A Japanophile who has survived 15 solo trips to Japan. Ced's visits focus on discovering the country’s lesser-known attractions.
You might feel these Japanese folklore stories are just old wives’ tales. But knowing who Momotarō the Peach Boy is or why the Snow Woman is terrifying will spice up your Japanese holiday in more ways than one.
1. Momotarō (桃太郎)
Hands-down the most famous and beloved hero in Japanese folktales, Momotarō means “peach eldest son” in Japanese and refers to the hero’s mythical birth from a peach.
Said peach was found by an elderly, childless woman while washing clothes at a stream. When her husband split the fruit, a healthy boy jumped out from within. Overjoyed, the couple considered the child a gift from heaven, named him Momotarō, and raised him as their own.
Years later, a teenage Momotarō embarked on a perilous journey to a distant island to combat demon brigands. During this expedition, he recruited a grand army, one that consisted of a talking dog, a monkey, and a pheasant. Together with his faithful retainers, Momotarō defeated the demons and returned home with many riches. His family, him, and his animal friends thereafter lived in great comfort and fame.
Notes and Tourist Attractions Associated With Momotarō
- This quirky Japanese folklore story originated from the Okayama region. Today, Momotarō is the informal tourist mascot for Okayama City, often found on souvenirs and gifts.
- The island of the demons is said to be Megijima, a small isle near Takamatsu located across the Seto Inland Sea from Okayama City.
- 3. Momotarō is one of the most frequently depicted or referenced mythological heroes in Japanese popular media. He has appeared in games, Manga, Anime, etc. He is often also described as a role model in Japanese children’s books.
- In some versions of this popular folktale, Momotarō’s parents gave him a stick of three kibi-dango before he left home. The young hero subsequently used these sticky sweets to recruit the dog, monkey, and pheasant. Expectedly, kibi-dango is nowadays a popular souvenir/snack in Okayama Prefecture.
2. Urashima Tarō (浦島太郎)
The sad and strange Japanese fairy tale of Urashima Tarō involves a young fisherman who saved a giant sea turtle from bullying by children.
Out of gratitude, the turtle, which could speak, ferried Tarō to Ryugu, the mythical underwater dragon palace. There, the young fisherman was warmly received by Otohime, the beautiful princess of the court. For a short while, the young fisherman also lived in great luxury.
Eventually, however, Tarō tired of the opulence and yearned to return home to his family. As a parting gift, Otohime gave Tarō a jeweled box, at the same time warning Tarō to never open the box no matter the circumstance.
Once back at his village, Tarō was shocked to discover everything had changed. Not only did he recognize no one, even the structures in his village were different. After speaking to some strangers, Tarō deduced to his horror that decades had passed since his departure, which Tarō thought was but a few days ago. His parents and other family members had long since died.
Distraught, Tarō forgot Otohime’s warning and opened the parting gift. A cloud of white smoke then emerged, completely engulfing the young fisherman. After the smoke dissipated, Tarō was transformed into a white-haired elderly man.
Notes and Tourist Attractions Associated With Urashima Tarō
- It is generally believed that the box, known as tamatebako in Japanese, contained Tarō’s age. Time passes differently in the dragon palace. The days Tarō spent there equated to years in the mortal world.
- The tragic tale of Urashima Tarō is one of the oldest Japanese folklore stories, circulated as early as the fifth century. As is often the case with such stories, there are numerous versions of the story.
- While the enigmatic folktale itself is seldom referenced in whole on tourist souvenirs, the dragon palace and Otohime are occasionally used as design motifs on souvenir packagings. Tarō himself has appeared in video games and Anime too.
- The supposed spirit of the young fisherman is enshrined at the rather remote Urashima Shrine in northern Kyoto province. There is a statue of him at the shrine. There is also one of Otohime.
- Kagoshima Prefecture, at the southern tip of Japan, is said to be Tarō’s birthplace. The Ryugu Shrine at Ibutsuki, just outside of Kagoshima City, contains beautifully lacquered structures inspired by descriptions of the dragon palace.
- What is the moral of this tragic Japanese folktale? If any at all? Opinions greatly differ.
3. Okiku (お菊)
The ghastly tale of Okiku and the ten plates is one of the most well-known Japanese ghost stories. One that’s laden with elements of social commentary and karmic retribution too.
In the most popular folk version, a servant girl named Okiku worked for a tyrannical samurai named Aoyama Tessan. Frustrated by Okiku’s repeated rejection of his sexual advances, Aoyama framed Okiku for the loss of a precious plate, one of a set of ten. Terrified and frenzied, Okiku then repeatedly counted the remaining plates, naturally always ending with no more than nine.
Still unaware of what was happening, she next unwisely rejected Aoyama’s amorous advances again. Furious, the samurai had the young servant thrown into a well.
Aoyama soon suffered his due comeuppance, though. After death, Okiku transformed into a vengeful Japanese spirit and obsessively recounted the plates every night. Whenever she reached the missing tenth plate, she would also shriek hideously in fear and frustration.
How the story ends then depends on which version one is reading. In one, Okiku’s spirit was appeased by a priest. In another, Aoyama was driven mad and committed suicide.
In yet another version, Okiku’s spirit was finally put to rest, after someone yelled “ten” before she hollered.
Notes and Tourist Attractions Associated With Okiku
- Like many other famous Japanese folklore stories, there are several versions of this folktale today. A significantly different version took place at Himeji Castle and in that version, Okiku was the hapless victim of a political ploy. (The part about the ten dishes remains unchanged) Today, there is a well in Himeji Castle said to be the one Okiku was thrown into.
- Another version written by Kido Okamoto depicted Okiku as far less innocent. In that version, she was a servant in love with Aoyama, with the samurai refusing to marry her because of a more profitable marriage proposal. As a test of love, Okiku broke the tenth plate.
- Okiku’s tragic story was supposedly the inspiration for the famous Japanese horror movie series, The Ring. In other words, Okiku was the "prototype" for J-Horror's most notorious killer ghost, Sadako.
4. Yuki-Onna (雪女)
Yuki-Onna translates to “snow woman” in English and refers to a pale demoness who freezes her victims to death with an icy breath. Within Japan, Yokai stories involving this awful creature long existed tii. Today, the most famous story of the Yuki-Onna is the rewritten version by 19th-century writer, Lafcadio Hearn.
In Hearn’s version, two woodcutters, one elderly and one young, had the misfortune of encountering a Yuki-Onna while trapped in the woods by a snowstorm. While the older woodcutter was frozen to death by the demoness, the young one, Minokichi, was spared. Before leaving, the Yuki-Onna also warned Minokichi to never tell anybody about the encounter. Should he do so, she would surely return to kill him.
Years later, Minokichi is happily married to a beautiful wife named Oyuki. Not only was Oyuki a caring mother and a devoted wife, she also mysteriously did not age, retaining her youthful looks year after year.
One evening, while their children were asleep, Minokichi thoughtlessly revealed his encounter with the Yuki-Onna, musing whether it was all a dream or a genuine brush with death. Upon him completing his tale, Oyuki stood up and revealed her true form; she was the same Yuki-Onna from that fateful evening. After reminding Minokichi about her previous threat, she also made as if to kill him but ultimately spared his life for the sake of their children. Thereafter she vanished. Minokichi never saw her again.
Notes and Tourist Attractions Associated With Yuki-Onna
- The most common illustration of the Yuki-Onna is that of a pale but beautiful young woman. One wearing a white, blue, or silver kimono.
- Given her murderous nature, you are unlikely to see the Yuki-Onna portrayed in a positive light during your Japanese holiday. However, she often appears in Manga, Anime, and video games. In hobbyist areas like Akihabara, you might also encounter posters or figurines of her.
- At the snowy landscapes of Hida and Niigata, etc, it is not at all hard to imagine such a fearsome demoness lurking amidst the snow.
- Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn is internationally famous for his compilations of traditional Japanese folklore stories. He spent his later life in Japan, married to a Japanese woman too. Today, his home and memorial museum are among the top attractions of Matsue City.
- Hearn is also known as Koizumi Yakumo in Japan. “Yakumo” is nowadays the Japan Railways limited express service that commutes between Matsue and Okayama City.
- In 1964, Masaki Kobayashi adapted four tales from Hearn’s Kwaidan into a horror anthology movie of the same name. Yuki-Onna was one of the tales.
5. Minamoto no Yorimitsu (源頼光)
Like other civilizations with over 1,000 years of history, Japanese mythology and legends are full of mythical heroes and warriors, one of which was Minamoto no Yorimitsu.
A renowned samurai and military commander who served the Fujiwara Regents during the Heian Period, Yorimitsu is today associated with several Japanese folktales and legends. He was also famously assisted by four mighty retainers. This quartet is collectively referred to in Japan as the Shitennō, or Four Guardian Kings.
As for the most famous legend associated with him, Yorimitsu is widely “celebrated” for slaying the ogre Shuten-dōji (酒呑童子) with his mythical sword, Doujikiri Yasutsna.
During the reign of Emperor Ichijō, Heian-kyō (Kyoto) was besieged by a monstrous ogre. The ogre not only kidnapped many women to be his servants—often, he also killed without warning and ate the flesh of his victims.
Under the Emperor’s orders, Yorimitsu and his retainers journeyed into the mountains surrounding Heian-kyō and managed to fool the ogre into giving them lodging. After discovering the ogre’s fondness for rice wine, Yorimitsu incapacitated the monster by offering him copious amounts of the drink.
With his retainers holding down Shuten-dōji, Yorimitsu then decapitated the wicked monster with his mighty sword. However, the lopped-off head of the ogre continued to bite, determined to bring Yorimitsu down with him. The mighty samurai thus would have died, had his retainers not feverishly assisted. For example, by giving their helmets to Yorimitsu.
Notes and Tourist Attractions Associated With Minamoto no Yorimitsu
- The phrase “Shuten” literally means alcohol-drinking in Japanese. In most versions of the folktale, the wine used by Yorimitsu was a gift from the gods.
- The Karatsu Kunchi festival in Karatsu, Kyūshū, features hikiyama floats, one of which is helmet-shaped and inspired by Yorimitsu’s expedition. Supposedly, Shuten-dōji’s head continued to snap at Yorimitsu after decapitation. Yorimitsu survived by donning the helmets of his retainers.
- Shuten-dōji’s lair is generally believed to be Mount Ibuki on the outskirts of Kyoto. Some versions of this folklore story claim that Shuten-dōji was displaced from his original dwelling in the mountains by the construction of Enryaku-ji on Mount Hiei. Both Mount Ibuki and Enryaku-ji are popular travel destinations today.
- The sword used by Yorimitsu to decapitate Shuten-dōji was renamed as Dōjikiri (童子切). The name literally means Demonic Offspring/Ogre Slasher.
- Other than the ogre, Yorimitsu and his retainers are also famous for the slaying of the tsuchigumo. The “earth spider” was a monstrous tarantula that attempted to assassinate Yorimitsu.
6. Kintarō (金太郎)
There are different stories about Kintarō’s origin.
Some say the “golden boy” was the son of a samurai, raised by his mother in a forest after she fled there with him to escape family feuds.
Others claim Kintarō was abandoned in the forest by his mother and subsequently raised by a mountain witch.
Regardless of origin, Kintarō grew up into a healthy and bossy boy gifted with supernatural strength and the ability to converse with animals. Today, the most common depiction of Kintarō is that of a chubby boy wearing only a bib, one that’s adorned by the Japanese kanji character for gold. The boy almost always wields a hatchet and grips a carp too.
In adulthood, Kintarō further achieved fame by becoming one of the four legendary retainers of Minamoto no Yorimitsu (see above). He also changed his name to Sakata no Kintoki. Together with Yorimitsu and the other retainers, the adult Kintarō then vanquished various mythical threats. His name thereafter became permanently associated with valor and strength in Japanese culture.
Notes and Tourist Attractions Associated With Kintarō
- In Japan, Kintarō is regarded as the personification of healthy boyhood. Many Japanese families put up a Kintarō Doll on Boy’s Day (nowadays known as Children’s Day). Such dolls are widely sold as tourist souvenirs too.
- Kintarō, as expected, has appeared in many Manga, Anime, and video games. The protagonist of the hit Anime series, Gintama, is loosely named after Kintarō’s adult name.
- As one of the most beloved heroes in Japanese folklore stories, Kintarō was a very popular subject in Edo-Period Ukiyo paintings. Replicas of such paintings are widely sold as tourist souvenirs.
- Of note, Kintarō is often shown wielding a hatchet as he was supposedly given one by his mother to assist local woodcutters. The carp he grips is actually a buddy of his too.
- Kintarō is said to be quite fond of sumo wrestling with his animal buddies too. These opponents include the huge carp he is usually shown with.
7. Kaguya-Hime (かぐや姫)
Much like the story of Momotarō, Kaguya-Hime was found by a childless woodcutter within a mysterious shining stalk of bamboo. After she grew up, she was renowned throughout Japan for her extraordinary beauty. At the same time, the woodcutter also became incredibly wealthy as he regularly found gold within bamboo stalks after adopting Kaguya-Hime.
In time, Kaguya-Hime’s beauty became so famous, she was repeatedly approached by aristocrats for marriage. However, the beauty either flatly turned down the proposals or sent away the suitors by requesting impossible gifts.
Eventually, the unearthly beauty even revealed that she was not of our world and must one day return to the moon, her true home. True to her claim, she was then retrieved by an entourage of heavenly guards. After her ascension, all that’s left of her were a few handwritten notes, her robe, and the remnants of the elixir of immortality she ingested before departing.
Notes and Tourist Attractions Associated With Kaguya-Hime
- The Japanese Emperor also courted Kaguya-Hime. It was while declining his marriage proposal that Kaguya-Hime revealed she was from the moon.
- Though dejected, the Japanese Emperor was not offended and remained in contact with Kaguya-Hime. Because of this friendship, Kaguya-Hime left the Emperor a personal note and a little of the elixir of immortality she ingested. However, the heartbroken Emperor refused to ingest the elixir and ordered it and the beauty’s final letter to be burnt atop Japan’s highest mountain. This supposedly gave birth to the modern name of Mount Fuji, Japan's most famous volcano. Fuji is homonymous with the Japanese characters for “undying.”
- A lovely mural of Kaguya-Hime can be seen at Shin-Fuji Shinkansen Station. On clear days, Mount Fuji is fully visible from the station too.
- It is unclear why Kaguya-Hime was sent to live in out world. Some versions state she was temporarily exiled for an offense. Others claim she was fleeing from lunar civil conflict.
- In Japanese mythology, the goddess of Mount Fuji is Konohanasakuya-Hime (木花咲耶姫), the Shinto Goddess of Volcanoes. The goddess is, however, separate and distinct from Kaguya-Hime.
- Despite her backstory, Kaguya-Hime is also not regarded as the Japanese Goddess of the Moon. That epithet belongs to the mysterious Shinto God, Tsukiyomi.
- The trope of childless couples discovering supernatural children in the wilderness is a key feature of many Japanese folklore stories.
© 2018 Ced Yong