Hidarugami – The Hunger Gods

Hidarugami Mizuki Shigeru

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

If you are walking through a mountain trail, and find yourself overcome with a sudden hunger—a soul-killing hunger that drives you to your knees like true starvation—you might need to do more than reach into your backpack for an energy bar. You might be under attack by the Hidarugami, the Hunger Gods.

What Does Hidarugami Mean?

Hidarugami is written with the katakanaヒダル (hidaru) + the kanji 神 (kami; god). Things written in katakana have no inherent meaning. However, the word “hidaru” is most likely connected with饑い (hidarui), meaning hunger. Hidarui is a colloquial term, used mainly in Gifu prefecture. Hidarugami is also sometimes writtenひだる神 using the hiragana for “hidaru,” also with no inherent meaning.

The fact that the kanji “kami” is used places the hidarugami on a higher level than most yokai, alongside such devastating deities like the Binbogami (貧乏神; God of Poverty) and Shinigami (死神; God of Death). This elevated status is due in part to arising from human spirits, from reikon.

There are other names for the Hidarutami. In Kitakyushu, it is known as the Darashi (ダラシ), in Mie and Wakayama prefectures it is sometimes called the Dari (ダリ), while in Nara and Tokushima prefectures it is called Daru (ダル). All of these use katakana for the names.

The Hunger Strike of the Hidarugami

Hidarugami Road

Hidarugami are said to be the spirits of those who starved to death wandering the mountains. Because they died alone, with no marker for their grave or any ceremony, their spirits become evil and seek to share their death agonies.

They are found almost exclusively on mountain trails and passes. Hikers and travelers in the presence of the Hidarugami are suddenly overcome with acute hunger, fatigue, and numbness of the limbs. The feeling is said to be that of actual starvation. The victim is unable to move and often collapse. This attack is a form of possession. The Hidarugami enters your body. If no action is taken, the Hidarugami can cause death—actual death by starvation in a healthy body.

If you are killed, you join the Hidarugami group. In this way, Hidarugamai groups slowly enlarge to contain many souls.

Expelling the Hidarugami is easy, so long as you are prepared. Just a small mouthful of a staple food, such as rice or grain, staves off the attack and the starvation leaves as quickly as it arose. That is why—even today—hikers are advised against going into the mountains without a few riceballs or a bento to eat. Even then, they never eat the entire meal, always leaving a few grains behind in case of emergency.

Old Japanese kaidanshu and traveler’s guides are full of stories of the Hidarugami. In a story coming from 1736 a man named Senkichi was found exhausted and unconscious on a mountain trail. Unable even to speak, he was loaded into a cart and carried back to town where he was fed and recovered. Senkichi related an account of an attack by Hidarugami. Another typical story tells of a merchant crossing the Noborio Pass towards Onohara. Only a few hours after finishing his lunch he became ravenously hungry, struggling to make his way to a nearby temple. A traveler’s guide from 1861 warned of the dangers of going into the mountains without a few riceballs for protection.

Are the Hidarugami Yokai or Yurei?

Obake_Karuta_Hidarugami

Hidarugami defy simple classification, and show the complicated nature of Japanese folklore. Are they yurei? Are they yokai? Are they Gods? Yes to all three questions. (And yes, it is a trick question as all yurei are yokai. Smart catch there!)

Because Hidarugami enter the body and possess it, they are considered a type of the Tsukimono yokai – A Possessing Thing. While most tsukimono are magical animals, anything that possess can fall into this category.

Higarugami are most definitely yurei—they are referred to as either akuryo (悪霊; Evil Spirit) or onryo (怨霊; Vengeful Spirits). But they are not typical yurei. Like Funa Yurei and oddities like the Shichinin Dōgyō – The Seven Pilgrims, the Hidarugami act as a group and actively make new members. Because they are bound to their location, they would be considered a type of jibakurei (地縛霊; Earth-bound Spirit).

Hidarugami are also muenbotoke (無縁仏). This refers to the unworshiped dead, those who die without burial or ceremony. Special rites are often held on Obon, the Festival of the Dead, specifically for muenbotoke to try and get their spirits to pass one. One passage says that the Hidarugami’s grip on the world is not particularly strong—that they are a weak god—and they should be banished by a simple muenbotoke ceremony.

Gaki Hungry Ghosts

They are also associated with Gaki ( 餓鬼), the Preta or Hungry Ghost of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist mythology. The association is vague and only based on the dual obsession with hunger. Gaki are those whose sins of gluttony condemn them to be reborn as foul creatures with a rapacious hunger for disgusting things such as corpses or feces. Gaki are not native to Japanese folklore, and at sometime after their importation from China a link was made between the Gaki and the Hidarugami.

Hidarugami Across Japan

Like all widespread folklore, the Hidarugami have regional variations and associations. In Wakayama prefecture, —along the ancient pilgrimage route of Kumano Kodo—there is a deep hole called the Gaki Ana, or the Gaki’s Pit. The exact location of the pit is unknown, but it is said to be someone near Mt. Okumotori and Mt. Shokumotori in Wakayama prefecture. Wherever it is, staring into the Gaki Ana is said to summon the Hidarugami.

In Shiga prefecture, possession by a Hidarugami is much more dreadful. The possessed person’s stomach suddenly swells like a starvation victim, and they begs for a bowl of rice with tea. If someone answers that they had food, but have eaten it, the possessed victim will attack with a fury, ripping open their stomachs in search of undigested bits of rice to eat.

In Mie prefecture, Hidarugami are said to attack not only humans but also cattle being moved across mountain trails.

In Kochi, Nagasaki, and Kagoshima prefectures, there are small shrines set up along mountain roads and mountain passes enshrining the kami Shibaorigami (柴折様). Making a small offering at these shrines, even something so small as laying down a few token branches of wood, is said to provide protection against the Hidarugami.

Translator’s Note:

This is the next in my series of yokai who appear in Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa: A History of Japan. A young Mizuki Shigeru encountered the Hidarugami once walking through a mountain road. He survived the attack due to finding a few stray grains of rice. It was only much later in his life while reading a book that he learned to put a name to the strange phenomenon he had encountered.

Further Reading:

To read more about Tsukimono and other sundry ghosts, check out:

Tsukimono – The Possessing Thing

Shichinin Dōgyō – The Seven Pilgrims

Funa Yurei

Ushi no Koku Mairi – Shrine Visit at the Hour of the Ox

Ushi_no_Koku_Mairi_Mizuki_Shigeru

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

At the Hour of the Ox (between 1-3 A.M.) a lone figure creeps silently towards a sacred tree. She is dressed in white, and on her head an upturned trivet is worn like a crown, three candles burning in the night. In one hand, she carries a doll made of bound straw in the form of a person; in her other hand, a small wooden hammer and a set of long, iron spikes. The hatred in her heart blazes brighter than the candles, appropriate for one completing the curse-ritual known as Ushi no Koku Mairi, the Shrine Visit at the Hour of the Ox.

The Ritual

Ushi no Koku Mairi (丑の刻参り; also known as 丑の時参; Ushi no Toki Mairi, both of which translate as Shrine Visit at the Hour of the Ox) is an ancient, famous, and terrible Japanese curse-ritual. It has been performed for millennia—some sources trace it back as far as the Kofun period (250 – 538 CE), although in a different form. While the costume and ritual have changed over the centuries, the basic rite of pounding nails into dolls remains the same.

To perform an Ushi no Koku Mairi, you first make a straw doll (藁人形; waraningyo) to serve as an effigy of the person you want to curse. For the best effect, the doll should have some part of the person in it, some hair, skin, blood, fingernails, or other DNA. In a pinch a photograph will do, or even their name written on a piece of paper. This done, you done the ritual costume, and sneak into a shrine late at night. Many Shinto shrines have sacred trees, called shinboku, that are the homes of kami spirits. Nail the doll to the sacred tree using long, iron spikes called gosunkugi (五寸釘).

ushinokokumairi

As stated in the name, the timing is very important. The ritual can only be completed at the Hour of the Ox, between 1-3 A.M. in the ancient method of counting time in Japan. The Hour of the Ox is the traditional Witching Hour in Japan, a time when yurei and yokai and other evil spirits come haunting.

And most importantly—the ritual must be done in secret; it is said that if anyone sees you performing Ushi no Koku Mairi, the curse will rebound on the caster. Unless, of course, the eyewitness is immediately slain.

How many times you perform the ritual vary; some say that you must go back seven nights, pounding in a single nail each night. The final nail goes into the head, which will kill the cursed person. The results of the curse vary as well—some say the cursed person will sicken and die. Some say that, like a Voodoo doll, the cursed person will feel pain where the spikes are hammered in. Some say it is a summoning ritual, and that performing an Ushi no Koku Mairi summons a vengeful spirit to torment and ultimately destroy the recipient.

The Costume

An important component to the ritual is the costume. One does not simply waltz into a shrine and pound a doll into a tree. The costume is a demonstration of your intention, and is more than just decoration; the curse is said to be so terrible that in order to be effective you must become a demon yourself.

SekienUshi-no-tokimairi

Although the costume has changed over the years (and there are numerous variations depending on your source), the most recognizable version comes from the Edo period, and is still associated with the ritual.

• A white kimono and obi, with your face painted white (to look like a supernatural creature)
• An upturned trivet on your head, with three candles burning on the legs
• A mirror (a sacred symbol of Shinto) worn over your chest like a necklace
• A shortsword tucked into your sash, to kill anyone that sees you
• Tall, one-toothed geta clogs (or barefoot, if you can’t walk in them)
• A wooden comb (in some accounts, a razor) held between your teeth (It is important not to utter a sound once you enter the shrine, and the comb keeps you silent.)

Some variations of the costume swap out a headband and two candles for the trivet, but I think if you are going to do it, go all out.

The History of Ushi no Koku Mairi

No one really knows how old the ritual really is. In the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, the is an 8th century relic from an archeological dig of a doll made of bound wooden strips with an iron nail shoved through the chest. This is from a time when iron had just been introduced into Japan, and would have been a rare commodity. In the ruins of Datecho in Shimane prefecture, Matsue City, archeologists found a wooden plaque with a painting of a court lady that had wooden spikes pounded through it. It is known that dolls for curses were used by Onmyoji , the yin/yang sorcerers of the Heian period (794 – 1185 CE).

Going to the shrine at the Hour of the Ox has not always been associated with curses, however. Old records show that people originally snuck in to pray, and that during these nighttime visits your pleas to the kami were more likely to be answered. Somehow, along the way, these prayers for a kami’s blessing turned into prayers for a kami’s curse.

One of the oldest written accounts of the ritual comes from the Sword scroll of the Kamakura period epic poem The Tale of the Heike. It differs from modern accounts—the costume calls for you to bind your hair into five braids, to use bound-together pine branches threaded into an iron ring for torches, and to cake your face in red vermillion clay instead of painted white. Also, instead of a late-night sneak visit to a shrine, the curser runs down the street shouting their curse for all to hear. According to the story, the ritual was taught to a woman by a kami spirit, after she prayed for revenge at a local shrine. The woman would transform into the monstrous Hashi Hime (Bridge Princess), still wearing her frightful costume.

In the Muromachi period (1337 to 1573 CE), a Noh play called Kanawa (鉄輪; Iron Ring)is credited with drawing a connection between the Onmyodo doll ritual and the costume of the Hashi Hime, creating the first account of the Ushi no Koku Mairi as it is known today.

A_woman_makes_a_cursing_ritual_ceremony

By the Edo period, the Ushi no Koku Mairi was firmly established and illustrated by artists in kaidan-shu collections of stories of the strange. One of the main differences in Edo period artists was the results of the ritual—many preferred to show some evil spirit or god lurking in the background, waiting to be summoned by the completed ritual.

Where to Perform the Ritual

Not all shrines are created equal for Ushi no Koku Mairi. Kifune Jinja in Kyoto and Ikurei Jinja in Niimi, Okayama, are famous sites for Ushi no Koku Mairi, as is Jishu Jinja, a small shrine located near the Kyoto Buddhist temple Kiyomizudera. If you look carefully, these sacred sites have shinboku trees that still bear the scars of centuries of iron nails pounded in by vengeance-seekers.

Ushi no Koku Mairi Tree

And if all this seems like a lot of work to put together, don’t worry. In the modern world, a complete Ushi no Koku Mairi kit can be ordered online. But be careful, performers of the ritual can be prosecuted under Japanese law.

Ushinokokumairi_kit

Translator’s Note

The Ushi no Koku Mairi was a difficult project–difficult in knowing what to leave in, and what to leave out.  There are SO many different variations on the ritual it would be impossible to include them all.  I tried to add in what I thought was relevant, and appeared in the highest number of resources.  But this is by no means a complete account.

This is the second of my trivet-wearing yokai stories. Next up is a direct ancestor of the Ushi no Koku Mairi, the Hashi Hime.

Further Reading

For related kaidan stories, check out

Gotokoneko – The Trivet Cat

What are Teruteru Bozu?

The Mistress of Tonbu and Nezu

Kyōkotsu – The Crazy Bones Yōkai

Kyokotsu Mizuki Shigeru
Translated and adapted from Hyakiyako Kaitai Shisho and other sources

Be careful when you pull up a bucket of water from an ancient, abandoned well. You might get more than you bargained for if a kyokotsu 狂骨—which translates literally as “crazy bones”—springs up from the bucket like a Jack-in-the-Box to deliver its curse.

Clad in a white burial kimono, kyokotsu almost look like a classical yurei but they lack the black/white contrast due to shocks of white hair that spring from its bleached-white skull. Kyokotsu appear as little more than bones wrapped in a shroud, springing from a well.

The yokai is best-known from Toriyama Sekien’s Edo-period yokai print-book “Konjyaku Hyaku Kishui” or  “Supplement to the Hundred Demons of the Past.” Author Kyogoku Natsuhiko also recent featured a kyokotsu in his book “Dream of the Kyokotsu.”

Sekien’s original woodblock print was accompanied by this text:

“Kyokotsu rise from the bones in the well. It is said that whosoever commits the horrendous act of abandoning august bones will find it impossible to abandon the horrendous wrath that follows.”

Sekien’s text seems to explain that kyokotsu appear from a well in response to some wrongdoing and bearing a terrible grudge. Seiken also claimed that the regional-dialect term “kyokotsu,” meaning “violent” or “furious,” is an allusion to this yokai. However, while such a term does exist, specifically in Tsuki-gun in Kanagawa prefecture, there is no concrete evidence linking either the term or Seiken’s picture to an older folktale.

It is much more likely that the opposite occurred, that Seiken heard the term “kyokotsu” and decided to invent a yurei to match—much like if an English-language author decided to create a monster called “Lazy Bones” after the pre-existing term. To get the image for his yokai, Seiken was probably just playing on works, combining the local term “kyokotsu” (crazy bones) with “gyokotsu,” which means bones from which all of the meat has fallen off. He might also have been influenced by the words “keikotsu” or “sokotsu” which can mean drifter or wander, but also can be phrased as “someone from the bottom.” It seems likely that Seiken was influenced both by these words and by the old belief of an inexhaustible grudge that can come from the bottom of wells.

There are several Japanese folklore stories—involving both yokai and yurei—that involve the bottom of a well. In Japanese folklore, water was a channel to the world of the dead, and the bottoms of wells were directly connected. Wells also served as a convenient hiding place for murders committed in the dark of the night, and the superstitious believed that any such-disposed of corpse was capable of a powerful curse. Those who died from falling in wells, by accident, suicide, or murder, were thought to transform into shiryo and haunt the well. The spirit connects to the well itself, rather than where they were murdered, and their curse is likely to fall on anyone who used the well and not specifically targeted to the murderer.

A cursed set of bones is another typical trope in Japanese folklore and does not need to be connected to a well. In her book “Nozarashi Monogatari,” the literary scholar Sawada Mizuho wrote a similar story of a weather-beaten, abandoned skull that gets its revenge.

The biggest difference between the kyokotsu and typical Japanese folklore tales of skeletal ghosts is the element of disparity between the spirit form and the physical remains. In most stories, the spirit resembles a typical Japanese yurei—with a physical, full human body—even while the discovered remains are nothing more than a pile of rotting bones. The kyokotsu is rare in that Sekien drew the spirit in skeletal form as well. Because of this, kyokotsu is most often identified as a type of yokai, being a possessed skeleton, rather than a type of yurei, a Japanese ghost.

Translator’s Note:  The manga series “Bleach” has a character called Katen Kyōkotsu that uses the same kanji as this yokai, but seems to have no other relationship.

The Two Opposing Stories of Tanaka Kawachinosuke

Translated from Nihon no Yurei

The gruesome death of Tanaka Kawachinosuke was told by author Tokugawa Musei, in story “Traveling Companions,” from his book “The Days of Tokyo.” According to Musui, the story originated in a game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai played in the Mukoujima Hyaken garden.

My father, however, never missed a chance to dispute this.  And to be honest, I don’t really know which one was telling the truth, Musui or my father.  The very nature of these kinds of stories compels the storyteller to bend the facts, to make the story seem like they are speaking from personal experience.  And to fiercely defend their version of the story to be true. 

Of course, a stranger’s version would be entirely different. 

Now my father claimed that the story of Tanaka Kawachinosuke did not come from a game at the Mukoujima Hyaken garden, but from his own storytelling circle at the Shogakan Gahakudo building, which stood opposite the bridge in Kyobashi.   Shogakan Gahakudo was a legendary gathering place for Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.   At the entrance there was a permanently burning lantern hanging, of the sort normally only used for the Obon festival of the dead. You didn’t even need to plan the event, for such was the passion for the game that on any given night you could be assured a spontaneous round of storytelling would begin, with members alternating turns, exchanging their favorite kaidan. 

My father would boldly say:

“The author Musei certainly never showed his face at the Shogakan Gahakudo!  But this story I heard directly with my own ears, and the storyteller I saw with my own eyes, until he died. This detail alone casts doubt on Musei’s claim of the Mukoujima gatherings!

The opening years of the Taisho era were an easy-going time.  Japan had yet to be ravaged by the Spanish flu, and the Great Kanto Earthquake was still years away. Things were booming.   The storytellers gathered as usual on the third floor of the Gahakudo to entertain each other with kaidan.  On that day, an unfamiliar face appeared amongst the group.  As was the custom at the Gahakudo, any stranger was compelled to tell a story. And what story did he tell, you may ask?  Why, the story of Tanaka Kawachinosuke. We all listened intently to the tale.

The stranger began by saying that this was the true story of Tanaka Kawachinosuke, and what happened to him following the notorious “Event at the Terata Inn.”  The tale, he said, was one of ill omen, and carried a curse that would fall on anyone who told it.  As a result, the true story of those events has never been told.

“Those who know the true story grow less and less every year, and none remain but I who can tell the tale.  Because I am the last, I will finally speak of those events.”

Of course, as everyone knows this is the same Tanaka Kawachinosuke written about in the Yamamoto Yuzo play “Kindred Spirits.”   The events took place during the time of the Tenshu army, when Fujiwara Yoshiko, daughter of the Chief Counselor of State Nakayama Tadayasu and little sister of Captain Nakayama Tadamitsu, gave birth to Emperor Meiji.   Tanaka Kawachinosuke read stories of filial piety to the baby emperor, although he was far too young to understand them.  But when he came to power, the Emperor remember Kawachinosuke fondly, and asked those of his inner circle what had become of him. An enquiry was made, and Kuroda Kyotoka intimated to Okubo Toshimichi: “Okubo, you know something of this don’t you?” Okubo answered this question with great reluctance. For there was a rumor going around that Tanaka Kawachinosuke had come to a violent end on the orders of Okubo.

Because this man was talking about the death of Tanaka Kawachinosuke we all sat perched on our knees and with ears at attention.

 “This is a story that should not be told, even though I am telling it now, I have never told it before.  Thus it has become that only I remain who knows the tale. Now, this was a time when Japan’s Westernization movement had taken over society…”

 Listening to this man speak, with the nuance of his elegant language, we instantly felt his age and were transported back in time to the Meiji era.  Say what you will about Japan’s modernization, when this old-fashioned man spoke he made an immediate impact on those who remember him. And we all remember him. Although we disagreed that there was any story that couldn’t be told,

“Now for the first time I will tell this tale, so everyone listen closely…”  

 He said again, finishing his preface.

The stranger broke into a vigorous ramble, stating that all those listening should take care because of the curse of the tale, and anyone apprehensive should leave now, but that those who chose to stay would find the story most interesting.   He stated his introduction again, and then wandered from subject to subject almost as in a daze, returning again to the beginning:

 “Of those who know the true story I alone remain, and at this time in the middle of Japan’s Westernization movement there are those who would say that there are no more forbidden subjects. So I am resigning myself to speak…” 

From there he would begin again, going a little bit forward but always returning to “Of the people who know Kawachinosuke’s fate…”  It was like he had no true subject.

In the middle of this ramble, one person sitting and one person standing became two people standing.   I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were trying to escape the stranger’s pointless story, but they found themselves called away bit by bit.  For example, my father suddenly had a phone call from home.

My father went downstairs for the phone call, and then had a cigarette at the counter.  While smoking, when another person followed him down saying “He is on the Westernization of Japan again” and they both broke out in laughter.

While the two men were sharing a laugh at the bizarre turn of events, another man came walking down the staircase.  When he reached the main room, suddenly, and with no one immediately near him, the man fell face-down onto a small desk in the middle of the room. And he died.  Of course, it was that same man who had moments ago been upstairs relating the story of the last days of Kawachinosuke.

Author Kimura Shun wrote in detail about the early life of Tanaka Kawachinosuke in his book “Emperor Meiji” (Japanese History New Book, Published in the 31st year of Showa).  When Keiko was pregnant, it was said Kawachinosuke would go daily to the Osaka Ikasuri Shrine to write compositions praying to the gods for a male child.  However, because Kawachinosuke is not the focus of the book, his final fate is not touched upon.

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