The Book of Yōkai

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Title: The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore
Author: Michael Dylan Foster
Illustrator: Shinonome Kijin (東雲 騎人)
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: University of California Press
Pages: 309

This guest review is written by Katriel Paige (@kit_flowerstorm on Twitter).

Yōkai are part of an ongoing conversation surrounding global popular culture. Even in the United States we hear about yōkai through games like Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch, and we happily watch films from Studio Ghibli that feature wondrous and strange creatures.

Although Michael Dylan Foster acknowledges that commercial cultures factor into the continued vibrancy of yōkai lore, The Book of Yōkai does not focus on the portrayals of yōkai in contemporary popular media and fan culture. Rather, the goal of this text is to provide an overview of the folkloristics of yōkai, from how thinkers and artists have interpreted yōkai to how the mysterious entities have been created, transmitted, and continually redefined. Foster is especially interested in how yōkai enthusiasts create their own networks of practice, with popular media cultures as one node in those networks. As he writes, “For many of my students in the United States, for example, the terms yōkai and Japanese folklore are practically synonymous; they have encountered kappa or kitsune or tengu in manga and anime, films and video games, usually in English translation. This exposure inspires them to delve further into folklore, to find the ‘origins’ of the yōkai of popular culture that they have come to love. And that is [a] purpose of this book, to provide some folkloric grounding for yōkai they might encounter” (6).

Foster succeeds in this endeavor, as The Book of Yōkai is an excellent overview, especially for those new to the study of folklore. In his first chapter, “Introducing Yōkai,” the author offers a short introduction to the shifting definition of the term “folklore,” reminding readers that, like yōkai themselves, “folklore” occupies a place-in-between, where it is both traditional and modern, rural and urban. Folklore, like yōkai, can be found both in the shadows of the forest and in the light cast by our computer screens. Just as there is no single definition of “folklore,” there is no single definition of “yōkai,” and Foster’s cogent explanations of liminality and communal creation serve as an excellent introduction to the study of cryptids and the legends surrounding them.

The Book of Yōkai is divided into two sections: “Yōkai Culture” and “Yōkai Codex.” The “Yōkai Culture” section is where the reader will find Foster’s discussions of the history of yōkai, beginning with the mysterious twilight entities of the classical Heian Period (c. 794-1185) and spanning to medieval picture scrolls illustrating yōkai night parades and early modern codices classifying both natural and supernatural phenomena. The majority of this section is centered around important texts, such as the mytho-historical Kojiki and hyakumonogatari compilations of ghost stories, and influential figures, such as the artist Toriyama Sekien and the scholar Inoue Enryō.

The “Yōkai Codex” describes yōkai according to their habitats, such as the countryside, the city, and the sea. This section is similar to the indexes seen in games that involve the collection of strange creatures, such Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch. Foster’s “Yōkai Codex” also draws on and serves as a link to yōkai indexes past and present, most famously the illustrated yōkai compilations of the manga artist Mizuki Shigeru.

The writing is accessible to academics and non-academics alike, making The Book of Yōkai superb for independent scholars or a general reader with an interest in yōkai. Foster by and large avoids technical jargon, and he clarifies his treatment of Japanese words and names at the beginning of the book, which aids in cross-referencing with other sources. As a folklorist, Foster privileges the storytelling experience, using anecdotes to make the reader feel as if they are having a friendly chat with the author. Although the academic foundation of Foster’s text is solid, his colorful personal stories have the potential to resonate strongly with a non-academic audience.

The Book of Yōkai is a great resource for undergraduates, non-specialists, and other curious readers looking for a comprehensive English-language introduction to the historical complexities and artistic potential of yōkai. It is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book editions from the University of California Press. Shinonome Kijin, who has provided thirty original illustrations for the text, can be found as @ushirodo on Twitter.

* * * * *

Katriel Paige is an independent scholar of yōkai as well as media cultures and folklore. They earned a MA in Intercultural Communication with International Business from the University of Surrey and a BA from the University of Delaware with a dual focus in East Asian Studies and English, and they currently work in the technology industry. They like cats, video games, and caffeine in both coffee and chocolate forms. You can find more of their work, including their essays on Japanese culture and video games, on their Patreon page.

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Manabeshima: Island Japan

Manabeshima

Title: Manabeshima: Island Japan
Artist: Florent Chavouet
Translator: Periplus Editions
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 2010 (France)
Publisher: Tuttle
Pages: 142 (plus one amazing map)

I love French artist Florent Chavouet‘s 2009 book Tokyo on Foot, which captures the charm and vibrancy of my favorite city. Manabeshima: Island Japan was a tougher sell for me, as I’m not particularly interested in nature or rural communities. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that the careful attention Chavouet brings to human habitats – garbage and vending machines and rusting powerlines and all – has carried over from Tokyo to Manabeshima. Regardless of whether he’s drawing the town or the ocean and forests that surround it, Chavouet transforms the mundane into the extraordinary with his gorgeous colored pencil illustrations.

Because he felt that he had only been exposed to a tiny fraction of the Japanese archipelago, Chavouet decided to spend a summer on an island he hadn’t yet seen, and he ended up in Manabeshima, Okayama Prefecture, population 326. According to the artist, the average age of the people living on the island is around 50 years old, and many of them are already well set in their daily routines. Chavouet observes them on their daily progress, taking careful note of their mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, as well as the props they use on the stage of their daily lives. His artistic interest is drawn not only to humans, but also to the island’s abundant wildlife, including cicadas, fish, and cats. These cats gradually become characters in their own right as Chavouet documents their small dramas and battles over contested territory.

My favorite part of Manabeshima is how the artist portrays architecture as a living part of the environment and the island society, with each room and table and upended bucket telling its own story. Cars and boats become palimpsests of personal history, and each garden and untended backyard is portrayed its own tiny ecosystem. Chavouet also pays particular obeisance to food, placing each meal in context, whether it’s a community barbeque or freshly prepared sashimi.

I must admit that a certain amount of anxiety underlay my reading of Manabeshima. As with any travel account, part of the pleasure of the experience involves imagining yourself following in the footsteps of the writer. Even if it’s something you have no intention of ever doing, like the hiking the Shikoku pilgrimage route, it’s still fun to pretend that you’re there along with the author, sharing her triumphs and sympathizing with her tribulations. In the case of Chavouet’s account of Manabeshima, this sort of identification was very difficult for me.

Although nothing in the book makes this explicit, Chavouet’s experiences are gendered. Within the first twenty pages, he makes it clear to the reader that he has been, after a fashion, accepted into the community. He is taken in by Ikkyu-san, the owner of a small bar and restaurant who plies him with food and alcohol, asking only that he sit and eat and drink with the regulars. He is invited to two religious ceremonies (a Buddhist ritual presided over by Ikkyu-san and an evening of Shinto kagura dances), where he is expected only to sit and eat and drink. He goes to the neighborhood association meetings, he gets invited to go out crab fishing, and he participates in the island summer festival. He seems like an extremely friendly person, and he mentions exchanging drawings for food and goodwill; but, if anyone ever requests that he do anything except enjoy himself, the reader never hears anything about it.

My own experience with small communities both inside and outside of Japan is that, in order to be included, I am expected to perform labor, such as cooking or laundry or childcare. Since I am an undomesticated animal who is not good at any of this, things always get awkward. If you asked me if I, as a woman, would want to spend two months in a tiny village on a small island, my response would be something along the lines of AW HELL NO. While Chavouet would be eating and drinking, I would more than likely be summoned to the kitchen to help do the dishes. I use the hypothetical example of being asked to help clean up because it’s actually happened to me enough times (especially in Japan) that I would almost be taken aback if it didn’t. In other words, the price of admission is gendered and – let’s be honest – unfairly so.

Again, there’s nothing in the book that suggests that the people on Manabeshima are old-fashioned sexist pigs, but Chavouet is definitely writing from a privileged position, and your ability to identify with this position will more than likely affect your relationship to the world Chavouet creates for you with his words and illustrations. Personally, I found reading Manabeshima to be a bit stressful because I couldn’t help waiting for the other shoe to drop, like, so when are they going to ask him to serve tea? (Spoiler: No one ever does.)

Don’t get me wrong – I am enamored of Chavouet as a kind and compassionate observer who can communicate the wonder and beauty of even the most commonplace objects and settings, and his already enviable skill in drawing and annotating his environment has tangibly improved since Tokyo on Foot. Still, I can’t help but prefer Tokyo on Foot, which pieces together a physical, social, and cultural landscape that even the most casual of readers can easily enter. While Tokyo on Foot collects a multitude of fragments and progressively demonstrates how they are all connected, everything is already a cohesive whole in Manabeshima, which, unlike Tokyo on Foot, has a cast of recurring characters and something resembling a narrative. On the other hand, although it’s harder for a reader to imagine entering this narrative herself, the easy flow of the story renders Manabeshima a more satisfying extended reading experience.

The best part of Tuttle’s lovely softcover edition of Manabeshima is that it comes with a huge map folded into a pocket on the back cover. This map is intensely detailed, showing every house and garden and boat on the island and labeled with references to people, landmarks, and events from the main text. I spent at least an hour with the map alone, catching new details each time I opened it and spread it out over my kitchen table.

If you have kids in your life, and if you’d like to get one of those kids (or their parents) a really cool present, consider handing them a copy of Manabeshima, whose every page celebrates the thrill of exploration and discovery.

A review copy was provided by the good people at Tuttle Publishing.

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Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost

Yūrei The Japanese Ghost

Title: Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost
Author: Zack Davisson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Chin Music Press
Pages: 206

Zack Davisson is a major rising star in the world of manga translation, having worked on high-profile and award-winning titles such as Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa: A History of Japan and Oishii Mamoru and Kon Satoshi’s Seraphim: 266613336 Wings. He is also a consultant for the ongoing comic series Wayward, for which he writes the closing essays. Fans of yōkai and other Japanese cryptids will know him from his blog, Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, and he also maintains an active Twitter account, which is a great source of news on the American comics scene. Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost is Davisson’s first book, and it’s published by no less than Chin Music Press, which regularly releases Japan-related literary objets d’art such as Kūhaku & Other Accounts from Japan and Otaku Spaces. There’s obviously been a great deal of talent invested in this book, and it shows.

Yūrei are the ghostly cousins of yōkai, and their spectral tendrils stretch deep into Japanese history. Although he occasionally touches on contemporary popular culture, Davisson is mainly concerned with the society and print media of premodern and early modern Japan. Each of the twelve chapters in Yūrei covers one in-depth topic, the discussion of which is usually centered around a specific artistic work.

The first chapter takes as its subject “The Ghost of Oyuki,” the Edo-period painting by Maruyama Ōkyo that appears on Yūrei‘s cover. Davisson investigates the origin of this iconic image, melding history with legend. The second chapter covers kaidanshū, or “collections of weird tales,” while the third delves into the world of kabuki. The fourth and fifth chapters offer maps of the geography of the land of the dead, both imagined and, in the case of certain sacred mountains, real. Chapter 6 conveniently details how not to end up as a ghost, and Chapters 7 and 8 recount the lives and afterlives of people who really could have used this advice. Chapter 9, “The Ghost of Okiku,” is an Edo-period case study in how hauntings occur, and Chapter 10 brings the concept of haunting, or tatari, into the present by way of horror movies and urban legends. The eleventh chapter provides an explanation of the traditions surrounding Obon, the festival of the dead. Finally, the twelfth chapter is an informative analysis of Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain, which was published in 1776 but still stands (or hovers creepily) as one of the finest works of dark fantasy in any language.

Although every chapter is a lot of fun, my favorite section of the book is its Introduction, in which Davisson relates a personal anecdote about how he and his wife lived in a haunted apartment in Osaka for seven months. Part of the appeal of reading ghost stories is imagining that you yourself might one day come into contact with the supernatural, so I can’t imagine a better way to begin a book like this. Davisson transitions into a brief overview of what the term “yūrei” signifies, how it differs from the Western concept of “ghost,” and its pervasiveness in contemporary film and literature. If I were a curious horror fan, or perhaps a teacher looking for a concise and engaging essay to assign as reading for a class on Japanese folklore, Yūrei‘s Introduction would suit my needs perfectly.

Unfortunately, the writing in Yūrei is not always uniformly smooth. In certain sections of the book, there are brief moments of jarring dissonance, as when one paragraph states that the constant warfare of the Sengoku period (1467-1603) generated countless ghost stories because of people needed a way to process their fear, while the next paragraph argues that ghost stories proliferated in the Edo period (1603-1868) in a way that they couldn’t before because people were finally free from fear. These paradoxes are relatively minor; and, in Davisson’s defense, such seeming contradictions need not be regarded as such, as multiple interpretations are equally valid. This is a book about ghosts, after all.

Yūrei is an extremely handsome publication. It opens with eight full-color images depicting yūrei as imagined by artists in the Edo period. There are fifteen additional images interspersed throughout the book, each of which is accompanied by a short explanation. There is also a glossary at the end, which helpfully provides the kanji for each term, as well as a useful five-page list of English-language works referenced.

The book’s most interesting index is its collection of 33 yūrei kaidan (“strange tales”), which are organized by theme, such as “Tales of Ghostly Vengeance” and “Tales of Ghostly Love.” As it’s difficult to find stories from medieval and Edo-period kaidan compilations outside of out-of-print academic publications, these translations are an extremely welcome addition to the project.

Review copy provided by Chin Music Press. (Full disclosure: I was so excited about this release that I begged for a review copy, and they sent me one just to get me to go away. It was totally worth it.) You can preview the book on Davisson’s blog.

The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums

The Art Lover's Guide to Japanese Museums

Title: The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums
Author: Sophie Richard
Publication Year: 2014
Publisher: The Japan Society
Pages: 176

According to the good people at The Japan Society, art historian Sophie Richard’s The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums has been very popular, quickly selling out of its first print run. Between its convenience as a guide and its beauty as a physical object, it’s easy to understand why.

The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums is so titled because it’s aimed at serious art appreciators who are willing to go off the beaten path in order to visit smaller museums that offer a more personalized and intimate experience. Richard skips the large national institutions and instead highlights private or regional galleries that would be worthy of a day trip or that necessitate a willingness to venture off the beaten path in urban and suburban areas. Based on my personal experience with several of these museums, the trip will definitely be worth it.

The main body of the guide is divided into five sections: Tokyo, Around Tokyo, Kyoto Area, West, and East (with “West” designating the area from Osaka to Hiroshima and “East” designating the area from Nagoya to Aomori). 29 of the 52 museums profiled are in or around Tokyo. In some cases, a location “around Tokyo” might require a long train ride and an overnight stay, but most are well within the city limits or accessible by commuter rail.

Most of the entries are two pages long. Each opens with the museum’s address in English and Japanese and general information (hours, holidays, access, website). This is followed with three paragraphs of description. The content of varies but can include information about the museum’s history, the highlights of its collection, and the availability of English text or audio guides. The short “In the neighborhood” section at the end of every entry tempts the reader out into the open to take in the layout of the town, the local cuisine, nearby temples, and even other museums. Each entry also includes two or three full-color photographs of the museum space and representative works from its holdings. The occasional four-page entries are usually longer because of their inclusion of more pictures, all of which are gorgeous.

Even if you’re not planning on visiting Japan, browsing through The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums is still enjoyable, as Richard’s articulate prose guides the reader through the experience of visiting the galleries. For example, writing on the Chichu Art Museum designed by Andō Tadao, Richard offers this intriguing description:

The museum’s complex space includes passageways and stairs set at sharp angles and a courtyard with evergreen plants that contrast starkly with the grey concrete. The interior of the building is lit with natural light alone. At the heart of the museum, five monumental paintings by Claude Monet from the late Waterlilies series appear to float mysteriously in a serene space gently illuminated by the sun’s rays, which are diffused through channels in the ceiling. Security guards wearing futuristic white uniforms ask visitors to remove their shoes before entering the room, which adds to the compelling atmosphere.

As in the excerpt above, Richard does walkthroughs like Sherlock Holmes, albeit with less of an emphasis on dry facts and with more of an emphasis on atmosphere. If you’d prefer to travel from the comfort of your own sofa, Guide to Japanese Museums is a perfect companion.

Also included in the guide are a short “Introduction” in which the author explains her motivations for embarking on this project, an overview of “Museums in Japan,” a six-page essay on “Looking at Japanese art,” and a brief list of “Tips and advice.” These sections are useful regardless of whether you’re making plans to visit Japan or whether you’re already there. For instance, this is the first time I’ve heard of the Grutt Pass, a ¥2,000 booklet that provides one-time admission to several of the museums profiled in this guide.

I should add that Guide to Japanese Museums came with me across the North American continent twice during the past two months, and it’s still in pristine condition. The book is lightweight and flexible, and it can easily be slipped inside a backpack or a suitcase. If I couldn’t destroy it, it’s more than likely safe with you as well, so don’t feel as if you need to leave it on a shelf while you go and have adventures, whether those adventures are in Japan or at your local café.

Review copy provided by The Japan Society of the UK.

Tales from a Mountain Cave

Tales from a Mountain Cave

Title: Tales from a Mountain Cave
Japanese Title: 新作遠野物語 (Shinsaku Tōno monogatari)
Author: Inoue Hisashi (井上 ひさし)
Translator: Angus Turvill
Year Published: 2013 (England); 1976 (Japan)
Publisher: Thames River Press
Pages: 134

In 1910, the famous ethnologist Yanagita Kunio published the Tōno monogatari, a collection of folk legends from the Tōno region of central Iwate Prefecture in northeast Japan. Although the authenticity of these records is debatable, the collection is extremely important and has influenced subsequent generations of folklorists, including the inimitable manga artist Mizuki Shigeru. In 1975, Robert A. Morse translated the work as The Legends of Tono.

Inoue Hisashi was born in Yamagata Prefecture, which is southwest of Iwate but still in the Tōhoku region. Although famous primarily as a playwright, Inoue is also known for his novels, many of which are humorous and contain elements of fantasy and science fiction. Tales from a Mountain Cave, or “The New Legends of Tono” in its Japanese title, is Inoue’s take on the Tōno monogatari, which he sets in the coastal town of Kamaishi, just east of Tōno.

If you’re not a professional historian or ethnologist, the Tōno monogatari can require quite a bit of study to fully appreciate. Robert Morse’s translation is remarkably well done, and the book is nicely published, but the work is still difficult to read for pleasure. Tales from a Mountain Cave, on the other hand, is a lot of fun.

The nine stories in Tales from a Mountain Cave are relayed to the narrator, a young man taking time off from college, by an old man named Inubuse Takichi, who lives in a small cave in the mountains behind the sanatorium where the narrator works. Initially drawn to Inubuse by the sound of his trumpet, the narrator forms a habit of spending his lunch break with the old man, who rewards him with a series of stories about his life.

In these stories, which span from the 1920s through the early postwar period, Inubuse describes his hardships, his various forms of employment, his romantic relationships, and the odd characters he’s encountered. Not all of these characters are human, and each of the tales focuses on a supernatural occurrence, many of which are the doing of the yōkai that inhabit the region. Inubuse’s recollections of these creatures are vivid and refreshingly original. To give an example from the second story, “House up the River,” this is how the narrator summarizes Inubuse’s description of river imps called kappa:

According to him, there were several thousand kappa in the Hashino River, but when in the water they were translucent, like jellyfish. In fact they couldn’t be seen with human eyes at all. Once they were out of the river they took the form of children or travelers. In the mountains they appeared as monkeys or phesants. They could change size as well as appearance – a thousand kappa could hide in the puddle of a horse’s hoof print.

Far from being remixed or modernized versions of legend fragments, each story has a clear and compelling narrative arc; and, although they’re all connected, all but the last of the stories (which ties everything together) can be read by itself. The major theme of the collection seems to be the inability of human beings and yōkai to coexist, which can be understood as representing a fundamentally antagonistic relationship between human society and the dangerous wilderness of the Tōhoku region. If you’re looking for the sort of religious messages common in medieval Japanese folktales, they’re practically nonexistent, but Tales from a Mountain Cave does offer plenty of sexuality and earthy humor.

I really enjoyed this collection. It’s colorful, charming, and highly entertaining. Even if you’re not familiar with Japanese history or folklore, you’ll still enjoy Inoue Hisashi’s outrageous stories and charming prose.

Review copy provided by Thames River Press.

Neon Pilgrim

Neon Pilgrim

Title: Neon Pilgrim
Author: Lisa Dempster
Publication Year: 2009
Publisher: Aduki Independent Press
Pages: 237

According to her own description of herself, Lisa Dempster was an overweight and depressed woman approaching thirty when she decided to walk the Shikoku pilgrimage route between eighty-eighty temples. I am currently an overweight and depressed woman who just turned thirty, and I have dreamed of visiting Shikoku ever since I read Kafka on the Shore as a college senior. Since I moved to the Midwest this past fall, I’ve been mostly confined to my car as the snow piles grow ever higher in the frigid air outside my windows. How lovely it would be, I keep thinking, to be able to walk the Shikoku pilgrimage. Failing that, how lovely it would be to read someone else’s account of traveling, exploring, and walking across a region known for its beautiful mountains and lush tropical beaches.

Neon Pilgrim is just such an account, but what I love about Dempster’s narration of her pilgrimage is that she is completely upfront about how difficult it is to complete the pilgrimage on foot, especially while doing nojuku, or sleeping out in the open. At the beginning of her journey, she is in almost constant pain. It’s summer, and it’s unbearably hot and humid. Her thighs are chafing, there are blisters on her feet, and her skin is breaking out in all sorts of embarrassing places. During the first two weeks of the pilgrimage, the physical strain causes her to throw up at least once a day. People that she meets along the road jovially tease her about how slow she is, and she does indeed move too slowly to have regular walking companions. When all she wants is to sit down in the air conditioning and have something to eat, she has trouble explaining what she means by “vegetarian.”

As Dempster passes through the mountains, she worries about snakes and inoshishi. As she walks along the side of roads and highways, she worries about the lack of shade and places to stop and rest. At one point, she has to deal with a (possibly good intentioned?) stalker who doesn’t understand that she doesn’t want to get in his car or go out to dinner with him. Temple offices keep strict hours, and the rudimentary lodgings they sometimes provide for pilgrims can fill up, so she worries about making good time and not getting lost as well. Although nothing truly frightening or terrible happens to her, Dempster makes it clear that walking all day every day without a guidebook, a smartphone, or any clearly defined itinerary is not as fun and spiritually liberating as one might imagine it to be. After all, sleeping under the stars isn’t as romantic as it’s cracked up to be, as illustrated by Dempster’s attempt to spend the night in a building housing a public restroom:

I turned my attention to the toilet. As promised, it was clean and new, and with lovely stones and polished wood. Two wings of toilets led off from a small undercover vestibule – ladies to the right, men to the left. The vestibule would be the best place to sleep; at least I wouldn’t actually be in the toilet. It was weird but ok. I already felt more secure here than I had back at the road station.

Putting my bag down, I went to use the facilities. Pushing the door to the cubicle open, I screamed. There was an enormous black spider on the wall! If there’s one thing I’m scared of, more than bears and snakes, even more than inoshishi, it’s spiders. Even thinking about them makes me shake. I know it’s wussy but fear is irrational like that.

The door slammed as I jumped back in fright, and the bang of the door sent the spider scurrying over it. I backed up some more. Hang on, that wasn’t the same spider. It was big and black, sure, but it was a decidedly different size. Everything suddenly came into sharp focus – like those stupid Magic Eye pictures – and I realized that the place was riddled with spiders. I counted seven of them. All big. All black. All waiting to suck my brains out of my nose while I slept.

Although Dempster doesn’t marginalize the difficulties of the pilgrimage, she doesn’t whine about them either. For the most part, Neon Pilgrim is an account of interesting experiences and unique interactions with cool people met along the way. When these experiences, interactions, and people are painful, ridiculous, or creepy, Dempster handles them with a light touch so that they become amusing to the reader. What her narration of her difficulties does is to move the story forward and make it compelling to the reader. Will she make it through the whole pilgrimage? Will she give up and go home? Is she going to be okay? How is she going to get out of whatever bizarre situation she’s currently found herself in?

Despite the author’s concerns over her state of mind and the physical hardships she experiences, her account of the Shikoku pilgrimage glitters with tiny gems of natural splendor, as in this description of her ascent to the sixtieth temple in the pilgrimage, Yokomineji:

Everything was green and mossy, glistening with moisture. It was very calm and the dark, cloudy atmosphere made me think again of the pilgrims who had gone before. It had an amazing kind of energy. There were many sets of steps, hewn into the mountain, or constructed from stone now smooth from millions of feet. The path was slippery and precarious and I picked my way up slowly and gingerly, stopping to catch my breath and gaze with amazement at the view around me.

Every now and then a little wooden bridge, strung together with rope, would cross over a mountain stream. They were the slipperiest bits of all, and yet I didn’t care that the weather was bad or the climb was an arduous three kilometers. I had fallen under the spell of the ancient mountain.

Another thing I appreciate about Neon Pilgrim is that it contains a minimum of editorializing about Japanese society. Sometimes tourists from other parts of Japan gawk and make strange comments about the gaijin, but the people who actually live along the pilgrimage route are mostly friendly and treat the author like a normal human being. The students partying on the beach and other pilgrims also treat her normally and offer her whatever food and alcohol they have at their disposal. Since Dempster can speak Japanese, the interactions she describes have nothing to do with “the Japanese character,” or any sort of related silliness, but are instead exchanges between individuals, some of whom are quite eccentric (one of my favorites is the charmingly filthy and half-blind old man who drives the author to the foot of the mountain path described in the previously quoted passage). Occasionally, however, Dempster will wander into an interesting cultural experience, such as when she arrives in Kochi right in the middle of the city’s famous Yosakoi festival:

I had, completely unwittingly, wandered into the Yosakoi matsuri, an annual dance festival that takes place during the height of summer, and a crazy one at that.

Dancers in the festival use a traditional Japanese instrument, the naruko. Known as ‘clackers’ to the rest of the world, the one function of the instrument is to make noise. Wood slaps noisily on wood, and with several thousand dancers clutching a naruko in each hand, the noise is deafening.

The teams, which can be as big as several hundred people, each have their own costumes and moves. Some teams go for traditional kimono and hairdos, others modern and funky. The dance teams weave through the long streets and shopping malls in town, dancing the whole way, each booming their own music, each clacking their naruko. It’s a riot of noise and color.

Like most Japanese festivals, for spectators the usual schedule is about six minutes of watching dancers followed by six hours of drinking. Kochi is known for its love of alcohol, and at festival time it’s fairly safe to say the whole city gets incredibly drunk.

Even if you can’t visit Shikoku in person, it’s an incredible experience to follow Dempster on her pilgrimage while sharing her defeats and triumphs. The chapters of Neon Pilgrim are short, generally around ten pages or so, which makes it easy to put down the book and pick it back up again whenever the spirit moves you. Because there’s no sort of introduction or afterword that provides a broader perspective on the author’s pilgrimage, I have no idea how she took down or edited her notes, but her narrative flows smoothly without any backtracking or inconsistencies. Although the reader can turn the process of reading Neon Pilgrim into a sort of daily practice, I personally found it difficult to stop reading the book – I always wanted to find out what lay around the next corner on the path to the next temple. The author’s good humor is infectious, and she’s a perfect companion for the journey.

Neon Pilgrim is published by Aduki Independent Press in Australia, and it’s almost impossible to get a physical copy of the book (trust me, I tried). A digital copy can be had for five USD from Smashwords, however, so it’s worth checking out. I read the mobi version of the book on my Kindle app, and it was beautifully formatted and functioned flawlessly.

The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons

The Night Parade

Title: The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons
Author: Matthew Meyer
Publication Year: 2012
Publisher: Amazon CreateSpace
Pages: 224

The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, which began its life as a Kickstarter project, collects roughly four dozen entries on various yōkai, which are accompanied by lavish full-color illustrations. Both the pictures and the text are by Matthew Meyer, an artist heavily influenced by Japanese prints. Meyer has lived in a rural town in Fukui prefecture since 2007, and, as he explains on his Kickstarter page, he has been collecting and translating local folklore for years. There are a number of other books on yōkai available for digital download (such as Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda’s fantastic Yokai Attack!), but what The Night Parade does especially well is to add regional color and variety to Japanese legends of supernatural creatures that may already be familiar to many Japanophiles.

Compiled in such a way as to resemble an illustrated bestiary, The Night Parade is divided into several sections, which include “In the Wilds,” “Out on the Town,” and “In the House.” The book includes entries on yōkai that appear frequently in popular media, such as the kappa, the kirin, the kitsune, the tanuki, and the yuki onna, as well as many lesser-known creatures, such as the bake kujira (an enormous ghostly whale), the jorōgumo (a man-eating spider), and the nuppepō (a flabby, stinky lump of flesh that lives in temple graveyards), and the nopperabō (who looks and acts like an ordinary person but has no face). Each entry contains information on the diet and appearance of these yōkai, their behavior, their interactions with human beings, and the various forms they may take, as well variations on and translations of their names.

Many of the entries are also peppered with interesting information about the historical and cultural contexts of these creatures. For example, the entry on the takanyūnō, or “tall priest,” contains a special section on why suffixes relating to Buddhism and Buddhist priests are so common in the names of yōkai. (Apparently, it’s not so much a connection to religion as it is a certain wariness regarding traveling priests, or at least strangers dressed as traveling priests.) The entry on the kerakera onna, a gigantic “cackling woman” who haunts the alleyways of red light districts and hounds men into their graves with her incessant laughter, alludes to the tendency in Japanese folklore to grant great power to long-lived things, whether they be cats (which become neko mata) or eating utensils (which become tsukumogami), and surmises that prostitutes who managed to live into middle age may well have become yōkai, an interesting conjecture that leaves the mind to wonder about what such a bit of folklore might correspond to in a less numinous context.

Meyer has published his work through Amazon’s CreateSpace program, which offers both print and digital versions of the collection. I can’t offer an opinion of the physical copy of The Night Parade, but the digital edition is beautifully formatted, and its images are of extremely high quality. Although the book is relatively kid-friendly, it includes frank (although far from explicit) references to prostitution and human sexuality. Most of the images are stylized as colorful and cute or understated and eerie, but a few (such as the illustration of the ubume, a spirit of a woman who has died during childbirth) may be too intense for younger readers. My honorary nieces and nephews have been delighted by pictures like the illustration of the onryō, a vengeful ghost who is depicted as a pale shrieking woman bleeding from her eyes, but discretion might be advised for more sensitive children.

Meyer has recently launched a successful Kickstarter project for a second collection, titled The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits, so expect another excellent illustrated bestiary from him soon!

Matthew Meyer - Tanuki