This is a story with variations throughout Japan (there must be a lot of very grateful cranes). This version is from Daisen Town in Saihaku District, Tottori Prefecture. It references Matsue City and Yodoe Town, which is now a part of Yonago City.
In some far away time, at some particular place, there was a little old man and a little old lady. Every day, the old lady would pull cotton to make two bolts of fabric, which the old man would take to Yodoe to sell. With the money from the first bolt he would buy rice; with the money from the second bolt he would buy more cotton. Thus was how they subsisted.
One day, as usual, the old lady finished her work and said to her husband, “Dearie, I finished two bolts ‘gain. Please take ’em to Yodoe and exchange one for more cotton.” Also as usual, the husband set out to do just that.
On his way, he noticed a crane flapping its wings helplessly as it struggled in a trap set up at the edge of a feild. Aw, shucks, that there poor bird is gonna die like that if nobody lets it go! he thought. But if I set it free, the fellow who set that trap is gonna be left empty-handed. Aw, man, what t’ do?
Well, I got these two bolts’a fabric. If I leave one’a them for the trapper, and then he’ll be happy and the bird’ll be happy too. That’s all there is to it.
Setting half of his load down at the trap, he released the crane, and it happily burst into flight and got away.
Then the old man continued his journey to Yodoe. He was supposed to use one of the bolts to buy more cotton, but since he was now only carrying one, he passed on the cotton and only bought a meager amount of rice instead. On returning home he explained to his wife how he left the bolt to save the crane and therefore couldn’t buy cotton on which they would rely for income, and she kindly replied, “How nice. You did such’a good thing t’day.”
As they sat down to eat their humble dinner that evening, they were visited by a very pleasant-looking woman. “Please excuse me,” she said as she invited herself in.
“Yes?” they responded.
“I’ve somehow found myself all the way out here, and I’m terribly lost. Ah! I don’t know this place and it’s gotten dark, so would you mind if I spend the night with you?”
In the reply, the two said, “We’re happy t’ let you stay, but we got no more rice or anything.”
“No, I do not require rice or anything. I’ve brought some,” she said. “Would you mind lending me a pot?”
They did so, and she brought out a paper bag full of rice which she boiled, and then implored them to eat with her. They thanked her and said, “We usually make a gruel or soup outta our rice to stretch it out, it’s been so long since we ate it like this!” They were quite pleased to partake of it.
The following morning when it should have been daybreak, the sky was dark with heavy rainfall. The girl asked if she could stay with them another two or three days. “You can stay as long as you want,” said the old man and old lady.
“Then I would like you lend me your inner room for two or three days. No one else is to enter, or even so much as crack open the door!” she ordered, and then disappeared into the inner room.
Naturally, this made the old couple very curious, and they figured it wouldn’t hurt just to slide the door open a smidge and peer on her. Upon doing so they saw not a girl, but a crane sitting at the weaving machine and pulling out its own feathers, which it then wove into beautiful, sparkling fabric. “Ah! Well I’ll be! That’s the very crane that was caught in that trap!” the old man whispered to the old lady.
Three days later, the girl emerged from the room holding a bolt of fabric. “Um,” she started. “Take this bolt of fabric to a vendor in town and sell it, alright?” So saying, she immediately turned into a crane and flew away.
The old man did as she instructed and brought it to a vendor in Yodoe. “Nope, this won’t do. I can’t buy this!” the vendor refused. “There’s so way I could afford somethin’ worth this much. Try takin’ it t’ the Lord’a Matsue instead, he might be able t’ give you a good amount for it!” Therefore, the old man went out to Matsue to seek out the feudal lord.
The lord granted him an audience, looked over the cloth, and then exclaimed, “This is excellent! It’s made of crane feathers, isn’t it? I had been wanting some fabric like this, but since no one sells any, I couldn’t buy any.” The lord gave the old man a very, very great sum of money, which he happily took home.
Though they had made a meager existance on producing a small amount of fabric every day before, they could now could afford to take days off and still eat well. They were quite happy, and never had to taste such suffering ever again.