Crash Course: Oni (Demons)

If you saw the Uncover Japan facebook page the other week, you might have caught the picture of a rather angry-looking, red-faced man staring out at you. I found him in Noboribetsu Onsen in Hokkaido, where I was vacationing last month. He and his ilk were all over the place – in fact, Noboribetsu Onsen could quite readily be renamed “oni town” after the red (and blue) devils that populate its streets and homes.

Oni are the classic Japanese demon, often depicted as red ogre-like creatures with horns. (Noboribetsu Onsen also boasts a number of blue oni but no one I asked could explain the reasoning behind the various colors.) Oni are often said to be hungry ghosts and prone to possessing the spirits of unsuspecting humans. The term oni has also been applied in the past to describe various groups of foreigners, indigenous peoples and even governmental rebels and itinerant travelers.

An oni (demon) in Noboribetsu Onsen, Hokkaido
An oni (demon) in Noboribetsu Onsen, Hokkaido

In modern-day culture, oni make a notable appearance on the early spring holiday of Setsubun. On February 3rd, households in Japan conduct a sort of spiritual spring cleaning, Bad luck is brushed out the door and good luck is welcomed in – this is physically demonstrated by the hurling of soybeans at someone (usually the male head of the household) wearing an oni mask. If you’re traveling in Japan in early February, keep your eyes peeled for oni masks and soybean packets on sale at local stores.

Oni mask and soybeans for sale around Setsubun
Oni mask and soybeans for sale around Setsubun

Noboribetsu Onsen is known for its volcanic waters and the area just outside of town called “the hells” (or Jigokudani) was the impetus for having the oni as sort of a town mascot. You can spend at least a half-day oni-spotting in the area, from cheery oni in the town center that dispense good luck when rubbed to frightening oni that tower over tourists on the road from the expressway into town. There are even oni on the manhole covers … but I’ll save that for another post. 🙂

Oni on a prayer plaque at a Noboribetsu Shrine
Oni on a prayer plaque at a Noboribetsu Shrine

3 thoughts on “Crash Course: Oni (Demons)

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  1. There’s a story about the red oni and the blue oni, though I can’t remember which had which role. I think it was the red oni that wanted to be friends with humans (who all feared him), so his friend the blue oni said, “How about I go terrorize them, and then you chase me away and be their hero?” Said plan worked and the red oni was accepted by the humans, while the blue oni had to remain all alone. The blue oni (assuming it was the blue one) is one of those tragic heros that really sticks with me, but for some reason I’ve always had a soft spot for oni! Noboribetsu Onsen sounds like a great trip.

    1. Thanks Buri-chan! That’s a great explanation. Not even the tourism office in Noboribetsu Onsen could spin me a good tale to explain the difference. And if you have the chance, definitely head to Noboribetsu Onsen if you’re in Hokkaido. It’s a bit commercial on the outside but the waters are great and some good hiking is on your doorstep.

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