Updated: May 21
All countries have their own ghouls, goblins, monsters and folklore. Japanese "youkai" monster-theme activities and exhibitions always draw long lines. Personally I enjoy youkai art because Japanese does best in making demons and monsters look ridiculously animated and funny (though there are pretty scary ones, too). And I have never seen any culture that has such elaborate roster of monsters. Ukiyo-e (浮世絵 wood block prints) Masters Yoshitoshi and Kuniyoshi depicted monsters best. These19th century art is known to be the predecessor of today's Japan manga art.
Among all in the "youkai" encyclopedia, my favorite character are foxes (kitsune) which are depicted as wise and have magical ability to shift forms. Next in line would be tsukumogami （付喪神 ) , simply because they just crack me up every single time I see such depiction!
The story of tsukumokami is very interesting. It is believed that any object (tools or housewares) will possess a soul after 100 years, or after being used for a long time. They are also depicted as angry monsters returning to take revenge when human beings discarded old and used items on the streets during Spring cleaning. Parading lanterns, umbrellas, pots and pans are depicted in the famous scroll painting Hyakki Yagyō Emaki (百鬼夜行絵巻, created1336 to 1573). The story also functions as a lesson teaching people not to waste material and resources. Does this "scare tactic" actually work?
Last month, I had the opportunity to learn of yet another folklore and monster.
Not only that, I also learned about a very well-made traditional wood spoon from Hida region of Northern Gifu. The area has some deep forest and high mountains. It receives heavy snow in the winter. So how do a hand-carved spoon and a monster tell the story of Hida?
Hida wood artisan Mr. Kyosuke Okui's winter product is an old traditional hand-carved spoon call UTOU SHAKUSHI. This 200-year-old craft was first developed when farmers resorted to craft making during winter off-farming season. And the magnolia wood gets chopped in the winter only. The Shakushi spoon is carved out of one solid piece of Magnolia wood with pattern resembling the big magnolia leaf. In Japan, people use it as rice or soup ladle. Just like many hand-crafted objects, this beautiful utilitarian spoon is warm to touch and exceptionally durable that lasts a lifetime.
So how did the monster story came about? When the wood trunks were diagonally sectioned to create the core shape of the spoon, Mr. Okui ended up with many smaller triangle wedges of wood. So he decided to turn them into a local folk toy, using the legendary story of Yuki-Nyudo 雪入道 from the snowy Hida region. Yuki-Nyudo has one eye and one leg. It hops on fresh snow leaving footprints in the forest. It is one of those typical folklores that grownups would tell kids if they misbehave, the snow monster will kidnap them into the snowy mountains. But as you can see, Mr. Okui's Yuki-Nyudo is looking way too cute to serve that threatening purpose! And the artisan intended to have his version of snow monster works as a guardian or a charm for family homes with kids. Such lovely series of work show respect for natural resources while carry-on traditional folk legacies.