Your fearless authors, braving the ghouls of the Japanese countryside

This three-part series about anime-based tourism is a collaborative effort between Artemis of Otaku Lounge and Buri-chan of San’in Monogatari. Artemis currently resides in Ehime Prefecture and since she likes to travel a lot, often discovers that she makes anime pilgrimages entirely by accident. She mostly writes about anime, with the occasional foray into Japanese music, street fashion, and general culture. Buri-chan originally became interested in Japan by watching the Odaiba episodes of Digimon Adventure, and already made that pilgrimage long ago. She currently resides in Shimane Prefecture and writes about Japan’s San’in region, including writing manga to introduce local Kojiki mythology.


So far, we’ve looked at how small towns thrust into the anime spotlight have maintained a healthy balance between tourism influx and their rural charms, as well as a few places that have direct ties to famous works but have not ridden those waves of fame along with them. Other times, however, anime culture seems to launch an attack of Gundam proportions on the landscape of the unsuspecting Japanese countryside.

Although many of his short stories were directly or indirectly inspired by his hometown and the surrounding San-in region, Mizuki Shigeru has gained inspiration from stories he heard and paintings he saw as a child, to the cultures of the Pacific Islanders he made friends with while serving in World War II, to the masks of African tribes he visited as an adult, following his vocation as an adventurer and folklorist.

He is better known for his work as a manga artist and writer, especially as the creator of Gegege-no-Kitaro, which is sort of like the Scooby-Doo of Japan in that its creepy content and iconic characters have transcended decades and generations, known and loved by Japanese people of all ways of life. However, Scooby-Doo likely does not have an international airport named after him.

The great works, adventures, and cultural contributions of Mizuki are celebrated in his hometown of Sakaiminato, at the north-western tip of Tottori Prefecture, with a population of 35,710 and a claim to fame that speaks for itself. For the residents and businesses along Mizuki Shigeru Road, Gegege-no-Kitaro is a way of life. Hundreds of bronze statues of youkai (roughly translated as Japanese goblins and ghouls) line the gift shop laden street, which has hundreds upon hundreds of Mizuki-style youkai lurking everywhere from street side murals to the insides of vending machines.

That having been said, Mizuki has long since moved away from the fishing port town, and resides in Tokyo. Other towns in Tottori have also tried to follow suit by celebrating the manga writers who hail from there, such as Detective Conan’s author Gosho Aoyama, and the prefecture has taken to promoting itself as the Manga Kingdom. This has not been a hit with everyone. Ubiquitous columnist, TV personality, and Mister Donut spokesperson Matsuko Deluxe, who is otherwise a big fan of the prefecture, has been openly critical of the campaign and insists that Tottori should draw from its natural wonders and true strengths to draw tourism as opposed to trying to make and ride a manga wave.

Some examples of anime cultural crashing into a local tourism might feel more familiar to fans worldwide. Kanagawa Prefecture’s Hakone occupies a strange space between touristy and spacious countryside. It’s a town rather than a city, and the backdrop is as pretty as they come, situated as it is near Mount Fuji and within the borders of a volcanically active national park. On the other hand, its proximity to the greater Tokyo area and wealth of hot spring resorts means that Hakone also attracts its fair share of visitors, both Japanese and international. Other local attractions such as its famous Shinto shrine, numerous art museums, historical highway checkpoint, and old mountain railway make Hakone a perfect spot for sightseers wanting to escape the constant hustle and bustle of Tokyo.

Over recent years, Hakone has also been getting a further surge of tourists thanks to its connection with what is probably one of the most well-known anime franchises of all time: Neon Genesis Evangelion. Hakone, and in particular the Lake Ashi area, was used as the model for the imagined post-apocalyptic city of Tokyo-3, and even if you aren’t visiting Hakone as an Evangelion fan, it would be next to impossible not to notice all the promotional material. The Hakone Tourist Information Center features Evangelion-themed posters, for example, and customized vending machines with themed drinks are scattered around the area. During the buildup to Evangelion 2.0, one of Hakone’s Lawson convenience stores was redecorated to sell exclusive merchandise, and Sengokuhara Junior High School, the school on which Evangelion’s was based, held advanced screenings of the film.

A new souvenir store called Eva Shop also opened in 2012, and the Odakyu Hakone Highway Bus Company ran an Evangelion-themed bus that same year, with official anime artwork decorating the outside and bus stops announced by the voice of Maya/Nagasawa Mika. A second Evangelion bus began running in 2014.

For fans making a trip to Hakone exclusively for Evangelion’s sake, an official “Instrumentality Map” map of the area is available in both Japanese and English – although the English version is not officially available online, and must be specifically asked for at Hakone’s tourist information center. The map, which is also available as a phone app, highlights the many sights that were used in the anime such as the school, the mountainside where Shinji and Misato view the whole of Tokyo-3 at sunset, the mist-covered mountain where Shinji wanders after running away from home, and the lake where the sixth Angel appears, among numerous others. For those who get tired simply of sightseeing, the Fuji-Q Highland theme park is about an hour and a half’s drive out of Hakone, where the photo-friendly Evangelion World attraction opened in 2010.

Perhaps famous places like Hakone would have been fine without the additional boost, but many places in rural Japan are scrambling to attract more foreign tourism as they experience population drains to city centers. There is nationwide preparation underway for an influx of tourists anticipated for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The real question is, how many of those tourists will leave the Tokyo region? Could anime be the hero that drives them to the underappreciated mountains, coastlines, and charming townscapes found throughout beautiful, rural Japan?

In recent years, policy makers seem more interested in encouraging anime pilgrimages rather than discouraging them. This could be merely coincidence – the number of anime set outside of the likes of Tokyo or Kyoto seems to be rising in general, as do the number of anime that actually specify a real-life location in Japan and then showcase that via featuring a shot of a famous shrine or including a DVD segment that introduces the real life charms. However, we do think the tourism industry is going out of their way to boost smaller, more local economies, as opposed to drawing attention to anime that take place in major metropolitan areas such as Durarara!! in Ikebukuro, or any of the perhaps hundreds of anime and manga scenes that take place at Tokyo Tower.

Plenty of overseas visitors and foreigners who actually live in Japan seem to be making these anime pilgrimages as well as Japanese people. Despite the country’s “Cool Japan” drive to introduce anime/manga/games etc. and apparent interest in promoting tourism in general, many of the info necessary to make these pilgrimages is either difficult to find in English or simply does not exist in English at all. This has caused quite a few English-language blogs to pop up over recent years, for fans to showcase not only their own photos from such pilgrimages but also to step in and fill the gaps in information, e.g. telling people what trains to take and providing specific directions around town.

If anime producers, the tourism associations of lucky locales, and policy makers want to embrace this potential, they have big questions to consider. What does it take to get people to spend the time and money to visit an anime “holy site”? International visitors have already dropped a lot of money to make it to the islands, so what will it take to get them to the settings of their favourite anime? Knowledge that those settings exist in real life? Ease of access? English maps and websites? Events and promotions?

What we hope they will remember is that in the cases where “contents tourism” is already working, there is something special in those contents in the first place.
Something is working with the Japanese audiences to get them out into the countryside, and something is working with otaku culture as a whole to get international visitors to come to Japan.

Additional Reading:
Japanese Popular Culture and Contents Tourism – Introduction (Philip Seaton & Takayoshi Yamamura, Routledge, 2014)
“Evangelion and Japanese Swords” on the attack in Matsue (Buri-chan, San’in Monogatari, 2014)
Bio: Kitarou (Buri-chan, San’in Monogatari, 2012)

Please enjoy this series while I’m on vacation, and I’ll be back to reply to comments soon! Even though I only had a passing familiarity with Kitaro in college, that was still enough for me to have heard of Sakaiminato before I had heard of any other city in the San’in region. There are many examples we did not wind up including (including a number of San’in settings and cameos I’ve come across), but I would like to conclude by mentioning how every Digimon fan I’ve met here loves to point out that Yamato and Takeru’s grandmother lives in Shimane. ~Buri

UPDATE: Mizuki Shigeru passed away at the age of 93 about eight months after this entry was published. He will be missed.

Later that day, the room would be filled with guests listening to the pouring rain and thunder while warming themselves with tea.

It’s just after 7am on a cool, clear November morning. I’m wearing a kimono and sweeping the wooden veranda of a temple up in the mountains. Ah, it hits me. Looks like I found the Japan I always daydreamed about.

It started with the view of the sunrise over Lake Shinji as we were gathering our tools up to the temple–usually I only see the sunset view!

This was my first time serving in a tea ceremony gathering, having only formally attended one for the first time in June. Over the course of 13 successive ceremonies throughout the day of 15 to 35 guests each, I was not preparing tea myself, but serving the tea and sweets to the guests. I was nervous at first, but it soon became automatic. This took place in the tea room overlooking the eastern gardens of Ichibata Yakushi, a temple in the mountains of Izumo between Lake Shinji and the Sea of the Japan. Established in 894, it is dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Medicine Buddha, and has been attributed with miracles of healing throughout the centuries, especially in regard to eye-related health. This is the head temple of the Ichibata Yakushi Kyodan independent school of Buddhism, which has at least thirty other temples throughout Japan.

In my personal experience, I’ve noticed this temple has a very dedicated and faithful following, and they are very enthusiastic to educate foreign travelers about the temple. The head priest is proficient in English (or so I hear, since we were both too busy with other things to have any conversation), and at least based on my observation is concerned, it seems this temple is active in the Izumo Shinbutsu Pilgrimage. You’ll hear of many Buddhist pilgrimages in respective areas of Japan that may focus on a particular school of Buddhism, listing by number all the temples in that particular pilgrimage. Pilgrims are typically spotted wearing white outfits and prayer beads they collect from each temple and hiking with walking sticks. For most famous temples, common visitors will drive most of the way! Either way, it’s common to see a line of shops along the route with specialities to offer pilgrims and common visitors. At Ichibata Yakushi, it’s manju (filled sweet dumplings).

The Izumo Shimbutsu Pilgrimage, however, is somewhat unique in that it combines both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. The Izumo area has historically leaned more towards Shintoism than Buddhism and segregated the two, whereas throughout most of the rest of Japan Buddhism has at times held more influence, or in practice there was little distinction between the two (they’ve been formally segregated since Japan started Westernizing). The basic idea behind this pilgrimage is that there is no reason different shrines and temples–different religions–should not bind together in prayer and holiness for the sake of world peace.

That said, each shrine or temple on the pilgrimage has its own unique history and dedication, and it’s own following of sorts. For instance, Mizuki Shigeru‘s Non-Non-Ba—the “religious granny” who taught him about the strange unseen world when he was a child–was an adherent to this temple. As such, there have been a couple recent additions to the statues of Buddhas around the temple.

A famous character from Mizuki Shigeru’s “GeGeGe no Kitaro”, known as Medama Oyaji. This is what remains of the title character’s father, and you see this eyeball in all kinds of creative places. I suppose it makes sense to have him at a temple known for eye health.

One of the many Ichibata Manju shops on the path up to the temple

Anyway, back to the tea ceremony! Or rather, a break I took from it in the afternoon when the crowds were thinning. Every year, Ichibata Yakushi–like a handful of other temples, including Gesshoji Temple in Matsue where tea-loving feudal lord Matsudaira Fumai is buried–performs a ritual to burn old chasen (the bamboo whisks used in the tea ceremony) and thank them for their service. I went out to watch and they were happy to let me take pictures, and happy to let people who had no idea what was going on to come and attend the brief ceremony. Everyone was handed a pray book to follow along with the chanting, and after buring the incense and offering thanks, everyone was invited to toss a few chasen in to be burned.

Yes, I can read it aloud, but no, I don’t have a deep understanding of it.

Head Priest Iizuka

Immediately after that, I returned as quickly as I could to help out in at least one more ceremony for the day, but as soon as I arrived I was whisked away to the hall by one of the teachers. Oh no, I thought, am I going to get lectured for taking such a long break while everyone else was working so hard? Instead, she led me into a tiny, dimly lit room where the people organizing the tea ceremonies events for the day were sitting in a more intimate space, using another set of tools that hadn’t been shared with the succesive guests, and eating some fluffy wagashi that had been brought from Nara. This teacher had wanted to share with me the quieter side of tea ceremony asthetics and engage in conversation with the tea master and me. They were many sentiments and I heard before and share, at however shallow a level of understanding I may have. This part of the conversation sticks out in my mind, though:

“It’s so nice that we get to use such old works of art like this.”
“Yes, it’s surprises me sometimes that these aren’t kept in museums to preserve them.”
“The chawan tea bowls you see in museums have gone to waste. They’re tools. If they aren’t being used, they’ve lost their purpose.”

For more Ichibata Yakushi blog pages in English with prettier pictures:
Connect Shimane: Ichibata Yakushi Temple
More Glimpes of Unfamiliar Japan: Ichibata Yakushi revisited

I can’t tell you how many mostly-disembodied eyeballs are found in gift shops around the San’in region. They’re popularity is all thanks to the influence Mizuki Shigeru has had on popular conceptions of youkai, a somewhat frightening, somewhat endearing cast of Japanese goblins and ghouls. He is most famous as the manga-ka who wrote GeGeGe no Kitarou (introduced in this entry last Halloween), but he would introduce himself first as a world explorer and folklore researcher. Wherever I go looking for youkai information, I always find his name in the works referenced! As beloved as his comics are and as much as you see them everywhere around here, his life has been very unique and merits special introduction.

The manga-ka/explorer/folklorist himself, either surprised by his fame or surprised by… well… who knows what.

Mizuki Shigeru (whose real name is Murai Shigeru) was born in 1922 in the port town of Sakaiminato in the little part of Tottori nestled close to the Shimane peninsula. There was an old lady who helped take care of his household, and she was very religious and told little Shigeru about the monsters that lurked in their midst. He was captivated by these stories, also remembers being captivated by an illustration of hell populated by demonic creatures. As you can imagine, it was the kind of art deemed not appropriate for children, but once seen, children may carry it with them forever.

Little Shigeru listening to ghost stories from “Non-Non-Ba” (Religious Granny).

He encountered real terror later on when he was drafted into the military in 1942 and sent into combat on Papua New Guinea. In addition to watching his comrades die, he caught malaria, lost his left arm in an air raid, and become a prisoner of war. While everyone else was growing thin in their poor wartime conditions, his commander found it odd that young Shigeru seemed so well-fed. This was because he had a knack for getting along with the natives. He got along so well, in fact, that they offered him citizenship, land, and a bride.

He was highly tempted to accept their offer, but the military doctor guilt-tripped him into returning home to see his parents once the war ended. He did so with the intention to return to life with the natives on Papua New Guinea, but his post-war predicament back in Japan prevented him from doing so. Instead, the one-armed man worked in a movie theater until 1957, when he made his debut writing super hero comics. Later, he began writing the early adventures of his most famous character, Kitarou.

Like any good Japanese citizen at the time, his accepted an arranged marriage. Her name is Nunoe, and I believe she is from the nearby town of Yasugi. Together they scraped by through poverty and manga deadlines, and at some point, Kitaro exploded with popularity. With its catchy theme song and years and years of anime remakes about the montrous encounters of the title character and his band of regular cast members (everything from what remains of his father (an eyeball), a floating bolt of cotton, an old couple, a cat girl, and a rat man), you could say that it’s like the Scooby-Doo of Japan, except that–as far I know–Scooby doesn’t have an airport named after him. Kitaro is the kind of thing that pretty much every Japanese person has been exposed to in one remake or another, and it is particularly celebrated in and around Sakaiminato, Mizuki-sensei’s hometown.

In addition to his years of research, manga, and fame in regard to youkai, he has also written historical manga about the atrocities of WWII, and has recently been releasing his manga take on the Kojiki (I only noticed this after I started writing my own. As you can imagine, it makes me feel quite inadequate). Busy though writing manga probably keeps him, his interests do not keep him in Japan. Although he is one of the most thorough researchers of youkai in Japan, he has also traveled all over the world studying folklore and making friends with the locals. His fame has drawn more attention to his life story, and the the memorial museum dedicated to his life and works has exhibits about both his world travels and collections, as well as his life story illustrated by both photographs and illustrations from his autobiography. The museum also brings to life his research on Japanese youkai, and even has a model of what his house was like when he lived and struggled there with his young bride. There was even more interest generated in their lives when she released her own autobiography, “GeGeGe’s Wife”, which later had two live action adaptations.

As of my posting this on Halloween 2013, Mizuki-sensei is 91 years old and resides in Tokyo, still busy as ever. He sometimes returns to his hometown and provides original illustrations on the walls of his memorial museum and along the road of youkai statues and youkai-themed products and costumes characters that lead from Sakaiminato Station to the museum. I already admired him and had heard the basics of his life story before paying a visit there, but I left with a much deeper appreciation. Theoretically, since he’s still alive and comes back to visit, I suppose it would be possible to meet him someday. But what would I say or ask first to such a wizard, besides “this lowly worm is unworthy of calling herself a comic artist and purveyor of culture in your great presence”? I get the feeling he’d laugh that off, though.

Despite the San’in region being a land of ghosts and goblins, I’m not a very superstitious person. That said, I did have a freaky experience once at my local convenience store. As I was leaving, I saw a large man standing right behind me reflected in the glass door, but there was nothing remarkable about his face. He looked like an anatomically correct human, but his face seemed to be missing human features. It was too brief a moment to even react, and before I could even turn back to get a better look he had walked the other direction and all I could see was his back.

Perhaps in Western ghost-story-telling tradition this sounds a little lame–so I didn’t get a good look at a reflection that suddenly showed up behind me. Big deal! And what kind of setting is a FamilyMart for a ghost story anyway? However, people familiar with the folklore of Japan have immediately responded, “ah, so you saw a mujina!”

If I had to find a term for what I saw… then yes, it would be a mujina or nopperabo!

The terms tend to be used interchangably, but they are not the same. A mujina, the name you tend to hear most often, is referring to a tanuki-like (but not necessarily tanuki) mammal, who shapeshifts into human figures in order to deceive humans. A nopperabo is more human in origin, the main characteristic being that they have blank skin for faces. Part of the reason mujina may be in wider use as a term for a faceless being is because of Lafcadio Hearn’s influence on Japanese tales and their retention today, however close or not close they may be to the originals. While he is widely credited in Japan for committing to public memory many ghost stories, many modern Western Japanologists are critical of his work partly because of his less than reliable grasp on the Japanese language. He collected ghost stories from all over Japan, but many of them were told to him through his wife Setsu, who didn’t speak much English. It is possible that what he wrote of the mujina in Kwaidan (1904) was actually supposed to be about nopperabo.

…But she continued to weep, hiding her face from him with one of her long sleeves. “O-jochû,” he said again, as gently as he could, “please, please listen to me! … This is no place for a young lady at night! Do not cry, I implore you! [O]nly tell me how I may be of some help to you!” Slowly she rose up, but turned her back to him, and continued to moan and sob behind her sleeve. He laid his hand lightly upon her shoulder, and pleaded: “O-jochû! O-jochû! O-jochû!… Listen to me, just for one little moment!… O-jochû! O-jochû!”… Then that O-jochû turned round, and dropped her sleeve, and stroked her face with her hand; and the man saw that she had no eyes or nose or mouth, and he screamed and ran away.
Up Kii-no-kuni-zaka he ran and ran; and all was black and empty before him. On and on he ran, never daring to look back; and at last he saw a lantern, so far away that it looked like the gleam of a firefly; and he made for it. It proved to be only the lantern of an itinerant soba-seller, who had set down his stand by the road-side; but any light and any human companionship was good after that experience; and he flung himself down at the feet of the old soba-seller, crying out, “Aa! aa!! aa!!!”…
“Kore! Kore!” roughly exclaimed the soba-man. “Here! [W]hat is the matter with you? Anybody hurt you?”
“No, nobody hurt me,” panted the other, “only… Aa! aa!”…
“Only scared you?” queried the peddler, unsympathetically. “Robbers?”
“Not robbers, not robbers,” gasped the terrified man… “I saw… I saw a woman, by the moat; and she showed me… Aa! I cannot tell you what she showed me!”…
“He! Was it anything like THIS that she showed you?” cried the soba-man, stroking his own face which therewith became like unto an Egg… And, simultaneously, the light went out.

(Source and complete passage here. “O-jochû” is a polite form of address for a lady you don’t know.)

One of the other big local names that is famous world-wide for recording creepy stories is Mizuki Shigeru, the manga author of Gegege-no-Kitaro and many other thoroughly researched works. In his hometown in Tottori, Sakaiminato, is home to over a hundred bronze statues featuring Mizuki’s characters and his interpretations of Japan’s varied cast of youkai. This is his take on a nopperabo.

Click for photo source (Japanese)

A notable difference many people bring up between Japanese ghost stories and Western ghost stories is that they are more about creepiness than horror. Ghostly encounters do not necessarily have to spell your doom (though many do), but they are bothersome at some level or another. I can understand the creepiness of mujina/nopperabo as they are so humanlike, but any striking or even only slightly noticeable difference will send off messages in our brains that something is very wrong. If you’re looking for new ways to freak yourself out this Halloween season, search around the internet for things in the Bukimi-no-Tani.

If you’d rather just learn about some interesting tales of creepy things without needing to burn bothersome images into your memory, then read Lafcadio Hearn‘s Kwaidan or any youkai-related work of Mizuki Shigeru. As I was opening WordPress to write this entry I also noticed Cristy at Takeshita Demons had just made a nopperabo reference as well in a recent entry, and Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai is always a good source for youkai talk, too.

As interpreted by Mizuki Shigeru (statue located in Sakaiminato).

Another youkai* that comes from the sea, this one has typically been sighted around the Hirata area of the Shimane Peninsula (now a part of Izumo City).

Not to be confused with a mermaid (a big distinction is made in this part of Japan), she is the hideous half-fish, half-woman “wife of the sea” (or the wife of Umibouzu, a sea monster that has been spotted throughout Japan). She is capable of living on land for several days at a time and even speaks the local dialect, and she walks around carrying her offspring with her. With fish scales all over and long, human-like hair, it is said that she took the form of a women who had drowned in the sea. More specifically, in Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan, she was said to have brought to shore the corpses of fishermen supposedly killed in a storm at sea, and their wives were so distraught that they threw themselves into the sea–only to turn into Uminyoubou themselves. Another story goes that a young boy lost his father when he was very young, and his mother went missing. Years later the boy became a fisherman, and when he went out to sea, an Uminyoubou appeared. She had tears in her eyes and said, “You’ve grown up well.”

In the Izumo sightings, she is said to enter peoples’ houses while they are out, and holding her baby in one hand she uses the other hand to steal and eat salted fish, which she shares with the baby. Apparently she prefers it salted rather than catching it fresh herself.

There was also an account of a man in Uppurui (which would later be a part of Hirata), who returned home early and noticed the Uminyoubou from outside as he approached his house. He peered in and saw her and her baby eating the fish, and she grumbled, “Where is the man? I wanted to eat him first.” Sounds a little like an old mountain lady we know.

* – “Youkai” is a blanket term for a Japanese monster. It may or may not include demons and ghosts, as these have their own terms, but they also get included in the general mix of inhuman creatures who make up much of Japanese folklore and who are responsible for mysterious happenings. Kami (gods) are similar in that they are spirits who influence our daily lives and may be angered or pleased, but while a kami might be considered pure, a youkai would be a more impure, occult creature–many look like deformed humans or objects, and this strangeness can make them quite unsettling. However, that also makes them interesting, and has driven people throughout history to name and classify them.

There are ducks that hang out on Lake Shinji all year long, but there seem to be quite a few in winter. As you can see, it’s a major spot for migratory birds of many varieties–not to mention it has been designated as a wetland of international importance.

I like living so close to the lake–it’s very easy to just wander across the street after work to see the scenery for a few minutes. In nicer weather, we’ll often picnic at the lakeside for lunch–though a few of my friends have had parts of their lunch stolen by the kites (birds of prey, not toys). I wish I had been there to see that!

What do you call a flock of kites? A party? There were two more of them hanging out here, too.

There was a day a few weeks ago when the lake was covered with thousands of birds all at once. I had noticed it while passing by the lake for something for work, and I went by after work to see them again–sure enough, still there, in no hurry. My photos don’t do the scene justice, but it was pleasant to watch for a few minutes.

Since I was taking my time on the way home anyway, I stopped by the Ichibata railroad station at Matsue Shinji-ko Onsen. This hot spring at the northeast bank of Lake Shinji is rich in sulphates and chlorates, and there is a long line of fancy hotels, but for people pressed on time (or money) there is a free foot bath right outside the station.

There’s also a Jizo here to pour some hot water on so he can enjoy the hot springs, too!

When I go to Izumo, I usually take the Ichibata rail road line along the north shore of Lake Shinji, and there are other nice day trips along the way–like ice skating! The rink is located direcly at the northwest shore, next to a nature park, and short walk from a train stop. After a few hours of skating, we were surprised by the very pleasant February weather outside.

The watery fields were reflecting the blue sky, and in the distance we could see a huge crowd of swans.

Much closer, however, a bunch of kites were flying around with each other–and one crow invited himself to the party.

Then the two-car train came. Today it was a Mizuki Shigeru youkai themed train–why hello there, Betobeto-san!

Then we had a forty-minute view of the lake on the way back. This included the sunset, of course–as well as more ducks.

Then there are days when most of the ducks are on the Ohashi River instead of in the middle of the lake. It’s just another part of living in Matsue when a friend calls you up and says, “Hey, are you busy? No? Let’s go watch the sunset.”

Lake Shinji sunset
Which the duck sees every day
Plunk! It takes a dive

Lone as the sun sets
But the sun is alone too
Making quite a pair

Shinji’s depth shrouded
Colored by sunshine fleeting
To the land of clouds

Never parting on
Migration to Matsue
Quack quack quack quack quack

Does Gegege no Kitarou ring any bells for anyone outside of Japan? Here in the San’in region, he’s a very familiar face.

If I had to draw a comparison, then Kitarou is like the Scooby-Doo of Japan. He’s been around for decades as the star of a cartoon filled with ghoulish creatures, has had multiple incarnations over the years, and enjoys a wide audience. However, as far as I know, Scooby can’t shoot his knuckles like missiles. And Scooby probably has more left of his father than just a walking eyeball (that’s not Kitarou’s missing eyeball!). Not to mention Scooby probably doesn’t have a whole city covered in statues and memorabilia of him.

Scooby probably doesn’t have an airport named after him either.

Kitarou’s creator, Mizuki Shigeru, is from the port town of Sakaiminato in Tottori Prefecture. They will find any way to put Kitarou and other youkai (monsters) on anything.

There is more to Sakaiminato than just Kitarou, but a first glance around town would imply it’s just Kitarou. For instance, one of the first places you’ll see after leaving Sakaiminato station is Mizuki Shigeru Road, which has 133 statues of Kitarou, other youkai Mizuki-sensei has compiled research about, characters from other Mizuki series, and Mizuki himself. Almost every business on Mizuki Shigeru Road either is full of Kitarou merchandise or finds some way to incorporate Kitarou into the theme. A normal barber shop is very quickly a youkai barber shop, and a bakery sells bread shaped like Kitarou characters. And because anything goes as long as it has Kitarou, you also find places like this:

Of course no normal item would be acceptable. If it can be made to fit the theme, it will fit the theme! You see these water bottles being sold everywhere, but I only saw this warning once. Even if you can’t read Japanese, you can probably figure it out.

I haven’t actually seen that much of Gegege no Kitarou myself, but I know it well enough to have thoroughly enjoyed visiting. It would have been faster just to take a bus from Matsue, but I took the trains–and even once you get to Yonago station, you know you’re on the right track.

He’s best known for the various versions of the anime “Gegege no Kitarou” but he was the hero of several different related manga Mizuki-sensei wrote (which is not to say he was in every manga!). With a character design consistent but flexible enough to appeal to newer audiences, Kitarou is a classic (although frightening) hero–rather calm and collected, he does his best to beat the bad guys with his set of powers and comrades, and he generally gets along with everyone. Medama-Oyaji–his eyeball father–is also rather popular. Purely because his name means “Rat Man,” I have a soft for Nezumi-Otoko too.

I also learned a lot more about Mizuki-sensei himself, though I had heard the basics a few years back. His introduction, however, merits a separate entry some other time.

Of course, no introduction to Kitarou would be complete without hearing the theme song. Thankfully they’ve retained the same song (just in updated styles) throughout the various Gegege remakes over the years.

And on that note, Happy Halloween!

What is a youkai?
A youkai is a blanket term for a Japanese monster. It may or may not include demons and ghosts, as these have their own terms, but they also get included in the general mix of inhuman creatures who make up much of Japanese folklore and who are responsible for mysterious happenings. Kami (gods) are similar in that they are spirits who influence our daily lives and may be angered or pleased, but while a kami might be considered pure, a youkai would be a more impure, occult creature–many look like deformed humans or objects, and this strangeness can make them quite unsettling. However, that also makes them interesting, and has driven people throughout history to name and classify them.

More recently, Japan has gone off the kawaii deep end, and has a culture of cuteness now. Those youkai have turned into more friendly, amusing creatures with unique characteristics that might interfere or interact with our lives, however innocently or maliciously. In fact, I believe that we wouldn’t have gotten Pokemon if not for Japan’s history of classifying varigated monsters and being driven to collect and organize them–and, more recently, to make them cute.

Mizuki Shigeru, however, has presented youkai in such a way that they are popular and lovable, while still menacingly creepy. He is one of the first manga artists to write about youkai (among other topics), and even in his old age now, he continues researching monsters and spirirts in cultures around the world and writing about them. He is best known as the creator of GeGeGe no Kitarou, which is worth introducing in a separate entry. Mizuki-sensei himself has a very interesting history, and which is worth a seperate entry as well.

For now it will suffice to say that he was born in Sakaiminato, a port town here in the San’in region. When he was very young, he loved spending time with the old, very religious woman who assisted his family. He affectionately referred to her as “Nonnon-baa” (“Religious Granny”). She told him stories about various youkai, including Betobeto-san.

This story originally came from Nara Prefecture, but it seems Betobeto-san (“Mr. Footsteps”) has been heard all over Japan. If you’re walking along at night and you hear the sound of clacking geta sandals, beto beto beto, coming from behind you, it means you’re being followed by this youkai. So long as you stop and politely say, “Betobeto-san, after you!”, it will pass by and leave you alone.