Be careful walking alone in the wee hours of the night, Japan is full of ghosts, ghouls and other characters lurking in shadowy corners.
I’m talking, of course about yurei (ghosts of the deceased) and yokai (mythical spirits) that have been part of Japanese folklore for centuries. They haunt everything from riverways to misty mountains to city streets.
Dating back to the early eighth century, these dastardly spirits first appeared in the Kojiki (古事記, “Records of Ancient Matters”) which is the earliest record of Japanese mythology, chronicling the creation of Japan.
Yurei and yokai have since appeared in Japanese traditional art like ukiyo-e (woodblock carvings) throughout the ages. Some are seen as pop-culture icons, such as in the manga-turned anime Gegege no Kitaro in which all the characters are some form of yokai. If you’re brave enough, you can visit Gegege no Kitaro and his yokai friends in the manga kingdom of Tottori.
Keep an eye out for these ghostly spirits in Japan this Halloween.
1. Kuchisake Onna: A murderous woman with a hellish, gaping mouth
Kuchisake Onna is a malicious, contemporary yurei, whose name literally translates to “slit-mouthed woman.” Legend says when she was alive, her husband punished her for her acts of adultery by slicing her mouth open from ear to ear.
Her ghost appears as a beautiful young woman wearing a surgical mask, holding a sharp weapon like a pair of scissors. She approaches people at night and asks them a question with sinister intentions.
“Watashi, kirei?” or “Am I beautiful?” she coos. If you answer no, she will kill you instantly. If you say yes, she removes the surgical mask revealing her gruesome mouth. With a big smile, exposing sharp teeth, she’ll ask, “how about now.”
An encounter with a kuchisake onna is a lose-lose situation, always resulting in death.
An answer of no will result in you being dismembered by the ghost. Say yes, and she will make you as “beautiful” as she is by slicing your own mouth from ear to ear. An encounter with a kuchisake onna is a lose-lose situation, always resulting in death.
This murderous ghost was a character in the 1984 Studio Ghibli movie Pom Poko and several Japanese horror movies have been made with her story as the premise, including the 2007 low-budget horror flick Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman.
2. Yuki Onna: The deceptive snow beauty
Ever seen a beautiful woman with snow-white skin and long black hair wandering through the frigid winter? It may have been a yuki onna, or snow woman. When she walks along a snow-covered terrain, you won’t find any footprints behind her.
The majority of yuki onna stories originate from Japan’s snowy, northern prefectures like Aomori and Akita in the Tohoku region. In some versions, she is a snow vampire who sucks the souls out of her victims. In other versions, she uses her supernatural beauty to lure weak-willed men into the cold, then leaves them to freeze to death. Savage.
Some say the yuki onna was a beautiful woman who was murdered in the snow and now does the same to others as an act of revenge.
3. Chochin Obake: A mischievous paper lantern ghost
This lantern ghost isn’t malicious like many other yokai—he’s just a naughty little trickster who enjoys giving humans a scare. The chochin obake will flick its large tongue out, roll its eyes, and laugh loudly to frighten passers-by.
According to the legends, a regular lantern may turn into this yokai after 100 years of use. This comes from the ancient Shinto religious belief that all objects—even inanimate ones—have a soul.
Maybe don’t visit any temples, izakaya or other places likely to have lanterns this Halloween if you don’t want to run into one.
4. Jorogumo: The carnivorous spider
This seductive spider ghost is based on the real golden-orb weaver spider, which is found all around Japan. The female of this spider grows to be 2.5 cm long, and can even catch small birds as prey—it’s a real thing of nightmares.
Legend says when a spider reaches 400 years old, she will transform into a jorogumo and develop an appetite for eating young men instead of boring bugs and birds. Jorogumo are often depicted as beautiful women with the legs of a spider, surrounded by the skeletons of previous victims.
They use their alluring human form to seduce young men back to their homes, trapping them in their webs and devouring them slowly.
5. Gashadokuro: A motley crew of skeletons
The poor, unfortunate bones of those who’ve perished on the battlefield turn into gashadokuro. These yokai form in places where masses of normal skeletons lie, such as in villages after famine or disease has wiped out the population. Lacking a proper burial, the souls and bones come together and create one big skeleton, 15 times the size of a normal person.
You may have seen this yokai in the famous ukiyoe “Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre” which has been printed onto postcards, cloth flags, and t-shirts since it’s creation in 1844.
The skeleton specters feed on lone travelers, biting their heads off, feasting on their bones, and drinking their blood, Dracula-style.
6. Yama Uba: Children-eating mountain hags
Planning on hiking in the mountains this fall? You may want to rethink that, as that’s where you’ll find the yama uba.
Hide your kids, hide your wife, cause yama uba are kidnapping everybody out here.
These decrepit hags, depicted as old women with disheveled hair and filthy kimonos, are known to offer shelter to weary travelers only to kill them once they fall asleep. If you decide to go hiking anyway and happen to find an old hut along your hiking trail, just stay away from it.
Hide your kids, hide your wife, cause yama uba are kidnapping everybody out here. This tall tale is a popular bedtime story for parents to tell disobedient children.
7. Kappa: Quirky river demons
No list of Japanese yurei and yokai is complete without the kappa, a yokai deeply imbedded in Japanese religion, history, and culture. There’s even a sushi roll named after him—the kappa-maki, or cucumber roll.
This small human-like creature has a shell like a turtle, green scaly skin, and a plate on its head that must be filled with water at all times to stay alive. They live in Japan’s rivers, lakes, and other waterways.
In Shintoism, kappa are respected as gods of water and statues of them can sometimes be seen at shrines around Japan. Kappa quirks include having an affinity for cucumbers (hence the kappa-maki) and never being able to break a promise.
A more menacing kappa, the urban legend version, loves to pull lost children and animals into the water to drown and eat. They still like to eat cucumbers, but also raw human intestines.
Don’t step too close to the water.