In the mid-nineteenth century, a showman named P. T. Barnum exhibited an oddity named the Fiji mermaid. Barnum’s mummified mermaid, one of the most famous hoaxes of all time, is widely believed to have been the body of a young monkey sewn onto a fish tail, and had been bought from Japanese sailors for $6,000.

Ningyo (Japanese mermaids – the word literally means “person-fish”) have a long and interesting history, but they aren’t the only ancient fake taxidermy on show in Japan. Across the country are all kinds of other fascinating specimens: “mummies” of tengu, kappa and even dragons.

These oddball objects were popular at Edo-period sideshow carnivals called misemono, but these days we are more likely to see them in temples and museums. Here are four kinds of creepy creatures on show in Japan.

1) Mermaids

This 65cm “mermaid” mummy is at Karukayado Temple, near Koya-san in Wakayama Prefecture. 65cm long and weighing 600 grams, it is said to date from the 12th century.

▼ But then again, it’s also said to be a mermaid…


▼  The temple will also sell you gruesome postcards like this one. Eek!


This next mermaid is housed at the Harano Agricultural Museum on the island of Amami Ōshima. CT scans revealed that the body is cedar wood covered in fish skin, and the teeth are from a sea bream.


The Hachinohe City Museum in Aomori Prefecture, meanwhile, is home to this two-headed mermaid. Aomori has a long history of sea-monster sightings, dating back to at least the mid-13th century when a four-legged man-fish was recorded in waters off Tsugaru. This mermaid is said to have belonged to the Hachinohe branch of the Nanbu samurai clan.

▼ A two-headed mermaid: just what every samurai clan needs!

img_2Aomori Prefecture Kyodokan

2) Kappa

For hundreds of years, the family owners of the Matsuuraichi Sake Brewery in Saga Prefecture had been passing on the mysterious message that “we have something rare in this house”. After 17 generations, though, the meaning had been forgotten – until 1953, when a strange box labelled ‘kappa’ was found in the roof of the house.

Kappa are mythical water creatures and one of the best-known yōkai monsters in Japanese folklore. Every year on December 1, the Matsuuraichi brewery holds a festival to pray to the water gods for another year of delicious sake.

▼ Anyone else feeling thirsty? No? Just me then…


Another kappa is kept at Osaka’s Zuiryuji Temple. At one time, it was worshipped as a water god in the temple. This one’s 70cm long, and is said to date from 1682.


3) Dragons

Perhaps in a bid for the title of “most eccentric temple artefacts”, Zuiryuji also houses this mummified dragon, which at 1 metre long is a little baby, really.

▼ Fake dragon taxidermy: a little-known lost Japanese art.


4) Tengu

Tengu are long-nosed mythical creatures whose name literally means “heavenly dog”. This taxidermy creation is in the Hachinohe City Museum (also home to the two-headed merman above). Tengu typically have some bird-like features, which explains the feathers that have been used here. It’s currently not on public display, however, as the wings are too damaged.

▼ That, or maybe someone looked a bit too closely at it and made some skeptical noises about its provenance.

tenguViVa music diary

Some of these creepy creatures look more convincing than others, but the fact that these objects exist at all is pretty remarkable. These kinds of exhibits aren’t for everybody, though – are you brave enough to go and check any of them out?

Sources: Japaaan, Horniman Museum
Featured image: kanna-h
Top image: Matsuuraichi