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Culture

The Japanese Yokai of Spring

Explore the Japanese yokai of spring, from fierce thunder beasts to dangerous tree spirits. Discover cultural connections and folklore tales.

By 5 min read

Japan could be said to be a country of yokai (ghosts). Often called goblins in English, yokai are much more varied than that poor translation suggests. These folklore beasties, like European fairies, can be scary, weird and benign. We often think of them in the summer when scary Obon season comes, but they’re present for all seasons, including the fall harvest season and winter’s dead cold. In this article, we’ll be talking about the Japanese yokai of spring.

Spring yokai tends towards natural phenomena, like plants and animals. After all, spring is when the natural world comes alive again after winter’s long, cold sleep. Yokai can tell you something about the importance of the natural world to a traditionally agricultural society like Japan. And they can also be lots of fun.

Here are seven yokai associated with spring and some of their cultural connections.

1. Raijuu

Also known as the thunder beast, a raijuu is a mythical being like a white-blue wolf or dog wrapped in a ball of lightning. The companion of Raijin, the thunder god, raijuu goes wild during thunderstorms, damaging trees and buildings that happen to be in its path. It likes to sleep in people’s navels when not crackling through the air during storms. Be sure to sleep face down in a storm so you don’t attract one!

There are many stories about the thunder beast in Japan. He also inspired the Pokemon Raikou and Garurumon in the Digimon universe. There’s even a Thunderbeast in the Dungeons & Dragons canon. Although it acts like the yokai raijuu, the D&D version looks very different.

While many people may associate thunder with summer storms in Japan, they may not be so scary due to the frequency. However, spring thunder is comparatively rare, so it is all the more terrifying. You can bet that when thunder rumbles in the spring, it’s raijuu tearing across the sky.

2. Saohime

Saohime is the goddess of spring. She appears as a young woman in a white dress and is sometimes considered the personification of spring. Her name is a seasonal word for the season and a Japanese confectionary. Sometimes written as Sahohime, the name comes from Mt. Saho, situated east of Heijo-kyo, the old name for Nara.

In gogyo-setsu, an ancient belief from China relating to cardinal directions and the five elements, spring is in the east, making the mountain the embodiment of spring.

3. Kawahime

In Japanese, hime means “princess.” If Sahohime is the princess of Mt. Saho, then Kawahime, another spring yokai, is the river princess. Don’t let the pretty name fool you, however. These water-dwelling cryptids may look like beautiful human girls, but they’ll eat you up just like a kappa.

Young men should be especially wary along riverbanks and under bridges. Of course, this yokai is really just a way to personify rivers. This is especially true in the spring when rivers are swollen and fast-moving from snow melt—and so extra dangerous.

Check out the fantastic movie The Great Yokai War for a live-action depiction of Kawahime.

4. Bakeneko

The bakeneko is a monster cat that has lived long enough to turn into a yokai and grow an unnaturally long tail. It can walk upright on two legs and cause all sorts of mischief. Legends abound all over Japan, with some giving it the ability to shapeshift into human form, speak, curse humans and even manipulate the dead!

In Japan, cats are associated with early spring. There’s even a seasonal word: neko no koi literally means cat love. From February to April, cats can often be heard getting busy in alleyways and backyards. While humans can also act pretty wild in the name of love, just make sure that the object of your affection isn’t a bakeneko in human form.

Your the best chance to meet one is at the Bakeneko Festival in Tokyo’s Kagurazaka neighborhood every October.

5. Zashiki Warashi

The Tono region in Iwate is full of folkloric tales of yokai. One of the best-known is the zashiki warashi, a mystical and benevolent spirit that inhabits the zashiki, the tatami-floored guest room of a Japanese house. They’re said to bless the houses that they live in, but they’re also mischievous and perform pranks. They’ve been known to leave little footprints in the ashes of the family hearth and even befriend the children of the house.

During spring, a season marked by household transitions in Japan, appeasing your own zashiki warashi is a special tradition. To nurture this bond, it’s customary to leave out bowls of azuki meshi, red beans and rice, their favorite delicacy.

6. Oshirasama

Another Tohoku-based yokai is Oshirasama. However, in some cases, it’s known more as a god. Like zashiki warashi, Oshirasama is a protector of the home, represented by a homemade doll made from a carved stick. People protect their new spring home by properly paying respects to Oshirasama.

The best-known version of Oshirasama is a rather plump humanoid daikon wearing an upside-down sake bowl on his head. (You will surely see him getting into an elevator in Spirited Away.) Yes, as he’s known in English, the Radish Spirit is actually Miyazaki’s wonderful imagining of Oshirasama.

7. Furutsubaki No Rei

Many yokai are related to trees, such as cedar and cypress, and this one, the furutsubaki no rei, inhabits old camellia trees. Even today, Japanese culture prohibits giving camellias to hospital patients because of their association with death (all camellia petals are said to wither at once). Furutsubaki no rei is thought to be tied to this cultural tradition.

The tree’s spirit disguises itself as a beautiful woman, enticing travelers towards it. Most will be able to escape, but some have been said to disappear into the tree entirely. Stories about haunted camellia trees exist all over the islands, including in Yamagata, Akita and Gifu. Though camellias may be beautiful, it’s probably best to keep your distance—especially if you hear a mournful crying coming from inside one.

What are some of your favorite yokai? Let us know in the comments.

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