Greetings again fellow creep-hunters! I hope you all had a good time in the mountains last week because this time we are descending to the depths of Hell itself as we go in search of the most fearsome Yokai of all – the ONI!
One morning, many moons ago during my first year of teaching kindergarten kids English, I bore witness to one of the most bizarre Japanese traditions my yet unfamiliarized eyes had ever seen. At the time, my level of Japanese was still pretty poor and though my coworker probably gave me a heads up regarding what was about to go down, all was inevitably lost on me as a loud banging on the door suddenly filled the room, following by an eruption of screams from the terrified children. Before I could figure out what was going on, in barged an Oni…
Usually translated in English as either “Ogre” or “Demon”, Oni are typically depicted as very large, troll-like beings with either red or blue/green skin. They often have shaggy black hair, horns, huge fang-like teeth, and wear loincloths made from the hides of the great beasts they have slain. They also like to wield huge iron clubs which they use to bash their victims.
Possessing phenomenal physical strength, Oni usually reside in the depths of Hell where they routinely punish the souls of those unfortunate enough to find themselves banished there. According to legend, human beings who committed sins so atrocious during their lifetime, would be reincarnated as an Oni where they would serve directly under Lord Enma, the ruler of Hell himself. Armed with their dreaded iron clubs, Oni go about their jobs of tormenting the souls of the wicked in a variety of ways ranging from bludgeoning and crushing their bones, to skinning them alive and beyond. In short, if you encounter an Oni, you’re in for a whole WORLD of pain!
Don’t think you’re safe until you go to Hell though, since legends also tell of occasions where humans who have committed sins so hideous they can never be atoned for, have actually been transformed into Oni during their lifetimes, where they remained on Earth terrorizing the living. The most famous of these being none other than the legendary Oni King himself, Shuten-dōji. Born as a regular boy, Shuten-dōji was blessed with unnatural physical strength, superior intelligence, and a petulant attitude to boot. Disowned by his mother at the tender age of 6 due to his belligerent and anti-social nature, he entered the priesthood where his eventual love of alcohol and resentful attitude towards his peers began to take root. It’s said that Shuten-dōji, in a drunken stupor one night, wore an Oni mask and played tricks on his fellow priests during one of the temple’s festivals. His deeds were not without consequence, however, as by the end of the night he discovered the mask had permanently attached itself to his face! Fleeing in both shame and anger, Shuten-dōji took residence in a nearby mountain where he spent many years terrorizing passersby, and even recruited an army of bandits with whom he would ransack and pillage neighboring villages. Thankfully, Shuten-dōji’s tyranny eventually came to an end when a courageous samurai by the name of Minamoto no Yorimitsu took a group of warriors up into the mountain and beheaded the demon once and for all.
If, after reading this far you’re still crazy enough to go in search of Oni, there are a number of places that are well worth a visit. Firstly would have to be Hell Valley and the Noboribetsu Onsen in Hokkaido. From the moment you arrive at the train station, all the way to the hot springs baths, visitors will encounter and absolute deluge of Oni, ranging from small, stone statues, to colossally HUGE sculptures that overlook the freeways! If Hokkaido seems a bit far however, then visitors to Kanto can visit either the Kijin Shrine in Saitama, or the smaller Inarikiō Shrine in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Both places are steeped in history, easy to get to, and throw annual events that are well worth checking out!
As I’m sure you can imagine, the terrifying Oni’s long history of tradition in Japan has remained largely preserved in modern day culture. They have featured in famous manga works such as Rumiko Takahashi’s ‘Urusei Yatsura’, Go Nagai’s ‘Shutendōji’ and, more recently Kōichi Nagata’s ‘Kimongai’, a title that I’m personally enjoying right now, which tells the story of a high school student who, upon suffering a lethal mugging from a group of delinquents, exchanges his soul in return for becoming a powerful Oni. The fearsome Yokai has also become a regular feature in elementary schoolyards across the nation since it’s also the focal point of the game ‘oni gokko’, (or ‘tag’ as we call it in the west) whereby children have to run away from the Oni without becoming ‘it’.
By far the biggest celebration of Oni in modern day culture however, has to be the very event that I started this article with. Every year on February 3rd, the Japanese celebrate what is known as ‘setsubun’, a festival that heralds the advent of spring. On this day, children and adults alike ceremoniously cleanse away all evil accumulated in the former year whilst simultaneously warding off any future bad luck by scattering roasted soybeans. So how exactly do they do this I hear you ask? Well…
….As the door to the classroom flung open, in strode a tall guy dressed as a fearsome looking Oni complete with a huge club in his hand. The children screamed in terror until the teacher yelled at the top of her voice “ONI WA SOTO! FUKU WA UCHI!” (Demons out! Fortune in!) and suddenly the poor ‘demon’ was absolutely bombarded in a shower of roasted soybeans! With tears flowing and beans flying, the children scared away the fearsome intruder whilst I, completely dumbfounded by what I’d seen, had just witnessed the little ones first, true display of courage.
On that note, your courageous explorer gets ready to pack his bag and hit the trail once again in search of his next frightful target. Just remember boys and girls, if you ever plan on taking a trip to Hell, be sure to take some soybeans!
Til next time!