Monday, June 24, 2013

Japanese Folklore of the Niigata Prefecture

Article by Ty Hulse

In reading the folklore of Niigata there is the sense of peaceful villages surrounded by an often treacherous wilderness, connected by precarious and often dangerous paths for most of these stories feature travelers seeking shelter or people spirited away while traveling from one village to another. More than simply a wilderness than, the people of the Niigata prefecture were surrounded in folklore by a spirit world filled with snow women, oni, kami and more. This of course is true of Japan which had innumerable isolated villages.

When looking for inspiration for writing a story and art to draw sometimes the best settings already exist in the world around us which is why today I'm going to explore the folklore of Japan, more specifically of the Niigata prefecture in hopes that this interesting and often overlooked region of Japan will help you in your story telling endeavors.

Throughout the Niigata Prefecture there are tales of encounters with the ghosts of people who froze to death in harsh snow storms and of dangerous spirits seeking to kidnap young woman to be their wives. There are a number of stories of Snow Woman and boys seeking shelter during particularly bitter snow storms at the huts of isolated farmers. In one story a Snow Boy creeps into a house to join a family for dinner, helping himself to some miso and boar soup before running back out into the snow where he leaves no tracks.

In yet another story of a magical being seeking shelter from the cold a Kitsune (fox) in the form of a woman seeks shelter with a farmer. As the story progresses they fall in love and have children together.

There is the sense in these stories not only of a coldness, but of warmth, of closely connected villages, of families and people sheltered against the winter in warm houses with pots of hot soup cooking over hearths. So this harsh winter is contrasted by beauty, especially in Agato where hundreds of swans make their winter home.

Like much of Japan the mountains rise up right over the ocean, making travel between villages difficult. Yet young woman had to travel between villages, for they usually married people from elsewhere. This perhaps is why there are so many stories of young woman going missing, taken by oni or becoming ghosts. In one such story a girl is getting ready to be married with an oni descends upon her in the form of a dark cloud and takes her into the wilderness.  Unable to give up on her lost daughter her mother seeks her out until she finds her in the oni's mansion in the forest and helps her escape by getting the oni extremely drunk.

Despite the dangers of the spirit world in folklore there were many tales in which magical beings helped humans as well. A river kami gave a wood cutter one of her children to raise so that he could have a child of his own, and this child made the wood cutter very wealthy.

In another story a calico cat helped an old lady become wealthy by turning into a beautiful woman which became a famous singer in far away Edo.

You can read more about the Lore and Setting of Niigata at "Bits of Japanese Folklore"