Vengono generalmente considerati come mostri, esseri dotati di poteri soprannaturali dall’aspetto animalesco e terrificante che vivono in parallelo agli uomini, principali oggetti dei loro inganni e malefici, sebbene non tutti gli yōkai siano necessariamente portatori di sventure; infatti in alcuni casi si tratta di entità benevolenti, che portano fortuna in chi si imbatte in loro. Molti yōkai sono dei mutaforma, hanno quindi la capacità di trasformarsi assumendo l’aspetto di animali, o anche di bellissime donne (bakemono).
Gli yōkai presenti nel folklore giapponese sono tantissimi e profondamente diversi tra loro, alcuni possono avere sembianze umane, altri sembianze animali o anche di oggetti di uso comune, oppure possono apparire come fenomeni naturali o fenomeni spettrale; gli yōkaipossono inoltre essere catalogati anche in base al luogo in cui generalmente appaiono, quindi possiamo avere yōkai di montagna, degli alberi, dell’acqua, della neve o del mare.
Queste credenze così ancora profondamente sentite nella cultura giapponese, sono strettamente legate all’antica idea di animismo che permea la religione autoctona giapponese (lo Shinto), per cui si riteneva che gli spiriti, chiamati mononoke, risiedevano in tutte le cose della natura: alcuni di essi avevano un temperamento pacifico, e potevano portare buona fortuna e un buon raccolto, altri invece erano violenti e malvagi, portando sfortuna e provocando disastri naturali e malattie. Ciò rendeva necessario la pratica di rituali per calmare gli spiriti, e trasformarli in essere benevolenti.
Una curiosità riguardo Kyoto: forse non tutti lo sanno, ma nella città esiste una famosa yōkai street 妖怪ストリット, cioè la”strada dei mostri”: si tratta di una parte della Ichijō-dōri la cui fama risale a un episodio leggendario del periodo Heian (794-1185). All’epoca, infatti, la Ichijō-dōri era il confine più settentrionale di Heian-kyō, ed era considerato ill limite tra il mondo umano e quello sovrannaturale. Secondo un’antica leggenda, una notte d’estate i vecchi oggetti gettati via dagli uomini abbiano preso vita sotto forma di yōkai, penetrando nella Capitale proprio attraverso Ichijō-dōri e spaventando a morte gli abitanti della città. Per ricordare questa leggenda, ogni anno si svolge la Parata Notturna dei Cento Demoni(Hyakki Yagyō), quando una notte decine di persone in abiti mostruosi e coloratissimi sfilano per Ichijō-dōri, spaventando i piccini e divertendo i grandi.

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