Kitsunebi (狐火 lett. "foxfire") is a yōkai of Japanese folklore known throughout Japan, excluding Okinawa Prefecture.
It is also referred to as hitobosu (ヒトボス), hitomoshi (火点し) or rinka (燐火). It is also called hitobosu (ヒトボス).
According to legend, during the night, kitsunebi may appear in the form of flashing lanterns, and their number varies from a few dozen to several hundred, gradually increasing as time passes.
The amplitude of the phenomenon varies from a minimum of 400-500 meters to a maximum of 4 kilometers, and, depending on their number, when these lights seem to increase out of all proportion, they suddenly disappear, only to reappear just as suddenly.
The color of these lanterns ranges from red to orange, but in various prefectures some witnesses claim to have seen blue lights as well.
As the name suggests, there is a close relationship with the figure of kitsune (foxes), and many theories claim that these lights come from the sighing or movement of the foxes' tails, or that the glow is given off due to a special ability of the foxes called kitsunebi-dama ("fox sphere").
According to the assorted Shokoku Rijindan books from the Kanpo era, at the beginning of Genroku, when a fisherman picks up a kitsunebi with a net, the kitsunebi-dama is kept as it is considered very useful for illumination.
The kitsunebi usually appears in mountainous places away from busy roads or with little human presence, disappearing once the presence of humans is detected.
In contrast, another version tells of some kitsunebi that would follow people anywhere. Kitsune are known to deceive humans, and kitsunebi are said to be a way to make unwary travelers lose the right path by attracting them to themselves with their glow.
In this version, it is possible to drive away such lights with a well-aimed kick. In this version, it is possible to drive away such lights with a well-aimed kick.
In contrast, there is a story from Nagano Prefecture in which a lord and his vassal were looking for a place to build a castle, and at night a white fox would light their way and guide them so that they could reach a suitable place to build the castle.
Just as in the haiku composed by Masaoka Shiki about winter and kitsunebi, these flames usually appear during the winter, but there are examples where they also appear in the warm season and in autumn.
In Yamagata and Akita Prefectures of Dewa Province, kitsunebi are called kitsune taimatsu (狐松明 lett. "flashlight fox").
As the name suggests, they are said to act as flashlights to provide illumination at a fox wedding, and that this is auspicious.
In Bizen in Okayama and Tottori Prefectures, there are yōkai called chūko (宙狐)." Different from the normal kitsunebi, chūko float at relatively low altitudes, and so in Toyohara Village in Okayama's Oku District, an old fox is said to turn into a chūko.
Also, in the village of Tamatsu also in the Oku District, yōkai that appear at night as a sign of the coming of rain and are about the size of lanterns are called chūko, and sometimes they would fall to the ground illuminating the environment and then disappear into thin air without a trace.
Enryō Inoue, a Meiji-period yōkai finder, applies the characters 中狐 to it, indicating that they fall from above like tenko (天狐), and that they fly lower than a chūko.
There is a theory that kitsunebi are another name for onibi, but they are usually treated separately from the latter.
Kitsunebi in Ōji Inari
Ōji Inari in Ōji, Kita, Tōkyō, is known for being the sacred place of kami Inari, but also for kitsunebi.
Previously, the area around Ōji was completely rural, and there was a large enoki tree on the side of a road in the area.
Every year, on New Year's Eve (大晦日 Ōmisoka), the foxes of Kanhasshū (the entire Kantō region) would gather under the tree by lining up and then visiting the palace of Ōji Inari.
Legend has it that this magnificent sight could only be seen on this occasion, and the farmers counted the kitsunebi because depending on their number there would be a good or bad harvest that year.
Hence, enoki trees are also called shōzoku enoki (装束榎 lett. "enoki costume"), and they also became a subject of Hiroshige Utagawa in his work One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.
The legendary tree, however, dried up during the Meiji Period, but a small shrine called the Shōzoku Inari Jinja remains near the former second Ōji streetcar stop (now opposite the horibun intersection), where the tree once stood, and the area had previously been called Enokimachi (榎町 "enoki town").
Because that area was part of a large development plan, in 1993, on the evening of the annual Ōmisoka, an event was called the "Ōji Kitsune Procession."