Funa Yurei

Translated from Nihon no Obake Banashi

Long ago, it was said that when a boat put out to sea on New Year’s Eve it was sure to catch the eyes of funa yurei.

Funa yurei are said to be the souls of drowning victims.  Bitter and wrathful towards the living, they rise up from the bottom of the sea to attack boats.

One time, at Mizushimanada in the Seto Inland Sea (West of modern day Okayama prefecture) a lone boat crossed the water heavy with goods for the New Year’s festival.  Due to the nature of its cargo, the boat had no choice but to cross on New Year’s Eve and was now being tossed about by the white-capped waves.

“What, do you fear to go sailing on New Year’s Eve?  Are we boatmen to have our livelihoods ended out of fear of the funa yurei?  The sky may be black as ink without a star in sight, but the wind is favorable and if we hold our course steady we will at be back home before we even left!”

Cheering themselves up in this manner, the boatsmen continued along the pitch-black sea.  For a time, everything was good. Their sales were full of wind, and they were traveling so fast it was as if they were flying over the water.  But suddenly the skies opened up, and a hammering rain began to fall.

“Damn!  This is some pretty bad stuff coming down on us…”

The boatsmen didn’t stop their work for evne a moment, and kept the boat steady on as the violence of the rain increased.  Suddenly, the boat ground to a halt as if something had moved up behind it and grabbed itl  The wind fell to a dead calm.

“What just happened?  Where is our wind?”

Then, just as suddenly, they were blasted by a fierce breeze that seemed to have come straight from the heart of winter.

“Everyone!  Push us ahead!  Heave to those oars!”

To the shock of the boatsmen, the boat held its ground, frozen to the spot as if it had set down roots.

“Wha…what is that?”

From deep under the water, something was drifting up towards the boat.  It looked almost like floating balls of cotton.

“No!…it can’t be!”

The white shapes moved relentlessly upwards, increasing in size as they approached.  The boatsmen could see them now; wrapped in kimonos as white as snow, their hair floated wildly in the water.   From below there was a ghastly light illuminating their faces.  There was no doubt these were the dreaded funa yurei.

“Lend us a hishaku…lend us a spoon…”

Their ghostly hands stretched up from the waves, and their voices carried their bitter grudge toward the living.

It is known that, if you should find yourself in such a situation and overcome by fear you actually had over the hishaku spoon they are requesting, then you are as good as dead.  Before your eyes, the single hishaku spoon will split into multiple spoons, and arms beyond you ability to count will stretch out from the ocean.

“Ei ya!  Ei ya! Ei ya!”

Singing their loathsome song with voices filled with hate, the funa yurei will ladle water from their infinite spoons until you boat is swamped.  And if this is not enough to sink your boat, they will reach up and drag it to the bottom of the ocean.  How many hundred of ships have been sunk in this manner?

“No no no…not to you…we will never lend you a spoon!”

But these boatsmen, shivering so badly they could barely hold their oars, refused absolutely and pulled the water with all their strength. This did not discourage the funa yurei.   Slowly the boat moved slowly forward in the water, followed closely by the funa yurei.

“Go away!  Just go away!”

The boatmen took their oars and began to beat with all their might on the heads of the funa yurei.

“Lend us a hishaku…lend us a spoon…”

A funa yurei grabbed hold of one of the oars and pulled with such strength that one of the boatmen was dragged into the ocean.

“No!”

Letting go of the oar, he clambered up the side of the boat upsetting the lantern they had used to guide their way through the black night.   Sparks flew off of the lantern, and the funa yurei fled before the power of the flame.    With that, the boat that had been held almost still in the water suddenly broke free and sped along smoothly.

“Ahhh….thanks to that lantern…”

The boatmen pulled with all of their remaining strength for the shore.

The funa yurei are found not only in the Seto Inland Sea, but anywhere in the waters surrounding Japan.   Always they ask for the hishaku spoon.

Because of this, some boats carry a specially prepared hishaku spoon with holes drilled in it.  This way, when the pass over the spoon the funa yurei are unable to fill the boat with water and they can make their escape.

This legend comes from Okayama prefecture, from an Edo period book called “Kasshi Yawa.”   A fishing villiage in this area still sells specially made hishaku spoons with holes that are said to ward off the funa yurei.

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  1. Trackback: Konjaku Monogatari selections | gaikokumaniakku

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