This is a very old story known throughout Japan with slightly differing versions (oni instead of tengu, for instance), but it has a rare twist in the San’in region: while most stories end with a punishment for bad dancing, this one ends with a reward.

A statue in Tengu-no-Mori (Forest of Tengu) in Matsue's Kanbe-no-Sato, where I heard this story.

A statue in southern Matsue’s Izumo Kanbeno Sato, where I heard this story.

A long, long time ago, there lived an old man who had a large lump on his right cheek, which he was rather self-conscious about. He usually kept to himself, avoiding peoples’ stares.

One day, while out chopping wood in the forest, he came across a trio of tengu, that is, crow-like goblins that fly, control the weather with their special fans, and have egos almost as big as their noses are long. One, two, three tengu, dancing to some bewitching beat. The old man found it so enticing that he could not help but dash out and join in their ranks, losing himself as he swayed and shook to the music. One, two, three tengu, and four, an old man with a lump.

The tengu were very impressed by the old man’s abilities. When the dance ended, they praised him, and he could only accept their praise with the utmost humility. “We’ll give you a reward for showing us such a show,” said the leader of the tengu trio. “That lump looks like it must get in the way of your dancing. I’ll take it off for you.” So saying, he wriggled it off the old man’s face with ease.

Elated both by the experience and by having the lump removed, the old man returned to his village, and the people were all very surprised to see that he no longer had a lump. Another old man, who had a large lump on his left cheek, was especially interested. The first old man told him where he encountered the tengu trio, how he joined in the dance, and how they had decided to reward him for a good performance. “Perhaps if I do the same, they’ll remove my lump, too!” replied the second old man.

The next day, he set out to do just that. As the first old man had told him, he found the tengu trio the forest. One, two, three tengu, dancing to an entrancing beat. He dashed out to join them, dancing with as much bravado as his old muscles could muster, thrashing and hopping as wildly as his bones would allow. His performance was even wilder than the first old man’s performance had been, and the tengu were even more impressed. “That was amazing! You’re such a talented dancer,” they said.

“Oh no, not at all.”

“We should give you a reward for such a matchless performance.”

“Well, if you insist, I would love for–”

“I have this lump here. You can wear it as a symbol of pride!” So saying, the tengu–ever capricious in nature–slapped it upon the old man’s right cheek, resulting in both sides of his face being laden with hideous, leathery lumps. The trio of tengu flew away, leaving him with the curious proof of approval from such whimsy creatures.