Heike Ichizoku no Onryo – The Vengeful Ghosts of the Heike Clan


Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, British Museum.org, Funa Benkei, The Warrior Ghosts of Noh, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

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

The year is 1185. Minamoto no Yoshitsune stands in the prow of his boat as it speeds through Daimotsu Bay in the province of Settsu (Modern day Hyogo prefecture). Yoshitsune is fleeing from his brother, Minamoto no Yorimoto, who recently seized power from the Heike clan and declared himself Shogun. Yorimoto sees his brother as a potential rival. By exiling himself from the capital, Yoshitsune hopes to calm his brother’s jealousy and paranoia.

The omens for the trip had not been auspicious. Yoshitsune had been forced to leave behind his mistress, the famed dancer Lady Shizuka. But during a farewell dance she performed in his honor—her masterpiece shirabyoshi, also known as The Parting—her headdress had toppled to the floor. The seas were rough, and Yoshitsune thought of delaying his flight. But his faithful retainer, the mighty Musashibo Benkei, had pressured Yoshitsune into leaving without delay and braving the tumultuous seas. Delay could mean Yoshitsune’s death at the hands of his brother’s soldiers.

At first, the voyage went well despite the roughness of the seas. Then things changed. As the boat left behind the shores of Daimotsu Bay and headed towards the Yoshino mountains, a mist rose up without warning swallowing his ship and cutting off all light. From the sea arose great waves that battered Yoshitsune and his men, tossing their ship around like a toy. Yoshitsune’s ship was stuck in the sea—unable to advance or retreat, as if in the grip of some supernatural power.


Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s Sesshu Daimotsu-no-ura ni Heike no Onryo Arawaruru no Zu

Looking over the side of the boat revealed the truth—this was no sudden squall. Hidden in the depths of the waves were the white bodies of the warriors of the Heike clan recently destroyed by Yoshitsune himself. Skeletal hands swarmed about the ship, holding it fast in the water. The ship was going nowhere but to Hell.

One of the ghostly warriors leapt from the ocean onto the ship. At a glance, Yoshitsune knew who it was—Taira no Tomomori, dread general of the Heike. His eyes blazed red with wrath as he swung his massive naginata long-spear and maneuvered to engage Yoshitsune. Remarkably, Yoshitsune betrayed not the slightest glimmer of fear. He calmly drew his own sword and prepared to face off with this dead warrior.

The warrior-monk Musashibo Benkei knew that the day would not be carried by skill at arms. No matter how deadly his master Yoshitsune’s blade was, it could not cut dead flesh. But Taira no Tomomori’s naginata had no such concern.

Bento dropped to his knees and began to chant and earnest prayer to the gods. He called on the five directions—the deities of the North, South, East, West, and the mysterious fifth and unknowable direction. While Yoshitsune’s steel held off Taira no Tomomori’s attack, and the rest of the onryo of the defeated Heike clan continued to assault their ship, Bento fought a spiritual war of faith and devotion, pitting his prayer against the power of the dead.

Such was the earnestness of Benkei’s spirit and the devoutness of his prayer that the waves and mist dissipated as quickly as they had arisen. The vengeful ghosts of the Heike vanished, unable to stand against the protective power of the gods. There attack was over, and Yoshitsune and his men peacefully continued their flight from Kyoto.

Translator’s Note:

An “oldy but goody,” as they say. This story of attack on the Yoshitsune’s ship by the onryo of the Heike first appeared in the book Gikeiki (Chronicles of Yoshitsune). Gikeiki is an interesting book. It took elements of the quasi-historical Heike Monogatari (平家物語; Tales of the Heike) and added fantastical elements, such as Yoshitsune being trained by the mountain spirits the Tengu, and giving him a mystical companion in the form of Musashibo Benkei—known in his youth as Onikawa the Demon Boy. I guess you could say Gikeiki is an ancient equivalent of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.


Photo of the Gikeiki from the Kyoto University Rare Materials Collection

This particular passage, with the spiritual battle of Benkei against the Heike onryo, was adapted for a Noh play by Kanze Kojiro Nobumitsu. called Funa Benkei (船弁慶; Boat Benkei). Just in the title you can see that Benkei is the star of the show, and Yoshitsune is reduced to a supporting role. Funa Benkei was later adapted into a Kabuki play and continues to be popular.

Several artists have depicted the climactic battle of Funa Benkei, most notably Utagawa Kuniyoshi in his triptych Sesshu Daimotsu-no-ura ni Heike no Onryo Arawaruru no Zu (Depiction of the Appearance of the Vengeful Ghosts of the Heike in the Bay of Daimotsu in Sesshu).

Oh, and while Benkei’s actions may have diffused the desire for revenge in the Heike ghosts, he could not rid the world of them entirely. They would later appear to torment a hapless, blind lute player into endless repetitions of songs singing their praise (in the story Miminashi Hoichi, by Lafcadio Hearn) and many say they have been reincarnated as a distinct species of crab that lives in the waters off the shore of Shimonoseki—the Heike Crab.


Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s Taira Tomomori no Onryo

Further Reading:

For more Japanese Ghost tales, check out:

The Ghost of Oyuki

Yūrei-zu – A Portrait of a Yūrei, a Japanese Ghost

Chrysanthemum Vow

The Black Hair

The Severed Heads Hanging in the Fowling Net

What Does Ayakashi Mean in English?

Mizuki Shigeru Ayakashi

Translated and sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Japanese Wikipedia, Kaii Yokai Densho Database Japanese Performing Arts Resource Center, and Other Sources

A sea serpent so massive it takes three days to pass by in a boat? Mysterious lights floating by the beach? A generic term for ghost stories? Ayakashi is one of the most complicated and convoluted terms in all of Japanese folklore. There is no easy answer to this simple question.

What Does Ayakashi Mean?

Usually when investigating a yokai I like to start with deciphering the kanji that make up the name. That is your first, best clue as to what the monster or phenomenon is. But ayakashi is written either in hiragana (あやかし) or katakana (アヤカシ), neither of which give any hints as to the meaning. There is an alternate and specific spelling of ayakashi that does use kanji, and we will look into that later.

In its most basic usage, ayakashi is a general term for yokai that appear above the surface of the water, and can be translated as “strange phenomenon of the sea.” That fact that this is the surface of the water is important—yokai tend to appear at boundaries, places where one thing becomes another thing. So ayakashi are yokai that haunt the boundary between the ocean and the air, instead of sea monsters swimming in the dark depths.

There are many yokai that have been called ayakashi over the years. Here are a few of them:

Ayakashi no Kaika – The Strange Lights of Ayakashi


In Nagasaki, the term ayakashi refers to strange lights that dance above the surface of the water, and are found mostly on the beaches in twilight.

These lights are different from the typical Japanese kaika (怪火; strange lights), in that the floating fires are said to contain what looks to be small children running around inside of them. This phenomenon is particularly associated with Tsushima city, Nagasaki.

Some of these ayakashi no kaika also appear out on the water, where it is said they can suddenly take on the appearance of massive rocks or landmasses that appear out of nowhere. The goal of this transformation is to panic ships, forcing them to change course and run aground or sink. But the irony is, if the brave captain sails right through the mirage, they vanish leaving everyone unharmed.

Funa Yurei – The Boat Ghosts


See Funa Yurei – The Boat Ghosts

In Yamaguchi and Saga prefectures ayakashi refers to funa yurei, a group of yurei who drowned at sea and now try to sink boats to increase their numbers. Funa yubrei are known to float up to the surface of the water appearing first as kaika, then transforming into figures when they reach the surface. They will demand a hishaku—a bamboo spoon—from any boat they encounter, and if given one they will swiftly fill the boat with water and drag the crew down to the depths.

A wise captain always carried a hishaku with holes drilled in it when sailing in funa yurei infested waters. Giving this spoon to the funa yurei means that they cannot sink your boat.

Several other areas in Western Japan use the term ayakashi to describe ghosts of those drowned at sea, who try to sink boats and drown swimmers either for revenge or to swell their ranks. A good example of this is the Shudan Borei.

The Woman of the Well

This story of the ayakashi appears only once, in the Edo period Kaidanshu Kaidanro no Sue (怪談老の杖; A Cane for an Old Man of Kaidan).

In Taidozaki, in the Chosei district of Chiba prefecture, a group of sailors put to show in order to re-stock their fresh water holds. As they pulled into the beach, a beautiful woman came walking by carrying a large bucket. She said the bucket was filled with fresh water that she had drawn from a nearby well, and that she would be only too happy to share it with the sailors.

Hearing this, the Captain said “There’s no well nearby. I’ve heard similar stories of thirsty sailors beguiled by a beautiful woman offering them water, never to be seen again. That woman is an ayakashi!” He ordered the boat swiftly back to the sea. As the men pulled their oars, the woman came running towards the ship in a rage, and leapt into the ocean biting the hull of the ship and holding on tight. The quick-thinking Captain beat her off with one of the oars, and the ship sailed away unharmed.



A real-life animal associated with the term ayakashi are remoras, the leach-like fish with sucker bellies that fasten themselves onto sharks and other ocean-going objects in order to get a free ride and some free food.

According to folk belief, if remoras fasten themselves to the underside of your boat, you will become stuck in the water and unable to move. In this case, remoras are called ayakashi.

Ikuchi – The Oily Sea Serpent

Sekien Ayakashi

By far the most famous depiction of ayakashi is the massive sea serpent Ikuchi. The association comes from Toriyama Seiken (鳥山石燕), and his entry for ayakashi in his Konjyaku Hyakki Shui (今昔百鬼拾遺; A Collection of 100 Ghosts from Times Past)

Toriyama wrote:

“When boats sail the seas of Western Japan, they encounter a beast so large it takes 2-3 days just to sail past. The body of the beast drips oil, but if the sailors work together to clear the boat of the oil no harm will come to them. If they don’t, they will sink.“

The Ikuchi is a legendary monster from Ibaraki prefecture, that was written about in Edo period Kaidanshu like Tsumura Soan (津村正恭)’s Tankai (譚海; Sea Ballads) and Negishi Shizumori (根岸 鎮衛)’s Mimibukuro (耳袋; Ear Bag). The Ikuchi is described as eel-like and massively long, several kilometers at least. It was not inherently dangerous, but would become tangled up with ships accidently. Crews had to work often for days to get their ship free of the Ikuchi. The most dangerous part was the oil that seeped from the monster’s body. The crew had to diligently clean up all the oil, or the ship would sink.

Why Toriyama called his depiction of the Ikuchi “ayakashi” isn’t known. Perhaps he didn’t know the monster’s true name, or perhaps he was using the general term for sea monsters instead of the specific name of Ikuchi. But for whatever reason, such is Toriyama’s influence that Ayakashi has come to describe the Ikuchi in most modern depictions.

Other Depictions

The word ayakashi has been put on almost every variation of sea monster you can think of. The 1918 book Dozoku to Densetsu (土俗と伝説; Local Customs and Legends) describes the ayakashi like this:

“The ayakashi is a mystery of the sea. They haunt boats on the open waters. Their appearance is like an enormous octopus. It will wrap itself around a boat, and only let go when gold coins are given to it.”

The 1923 book Tabi to Densetsu (旅と伝説; Travels and Legends) says this about ayakashi:

“While traveling the open sea at night, you will see lights in the distance. A ship approaches, mysteriously traveling against the wind. The ship is blazing, covered in lanterns of every shape and size, and suddenly overtakes your vessel. Or sometimes it disappears all together, and reappears next to you. The boat is filled with the souls of those who drowned at sea, and they want to add to their number. If they get close enough, they will fling an iron basket filled with fire onto your ship, killing all on board.”

Another Edo period kaidanshu offers this description:

“When the winds blow from the West, the dead travel on the waves. With lanterns hanging from the prow, you can make out the site of a woman clad in a white kimono, standing in the prow of a small ship. This is the ayakashi.”

There are many, many more. Most of the stories are slightly similar—describing either some kind of great sea monster, or a boat full of drowning victims out for revenge—but few of them are exactly the same. This is probably what cause folklorists and storytellers to throw up their hands and say “Fine! Ayakashi just means all sea weirdness. That covers everything, right?”

Not quite …

Ayakashi and the Masks of Noh

Noh Mask Reiayakashijpg

While no one agrees on exactly what kind of ocean phenomenon ayakashi is, they are all at least agreed that it is SOME kind of ocean phenomenon. Except for Noh theater.

Many of Japan’s arts have a specialized vocabulary that is used nowhere else (try going to a sushi restaurant in Japan and asking for some “purple” and you will see what I mean.) As you know (ha ha!) Noh theater uses masks. All of the masks have names, and the name for a male mask of a ghost or violent god is called ayakashi.

Noh uses a specialized kanji, 怪士 meaning strange (怪; ayaka – ) + warrior (士; shi). These masks come in variation, like the chigusa ayakashi which is fleshy and more human-like, or the shin no ayakashi with protruding eyes and bulging blood vessels. The most terrifying is the rei no ayakashi, a skeletonesque face with a white pallor and sunken eyes. The ayakashi masks were designed around the Muromachi period and where used interchangeably for many ghostly roles, but by the Edo period each mask had been assigned a specific role.

Because of the masks of Noh, and Ayakashi no Mono (怪士のもの) can refer to a ghost story of Noh, where one of the ayakashi masks are used. And that is where the confusion comes in, from using the term “ayakashi” as a general word for yokai or “ghost story.” It is … but ONLY in Noh theater.

Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales

ayakashis samurai horror tales

And that brings us to where most Westerners have heard the term ayakashi, in the anime Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales. While this is a brilliant series, you will notice that nowhere is there a sea creature of any kind, neither monster nor boat full of lantern-bearing yurei.

That is because the series is named after the Noh usage of ayakashi, which gives it a mysterious, nostalgic feel (and is also a bit misleading, as the stories in Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales come from Kabuki theater and not Noh. But that’s marketing for you … )

Translator’s Note

This started out with me answering a reader’s question on the difference between yokai, ayakashi, and mononoke. It soon became apparent that there was far too much information for a simple answer, and blossomed into this article.

And I still didn’t answer the question! Sorry! But at least you will have a better understanding of what ayakashi means!

Further Reading:

For other informative posts about yokai and such, check out:

What Does Yokai Mean in English?

How Do You Say Ghost in Japanese?

A Brief History of Yokai

Funa Yurei

Umibozu – The Sea Monk

Bakekujira and Japan’s Whale Cults

Shudan Borei – A Group of Ghosts


shudan borei

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

Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujara

On July 28th, Showa 30th (1955), in a heartbreaking incident 36 junior high school girls drowned on a beach in Mie prefecture. Of the nine girls who survived the incident, five had the same story to tell.

The girls were all playing and swimming in the calm waters, enjoying the gentle lapping of the waves. Without warning, the water seemed to gather together, and a dark mass rose from the surface of the ocean. The mass took the shape of people in WWII air-raid hoods, dark in color, soaking wet and pouring water from every surface. As the mass rose, the figures become more defined, dressed in old-fashioned women’s work pants. There were hundreds of them.

The girls tried to get away, but the water seemed to be sucked up towards the dark figures, dragging the girls towards them. One of the girls who survived said she felt a hand grab her leg and try and pull her under the water. She was able to break the hands grasp and make her way to the shore, but her friends were not so lucky.

Afterwards, students who were on the beach and not in the water confirmed the story and all of its details. They saw the ghosts rising and dragging the girls under the water.

After investigating the incident, it was discovered that exactly ten years before the incident, U.S. aircraft had firebombed that area, killing around 250 people. The bodies were not cremated, but were piled without ceremony into a mass grave on that beach. In this way one tragedy became two tragedies, as the ghosts of the war dead rose up again.

Translator Note:

The kanji for this is集団 (shudan, meaning “group” or “gathering”) and亡霊 (borei, which is a somewhat Gothic term for “ghost”).

This story is based on a actual event, called the Kyohaku Junior High School Drowning Incident (橋北中学校水難事件) in Japanese. The school had gone to the beach as their annual excursion, and as swimming practice for the girls. At the time, swimming had been added to the official school curriculum, but as the school had no pool swimming practice was held in the nearby, usually calm ocean.

The school principle and teachers were arrested and charged with negligence—the school was short-handed and had not brought along the required number of adult observers, and parents claimed their children were not yet strong enough swimmers to be unsupervised in the ocean. Ultimately, they were found not-guilty and cleared of charges. The girls’ deaths were ruled a mysterious, unfortunate accident. A pool was quickly built for the school, and the students no longer practice swimming in the ocean.

Observers reported a sudden swelling of the waves and a rise in the water level that drowned the girls. Of the nine surviving girls, five reported a sensation of pulling on their legs, as if the sand was sucking down on their feet, holding them down while the water rose. Several also reported seeing the dark shape of women in air-raid hoods rising from the water.

In 1956, the Ise Newspaper reported on the story of the war dead buried on the beach, noting that most of the dead had been refugees and were thus buried without name or ceremony. In 1963, one of the girls published an article in a Joshi Jishin magazine (Women’s Own Stories) called “How I survived an Encounter with a Ghost” that further spread the supernatural origin of the drowning.

Several scientific explanations have been offered for the sudden swelling of the water based on the geographical features of the beach, along the supernatural one. It is clear Mizuki Shigeru prefers the supernatural explanation.

The beach remains off-limits for swimmers. A year after the incident, a shrine was raised on the location, and a statue called the Goddess of Protecting Swimmers in the Ocean was placed on the beach as a memorial.

Further Reading:

For more tales of haunted oceans, read:

Umi Bozu – The Sea Monk

Funa Yurei – The Boat Ghosts

Nure Onnago – The Soaked Woman

Funa Yurei

Translated from Nihon no Obake Banashi

Long ago, it was said that when a boat put out to sea on New Year’s Eve it was sure to catch the eyes of funa yurei.

Funa yurei are said to be the souls of drowning victims.  Bitter and wrathful towards the living, they rise up from the bottom of the sea to attack boats.

One time, at Mizushimanada in the Seto Inland Sea (West of modern day Okayama prefecture) a lone boat crossed the water heavy with goods for the New Year’s festival.  Due to the nature of its cargo, the boat had no choice but to cross on New Year’s Eve and was now being tossed about by the white-capped waves.

“What, do you fear to go sailing on New Year’s Eve?  Are we boatmen to have our livelihoods ended out of fear of the funa yurei?  The sky may be black as ink without a star in sight, but the wind is favorable and if we hold our course steady we will at be back home before we even left!”

Cheering themselves up in this manner, the boatsmen continued along the pitch-black sea.  For a time, everything was good. Their sales were full of wind, and they were traveling so fast it was as if they were flying over the water.  But suddenly the skies opened up, and a hammering rain began to fall.

“Damn!  This is some pretty bad stuff coming down on us…”

The boatsmen didn’t stop their work for evne a moment, and kept the boat steady on as the violence of the rain increased.  Suddenly, the boat ground to a halt as if something had moved up behind it and grabbed itl  The wind fell to a dead calm.

“What just happened?  Where is our wind?”

Then, just as suddenly, they were blasted by a fierce breeze that seemed to have come straight from the heart of winter.

“Everyone!  Push us ahead!  Heave to those oars!”

To the shock of the boatsmen, the boat held its ground, frozen to the spot as if it had set down roots.

“Wha…what is that?”

From deep under the water, something was drifting up towards the boat.  It looked almost like floating balls of cotton.

“No!…it can’t be!”

The white shapes moved relentlessly upwards, increasing in size as they approached.  The boatsmen could see them now; wrapped in kimonos as white as snow, their hair floated wildly in the water.   From below there was a ghastly light illuminating their faces.  There was no doubt these were the dreaded funa yurei.

“Lend us a hishaku…lend us a spoon…”

Their ghostly hands stretched up from the waves, and their voices carried their bitter grudge toward the living.

It is known that, if you should find yourself in such a situation and overcome by fear you actually had over the hishaku spoon they are requesting, then you are as good as dead.  Before your eyes, the single hishaku spoon will split into multiple spoons, and arms beyond you ability to count will stretch out from the ocean.

“Ei ya!  Ei ya! Ei ya!”

Singing their loathsome song with voices filled with hate, the funa yurei will ladle water from their infinite spoons until you boat is swamped.  And if this is not enough to sink your boat, they will reach up and drag it to the bottom of the ocean.  How many hundred of ships have been sunk in this manner?

“No no no…not to you…we will never lend you a spoon!”

But these boatsmen, shivering so badly they could barely hold their oars, refused absolutely and pulled the water with all their strength. This did not discourage the funa yurei.   Slowly the boat moved slowly forward in the water, followed closely by the funa yurei.

“Go away!  Just go away!”

The boatmen took their oars and began to beat with all their might on the heads of the funa yurei.

“Lend us a hishaku…lend us a spoon…”

A funa yurei grabbed hold of one of the oars and pulled with such strength that one of the boatmen was dragged into the ocean.


Letting go of the oar, he clambered up the side of the boat upsetting the lantern they had used to guide their way through the black night.   Sparks flew off of the lantern, and the funa yurei fled before the power of the flame.    With that, the boat that had been held almost still in the water suddenly broke free and sped along smoothly.

“Ahhh….thanks to that lantern…”

The boatmen pulled with all of their remaining strength for the shore.

The funa yurei are found not only in the Seto Inland Sea, but anywhere in the waters surrounding Japan.   Always they ask for the hishaku spoon.

Because of this, some boats carry a specially prepared hishaku spoon with holes drilled in it.  This way, when the pass over the spoon the funa yurei are unable to fill the boat with water and they can make their escape.

This legend comes from Okayama prefecture, from an Edo period book called “Kasshi Yawa.”   A fishing villiage in this area still sells specially made hishaku spoons with holes that are said to ward off the funa yurei.

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