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  • Shona McCarthy

Street Of Monsters: Yokai Dori


For those who are unfamiliar with the term, "Yokai" is a kind of umbrella term for small monsters in Japan. By small, I mean that they are smaller than "Kaiju" which are usually of the Godzilla and Rodan variety. You'll tend to find them wandering alleyways or closets rather than stomping down towns. They also differ from "Yurei", which are usually the ghosts of dead people, though some dead animals may also produce such spirits.

The term Yokai tends to be associated with a kind of anachronistic type of monster. People will tend to think of swamp-dwelling turtle-men of the edo period, or beautiful Japanese ladies with snakingly long necks when they hear the term. I'm a big fan of this subculture, so I simply had to go and see Yokai Dori.

Finding it isn't hard at all. It is located in northern Kyoto, and you can easily find it if you search "Ichigo Dori" in Google maps. The street is lined with businesses that are fairly standard. Yet, many of them will have home-made yokai on their doorsteps. Each of these yokai seem to be themed according to the content of the store they stand before. Each seem to be around one meter tall. When you go, bring a working camera.

(I wanted to get a selfie with every "Yokai Dori" yokai. But some were put away in places I don't think I was meant to go. So I took their photos from the doorway. There was also a "bread monster" in front of a bakery. But by the time I saw him it was raining so hard I didn't dare stop for him. 2019.)

Sometimes it was hard to tell whether or not something was meant to be a yokai, since it was down on the ground and looked vaguely humanoid. As you can see, the monsters aren't very scary. Some are higher in quality than others. But all are fascinating examples of folk art and culture. The businesses in the street and the stores were interesting. One building that particularly captured my imagination was this one:

(Selfies with a mysterious building in the street of monsters. 2019.)

What made me notice it was partly the fact that it was very old and closed-off. With my meager Japanese skills, I had little to way of telling what it actually was. Or even if it was still in use. I wasn't able to get a good picture of it, but the upper floor seemed to have some monsters and lots of abandoned clothing in the windows. Spooky.

One of the features that makes Yokai Dori easy to find is that it contains many signs and banners telling you what it is.

(Various signs I saw in Yokai Dori. 2019. One sign talks about a local student group that wants to revive an old tradition of recycling things instead of throwing them away. You can read their website here: http://kyotohyakki.com/. Another sign endorses the store behind it as an official store of the street with official Yokai Dori merchandise.)

(The market I saw down one end of Yokai Dori. 2019.)

Since Yokai Dori is relatively out of the way, most of the items in it are relatively affordable compared to what you would find in Kyoto proper, meaning that it's a good place to stock up on souvenirs and basic groceries if you need these. I managed to get a vintage folding fan for about 200JPY there.

I think the one shop that really floored me was this sweet little Mom and Pop stall where they were selling true, authentic Shichimitogarashi. If you have ever sat

down at a Japanese eatery, you've probably seen a small jar of orange powder on your table. What you don't know is that it is meant to be a combination of 7 different herbs, some of which are unique to Japan and thus gives your food a distinctively Japanese taste. This is Shichimitogarashi. At the stall I was so excited to see that little old man grinding the powder himself with an old-timey mortar and pestle. However, I wasn't sure if Australian customs would actually allow me to take my jar home. So I spent much of my trip generously sprinkling the spice mix on virtually everything I ate. But since it is a season-all, this usually yielded delicious results. Another store certainly worth a visit is one you will see with traditional style Japanese jackets at the front. I wish I had the presence of mind to photograph the front. But I didn't.

(I was inside a distinctive store along Yokai Dori. 2019.)

Inside this store is many things one could buy for true, traditional kimono wearing. One of the things that amazed me was the spectacular number of rolls of kimono fabric they had in their display case. But they also had various forms of official yokai merchandise, including folding fans and purses. I love yokai, so I wanted to buy some. But I found the prices were outside of my budget for such things.

The street is quite close to Kamishichiken, an area that is the region of Japan where Geisha were said to originate, and it was also close to a place where I went for a weaving class, the Soushitsuzure-En weaving studio. So, it is an area where one could easily spend the day.

Another thing I found quite good to do that day was to eat a meal at a restaurant along the street.

(A meal I ate in Yokai Dori. I sat there wondering if this is what yokai like to eat. 2019.)

I wish I could recall the name of the restaurant, but it was in Japanese, so Id didn't even understand it. This whole meal only cost about 550JPY and really filled me up. So it was really great value. It was their chicken karaage set meal. I can recommend it.

But even if you don't love excellent value food and strange little creatures, the street has many beautiful examples of old Japanese architecture. I can imagine it would be a good place to visit for families and couples.

(Selfies in or near Yokai Dori, 2019.)

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