In Japanese folklore, there are two types of mythical beings: yokai and yurei. There is a dizzying array of classification systems with the precise definitions varying by author and time period, and regardless of which you choose, there will always be fuzzy exceptions and beings that are hard to classify. That being said, in modern Japan, the distinction between the two is commonly thought to be similar to the difference between monsters and spirits.
Yurei are spirits, the souls of the dead, which can be seen from the way it’s written in Chinese characters (幽霊 – ‘Faint spirit’). The Japanese believe that when a person dies, their soul doesn’t move on to the spirit world until the family has performed the proper burial rites. If a person dies in such a way that these rites can’t be carried out, or if they are bound to this world by some strong desire, they may continue to exist as a yurei. Yurei have one foot in each world, so while they may have some physicality, they aren’t necessarily bound to one location, and may possess ghostly powers like invisibility, or the ability to pass through walls.
Similar to western ghosts, they aren’t necessarily sinister beings, but since the powerful emotion holding them back is often a negative one, dangerous yurei are common. They are often depicted as having pure white skin and clothes, and jet black hair. Sadako, the vengeful ghost from The Ring, is a pretty typical depiction of a yurei.
Yokai, on the other hand, are the monsters. Written in Chinese characters as 妖怪, they are described as ‘bewitched mysteries’. They come in a staggering array of types, shapes, and powers, as evidenced by the popular Yokai Watch franchise, in which the main character befriends yokai who he can summon for aid in battles, similar to Pokemon.
While some may consider yurei to be a type of yokai, the term usually conjures up the image of a being that tends to be more physical, less human, and less dead than a yurei. They are often powerful forms of familiar Japanese animals, such as raccoons or foxes, or even supernatural evolutions of regular household objects. A common way to become a yokai is for an animal or a tool to survive for an unusual number of years, much like how a snake who lives a thousand years in the sea, and a thousand years in the mountains is believed to become a dragon (which is, in fact, a yokai itself).
While the way yurei come into being makes them likely to be malevolent, the wider variety of yokai and their neutral origins make some of them quite innocuous. Much like animals, some are dangerous and predatory, while others are content minding their own business. Of course, there are exceptions such as ghostly yokai, humans that become yokai, and yokai that have died, but by and large, the ‘supernatural monster’ classification holds as a rule of thumb. Examples from western mythology are beings like the wolfman or mermaids, they would probably be recognized by the Japanese as yokai.
In popular culture, the Yokai Watch mentioned above has been hugely popular over the last few years. However, before that series got big there was Gegege no Kitaro. Originally created by Shigeru Mizuki in the 1960’s as a manga, it also spawned an animated TV series that still airs re-runs to this day, as well as a number of movies, both live action and animated.
If you’ve spent some time in Japan, you’ve probably seen the characters before. The main character is Kitaro, instantly recognizable by the autonomous eyeball that accompanies him, housing the reincarnated spirit of his father (Madama – Oyaji). Kitaro is a yokai, but he is sympathetic to human beings and fights to maintain a good balance between the human world and the yokai world. In his travels, he faces off against a wide range of supernatural beings, both international ones like Dracula and werewolves as well as those native to Japan. Watching the show is a great way to get a crash course in Japanese mythology!
As someone who’s long been interested in yokai and Gegege no Kitaro, I was thrilled to finally have a chance to visit the town of his creation during my last trip to Tokyo. While originally from Osaka, Shigeru Mizuki lived and worked in the city of Chofu (調布) for many years, until his recent death in 2015.
A fifteen-minute ride with the Keio Line from Shinjuku Station, at first, Chofu looks indistinguishable from any other satellite city in the Tokyo metropolis. However, a short bus ride brings you to a delightfully quaint tourist area that maintains architecture reminiscent of the Edo period to this day. The main attractions for most are Jindaiji Temple (深大寺), and the Jindai Botanical Gardens, which are both undeniably impressive.
For me, however, the highlight was the Gegege no Kitaro Teahouse. Leaving the main gates of the temple, it is immediately identifiable by the giant yellow sandals on the roof, and the Kitaro manga character statues posing in front. Inside is any Kitaro branded souvenir one could imagine, from Kitaro hand towels to Kitaro beer. Outside, you can snack on brightly colored dango (a Japanese snack) stylized to look like Medama – Oyaji. When you’ve finished shopping, on the second floor there’s a small Yokai Museum (suggested donation – 100 yen). The descriptions are in Japanese, but the yokai statues are fun to look at, and there’s a peaceful little terrace with a beautiful view of the river where you can rest your legs. The Japanese sign endearingly calls it the ‘Healing Deck’.
“Sunekosuri – Shin rubbing Yokai (Pictured above)
Common after rain in Okayama Prefecture, these yokai often get in the way when you’re walking. Ever had the feeling that you were about to step on a dog or something, and then almost fell, but when you looked there was nothing there? You might have thought it was was just your imagination, but what you actually felt was the presence of a Sunekosuri.”
Initially expecting to only spend an hour or so in Chofu, I encountered a string of unexpected surprises that kept me there for the better part of a day. After seeing the temple, the gardens, and the yokai museum, I wandered around the streets tasting the local specialties. The area is known for its soba noodles, which have been produced here ever since the Edo period, so most snacks have a soba theme. You can enjoy soba, soba beer, and even a soba hamburger.
As I prepared to leave, Chofu had yet one more surprise in store for me, one that kept with its otherworldly theme. I was looking for the bus stop when I wandered up a staircase and found what appeared to be a small temple or shrine. Taking a look around, I realized I had stumbled onto a pet memorial. There was a tall tower in the middle, ringed by a low building with an entrance at either side. Stepping in, I was confronted by an unbroken wall of displays honoring beloved dogs and cats. Each box held pictures, favorite foods, messages, flowers, and urns. It looked like there must have been well over a hundred, stretching around the inside of the whole semi-circular structure, but when I turned a corner it became clear that I was only seeing one corridor of three, and the total number might have been nearing a thousand.
Thinking about the yokai and yurei potential of all those spirits in one place, I quickly turned tail and made a hasty retreat. If you’re feeling particularly brave, be sure to make it a part of your visit to Chofu!
・98 Things to Do in Shinjuku, the Party District of Tokyo, in 2018!
・Get Your Good Luck for 2016 at Jindaiji Temple’s Daruma Doll Festival
・Take a Stroll Down Eerie ’Yokai Street’ and Greet the Monsters Along the Way