Recently I got the wonderful opportunity to visit the city of Kyoto. It is well known around the world as the center of Japanese traditional history and it welcomes international visitors annually who desire to explore the city’s many temples and shrines. Kyoto used to be Japan’s capital and many locals still have a strong sense of pride and an even stronger sense of community. One of the most famous areas in Kyoto is Gion (祇園) which remains today as the famous geisha district where one might spot a “maiko” (apprentice geisha) diligently on her way to one of her lessons.
While there are many places bustling with tourists daily in the old capital, there are also secrets and curious surprises tucked away between the streets and alleys. One of these is a street named “Yokai Street”, which is called by this name even on google maps, and runs along Ichijo dori/street. It is a funny little area where locals have set up their own “yokai” to guard (or simply just haunt) their shops and homes.
But What Are Yokai?
Yokai can be translated into English as many different things. Specters, ghosts, monsters, beasts, spirits…there really is no correct word because yokai canopies a variety of creatures. They are deep rooted in Japanese folklore and have been used to explain supernatural phenomena or natural phenomena that was thought to be inexplicable and beyond human understanding.
There are generally fives types of yokai; animal, human, plant, object and natural substance. They cover all sorts of happenings, from getting lost in the mountains to disobedient cats. They live just about anywhere and if you take all the folklore into account they should be all over the place.
I am no yokai expert, but I do know a bit about the more popular ones. The kappa, for example, is a humanoid sea monster that lives in ponds and lakes and if they attack they usually go for a human’s anus.
Let’s take a look at some of these monsters on Yokai street and see if we can figure out their agendas.
On First Glance: A lizard donning a combat helmet.
What It Could Mean: Maybe he/she’s bringing flowers to a fallen comrade’s grave?
No, Really: This guy could be a kappa, actually. The green and scaly looking appearance alludes to that as well as the beak like shape protruding from its head. The murky, plant like hair is also characteristic of a kappa. These creatures normally have a dish upon their heads, and if the water in the dish spills they become so weak that they could even die. This one’s dish or bowl looks like it is turned over, so maybe we’re looking at kappa taxidermy?
Fun Fact: Kappas have three anuses.
On First Glance: A man thinking deeply (but probably not as deep as his nasal cavity)
What It Could Mean: He could be thinking about how to remove that shop sign from his little platform.
No, Really: He is probably a daitengu or even sojobo which translates to “high priest” who is referred to as the king of the tengu (Divine dogs) The sojobo is actually from northern Kyoto, specifically Mount Kurama. He is said to have white hair and a long schnoz, so the description seems on the nose! (Ha!) The red face indicates a daitengu, however, so this might be more fitting.
Fun Fact: The longer the nose the stronger the Tengu. *wink*
On First Glance: A fashionable cat who watches your umbrellas.
What It Could Mean: I’d be weary about leaving your umbrellas with this one. I sense this yokai could possibly put a curse on them and turn them into karakasa kozo, which are yokai umbrella!
No, Really: She could just be a kind of bakeneko, or “ghost/monster cat”. They can walk on their hind legs and enjoy dressing up in human clothes to fool people. I almost asked her for directions, so it worked.
Fun Fact: A bakeneko is said to have an exceptionally long tail which led to the superstition of nipping off a cat’s tail in order to prevent it from transforming into a yokai. To this day, many cats around temples and shrines have little short bobs for tails.
On First Glance: We have a lantern and, um, a mushroom?
What It Could Mean: They look like pranksters, so they could be children.
No, Really: Actually, that might be right — the big one could be hitotsume kozo or “One-eyed priest boy”. They are often depicted with their red tongues sticking out and one eye. They are in fact mischievous and enjoy spooking people on dark streets. The lantern is a chochin obake which is simply a paper lantern ghost that also enjoys scaring people.
Fun Fact: The hitotsume kozo do not eat people but they won’t shy away from licking someone from head to toe.
On First Glance: A bird with cute googly eyes trying to entice you with flowers. Maybe an owl?
What It Could Mean: Could be the bird’s shop…wait, are these constructed over traffic cones?
No, Really: Could be the tatarimokke, which is the spirit of a dead baby which possesses the body of an owl. There are many bird yokai but its feathers color pattern more closely resembles an owl more than anything else.
Fun Fact: When you hear an owl hoot it is said that the sound is actually created by the spirit of the dead baby within.
On First Glance: Either a cat or a fox — and it looks like it needs a new wig.
What It Could Mean: It looks like someone wearing a fox mask. Or a fox in a kimono. One thing disguising as something else seems to be a running theme.
No, Really: A kitsune tsuki seems to be the likely candidate which is a fox spirit possessing a human being. The white and red painted face is also common if you look for kitsune tsuki artwork.
Fun Fact: Kitsunes can actually possess an individual or an entire family. Some willing mediums allowed kitsunes to possess them for the purpose of divination.
On First Glance: A Jurassic Park toy was given a makeover.
What It Could Mean: Yokai have been around so long, maybe even when dinosaurs inhabited the earth?
No, Really: This one is kind of a mystery so use your imagination.
Fun Fact: There are people on this earth who believe dinosaurs weren’t real due to their religious beliefs. Spooky!
On First Glance: A pig faced humanoid that enjoys wearing children’s clothing.
What It Could Mean: Could be the spirit of a child that possessed a boar. Yeah, these were definitely constructed over traffic cones.
No, Really: This one is also a little unclear. What comes to mind are the demons that guard hell in Japanese Buddhism, which can be pig-headed but also have the head of a deer, lion, ox and other animals.
Fun Fact: Usually found operating the torture chambers in hell (hell is called Jigoku in Japanese Buddhism) You’d never guess!
On First Glance: A one-eyed cyclops like gentleman ready for his casting audition for the new Takashi Miike film.
What It Could Mean: One-eyed yokai are pretty common. He might just want to fit in with everyone else hoping he doesn’t stand out.
No, Really: Could be a hitotsume nyudo, or one-eyed priest. They’re known to assult humans and dress in sloppy robes but this guy is a bit more modernized.
Fun Fact: They are able to increase and decrease their size and are quite often depicted as giants.
On First Glance: Recognizable, probably one of the more famous yokai. Her name is also kindly written on the paper in front of her. The one above her is actually talking about tengus.
What It Could Mean: Always thought this yokai was friendly and liked to stretch out its neck for the fun of it.
No, Really: This yokai is a rokurokubi, which is an ordinary woman who was cursed to have a really stretchy neck.
Fun Fact: At night, this yokai likes to feed on lamp oil.
I couldn’t really identify the rest of these yokai or they just seemed similar in nature to some of the ones above. In any case, here are some more of the yokai inhabitants of yokai street.