Ushioni (牛鬼)

Ushioni (cow demon), or gyuki, is a specter orally handed down in western Japan. It is believed to appear mainly on the coast and attack people walking along the beach.


It has quite a cruel and fierce character, spatters poison from its mouth, and likes to kill people by biting them.

According to legend, it had a head of the cow and a body of the demon from the neck down. Sometimes, it had a reverse appearance: a head of the demon and a body of the cow. Another legend says it had a head of the cow and a body of the spider. There is also a legend that says it frequently appeared in front of the gates of temples in the mountainous regions in the shape of a head of the cow and a body in kimono. It is also said, in legend, to have come flying from the sky with a head of the cow and wings of the insect.

It is also believed to appear in the mountainous regions, woods, groves, rivers, swamps, and lakes, as well as on the beaches. It often appears particularly around deep waters, so there remain many place-names such as 'Ushioni-buchi' (Ushioni-buchi abyss, or Ushioni-buchi deep pond) or 'Ushioni-daki' (Ushioni-daki falls) in the Kinki and Shikoku regions, where legends about Ushioni may have existed.

Legends in various regions

Wakayama Prefecture

Ushioni-buchi in Nishimuro County, Wakayama Prefecture, whose bottom was believed to have been connected to the sea, was said, "Ushioni is in it," when the water color became muddy. This Ushioni was believed to have made people suffer from a disease if people just came across it, or bitten people to death by licking their shadows off. When people were in such a situation, they believed that saying things the other way around, such as the following, would save their lives: "Stones flow, leaves sink, cows whisper, and horses bark." Also, this Ushioni was said to have had a body like a cat and a tail as long as about 3.3 meter and walked without making any sounds because its body was soft like a ball. It is also said that because Ushioni likes sake very much, serving sake to it in the New Year prevents attacking from it.

Kochi Prefecture

In Kochi Prefecture, it is said that a man named Jirokichi in Okanouchi Village (present-day Kami City) saw Ushioni in 1776, when a severe drought struck. A folktale handed down in the prefecture says that when Ushioni bit and killed the cattle of a village and also the villagers who tried to do away with it, a samurai named Sakon KONDO heard it and came, and successfully killed it by shooting only an arrow. The villagers were delighted and talked about how Sakon did away with the Ushioni by imitating Sakon's way of drawing a bow. This event is believed to be the origin of the Momote-sai festival (a Shinto ceremony for the first use of bow and arrow of the year) handed down in the prefecture.

Sanin Region

In the coastal areas from the Sanin region to Kitakyushu, Ushioni was said to have appeared from the sea with a female goblin called Nureonna or Isoonna. The woman called to people to stop them and asked them to hold her baby, and then her baby became as heavy as a rock, and while they were not able to move around, she bit them to death. Some said that Ushioni transformed the appearance into the woman to approach people. They believed, however, her reflection on the surface of the water remained Ushioni even after transformation, which helped people find out that she was Ushioni.
In Iwami Province (present-day Shimane Prefecture), there was a similar tale saying that a suspicious woman holding a baby appeared in front of an angler and asked him, "Would you hold this baby for a moment?"
Holding the baby, the angler found the woman disappeared, and instead Ushioni appeared from the sea, and the baby in his arms turned into a rock. Although the rock was too heavy for him to run away, a noted sword handed down in his family flew from his house and stuck in the neck of the Ushioni, and he narrowly escaped death.

Ehime Prefecture

The Ushioni that appeared in Ehime Prefecture is said to have had a face of the dragon and a body of the whale.
The appearance of Ushioni greatly differs from region to region although the legends have been handed down with the same name of 'Ushioni.'
BintaroYAMAGUCHI, a researcher on specters, says that that is possibly because all large monsters coming from the water were called 'Ushioni.'

Mie Prefecture

In Mie Prefecture, people believed that Ushioni put them under a powerful curse. Once, they thought that Ushioni lived in a cave in Minami Ise-cho Town. When the lord of Gokasho-jo Castle, Shigeaki AISU, shot an arrow into it, his lawful wife suffered an incurable disease under its curse. As the result, Shigeaki turned the cold shoulder to his lawful wife and started to be infatuated with a woman from Kyoto who danced Shirabyoshi (a Japanese traditional dance). After this, the Kitahata clan from which the lawful wife came became on bad terms with the Aisu clan, and destroyed them.

Legend of Ushi gozen (cow goblin)

Also famous is a story of 'Ushi gozen densetsu' (Legend of Ushi gozen) which is narrated in joruri (the dramatic narratives chanted to a samisen accompaniment) created in the Muromachi Period. A daughter who was born to MINAMOTO no Mitsunaka, a gozoku (local ruling family) in the Heian Period, had horns of the cow and a face of the demon. The daughter was saved by a court lady just before she was killed and was secretly raised in a mountain. The daughter came to be called Ushi gozen. Mitsunaka ordered his son MINAMOTO no Yorimitsu, a hero in doing away with specters, to kill her. Ushi gozen fought forward to the Kanto region for her all-out resistance and threw herself into Sumida-gawa River to transform herself into Ushioni 30 meters long, and she defeated Yoshimitsu's army. We can also find a description of Ushi gozen appearing in Sumida-gawa River in "Azuma Kagami" (the Mirror of the East) composed later in the Kamakura Period. The story goes that a monster like a cow came from Sumida-gawa River into a refectory of Senso-ji Temple and scattered poison from its mouth in 1251. Among the monks exposed to the poison, seven were killed and 24 fell sick. According to a description in "Shinpen Musashi fudoki ko" (a topography of Musashi Province from 1804 to 1829), after that, this monster left a ball called "a cow ball" in Ushijima-jinja Shrine located on the shore opposite to Asakusa and disappeared. It also describes that the ball became a treasure of the shrine and was enshrined as a deity after that. At the shrine, a pair of stone-carved guardian cows stand instead of those of dogs. The shrine also has a cow statue called 'Nade-ushi' (the rubbing cow), which is believed to help people recover from their diseases when they rub it on the same part as the sick part of their bodies. Some suggest that this Ushioni was an incarnation of Susanoo (a deity in Japanese mythology) since he had a nickname of Gozu-tenno (a deity said to be the Indian god Gavagriva) and a wild characteristic like Ushioni. Kenji MURAKAMI, a searcher of specters, says there was a religious conflict behind the story that Ushi gozen attacked the temple.

Okayama Prefecture

A folktale handed down in Ushimado-cho in Okayama Prefecture (present-day Setouchi City) tells us that Empress Jingu was attacked during sankan-seibatsu (the conquest of three countries in old Korea) by a large eight-headed cow-shaped monster named Jinrinki (gigantic cow goblin). The monster was shot by arrows to death, and the body was separated into the head, body, and tail, which became Ki-jima Island, Mae-jima Island, and Ao-shima Island, respectively. On the Empress's way back from Silla, Jinrinki that failed in becoming a Buddha transformed itself into Ushioni and attacked her again, but Sumiyoshi Sanjin (Sumiyoshi three deities) held its hones and threw it away. After the Ushioni was killed, its body was broken into pieces, and they transformed into Kuro-shima Island, Nakanokojima Island, and Hatanokojima Island. Ushimado, the place name here, is said to be a corrupted word of this legendary place name which was Ushimarobi (cow's falling). Some other place names also come from Ushioni; for example, Ushima, an island in Hikari City, Yamaguchi Prefecture, comes from the tale in which Ushioni appears.

Okayama Prefecture

In Okayama Prefecture as well, "Sakuyoshi" (a topographical document) describes a monster named Gyuki (cow demon) that appeared in Ohira-yama Mountain in Koshihata, Mimasaka Tomata County (present-day Tomata County). In the Kanei era, a village girl aged around 20 met in a state of rapture a man who was a self-professed official of Kaneyama and spent a night with him. Later, she got pregnant and had a child, but it had two long fangs, a tail, and hones, which absolutely looked like Ushioni. Her parents killed it in anger, stuck a cast metal spit in the head, and gibbeted it by the roadside. This story tells us how local gods once treated very respectfully were gradually made light of, finally got abandoned, and transformed into a kind of mixture with specters over time. In this viewpoint, Kunio YANAGITA, a folklorist, points out the background of the tales of the monster Ushioni, which is how a deity of metals once worshiped in the mountains has been reduced to a monster, Ushioni.

Makura no soshi (the Pillow Book)

"Makura no soshi" names Ushioni as a 'terrifying thing' (Section 148), and also "Taiheiki" (The Record of the Great Peace) describes how it faced MINAMOTO no Yorimitsu.

Theory of a camellia's root

Some claim that the true form of Ushioni is a camellia's root. On the ground that there is a legend in Japan that says a divine spirit dwells in a camellia, Ushioni may be interpreted as an incarnation of a deity, and in some customs people respect it as something that clears evil spirits away. Others maintain that a camellia indicated where Ushioni appeared because a camellia was regarded as a special flower that came out on the sacred ground after reaching a peninsula or a beach and also because the flower blooms on a boundary. Ushioni and Nureonna that appears with Ushioni, both show up on the shore, not any other place.

Wakayama Prefecture

A folktale about the Ushioni-buchi located in Miogawa River in Wakayama Prefecture tells us that when a young man gave a hungry woman a part of the food in his lunch box, she turned out an incarnation of Ushioni, and two months later she saved his life when he was drowning in a flood. Ushioni, however, has a rule under which it must lose its life if it helps people's lives, so the Ushioni dissolved into red blood and flowed away as soon as it saved the young man's life.

Kochi Prefecture

There was Ushioni which was saved by people. According to a folktale handed down in Aza-Hodono, Ichiu (present-day Kami City), Monobe Village (of Kochi Prefecture), Kochi Prefecture, an old woman living in the interior helped the Ushioni that had fallen into a cone-shaped pit 3.6 to 5.4 meters deep and been crying for not be able to get out of it. After that, the Ushioni never haunted the local people.

Ushioni as mysterious fire

There is a legend of the mysterious fire called 'Ushioni-bi.'
In Niigata Prefecture and Shiga Prefecture too, a legend about mysterious fire such as minobi (literally, a straw raincoat fire) has been handed down under the name of Ushioni. "Isetsu machimachi," an essay written by Masamichi WADA, who was a feudal retainer of Sekiyado Domain, describes that in Izumo Province (the present-day northeast part of Shimane Prefecture), when they went into a valley where a stream was running under the bridge on one of the days under the long spell of rainy and humid weather, people experienced a situation where white lights were flying like butterflies and once they adhered to people's body, they could not be easily taken away. They called this experience 'an encounter with Ushioni' and they believed the lights would disappear when they were exposed to a fire in the sunken fireplace.

According to a legend in Inaba Province (the present-day eastern part of Tottori Prefecture), a countless number of lights looked like firefly lights swarmed around a straw raincoat on the snowy night. They fell on the ground when brushed aside, but flew up again and adhered to the straw raincoat until the whole straw raincoat and the umbrella were wrapped up with green lights.

Relics of Ushioni

The Kashima family in Anan City, Okayama Prefecture keeps a skull of a kind of beast which reportedly belonged to Ushioni, and it rests in peace in the hokora (small shrine). People say that the ancestor of the Kashima family did away with Ushioni harassing local farmers at their request and brought the head back home.

In Kannon-ji Temple in Kurume City, Fukuoka Prefecture, there is a mummified hand which is reported to be Ushioni's. It is believed that the hand belonged to Ushioni that appeared in 1063 and that the Ushioni had a head of the cow and a body of the demon and used occult power to harass people living in the neighborhood. Although even samurai warriors in various provinces hesitated to try to do away with it, the chief priest of Kannon-ji Temple successfully did with Buddhistic invocations and the power of Buddhist dharma. The hand was brought back to the temple, the head was presented to the emperor in the capital, and the ears were buried in the Minou Mountains. The Minou Mountains was named after this legend.

Negoro-ji Temple at Aomine, Goshikidai, Kagawa Prefecture, treasures hones believed to be owned by Ushioni. This Ushioni is said to have been killed by a very skillful archer named Kurando Takakiyo YAMADA in Aomine in the Tenpo era. According to a picture on the hanging scroll remaining in the temple, the Ushioni had a face of the monkey and a body of the tiger, and its forefeet had wings formed by patagium that a flying squirrel or a bat has. This hanging scroll and the relic are not open for the public viewing at the temple for some reason, but they are being publicized on the web.

Ushioni in festivals

In the Nanyo area, Ehime Prefecture, particularly in Uwajima City and its vicinities, a float named Ushioni parades through the streets in the local festivals. Opinions divide concerning its origin: some insist Ushioni was sanctified as mentioned above; a folktale says two men in Iyo Province named Zusho TONAI and Heinojo KURAKI did away with Ushioni; another folktale says a man from Iyo did away with Ushioni living in Kaifu County (of Tokushima Prefecture), Tokushima Prefecture; and another folktale says Kiyomasa KATO produced tortoise wagons to frighten tigers in Korea before Japan's invasion of Korea by Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI.

Style of the float
The basic float consists of the following parts: a main body made of bamboos in the form of a tortoise's shell, a head (formally called 'kabu'), and a tail (formally called 'ken'). The 'kabu' is attached to the end of a bamboo a few meters long, and a T-shaped handle (formally called 'shumoku') fixed to the other end enables you to operate it freely. Operating this is considered honorable. The 'ken' is tied with a rope inside the main body. A large number of people parade on streets carrying this. They shake or rotate the 'kabu' and 'ken' from time to time to raise their fervor. However, they do not do a 'fight'--hitting each float to the other. The main bodies are broadly classified into two types: a palm leaves-covered type (allegedly the original type) and a red or black cloth-covered type (allegedly the advanced type). The palm leaves-covered type is smaller in size. Among the advanced types, there is one that sparkles in gold.

In addition, there is an old saying, "A child whose head is bitten by Ushioni becomes smarter." When the carriers are taking a rest, people living in the neighborhood take their children to have their heads bitten.

Festivals and Ushioni
Ushioni plays the leading role in the festivals in the Uwajima region. In particular, in Warei taisai Festival (the festival of Warei-jinja Shrine in Uwajima City, Ehime Prefecture) held from July 22 to 24, the Ushioni participants come not only from Uwajima City but also from the mountainous regions or even the region in Kochi Prefecture (Nishitosa Village). Uwajima city officials and citizens in each section organize Ushioni preservation groups. Ushioni are also found in autumn festivals (small-scale local festivals such as the one held in Akehama-cho, Seiyo City). Ushioni sometimes appears in events held across the country as a typical example of the festivals held in Ehime Prefecture, along with Taikodai (a large float used to carry taiko [drums]) of Niihama City and Danjiri (a float with a decorative portable shrine) of Saijo City.

Since Uwajima City and Honolulu, Hawaii have a sister-city affiliation and Ehime Prefecture and the State of Hawaii are also in the same kind of relationship, volunteers from Maruho ushioni hozonkai (the Ushioni preservation group of the Maruho district) and Uwajima-shiyakusho ushioni hozonkai (the Ushioni preservation group of the Uwajima city office), collectively called Uwajima ushioni hozonkai (the Ushioni preservation group of Uwajima City), participate in Matsuri-in-Hawaii, a festival held in Honolulu on the first Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in June every year.

In the Nanyo region, Ushioni is believed to play a role of a forerunner of the portable shrine (carried in festivals) and a clearer of devils from houses.

In around Sadamisaki Peninsula (a peninsula in Ehime Prefecture), Mikame-cho in Seiyo City, and other regions, too, Ushioni appear in the festivals.

Some historical record shows Ushioni once existed around Kumakogen-cho, Ehime Prefecture, but it does not anymore.

Headgear (kabu) of Ushioni
A 'kabu' of Ushioni is being displayed in the station building of Uwajima Station of the JR Yosansen Line. Sometimes, local-dish restaurants in the Uwajima region display an imitation 'kabu' of Ushioni. Kabu' can be found in some Uwajima-dish restaurants in Matsuyama City.

Ushioni in Kikuma
Only in the autumn festival of Kamo-jinja Shrine at Kikuma-cho, Imabari City, appears Ushioni in the Toyo region. This Ushioni has a round trunk covered with a black cloth and is fairly big.

Outside Ehime Prefecture, Amami-oshima Island has a religious rite based on the faith in Ushioni named 'Numatonukanushi,' in which a cow specter god (agricultural god) having eight hones, eight legs, eight tails, and numerous star-shaped spots comes ashore from the sea, wanders among bonfires with shouts in a loud voice similar to the voice of charumera (a shawm-like instrument played by street vendors) while people on the island welcome it by putting their heads on the ground. However, it is actually a fabricated god and the islanders hate the mainlanders refer to it.

Similar Ushioni festivals or cow god festivals are also held in the following places: Minamitakaki County, Nagasaki Prefecture (present-day Unzen City); Uwajima City, Ehime Prefecture; and Ichiki-cho, Hioki County, Kagoshima Prefecture (present-day Ichiki-kushikino City); under the name of 'Toshimon,' 'Ushonin,' and 'Tsukuimon' respectively. Likewise, in a village along Kagoshima Bay in the Osumi peninsula, it is said that a monster of a black cow named 'Unmushi' drags itself up onto the shore and wanders around. The day when this Unmushi appears is the 27th after the bon festival (the festival of the dead), so locals avoid going to the sea on that day.

Shigeru MIZUKI, a specter comic writer, shows his speculation on the background of Ushioni as saying that Ushioni has something to do with Ishanaten (Isana) and Enmaten, incarnations of Daijizaiten (Mahesvara), which are Indian deities related to a cow, and also that the fact that around Ushioni there is a Tenman-gu Shrine enshrining SUGAWARA no Michizane (Tenman daijizaiten) may have some relationship with Ushioni.