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.
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.
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. 🙂