Folklore and legends are found in cultures all around the world, and Japan’s folklore is one of the most unique and prominent. Even companies, artists, and other specialists feature these mysterious stories on their works and products. We’d like to share with you a fascinating art series by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi called “New Forms of 36 Ghosts” to give you a an idea of what Japanese ghost stories and folklore is all about and how that ties into Japanese whisky.

Yoshitoshi was a renowned artist who was born during the Edo Period in Japan and was known to continue working with Japanese traditional artwork methods such as woodblock prints (called ukiyo-e). The ‘New Forms of 36 Ghosts’ exhibits some of the most popular ghost stories in Japan, but the horror, violence, and tragedy associated with these ghost stories have been subdued in Yoshitoshi’s artwork, giving them a mystifying and dark aura.

Yoshitoshi’s “New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts” (Shinkei Sanjurokkaisen)

We’ll be sharing each of Yoshitoshi’s prints here from his last artwork series and the stories that inspired each piece. What you’ll notice about each print and the story behind it is that there’s a hint of human psychology at play, which makes the stories even more interesting to read. If you or someone special to you love folktales and ghost stories from other cultures, be sure to read until the end to find out how you can immortalize these ghost stories with an ultra-rare whisky bottle collection. Here are the first 12 ghosts and the stories behind them:

  1. Sadanobu Threatening a Demon in the Palace at Night

This is a story about a nobleman from the Imperial Palace, Sadanobu, being attacked by a demon. He makes the demon flee by showing that he was going to fight back against it.

  1. The Heron Maiden

One day, a man helps an injured heron and releases it back to the wild once it has been healed completely. Time has passed after this incident, and the man meets a beautiful woman, with whom he falls in love and marries. To support themselves financially, the woman makes exquisite and special fabric and the husband sells the fabric. However, the maiden told her husband that he must never look at her when she’s weaving. With such a strange and mysterious warning from his wife, the man eventually breaks this cardinal rule between them and discovers that his wife can turn into a heron. Because he has seen her, she leaves him and flies away with other herons.

  1. Takeda Katsuchiyo Killing an Old Badger in the Moonlight

Takeda Katsuchiyo’s horse is possessed by the spirit of the Old Badger. Seeing through the deception, Takeda attacks his horse to release the Old Badger’s spirit from the body. The Old Badger wails in pain and shows that Takeda has successfully defeated the badger “in the moonlight.” This dramatic scene is featured in this specific woodblock print and shows Takeda striking his horse with his sword, which results in his horse collapsing.

  1. The Old Woman Retrieving Her Arm

A lieutenant and a demon named Ibaraki battle near the Rashomon Bridge in Kyoto, and the young man cuts off the demon’s arm. A Shinto priest tells the lieutenant to hide the demon’s arm away and never let anyone see it. The man’s aunt suddenly visits and she asks to see the arm after hearing about her nephew’s success defeating a demon. Although warned by the priest, the man shows his aunt the arm. But his aunt is revealed to be Ibaraki the demon. She grabs the arm and flees away.

  1. Omori Notices a Demon

Omori, a samurai, is asked by a beautiful young woman to carry her across the stream to the other side. Omori helps the woman, but, as he’s crossing the stream, he sees her true form in the reflection of the water and discovers that she’s a demon. Before she can kill him, Omori strikes the demon down with her sword.

  1. The Ghost of Seigen Haunting Sakurahime

Sakurahime (“Cherry Blossom Princess”) was a famous courtesan in Kyoto and fell in love with a young monk named Seigen from the Kiyomizu Temple. They both ran away and left their positions to live together. But one of Sakurahime’s servants killed Seigen, and this piece shows Seigen’s spirit appearing in the smoke from the burning coals and coiling affectionately around Sakurahime’s body.

  1. The Spirit of the Komachi Cherry Tree

A man wants to build a shrine and use the wood from the Komachi Cherry Tree. A spirit guards the tree and transforms into a gorgeous young courtesan, but she’s levitating above the ground and doesn’t need legs. The man does not notice this; instead, he boasts about his plans to the disguised spirit and tells the courtesan he wants to chop down the tree for its wood. The courtesan transforms into a tree branch and whacks the man before he can use his axe to cut down the tree.

  1. Oniwaka Observing the Great Carp in the Pool

In this Japanese folktale, a young boy named Oniwaka faces a monster carp that ate his mother and seeks revenge. He has a dagger hidden behind him and prepares to strike at the right moment. Once he kills the carp, he finds his mother’s remains in the carp’s belly.

  1. The Ghost of Wicked Genta Yoshihira Attacking Namba Jiro at Nunobiki Waterfall

Genta Yoshihira was a warrior who was killed by Namba Jiro. Yoshihira has turned into a thunder god and strikes Namba Jiro with a thunderbolt, killing Namba in the process to avenge himself.

  1. Kiyohime Changing into a Serpent at Hidaka River

Kiyohime was the daughter of an innkeeper and fell in love with a monk named Anchin who visited her father’s in every year for his pilgrimages. One day, Kiyohime passionately confesses her love to Anchin, but he rejects her and flees to his monastery. Kiyohime pursues the monk and sees him across the Hidaka River. Because of her strong emotions for Anchin, she transforms into a serpent to cross the river. Anchin sees her and fears for his life, hiding under a large bronze bell. Kiyohime becomes infuriated and wraps her serpent body around the bell. Her fury and passionate love melts the bell and kills both herself and the monk.

  1. Gamo Sadahide’s Servant, Toki Motosada, Hurling a Demon King to the Ground at Mount Inohana

Toki Motosada, an officer who worked for Gamo Sadahide, goes to an old temple after hearing rumors about ghosts haunting the place. He discovers that many spirits are wreaking havoc in the temple. In response, Toki grabs the largest spirit he sees and kills it, which causes the other spirits to flee the temple. This piece shows a Buddha statue smiling down on the action scene between Toki and the Demon King.

  1. The Enlightenment of Jigoku-dayu (“Hell Courtesan” or “Lady of Hell”)

Jigoku-dayu was a courtesan from Takasu who was adopted by a priest. The priest helped her lead a religious life and provided her with education. Back in the age where courtesans flocked the streets, “jigoku” was the name given to the lowest ranking prostitute, while “dayu” is a name of respect for the highest ranking courtesan. The Jigoku-dayu is shown here with a parade of skeletons surrounding her, giving this print a haunting aura.

 

The Karuizawa Ghost Whisky Collection

Karuizawa Distillery is a closed distillery that was once popular in Japan. But the legend of Karuizawa continues to live on even in these times. Karuizawa has produced a number of whisky collection that are unique and rare, both in the labeling and the whisky hiding in each bottle.

Several Japanese whisky companies and distilleries have used famous artworks for their labels, and Karuizawa has borrowed Yoshitoshi’s “New Forms of 36 Ghosts” for their Ghost Series whisky collection. Here at Dekanta, we have an exclusive 7-bottle collection of the Karuizawa Ghost Series, and each bottle features Yoshitoshi’s famous ghost prints. The prints chosen for these bottles are:

  • The Ghost of Seigen Haunting Sakurahime
  • Kiyohime Changing into a Serpent at Hidaka River
  • Oniwaka Observing the Great Carp in the Pool
  • The Enlightenment of Jigoku-dayu
  • The Ghost of Taira no Tomomori Appearing at Daimotsu Bay
  • The Lucky Tea Kettle of Morin Temple
  • The Yotsuya Ghost Story

Be sure to check out the Karuizawa Ghost Series 7 Bottles for more information and to get a close-up look at Yoshitoshi’s masterpieces on these exquisite whisky bottles.  

Keep an eye out for Parts Two and Three of the Yoshitoshi “New Forms of 36 Ghosts” blog posts for more Japanese ghost stories!

Emily