Halloween is here! And with it a whole host of mainstream monsters descending upon us: vampires, werewolves, zombies… But did you know that Japan has its own bestiary of supernatural beings called yokai? These creatures range from cute to creepy, to downright terrifying.
When Tokyo Survival Channel challenged me to make a yokai-themed haunted house this Halloween, I was extremely excited. The challenge combined three of my favorite things: DIY, Halloween, and yokai. As soon as I got the challenge, I was ready to create the scariest yokai haunted house my friends had ever seen!
100-Yen Halloween Adventure
In Tokyo, all great DIY projects start at the same place… the 100 yen shop, which has all the basic craft supplies you need, including seasonal Halloween decorations. The shop I visited even had a pretty scary mask that I couldn’t pass up.
Besides the mask, I bought some construction paper, tape, a hot glue gun, a ball of yarn… not exactly scary stuff, more like the supplies you would find in a school art room. But I was determined to somehow transform this motley craft collection into fearsome monsters.
DIYokai: Everything Comes Alive when You Add Eyes
With supplies in hand, I set out to make a menagerie of monsters.
Kasa-obake (Umbrella Yokai)
My first attempt at creating a yokai was the classic kasa-obake, a living umbrella. According to Japanese folklore, the kasa-obake is a 100-year-old umbrella that has come to life, sprouting a leg to hop around on, and a single, giant eye.
How to Make: To create this yokai, I simply cut out a few circles of paper, and stuck them together in the shape of a giant eye. I then taped the eye onto my traditional Japanese umbrella.
Chochin-Obake (Lantern Yokai)
Inspired by the umbrella yokai, my next attempt was the chochin-obake, or a 100-year-old lantern. It’s said that when a lantern reaches that age, it opens its eye (or two depending on the legend), and a split tears along one of its ribs, creating a mouth.
How to Make: To replicate this, I fashioned another eye and taped it to the center of the lantern. Then, I carefully tore a hole in the lantern, making a mouth.
Creating this yokai was a bit trickier as I had to find some way of attaching an LED candle inside the lantern. So, I also created a paper platform inside the lantern to place my candle on. When the lantern was lit up, it actually looked quite eerie.
The Easy Way to Make Tsukumogami
At this point, I made the important discovery that if you add eyes, almost any household object looks as if it’s alive. This makes for some pretty easy yokai creations. Especially, since many yokai are simply household objects that have come to life, a group of yokai known as tsukumogami.
Tsukumogami are items that have existed for so long (around 100 years or so) that they have developed self-awareness and come alive, usually sprouting arms, legs, and eyes in the process. They often come alive because their owners have abandoned them or thrown them away, despite their many years of service. The cast-aside objects return for revenge.
Rokurokubi (Cursed Spirit with a Long Neck)
Not all my DIYokai were tsukumogami. Inspired by the 1968 film Yokai Monsters: 100 Monsters, I created the silhouette of a rokurokubi. The rokurokubi is a woman whose neck stretches at night. In some legends she is harmless… in others, she drinks lamp oil, eats small animals, or even drinks people’s blood.
How to make:
On black paper, trace the profile of a woman’s head. Then extend the woman’s neck as long as you want before adding a pair of shoulders. Cut out the silhouette, and you have a rokurokubi. For extra structure, you can add a layer of thicker paper to the back of the first cutout. Finally, tape your completed rokurokubi to a window to scare all your friends and family.
I also created the silhouette of a nekomata, a two-tailed cat that has the power to create zombies. These cat monsters have lived for a very long time, so long that they develop supernatural powers. They’re vengeful toward humans, especially those that mistreated them before they gained their power, so please be nice to any cats you come across.
How to make:
As with the rokurokubi, simply trace and cut out a silhouette, this time of a cat (but with two tails!) I had a long, fuzzy rope lying around, which I used as my cat’s tails. For both the nekomata and the rokurokubi, the silhouettes work best when pasted against a backlit window.
Yurei (Japanese-style Ghost)
Finally, I created a yurei, which is a Japanese-style ghost. Japanese ghosts have long, unkempt hair and usually have a white triangle made of paper, or cloth, on their head (a hitaikakushi), along with a long white robe. The yurei’s appearance stems from Edo-era funeral garb, as bodies were left with their hair down, the hitaikakushi placed on their heads.
How to make: I recreated a typical yurei’s appearance by adding some black yarn and a paper triangle to the ghastly 100 yen mask. It was my most frightening creation, so I placed all of my hopes of scaring my friend on it.
Is the House Already Haunted?
The soon-to-be-haunted house was located in a small town on the outskirts of Yokohama. When I arrived it was raining, so I was forced to use my kasa-obake as an actual umbrella. Despite being made of paper, the traditional Japanese umbrella had a waterproof coating, so it kept me dry… and gained a few odd looks from the locals.
I had trouble finding the house, as it was tucked away down a side street and covered in ivy. I actually walked right past the alley it was in, without even noticing. I don’t know how long it would have taken me to find if the owner hadn’t come out to beckon me in.
The house already had a few yokai, including the owner himself, who goes by the nickname of Oni, which is the name for Japanese ogre-like monsters. A haunted house owned by a Japanese ogre—it doesn’t get better than that!
The owner was much kinder than his name made him out to be. He showed me around, recommended some local spots, and was even very enthusiastic about the idea of his rental house becoming haunted for a night.
I also found a pair of Japanese foxes hanging up in the kitchen. Called kitsune, foxes are often endowed with supernatural abilities in Japanese legend, especially shapeshifting. They’re one of my favorite yokai, so I was happy to see them welcoming me.
The house was over 50 years old, and built in the traditional Japanese style, with tatami floors, sliding shoji doors, and a warm kotatsu table right in the middle of the living room. The lights were dim, and there were plenty of dark corners and rooms to explore. Being there all alone, with nothing but the sound of the rain pattering on the roof, definitely made me a little creeped out, and I hadn’t even started setting up my yokai yet!
Summoning the Yokai
The house was full of dark nooks and crannies, and plenty of places to hang things, making my task of setting up the yokai quite easy.
Right in the entranceway stood a large mirror, which I turned into an ungaikyo, a possessed mirror spirit, ready to welcome guests as soon as they step through the door. If you look into an ungaikyo, you may not like what you see—it will reflect your image back as a monster.
There were a few tsukumogami that could be found in the kitchen, including seto taisho, a soldier made out of broken crockery that can no longer be used. This yokai is known to run around kitchens, creating havoc as it tries to fight with everyone inside.
Shiro-uneri is another kind of kitchen yokai made out of an old dish rag that comes to life as a little dragon. It likes to fly around the kitchen, causing chaos and dripping dirty water everywhere.
Another kitchen yokai is the living teakettle known as morinji-no-kama. I didn’t have a traditional Japanese cast-iron kettle, but the house came with an electric one, so I gave this yokai a modern update.
Tantan-kororin are living persimmons. They are a ghost formed from the unpicked persimmons at the centre of a persimmon tree. In some legends this yokai has the form of a monk, with an orange face, in others, it simply has the form of a giant persimmon with eyes and a mouth.
Next, I moved on to spookifying the main tatami room or washitsu. I hung the yurei mask right behind the shoji doors so that its leering face would be the first thing my friend would see upon sliding open the door. Yurei were the inspiration for the ghosts in many classic horror films (like The Ring), so I hoped to do those famous ghosts justice.
Inside the main room, I nestled the kasa-obake in the cranny under the stairs. I also found a nice built-in rod to hang my living lantern. Across from these hiding spots were some beautiful sliding doors, made of translucent shoji paper, perfect for placing my rokurokubi.
The rokurokubi’s silhouette, illuminated from behind, looked almost as if it was moving in the flickering candlelight. Next to the rokurokubi, I placed eyes on the sliding doors, to create mokumokuren, the living shoji.
Mokumokuren are another kind of tsukumogami, which grow out of old shoji doors full of holes. Their eyes pop out of the holes to watch the inhabitants of their home. I couldn’t place the eyes directly onto the paper though, since I was worried about actually tearing holes in it, so I stuck the eyes to the wooden frame instead.
A clock hanging on the wall became possessed with the addition of a tongue and a pair of eyes, creating a zorigami. According to some legends, it has the ability to slow down or speed up time. I wanted mine to slow down the time before my friend’s arrival so I could finish setting up.
The last of the living room yokai was the keukegen, peeping out from under a side table. The keukegen is a black, fluffy creature that dwells in dark, damp places, much like the black mold it resembles. I made my keukegen out of a ball of yarn and my black scarf.
Up in the bedroom, I found a conveniently piled futon, which I used to create a futon yokai: the boroboroton. You’d better watch out—while it looks soft and sweet, the boroboroton strangles sleepers in the night…
Finally, the bathroom yokai: the akaname. The akaname is a goblin-like creature that likes to lick up the dirt in filthy bathrooms. So keep your bathroom clean or it might pay you a visit!
Once all the yokai were ready, I transformed myself into a kitsune fox spirit, becoming the 15th and final yokai of my haunted house.
Exploring the Neighborhood
The house was located not too far from Yokohama’s Chinatown. I met my friend there for dinner, so she could experience my haunted house on a full stomach. We didn’t see any yokai in Yokohama, sadly. However, there was a robot server, with blue, blinking eyes, confirming my conjecture that eyes make everything seem alive.
A Friendly Haunting in Yokai-hama
After the house was ready, I invited my friend inside. I challenged her to find all the yokai inhabiting my haunted house. She had fun exploring the place, looking for all the transformed objects, despite finding most of them funny rather than scary. At least, until I told her about all the ways these cute creatures could kill her.
I had hoped the yurei mask, at least, would scare my friend, but it turns out she’s impervious to haunted houses. Upon seeing it, she started giggling. . . not the reaction I was hoping for, but it was good to know that if there were any actual ghosts in the house, she would be able to fight them off!
Spooks and Sweets
Tricks finished, it was time for treats! For us that meant a couple slices of yokai pie. My friend decorated hers to look like an amabie, and I made mine into a kitsune. Sadly, my fox looked more like a rat, but my friend’s amabie was cute. Of course, no yokai pie is complete without some ice-scream, so we added a scoop of that too.
Staying the Night in a Haunted House
Since we’d rented the home for the night, naturally, we had to stay there. As we got ready for bed, I had my own scare… the akaname in the toilet had moved. The long-tongued yokai was no longer down on the floor but staring back at me from the window. It took me a few moments to realize that my friend had played her own trick on me!
During the night, the old house was full of creaking and strange scraping noises. I woke up quite a few times as if expecting to see one of my yokai creations standing over me, or to be strangled by the boroborton I was using as my blanket.
Early in the morning, some crows decided to land on our balcony with a thunk, startling me awake once again. But, despite my dreams of yokai and yurei, both of us survived the night unharmed.
The next morning, we packed up the yokai, leaving no trace of their hauntings behind. After saying goodbye to Oni (and finishing the leftover ice cream for breakfast), we headed to the nearby island of Enoshima, a popular tourist spot that my friend had never seen before.
The challenge may have been complete, but our yokai adventure was far from over. Later that day we met some real live tanuki (raccoon dogs often attributed with magic powers) and visited a dragon’s cave! But that’s a story for another time…