You are walking alone, late at night. You see a pretty girl from behind. But when she turns, the girl has no face. Only a smile filled with blackened teeth. This is the frightening yokai called Ohaguro Bettari.
Tradition of Blackened Teeth
The name “Ohaguro” refers to the practice of dyeing one’s teeth black, which was popular in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868). The process of dyeing teeth black involved applying a special mixture of vinegar, iron filings, and other ingredients to the teeth. The mixture would turn the teeth black over time, and the process needed to be repeated every few days to maintain the color.
The custom was also associated with the idea of “mibae,” which means “to show one’s maturity.” Married women who did not dye their teeth black were considered immature and not yet ready for marriage.
Suddenly a Smile
The tradition of “Ohaguro” explains the black teeth and “Bettari” means “appearing suddenly” or “appearing out of nowhere.” This yokai will be drawn to anyone walking alone at night.
The creature takes the form of a beautiful young woman wearing a kimono. She hides her face and asks the person if she looks beautiful. If the person says no, she will disappear. If the person says yes, she will follow them for the rest of the night.
A closer look reveals a shocking creature. The Ohaguro Bettari has no facial features, save its smile — a mouth filled with black teeth. She will laugh at your fear and surprise (and this is perhaps the reason for the yokai’s trickery).
The lesson here: stay clear of pretty woman late at night.
To the Western mind, images of ghosts and the supernatural conjures up amorphous spirits or tall creepy slender men. But in Japan, the supernatural takes a hilarious and often creepy twist. The word Yokai can be translated as monster, demon, spirit, or goblin and the come in many strange and bizarre forms. Yet, perhaps none more peculiar than the Shirime or eyeball butt yokai.
It’s Looking at You
The word “shirime” translates literally to “butt eye” but it also has the meaning of a “backward glance”, which is quite literal to how this yokai looks at you. The shirime has the body of a man or woman, but instead of a face, it has a single large eyeball where its butthole should be. Other meanings for “shirime” have qualities of distress, which seems to be the motivation for this prankster creature.
A Supernatural Flasher
The shirime approaches you looking, in all respects, like a normal person. It wears a kimono and asks you for a moment to spare. Once it has your attention, the kimono drops away. You see that this person has no facial features. It bends over, spreading its butt cheeks, to reveal a single eyeball, shining like lightning.
And that’s it. It doesn’t do anything else to you. Shock seems to be this creature’s only purpose.
Little is known about this yokai. A Japanese poet, Yosa no Buson, wrote the first and only encounter with this supernatural being. Some believe that shirime’s true form is just an animal, shapeshifting into a disturbing form in order to play a practical joke on us humans.
Sometimes ghosts are missing body parts. Headless specters abound (looking at you Nearly-Headless Nick). There are even ghosts with several arms or legs. Yet in Japan, we have a ghost who is only a foot. A giant ghostly foot that desires you to clean it — the Ashiarai Yashiki.
Nocturnal Foot Washing
The Ashiarai Yashiki appeared suddenly in front of the door of a house. The occupants heard a booming voice shout out:
“WAAAASH MY FOOOOT!”
The ceiling splintered as a gigantic foot smashed though. This massive foot was covered in bristly thick hair and terribly filthy.
If the people refused to wash the foot, the yokai would stomp around, causing earthquakes and other natural disasters until its demands were met.
A Deceased Merchant
According to some variations of the legend, the Ashiarai Yashiki is actually the spirit of a wealthy merchant who was so obsessed with cleanliness, he would force his servants to wash his feet every night. When he died, his spirit was unable to rest and took on the form of the giant foot, continuing to demand that people wash it.
Maybe You’re Guilty of Something
The Ashiarai Yashiki could also be a play on words. In ancient times, “to wash one’s feet” meant to be cleared of crimes and allegations. This would suggest that a visitation by the Ashiarai Yashiki meant the occupant was guilty of some crime. The yokai came to punish the criminal for their misdeeds.
In “The Last of Us,” the fungal disease that turns people into “infected” creatures is based on a real-life fungus called Cordyceps that infects insects and controls their behavior. Science fiction? Hell yes. But it’s based on real science. Turns out mushrooms might have a consciousness despite having no nervous system. So the question is: how well can fungus think?
Some experts argue that fungi may have a form of consciousness that rivals that of animals or humans. It all boils down to the mycelia. Mycelia are thread-like structures that make up the vegetative part of fungi. They range in size from just a few cells to several acres.
Mycelium in fungi collects intelligence and transmits it to anything they’re connected to — information about how to survive and fight disease, warnings of nearby dangers, and also ways to raise a host plant’s defenses.
In “The Last of Us,” merely, stepping on an active filament from the fungus can trigger the fungal zombies from much further away to activate and attack them.
Different Levels of Consciousness
Most of us are so hardwired to think of humans with brains as the only things that have a consciousness. Yet if we consider consciousness a continuum, then this opens up the possibility for less complex organisms to have self-awareness.
I’m not suggesting that mushrooms lead rich, emotional lives. Yet fungal mycelia resemble neural pathways and can span vast distances, creating a web of communication and cooperation that shapes entire ecosystems.
Fungi does support a rudimentary level of consciousness. Mycelia show decision-making capabilities, such as spatial recognition, learning, and short-term memory.
Cordyceps, the culprit for the apocalyptic situation in “The Last of Us,” exhibits complex and highly adaptive behaviors that allows it to manipulate its host and ensure its own survival.
Cordyceps is based on a real world fungus that infects insects. One species of Cordyceps causes infected ants to climb to the top of a plant and attach themselves to a leaf, where they eventually die and release spores that can infect other ants.
In “The Last of Us,” the fungus is portrayed as having a sort of hive mind, with infected individuals acting as part of a larger organism, seeking to spread the infection to new hosts.
Perhaps we have already been infected by such a fungus, and they continue to keep us alive and breathing to propagate their own species.
In the West, we think of ghosts as spirits to haunt old and dilapidated places. The kinds of specters that make our blood run cold and serve to scare the wits out of us. Yet across Easter Asia, the concept of a hungry ghosts emerged — these hungry ghost are forced to wander to earth, eternally wanting.
The Japanese call these ghosts Gaki (literally meaning “hungry ghost”) but they also go under the name Preta from Buddhist cosmology. These are the spirits of people who were exceptionally greedy in life. Most of the tales about how Gaki are created originate with a person refusing to give a Buddhist monk food or water.
A commonality with all hungry ghosts is their insatiable need to eat. Yet most of the time they are unable to consume food. For some it’s impossible to find nourishment. With others, their mouths or necks are too small to eat the food. And for some, the food bursts into flames even as they consume it.
Feeding the Hungry Ghosts
The Buddhist cosmology has six realms of existence and rebirth. The realm of Gakidō is the land of hungry spirits. It’s a barren land filled with deserts. A person who is cursed to become a Gaki is trapped there for 500 years (A single day for a hungry ghost is equivalent to 10 of our years). Yet the living can perform a ritual to ease the cravings of these restless spirits.
A special Buddhist ceremony, called the Segaki (feeding the hungry ghosts) is performed as part of the O-Bon festival in July or August (and feels a bit like the Western All Hallows’ Eve). Offerings of rice and water are presented on altars positioned out of sight of any Buddha statues.
The 36 Types of Hungry Ghosts
Gaki come in all shapes and sizes. Many of the sites simply give a brief example of a few, but we’ll list the whole shebang here. If you want a more detailed explanation, you can read Sūtra of the Foundations of Mindfulness of the True Law. Presented here are the first 16 of these ghosts. The remainder will come in the next post.
1 Cauldron-Body Ghosts
These Gaki are twice the size of a human and they can never find food. These ghosts are plagued by fire. In life, they were greedy and refused to return items to their rightful owners.
2 Needle-Mouth Ghosts
These spirits have throats only as wide as a needle. Even when they find food, they cannot consume it. In life, these people were rich but pretended to be poor to avoid giving to charity.
3 Vomit-Eating Ghosts
Ghosts of this sort prefer to scarf up vomit. Although harmless, they may follow around an alcoholic and seek to influence that person to drink more, in order to produce more vomit. In life, these people only shared “inferior” or lower-quality food with others while keeping the most delicious eats for themselves.
4 Excrement-Eating Ghosts
These Gaki prefer to dine on excrement and frequent dirty toilets. If you enter a bathroom and feel like someone is watching you, it might be this spirit. In life, they offered spoiled food to charity or to holy people.
5 Foodless Ghosts
These should really be called thirst-ghosts. They roam the countryside in search of water to quench the raging flames in their stomachs. In life, these people starved others to death. They can also be people who abused their power over others (as in jailers abusing prisoners).
6 Odor-Eating Ghosts
Ghosts in this category feed off the smell of food offered to deities. In life, these people didn’t share the best foods with their spouse or family members.
7 Dharma-Eating Ghosts
These repulsive ghosts are bony and emancipated, with protruding veins along their body. Insects swarm around them, slowly nibbling away. Their only sustenance is to hear monks at the temple teaching Dharma. They tend to cluster around temples anytime there is a Dharma talk. In life, they spread false teaching of Dharma.
8 Water-Eating Ghosts
These Gaki have desiccated and brittle bodies. They live near drains or rivers and slurp up water, but with their dry, withered bodies make it hard to hydrate. They can only swallow small droplets of water at a time because they try to grab it with their hands and it slips through their fingers. In life, these people were brewers of alcohol, but they tampered with their product by adding worms or insects.
9 Living-On-Hope Ghosts
These spirits are extremely hairy with deep wrinkles on their faces. The can only consume offerings made by mourners to honor deceased parents. THey frequent funerals. In life, these people profited off the misfortune of others by selling goods at inflated prices.
10 Spittle-Eating Ghosts
These Gaki hunger for human spit and they follow those who spit often. In life, they offered impure food to monks.
11 Garland-Eating Ghosts
These ghosts can appear in dreams to scare people. They crave offerings intended for Buddha or monks. However, once they have these offerings in hand, the garland attached itself to the ghost to torment it. In life, these people were caught stealing from religious places.
12 Blood-Eating Ghosts
These Gaki are attracted to blood. They will influence the mind of a victim to self-inflict wounds in order to draw blood.
Another type of ghost with supernatural power. They are attracted by blood and blood sacrifice. Some people mistaken them as gods and make blood offerings to them and pray to them for material gains.
13 Flesh-Eating Ghosts
These ghosts feed on various meat offerings, preferring raw meat to blood. In life, these people were butchers who took advantage of customers by short selling meat.
14 Fragrance-Eating Ghosts
Gaki of this sort yearn for incense and sweet smells. They have the ability to fool people into worshiping them in order that someone will burn incense. In life, they sold low-quality incense at high prices.
15 Harmful-Conduct Ghosts
These ghosts feed off the wicked deeds of unsavory people. They delight in epidemics and death, often traveling thousands of miles in seconds to find a meal. In life, they encouraged people to donate to the poor, but kept the donations for themselves.
16 Looking-For-The-Right-Opportunity Ghosts
These ghosts have hairy bodies and are always surrounded by flames. They feed off the negative energy generated from weak-willed people — a sort of energy vampire. Meditation and chanting can strengthen the mind and thus fend off these ghosts. Instead of a former human life, these spirits are yakṣa, a nature-spirits.
The next post will show the rest of the hungry ghosts. Until then, be virtuous, lest you end up as a Gaki in the afterlife.