Hello, and welcome to Lukelore! The Ghost Story Guys folklore facing spin off show, where I showcase a topic each month either from a main Podcast episode to expand, from a listener request, or else I’ve just found something that interests me to run with. This is sort of a “found something interesting” episode, but it also has a direct link to the main show I’ll get into later. This month, I’m looking into Japanese Yokai, and barely scratching the surface since this is an absolutely massive topic. Weirdly, I timed the Yokai episode with the release of Nioh 2 this month, a videogame I helped test that features this aspect of Japanese folklore quite heavily. This was a subconscious at best and more likely a total coincidence, but it works!
I have a soft spot for Yokai, purely because they are so fantastical and more than a little monstrous, so for this month I wanted to give a quick introduction to the topic and pick out a small number of individual Yokai to tell the story of. Oh, and pronunciation warning. I can barely speak English, so while I will do my best I would like to apologise to Japan in advance. Yokai are hard to pin down as one exact thing, or at least they aren’t easy to sum up as just one single thing. “Japanese monsters” is tragically oversimplifying it.
The Kanji for Yokai is a combination of two others: One for “bewitching, attractive, and/or calamity”. The other covering “spectre, apparition, mystery, and/or suspicious”. Japanese is a very nuanced language that comes with a lot of possible meanings depending on context. They can sometimes bring good fortune, but usually sit somewhere between mischief and malice.
Sound familiar to anyone? They sure do seem a lot like Western European fairy creatures… Emphasis on the “creatures”, as while there are some humanlike Yokai they’re usually animalistic in form. Probably the best way to introduce Yokai is with a widely known one, so let’s start off with the Kappa.
Translated, this simply means River Child, and immediately anyone who keeps up with Lukelore and remembers the innocuous sounding “water horse” already should have alarm bells ringing.
They look like turtles that stand on two feet similar to people, their short stature about that of children, and they have a strange indent on the top of their turtle heads which makes a sort of dish to carry the water of their river around with them if they leave for land.
As well as being short, they are also slow and clumsy when they walk along the ground. But they are powerful swimmers and much stronger than a man even while out of the water, they are definitely not to be messed around with. While revered as water spirits in Shinto traditions, frequently getting offers of cucumbers at the edges of their waters, these waters are also marked out as dangerous. Kappa are usually mischievous, pulling pranks and peeking up girl’s kimono’s on land, but they can be extremely dangerous in the wrong conditions. Especially in the water that belongs to them!
They hate horses and cattle, killing livestock that stray onto their riverbanks if the owners aren’t careful, and have a nasty habit of attacking people swimming in their waters in assortedly terrible ways depending on the type of Kappa.
There’s a trick to staying safe from them. Well, two tricks if you count staying the hell out of their water. You’re screwed on their home turf so just stay away from Kappa territory. But outside of the water they have a trick to dealing with them. Even with their natural inclination towards mischief they are renowned for politeness, and will always return a bow. The trick here? Remember that dish like indent on their head, which holds their home water for them on land? It’s the source of their strength when they’re out of the river. Give a nice deep bow they will feel obliged to return, and they will pour away the source of their power, leaving them easy to subdue on land.
I just love this aspect of Japanese folklore. It’s all about knowing the rules. If you know, and follow, the rules you can get out of terrifying paranormal situations. Often even enjoying a benefit to doing so! I mean, you can also try to hit them in the head to make them spill it if you want to be a tough guy, but given that they have a reputation of liking to eat humans asshole first to get at their favourite human meat inside of a person’s anus I would stick to the trick personally. Besides which, having just mentioned potential benefits, a subdued Kappa may become loyal to the person who tricked it once returned to their river, since they can die on land once their water is spilled, and having a super strong turtle goblin friend will probably pay off long term. Another Yokai familiar in wider culture, or more accurately a subtype of Yokai, are the various monster women of Japanese folklore. There’s a whole wide assortment of “Onna” suffixed Yokai, all of which are typically out to eat unsuspecting people. If you are blundering off the tourist-y path and a panicked local is shouting “something Onna” after you and desperately waving for you to come back, essentially always listen and go back. Bad times ahead.
Got a fun vampire-y one to share here, of which there are quite a few, with the Nure Onna. This seems to basically translate as “wet woman” and is a giant snake lady that can be found in all kinds of fresh and salt water in various regions of Japan that feeds on human blood. They can come either with arms, being a kind of water snake mermaid dealie, or else just have a woman’s head on the end of a giant sea serpent. Their human-like features are supposed to be quite fearsome looking with obvious serpent aspects such as fangs and forked tongue, but they come with the J-horror iconic long black hair which is always dripping wet and stuck to their bodies helping disguise their true nature, so long as the winding snake bit is submerged.
As with a lot of other Yokai, they’re so much stronger than a regular person any notion of fighting them is basically a joke. Nure Onna specifically have stories of being strong enough to shatter a tree trunk with their coils, which I would like to point out is an object much tougher than a squishy human meatsack. But your advantage here is that they prefer to try and trick people into becoming a snack. Nure Onna lure people to their doom with a fake baby and pretending to be drowning in the water, begging passers by to hold the baby so they can rest safely for a moment. Upon taking the baby, this lure will be revealed as a bundle of twigs and stones which then becomes two things: Impossible to let go of like a damn Kelpie, and heavy as a boulder.
Off to the bottom of the drink with you!
The good news is that you won’t drown. The Nure Onna will be right with you to drain all your blood.
How to deal with a Nure Onna is a little tricky, I didn’t really turn much up on a quick lore dive. They don’t at least seem to come chasing you out of the water, and it should go without saying DO NOT SWIM WITH THE GIANT SNAKE VAMPIRE MONSTER LADY. One simple way to deal with them, and avoid the worry of possibly abandoning an actual woman with baby in distress, is to use gloves. The trap bundle will stick to the gloves instead of your skin, and you can allow the weight to slip the gloves right off before commencing Universal Paranormal Plan A: Flee screaming.
One other way I saw mentioned is to politely ask to hold the baby. The Nune Onna will then pass you the baby to hold without the magic trap kicking in, and you can then pass the bundle back after playing along what a lovely baby it is. Feel free to be polite and complimentary as you do so, not only to play the part but to also avoid an angry Nune Onna. Then commence Universal Paranormal Plan A as above. They sound pretty terrifying so far, but Yokai aren’t typically a force for evil and are instead simply doing what comes natural to them. It just happens to be that humans are delicious, and below Yokai on the food chain. A much nicer entity under the Yokai banner a lot of people outside of Japan may have become aware of through cultural osmosis is the tree spirits, or Kodama.
A Kodama is a gentle nature spirit, living far away from civilisation connected to an ancient tree. If the Kodama dies, the tree they are bonded to dies, and vice versa. I don’t think “bonded” is the right word actually, it’s more that they are one and the same. You may see a Kodama as lights, or as a small humanoid form made out of fungus, but mostly you will never see a Kodama except as a very old tree. The spirit will tend to nature around its arboreal form with little care for interacting directly with humans.
They’re not a totally helpless gentle nature spirit though, they ARE a Yokai, and can be regarded as divine spirits to boot. These very old trees, once identified, will often be marked out with a shimenawa, a sacred rope, and even without one cutting into a giant Kodama tree will give you one last warning as the tree bleeds. Continue to cut this ancient tree down anyway because you have a bad case of The Dumb?
Congratulations! You just sinned and won a prize! A curse so powerful it won’t just kill you, although it probably will do that too in short order, but it will wipe out your whole community.
Just because it isn’t actively trying to eat you doesn’t mean a Yokai is easy prey for human avarice. I want to end this with a rather special Yokai, which actual ties into some of my very first correspondence with The Ghost Story Guys Podcast. A random line got dropped in an episode waaaay back when, this was after I had already had a discussion with the Guys about Wendigo folklore, where Brenann joked about Black Dogs asking me to get on to some research for them.
And so I went on to make a Black Dogs Primer for them, which included this Yokai which was a pretty damn cool Japanese variation as I looked for Black Dogs from around the world.
This is the Okuri Inu, the sending-off dog, sometimes known as the Okuri Okami, or sending-off wolf.
Found on remote mountain passes or along wild woodland paths, The Okuri Inu will seem like a regular dog or wolf is following someone right up until the moment it’s clear they really aren’t of this world. These Yokai are carnivores with a taste for human meat, and having spotted someone out alone will follow along behind the traveller as they go. This is where the “sending off” name comes in, it’s almost as if they were a friend “seeing off” a friend as they leave. That is until the traveller stumbles or falls down, when they pounce to tear them to shreds and devour the now bitesize chunks...
It gets even better! The Okuri Inu are easily one of the most powerful and fearsome Yokai to roam the wilds of Japan, all other creatures avoid them. Mortal and otherwise, nothing wants to mess with the Okuri Inu. Not even any other Yokai. You aren’t going to be able to fight one. You can’t run from one. You have to keep on walking as if nothing is wrong, and not lose your footing on the treacherous terrain in the dark at any point on your journey.
But this can work in your favour…
Having an Okuri Inu following you keeps everything else away. So as long as you play along with them, you only have a single thing to worry about.
Once again, it’s all about knowing the rules and following them. The first thing you have to do is remain calm, and keep going. Having the most dangerous supernatural creature in the area right behind you means you have nothing else to worry about. If you DO stumble, you are going to get pounced on with unnatural speed to be turned into Yokai kibble and bits, but you have one chance to save yourself if you’re fast.
You have to play it off like you did it deliberately. Say “Heave-ho” or “this is exhausting”, “Dokkoisho” or “Shindoi wa” respectively, and quickly sit down as if you weren’t falling and instead just taking a break. Give it a few moments to sell the ruse before getting back up again, and the Okuri inu will have patiently waited for you to take your break.
Assuming you make it out of the wilds, as soon as you leave the mountain or forest pass you need to turn back and call out “Thanks for seeing me off” as if this had all been some sort of friendly plan and not a dinner game for a Yokai, likely confusing the Okuri Inu more than convincing it. As soon as you reach your destination make sure to wash your feet and leave out an offering of meat in gratitude for watching over you. This particular Okuri Inu should then never follow you again.
It occurs to me I don’t know the Japanese for “Thanks for seeing me off”, and I doubt the Yokai knows the English… Maybe Google that while you’re playing it cool on the walk out of there.
Apparently another Yokai, a creepy bird called the yosuzume, will make a distinctive “chi,chi,chi” song as a warning a Okuri Inu is following someone, so add that to the warning signs alongside “suspicious canine follower” and “literally everything else has run for its life” that hint you have a problem.
Apparently there’s a similar Yokai called an Okuri Itachi in parts of Izu and Saitama, except it’s a weasel and loooaaaads easier to deal with. Chuck it one of your shoes to eat, and the Okuri Itachi will leave you alone. Kind of wanted to mention that because I thought it was funny, although thinking on it being mauled to death by a demonic murderweasel would probably hurt a lot more than being shredded at super speed by the Yokai Black Dog equivalent. Okay, that’s all for this month, round up time! First up, there is a super fun website called, simply enough, yokai.com to explore if you want an online bestiary of the Japanese Otherworld. Highly, highly recommended, this is where I first found the Okuri Inu tale.
Anyone curious about the Black Dog and Fairy primers I made? Or the obscure Wendigo folklore email I sent when first getting in touch with the show? Well, they still exist in email form. Feel free to get in touch with the show and, after initially confusing Ian or Brennan, I’ll sort out getting the primers forwarded to you. Just send us a message clearly marked Pre-Lukelore Primers to: email@example.com requesting which of the three, or all of them, to be forwarded on. Well… I say “clearly marked”, as long as you send it to the Lukelore email it won’t get lost in the shuffle.
I’ll hook you up so you can have a read J Feel free to get in contact with the firstname.lastname@example.org account for anything else Lukelore related too! The other email for general show stuff is email@example.com, plus both the show along with myself are very easy to find on Facebook as well as Twitter. Let me know basically anywhere if you have any Lukelore requests, I can do plenty more Yokai if you’re interested for one thing. Let me know if you enjoyed the topic. There is also has a very active Ghost Story Guys Instagram account if you want quality internet content streamed to your devices.
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Goodbye for now. Hope to catch you all again next month!