Umibōzu – The Sea Monk

Translated and sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujara, Yokai Jiten, Japanese Wikipedia, and other sources

If you find yourself out sailing strange tides in an unfamiliar sea, the umibozu is not the kind of monk you should pray to for help.

The Legend of the Umibozu

Sailors in Japan’s yokai-haunted waters had many things to dread. Dark nights and stormy waters could bring funa yurei rising up from the depths demanding hishaku, a wooden ladel, that they would then use to fill a boat with water and sink it to the depths. But it was clear skies and calm waters that brought fear of the umibozu. Rising suddenly from the placid surface of the water, umibozu looked like a great ocean swell, a giant black head that would lurch upwards and upside ships, sending the sailors into murky waters. They were massive, rising as much as ten meters tall, and strong enough to snap a ship in two.



What is an Umibozu?

Umibozu (海坊主) translates literally as “sea monk.” They are known by other, similar names such as umi boshi (海法師) and umi nyudo (海入道), both of which are variations of the world “sea monk.” (“boshi “ and “nyudo” are other words for monk, meaning “teacher of the Buddhist laws” and “walker of the way” respectively). The name is entirely linked to appearance—the rounded head of an umibozu was said to resemble the shaved head of a Buddhist monk—and has no deeper connections to Buddhism. I have seen some English language sources saying that the umibozu are the spirits of drowned monks, but I haven’t found this claim supported by Japanese sources.

Traditionally, umibozu rise from calm waters. Their appearance is sometimes said to herald a coming storm, and they can be accompanied by other strange ocean phenomenon. Or even just feelings of dread. In any case, wise fishermen could read the signs that an umibozu was about, and would refuse to launch their boat until the waters were clear.

Accounts of umibozu differ wildly. They can be anything from a hairy creature resembling a sperm whale to a beautiful woman who can shape-change into a vicious monster. The classic umibozu is the one most often represented by ukiyo-e artists; that of a giant black head with two massive eyes thrusting up from the water. Umibozu can be gigantic, there have been reports of tiny umibozu, no more than a few feet or inches tall. Some say that these are children and that the massive umibozu are full grown adults. When they attack, some say that they cling to the hull of a ship to drag it down, or have great stretching arms that can pull a ship down by its mast. Some say that they try desperately to quench any lit fires on the boat. Some say they cry “Kuya kuya” as they attack, and that striking them with the oars will bring cries of pain, “Oitata!,” from the smaller species. In some legends, they can be repelled by tobacco smoke.

Most researchers think that umibozu are a misunderstanding of a natural occurrence. The shells of great ocean sea turtles or massive jellyfish rising suddenly from the water, or a black thunderhead of clouds rising in the distance have all been sited as the origin of umibozu legends.

A more recent candidate is a rare phenomenon called a rogue wave, which is a large and spontaneous ocean surface wave that occurs far out in the sea fitting almost exactly the traditional description of an umibozu. Rogue waves themselves were thought to be sailor’s folklore until the Draupner wave was recorded in 1995 off the coast of Norway.

Umi Bozu across Japan and Elsewhere

Unsurprisingly, as an island nation Japan has long had a deep and abiding fear of the ocean. An uncountable assortment of sea monsters live in the waters off of every coast. Each small fishing village created its own folklore, and as villages grew larger and merged into port cities mythologies mixed and blended, accounting for the massive and infinite variety.

Most Japanese yokai are regional. They were created in one particular area, and there they stayed. But the umibozu are widespread, and touch every part of Japan that is touched by the ocean. Because they are so widespread, over the centuries the story of umibozu has mixed with other sea creatures. In some accounts, the umibozu are like the funa yurei, demanding a spoon or a barrel in order to fill a boat with sea water. In some accounts, the umibozu are like the kappa, trying to suck the shirikodama from out of the human anus.

In the Tohoku region, before going out to sea for fishing the captain of fishing boats would give prayer to the Goddess of the Sea for safe passing. It is said that the umibozu are the retribution of the Goddess on any ship captain who fails to give her the proper respect.

In Okayama prefecture, the umibozu were considered to be an aspect of the yokai nurarihyon. Sailors in the Seto Inland Sea feared the rising of the nurarihyon’s large head from the water, which would flip ships over as a joke.

In Aomori prefecture, Shimokita district, Higashidori village, people who ate shark (eating shark was sometimes taboo in Japan, as sharks ate people so it was seen as cannibalistic) were said to become mojyabune (亡者船; ship of the dead), which was associated with the umibozu. People protected themselves from the mojyabune by mixing miso paste with water and pouring it into the ocean.

In Shizuoka prefecture, Kamo district, they told tales of the umi kozo, which refers to a young monk. The umi kozo was covered in a fine hair up to its eyes, and came up along people’s fishing lines, cackling hideously.

There have been stories of shape-changing umibozu as well. In Miyaki prefecture, on Ooshima island, they say that umibozu disguise themselves as a beautiful woman lost and swimming in the ocean. The same story is told in Iwate prefecture, where it is said that the woman will invite you to come into the water with her, and that anyone foolish enough to do so will be swallowed whole.

Many other countries have similar legends, or sea monsters that resemble the umibozu. In Mongolia there is the Mokuri Kokuri. In China the Kikokutan, and in Europe the Sea Monk and the Bishop fish haunt the oceans.

Reports of Umibozu

There have been several written accounts of umibozu. Many of these are eye-witness encounters appearing in newspapers or collected in the bound volumes that served as the popular literature of the time.

In the Kansei era (1789 – 1801), in a collection of writings called Kanso Jigo (閑窓自語), in Osaka prefecture, Kaitsuka city, there was a report of an umibozu that rose out of the water and stayed visible for three days before returning to the sea.

In Wakayama prefecture, in the 21rst year of Meiji (1888) the Miyako Shinbun newspaper reported an umibozu monster that was 2.4 meters long and weighed up to 263 kilograms. It was said to be light brown with orange eyes, with a mouth like a crocodile and a tail like a giant shrimp, with a voice like a cow.

In the collection Usō Kanwa (雨窓閑話), it was written that in Mie prefecture it was thought that the end of the month was the time for umibozu, and ships were prohibited from launching at that time. A sailor broke the ban and went to see at the end of the month. Sure enough, he soon encountered an umibozu who approached him and asked “Am I terrifying?” The sailor replied, “I find nothing as terrifying as trying to make my way in this world,” at which the umibozu suddenly vanished.

And the most recent account, published in the Mainichi Shinbun newspaper in 1971, told of a first-hand account by a ship that was tuna fishing near New Zealand. When they went to hoist up their catch, a giant animal came up tangled in the lines. The captain and crew panicked at what they were sure was some monster from the deep. The monster was brown colored, with deeply wrinkled skin, and eyes fifteen centimeters in diameter. They saw no nose or mouth. Only a part of the monster’s body came out of the water, with the rest hidden in the ocean water. The matter was investigated by Japan’s oceanography department, who felt that experienced fishermen were not likely to mistake a whale or a giant squid for something different. If, as the fishermen said, the visible part of the body that breached the surface was around 1.5 meters long, then the remainder of the body must be larger than any animal ever known.

Perhaps it was an umi bozu.

Translator’s Note:

This was posted by request for reader Stuart, who says he is writing a song about umi bozu.  Hope to hear that song when it is finished!  And also thanks to comic writer Brian Wood, in whose comic The Massive appearing in Dark Horse Presents I first heard about the Draupner wave and thought … that sounds like an umibozu!

Further Reading:

Read more yokai tales on hyakumonogatari.com

Funa Yurei

Nure Onago – The Soaked Woman

The Appearance of the Spirit Turtle

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Nure Onago – The Soaked Woman

Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujara

In Tsushima in Nagasaki prefecture, when the rain falls at night, the bakemono known as the Nure Onago appears. The Nure Onago can appear near any body of water, from a small pond to the ocean. Her entire body is drenched, and she is soaked from the top of her head to the tips of her toes.

The Nure Onago can be found in several parts of Japan. In Nuwa in Ehime prefecture, it is said that you can see her hair stretched out and floating on the surface of the ocean, and it is from there that she appears. In the Uwa district, the Nure Onago doesn’t come from the ocean, but it is said that she appears from a soaking wet mop of hair.

The Nure Onago always has a wicked smile, and laughs hideously. If by chance you hear her and, thinking she is just a regular woman amused at something, should laugh along with her, then she will attack you swiftly and without mercy.

In Kagoshima prefecture, in the cape of Tajiri where the famous festival for the god Ebisu is held, there is a similar yokai. They call her the Iso Onna (Beach Woman), and like the Nure Onago she is soaked head to foot. The Iso Onna appears anywhere there is sand, either on the actual beach or inland if there is sand. The main different between the Nure Onna and the Isa Onna is the lower half of their bodies. The Isa Onna is said to have no lower half, but instead is formed like a snake below the waist. Both the Iso Onna and the Nure Onago are types of the yokai called Nure Onna.

Most depictions of the Nure Onago show her as being nothing different than a regular human woman, dripping wet. The Nure Onago is a relative of the Hari Onna (Needle Woman) from western Japan.

Translator’s Note

Mizuki Shigeru’s depiction of the Nure Onago is quite different than most portrayals.  Mizuki’s description is more in tune with the name Nure Onna 濡女子 which means literally “Wet Woman-child” or “Soaked Woman-child.” The related Nure Onna is traditionally drawn as a snake with the head of a woman.  She is also sometimes described as carrying a small child (odd considering the lack of arms) which then turns out to be a bundle of leaves.  This story is taken directly from the Ubume legends.

Further Reading:

Read more yokai tales on hyakumonogatari.com

Inen – The Possessing Japanese Ghost

Funa Yurei

Enju no Jashin – The Evil God in the Pagoda Tree

Nazo no Tokkuri – The Enigmatic Sake Bottle

Translated from Edo Tokyo Kaii Hyakumonogatari

In July 28th, in the seventh year of Kaei (1854), a sake seller plied his trade between the Kamakura riverbanks and the lower valley. On that day, an old monk of about sixty years of age came to the sake dealer, bearing a small sake bottle that could hold no more than three or four swallows. “Please fill this with three masu (about three cups) of sake” the monk said. Now, there was absolutely no way three masu of sake would fit in the old monk’s bottle. The young sake seller was suspicious of some trick, but he did his job dutifuly and smoothly poured the three masu into the small bottle. Much to his surprise and wonder, the sake bottle held the volume.

The monk readily paid for three masu of sake, then went on his way. Overcome by the enigma of the sake bottle, the young sake seller silently followed the monk. He followed the monk to a temple in the Jinai area of Asakusa, and crouched by the Yadaijin statue near the front gate.

“Why have you followed me here?” the monk said in a reproachful.

“Because I have never seen such a mysterious thing in my life as your sake bottle.” the young sake seller answered.

“There is no mystery,” came the voice. “I am a servant of the goddess Kannon, and I have something to tell you. This year, at the closing of the month of July, a terrible illness will ravage the land. You will want to flee to safety, but instead you must make peony rice cakes and eat them for the rest of this month. Go home quickly and tell the people of your house!”

With that said, the monk vanished.

The young sake seller ran home as fast as he could and told his master what he had seen and heard. The people of the house did as the monk said and ate the peony cakes, and when the sickness came not one of them fell ill.

There is another example of this kind of story.

Tales are told of the tengu of Ohira mountain. This is one of them.

In Ohiru mountain, in the country of Dewa (Modern day Yamagata prefecture), an old man came into a sake dealers shop. The old man was carrying a sake bottle, but ordered only a single spoonful of sake. To the sake dealer’s surprise, the sake bottle was filled to the brim by that one spoon. He decided to follow the old man, and learn the secret behind his magical bottle.

Following him into the mountains, the old man showed his true form as the tengu of the mountain, and prophesied both a rich harvest and a terrible disease for the coming year. If the old man wanted to escape the ravages of disease, then he must take an image of the tengu to a temple and place it before for the gates and pray to it.

The old man did as he was told.

Kimodameshi – The Test of Courage

Translated and sourced from Japanese wikipedia and other sources

Are you brave enough? That is the question that will be answered by playing kimodameshi, the Japanese test of courage. You will have to walk a dark, lonely path to a haunted location and set down your token to prove that you had been there.

The Meaning of Kimodameshi

Kimodameshi (肝試し) is most often translated into English as Test of Courage, which is not literally accurate. The word kimo (肝) actually refers to the liver, while dameshi (試し) does in fact mean “test.” In Japan the liver is associated with courage—for example kimo ga suwaru, or to sit on your liver, means to be brave or self-assured. So a more literal translation of kimodameshi would be to “prove your guts.”

The History of Kimodameshi

Like most folkloric practices, the factual origin of kimodameshi is lost to legend. But there are two possible beginnings, both of which could be equally true.

In the closing years of the Heian Period, during the reign of Emperor Shirakawa (1073 to 1087), the book “O-kagami” (大鏡; “Great Mirror”) was written by an unknown author. In the book was a story of three sons of Fujiwara Kaneie. One night during the Hour of the Ox (around 3 A.M.), the sons dared each other to go to a nearby house that was known to be the home of an oni. Only the son who was the leader of the martial arts school was brave enough to take up the challenge, and as proof of his courage he used his sword to slice a chip from the lintel of the house which he brought back to show the others.

Whether the story of the sons of Fujiwara Kaneie is true or not is unknown, but it is also said that kimodameshi began as a way for those of the samurai class to condition their children against fear, and that the game served as a kind of training.

During the Edo period, the 100 candles game hyakumonogatari kaidankai—which this site is based on—was a form of storytelling kimodameshi. The earliest recording of this game comes from the kaidan-shu “Tonoigusa” (1660) where a group of samurai gather to test their courage by telling ghost stories one by one.

Modern Kimodameshi

There are no set rules to kimodameshi, and there are as many variations as there are people who play it. Kimodameshi can be played impromptu, with only a few friends egging each other on to go somewhere scary or haunted, or it can be an organized event with a preset course, often inside a prepared haunted house with actors playing the roles of spooks.

In its most pure version, a group chooses a destination, one guaranteed to inspire fear. Common examples are dark forests, grave yards, Shinto shrines, abandoned buildings, or known haunted and mysterious spaces called shinrei spots. Challengers can go alone or as a duo. They go to the chosen spot at night, to ensure maximum fear, and they either bring something back to prove that they had gone the distance, or leave some sort of token that can be recovered the next day.

Like all Japanese ghost traditions, kimodameshi traditionally takes place in the summer. In Japan, summer is when the land of the living is thought to intersect with the land of the dead, and it is the time when yokai and yurei come out to play. All organized haunted house kimodameshi will take place during the summertime. It isn’t unusual to see TV celebrities during the summer being filmed walking through a haunted house or to some famous location in a game of kimodameshi.

There are some legal issues with kimodameshi. When an abandoned building becomes a popular spot, the police have been known to set up stings to arrest trespassers. Some of the locations themselves are dangerous, such as long, dark tunnels on country roads where a car can come through at any time.

School Kimodameshi

Many Japanese people experience kimodameshi when they are young, in Elementary or Junior High School. The game is played when the children go on school camping trips, or sometimes at school during school festivals. When played with school children, the game is a set-up.

In order to keep them safe, and still provide a good scare, the location is scouted before hand and scary objects like skulls and horror-props are planted along the way. Teachers and other volunteers dress in ghost costumes and hide along the path to spring out at the children. All of the students are told a scary story about that particular location, then sent off in groups to prove their guts once the Sun has gone down.

Students can also create their own kimodameshi events at school during school festivals. They dress up in costumes and turn one of the classrooms into a haunted house for other students to enter and test their courage.

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