When you think of Halloween, you may think of only classic monsters like zombies or werewolves. But did you know that Japan has its own type of legendary creature called yokai? With a thousand-year history, yokai are an essential part of Japanese culture and are still popular today!
One small street in Kyoto, called Yokai Street, works hard to keep the legends of these creatures alive with handmade sculptures, flea markets, and even an annual Yokai Parade! So bulk up your courage because we’ll be taking a closer look at this street, famous for all things yokai!
Yokai is a tricky word to define, even in Japanese, because the word alone can potentially mean spirits (both good and evil), ghosts, possessed humans, demons, and more. It can depend on who you ask, but one way to define them is any supernatural creature in Japanese folklore. Most of these creatures love to cause mischief and have long served as warnings against children who may want to get into trouble themselves.
These beings gained popularity during Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1867). Oral stories passed down for centuries were collected, written, and published. However, during Japan’s Meiji Period (1868-1912), these folktales were often viewed as relics due to Western influence. It wasn’t until 1960, with Shigeru Mizuki’s manga GeGeGe no Kitaro, that the legends regained popularity.
On a small shopping street in northern Kyoto, there is a collection of about 30 different shops down a 400-meter-long walk. There are also little handmade yokai statues set outside each store, each one more unique than the next.
You may catch a glimpse of a “traditional” yokai like a kappa (a humanoid-frog-like creature) or an oni (commonly translated as ogres in English). But you may also see a handmade statue resembling a croissant with a face. This is the beauty of Yokai Street.
Not only are these adorable statues available to see all year round, but Yokai Street also hosts significant annual events to boost awareness of the street itself. One of the more popular ones is the Mononoke Ichi or Ghost Flea Market! Here vendors will sell anything from yokai-themed bags and snacks to jewelry (eyeball earrings, anyone?).
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Yokai Street was created to honor local legends that once roamed the streets. According to the tale, Taishogun / Ichijo Street residents cleaned their houses and shops long ago.
They removed many unused tools and other household items they didn’t need anymore. But these tools had become tsukumo-gami, any object used long enough to gain consciousness. To top it all off, they were not happy.
Angry at their neglectful owners, the items and tools transformed into yokai monsters. They marched on the street in a “Night Parade of 100 Demons,” causing mischief in their former owners’ town. Like some people in the West wear costumes and even go trick-or-treating on Halloween, people in Kyoto celebrate yokai in a parade!
This demon night parade is now memorialized and celebrated yearly, with hundreds of participants from all across town (and Japan!) participating in the festivities.
People create amazingly elaborate costumes that bring the ghostly characters back to life to recreate the parade of demons. According to the official website of Yokai Street, it takes place on the third Saturday of October, just right around Halloween!
Whether the legends of this street are true or just folktales, they have had a positive impact in helping to revitalize this small local community. You will notice if you visit this area of Kyoto that it’s not designed to be a significant tourist attraction.
It’s a great way to learn more about Japanese culture, especially traditional folklore. If you ever have the chance to visit, support one of the local shops by purchasing something handmade locally! You may be surprised at what you can find.
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