Japanese holidays and festivals in February

Japanese festivities during February

Like every country, Japan has its own days and festivals to celebrate. In this article, Inari will tell you more about the Japanese holidays and festivals that take place during the month of February. In this month, you will see snow, naked people and much more.

National Foundation Day or Kenkoku Kinen no Hi (建国記念の日)

The only public holiday during the month of February in Japan is the National Foundation Day or Kenkoku Kinen no Hi. This holiday is celebrated on the 11th of February and marks the foundation of Japan by the first emperor Jimmu. During the Meiji Period (1868-1912) this was turned into a national holiday of Japan. The focus on the emperor was thought to be a great way to unify Japan and strengthen the state. In 1966 the holiday was re-established but the focus on the emperor was taken away. To this day the holiday is still a symbol for patriotism and nationalism, that is why it is still a somewhat controversial holiday. Most people raise the Japanese flag during this holiday but nothing else special really happens.

Japanese flags being raised for the National Foundation Day

Japanese flags being raised for the National Foundation Day

Setsubun

The last day before the beginning of spring apparently takes place on the 3rd of February in Japan. On this holiday people perform the practice of mamemaki (豆撒き) or bean scattering. The head of the house throws roasted soy beans out of the house or at a family member wearing a demon mask. This symbolises cleansing the house before the beginning of spring. Afterwards the household eats roasted soybeans to complete the ritual. Each person eats one soybean per year that they lived and one extra for the year to come. Monks at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples also celebrate Setsubun by throwing beans and lighting all the lanterns of the shrine or the temple. All of this is done to scare away wandering spirits that walk on the Japanese ground during this spiritual time of the year.

My beans!

My beans!

Snowfestivals

As you can probably derive from the name of these festivals, these Japanese festivals are all about snow. For the sake of the article we decided to show you two examples.

The first one is the Sapporo Snow Festival that takes place in Sapporo, the capital of the Hokkaido prefecture. During this festival, three different locations in Sapporo are transformed in giant snow and ice sculptures. The biggest location, Odori Park, becomes an amazing snow museum that is more than 1,5 kilometers long. On the International Square, people can participate in the International Snow Statue Contest and in the famous nightspot district Susukino, you can walk past fantastic ice sculptures. Since 2006, people can also visit Sapporo Satorando, a park with attractions for children and much more. This Japanese festival takes place during the second week of February.

Snow troopers

Snow troopers

The other festival is the Yokote Kamakura Snow Festival that takes place in Yokote, Akita during the 15th and 16th of February. Kamakura are small hills made out of snow that are hollowed out and turned into small houses. In these houses they place an altar for the water gods so the Japanese people can receive plenty of clear water during the following year. This 400 year old tradition’s origin lies in the practice of returning the New Year decorations to the gods by burning them. During the Kamakura Snow Festival, hundreds of these small houses are placed on the hillside and people get invited by children to drink a fermented rice drink and eat rice cakes.

Just chillin'

Just chillin’

Naked festival or Hadaka Matsuri (裸祭り)

On the third Saturday of February, one of the most peculiar Japanese festivals take place in Okoyama. Being the birthplace of the Naked Festival or the Hadaka Matsuri, Okoyama’s Naked Festival is the most popular one in Japan. Over more than 9,000 men only wearing small loincloths participate in this ceremony. During this festival a priest throws a pair of lucky sticks one by one into the crowd. The person who catches it and sticks it into a wooden measuring box is blessed with a year of happiness. Although there are also a hundred smaller lucky sticks, the competition can get rough. Before the main event, children can participate in a less violent version and the “naked” men parade through the streets to get pumped up for the ceremony.

Japanese Naked Festival

Comfy

These are the most important Japanese holidays and festivals that take place in February. If you want to know more about this subject, feel free to contact us or write a comment.

We’ll be back next month to tell you more about the Japanese holidays and festivals that take place during March.

6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan- Miyakojima (宮古島)

Miyakoshima – sun, sand and sea

Our next stop in “6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan” is Miyakojima (宮古島). Miyakojima is an island roughly 300 km southwest of Okinawa island and 400 km east of Taiwan. Instead of the lush forests and relaxing onsen we talked about in our article about Yakushima, here you will find beautiful beaches and great snorkeling and diving spots.

Location of Miyakojima

Location of Miyakojima.

Beaches

Though the island has an abundance of sunlit beaches, each worthy of talking about, Maehama Beach and Sunuyama Beach are known as the best to visit. The former is located in the southwestern corner of the island and is ranked as one of the best beaches in Japan. Its white sand stretches 7 kilometers long and is ideal for watching the sunset.The latter of the two is a small beach 4 kilometers north of Hirara. At the bottom of a sand dune, you will find a view of clear blue waters, rocky formations and a large stone arch perfect for those that like some shade to their beach trip.

The stone arch at Sunayama Beach

The stone arch at Sunayama Beach.

Lovers of diving and snorkeling should visit Yoshino Beach at the eastern corner of the island. It is said this beach has the highest concentration of colorful fish on the island. Just off the beach starts a large coral reef filled with marine life. A perfect spot for starting and veteran divers alike.

the reef at Yoshino Beach

The reef at Yoshino Beach.

Other places to visit

Should you ever get tired of the sun, or you forgot your sun protection lotion there are still places to visit on Miyakoshima. The Miyakojima City Botanical Garden houses over 1600 tropical plants which you can discover on a leisurely stroll. If plants are not for you, maybe the Miyako Traditional Arts & Crafts Centre might pique your interest. On the second floor of this museum is a workshop where they still teach the traditional technique of minsa-weaving. Explores amongst us can rent a car and visit sites like the Tuyumya grave or Cape Higashi-Hennazaki, where a lone lighthouse awaits at the end of the 2 kilometer long peninsula. Finally they can also drive to three of the four smaller islands of Miyakojima connected by kilometers long bridges build over the sea.

Cape Higashi-Hennazaki

Cape Higashi-Hennazaki

How to get to Miyakojima

Since the Ferry services were discontinued in 2008 you can only get to Miyakoshima by plane from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, Osaka’s Kansai Airport, Naha Airport on Okinawa Main Island and a few smaller airports on the Ishigaki and Tarama islands. Most hotels and resorts provide shuttle bus services from and to the airport. To get around the island it is recommended to rent a car, scooter or bicycle.

one of the bridges connecting the smaller islands to Miyakojima

one of the bridges connecting the smaller islands to Miyakojima.

This marks the end of our second unusual but fantastic place to visit in Japan. If you have any questions or remarks you can post them in the comments or send us a mail.

Japanese Prefectures – Hokkaido 北海道

Hokkaido – nature, hot springs and bathing monkeys

Today marks the start of our new column “Japanese prefectures” in which we present to you the different prefectures of Japan and show you that every prefecture has its own reasons to visit. Every month we will tackle one prefecture for you until we have written about all 47. We will start with the northernmost and second largest island of Japan, Hokkaido. This island is mostly known for its unspoiled nature, hot springs and the Ainu people.

The different prefectures and regions of Japan

The different prefectures and regions of Japan

Geography

As said before, Hokkaido is the northernmost and second largest island of Japan. It is also the largest prefecture. Hokkaido is separated from the rest of Japan by the Tsugaru Strait or the Tsugaru Kaikyō, however it is connected through an underground railway. The island borders the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotks and the Pacific Ocean. Hokkaido itself is often compared to northern Europe and has its fair share of mountains and volcanic plateaus. It also has quite some national parks and hot spring resorts. The most popular cities are its capital Sapporo and the two core cities Hakodate and Asahikawa. The climate is considered cooler than the rest of Japan and it is a  popular destination between May and August because of the lack of the typical Japanese rain season.

A map of Hokkaido

A map of Hokkaido

The island was first mentioned in the Nihon Shoki, the second oldest book of classical Japanese history that was published in 720 CE. Hokkaido was mostly settled by the Japanese during the last 100 years. Because of this the cities and architecture in Hokkaido are more modern than the rest of Japan. There were of course already some settlements but it was mostly inhabited by the Ainu people. The Ainu are thought to be the indigenous  people of Hokkaido and Russia. They live in a shamanistic culture with their own language and customs and are quite different from Japanese culture. They are extremely fascinating and Inari Press will definitely write about them in future articles.

The Ainu people

The Ainu people

Must-see locations

Hokkaido has so many places that must be visited and things to do that it is impossible to mention all of them in this article. That is why we decided to pick the most important for you.

As we have mentioned before, Hokkaido is the place to be for onsen lovers and at Jigokudani Monkey Park, the biggest onsen lovers are wild monkeys. The Jingokudani Monkey Park is, as you can derive from the name, a park that is the natural habitat of a group of Japanese Macaques. The name literally means “Hell Valley”, this is a common name that is used for Japanese valleys with volcanic activity. Most people visit this place to see the monkeys and it is recommended to visit them during the months of January and February. The area is covered in snow during that time of the year and you’ll most definitely be able to get the perfect view.

Just chillin'

Just chillin’

Hokkaido is also known for its national parks. The largest of these parks is Daisetsuzan and with its 2.267 square kilometers, it is even bigger then some of the smaller prefectures in Japan. You can go there to hike or observe the local wildlife. The park is home to several rare species and has the largest population of brown bears in Asia. If you’re more of a chill-out person, you can always visit one of the many onsen in the park. The autumn colors and  snow here are the first to be seen in Japan each year.

Beautiful Daisetsuzan.

Beautiful Daisetsuzan.

If you are more into the city life, we recommend Sapporo. Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido and is the fifth-largest city in Japan. It is very popular thanks to its beer, ramen and annual snow festival. You can even visit the local Sapporo Brewery. People who love Japanese cuisine, should certainly visit the Curb Market, you can find almost everything concerning food here. If you want to experience the nightlife, Susukino is the place to be. It is the largest entertainment district north of Tokyo and is packed with bars, karaoke shops and more.

The city of Sapporo.

The city of Sapporo.

As the final item on this list we decided to go above the clouds. The Unkai Terrace is a must-see place where you get the opportunity to literally sit above the clouds. There is even a small restaurant there so it is possible to have your breakfast while observing the clouds underneath. The Unkai Terrace is only open from mid-May to the end of October and is most definitely a place that you must see.

Breathtaking.

Breathtaking.

How to get there?

Going to Hokkaido is actually very easy. The only land link to the main land of Japan is though the Seikan Tunnel, so most people travel to Hokkaido by plane. The biggest airport in Hokkaido is the New Chitose Airport but there are six more airports throughout the island. Once you are on the island, you can always use the well-developed railway. It is recommended though to rent a car since most cities are only accessible by car.

How to travel around in Hokkaido.

How to travel around in Hokkaido.

This was our short intro to Hokkaido. We hope that we have showed you the different reasons to visit this lovely place. If you want to know more about traveling to Hokkaido, leave a comment, send us a mail or please visit this site.

We will be back with another Japanese prefecture in February when we will tell you more about Aomori.

6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan – Yakushima (屋久島)

Yakushima – the place that inspired Studio Ghibli’s “Mononoke-hime”

To start off our bigger theme “6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan”, we chose Yakushima and its beautiful forest located in the Shiratani Unsuikyo ravine (白谷雲水峡). This subtropical island is located about 61,3 kilometers south of the Osumi Peninsula in southern Kyushu. It has been a natural World Heritage Site since 1993 and is covered by an extensive ancient cedar forest which contains some of Japan’s oldest trees. These trees are more than a 1000 years old and are called yakusugi (屋久杉), a combination of Yakushima’s ‘yaku’ and ‘sugi’, the Japanese word for cedar. The most ancient tree on the island, Jōmon Sugi, is even estimated to be between 2,170 and 7,200 years old. This island was one of the most inspiring places during the creation of Studio Ghibli’s movie “Mononoke-hime” and is known for its eerie sights and stunning nature.

Jomon sugi Yakushima

Jōmon Sugi, the largest conifer in Japan.

What is so special about Yakushima?

Yakushima is actually quite a rare sight. With a ecosystem unique in the Northern Hemisphere and an especially humid environment, the island is home to about 1,900 species and subspecies of flora, 16 mammal species and 150 bird species. It is the largest nesting ground for the endangered loggerhead sea turtle in the North Pacific and no record of tree cutting can be found in the Wilderness Core Area of the forest, which is over 12 square kilometers.

The beautiful Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta, Picasa Creative Commons / Joseph & Farideh)

The beautiful Loggerhead sea turtle.
(Caretta caretta, Picasa Creative Commons / Joseph & Farideh)

The first people to arrive in Yakushima,  came there during the Jōmon period (12,000 BCE – 300 BCE). The island was traditionally used for forestry and the export of wood products. Now, export of oranges, tea and shōchū, and tourism have replaced the role of income for the island. Yakushima’s centre is mostly dominated by mountains reaching almost 2,000 m high. From the coast up to the central peaks, a sequence of natural progression makes this place significant for biological, scientific and aesthetic reasons. The flora changes from a coastal vegetation with subtropical elements to cold-temperate bamboo grassland and a high moor near the summit.

A map of Yakushima

A map of Yakushima.

As mentioned before, the Shiratani Unsuikyo ravine is a very famous part of Yakushima. Visitors can find some of the ancient cedars here or choose their own route along the well maintained hiking trails. This part was also the inspiration for the forest scenes in Studio Ghibli’s movie “Mononoke-hime” and the lead artist, Oga Kazuo, spent quite some time in these forests working on sketches for the movie. The longest trail you can follow takes you through the forest to Jōmon Sugi  and back. It takes about twelve hours to finish and is one of the most difficult routes on Yakushima.

A typical sight on Yakushima

A typical sight on Yakushima.

Ofcourse, there is more to Yakushima than the cedar forests. People also visit the island to scuba dive or visit museums and onsen. There is also a route around the perimeter of the island for driving that gives a beautiful view of the island. Especially the western side of the island is worth it, the World Heritage Site reaches the sea there and you can drive right through it on very small paths. The onsen are also very special. They are only reachable a few hours before and after low tide, the other times the onsen are usually flooded.

A typical Yakushima onsen.

A typical Yakushima onsen.

How to get to Yakushima?

There are quite some possibilities if you want to visit Yakushima. Most people go to Kagoshima first, to take either a high speed boat, a car ferry or a plane to the island. Kagoshima can be reached by train or by plane from Tokyo. However, it is also possible to get a direct flight to Yakushima if you depart from Osaka or Fukuoka.

Location in Japan

Location in Japan.

This was our first unusual but fantastic place to visit in Japan. If you want to know more about the beautiful Yakushima, you can always leave us a comment, send us a mail or visit this page. If you ever get the chance to visit this wondrous place, just do it!

Japanese holidays and festivals in January

Japanese holidays and festivals: January

Like every country, Japan has its own days and festivals to celebrate. In this article, Inari will tell you more about the Japanese holidays and festivals that take place during the month of January.

New Year or Shōgatsu 正月

The New Year comes with a lot of customs in Japan, varying from traditional food to displaying mochor rice cakes and performing the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven.

During the first week of January a lot of families love eating the traditional New Year’s dishes. The most popular is osechi-ryōri, a dish that is made with boiled seaweed, fish cakes, mashed sweet potatoes with chestnuts, simmered burdock root and sweetened black soybeans. Another popular dish is ozōni, a soup with mochi and ingredients depending on the regions of Japan. Additionaly, mochi is also made and eaten during this time of the year. These rice cakes are made by patting boiled sticky rice with water and then hitting it with a giant wooden mallet. But be careful if you are offered one, they are very sticky and have been known to kill several people every year.

Mouth-drooling New Year food

Mouth-drooling New Year’s food

Mochi is also used for making Kagami mochi, a traditional New Year decoration consisting of two round rice cakes, a daidai, which is Japanese bitter orange, and a leaf attached on top. These decorations are often very ornamented and are sometimes truly a piece of art.

Rica cake art

Rice cake art

Other examples of customs for this time of the year are sending postcards and otoshidama.  Sending postcards for New Year is mostly used to tell relatives or far away friends that you are still alive and kicking. The post offices guarantee to deliver all the postcards on the 1st of January, so it can be a very busy time of the year for the Japanese Post. Ofcourse the Japanese children have something to look forward to as well. Japanese people give money to them on New Year’s Day. This custom is known as otoshidama. The Japanese children get a small decorated envelope, also known as  pochibukuro, with a certain amount of money depending on the age of the child. Most of the time they get more than ¥10,000.

Typical examples of pochibukuro

Typical examples of pochibukuro

After a week of indulging in lots and lots of food, it is customary to celebrate Jinjutsu 人日 or Human Day. On this day, that is also known as Wakana no sekku or Feast of Seven Herbs, the Japanese people settle their stomachs with a seven-herb rice soup or nanakusagayu. This custom is also traditionally accompanied by singing folk songs.

Herby soup

Herby soup

Coming of Age Day or Seijin no Hi 成人の日

Traditionally this Japanese holiday was celebrated every year on the 15th of January. However, since the introduction of the Happy Monday System in 2000, a system where certain holidays were put on a Monday so people could have a long weekend,  this Japanese holiday was changed to the second Monday in January. It is held for everyone who turned 20 between the second of April of the previous year and the first of April of the current year and is a ceremony where these people embrace new responsibilities and rights that they receive with the coming of age.

The young adults are invited to the local city offices to attend speeches by government officials and receive small presents. Each person celebrates this day by wearing traditional clothing. For women this is a furisode, a kimono with long sleeves, and a pair of zōri sandals. Men typically wear a dark kimono with a hakama, a traditional form of skirted pants, but many wear a formal Western suit and tie. Once the ceremony is done, everybody goes out in groups and celebrate their new rights of drinking and smoking by partying.

Party time

Party time

It’s interesting to note that during the past years there is a certain decline in attendance of this Japanese holiday. Due to the shrinking percentage of young people in Japan and the increase in young adults who don’t feel like they have reached true adulthood, this traditional Japanese holiday is losing popularity in modern Japan.

Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival 若草山焼き

If you are travelling around the City of Nara during the month of January, the Wakakusa Yamayaki festival is a must-see. During this festival on the fourth Saturday of the month, or a week later if the weather is bad,  the hills of Mount Wakakusa, overgrown by dry grass, are set ablaze. Mount Wakakusa is a 342 m high mountain that is elevated above the City of Nara, so the fire is visible throughout the city.

View of Nara from Mount Wakakusa

View of Nara from Mount Wakakusa

The origins of this festival are not exactly known. While one source mentions a boundary conflict between Nara’s great temples as the first burning of the hillsides, another claims that the people of Nara used these wild fires to drive away wild boars. One thing is sure though, this festival has already been celebrated for hundreds of years.

During the day of the festival, small events take place around the base of the mountain. One of these events is a throwing competition where people have to throw sembei or giant rice crackers as far as they can. Each year a lot of people are eager to pay ¥300 to participate in this event.

Better loosen up those muscles

Better loosen up those muscles

The actual burning of the hillside happens in the evening. At 5 pm a procession of about 30 people walks to the base of Mount Wakakusa and lights a bonfire. At this moment thousand of spectators have also taken place in front of the hillside. While the bonfire is getting bigger, a giant fireworks show is held for 15 minutes. Afterwards, a line of people walks towards the edge of the grass with a torch that was lit in the bonfire and set the mountainside on fire. Depending on the conditions of  the grass, the mountain can be on fire for 30 to 60 minutes. This year the festival will be held on the 23rd of January or the 30th if weather conditions are bad on the first date.

The burning mountain

The burning mountain

Yaedake Sakura Matsuri 八重岳 桜祭り

While the rest of Japan has to wait until March or April to look at the blossoming sakura trees, the people in Okinawa can already enjoy this at the end of January. Mount Yaedake in Motobu, a small town on Okinawa Island, organises a festival to start the Japanese sakura season. Because Okinawa is  640 kilometers south of the rest of Japan, the conditions for the blossoming sakura are better and they bloom a couple of months sooner.

The blossoming sakura of Motobu

The blossoming sakura of Motobu

During this festival a lot of events are organised. The most popular of these events is the annual crowning of Miss Sakura. Other events are the Motobu Junior High school brass band concert, dances, traditional taiko drumming and kids shows. Most of these events take place at the Yaedake Forest Cherry Blossom Park.

The crowning of Miss Sakura

The crowning of Miss Sakura

 

These are the most important Japanese holidays and festivals that take place in January. If you want to know more about this subject, feel free to contact us or write a comment.

We’ll be back next month to tell you more about the Japanese holidays and festivals that take place during February.

Monster of the Week: Tanuki (狸)

Being one of the most popular creatures in Japanese folklore, the Tanuki  (狸), or raccoon dog, is the perfect subject for Monster of the Week. Not only does it have a rich background, it is also still very popular in modern Japan. Tanuki statues are a common sight in Japan and they are even regarded as luck bringers for restaurants and pubs. The tanuki is also popular in animation films, Studio Ghibli even made an entire movie about them called “Pompoko”.

A real tanuki

A real tanuki

What is the tanuki?

The tanuki is based on the raccoon-like typical Japanese animal that once was a common sight in the Japanese fields and forests. But urban growth and pollution has sadly had a big influence on their natural habitat. Tanuki in their natural form are mostly recognised by conical straw hats and enormous testicles. These testicles are very important for the tanuki as they are totally flexible, extensible, mobile and can be used for shapeshifting.

A ballsy move to catch birds

A ballsy move to catch birds

What does the tanuki do?

This monster loves to shapeshift. They can shift into any form that they like. Most of the time, they transform themselves into inanimate objects, this way people don’t know that they are being watched. They can also transform into humans. Their biggest “tool” is their testicles. These ultra-flexible balls can stretch out to almost 12 square meters and can be transformed into anything. They can be used as a raincoat, drums or even a disguise to impersonate other monsters.

But why do they shapeshift? They actually like to play pranks on humans and steal their money. Although they can really turn into anything, their pranks never turn evil. This gives them the title of “wild card” in the yōkai world. They are so extremely fond of good food and rich drinks, that they often kidnap and then impersonate brides or grooms so they can eat at the banquets of the weddings.

Tanuki fishing skills

Tanuki fishing skills

How can you escape?

Tanuki are more mischievous than evil so they will never put your life in danger. The only things that you have to worry about are your money and your pride. Since they are the “wild card” of the pranksters, their plans often go wrong and backfire. So if you ever find your wallet filled with leaves, or if you find your groom in the closet after the weddings, you’ve probably been pranked by a tanuki.

Famous tanuki statues

Famous tanuki statues

Tanuki in modern time Japan.

As mentioned before, the tanuki are seen as luck bringers. There are quite some businesses, mostly restaurants and pubs, that have a tanuki statue outside. In older times, craftmen even wrapped golden nuggets in tanuki pelts and sold them as lucky tanuki testicles. This is a lucky charm that is still very common in Japan today.

Also, in the famous Studio Ghibli movie “Pompoko”, a clan of tanuki work together to stop the humans from destroying their home and their habitat. They are often used as a symbol for nature in the constant struggle between urbanisation and nature.

Finally, two of the most popular noodle dishes in Japan are called tanuki soba and tanuki udon. These are both noodle dishes that just have tiny chunks of fried batter in them. These tiny chunks are traditionally left over batter from making tempura. It is said that these dishes get their name because the thought of paying money for empty bits of batter is the perfect tanuki prank.

Tanuki soba!

Tanuki soba!

Just remember, prepare some code words with your bride or groom before the wedding. You never know if the person next to you who’s stuffing his or her face with food is a tanuki or not.

Monster of the Week: O-dokuro (おどくろ)

Imagine walking around on an old battlefield in Japan around sundown, the wind is blowing through your hair, the eerie silence is piercing your bones and suddenly you hear a rattling sound. You feel a chill run down your spine as you turn around to face a giant skeleton. Congratulations, you have encountered an O-dokuro (おどくろ), or giant skeleton and with no shelter to hide in, it will probably be your last encounter ever.

O-dokuro in the mist

O-dokuro in the mist

 

What is the O-dokuro?

The O-dokuro is a spectre that mostly appears at night in areas where a lot of corpses have been left to rot. An old battlefield or an area that was used for genocide is the ideal location for an O-dokuro.  Because these bodies were denied a proper burial ritual, they were reanimated as a vengeful spirits. When 100 of these spirits came together, the powerful energy that was released formed a giant and especially hungry skeleton. It can also appear in a location where a lot of people are infuriated, sad or feel neglected.

This monster has different forms. The first form is just a giant skeleton but the second form is a skeleton made out of parts of innumerable other skeletons.

The tale of the O-dokuro or Gashadokuro is more than a 1.000 years old and the most famous depiction of it is Kuniyoshi Utagawa’s “Mitsukuni Defying the Skeleton Spectre” (相馬の古内裏).

Kuniyoshi Utagawa’s “Mitsukuni Defying the Skeleton Spectre”

Kuniyoshi Utagawa’s “Mitsukuni Defying the Skeleton Spectre”

 

What does the O-dokuro do?

Hungry for more bones so it can grow even bigger, the O-dokuro hunts for people. It mostly hunts on two legs but if it wants to go faster, it gets down on all fours and chases everyone down who is near him. Once it catches its prey, it devours the skin, guts and all the other soft parts. Afterwards it takes the freshly flayed-clean bones and attaches them to its own body. The O-dokuro is always looking for more bones and loves to feast on human flesh.

Attack on O-dokuro!!

Attack on O-dokuro!!

 

How can you escape?

Here’s the problem, it’s actually very difficult to escape the O-dokuro. Once it has chosen its prey, it will do everything to catch it. Your best chance is to find a suitable hide-out where it can’t find you and wait until the sun comes up. But even then, you might be in danger. The O-dokuro can partially disassemble itself to reach into places that are too small for it to enter, so make sure that your hide-out is chosen wisely.

Statue at the Mizuki Shigeru Museum in Sakaiminato

Statue at the Mizuki Shigeru Museum in Sakaiminato

 

Can the O-dokuro be killed?

Being practically invulnerable, it’s impossible to kill the O-dokuro. Its size and invulnerability makes the O-dokuro a very strong opponent but due to the amount of bodies that are required to form an O-dokuro, this monster is very rare in the modern age. During its life, it constantly burns up the maleficent energy that was created when it was born. Once this energy is burned out, the O-dokuro will disappear and stop existing.

 

Drawing by Mjx20 at Deviantart (http://mjx20.deviantart.com/)

Drawing by Mjx20 at Deviantart (http://mjx20.deviantart.com/)

O-dokuro in the popular culture

Even though the occurrence of O-dokuro is rare, they still are depicted in Japan’s popular culture. They are often used as a motif in tattoo’s and prints on silk jackets. In the famous Studio Ghibli’s animated film “Pompoko”, a clan of shapeshifting tanuki (タヌキa raccoon dog with magical powers that we will tell you about in future articles) shift into an O-dokuru to scare away the people who threaten their home.

 

O-dokuro in the Studio Ghibli film "Pompoko"

O-dokuro in the Studio Ghibli film “Pompoko”

Just remember, don’t try to visit an ancient battlefield in Japan when it’s dark, you might just become part of giant, vengeful skeleton for the rest of your life. If you do decide to visit a place like that, make sure there is a good hide-out, otherwise you’ll be skeleton food.

Monster of the Week: Kuchisake Onna (口裂け女)

After a small break to open our Ghent – Kanazawa Art Exchange Project (http://www.inarivzw.be/projecten/ghent-kanazawa-art-exchange-program/), Monster of the Week is back. This week Inari decided to tell the tale of the Kuchisake Onna (口裂け女), or slit-mouthed woman. It’s a monster that is quite young; the first “sightings” are dated in 1979 in the Nagasaki Prefecture (長崎県). Even though this onryō’s tale is quite new, she has appeared in quite some movies and other media.

 Reader discretion is advised because the kuchisake onna can be very explicit.

The faces of Kuchisake Onna

The faces of Kuchisake Onna

What is the kuchisake onna?

This monster is an onryō (怨霊), or an avenging spirit. She was killed by her husband after cheating on him. He killed her by cutting open her mouth from ear to ear; this violent death made her come back to avenge her death. She mostly appears in dark alleys and badly lit streets while wearing a mouth mask and a long raincoat. Classical onryō have long black hair and white skin and the kuchisake onna is no exception. Because these two features are considered as a beauty norm, this makes the onryō even more terrifying; the thought that someone so beautiful can be a violent spirit is pure horror.

Weapon of choice: Scissors

Weapon of choice: Scissors

What does the kuchisake onna do?

This onryō appears in dark alleys or badly lit streets and mostly attacks young children. She suddenly appears in front of them wearing a mouth mask and asks: “Am I pretty?”. Being polite, the victims will answer “Yes.”. The kuchisake onna will then take of her mouth mask, revealing the horribly ripped mouth and ask: “How about now?”. What happens next depends on the answer. If the victim answers “yes”, she will take out her scissors and give the victim the same slit mouth like she has. If the victim says “no”, she will kill the victim with the scissors. Trying to run away is useless as the kuchisake onna has superhuman speed and will catch up to the victim instantly.

Slit-mouthed

Slit-mouthed

How can you escape?

There are multiple ways to escape the kuchisake onna. You could always try to confuse her by saying she looks average. The kuchisake onna will be shocked by that answer and will not know what to do, giving you the chance to run away.

Another option is throwing hard candy at her. Apparently the kuchisake onna loves hard candy and will thank you for the treat.

If you say that you already belong to someone else and that you cannot answer her questions because of that, she will apologise and leave you alone.

Finally, you could just return the question and ask her whether she thinks you’re pretty or not. This will confuse her, giving you the opportunity to run away.

Drawing by Cageyshick05 on Deviantart

Drawing by Cageyshick05 on Deviantart

Is she real?

There were a lot of sightings after 1979, causing panic all over the Nagasaki prefecture. The cities were forced to issue curfews and to let the teachers guide the children to their homes.  Since the 2000’s, she was also sighted in South-Korea where she wears a red mouth mask and chases children.

 In 2007 a coroner found old records about a woman with a mouth mask who was chasing a couple of kids; she was run over by a car and when they took off her mouth mask, she had a mouth that was sliced open from ear to ear. Some people today think it was a serial killer who wanted to take revenge for what was done to her.

Just remember, always keep some hard candies on you, you never know the kuchisake onna wants to share her beauty complex with you.

Tell me I'm pretty!

Tell me I’m pretty!

Monster of the Week: Kappa (河童)

To start off our first real ‘Monster of the Week’, we decided to tell you more about the kappa (河童), one of the most famous monsters in Japan. This creature lives in rivers and many Japanese people still claim to see them often today. They are also portrayed in popular media and in some cities there are still warning signs concerning the kappa. There even is a type of sushi that is called a kappamaki (河童巻) which is just a roll filled with cucumber. Why the cucumber? Find out in this article.

Kappa surprise

Kappa surprise

What is a kappa exactly? The kappa can best be described as a humanoid form with childlike measurements. They seem to have reptilian skin and different colours, some are green and some are blue. Even though their description varies from region to region, the kappa has certain features that never change. First of all, the kappa has a beak as a mouth. Secondly, it has a sturdy shell like a turtle, and finally, every kappa has a flat, hairless surface, or a sara (皿), on the top of his head that is filled with water of the river he lives in. This water is the source of the kappa’s power. If the sara ever gets dry, it is said that the kappa will lose its power. Beside those features, the kappa has a body that is adjusted to living underwater; he has webbed hands and feet and can swim like a fish.

Different kinds of kappa

Different kinds of kappa

The kappa is of course considered a monster for a reason. It is known for its mischievous nature and it perform a lot of pranks. Some of these pranks can be harmless like looking up women’s clothing or loudly farting next to people, but sometimes they’re just plain evil. The kappa is for instance known for kidnapping children, drowning people or animals and raping women. It is said that they take humans for multiple reasons; drinking their blood, eating their livers and many more. The most interesting reason is that they want to eat the human’s shirikodama (尻子玉), a spiritual ball that has the human’s soul in it and that is located in the anus.

Some shirikodama action

Some shirikodama action

How can you defeat a kappa? Luckily there are a lot of ways to defeat a kappa. First of all, you could try to defeat it in a sumo match or by playing shogi (将棋), which is Japanese chess; kappa love challenges and will always go out of their way to accept one. If they win, you’re kappa food but if they lose, they will honour the challenge and leave you alone.

Challenge

Challenge

Another way to defeat a kappa is to make a deep bow towards it,; kappa have a strong sense of politeness and will bow back to you making the water spill from its head. The kappa gets its power from the water in the sara so it will be powerless. If you then fill it with water from the river, it will be in your service for as long as it lives.

Or you could just give it a cucumber. It is said that kappa love the taste of cucumbers even more than children’s flesh. If you give it a cucumber, it will leave you alone and just enjoy its cucumber in the water. Japanese people still write the names of their children on cucumbers and then toss these cucumbers in a river to protect their children from kappa. And that is why they call that sushi a kappamaki.

Kappamaki sushi

Kappamaki sushi

That being said, the kappa isn’t always that bad. It is said that kappa taught us how to set bones and how to irrigate fields. They also know a lot about medicine and will sometimes watch over an entire family. They often befriend humans in return for gifts and offerings. For these reasons, shrines were built to worship the kappa and kappa are still a very famous aspect of Japanese folklore.

The animation film "Kappa no Kū to no Natsuyasumi" (河童のクゥと夏休み) or "Summer Days with Coo"

The animation film “Kappa no Kū to no Natsuyasumi” (河童のクゥと夏休み) or “Summer Days with Coo”

So moral of the story? Always take a cucumber with you while walking next to a Japanese river.

Monster of the Week: A short explanation

After a long break, Inari Press is back and we decided to start with something new. Starting today Inari Press will have a column called “Monster of the Week” where we will write an article about the vast variety of monsters that exist in the Japanese folklore or in modern media. These articles will tell you all there is to know about Kappa (河童) or will discuss the evolution of the role of Gojira (ゴジラ) or Godzilla. We will also of course still have other articles beside these “Monster of the Week” articles where we discuss other Japan-related stuff.

 

Bakemono Zukushi

A typical Japanese monster from Bakemono Zukushi

For the first article we wanted to tell you more about the various kinds of monsters that exist. Japanese monsters, or bakemono (化け物), exist in wide varieties and can mostly be divided into two different groups, the yōkai (妖怪) and the yūrei (幽霊). The first group, the yōkai, is the biggest group and can be described as all of the supernatural monsters that exist. One of the most famous yōkai is the kitsune (狐), a fox that possesses supernatural powers and can shapeshift into a woman.

 

A group of kitsune by Hiroshige

A group of kitsune by Hiroshige

The second group, the yūrei, are spirits or ghosts that didn’t go to the afterlife because something kept them here. One of the most famous yūrei would be the onryō (怨霊) or the avenging spirit.  Beside these two groups there are also other forms of monsters like the yōsei (妖精) which can be compared to the Western fairies.

 

Sadako from Ringu, a typical onryo

Sadako from Ringu, a typical onryo

In the modern media another big group of monsters exists, the kaiju (怪獣). This group of monsters is used in live-action films or television dramas and also has different subgroups. The most famous kind of kaiju is the daikaiju (大怪獣), these are giant monsters that often attack cities and fight other daikaiju. The most famous one is of course Gojira.

 

Gojira or Godzilla, the most famous kaiju

Gojira or Godzilla, the most famous kaiju

The group of yōkai is so big that it can be divided into even smaller groups. The names of these groups are obake (お化け), oni (鬼), tsukumogami (付喪神), tengu (天狗), human transformations and others that are very specific in their habits. Obake are monsters that have the ability to shapeshift and can be evil, good or neutral. Oni are demons and ogres that most of the time have red, blue, brown or black skin and two horns. They often carry big weapons and are depicted as evil. Tsukumogami are a totally different kind of yōkai , these yōkai are household items that have come alive after a 100 years. Tengu are a form of goblins that are known for their supernatural powers and skill in martial arts. The human transformations are yōkai that have a human form, but are still monsters due to their deformities or killing habits.

 

The Hanadaka Tengu

The Hanadaka Tengu

Finally the group of the yūrei is also divided into smaller groups by way of death. The most important of these groups are onryō (怨霊), ikiryō (生き霊), ubume (産女) and funayūrei (船幽霊). The first group are the avenging spirits that haunt people because they were wronged during their life. Ikiryō do the same things as the onryō but have one difference, the person is still alive and aches for revenge so bad that their spirit manifests in the real world to take revenge. The ubume are good spirits, they are the spirits of mothers that died during or after childbirth that remain here to take care of their children. The last kind of yūrei are the spirits of those that died on a boat and haunt the waters where they died.

 

The spirit of Okiku who was thrown in a well.

The spirit of Okiku who was thrown in a well.

 

Starting next week, we will look at all these different kinds of monsters one by one and tell you all about them.