The scariest Japanese monsters and yokai:
- Yamata no Orochi
This spider yōkai takes the appearance of a beautiful young woman to lure men into her den. Then, she devours her victim.
Of course, legends vary around this horrifying and deceptive spider creature. Sometimes, they just strike outright without the need to lure anyone in. One such story is based on the Jōren Falls of Izu, where a mistress of the waterfall shoots webbing from beneath the falls and snags the man by the leg. Fortunately, the quick-witted guy is able to wrap the webbing around a heavy log, which is then pulled into the falls.
Spiders are scary by nature, and the idea of a monstrous creature luring people to a horrific death is unnerving. However, it holds a familiar warning against trusting beautiful strangers found across the world. A beautiful face isn’t always what it seems.
The gashadokuro is a giant human skeleton, a spirit that arises from mass graves to unleash its rage on unsuspecting travelers. If caught, it may crush you or drink your blood. Brutal.
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The story of these giant spirits—who are 15 times the size of a human—is that they come from improperly buried remains. Whether in war, famine or plague, spirits who were not shown reverence in death take a single, terrifying form. Likely, this terror is made up of the atrocities that come with war.
Its first mention was after a deadly feud between lords. One attack led to another, each time involving more and more samurai. Finally, the thirst for vengeance came to a crescendo after Lord Masakado took the title of emperor. Soon after, he is assassinated by officials in Kyoto, invoking the wrath of his daughter. The sorceress, Takiyasha Hime, was infuriated by her father’s beheading.
Then, she took her revenge by summoning the first gashadokuro, built from the bones of the recent wars, to attack Kyoto. She didn’t let up until her father’s head was moved to Shibasaki, a fishing village that would turn into Tokyo. The head became a sort of demigod, with a grave still standing near the Tokyo Imperial Palace.
Essentially, oni are like a blend of demons and ogres. These aggressive brutes are built to torture the doomed, sometimes wandering into the mortal world to cause chaos. In fact, these yōkai have been causing trouble from the start. They have a bit of a reputation for antagonizing legendary Japanese heroes.
Oni are born from wicked human souls, transformed into servants for the King of Hell. These souls are the worst of the worst, unredeemable. They tend to hide and ambush people for a quick meal and are notorious drinkers.
Originally, the word oni was a catchall for supernatural entities: spirits, ghosts, monsters. However, years of lore gave shape to the devilish ogre we know today.
Shikome are witch-like hags sent to destroy the Shinto god Izanagi after he offended his wife, Izanami. The problem was, Isanami died giving birth to the fire god, Kagutsuchi. However, Izanagi offends his wife when he looks upon her dead body in Yomi (the underworld).
Izanagi is able to distract the underworld hags with magic implements. First, he throws a vine, which sprouts a field of delicious grapes. Of course, the hags can’t resist. Then, he throws his magic comb into the ground, sprouting a field of bamboo shoots. Again, the hags stop for a meal.
Even though good food seems to be their kryptonite (a force of life and creation), hags from the underworld will always be scary. They make for a terrifying archetype across the world—the woods witch or Baba Yaga. Then again, I can only imagine the Japanese hag is especially terrifying.
The Kappa is creature that appears part human and part turtle, a reptilian monster who lurks in wild rivers, ponds and lakes. A small puddle of water fills the bowl-like indention at the top of its head. Therefore, it needs a connection to water to walk outside its pond or river home. This yōkai is deeply connected with water as an element, a likely warning about playing near rivers and ponds.
Again, Japanese depictions of this unique monster add extra creep factors that your average lizard person may lack. Sometimes, the Kappa has long, dangly hair surrounding its bowl of water. Sometimes, they have long, dangly fingers that pull you underwater.
However, there is a trick to escaping a kappa. Famously, they will return bows to polite people, spilling the precious water from the top of their skulls. Once they run out, they must return to their watery home.
Shinigami are spirits of death, or death gods, that lure people to their demise. In a way, the shinigami are the grim reapers of Japan. However, they never seem to take the same form.
Written in Edo era literature, Shinigami are connected to hopelessness. They can possess characters and lead them to self-destruction. For the drama of the period, this monster personified the lure of death for tragic characters. Also, they have been portrayed as a vengeful spirit, returning to lure others into the underworld.
The alluring nature of these strange and dark spirits add to their creepy factor. Most of the monsters on this list will come after you with claws and fangs. This spooky spirit is more subtle in the way it operates.
Kasha are humanoid cat creatures that are trailed by hellish fire. Their purpose is to retrieve the bodies and souls of the most wicked humans, ambushing their funerals.
The origin of a kasha yōkai come from cats, which can be granted magic affinities once they reach a certain age. Folklore suggests that cats, much like foxes, can grow multiple tails before transforming into a yōkai. Cats that reach this pinnacle can either turn into a helpful yōkai or a hellish one. Naturally, the kasha is on the hellish side.
Let’s be honest, cats are unpredictable and a little sociopathic. A crazy hellcat that walks upright and steals bodies is intense.
Umibōzu are giant shadows that take a human form with strange glowing eyes. These shadowy giants can be seen at sea, stalking ships and challenging the fear inside sailors. Sometimes, storms come along with them, as if they were walking bad omens.
Stories of the umibōzu range from varying sizes. Sometimes, they appear as beautiful women who challenge humans to swimming contests. Other times, they appear as jellyfish floating above the water. Apparently, they live to toy with people. One legend suggests that they ask sailors “are you afraid?”, and any hesitation at courage dooms the vessel. Therefore, the answer is an immediate “no”.
Other versions of this story simply keep to warnings. Basically, if you’re afraid of the umibōzu, you have no right being out at sea. The sea is a deadly and chaotic place.
Again, this monster falls on the creepy side. Sure, the size can be intimidating, especially if a storm comes along with the supernatural creature. However, the mysterious nature of this varied entity gives it extra creep points.
Yamata no Orochi
Yamata no Orochi is a legendary 8-headed dragon big enough for trees to grow on its back. It is long enough to cover eight valleys and eight hills. Its eyes are blood red, and its underbelly is gross and swollen. Plus, it is powerful enough to devour gods.
This mythic beast was made famous as trial for the storm god, Susanoo. After tricking his sister, the sun goddess Amaterasu, Susanoo is expelled from heaven. On his earthly journey, he encounters two earth deities who are weeping. The monstrous serpent has devoured 7 of their daughters, one per year. Now, it seeks the eighth.
However, Susanoo finds redemption in protecting this daughter, Wondrous-Inada-Princess. He transforms her into a comb for safekeeping. Then, he devises a plan to trick the serpent. He tempts each of the dragon’s heads with booze, and the old monster gets itself drunk. While asleep, Susanoo hacks the monster to pieces. Oddly, he finds a large sword inside its swollen belly, the Herb-Quelling Great Sword.
Though our hero slayed the monster in typical fashion, the extra details of this dragon painted a picture. An adversary that is big and ancient enough to grow trees on its back is a force to behold.