Chapter 5:

[Yasuo] — Welcome to Yokai Country

Questionable Days with Yokai

The underground stairway was a steep and cramped narrow tunnel, claustrophobic to a fault and impossible to see in without a light. Fortunately Yasuo had a flashlight on his cell phone — well, Kitamura's cell phone — which allowed them to see the thin and dilapidated stone steps beneath their feet. They had been walking down this stairway for a while now (with their clunky luggage in tow), and there was still no end in sight.

A lot had happened to Yasuo over the past couple hours. He finally found another person in the old mansion he had been trapped in. That person turned out to be a classmate he knew, as implausible as that may have been. They ended up meeting a talking otter, which suddenly proved the existence of supernatural creatures known as yokai.

Oh! And he was a girl now. Any other day, he would have said meeting a talking otter was the strangest thing to have ever happened to him. But now Yasuo had become an entirely different person: Kitamura... Risako Kitamura. And now he was going to have to live as her for the foreseeable future. The otter, Akemi, had said she would try to help them find a way to switch back, but...

1) How capable was this small regular-looking otter they just met?

2) How much could they even trust this creature, which was famous for being crafty?

3) Even if Akemi was perfectly capable and trustworthy, how likely were they going to conveniently find a way to reverse this specific curse? Yokai weren't exactly known for kindly solving the dilemmas of humans.

4) What were the odds that they were simply going to get themselves killed by some random yokai? Violent oni, vengeful spirits, giant spiders, giant snakes, giant skeletons... Bad news all around. This was definitely Yasuo's biggest concern at the moment.

Yasuo had to hope Akemi was a good otter who truly wanted to repay her debt for being freed, supposedly thanks to the magical magatama that Yasuo wore on his necklace. Well, now Kitamura was wearing it. He wondered if he should ask for it back from her? Maybe once they were out of this dark and precipitous corridor.

“Ow!” Every couple minutes, Kitamura would bump her head against the low contorted ceiling of this unwieldy stairway. Obviously, she wasn't used to having Yasuo's height.

Yasuo meanwhile hadn't needed to duck even once the whole way down... He probably should've seen his new height as a positive for this specific situation, but... well. There were several things about this body he didn't expect to get used to, but suddenly losing about 30 centimeters was what upset him most. He felt like he was back in his first year of middle school.

And it wasn't like traversing this oppressive tunnel was a walk in the park. The injury in Kitamura's leg was now Yasuo's injury — and it did not feel good, to put it lightly. He also had to carry his suitcase with one hand, while shining a light with the other.

“That is an interesting candle you have there,” Akemi said at one point.

“It's a flashlight on a phone. You know about those?” Yasuo still found it weird to hear Kitamura's girly voice every time he spoke.

“Yes, but fifty years ago they were separate things, and were a lot bigger than that. Humans have become quite clever with their contraptions, I see.”

Yasuo almost never used his phone for its flashlight function, or for actually calling anyone. He didn't imagine the otter would understand him if he tried to explain how a smartphone was basically a small portable computer with access to the internet and its myriad of functions.

“Oh, little otter,” Risako called out, her echoing voice of course sounding like Yasuo's. “I just realized we never properly introduced ourselves to you. My name is Risako Kitamura! I'm from Tokyo. I like to read books and hang out with my friends at karaoke bars.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Miss Kitamura,” Akemi said. “What is a karaoke bar?”

“It's a place where you sing songs and eat snacks.”

“Is there saké?”

“I guess you can order alcohol, if you're old enough.”

“Oh-hoh! Wonderful. And how about you?” Akemi asked, looking up at Yasuo.

“Yasuo Mizutani. Also from Tokyo. Same school as Kitamura. I'm in my school's kendo club.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Mister Mizutani. So you are a swordsman then?”

“Well, not anymore.”

“My apologies,” Akemi said. “Do not fret though, I will find a way to switch you two back soon enough, I am certain!”

Yasuo didn't feel like acting optimistic right now, so he changed the subject a bit. “That would be nice. But I have to wonder, if you don't mind me asking... Why did an onmyoji seal you up in a statue and hide you in a cursed room?”

“I suppose I should give some background on that,” Akemi said. “So as you might expect, all the yokai of the underground prison are bound there — the strongest of spiritual barriers were placed all throughout this tunnel, and within the only other passageway: a narrow bamboo chute that only small yokai like myself could squeeze into. I am the only one who can make use of it though, and am the only one capable of passing in and out of the underground prison freely in general.”

“So you're special then?” Kitamura asked.

“Yes, I became the only source of contact with the outside world for all the yokai down below. But unfortunately, some onmyoji eventually caught wind of me. In the nearby village, you see, there is a shrine where onmyoji are continually trained, and their primary duty is to ensure that the yokai below this mansion never break free. If a means of escape is ever devised, the onmyoji in this region will surely notice and take immediate action.”

“Oh, so you were caught by one of them,” Kitamura said.

“I am afraid so,” Akemi said. “I do not really despise them; they were only doing their job, and I was seen as a threat. But I assure you, there is nothing a mere otter could have done to change the status quo of things here. And at this point, the vast majority of the yokai below do not even wish to leave their underground prison, especially whenever I tell them all the latest goings-on of human society. A lot has happened over the last millennium... Very little of the world today would be recognizable to the yokai at this point.”

Perhaps even more so than Akemi imagined, considering she slept through the last half a century or so. There was a long silence.

“What will we do about tonight?” Kitamura asked.

Yasuo didn't know what she meant by this question, but Akemi did. “I shall see to it that you two have a place to rest. I have a friend who runs an inn for new yokai and wandering spirits. And there is a restaurant there too... Ah! How good it feels to be up and moving again. I can't wait to see everyone, and go swimming, and devour a hearty helping of sushi, and roll around with a male, and raise a new litter of pups, and teach them how to transform and steal saké.”

Neither Yasuo nor Kitamura had a response for that. But it was good to hear that there was going to be food and beds for them somewhere. Yasuo had been wondering what they would do about that, and he was both really hungry and really tired. But now he wondered just how big the cavern below was going to be, if there were things like inns and restaurants. It was beginning to sound like there was going to be a whole town of yokai down there.

Fortunately for Yasuo and his tired legs, it didn't take much longer to find out. They finally reached the exit of the tunnel, and stepped out into... a whole town of yokai. A dirt road stretched out before them, lined on both sides with wooden buildings that looked like they belonged in the Edo period or earlier. Beyond the buildings Yasuo spotted a river with an arched bridge, a series of tree-covered mountains, and even a late evening sky — with stars and a half moon and everything. Perhaps it was all merely an illusion, but it was an entirely convincing one.

And walking beneath the soft glow of hanging paper lanterns, Yasuo sighted several strange monsters: a living one-eyed umbrella hopping about on one leg, a giant and surprisingly quick snail-looking creature, and several of what Yasuo could only describe as a dog or cat made entirely of strands of long dark hair — no legs or tail, and no clear delineation of a head. They did have sickly owl-like eyes though, which made Yasuo shudder. Fortunately none of the beasts took notice of Yasuo and Kitamura, who they perhaps assumed were wandering spirits or something.

“This is... crazy,” Yasuo said, suddenly feeling dizzy. He knew he shouldn't have been this surprised by the presence of supernatural beings, but some part of his mind perhaps held out hope that the talking otter was just a fluke and that they wouldn't find anything below the mansion.

“Yeah,” Kitamura agreed, but she had a dumb-looking grin on her face. “Really crazy. Crazy and amazing!” Was that how Yasuo looked when he was awe-struck by something? He hated to admit it, but he looked kind of lame.

“If you say so.” Yasuo would have preferred to see the yokai via a documentary on TV, rather than in-person. You know, like how he felt regarding wild jungle animals, or natural disasters, or space travel.

“Follow me,” Akemi said, trotting down the path. “I recommend you not interact with anyone just yet! Certain yokai could... react negatively, if they were to realize you are human.”

They followed the energetic otter easily enough, but Yasuo's mind had a difficult time taking in all the sights around him. It wasn't a bustling street, perhaps because it was late — but there appeared to be all sorts of housing, shops, and food stands. Nothing about this hidden world gave Yasuo “underground prison” vibes, to be perfectly honest. He wasn't sure if that should have put him more at ease, or if it was a cause for greater concern.