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?


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

The Ghost of Oyuki


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

Maruyama Ōkyo opened his eyes from a fitful sleep and saw a dead woman. She was young. Beautiful. And pale. Unnaturally drained of color, her bloodless skin peeked from her loose, bone-white burial kimono. Her bleached appearance was contrasted only by the thin slits of her black eyes, and by the long, black hair that hung disheveled across her shoulders. She had no feet.

What is The Ghost of Oyuki?

The Ghost of Oyuki is without a doubt the most famous and influential Japanese ghost painting.  It is the template for the entire country’s idea of “what a ghost looks like.” The white-faced, black-haired girl in the white kimono has roots in tradition, but this image–particularly the lack of feet–comes from the brush of Maruyama Ōkyo.

Although the English title is The Ghost of Oyuki, the actual Japanese title is Yūreizu: Oyuki no Maboroshi (幽霊図(お雪の幻), which translates as Portrait of a Yurei: The Vision of Oyuki. According to a note on the scroll box, put there sometime by a former owner named Shimizu, the young artist had a mistress called Oyuki who worked as a geisha at the Tominaga geisha house in Ōtsu city in the province of Ōmi, modern-day Shiga prefecture.  Oyuki had died young, how or when the note does not say; and Ōkyo mourned her deeply.  Perhaps too deeply.

One night Maruyama awoke  and saw Oyuki hovering at the foot of his bed. She stayed there for a moment and disappeared. When she was gone, Maruyama sprang from his bed and painted Oyuki exactly has she had appeared before him.

Maruyama had a reputation as the ultimate naturalist painter—if he painted something, you could trust that he had seen it.  Because of his reputation, when Maruyama appeared with his painting and his story, the people of Japan had no doubt that this was what a yurei actually looked like. And they have been honoring that image ever since.

The Ghost of Oyuki Yomihon

The Ghost of Oyuki Chapbook

(Sorry! The Ghost of Oyuki is now sold out!!!)

The story of Maruyama Okyo and the Ghost of Oyuki is told in my yomihon chapbook from Chin Music Press. The Ghost of Oyuki is not an actual book, but a piece of “book art” commissioned from Mercuria Press in Portland, OR to support my upcoming book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost. The Ghost of Oyuki is letterpress printed and handbound in the style of an Edo period yomihon, and was produced in a limited edition of 100.

(Sorry! The Ghost of Oyuki is now sold out!!!)

Further Reading:

For more Yurei-zu, check out:

Ubume-zu – Portrait of an Ubume

Yurei-zu: A Portrait of a Yurei, a Japanese Ghost

Hokusai’s Manga Yurei

More Hokusai Manga Yurei

Goryo Shinko – The Religion of Ghosts

Translated and Adapted from Mishu Shukyo Shisosho

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

From ancient times, the Japanese attributed natural disasters and plagues to the handiwork of onryo, grudge-bearing spirits of the dead who had died by violence or some other unnatural circumstance.  In order to transform these onryo from horrors into benign deities that would use their powers for the peace and prosperity, the Japanese created Goryo Shinko, the Religion of Ghosts.

About the Spirit

Spirits or souls separating from their bodies at death is a common belief across the world.  Japan is no exception.    From as far back as the distant history of the Jomon period, the Japanese have built their spiritual beliefs on ghosts and the grave.   The unleashed soul, called mitama or tameshi in Japanese, could cause an array of misfortunes.   Of particular danger were the spirits of those who died due to political intrigue, or who were defeated in war.  These spirits inflicted their revenge upon their still-living enemies.   During the Heian period, folk beliefs and rituals dealing with the wrathful dead formalized into a religion.

From Onryo to Goryo

During times of national instability, when political strife and battle dominated the country, the threat of onryo loomed large.  Any who died amidst the chaos were capable of sustaining a powerful hatred.   And this hatred was unfocused.  Onryo did not limit their revenge to those whom had wronged them in life.  The method of an onryo’s revenge; plague, fire and earthquake, did not allow for such precise targeting.

The Heian period is full of examples of these wrathful ghosts, onryo, mostly high-born and privileged in life. Fujiwara Hirotsugu, Prince Sawara, and Prince Osabe were all considered to have transformed into onryo their deaths.   To calm their raging spirits, they were posthumously raised in court rank and title, then enshrined as kami in Shinto shrines.  These rituals, it was said, transformed them from destroyers into protectors of after Japan.

This, in essence, is Goryo Shinko; the transformation of wrathful ghosts into protective entities via ritual and entitlement.  During the Heian period this religion was so pervasive there was even a ceremony in the Imperial Court welcoming new spirits into the ranks of protective spirits. According to official documents, the first such ceremony confirming goryo was on May 20th in 863CE (The 5th year of the Jyogan Era), held in Shinsenen. (From the Nihon Sandai Jitsuroku).

Examples of Goryo Shinko survive to modern Japan.  Kyoto has two ancient temples that remain devoted to Goryo Shinko: the Upper and Lower Goryo Shrines.  The Upper Goryo Shrine enshrines the Hassho Goryo (The Goryo of the Eight Districts): Emperor Sudo (Prince Sawara, son of Emperor Konin), Emperess Inoenai (Wife of Emperor Konin), Prince Osabe (Son of Emperor Konin), Fujiwara Daibunin (Fujiwara Yoshiko, mother of Prince Iyoshin), Tachibana Daibu (Tachibana Hayanari), Budaifu (Bunya Miyatamaru), the diety Honoikatzu (Sugawara Michizane), and Kibi Daijin (Kibi Makibi).  Also enshrined are Prince Shoshin, the Government Inspectors for China (Fujiwara Nakanai and Fujiwara Hirotsugu), the Emperor Sotoku, Fujiwara Yorinaga (known as the Badman of Uji), Emperor Antoku, Emperor Jyuntoku and Emperor Tsuchimikado.

While Goryo Shinko is identified with the Heian period, and the earliest records of Goryo Shinko date to this time, there is speculation that the religion was based on older traditions. Looking at purely historical records, the first known account of an onryo was Fujiwara Hirotsugu, written about in Genbo’s military history “Shoku-Nihongi”
(“The Continued Chronicles of Japan”). But there are other opinions.

In his book “Kakushita Jyujika” (“The Hidden Cross”), author Umehara Takeshi makes the unlikely (and wholly unsupported) claim that the Buddhist Prince Shotoku Taishi was an early onryo.  Another author, Yaegashi Naohiki, sees evidence of onryo activity in the decline of the heads of the Soga clan (Soga Emishi and Soga Iruke).  Another candidate for pre-Heian period onryo is put forward by Ootsu Miko, who identifies Tada Kazuomi in her books “Fusouryakuki” (“An Record of the Approximation of the Lands East of China”) and “Yakushiengi” (“The Omen of Yakushi Temple”).  Ootsu says that the true causes of historical events can be placed on karma coming back to us from future lives.   Each of these writers have some grounds for argument in their individual accounts.

Another more likely candidate is put forth by Terasaki Yasuhiro, who wrote in “Jinbutsu Sousho” (“A Library of Humanity”) that the death by small pox of four children of the Fujiwara clan was cause by the onryo of Nagaya Ookimi.  However, this still sets Goryo Shinko in the Heian period, as Nagaya Ookimi was a contemporary of Fujiwara Hirotsugu, and both of their stories were featured in Heian period compilations like “Shoku Nihongi.”  Timewise, there isn’t much difference between the two, and whether Ookimi or Hirotsugu were first, there is scant hard evidence of onryo from any period before the Heian and Nara periods.

Based not on evidence, but purely on philosophical terms, the author the author Izawa Motohiro, in his book “Gyakusetsu no Nihonshi” (“An Alternate Explanation of Japanese History”), writes that the dangerous nature of improperly worshiped ghosts is native to Japan.  It runs contrary to the influences of the ancestor cult from China.
While Izawa confirms that the Heian period is the beginning for formalized worship, he names the earlier collection of folkbeliefs Pre-Onryo Shinko.  Iwaza also uses Nagaya Ookimi and the deaths of the four Fujiwara children as an example, showing that belief in onryo existed prior to the formalized religion of the Heian period.  Izawa further advocates that Goryo Shinko should properly be called Japanese Onryo Shinko.  In truth, Izawa’s theories almost perfectly reflect statements made previously by author Umehara Takeshi.

There are many theories, but few actual articles written on ancient onryo.  One of the most basic descriptions was made by the monk Jien, who wrote that an onryo was only as powerful as its reason for appearing.  Once the spirit’s claims had been settled, it would be appeased and cease to trouble the world.  Jien’s description remains accurate, and this basic description has carried through from ancient times through Japan’s middle ages and beyond.

Goryo Shinko declined with the advent of Buddhism in Japan, during the Wars of the Northern and Southern Courts.  Buddhism’s rituals and beliefs gradually supplanted the Shinto beliefs of the Heian period, although they never vanished entirely.  In shrines such as Yanbekimiyori (Warei Jinja) and Sakura-sotzuro (Sougorei-do), goryo
were regularly enshrined and worshiped.  And even with the dominant influence of Buddhism, in the “Taiheiki” (“Record of the Taihei Clan”) the violence fo the War of the Northern and Southern Courts was said to be influenced by onryo.  The power of the dead was still blamed for the many great social upheavals in Japan.   The Genpei Gassen, were said to be caused by the onryo of Sutokuin, and still more onryo-derived conflicts are recorded in the “Hogen Monogatari” and the “Heike Monogatari.”

The Mistress of Tonbo and Nezu

Translated from Nihon no Yurei

The Ginza area of Tokyo is overflowing with local legends and gossip. This is one of them.

The restaurant itself is no longer standing, but from the Meiji era through the Taisho and Showa eras, the name Tonbo would have been familiar to any residents of the Ginza.  The popular restaurant flourished for decades, and appears as a setting in several historical accounts.  This is a story concerning the mistress of the restaurant.

As a restaurant, Tonbo was famous for the fierce loyalty of its customers.  A Tonbo customer did not stray to other establishments.  And none obeyed this code more stringently than the name named Nezu, Tonbo’s most loyal customer. Such was the extent of his patronage that the two had become synonymous.   “Nezu’s Tonbo” the restaurant was called, just as he was called “Tonbo’s Nezu.”

Now Nezu was a man of strong passions, and one of his passions was for a woman named Mochizuki.  Although they were not married, such was their relationship that Mochizuki accompanied Nezu when he took trips abroad.  It so happened that, on the day Nezu died in his home, his lady Mochizuki had happened to come calling to his house and discovered his body.   The Ginza gossip said that it was almost as if the Buddha had summoned her at that exact moment to tend to her love.  To no one’s surprise, it was only a day before Mochizuki too passed away, following Nezu into the afterlife.  Nezu must have called for her from the other world, everyone said. 

It turned out Nezu was not as loyal to his women as he was to his restaurant, for with Mochizuki also dead yet another woman, an employee of an antique shop, came forward as Nezu’s lover and offered to attend to the funeral arrangements as was her duty.  Her assistance was not long, as she too soon died and joined Nezu in the other world.

With his lovers gone, the obligation of arranging the funeral now fell to the Mistress of Tonbo.  Feeling safe that Nezu was well-comforted in death, the Mistress of Tonbo dutifully performed the purification rites and attended at the funeral of her most loyal customer.  In spite of this show of affection and duty, Nezu was not content to bring only his two lovers with him to the afterlife.

A year had passed, and on January 4th, the exact day of Nezu’s death anniversary, the Mistress of Tonbo also died.  Her funeral was on January 8th, the same day that Nezu’s funeral had been held.  Some said this was mere coincidence.

Now, the Mistress of Tonbo had no children, but she was very fond of costumes and clothing.   For reasons unknown, prior to her death the Mistress of Tonbo had already prepared her funerary wear, ordered from her favorite kimono shop.   The head clerk of this shop, a woman named Nishi, had been the one to discover the Mistress of Tonbo’s body when she stopped by to pay her traditional New Year’s greeting.  Everyone said that the Mistress of Tonbo had foreseen her own death, citing both the preparation of her funerary wear as well as the timing of the expected visit from Nishi.  After these events, Nishi of the kimono shop suddenly died.

Next up was a man named Koya.  An old friend of the Mistress of Tonbo’s father, Koya had often looked after her when she was growing up, and his presence at her funeral was taken for granted.  When Koya failed to appear, the Ginza was abuzz with gossip over the reason why, until the day of the funeral Koya’s daughter came to give her regrets and say that Koya too had passed away.

Not only had Koya died on January 4th as well, but his own funeral had been held on January 8th, and it was thought that the Mistress of Tonbo had somehow brought Koya along with her to the afterlife.  At least that is what everyone believed.

I first heard this story from my aunt, but because the legend of the Mistress of Tonbo and her loyal Nezu are so famous almost everyone is familiar with this haunting tale of coincidental death.  My aunt could not resist adding a personal touch, however, and whenever she finished the story she would say with a slight smile that there was more to the story.

During wartime, such a grand restaurant as Tonbo could not expect to operate, and it was forcibly shut down by the government and its resources re-allocated.  The Mistress of Tonbo could not stay idle, however, and in a different location she soon opened a much smaller neighborhood shop.  Such was her pride, however, that she could not bring herself to stand in the shoddy booth day-after-day taking customer orders. So the Mistress of Tonbo asked my aunt if she wouldn’t mind coming in and taking over the running of the new shop?

To my aunt, this seemed a somewhat mercenary request.  The Mistress of Tonbo would collect all the cash while my aunt did all the work.  Still, a job was a job, and my aunt mulled it over for awhile.  Finally, my aunt decided that she too had pride and that perhaps it would be for the best to recede from the company of the Mistress of Tonbo.  My aunt instead recommended Okiku, a girl who had worked at Tonbo restaurant for some time, to stand in as mistress of the new shop.  Although disappointed at my aunt’s refusal, the Mistress of Tonbo soon warmed to the idea of Okiku, and it was just a short while before they were in business together.

Of course, their little venture was cut short of January 4th of that year when the Mistress of Tonbo suddenly died.  And it was only half a year later before it was Okiku’s turn, who found that her Mistress had a pull on her in death as well as life.

My aunt dutifully attended Okiku’s funeral, but sure that Okiku would also want to drag someone along with her to the afterlife, my aunt placed two small dolls in Okiku’s coffin.  My aunt always bragged that it was she and her little dolls that ended the chain of deaths.  In such times of violent war people took such death superstitions seriously.

There was no doubt in my aunt’s mind that Okiku had taken her place in more than the restaurant.  If my aunt had not transferred that job to Okiku and completely severed her ties with the Mistress of Tonbo, then it would have been my aunt’s cold body lying in that coffin.  And surely Okiku would not have been clever enough to think of the two dolls, and the situation would have dragged on even further.

Now when you normally hear the story of Nezu and the Mistress of Tonbo, it ends with the death of the Mistress.  But my aunt liked to flavor the story with her own personal experience.  That is typical of these local legends swapped in the Ginza.  Each person twists the details, or emphasizes parts intended to reinforce the moral lesson they wish to tell, or even just to boast of some personal triumph over the supernatural.

But if you look back into folklore and history, there is some precedence to the story’s conclusion and the two dolls my aunt says she placed in Okiku’s coffin.  The ancient story of Nomi Sukune tells of a samurai who defied the custom of committing ritual suicide in order to accompany his empress into the afterworld when she died.  Instead, Sukune placed a set of unglazed clay warrior figures, called haniwa, into her coffin for company.

My aunt’s dolls served the same purpose as these haniwa, nullifying the dead person’s curse and satisfying the need for someone to accompany them to the afterlife.

The Fudaraku Pure Land

Translated from Kitaro no Tengoku to Jigoku

Mt. Fudaraku is the home of the bodhisattva Kannon.  There also is found the beautiful garden known as the Fudaraku Pure Land.

The Fudaraku Pure Land can be reached by a small boat called the utsubo-bune.   That boat primarily departs from Kumano beach in Kishu province (modern-day Wakayama prefecture).   The utsubo-bune has no windows, and instead has three or four tori gates where windows would be.  Passengers bring fruits and nuts for the journey, and the utsubo-bune has pegs on which to hang them. 

The utsubo-bune goes with the North wind, and travels onward until it reaches the Fudaraku Pure Land.

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