now on.’

‘Yes, I will. I promise.’ I put a hand on my heart.

‘Good. Remember.’ It beckoned me with its left forepaw, and as I crouched down, my braid slid over my shoulder. The fox came up to me, stood with its front legs on my thighs, the claws digging sharply into the thin jeans fabric, and sniffed. Its breath tickled my neck, smelling of sweet tofu. ‘No, you’re human’, it said. ‘With that hair, I thought you might be a granddaughter of ours.’ It sat down on its hind legs, again reminding me of a cat, and held its left paw before me. When I stretched out my hand, it put the paw in my palm, let it rest there for a moment, and then pulled back. Looking at my hand, I found a tiny bag made of silk brocade, tied with an elaborate symmetrical knot – a mamori or protective charm. ‘Thank you!’ I called out again – but the footpath was empty now, and only silent stone statues guarded Inari’s shrine.

Hugging the charm to my breast, I bowed again to the shrine a couple of times, and then I stumbled back, out of the shrine precinct, down the steep steps to the Great Eastern Road. Miraculously, my bike was still where I had left it.

I cycled home and went straight to bed. The next morning, I wondered if I had dreamt the whole thing. You may choose to believe that. But sometimes, when I show a certain green mamori to friends, they all say the same thing about the embroidered image.

‘A fox chasing a wheel? Curious!’

Legend of the Twin Baku

fairy-tale-contest-winnersDavid L. Simon accounts a tale of brothers who ate dreams.

This story won our Japanese Fairy Tale Contest. He won the book Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide. You can find more of his work on DeviantArt.

Long ago, before the gods had split the world into many lands, there lived twin Baku brothers named Aoi, the Blue and Akai, the Red. The brothers fed on the dreams of mortal creatures, for when mortals such as humans or kappa dream, they create new experiences in their heads. These new experiences created by dreaming do not simply disappear when the mortal awakens, though. As a mortal’s dream goes on, it is turned into a waste product called “Yumebutsu.” In the times before Japan, there was so much Yumebutsu that the gods did not know what to do with it all, and thus the Baku were born.

Every night, the Baku Brothers received permission from the gods to descend from Heaven to seek out delicious dreams to devour. They ventured from person to person, consuming the Yumebutsu as they dreamt and leaving just enough behind so that the mortal could remember the experience in the morning. Sometimes, one of the brothers would consume too much and erase the memory of the mortal’s dream. For the most part, however, they left just enough behind to preserve the delicate memory, and the gods were pleased.

Akai preferred the sweet-tasting Yumebutsu that came from good dreams. Dreams of wealth, family, love, and happiness produced the sweetest, nectar-like byproduct that Akai couldn’t get enough of. Aoi, on the other-hand, preferred the bitter-tasting waste of nightmares. Dreams of terror, anger, agony, and fear caused this kind of waste, and Aoi gorged on it until their was nothing left, allowing the mortals who dreamt to never have to remember the horror of their nightmares. At first, all was well. Akai would leave just a little sweetness for the mortals to wake up with happy memories, and Aoi would consume the nightmares whole so that no one was fearful in the morning.

The sweetness and tenderness of the dreams Akai consumed caused the Baku to grow feelings of love, happiness, and morality. Akai found himself growing ever concerned for the mortals’ well-being. Very often, Akai would plead to the gods to give the peasants fair crop and weather, and to give the nobles guidance to be fair. The gods would agree, and the peasants thanked the Red Baku for their good crops, fair rule, and good dreams.

Aoi, who was consuming dreams of evil, began to develop feelings of hatred, jealousy, vanity, and anger. Aoi was jealous that the peasants worshipped his brother, and not him. After all, it was he who rid the people of their nightmares, the same bad dreams that they once feared with extreme emotion. “How dare they forget the one who stays their worst fears!” Aoi cried out in rage. As he grew more and more vain with every nightmare he devoured, so too did his hatred for mortals. With his feelings of discontent growing more and more, Aoi found himself embracing the darkness that his meals offered him with open arms. At last, Aoi decided to enact revenge upon the ungrateful creatures who he hated so much by eliminating the one they worshipped, his own brother Akai.

Aoi approached his brother, Akai, as he slept peacefully and dreamed of his beloved mortals. Aoi began to consume the dreams of his brother, every last bit. Since Baku eat only dreams, their life essence is made up dreams. As Aoi devoured his brother’s sweet dreams, he also devoured his essence. Aoi ate and ate, until there was nothing left of Akai. The blue Baku laughed in devilish glee, knowing that those he hated would suffer and his revenge would be complete.

The blue Baku flew down to Earth to watch the people suffer. The common folk cried for Akai to return to them, and their crops withered as they starved. Aoi laughed as he flew around and observed the confusion as to what happened to his beloved brother. However, when Aoi came across a young mother and her starving children, who cried and begged to the gods for help, something bubbled up inside of him; regret. Aoi was confused at the feeling, and fled the scene that caused his guilt. As the blue Baku observed more people, the feelings of sadness and guilt grew larger and larger, and Aoi realized that by consuming Akai’s essence. he brought upon himself his brother’s sweet and gentle nature. Aoi began to weep. “What have I done?” The Baku whispered as he cried. “I have murdered my good brother in cold blood for selfishness and vanity! I have allowed the darkness I have consumed to consume me instead! What I would give to have my brother back!” As Aoi repented his evil actions, he flew up to Heaven to give himself up to the gods’ justice.


Susanoo, the Storm God


Aoi prostrated himself before the Council of Gods and told them of his grim deeds. “I only ask of you one thing,” Aoi requested, “take me and return my brother to the world, for I have shamed both myself and Heaven.” Susanoo, the Storm God, spoke up first. “While it is true that you have brought shame to Heaven and to the gods,” he began solemnly, “you have also repented and begged for this to be made right. For that, you shall be made to make up for your deeds, not be punished for them.”

“I agree,” spoke Amaterasu, the Goddess of Fire, “There must always be a dream eater to keep the Yumebutsu from building again, but if Baku can be so corrupted by the darkness of nightmares, then how are we to stop this from happening again?”

“The answer is simple,” chimed in Fūjin, God of the Winds, “there must be only one Baku who consumes both good dreams and nightmares. If balance is kept, then he shall not be corrupted by the evils of bad dreams.” The rest of the gods agreed to this, and it was decided that in exchange for forgiveness of his actions, Aoi would continue to serve the gods as the only dream eater, eating both good and bad dreams. Susanoo laid out the rules. “From this day, you shall be known as Murasaki, the Purple Baku, for your blue essence will be melded with that of your brother’s red one. You will continue to consume the Yumebutsu of dreams, both bad and good. However, sometimes you must consume whole good dreams and leave a bit of the essence of nightmares, for even though we do not want mortals to only have fear, they cannot grow complacent. Balance must be kept.” Aoi, now known as Murasaki, thanked the gods for their graciousness and returned to Earth to continue consuming the Yumebutsu, both good and bad.

Thus is the reason why the mortals of Japan and beyond have both good dreams and bad dreams, and the reason why we can only remember a fragment of them in the morning. Sometimes, Murasaki leaves us a bit of sweetness, and sometimes a bit of darkness, in order to keep mortal feelings balanced between good and bad. Other times, he consumes our entire dream and we remember nothing. But in all cases, we must learn from the tale of Aoi and Akai that balance is key, and we must keep our feelings of vanity and jealousy under control, for if left unchecked, the emotions of darkness lead to actions we will regret later.


The Princess and the Fox

fairy-tale-contest-winnersEdward C. Price won Honorable Mention during our Japanese Fairy Tale Contest.

Once upon many years ago, in the far islands of Japan, a princess was born. Daughter of a brute but very wealthy man, she lived a noble life of seclusion. The princess was raised for the next fourteen years within the best possible environment, and was to become the Emperor’s new wife. Her father was cruel and without affection. He treated and saw the girl merely as a prized ticket to a higher statement. To avoid damaging her beautiful and delicate body, he would punish her mentally, by locking her away for several tortured days. During those times, she would dedicate herself to poetry and whatever form of literature available, enjoying mostly the works of the renowned female poet Ono no Komachi. Even when not locked away, the lonely princess would not see anyone but her trusted maidens. During rare meetings, there would always be a screen between her and the other party.  Still, the lady held no grudge, and grew to be a kind and loving person.

Princess Yaegaki follows the fox fires

Princess Yaegaki follows the fox fires

            Due to her nation-wide famed beauty, there were many marriage proposals, until finally, one came signed by the Emperor himself. There was never a day where the household, specially its master, was so full of joy. A huge banquet was thrown to all the allied families, and the celebration lasted for weeks. But, wherever good news arrive, bad news follow. Just before the beginning of the wedding’s preparations, the ruler fell ill and eventually passed away. The princess’ father was devastated. Rage, strong enough to create any demon, flew within his veins. He blamed it all on the bride-to-be, and exiled her to a manor in the countryside. There, she would not speak or see anyone, for even the servants would hide in the shadows. Rumors spread, and the proposals became more and more scarce. The girl was forgotten in complete loneliness.

            One night, as the princess wept and gazed at the full moon, a fox jumped from the bushes, and was intrigued by the crying figure. “What seems to bother you, my fair lady?” said the fox. The princess replied “I have lived fourteen years of drowning loneliness bestowed upon me by my status and beauty. And now I am completely alone, left here as if dead and buried.” The animal sat next to her, and said “Please do not cry. Tears do not suit your divine image. Let me tell you something: Today is my birthday, and I finally gained a third tail. I shall make you company, as we celebrate in my honor.” As he finished his proposal, the creature whistled, and from the same bush where he came from, several astonishing figures paraded bringing food and drink. They celebrated all night long, and for the moment, the young girl forgot all her problems.

            By dawn, the figures left, as if nothing had ever happened. “Please, my dear fox, do not leave me! It would be torture to experience company for a moment and suddenly be left all alone once more!” cried the princess. “Do not worry, child of men, I have my natural needs, so I must leave during the day. But I promise to come back every night to enjoy your delightful company.” said the fox, before disappearing in the wild. And so, every night, the fox came back. The two would spend whole nights talking about the most distinguished topics, laughing, arguing, and even crying together. Eventually, love fell over their heads, and on her fifteenth birthday, he asked for her hand.

            “A dream this is, indeed! But as sad as it seems, it cannot be fulfilled. We would never be allowed to be together!” replied the princess. “My actual form is no more than an illusion, for I can become a man, as I can become any creature of my pleasing.” explained the fox, in a more aggressive tone. “I am still a princess!” said the girl, “My status haunts me like a black hell hound, and it will never allow me to marry someone without any possessions! Please, I love you more than life itself, so let us stay together the way we are now!”. Without any word, the fox got up and simply left, without being seen again. Heartbroken and blaming herself, the princess wept thru out the next days, having constant episodes of severe depression.

            Meanwhile, in the capital, a ship arrived from an overseas country and with it a prince of a far land. His hair was blond, and his eyes of a deep green. All were enchanted by this unique character. He was after a bride, and made a proposal to the forgotten princess’ family. The father was not certain. He didn’t want to marry his daughter to a foreigner without any rewards, especially those that could increase his social status. The young prince then offered one thousand arms of the finest quality, accompanied by many unique accessories from his homeland. The deal was sealed, and the wedding prepared. When the news arrived on the countryside house, the girl became revolted, and refused to marry someone she did not love. Three swordsmen where needed to forcibly carry her to a carriage, and escort her back to the main household. During the preparations, she wouldn’t even bother to look at her future husband.

            On the wedding day, while weeping in her room, the door opened, and her groom stepped in. Without any hesitation, he embraced her as passionately as he could, while she struggle, ordering him to let go. As she fought to set herself free of that forced act of love, he whispered in her ear “Did you really think I would abandon you? How many times have I declared my love?”. She immediately recognized that soft voice. How could she not recognize it? It was her precious fox’s voice. She looked into the prince’s eye and saw the same look she stared at, night after night, during their long talks. “How did you do it?! I knew you could change shapes, but there was a ship! And servants!” she said. “It is all but a mere illusion shaped with the help of my dear friends.” he answered. And so, the wedding was performed, and the two married. When boarding the ship, the fox, still under disguise, instructed the princess’ father to wait four days until a new ship would come with his so wanted rewards. The newlyweds departed, and their ship vanished on the horizon. The two moved to the southern isles under new names as simple country folk. As for the father, rumor has it that the ship with the gifts did arrive exactly four days later. But, it was filled with nothing but leaves and wood sticks.

Urashima Taro, the Fisher Lad

fisher-boy-urashimaLong, long ago in the province of Tango there lived on the shore of Japan in the little fishing village of Mizu-no-ye a young fisherman named Urashima Taro. His father had been a fisherman before him, and his skill had more than doubly descended to his son, for Urashima was the most skillful fisher in all that country side, and could catch more Bonito and Tai in a day than his comrades could in a week.

But in the little fishing village, more than for being a clever fisher of the sea was he known for his kind heart. In his whole life he had never hurt anything, either great or small, and when a boy, his companions had always laughed at him, for he would never join with them in teasing animals, but always tried to keep them from this cruel sport.

One soft summer twilight he was going home at the end of a day’s fishing when he came upon a group of children. They were all screaming and talking at the tops of their voices, and seemed to be in a state of great excitement about something, and on his going up to them to see what was the matter he saw that they were tormenting a tortoise. First one boy pulled it this way, then another boy pulled it that way, while a third child beat it with a stick, and the fourth hammered its shell with a stone.

urashima-saves-tortoiseNow Urashima felt very sorry for the poor tortoise and made up his mind to rescue it. He spoke to the boys:

“Look here, boys, you are treating that poor tortoise so badly that it will soon die!”

The boys, who were all of an age when children seem to delight in being cruel to animals, took no notice of Urashima’s gentle reproof, but went on teasing it as before. One of the older boys answered:

“Who cares whether it lives or dies? We do not. Here, boys, go on, go on!”

And they began to treat the poor tortoise more cruelly than ever. Urashima waited a moment, turning over in his mind what would be the best way to deal with the boys. He would try to persuade them to give the tortoise up to him, so he smiled at them and said:

“I am sure you are all good, kind boys! Now won’t you give me the tortoise? I should like to have it so much!”

“No, we won’t give you the tortoise,” said one of the boys. “Why should we? We caught it ourselves.”

“What you say is true,” said Urashima, “but I do not ask you to give it to me for nothing. I will give you some money for it—in other words, the Ojisan (Uncle) will buy it of you. Won’t that do for you, my boys?” He held up the money to them, strung on a piece of string through a hole in the center of each coin. “Look, boys, you can buy anything you like with this money. You can do much more with this money than you can with that poor tortoise. See what good boys you are to listen to me.”

The boys were not bad boys at all, they were only mischievous, and as Urashima spoke they were won by his kind smile and gentle words and began “to be of his spirit,” as they say in Japan. Gradually they all came up to him, the ringleader of the little band holding out the tortoise to him.

“Very well, Ojisan, we will give you the tortoise if you will give us the money!” And Urashima took the tortoise and gave the money to the boys, who, calling to each other, scampered away and were soon out of sight.

Then Urashima stroked the tortoise’s back, saying as he did so:

“Oh, you poor thing! Poor thing!—there, there! you are safe now! They say that a stork lives for a thousand years, but the tortoise for ten thousand years. You have the longest life of any creature in this world, and you were in great danger of having that precious life cut short by those cruel boys. Luckily I was passing by and saved you, and so life is still yours. Now I am going to take you back to your home, the sea, at once. Do not let yourself be caught again, for there might be no one to save you next time!”

All the time that the kind fisherman was speaking he was walking quickly to the shore and out upon the rocks; then putting the tortoise into the water he watched the animal disappear, and turned homewards himself, for he was tired and the sun had set.

urashima-fisherThe next morning Urashima went out as usual in his boat. The weather was fine and the sea and sky were both blue and soft in the tender haze of the summer morning. Urashima got into his boat and dreamily pushed out to sea, throwing his line as he did so. He soon passed the other fishing boats and left them behind him till they were lost to sight in the distance, and his boat drifted further and further out upon the blue waters. Somehow, he knew not why, he felt unusually happy that morning; and he could not help wishing that, like the tortoise he set free the day before, he had thousands of years to live instead of his own short span of human life.

He was suddenly startled from his reverie by hearing his own name called:

“Urashima, Urashima!”

Clear as a bell and soft as the summer wind the name floated over the sea.

He stood up and looked in every direction, thinking that one of the other boats had overtaken him, but gaze as he might over the wide expanse of water, near or far there was no sign of a boat, so the voice could not have come from any human being.

Startled, and wondering who or what it was that had called him so clearly, he looked in all directions round about him and saw that without his knowing it a tortoise had come to the side of the boat. Urashima saw with surprise that it was the very tortoise he had rescued the day before.

“Well, Mr. Tortoise,” said Urashima, “was it you who called my name just now?”

The tortoise nodded its head several times and said:

“Yes, it was I. Yesterday in your honorable shadow (o kage sama de) my life was saved, and I have come to offer you my thanks and to tell you how grateful I am for your kindness to me.”

“Indeed,” said Urashima, “that is very polite of you. Come up into the boat. I would offer you a smoke, but as you are a tortoise doubtless you do not smoke,” and the fisherman laughed at the joke.

fisher-lad-sea-king-palace“He-he-he-he!” laughed the tortoise; “sake (rice wine) is my favorite refreshment, but I do not care for tobacco.”

“Indeed,” said Urashima, “I regret very much that I have no “sake” in my boat to offer you, but come up and dry your back in the sun—tortoises always love to do that.”

So the tortoise climbed into the boat, the fisherman helping him, and after an exchange of complimentary speeches the tortoise said:

“Have you ever seen Rin Gin, the Palace of the Dragon King of the Sea, Urashima?”

The fisherman shook his head and replied; “No; year after year the sea has been my home, but though I have often heard of the Dragon King’s realm under the sea I have never yet set eyes on that wonderful place. It must be very far away, if it exists at all!”

“Is that really so? You have never seen the Sea King’s Palace? Then you have missed seeing one of the most wonderful sights in the whole universe. It is far away at the bottom of the sea, but if I take you there we shall soon reach the place. If you would like to see the Sea King’s land I will be your guide.”

“I should like to go there, certainly, and you are very kind to think of taking me, but you must remember that I am only a poor mortal and have not the power of swimming like a sea creature such as you are—”

Before the fisherman could say more the tortoise stopped him, saying:

“What? You need not swim yourself. If you will ride on my back I will take you without any trouble on your part.”

“But,” said Urashima, “how is it possible for me to ride on your small back?”

“It may seem absurd to you, but I assure you that you can do so. Try at once! Just come and get on my back, and see if it is as impossible as you think!”

As the tortoise finished speaking, Urashima looked at its shell, and strange to say he saw that the creature had suddenly grown so big that a man could easily sit on its back.

“This is strange indeed!” said Urashima; “then. Mr. Tortoise, with your kind permission I will get on your back. Dokoisho!” he exclaimed as he jumped on.

The tortoise, with an unmoved face, as if this strange proceeding were quite an ordinary event, said:

“Now we will set out at our leisure,” and with these words he leapt into the sea with Urashima on his back. Down through the water the tortoise dived. For a long time these two strange companions rode through the sea. Urashima never grew tired, nor his clothes moist with the water. At last, far away in the distance a magnificent gate appeared, and behind the gate, the long, sloping roofs of a palace on the horizon.

“Ya,” exclaimed Urashima. “That looks like the gate of some large palace just appearing! Mr. Tortoise, can you tell what that place is we can now see?”

urashima-fairy-land“That is the great gate of the Rin Gin Palace, the large roof that you see behind the gate is the Sea King’s Palace itself.”

“Then we have at last come to the realm of the Sea King and to his Palace,” said Urashima.

“Yes, indeed,” answered the tortoise, “and don’t you think we have come very quickly?” And while he was speaking the tortoise reached the side of the gate. “And here we are, and you must please walk from here.”

The tortoise now went in front, and speaking to the gatekeeper, said:

“This is Urashima Taro, from the country of Japan. I have had the honor of bringing him as a visitor to this kingdom. Please show him the way.”

Then the gatekeeper, who was a fish, at once led the way through the gate before them.

The red bream, the flounder, the sole, the cuttlefish, and all the chief vassals of the Dragon King of the Sea now came out with courtly bows to welcome the stranger.

“Urashima Sama, Urashima Sama! welcome to the Sea Palace, the home of the Dragon King of the Sea. Thrice welcome are you, having come from such a distant country. And you, Mr. Tortoise, we are greatly indebted to you for all your trouble in bringing Urashima here.” Then, turning again to Urashima, they said, “Please follow us this way,” and from here the whole band of fishes became his guides.

urashima-sea-king-palaceUrashima, being only a poor fisher lad, did not know how to behave in a palace; but, strange though it was all to him, he did not feel ashamed or embarrassed, but followed his kind guides quite calmly where they led to the inner palace. When he reached the portals a beautiful Princess with her attendant maidens came out to welcome him. She was more beautiful than any human being, and was robed in flowing garments of red and soft green like the under side of a wave, and golden threads glimmered through the folds of her gown. Her lovely black hair streamed over her shoulders in the fashion of a king’s daughter many hundreds of years ago, and when she spoke her voice sounded like music over the water. Urashima was lost in wonder while he looked upon her, and he could not speak. Then he remembered that he ought to bow, but before he could make a low obeisance the Princess took him by the hand and led him to a beautiful hall, and to the seat of honor at the upper end, and bade him be seated.

“Urashima Taro, it gives me the highest pleasure to welcome you to my father’s kingdom,” said the Princess. “Yesterday you set free a tortoise, and I have sent for you to thank you for saving my life, for I was that tortoise. Now if you like you shall live here forever in the land of eternal youth, where summer never dies and where sorrow never comes, and I will be your bride if you will, and we will live together happily forever afterwards!”

And as Urashima listened to her sweet words and gazed upon her lovely face his heart was filled with a great wonder and joy, and he answered her, wondering if it was not all a dream:

“Thank you a thousand times for your kind speech. There is nothing I could wish for more than to be permitted to stay here with you in this beautiful land, of which I have often heard, but have never seen to this day. Beyond all words, this is the most wonderful place I have ever seen.”

While he was speaking a train of fishes appeared, all dressed in ceremonial, trailing garments. One by one, silently and with stately steps, they entered the hall, bearing on coral trays delicacies of fish and seaweed, such as no one can dream of, and this wondrous feast was set before the bride and bridegroom. The bridal was celebrated with dazzling splendor, and in the Sea King’s realm there was great rejoicing. As soon as the young pair had pledged themselves in the wedding cup of wine, three times three, music was played, and songs were sung, and fishes with silver scales and golden tails stepped in from the waves and danced. Urashima enjoyed himself with all his heart. Never in his whole life had he sat down to such a marvelous feast.

urashima-servantsWhen the feast was over the Princes asked the bridegroom if he would like to walk through the palace and see all there was to be seen. Then the happy fisherman, following his bride, the Sea King’s daughter, was shown all the wonders of that enchanted land where youth and joy go hand in hand and neither time nor age can touch them. The palace was built of coral and adorned with pearls, and the beauties and wonders of the place were so great that the tongue fails to describe them.

But, to Urashima, more wonderful than the palace was the garden that surrounded it. Here was to be seen at one time the scenery of the four different seasons; the beauties of summer and winter, spring and autumn, were displayed to the wondering visitor at once.

First, when he looked to the east, the plum and cherry trees were seen in full bloom, the nightingales sang in the pink avenues, and butterflies flitted from flower to flower.

Looking to the south all the trees were green in the fullness of summer, and the day cicala and the night cricket chirruped loudly.

Looking to the west the autumn maples were ablaze like a sunset sky, and the chrysanthemums were in perfection.

Looking to the north the change made Urashima start, for the ground was silver white with snow, and trees and bamboos were also covered with snow and the pond was thick with ice.

And each day there were new joys and new wonders for Urashima, and so great was his happiness that he forgot everything, even the home he had left behind and his parents and his own country, and three days passed without his even thinking of all he had left behind. Then his mind came back to him and he remembered who he was, and that he did not belong to this wonderful land or the Sea King’s palace, and he said to himself:

“O dear! I must not stay on here, for I have an old father and mother at home. What can have happened to them all this time? How anxious they must have been these days when I did not return as usual. I must go back at once without letting one more day pass.” And he began to prepare for the journey in great haste.

Then he went to his beautiful wife, the Princess, and bowing low before her he said:

“Indeed, I have been very happy with you for a long time, Otohime Sama” (for that was her name), “and you have been kinder to me than any words can tell. But now I must say good-by. I must go back to my old parents.”

Then Otohime Sama began to weep, and said softly and sadly:

“Is it not well with you here, Urashima, that you wish to leave me so soon? Where is the haste? Stay with me yet another day only!”

But Urashima had remembered his old parents, and in Japan the duty to parents is stronger than everything else, stronger even than pleasure or love, and he would not be persuaded, but answered:

“Indeed, I must go. Do not think that I wish to leave you. It is not that. I must go and see my old parents. Let me go for one day and I will come back to you.”

“Then,” said the Princess sorrowfully, “there is nothing to be done. I will send you back to-day to your father and mother, and instead of trying to keep you with me one more day, I shall give you this as a token of our love—please take it back with you;” and she brought him a beautiful lacquer box tied about with a silken cord and tassels of red silk.

Urashima had received so much from the Princess already that he felt some compunction in taking the gift, and said:

“It does not seem right for me to take yet another gift from you after all the many favors I have received at your hands, but because it is your wish I will do so,” and then he added:

“Tell me what is this box?”

“That,” answered the Princess “is the tamate-bako (Box of the Jewel Hand), and it contains something very precious. You must not open this box, whatever happens! If you open it something dreadful will happen to you! Now promise me that you will never open this box!”

And Urashima promised that he would never, never open the box whatever happened.

Then bidding good-by to Otohime Sama he went down to the seashore, the Princess and her attendants following him, and there he found a large tortoise waiting for him.

He quickly mounted the creature’s back and was carried away over the shining sea into the East. He looked back to wave his hand to Otohime Sama till at last he could see her no more, and the land of the Sea King and the roofs of the wonderful palace were lost in the far, far distance. Then, with his face turned eagerly towards his own land, he looked for the rising of the blue hills on the horizon before him.

At last the tortoise carried him into the bay he knew so well, and to the shore from whence he had set out. He stepped on to the shore and looked about him while the tortoise rode away back to the Sea King’s realm.

But what is the strange fear that seizes Urashima as he stands and looks about him? Why does he gaze so fixedly at the people that pass him by, and why do they in turn stand and look at him? The shore is the same and the hills are the same, but the people that he sees walking past him have very different faces to those he had known so well before.

Wondering what it can mean he walks quickly towards his old home. Even that looks different, but a house stands on the spot, and he calls out:

“Father, I have just returned!” and he was about to enter, when he saw a strange man coming out.

“Perhaps my parents have moved while I have been away, and have gone somewhere else,” was the fisherman’s thought. Somehow he began to feel strangely anxious, he could not tell why.

“Excuse me,” said he to the man who was staring at him, “but till within the last few days I have lived in this house. My name is Urashima Taro. Where have my parents gone whom I left here?”

A very bewildered expression came over the face of the man, and, still gazing intently on Urashima’s face, he said:

“What? Are you Urashima Taro?”

“Yes,” said the fisherman, “I am Urashima Taro!”

“Ha, ha!” laughed the man, “you must not make such jokes. It is true that once upon a time a man called Urashima Taro did live in this village, but that is a story three hundred years old. He could not possibly be alive now!”

When Urashima heard these strange words he was frightened, and said:

“Please, please, you must not joke with me, I am greatly perplexed. I am really Urashima Taro, and I certainly have not lived three hundred years. Till four or five days ago I lived on this spot. Tell me what I want to know without more joking, please.”

But the man’s face grew more and more grave, and he answered:

“You may or may not be Urashima Taro, I don’t know. But the Urashima Taro of whom I have heard is a man who lived three hundred years ago. Perhaps you are his spirit come to revisit your old home?”

“Why do you mock me?” said Urashima. “I am no spirit! I am a living man—do you not see my feet;” and “don-don,” he stamped on the ground, first with one foot and then with the other to show the man. (Japanese ghosts have no feet.)

“But Urashima Taro lived three hundred years ago, that is all I know; it is written in the village chronicles,” persisted the man, who could not believe what the fisherman said.

urashima-boxUrashima was lost in bewilderment and trouble. He stood looking all around him, terribly puzzled, and, indeed, something in the appearance of everything was different to what he remembered before he went away, and the awful feeling came over him that what the man said was perhaps true. He seemed to be in a strange dream. The few days he had spent in the Sea King’s palace beyond the sea had not been days at all: they had been hundreds of years, and in that time his parents had died and all the people he had ever known, and the village had written down his story. There was no use in staying here any longer. He must get back to his beautiful wife beyond the sea.

He made his way back to the beach, carrying in his hand the box which the Princess had given him. But which was the way? He could not find it alone! Suddenly he remembered the box, the tamate-bako.

“The Princess told me when she gave me the box never to open it—that it contained a very precious thing. But now that I have no home, now that I have lost everything that was dear to me here, and my heart grows thin with sadness, at such a time, if I open the box, surely I shall find something that will help me, something that will show me the way back to my beautiful Princess over the sea. There is nothing else for me to do now. Yes, yes, I will open the box and look in!”

And so his heart consented to this act of disobedience, and he tried to persuade himself that he was doing the right thing in breaking his promise.

Slowly, very slowly, he untied the red silk cord, slowly and wonderingly he lifted the lid of the precious box. And what did he find? Strange to say only a beautiful little purple cloud rose out of the box in three soft wisps. For an instant it covered his face and wavered over him as if loath to go, and then it floated away like vapor over the sea.

Urashima, who had been till that moment like a strong and handsome youth of twenty-four, suddenly became very, very old. His back doubled up with age, his hair turned snowy white, his face wrinkled and he fell down dead on the beach.

Poor Urashima! because of his disobedience he could never return to the Sea King’s realm or the lovely Princess beyond the sea.

Little children, never be disobedient to those who are wiser than you for disobedience was the beginning of all the miseries and sorrows of life.

In this interesting tale, the hero Urashima fails. His kind heart grants him a reward, entry into a heaven-like place where he can marry a beautiful princess. Such a thing would be impossible for a common fisherman. Yet, being a good man, he remembers his parents and wants to go back. Only, he finds 300 years had passed. In desperation he opens the box he promised he would not and dies. Urashima seems to be a good man, but there is a little deeper lessen than the last motto of the story suggests. Urashima’s mistake was accepting the offer to travel to the heavenly realm. First, it is a realm he was not supposed to enter. Once there, he must stay. He turns his back on his elderly parents. Remembering them and wanting to return is too late to correct the mistake. He then breaks his promise and opens his personal Pandora’s Box. Two sins that cost him everything. Now, if he stayed in the heavenly realm, he would have been rewarded for his good deeds. He could also possibly arrange for his parents to join him.

Urashima is an interesting folktale about the need to be obedient and see decisions through to the end.


Ozaki, Yei Theodora. (1908).  Japanese Fairy Tales. New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers.

Chamberlain, Basil Hall (2009). The Fisher Boy Urashima.

Kuchisake-onna–The Slit-Mouthed Woman

Poster for the Korean release of the movie Carved: the Slit-Mouthed Woman, based on the popular urban legend.

Poster for the Korean release of the movie Carved: the Slit-Mouthed Woman, based on the popular urban legend. (image copyright: Palisades Tartan)

A recurring theme on this blog is that Japan is a land haunted by all sorts of weird ghosts and goblins. From gigantic blood sucking skeletons to flying heads in flaming ox-cart wheels, Japan’s rogues gallery is one of the most unique in the world.

Even its more plausible boogeymen have an eerie quality to them. Take, for example, the kuchisake-onna, better known as the Slit-Mouthed Woman (also the name of a J-horror movie I reviewed four years ago, based on the legend.) She is said to be a beautiful woman dressed in a long coat, with a surgical mask covering her face. Surgical masks are commonly worn in Japan and other East Asian countries when a person is suffering from a cold or flu. In the case of the Slit-Mouthed Woman, the mask is covering something far more horrifying than a mere cold sore–her cheeks have been slashed open, literally making her smile go “ear to ear.” In some accounts she is said to have as many as 130 teeth–fangs really–giving an even more eerie cast to her horrible deformity. Even more extraordinary, some variants of her story have the Slit-Mouthed Woman able to run like an Olympian, covering 100 yards in as little as 3 seconds.  She carries a pair of scissors or a scythe, which she uses to slash her victim’s cheeks to make them look like she does.


A 20th Century Monster

Perhaps the variance in her description comes from the fact that there is little agreement on her origins. Her story began circulating among Japanese school children in 1978, during which time a variety of stories attributed to her began to circulate. Some say that she is a vengeful ghost mutilated in the feudal era by her jealous samurai husband who caught her cheating on him. Others claim she is no ghost at all, but rather a woman (perhaps an Olympic athlete given her fleet feet) who was horrifically disfigured in a botched dental procedure. This could explain her fondness for medical paraphernalia, such as scissors and gauze masks. Another version has the Slit-Mouthed Woman being attacked by her jealous sister, who slashed her cheeks with a pair of scissors.

Whatever the case, encounters with this yokai/mad woman are said to occur in broad daylight, in the afternoon when many children are walking home from school. She approaches her potential victims and asks them “Do I look beautiful?” If the hapless victim answers in the affirmative, she rips off the mask revealing her toothy grin and says, “Even like this?’ before lashing out with her blade. Answer no, and she attacks anyway.

One key to surviving an encounter with the Slit-Mouthed Woman intact is distraction. After all, she is either an Olympic level athlete (who apparently remains swift on her feet even well into middle age) or a being possessing supernatural speed–running is not an option, unless of course you’d like to be disfigured and winded at the same time. When she asks her question, the best answer is an ambivalent one–say “so-so” or “average.” She will be confused, and in that time you can make good your escape.

Two more things that can distract the Slit-Mouthed Woman are Bekko ame, a traditional Japanese candy, and hair pomade. She reportedly loves candy, and will break off an attack if you throw Bekko ame at her. She is repulsed by the scent of hair pomade, supposedly because the doctor who disfigured her in some versions of the legend stunk of the stuff. Even saying the word “pomade” three to six times can be enough to scare her off.


A result of collective delusion?

These elements, mixing the potentially plausible with the clearly folkloric, make the Slit-Mouthed Woman unique among Japan, and the world’s, vast cast of nightmarish creatures. She exists in a sort of netherworld, not quite a ghost yet not quite a real person either. Perhaps that is why, more than 30 years after stories about her first began to circulate, she still remains a popular legend, one that almost all Japanese school children have heard at one point. Her ambiguous nature leaves room for all sorts of elaboration for school-yard storytellers, giving fertile ground for the legend to grow and evolve with succeeding generations of school children.

Many explanations of the legend’s origins have been presented. Some believe that the Slit-Mouthed Woman was a sort of phantom-slasher, a being born of the remarkable pressures Japanese school children face within Japan’s famously tough school system. This then would be a case of collective delusion, a phenomena often confused with mass hysteria. Collective delusions are characterized by the rapid spread of an irrational belief among a community that results in irrational behavior but not necessarily physical symptoms, while mass hysteria is a form of mass conversion disorder, where societal pressures and personal anxiety are vented by conversion into physical symptoms.

I covered an example of collective delusion on my own blog, which seems relevant to this case due to the similarity of the age groups involved. In Glasgow, Scotland, an irrational belief that an iron-toothed vampire responsible for killing at least two children lurked in the local cemetery took hold in school age children, prompting many to take up stakes and turn amateur vampire hunter. The weird happening grew out of playground stories that took on a life of their own. Perhaps the same dynamic is at work with the Slit-Mouthed Woman, although it is unusual for a collective delusion to have such a long life and the appearance of the Slit-Mouthed Woman in 1978 does not appear to have caused a panic similar to the one that gripped Glasgow in the 1950s.

There is another possibility. The Slit-Mouthed Woman story is technically classified as an urban legend. While urban legends are modern folklore, they differ in that their central conceit is either based on true events or are at least plausible. Could the Slit-Mouthed Woman legend be based on a real incident that occurred in 1978, or not long before?

Such a notion sounds far fetched, but there is precedent for such an occurrence. The Bunnyman Bridge in Maryland is routinely listed as one of the scariest places on Earth. The Bunnyman, a supernatural bogey with a bunny suit and a penchant for mayhem, is said to haunt the bridge tunnel, where legend has it that he has slaughtered dozens of teens foolhardy enough to venture there on Halloween night. While the elaborate and seemingly plausible origin story of the Bunnyman, which I won’t go into here but you can read about in depth on my blog, is bunk, there is an odd element of truth to the story. A mysterious figure in a bunny suit who wielded an axe did appear in the area around the infamous bridge in the 1970s. While he didn’t kill anyone, his odd behavior and aggressive acts cemented his image in the local unconscious, eventually resulting in the Bunnyman legend told and retold today.

Maybe a similar dynamic is at work with the Slit-Mouthed Woman legend. Perhaps a woman wearing a surgical mask did go on a rampage in the 1970s. Or perhaps the story has more mundane origins, in children’s fear of the unknown. Whatever the case, the legend of the Slit-Mouthed Woman is a part of Japan’s folklore, and it is here to stay.


Fitch, Laura. “Have you heard the one about…?” June 7, 2005. The Japan Times. April 18, 2015.

“Kuchisake Onna.” August 21, 2014. Retrieved April 18, 2015.

“Kuchisake-onna.” September 13, 2011. Urban Legends Online. April 18, 2015.

Yodo, Hiroko and Alt, Matt. “Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide.” Tuttle Publishing. 2008.

Japan’s Strangest, Most Fearsome Spirit–The Wanyudo

SekienWanyudoJapan is a land chock full of weird ghosts and monsters. Some are harmless, if off-putting, creatures, while others are creatures straight out of your worst nightmare.

Today’s beast is two parts weird and one part terrifying, even more so because of its tendency to haunt residential areas of major cities, most notably Kyoto.

Legend has it that a tyrannical daimyo was touring what is now Kyoto on an ox cart when an assassin struck him down. The evil man, so angered by his untimely demise, became a monstrous spirit called a Wanyudo. The bizarre looking being’s appearance is something straight out of a nightmare (or maybe a bad LSD trip). Legends going back a thousand years describe the beast as looking like a disembodied head that forms the hub of a flaming ox-cart wheel. Oh, and it flies to boot.

While the Wanyudo’s appearance is odd to the point of being a bit goofy, the monster has a reputation for being among the deadliest monsters in Japan’s folkloric menagerie. The mere sight of it can give a person an intense fever, and heaven help you if the Wanyudo catches you looking. It is said to run down victims, ripping them limb from limb and leaving nothing but a burned and broken husk in the road.

Now and then, the monster will let those it catches peeking survive. One legend tells of a woman who caught a glimpse of the Wanyudo on its nightly flight. The monster, seeing her, boomed: “If you have time to gaze upon me, tend to your own child!” This was when she noticed four tiny limbs hanging from the burning spokes of the monster’s wheel. She rushed to her child, to find his limbs all ripped off.

Stories differ a bit as to where the Wanyudo resides when it is not streaking through the night skies and terrorizing people. Some say it sleeps in the mountains, while others say it guards the gates of Hell. Few things can protect against the wrath of the Wanyudo. Staying inside is about the only sure bet. For extra protection, paste sacred sheets of paper–ofudo strips–bearing the saying “kono-tokoro-shobo-no-sato” on them. Literally translated, “this is the town of Shobo,” it is a reference to a Confucian story where one of Confucius’ disciples avoided a town named Shobo, because the character Shobo can be read “triumph over one’s mother.”

Remember this the next time you find yourself in Kyoto. And don’t look too close at any fireballs that happen to streak through the sky. Just in case.


Yodo, Hiroko and Alt, Matt. “Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide.” Tuttle Publishing. 2008. Pgs 34-37.