KYOTO >> A variety of yokai monsters used to hold nocturnal parades through what is now the neighborhood of the Taishogun shopping district in Kyoto — or so legends from the Heian period (794-1192) tell us. Local shop owners have taken advantage of this eerie occurrence in a bid to boost the community.
During a visit to the shopping district in May, this reporter was greeted by many yokai-inspired objects, which looked more humorous than scary. Other visitors enjoyed a photo safari, snapping pictures of “monsters” whenever they encountered statues of them in front of shops.
A kimono store set up an object in the shape of Neko Musume, a cat girl clad in yukata summer kimono, while a tea shop had a doll depicting Nurarihyon, a creature with a wizened face, with a teacup on a tray. A sign at an intersection carried the warning “Watch for cars!” along with an illustration of Tofu Kozo, a monster in the form of a boy carrying tofu on a tray.
About 20 yokai figures, many made of foam polystyrene, greeted customers in front of shops.
A rest area also had many monster-shaped objects and masks on display.
“It’s fun looking for what yokai can be found and where they are,” said Masaaki Yoshida, 55, a public servant who was visiting the shopping district from Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.
Wojtek Roman, 62, a visitor from Poland, took an interest in an object depicting a tengu, a creature with an extraordinarily long nose.
“It looks similar to people in the West, rather than the Japanese,” he said. “I find there’re many types of yokai.”
There are about 30 shops in the Taishogun shopping district, which occupies about 1,640 feet of Ichijo-dori, a street that runs east and west through the ancient capital. Since 2005, local merchants have been promoting the shopping district by dubbing it “Ichijo Yokai Street” in honor of local yokai legends.
They realized they had to take some action as an increasing number of shops were closing, mainly due to new supermarkets drawing customers away.
Ichijo-dori, which marked the northern edge of Kyoto when it served as the capital, is home to many accounts of yokai sightings. For example, a set of picture scrolls said to have been drawn in the Muromachi period (1336-1573) depict how everyday items that had been discarded transformed themselves into yokai beings called tsukumogami because of a grudge they held against human beings and paraded at night on the Ichijo-dori street.
The “Konjaku Monogatari” collection of short tales, compiled in the closing years of the Heian period, includes a story about a samurai who encountered the yokai parade on a bridge over Horikawa river, which is nearly a mile east of the Taishogun shopping district.
When the yokai initiative was launched, no one in the shopping district had extensive knowledge of such creatures. However, the project was eventually offered a helping hand from local yokai-loving students who learned of it by word of mouth.
These students played a leading role in launching a parade in October 2005 in which participants walked on the Ichijo-dori street in yokai costumes.
Over the past decade, the shopping district has also held a flea market focusing on monster figures, with Daishogun Hachi Jinja shrine, which faces the street, as its main venue.
The yokai parade, held in October every year, has become famous among yokai fans via social media and many take advantage of the opportunity to transform into their favorite creatures.
Initially the parade had 40 participants but October’s parade had swelled to 140. The flea market, held about four times a year, has become a popular event, attracting about 1,000 visitors.
Junya Kono, a lecturer at Kyoto Saga University of Arts, has been helping the Taishogun shopping district since his days as a graduate student.
“Yokai have many charms; they’re sometimes scary but also humorous,” said the 36-year-old, himself a fan of “GeGeGe no Kitaro” and other yokai-themed works by manga artist Shigeru Mizuki. “It’s so rewarding that I can help boost the community by showcasing my favorite yokai.”
Kono has also formed a group called Hyakuyobako (Box of 100 yokai) with students and graduates of the university. The group opened a specialty shop called Hyakuyodo in April, borrowing a space along the street.
Some residents initially were reluctant to use yokai to boost the community because they thought the creatures too weird.
The negative views lost momentum as visitors to the shopping district increased.
“We get good responses from visitors, which has helped me feel affectionate toward yokai now,” said kimono shop owner Kiyoshi Yoshida, 71.
Now some stores offer monster-inspired items, such as ramen and croquettes.
“When it comes to Kyoto, many think of shrines and temples, or maiko apprentice geiko (geisha),” said Akira Inoue, 67, head of an association for local shops. “However, we aim to make yokai a new part of local tourism.”