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

 

Todomeki – The Hundreds-of-Eyes Demon

Shigeru_Mizuki_Todomeki

Translated from Konjaku Hyakki Shui, Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujara, and Japanese Wikipedia

A young girl covered entirely in a tattered robe creeps up to you on a darkly lit street. A poor beggar girl, she thrusts out a hand for alms, hoping that you will take sympathy on her plight. But just as you go to reach for your wallet to drop a few coins in her hand, the lamplight flickers exactly so and you see a site that will terrify you for as long as you live. For on that outstretched arm glitter hundreds of eyeballs, blinking in the reflected lamplight.

What Does Todomeki Mean?

A tricky question! Looking straight at the kanji, todomeki means “hundreds-of-eyes demon.” That is 百々 (todo; hundreds) + 目 (me; eye) + 鬼 (ki; demon). But if you listen to the word instead of reading the kanji, then you hear some of those homophones Japanese is famous for and you realize that the name “todomeki” is a pun—at least a pun understood by those in the Edo period.

There is another reading for todome, which is鳥目, meaning “bird’s eye” (鳥 todo; bird) + (目 me; eye). This doesn’t refer to an actual bird’s eye, but more to its shape. In old Japan, coins had a round whole hole stamped through them so they could be strung together and carried on a string. Some modern Japanese coins still retain this feature, mainly 5 and 50 yen pieces. This round hole reminded people of the perfectly round shape of a bird’s eye, so “todome” became a slang term for money. Furthermore, when a person has a “bird’s eye,” it mean that they were night blind—they couldn’t see at all in the dark.

As you will see by the story, the yōkai todomeki plays off of both of these puns.

The Story of Todomeki

Sekien Dodomeki

Todomeki appears only in Toriyama Sekien’s Konjaku Gazu Zoku Hakki (今昔画図続百鬼; The Illustrated One Hundred Demons from Past and Present). He tells her story thusly:

“The unofficial history of Hakkoseki tells of a young girl was born with unusually long arms. She took advantage of her natural attributes to become a thief, constantly stealing money. But the spirit of money took its own revenge, and marked her body with hundreds of bird’s eyes, one for every coin she stole. She transformed into the todomeki, a hundreds-of-eyes demon. Tales of the todomeki are told in the unofficial histories of several places. She possibly originates from Toto.”

That’s it! That’s the sum total of the legend of the todomeki!

Like Kyokotsu, Todomeki is one of Toriyama’s “pun yōkai.” Toriyama had several volumes of his popular “Illustrated One Hundred Demons” series to fill, and not nearly enough yōkai to fill them. He often invented his own yōkai, based off of half-heard legends or mélanges of Chinese folktales or just completely made up. And sometimes he just took odd turns of phrases and made puns out of them.

It’s the equivalent of creating a monster book filled with creatures like “Bird Brain” and “Slow Poke” with the creatures treated literally—in other words, like names of Pokémon characters.

This means that Todomeki has no true history or backstory. Toriyama just thought of a visual pun and then wrote a quick story to go with it.

But there is another story of a yōkai with a similar name. A much more interesting story …

The Domeki – The Hundred-Eyed Oni

While Toriyama upped the ante by giving his todomeki “hundreds of eyes” instead of a standard-issue hundred, there are other yōkai in Japanese folklore known by the name domeki, or hundred-eye demon (or oni). These stories generally follow a set pattern of a monster doing battle with a warrior, and that monster then seeking refuge in a temple where it mends its ways and finds Buddhism. That peculiar little twist marks the stories as coming from around the Heian period, when stories of the supernatural were almost always accompanied by some tacked-on Buddhist moral that allowed them to slip by the official censors.

One of these legends comes from Tochigi prefecture. Many researchers believe that Toriyama had at least casually heard of this legend, and that accounts for the line “She possibly originates from Toto” in Toriyama’s book.

This story comes from the middle Heian period, and is set in in Hitachi province (modern day Ibaraki prefecture) and Shimosa province (modern day Chiba prefecture). Here, there was a feudal lord named Taira no Masakado who tried to set himself up as an independent emperor in what came to be known as the Masakado Rebellion. Needless to say, the current emperor and his imperial court weren’t pleased with Masakado’s behaviou, and dispatched the law enforcement officer Fujiwara no Hidesato to administer a death warrant.

Hidesato tracked Masakado across the provinces; crossing swords with him many times. However, he was unable to succeed in his mission.

At a loss, Hidesato returned to his home in Shimosa province and pleaded with the kami spirits, holding a prayer for his victory. Hidesato was granted the use of a sacred sword from the shrine, and headed off hunting again. At last he took Masakado prisoner and brought him before the imperial court for justice. For this service Hidesato was then appointed Chinjufu-shogun (Defender of the North) and awarded the governorship of Shimotsuke Province.

Now elevated in status, Fujiwara no Hidesato built a great mansion at Utsunomiya, Tochigi. One day he was hunting along the Tagen Kaido road when he passed a small village called Ouso. An old man hailed him and so Hidesato road over to hear what his subject had to say.

The old man told Hidesato that to the northwest of the village, in a town called Umasuteba, near Uta, there is an oni with a hundred eyes ravaging the land. The people of that village lived in fear, and the old man begged Hidesato to rid them of the monster.

Accepting the challenge, Hidesato road to Umasuteba (another pun of sorts; “umesuteba” translates into English as the “Horse Throwing-away Place”) where he hid and laid in wait for the oni. Around midnight, the clear sky became covered with clouds and a great monster appeared. Standing 10 shaku tall, it’s hair was sharp like knives and it had a hundred blazing eyes. The monster saw Hidesato’s horse and leapt on it instantly, killing it and feasting on its flesh. Hidesato took about his bow and took aim at the distracted monster, targeting the single eye that was shining the brightest. He let loose an arrow. The arrow pierced the oni’s eye and entered into his vital organs.

Such was the power of Hidesato’s arrow that the oni was knocked backwards and flipped in a somersault, raging in pain. The demon ran away all the way to Myojin mountain where he collapsed and died. He waited till the following day to view the oni’s body, but found nothing but scorched earth and ash. Hidesato figured that molten fire must have poured from the monster’s wounds burning the corpse and surrounding area.

But the story does not end …

About 400 years passed. The Ashikaga clan took power and started the Muromachi shogunate. On the north side of Myojin mountain, in the village of Hanawada, a temple had been built called Hongan-ji. The chief abbot of that temple was the holy man Chitoku.

At that time, there was a young woman who lived at Hongan-ji. She was said to be truly virtuous and close to a living saint—she did everything right and lived the true path of Buddhism. She fooled almost everyone; except for Chitoku.

In truth, this virtuous woman was the domeki, that self-same hundred eyed oni who was thought to have died on that spot 400 years ago. The domeki hid its shape in disguise while recuperating from its wounds. And it drank blood—oceans of human blood—over those 400 years, biding its time until it was fully healed and could return to its malicious behavior.

Chitoku saw through the domeki’s illusion and revealed its true shape. Its plot uncovered, the domeki attacked the abbot and they were locked in a fierce battle. The oni’s flaming blood spurt everywhere, reducing the temple to ash. And while Chitoku engaged the oni, thrashing at it with his holy staff, he preached the truth of the Dharma. The domeki, finally hearing the words of Chitoku, dropped to its knees and begged that sutras be read for its soul. The domeki changed its ways and never caused trouble again.

The fame of this story spread, and the area became known for its carved hundred-eyed domeki masks and wooden toys.The path to Myojin mountain is stilled called the Domeki-dori(百目鬼通り).

Domeki_Dori

Picture from this blog

Translator’s Note:

 

Another article for reader Dominique Lamssiesk. I expected to do a quick translation of todomeki as requested—easy because there is really so little to tell—and then I stumbled into the very cool tale of the Domeki. That should probably get its own entry, but I couldn’t find any pictures to go along with it, so it is getting lumped in with Todomeki. But it is still a cool story!

There is another hundred-eye yōkai, the Hyakume. That is an original creation of Shigeru Mizuki, and I might do an entry on it someday.

Suppon no Yurei – The Turtle Ghost

Mizuki_Shigeru_Suppon_no_Yurei

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara and Japanese Wikipedia

The big cities in the Edo period were full of shops that specialized in the soft shell turtle dishes called suppon. If the truth be told, this was because people at the time believed that suppon was an effective remedy for hemorrhoids. But this isn’t that kind of story.

There were three guys in Nagoya city who loved suppon. Every chance they got, they would go out drinking and wind up at a suppon restaurant. It wasn’t that they had hemorrhoids or anything—they just loved the taste— true gourmets for all things turtle. Or more than that. These guys just couldn’t get enough; they had a kind of suppon mania.

One day they decided to try a new suppon restaurant, but when they went in they felt like something was wrong. They couldn’t help but notice that the proprietor of the restaurant’s face looked very much like the turtles he was serving. The rest of his body had a greenish tint, and his flesh was scaly. But it wasn’t until he rose up on his impossibly long legs that they realized they were dealing with a suppon yurei, a turtle ghost.

The three men ran from the shop as fast as their legs could carry them. When they got back to their house, they hid under their blankets and shivered with fright for two, then three days until they were brave enough to show their faces to the world. None of the men ever ate suppon again.

Translator’ s Note:

Another yokai tale of overeating for Thanksgiving. The original to this story comes from the Edo period kaidan-shu Kaidan Tabi-no-Akebono (怪談旅之曙; Weird Tales of Voyages by Daybreak), where it was titled Suppon no Bakemono. Mizuki Shigeru changed the title to Suppon no Yurei, which is an interesting choice seeing as yurei is a word generally reserved for the spirits of humans. But it is not always so, as you can see.

Suppon_no_Bakemono

Suppon no Yurei s is one of the rare tales of yokai turtles. Turtles play an odd place in Japanese folklore. On the one hand they were treated as serene gods and spiritual animals, on the other hand they were considered quite capable of bloody revenge. Their ability to bite and hang on indefinitely gives them their reputation. Tales of yokai turtles always call out the turtle’s nature as ”shunenbukai” (執念深い) , meaning tenacious , spiteful, or vindictive.

The particular tale is considered to be a variation of Takenyudo (Tall Priest) legends. These legends are similar to the Nopperabo legends (see Shirime – Eyeball Butt) where an ordinary encounter suddenly turns extraordinary when someone you thought to be human exhibits supernatural characteristics. In the case of the Nopperabo, this is a lack of face. In the case of Takenyudo—and the Suppon no Yurei—it is suddenly stretching to an inhuman size.

Suppon no Yurei is ambiguous on how the turtles managed to manifest a semi-human appearance for their yokai. Are these the ghosts of the dead turtles? Or is this a classic henge shape-shifting turtle out to protect his brethren from winding up in the pot? No one really knows, and the guys in the story don’t stick around to find out. Mizuki tries to clear up this ambiguity by re-naming the story “Suppon no Yurei,” implying a spirit of a dead turtle. Based on my knowledge of Japanese folklore, I would vote for a long-lived turtle who transformed into a yokai and gained supernatural powers. But then, turtles are already long-lived so this one would have had to have been around for a long, long time.

Mizuki Shigeru does make a note that it is perfectly OK to enjoy a meal of suppon—he personally loves suppon—just don’t eat too much of it. Moderation is key if you want to enjoy your food without invoking the wrathful spirits of animals.

Further Reading:

For more Thanksgiving yokai of overeating and other turtle tales, check out:

Oseichu – The Mimicking Roundworm

The Sprit Turtle

Shio no Choji – Salty Choji

Kitsune no Yomeiri – The Fox Wedding

Mizuki_Shigeru_Kitsune_no_Yomeiri

Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Japanese Wikipedia, Showa: A History of Japan, Tales of Old Japan, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, and Other Sources

On a day when the sun shines bright and the rain falls, wise parents advise their children to play indoors. It isn’t that they are worried about them catching a cold. No, it is something more mysterious. For on such days the kitsune, the magical foxes of Japan, hold their wedding processions.

From Sakurai city in Ibaraki prefecture to Kashihara city in Nara prefecture, tales of Kitsune no Yomeiri appear all over Japan— with the sole exception of the northern island of Hokkaido. Most stories follow similar patterns with only slight variations. There are two phenomena referred to as Kitsune no Yomeiri—the bizarre weather called sunshowers where rain falls in broad daylight; and the procession of foxfire, called kitsune-bi (狐火), winding through the mountains late at night.

What does Kitsune no Yomeiri mean?

Kitsune no Yomeiri combines the kanji狐の (kitsune no; Fox’s) with嫁入り (Yomeiri; Wedding). In a literal translation, yomeiri means to “receive a bride,” as the custom is for the groom’s family to receive the bride on the wedding day as a proper member of their family. Until the middle-Showa period, Kitsune no Yomeiri Gyoretsu (狐の嫁入り行列; The Fox Wedding Bridal Procession) was more commonly used. But most drop Gyoretsu in the modern age. Just getting lazy, I suppose.

While Kitsune no Yomeiri is the most common term, there are regional versions of the same phenomenon. In Saitama and Ishikawa prefectures it is known as Kitsune no Yomitori (狐の嫁取り; The Taking of a Fox Bride). In Shizuoka it is called Kitsune no Shugen (狐の祝言; The Fox Wedding Celebration).

In Tokushima, the Kitsune no Yomeiri is a less happy occasion. It was called the Kitsune no Soshiki (狐の葬儀; Fox Funeral) and seeing one is considered an omen of death.

The Foxfire Lantern Procession

Fox Wedding Painting

The Kitsune no Yomeiri has long been a part of Japanese folklore, although with the rise of the Inari Fox-cult during the Edo period it gained a greater significance and cultural permeation. A description of Kitsune no Yomeiri comes from the book Echigo Naruse (越後名寄; Encyclopedia of Echigo) published during the Horeki period (1751-1764).

“On dark and quiet nights, in secret places, strings of lanterns or torches can be seen stretching out single file in an unbroken chain more than two miles long. It is a rare site, but an unmistakable one. It can be seen most often in Kanbara county, and it is said that on such night young foxes claim their mates.”

The procession of lights became associated with weddings as it mirrored Japanese wedding ceremonies at the time. Based on traditions established during the Muromachi period (1392–1573), weddings were held at night and the bride was escorted over to her new home by a lamplight parade. This type of ceremony—called the Konrei Gyoretsu (婚礼行列; Wedding Procession) —lasted until the mid-Showa period when Western wedding ceremonies replaced traditional Japanese ceremonies.

Legends of the Kitsune no Yomeiri merged with existing stories of kitsune magic and bewitchment. People who tried to follow these foxfire lantern processions would find that they disappeared as soon as they got close—although on rare occasions traces of the ceremony were found. Shunjitsu Shrine in Saitama prefecture was said to be a popular place for fox weddings. Whenever a Kitsune no Yomeiri lit up the night, the mountain road leading to the shrine was covered with fox poop the following day.

Fox Wedding Kimono

Picture from this website

Stories of Kitsune no Yomeiri continued well into the Edo period. In Toshima village (modern day Kita-ku, Tokyo) Kitsune no Yomeiri was seen on several consecutive nights, eventually becoming one of the Seven Mysteries of Toshima. Mt. Kirin in Niigata prefecture is full of foxes, and Kitsune no Yomeiri was said to be a common occurrence. In both Niigata and Nara prefectures, Kitsune no Yomeiri was thought to be a good omen for the harvest, with the more lanterns being seen the more fruitful the harvest. A year with no fox weddings made people dread the upcoming famine.

The foxes of Gifu prefecture didn’t just content themselves with lanterns. The foxfire procession was accompanied by the sound of cracking and blazing bamboo, although when examined the following day the forests appeared untouched.

Scientific Explanation for Kitsune-bi

The procession of lamplights is not only a widespread phenomenon in Japan; it is worldwide. Japanese kitsune-bi is different from foxfire in Western legends, which comes from a phosphorescent fungus. It is more akin to the Will-o’-the-wisp, also known as ignis fatuus or “Fool’s Fire.”

The most common explanation is that these fires are the oxidation of the chemical phosphine caused by decaying organic matter, such as can be found in forests. Other suggestions are that they are a mere optical illusion caused by the setting sun. But there is no scientific evidence for either of these theories.

The foxfire procession kind of Kitsune no Yomeiri are rarely seen today. This is most likely due to the 1950s deforestation of Japan’s native forests and replanting with fast-growing industrial cedar. Whatever magic of the forests that produced the foxfire lights, it is now gone, sacrificed to industry.

Sunshowers and Fox Weddings

Hokusai_Kitsune-no-yomeiri

The Meiji period Tanka poet Masaoka Shiki wrote:

“When rain falls from a blue sky, in the Hour of the Horse, the Great Fox King takes his bride.”

Another strange natural phenomenon goes by the name of Kitsune no Yomeiri, and in the modern era is much better known. On days when the sun shines and it still rains—a weather condition called tenkiame (天気雨) in Japanese or sunshowers in English—foxes are once again thought to hold their wedding ceremonies.

How sunshowers became associated with fox weddings is vague. Some say that it has to do with mountains where foxes are mostly found. There are times when mountains are covered in rain, while the town below is clear. People said that the foxes summoned the rain with their magic to hide their wedding ceremony. Others just think that because sunshowers are a mysterious occurrence, going against the natural pattern of clouds and rain, that people assumed a supernatural origin and associated it with foxes.

Although most pre-Meiji period accounts are of the foxfire processions, Katsushika Hokusai captured the sunshower-type in his painting Kitsune no Yomeiri-zu (狐の嫁入図; Picture of a Fox Wedding). The sunshower fox wedding was also mentioned in a 1732 Bunkraku puppet play Dan no Ura Kabuto Chronicles (壇浦兜軍記; The Chronicles of a Helmet of Dan no Ura).

As always, there are regional variations. In agricultural regions the sunshower version of Kitsune no Yomeiri was a good omen, promising rain for the crops and many children for the any new brides lucky enough to be married on such a day. In Tokushima, sunshowers are known as Kitsuneame (狐雨; fox rain) and not associated with weddings. In Kumamoto prefecture fox weddings are associated with rainbows, and in Aichi prefecture they are associated with hail.

How to See a Kitsune no Yomeiri

Fox Wedding Ink Painting

While most people go out of their way to avoid seeing strange phenomena (getting wrapped up in kitsune magic is rarely healthy in Japanese folklore) there are a few rituals for the brave and the curious.

In the Fukushima Prefecture, a bizarre ritual exists of wearing a suribachi mortar on your head and sticking the wooden pestle in your belt, then standing under a date tree. Of course, this only works on the 10th day of the 10th month of the Lunar calendar.

Aichi prefecture has a much easier method—just spit in a well and weave your fingers together. You are said to be able to view the Kitsune no Yomeiri though the gaps in your fingers.

But most stories advise against seeing a fox wedding—foxes are powerful in Japanese folklore, but dangerous. A wise person keeps well away.

Kitsune no Yomeiri in Literature

During the Edo period, numerous writers and kaidan-shu collections included first-hand accounts of Kitsune no Yomeiri, including those of people wandering into the middle of them and participating. The Kanei period (1624-1645) Konjyaku Kaidanshu (今昔妖談集; Kaidan Collection of Times Past), the Kansei period (1789-1801) Kaidanro no Tsue (怪談老の杖; A Cane for Old Kaidan Folk), and the Bunsei period (1818-1830) Edo Chirihiroi (江戸塵拾; Picked up Dust from the Edo Period) all contained first-hand accounts of encounters with Kitsune no Yomeiri.

Kitsune no Yomeiri Ukiyoe

Some of the stories can be grim. A tale set in the Warring States period (1467-1568) tells of a young bride who suddenly fell sick and died. The night of her burial, a foxfire procession passed over her gravesite. Some are more uplifting, like the tale of an old couple who cared for a wounded fox pup, and many years later were honored guests at the fox’s wedding procession. Most stories, however, are of the voyeur nature—just a glimpse caught by a frightened soul hiding behind a tree when the wedding train passes by.

Mizuki Shigeru remembers being warned as a young boy against going outside during sunshowers. He writes about his memories of Kitsune no Yomeiri in his comics NonNonBa and Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan. Kurosawa Akira featured the sunshower-type Kitsune no Yomeiri in his film Dreams

From Algernon Freeman-Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan, 1910

Algernon Freeman-Mitford describes the sunshower type of Kitsune no Yomeiri from the foxes’ point of view in his 1910 book Tales of Old Japan: Folklore, Fairy Tales, Ghost Stories and Legends of the Samurai:

“Once upon a time there was a young white fox, whose name was Fukuyemon. When he had reached the fitting age, he shaved off his forelock and began to think of taking to himself a beautiful bride. The old fox, his father, resolved to give up his inheritance to his son, and retired into private life; so the young fox, in gratitude for this, laboured hard and earnestly to increase his patrimony.

Fox_Wedding_Woodblock_Print

Now it happened that in a famous old family of foxes there was a beautiful young lady-fox, with such lovely fur that the fame of her jewel-like charms was spread far and wide. The young white fox, who had heard of this, was bent on making her his wife, and a meeting was arranged between them. There was not a fault to be found on either side; so the preliminaries were settled, and the wedding presents sent from the bridegroom to the bride’s house, with congratulatory speeches from the messenger, which were duly acknowledged by the person deputed to receive the gifts; the bearers, of course, received the customary fee in copper cash.

When the ceremonies had been concluded, an auspicious day was chosen for the bride to go to her husband’s house, and she was carried off in solemn procession during a shower of rain, the sun shining all the while. After the ceremonies of drinking wine had been gone through, the bride changed her dress, and the wedding was concluded, without let or hindrance, amid singing and dancing and merry-making.

The bride and bridegroom lived lovingly together, and a litter of little foxes were born to them, to the great joy of the old grandsire, who treated the little cubs as tenderly as if they had been butterflies or flowers. “They’re the very image of their old grandfather,” said he, as proud as possible. “As for medicine, bless them, they’re so healthy that they’ll never need a copper coin’s worth!”

As soon as they were old enough, they were carried off to the temple of Inari Sama, the patron saint of foxes, and the old grand-parents prayed that they might be delivered from dogs and all the other ills to which fox flesh is heir.

In this way the white fox by degrees waxed old and prosperous, and his children, year by year, became more and more numerous around him; so that, happy in his family and his business, every recurring spring brought him fresh cause for joy. “

Kitsune no Yomeiri Matsuri – Fox Wedding Festivals

Fox Wedding Parade

Kitsune no Yomeiri remains a popular aspect of Japanese culture and folklore. Many towns hold Kitsune no Yomeiri festivals re-creating the famous processions. Most of these festivals are modern—coming from the 1950s to as recently as the 1990s—and were started as tourist attractions to draw people into town. Local politicians and businesses participate in the festival, and sometimes the fox bride and groom are selected as a sort of “beauty pageant.”

Not all are modern tourist traps, however. The Yokaichi city, Mie prefecture Kitsune no Yomeiri procession to Suzakiha Mamiyashimei Shrine dates back to the Edo period, and is a ritual to drive out evil spirits and ask for blessings for the harvest. The festival in Kudamatsu city, Yamaguchi prefecture, has also been held since ancient times, although it bears little relationship to popular images of the Kitsune no Yomeiri. It involves asking the blessing of a pair of white fox deities whose wedding ceremony is re-enacted every year.

Translator’s Note:

The latest entry in my series on yokai who appear in Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan. In the story, a young Mizuki Shigeru is told about foxes and Kitsune no Yomeiri by his friend and mentor, the local wise woman NonNonBa. Mizuki does not believe her until, later that night, he hears foxes barking from the mountain that NonNonBa talked about. It is at that moment he realizes all of NonNonBa’s stories—and the yokai themselves—are real.

Further Reading:

For more yokai from Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa: A History of Japan check out:

Hidarugami – The Hunger Gods
Sazae Oni – The Turban Shell Demon
Nezumi Otoko – Rat Man

For more kitsune stories, check out:

Tsukimono – The Possessing Thing

Previous Older Entries

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