Top 5 yōkai (Creatures From Japanese Mythology) | GUEST POST BY A.J. HARTLEY

Hideki Smith, Demon Queller, the new YA fantasy I wrote with my family, hinges on creatures from Japanese folklore, though they are—mysteriously—showing up in the mountains of North Carolina! Here are a few of my favorites.

The fox is the most expert of Japanese shape-shifting beasts. It is particularly adept at taking the form of people, imitating them so perfectly that foxes sometimes marry humans and have children with them, living for many years with friends and families before revealing their true nature and going back into the woods beyond the village. They have other powerful magics too. A Japanese friend recently told me of a bus driver he met who told him that, after throwing stones to drive away a fox he had seen, he couldn’t find his way home, driving in circles for hours on a road that didn’t go anywhere: he was convinced he had been enchanted by the fox in revenge for annoying it. Foxes get more powerful as they get older, acquiring more tails along the way. A nine-tailed fox is as powerful as any wizard, and at least as clever.

Kuchisake onna
One of the more recent additions to the world of yōkai, the so-called slit-mouthed woman founds its way into many whispered stories told by school children in the 1970s. People recalled meeting an attractive young woman on the street wearing the kind of masks which we all got used to during the pandemic (and were routinely worn in Japan by sick people long before). The woman approached men and boys when they were alone, always asking the same question: “Do you think I’m pretty?” When the man said yes, she would reply, “How about now?” whereupon she would remove the mask, revealing an impossibly wide mouth, splitting her face from ear to ear and full of sharp, spikey teeth. Running from her usually didn’t help. The Kuchisake onna is very fast.

The most playful of Japanese shape-shifters is the tanuki, or raccoon-dog. It can take any shape it likes, human, animal or inanimate, and does so mostly for its own amusement. It likes to play tricks on people—disguising itself as a water barrel in the middle of the road, for example, something people have to get down from their carts (or today, out of their cars), only to sneak back into the middle of the road and become the barrel again as soon as the humans’ backs are turned. Such pranks are rarely malevolent, however, and the tanuki often gives itself a way—forgetting to transform itself completely, for instance, so the barrel might have a tail—so it often comes off worse.

A creature of water, usually seen as part monkey and part turtle. It has strong, hairy limbs, a beak, shell and a depression in the top of its head like a bowl, which must contain water for the kappa to function on land. They are fond of wrestling and will challenge humans to a test of strength, but they can also be dangerous, dragging swimmers to their deaths.

Sometimes called demons, oni are more like ogres or trolls: very large, very fierce and deeply hostile to humans. They are usually horned, though the number of horns (and eyes) varies, and their preferred weapon is a massive club. Avoid at all costs.

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