Off the Beaten Path: Yokai Street and Halloween in Japan
In the past three or four years, it has been almost impossible to not notice Halloween making a rapid transition in Japan from “not really a thing at all” to “very much a thing,” though in practice it’s hard to say how much of the modern traditions of, say, American Halloween have been adopted.1
What is most interesting about Halloween in Japan, arguably, is not the fact that Japan has more than its own share of ghost stories and other eeriness, but the fact that so little of it seems to wind up overlapping with Halloween — summer is the season of ghost stories in Japan, or at least that seems to be the stereotype.
In Kyoto, however, there is a little shopping street, only about 400 meters long, that has benefited perhaps more than most from Japan’s newfound interest in autumnal spookiness. Drawing on local folklore from a thousand years ago,2 this little street rebranded itself as “Yokai Street,” named after the yokai monsters from Japanese folklore, in the hopes of drawing visitors to stir up business and revitalize the local shops. One of the main signs you’ll see of this is little figures of traditional creatures from folklore out front of the shops, often made from whatever the shop sells, or sometimes just folklore-based variants on common things like the “watch for children” sign.
The local temple also holds semi-regular Mononoke-ichi art and craft markets, where visitors can buy coasters, sculptures, socks, art books, and more, all of it with a monsters-from-Japanese-folklore theme, or at least, say, eyeballs or white foxes. Depending on the season, you might also be able to get yourself a special bowl of shaved ice.
One of the biggest events for this street, though, is a revival every several months of an old tradition based on the same legend: the Hyakki-yakō, or, essentially, “night of a hundred monsters.”3 As night falls, people crowd this street for a parade of monsters and ghouls, organized as a revival of the sorts of costumed parades once held in this part of Kyoto, many centuries ago.
The “HAPPY HALLOWEEN” banners decorating the shops on the next street over last weekend may have been more conventionally Halloween-themed, but Yokai Street certainly felt much more in the spirit of the holiday. Perhaps that’s why they scheduled the parade for October.
For more information on Kyoto’s Hyakki-yakō and Mononoke-ichi events, check out their web site (in Japanese only). Their next event, as of this writing, is schedule for the second half of December: they’ll actually be visiting Tokyo to hold a Mononoke-ichi market there!
- Trick-or-Treating still seems decidedly exotic, but on the other hand, Halloween decorations can be seen popping up everywhere. The decorations have been generically “Christmas” or “Valentine’s Day” enough that it has led my wife and me to occasionally jokingly refer to them as “Merry Halloween” decorations. Lots of orange and black around, though, in any case. ↩
- During the Heian era (794–1185), at least in this part of Kyoto, it was said that old household tools and items thrown out while cleaning your home would hold grudges for being disposed of so coldly, so the tools decided to become monsters of various sorts to take their revenge on those who threw them out. As a result of this belief (or legend), there were nighttime parades held in this area centuries ago where people would dress up like these monsters. ↩
- Interestingly, this phrase is also used in a non-literal sense to refer to a state of utter chaos. ↩