Nurarihyon – The Slippery Gourd

Nurarihyon Sawaki Sushi Hyakkai Zukan

Translated and Sourced from Koshiki Haidokubara, Gazu Hyakki Yagyo, Yokai Jiten, Ichiban Kuwashi Nihon Yōkai Zukan, Gegege no Kitaro, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Soruces

For more adventures of Nurarihyon, check out the comic book Wayward

The Yōkai Sōdaishō, Supreme Commander of Yokai. The leader of the Hyakki Yagyō, the Night Parade of 100 Demons. The King of the Chiryomoji, the Spirits of Earth and Air. In modern Japan, Nurarihyon is a yokai of many grand titles. All of which obfuscate his origins and a humble sea monster, floating in the Seto Inland Sea.

What Does Nurarihyon Mean?

The confusion over Nurarihyon starts with his name. It is most often written in hiragana only, as ぬらりひょん, which gives no inherent meaning. There is kanji that can be used, 滑瓢, combining 滑 (namera; slippery) + 瓢 (hyo; gourd) giving you something meaning “slippery gourd,” but it is thought that this kanji was added later to match the name. Old accounts of Nurarihyon only ever use the hiragana.

As to the meaning, there are two ideas. The “Nurari” part is almost universally accepted as meaning “slippery or evasive.” “Hyon,” can either mean “floating on the sea,” as it does in Okayama prefecture, or “gourd” as a reference to Nurarihyon’s oddly shaped head. And according to an Edo period Japanese-Portuguese dictionary, “hyon” simply means “mysterious.”

There is a further confusion as to the correct name for this yōkai. Some accounts speak of a creature called Nurarin or Nurihyon instead of Nurarihyon. The best guess is that in the past these were separate yōkai, but merged over time due to the similarities of their names.

Nurarihyon the Sea Monster

The oldest accounts of Nurarihyon—and the ones that owe more to folklore than commerce—come from Okayama prefecture. Nurarihyon is described as a type of Umi Bozu, The “slippery floater” of these legends is described as a bulbous mass that floats on the Seto Inland Sea, eternally bobbing up and down between the surfaces of the water.

This Nurarihyon is thought to be a yōkai version of the jellyfish called the Portuguese Man-o-War. Some consider it to be a “baby umi bōzu” that eventually grows up into the full-sized monster.

Nurarihyon the Nopperabo

The ukiyoe-zoshi Koshiki Haidokubara (好色敗毒散) has a one-sentence mention of Nurarihon.

“Nurarihyon looks like a catfish, without eyes or a mouth. It is a spirit of deception.”

There isn’t much to go on, but this account places Nurarihyon in the realm of the faceless yōkai like nopperabō. The “catfish” portion shows that at this time Nurarihyon was still considered a sea creature.

Nurarihyon the Unwanted Houseguest

Sekien Nurarihyon

The most common version of Nurarihyon in the modern world is that of the unwanted houseguest. He is almost always described in this way:

“One hectic days when the household is running around with barely a second to think, Nurarihyon slips casually into the house and sits down to a cup of tea acting as if he were the Lord of the Manor. People who see him and the casual ease with which he takes authority assume that he must indeed be the Lord. They fall upon themselves serving him, and don’t realize how they have been deceived until he is gone.”

The evolution of this version of Nurarihyon is unknown. It is thought to rise from Toriyama Seiken, who drew Nurarihyon as an old man with an oversized head, draped in a fine kimono and stepping out of a fancy palanquin into a home for his Gazu Hyakki Yagyo (Illustrated Night Parade of 100 Demons). In Murakami Kenji’s Yokai Dictionary, he says that the modern appearance of Nurarihyon is entirely and invention of Toriyama. In fact, Murakami notes that Toriyama didn’t intend for this to be Nurarihyon at all, and titles the character “Nurihyon.” Toriyama didn’t include any story or explanation of his yōkai, just the word “Nurihyon” next to his illustration.

Nurarihyon Bakemono Zukushi B

As is common with yōkai, Toriyama’s version of Nurarihyon became the standard image. All artists to follow copied his style. Nurarihyon appeared in a few yōkai collections, such as the different versions of the Bakemono Zukushi (化物づくし) and the Yōkai Zu-maki. These started out as direct copies of Toriyama’s illustration, eventually moving on to heavily stylized images of an old man with a massive head wearing a fine kimono.

Toriyama’s image of a wealthy yōkai showing up in his fancy palanquin, as well as descriptions of Nurarihyon as a spirit of deception, must have inspired writers to bring the two together into the role of the unwanted houseguest.

Nurarihyon the Supreme Commander of Yōkai?

Nurarihyon Bakemono Zukushi C
In addition to the description above of the unwanted houseguest, the 1970s yōkai encyclopedia Ichiban Kuwashi Nihon Yōkai Zukan (いちばんくわしい日本妖怪図鑑; Most Detailed Illustrated Encyclopedia of Japan’s Yokai) includes this addition.
“Nurarihyon is the Yōkai Sōdaishō (総大将), the Supreme Commander of Yōkai.”

The idea of Nurarihyon as a leader of yōkai is a modern one, coming from the manga era not the ukiyo-e era. During the Edo period, the Yōkai Sōdaishō was often considered to be the massive Mikoshi Nyudō. In some stories, Mikoshi Nyudō was married to the long-necked courtesan Rokurokubi, and their child was the Tofu Kozō. Nurarihyon was a relatively unimportant yōkai.

Nurarihyon Kitaro

The idea of Nurarihyon’s elevated status comes from Mizuki Shigeru’s seminal yōkai comic Gegege no Kitaro. When Nurarihyon and Kitaro first meet, Nurarihyon announces himself as the Yōkai Sōdaishō. Originally, it was meant to be an extension of the air of authority he exuded as an unwanted houseguest. Nurarihyon was the type of monster to make grand, unsupported claims about this own importance. However, as the comic continued the character changed into an actual yōkai leader. This was especially true of the animated series, where they required someone to be the “archvillain” for Kitaro and his friends to battle. Taking off from the comics, Nurarihyon was cast in the role. (In much the same way Bluto became the main antagonist for Popeye, a rivalry that did not exist in E.C. Segar’s original comic strip.)

Gegege no Kitaro Nurarihyon

Mizuki Shigeru’s influence on yōkai lore is no less than Toriyama’s, and so Japan accepted Nurarihyon as the leader of all yōkai, a position he still occupies in the country today.

Nurarihyon the Leader of the Hyakki Yagyō?

Nurarihyon on Film

One of the most illogical titles given to Nurarihyon is that he is the “Leader of the Hyakki Yagyō.” I say illogical, because all you have to do is look at the old Hyakki Yagyō picture scrolls to see that—not only is Nurarihyon not the leader of the night parade—he doesn’t even appear.

As a concept, the Hyakki Yagyō (Night Parade of 100 Demons) comes from the Heian period (794-1185), with the illustrated scrolls that first gave yōkai their individual shapes and personalities appearing in the Muromachi period (1337-1573). Toriyama Seiken’s original illustration of Nurarihyon did not appear until 1776, centuries after the mania for Hyakki Yagyō picture scrolls had disappeared.

Even then, there is no leader of the Hyakki Yagyō. The twist ending of the night parade is that the end of the parade is almost always the rising sun. The yōkai flee backwards against the light of the sun, forming a loop.

The only reference to Nurarihyon and the Hyakki Yagyō comes from an Edo period book by Sagae Masumi which states that:

“In twilight times, when the sky is thick with clouds and the cover of light rain, men and women meet for illicit meetings under the cover of darkness. On those days also yōkai like Nurarihyon, Otoroshi, and Nozuchi march in the Night Parade of 100 Demons.”

The origin of this title seems to come from the manga Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clans which depict Nurarihyon as a clan leader who organizes the night parade to march under his banner.

Nurarihyon_no_Mago_Japanese_Vol_1_Cover

Translator’s Note:

Wow! It has been far too long since I posted a new entry! I have been incredibly busy recently working on all sorts of projects, which hasn’t left me as much time as I would like to post new entries to hyakumonogatari.com. But thanks to everyone for patiently waiting!!!

I got interested in Nurarihyon as he is one of the main characters in the yōkai comic Wayward that I work on. (From Image Comics! You should totally check it out!) It is almost taken for granted that Nurarihyon is a leader amongst the yōkai, but I couldn’t find anything to support this in any of my Edo period books, so I went searching for answers. I was surprised to find that this was almost entirely an invention of Mizuki Shigeru. It shows just how influential his work is in Japanese yōkai culture!

And if you are curious as to what I have been up to (aside from my long-delayed book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost … sigh … thanks everyone for the preorder, and I apologize for the delays … ) check out some of the following!

Three Tales of Okiku

To learn much more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

Yoshitoshi_Ogiku

Night Stories of Takemata

Translated from Takemata Yawa; 1557

Around the time after the Kakitsu Revolt (1441), there lived a man named Odagaki Shumesuke, a chief retainer in a prestigious family in the Hatama country of Aoyama (Modern day Himeji city). Oda lived in a magnificent mansion in the mountains. In his household was a beautiful serving girl named Hanano, who was the object of many desires.

A young samurai named Kasadera Shinemon pursued Hanano, writing her love letter after love letter; but she always refused him.

One of the great treasures of the Odagaki family were five precious abalone drinking cups that they had received from the lord of the clan. One day Odagaki noticed that one was missing. He questioned Hanano about the missing cup, but she could only express her surprise. In a rage, Odagaki tortured Hanano, demanding the return of the priceless heirloom.

In truth, the cup had been hidden by Kasadera in revenge for Hanano’s repeated rejections. Kasadera eagerly joined in the persecution, beating Hanano severely while demanding return of the cup. Finally, while bound and hanging from a pine tree, Hanano died.

From then on, the terrible power of Hanano’s rage could be felt at the mansion every night, and the tree from which she died became known as the Hanging Pine.

 

Kunichika_100_Roles_Baiko_Okiku

The Plate Mansion of Ushigome

Translated from Tosei Chie Kagami; 1712

A samurai named Hattori lived in the Ushigome area of Edo. His wife was surpassingly jealous. One day the wife discovered that her husband’s mistress had broken one of the ten heirloom plates that the house had from Nanking, rendering them unsuitable for service to guests. The wife would not take money, but insisted that the mistress replace the broken plate. As the plates were quite old and rare, the wife knew this was an impossible demand.

Until the matter was settled, the wife had the mistress confined to a cell. She was given neither food nor drink, and the wife expected she would starve to death. However, on the fifth day the wife checked in and found the mistress still alive. Out of patience, the wife took matters into her own hand and strangled the mistress in her cell. She then paid to have her body taken from the house. To everyone’s surprise, the mistress suddenly revived insider her coffin and begged for release. Exasperated, the wife paid four strong men to strangle the mistress, and bury her body in an unmarked grave. With the deed done, the wife thought she was at last free of her rival.

But suddenly, the wife’s throat began to swell. She could no longer swallow food, and even had difficulty breathing. A doctor came to attend to her, but it was too late. The doctor could find no cause for her condition, and decided it must have been the onryō of the mistress coming for revenge. Later, it was found that the four men who had killed the mistress had died in the same way.

Hokusai_Sarayashiki

A Doubtful Record of the Plate Mansion

Translated from Sarayashiki Bengiroku; 1785

The Yoshida Mansion sits in the 5th ward of Ushigome-Gomon. The lot on which it was built was once the home to the palace of Lady Sen before she made her journey to Akasaka in Edo in 1626. After that, another building once stood in that lot which was burned down to the ground—the home of the minor lord Aoyama Harima.

In the house of Aoyama a young girl named Okiku worked as a maidservant. On the second day of the second year of Jōō (Jan 2nd, 1653), Okiku accidently broke one of the ten precious plates that were the heirloom of the Aoyama clan. Harima’s wife was furious, and said that since Okiku had broken one of the ten plates it was fair to cut off one of Okiku’s ten fingers in return. The middle finger on her right hand was chosen, and Okiku was confined to a cell until the punishment could be carried out.

During the night, Okiku managed to slip her bonds and escape from her cell. She ran outside and threw herself into an unused well, drowning at the bottom.

The next night, from the bottom of the well came a woman’s voice. “1 … 2 … “ Soon, the sound of her voice could be heard echoing throughout the mansion, counting the plates. Everyone was so terrified their hair stood up all over their bodies.

Harima’s wife was pregnant, and when she gave birth her child was missing the middle finger on its right hand. News of this made it back to the Imperial Court, and the cursed Aoyama family were forced to forfeit their territories and holdings.

The sound of the counting of the plates continued. The Imperial Court held special ceremonies to calm Okiku’s spirit, but all in vain. At last, they sent a holy man to the cleanse the spirit. That night, the holy man waited inside the house. He waited patiently as voice counted “ 8 … 9 …” and then he suddenly shouted “10!”

Okiku’s yūrei was heard to whisper “Oh, how glad I am” before she disappeared.

Translator’s Note

I just finished editing the Okiku chapter for my upcoming book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost and figured I would post these translations as a little preview! There is lots more about Okiku in the book itself.

Okiku is one of the most interesting yurei in Japan. She is a true folktale, with multiple versions spread across the country. Anywhere there is an old castle and a well, there is a legend of Okiku. She isn’t always named Okiku, and she isn’t always counting plates, but the same details are there.

Here are three translations of some different versions of the legends. I started with the oldest, so you can see how the tale has changed over time. Over the course of learning about her, Okiku changed from a yurei I thought was kind of boring, to one of my favorites. She is the most Japanese of Japan’s famous ghosts.

And I hope people aren’t getting too sick of my sales pitch, but if you can PLEASE preorder my book! I cannot emphasize enough how important preorders are going to be for my book’s overall success. If you enjoy my translations and articles on hyakumonogatari.com, the best way to support the site and show appreciation is to preorder a copy of my book! Thank you!!!

Kosodate Yūrei – The Child-Raising Yūrei

Kosodate_Yurei_Shigeru_Mizuki

Translated and Sources from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujara, Nihon no Yūrei, Inga Monogatari, and Other Sources

To learn much more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

Yūrei require a tether, something to connect them to the physical world, something strong enough to prevent them from moving on to the next world. Depending on the nature of this bond, a different type of yūrei can manifest. The bond of a mother to her child is one of the oldest and strongest of these tethers.

What Does Kosodate Yūrei Mean?

The kanji for the kosodate yūrei is descriptive. Kosodate (子育て) means child-raising. An alternate term substitutes amekai (飴買い) for the amekai yūrei meaning the candy-buying yūrei. Variations of the story can be found all over Japan, but most kosodate yūrei stories follow a consistent pattern.

The Legend of the Kododate Yūrei

Beisai_Kosodate_Yurei

There are multiple versions of the kosodate yūrei told all across Japan. Most of them follow an identical pattern. This version is told in Nihon no Yūrei by Ikeda Yasaburo as a personal recollection of a story that had been told to him:

“The name Tsukiji nowadays brings to mind a bustling fish market in Tokyo, but it was not always so. In the olden days, the area known as Tsukiji was packed with temples, mostly belonging to the Honkan-ji temple complex. The area was also covered in cemeteries.

Along the banks of the Sumida River that flows near Tsukiji, there were also stands selling fresh fish and the sweet sake for children known as amazake. In one story, late every night a woman clutching a child would come to a certain amazake dealer to buy the sweet sake from him, which she would then give to her child to drink. The sake dealer, sensing something mysterious about this woman, followed her from his stall one night and watched her as she made her way towards the main hall of the temple, where she disappeared like a blown-out candle. When she vanished, the sake dealer could hear the cry of a baby coming from somewhere in the cemetery. Tracking the sound to a freshly-dug grave, the sake dealer enlisted the help of some others to dig up the grave, and when opening the coffin discovered a crying baby nestled in the arms of its mother’s corpse.”

The legend has its origins in China, where it can be traced back to the book Yijian zhi (1198; Records of Anomalies), with the story of the mochikae onna, the rice cake-buying woman:

“One time, a woman who was pregnant died, and was buried in the ground. After that, a nearby rice-cake dealer began to have a strange customer come night after night, an odd woman carrying a baby. The woman always bought a rice cake for the baby. The dealer was suspicious, and stealthily tied a red string to the woman the next time she came in. After she left, he followed the red string and found that it led to a grave hidden under some bushes. After telling the bereaved family, they dug up the grave to find that the woman had given posthumous birth in her coffin. The bereaved family happily took the child to raise, and had the mother’s body cremated.”

Rokumonsen – Six Coins to Pay the River Crossing

Kosodate Yurei Painting

Another part of the kosodate yūrei legends are the use of rokumonsen, the six coins placed with dead bodies in order to pay the toll across the underworld River Sanzu. In many versions of this legend, the kosodate yūrei is using these coins. Often the story continues for five nights, until the body is dug up and the final coin is found resting in her dead hand.

Many other merchants receive even less. In several of the tales, the mother uses the tanuki trick of passing off leaves as coins, and the merchant is left with only a wallet of foliage after the true nature of the woman is discovered.

But coins or leaves, the loving mother rarely buys food for her child, no rice or nourishment, but often the small sweet candies or toys that a child would crave, caring more for the baby’s happiness than its welfare.

Kosadate Ame

Kosodate Ame

Kosodate yūrei remain a popular figure in Japanese folklore. To this day, a small shop in Kyoto still sells kosodate ame—child-rearing candy—and claims to be the very shop where the kosodate- yūrei came to buy candy.

Translator’s Note:

The kosodate yūrei is so similar to another type of ghost—the ubume—that they can almost be considered a different name for the same spirit. There are differences, however. The ubume is closely associated with blood, and with the Buddhist hell of Chi no Ike, the Lake of Blood, where women who died while pregnant were said to be consigned. Ubume also try to get someone to hold their baby, which kosodate yūrei never do.

Utsuro Bune – The Hollow Ship

Utsuro Bune Print

Translated and Adapted from Toen Shōsetsu, Hyōryū kishū, Ume no Chiri, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

Legend or fact? In the early 1800s, a strange iron ship with crystal windows drifted ashore off the coasts of the Hitachi province, modern day Ibaraki prefecture, where it was found by locals. By most accounts, inside was a mysterious woman with pale, pink skin and white-frosted red hair. She spoke an unknown language and clutched a square box made of some pale material, which she would not release. Unsure of what to do, the locals packed her back in her ship and pushed her back to sea.

It would seem to be a fairy tale, but the same woman and the same mysterious ship has been recorded drifting to shore in different locations, and the various accounts match each other almost exactly. Ufologists have co-opted the story claiming it is evidence of an early UFO siting, although this is extremely dubious. After all, the “F” in UFO stands for “Flying,” and that is something the Utsuro Bune definitely did not do. It is strictly a boat. Other’s claim it is some form of early submarine, or an attempt at a new technology for ocean-going vessels. Whatever the Utsuro Bune was, it remains a unique entry in Japan’s weird history.

What Does Utsuro Bune Mean?

In defining Utsuro Bune, the “bune” part is easy. 舟 (bune) means “boat,” plain and simple. “Utsuro” presents more of a challenge. When written, the hiraganaうつろ (utsuro) is used almost exclusively, giving no clue as to the exact definition. There are a few different meanings that could be attached. The most common translation is “empty” or “hollow.” Another reading is “quiver” like a quiver for arrows.

Another, obscure usage of utsuro describes the hollowed-out tree trunk of a sacred tree. There is some speculation that “utsuro bune” originally described a hollowed-out tree trunk into which a sacrificial victim was stuffed and then put out to sea; although there is very little evidence for this other than the name.

The Legend of the Utsuro Bune

The oldest account of the Utsuro Bune comes from a book thought to have been published in 1815, called Oushuku Zakki (鶯宿雑記; Miscellaneous Notes from the Nightingale Inn). The one-sheet text and illustration gives a short description of the event, and lays down the basic facts.

Oshuku Zakki Utsuro Bune

The most well-known account—and the most detailed—comes from Kyokutei Bakin and his book Toen Shōsetsu (兎園小説; Stories from the Rabbit Garden). Kyokutei lived in the late Edo period. He was what was called a bunkajin, meaning an intellectual, a cultured man of letters. Kyokutei was brimming with curiosity, and like many in the Edo period had a passion for the supernatural and the weird. He hosted a monthly gather of knowledge-seekers such as himself, called the Toenkai, Meeting of the Rabbit Garden. Kyokutei and his fellow bunkajin would gather to swap tales and share interesting or weird stories they had heard—something like what we would call a Writer’s Circle in the modern parlance.

The Rabbit Gardern knew all of the best weird tales of the day. They swapped first-hand accounts of yōkai and yūrei and urban legends, anything with the ting of the occult. The Utsuro Bune was a type of tale was called a michi tono sogu (未知との遭遇, eye-witness account). They chose the best of these stories and Kyokutei edited them and compiled them into the Toen Shōsetsu collection. Several of Japan’s famous weird tales come from that edition.

Kyokutei’s account of the Urotsu Bune is unusual for being so specific, even though it was written 22 years after the incident occurred. It is highly possible—and even probably—that one of Kyokutei’s “rabbits” read the account of the Miscellaneous Notes from the Nightingale Inn and decided to fill in the details.

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Urotsu Bune no Banjo – The Foreign Woman in the Hollow Boat

Translated from Toen Shōsetsu

Utsuro Bune Tales from the Rabbit Garden

On the 22nd of February, in the 3rd year of Kyowa (1803), in the Year of the Ox, a strange object that looked like a small boat was spotted off the shore of Tsuruhama. The fisherfolk who lived in that area observed the strange vessel and took to their boats and rowed out to meet it. With great effort, they towed the mysterious objects into the shallows and drug it onto the beach. It was unlike any boat they had ever seen.

The vessel measured about 3.30 meters tall and 5.45 meters wide. It was round as a ball, and resembled a covered incense burner. The top half was made of what looked like red-lacquered rosewood, with windows patterned like folding screens—only with glass panels instead of paper. The whole thing was sealed watertight; with the seams plugged with something like pine pitch. The bottom of the vessel was bound with ribs of metal—possibly bronze or iron. It is speculated that the metal plating protected the boat from impact with sea rocks. Everyone was much amazed when the top swung open, as if hinged by some hidden latch or mechanism. Then the woman appeared.

Her face was a pale pink color, and her hair and eyebrows were vivid red. Here hair hung down her back, and had been lengthened with strips of something white, either animal fur or a kind of fabric. The extensions had been covered in white powder, almost like flour. What it was exactly, we have no way of knowing. Her dress was elegant and of strange material, tight at the top and loose at the bottom. The village women were very interested in seeing how she had achieved the effect of her hair and dress, but it remained a mystery.

When the villagers attempted communication with the woman, she responded in an unknown language. She was about 1.5 meters tall, and carried a square box. This box appeared very important to her, and she would not release her grip on it for an instant. She would not let anyone even get close to it.

The villagers checked the interior of the mysterious ship, and found two sheets, and two small containers of water (the water supply was insufficient for survival, so the ship must have had some means of generating fresh water). There was some form of baked goods and some kind of meat twisted together like a rope that served as provisions.

The villagers had a discussion about what to do with the strange woman and her boat. An elder of the village proposed the idea that perhaps she was a princess of some distant country. Perhaps the princess had been married, but took a commoner as a lover. As punishment, her father the King had her lover’s head chopped off and put into a box, then the princess was placed in this odd vessel and abandoned at sea. After all, he reasoned, you couldn’t directly execute a beloved royal princess. This way her life was in the hands of the gods.

The elder said that would explain her devout attachment to the box, and her resistance to relinquishing it or letting anyone look inside. The elder said he had heard of things happing like that before, and he remembered some story of a woman washing ashore in similar circumstances long ago.

It was decided that the best thing to do would be to put the girl back into her hollow boat and return her to the sea. It seemed cruel, but the villagers did not want to interfere with the intentions of some foreign state. So they put the girl back in and rowed her back out into the deep sea and set her adrift again, leaving her to her fate.

It was also noted that the inside of the hollow boat was covered in strange writing. Some suggested that perhaps it was the writing of Great Britain, or perhaps the girl was some lost princess from the distant country of America. But there was no way to know for sure.
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Other accounts of the Usturo Bune soon surfaced, each with a slight variation. If you believe all the accounts, the poor girl kept drifting ashore to various spots in Japan, each time only to mercilessly returned to the ocean. It seems no one was willing offer her a helping hand.
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Translated from Hyōryū kishū (1835: 漂流紀集: Diary and Stories of the Castaways)

Utsuro_Bune_Castaways

Hitachi province, Shakehama. An odd boat looking the same as this illustration drifted ashore. Inside was a woman between the ages of 18-20, with a pale complexion, red eyebrows, and hair that matched the red color of her eyebrows. Here teeth were white, and her lips a deep crimson. Here arms were slender, and she could be considered beautiful. She was well-mannered and calm. As you see in the picture, she was carrying a wooden box that seemed to be very important to her. We do not know the contents as she would allow no one to handle the box. She spoke, but not in a language that could be understood by any of those present. We assume she is a foreigner, not only by her strange speech but because her features and coloring are not those of a Japanese or other Asian person. Inside her strange vessel she has some provisions, what looks like baked goods and some meat that has been treated in some manner. But the exact contents are unknown to us. She has a large tea cup. The construction of her ship was also unknown, made of equal parts metal, wood, and some form of ceramics. Inside we could clearly see the writing that is reproduced on this picture.

Description of the Boat: It was about 3.3 meters tall, and 5.4 meters wide. The body appeared to be lacquered rosewood bound with iron or bronze. There were windows made of crystal or glass. The woman appeared to be about 18-20 years old. She had a pale complexion, with red hair. There was writing on the left side of the ship, reproduced faithfully.

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Urotsu Bune no Banjo – The Foreign Woman in the Hollow Boat

Translated from Ume no Chiri – (1844; 梅の塵 : The Dust of Plums)

Utsuro Bune Color

This happened in the spring of the 3rd year of Kyowa (1803), in the vicinity of Haratonohama. A strange vessel drifted ashore.

This vessel was shaped like a hollow sphere, looking something like an iron cooking pot. Around the circumference it was edged like the lip of a pot. The top half of the sphere had the appearance of black lacquer, and was covered in windows. The windows looked like shoji paper screens, and were covered in some sort of pitch. The bottom half of the sphere was bound with iron ribs, as protection from rocks. It looked like the high-quality iron that comes from the Western countries. It was 3.60 meters tall and 5.40 meters wide.

Inside the strange vessel was a lone woman, who appeared to be about 20 years old. She stood roughly 1.50 meters tall. Here skin was as white as snow, and her long black hair hung down her back like a plume. The beauty of her face was enough to render us all speechless. Her clothes were like nothing we had ever seen before, made of some remarkable and mysterious fabric.

She spoke no language that we could understand.

She carried a small box, the contents of which are unknown. Under no circumstances would she allow others to hold the box or even get near it.

Inside the boat, there were two sheets laid down as some sort of carpeting. They were softer than anything we had ever felt before. For food, she had some sort of baked goods, and some kind of meat. We saw a single drinking bowl like a large tea cup. Everything was patterned with some sort of design, but we could not determine its meaning.
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Truth Behind the Legend?

うつろ舟/江戸時代のUFO?

Who knows. This is one of those fanciful bits of history where the real story will probably never be known. It is VERY different from other weird tales of the Edo period, by virtue of being so specific in detail and lacking any supernatural element.

The Utsuro Bune is a classic case of “the legend has grown in the telling.” Modern legend trippers have taken up the story, added their own details, and twisted the story like a modern game of telephone. Modern Japan has embraced the legend—and commercialized it like their own Roswell—creating a recreation/play space of the Utsuro Bune at one of the locations where it apparently touched shore.

Utsuro_Bune_Park

But at the core is always Kyokutei’s original account of a strange woman in a strange boat. And that mystery is good enough without embellishment!

Translator’s Note:

I discovered the Utsuro Bune completely by accident, and then became hooked on it. A little too much, I think, because I started researching and translating Utsuro Bune legends when I should have been working on other things!

There is SO much written on the Utsuro Bune that I could barely cover it here. Separating out all the different elements can be difficult. If you are interested in reading more, the English Wikipedia article is very extensive and has lots of good links and resources. In fact, the Wikipedia article is so good I almost didn’t bother to do this entry. But I noticed the one thing that was missing was translations of some of the original Utsuro Bune stories! So I tracked down a few of them and translated them!

The Kabuki Ghost of Kohada Koheiji

Kohada Koheiji Hokusai Full

Translated and Adapted from Fukushu Kidan Asaka no Nema and Japanese Wikipedia

To learn more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

What happens when a man who is a master of playing a yūrei in kabuki dies and becomes a yūrei himself? That is the question answered in the strange story of Kohada Koheiji, the kabuki actor who finally assumed the role he was born to play.

The Strange Story of Revenge in Asaka Swamp

Matsusuke Onoe I as Kohata Koheiji by Toyokuni
Kohada Koheiji was a third-rate kabuki actor struggling to make a living on the Edo kabuki stage during the time of Ichikawa Danjūrō II (1688-1758). Kohada lacked both natural talent and experience, and could not be cast in a role. Feeling sorry for him, Kohada’s drama instructor bribed a director to cast Kohada in some role—any role. Just so that Kohada would finally be able to take to the stage.

The director took one look at Kohada and saw that he bore a natural resemblance to the yūrei characters of kabuki. His skin was white, his eyes dark and sunken, and his hair long and unruly. The director thought he could save some money on make-up and costume and cast Kohada in the yūrei role of the play.

While it wasn’t exactly his dream role, Kohada saw this as his big break and threw himself into studying. He went to the morgue to observe dead faces, and learned how to slack his face muscles and hold his body like a dead man. His diligence and hard work paid off, and Kohada was an overnight success. His fame spread, however his skill was limited. He could only be cast in yūrei roles, which led his fellow actors to nickname him Yūrei Kohada.

Kohada had a wife named Otsuka whom he was deeply in love with. Otsuka, however did not return the affection and thought Kohada was an embarrassing fool. Behind his back she was having an affair with a fellow actor named Adachi Sakuro. Together they hatched a plot to get rid of Kohada.

Kohada Koheiji Utagawa-Toyokuni

When they were away together on a tour, Adachi invited Kohada to go fishing. Suspecting nothing, Kohada went out with Adachi on a boat into the Asaka Swamp. Once they were far out from shore, Adachi surprised Kohada, pushing him off the boat and holding him under the water until he drowned.

Adachi was thrilled with his deed, and hurried back to let Otsuka know that he had cleared the path to their love. But he was not the only one. Kohada was not content to lie dead at the bottom of the swamp. He rose again a yūrei, and went to meet Adachi and Otsuka in Edo.

As might be expected, Kohada was a fabulous yūrei. More than any man alive, he had practiced enough to perfect the role. His new dead self looked exactly has he had on the stage, and he knew every trick to elicit terror in the cheating, murderous couple. He haunted them relentlessly, driving them had and eventually to their own unnatural deaths.

The Historical Kohada Koheiji

Kohada-Koheiji--Utagawa-Kunitoshi

Kohada Kojeiji was a popular figure in Edo period romance fiction and kabuki theater. His story and image appear in numerous plays and art, including Hokusai’s famous portrait of his skeletal form peering over the mosquito net.

It was always assumed that the story was true. It was passed around town as an urban legend, with bits and pieces being gathered and attached here and there. The story was finally written and published in the 3rd year of Kyowa (1803), written by Santō Kyōden with illustrations by Kitao Shigemasa, under the title Fukushu Kidan Asaka no Nema (復讐奇談安積沼; The Strange Story of Revenge in Asaka Swamp). It was adapted for the kabuki stage in the 5th year of Bunka (1808), written and directed by the playwright Tsuruya Namboku VI under the title Iroe Iri Otogi Zoku. (彩入御伽艸; Colored Nursery Tales).

We know the details of Kohada Koheiji’s story thanks to Yamazaki Yoshishige, a historical investigator who wrote the journal Umiroku (海録; Record of the Sea) from 1820 to 1837. Yamazaki investigated the story of Kohada Koheiji, and found that glimmers of the story began around the 1700s. Piecing everything together, he discovered the model for the story, a traveling entertainer whose name was actually Kohada Koheiji. Kohada had apparently been a terrible actor who killed himself out of despair for his lack of talent. His wife was not saddened by the loss, and asked a friend to help cover up the embarrassing death, hoping to report Kohada as missing or run off. They did not do a good job, and the deed was uncovered.

The real wife was rumored to have an affair with the real Adachi Sakuro, and Kohada’s body was discovered in Chiba prefecture in Inba Swamp. When that story became news, it was only a small leap from the true story for townspeople to speculate that Kohada’s wife and Adachi had actually killed Kohada. From there, the story gained traction as the details were filled in and the supernatural elements added.

Kohada’s Haunting

small_The-actor-Bando-Hikosaburo-in-two-roles-The-ghost-of-Kohada-Koheiji-and-his-sleeping-wife-Otawa-in-the-play-Iroiri-Otogigusa

Like another kabuki ghost, Oiwa, Kohada is said to still be haunting the kabuki theater. He is said to especially haunt those who take on his role in kabuki adaptations. The only way to get out of this curse is to make an offering at his grave before taking on the role. Ever since the Edo period, actors taking on the yūrei roles were thought to take their lives into their own hands.

During the Edo period, children were less afraid than the adults. They had a saying of “Yūrei aren’t scary! Look, I’m eating Kohada!” referring to the small shad fish called kohada.

Translator’s Note:

I did a translation of the story of Kohada Koheiji for Yurei: The Japanese Ghost and figured I would post it here as a little preview! (Which, if you haven’t preordered yet, please do! Cue the quick sales pitch—it is getting down to the time when books stores will place their initial orders, and having strong preorder sales will make all the difference!!! If you enjoy my translations and articles on hyakumonogatari.com, the best way to support the site and show appreciation is to preorder a copy of my book! Thank you!!!)

Kohada Koheiji is an interesting figure in that he is one of the few male yūrei from the Edo period to show up consistently in art. Oiwa, Otsuyu, and Okiku were regular attractions in ukiyo-e, but only Kohada joins their ranks for the men’s team. Artists almost universally chose the scene of Kohada peeking over the mosquito netting for their work. Because it is so darn spooky!

Hokusai_Kohada_Koheiji

 

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