Folk Tales

It’s the season to better oneself with New Year’s resolutions and ask for a little divine help in doing by visiting shrines and temples for Hatsumode, squeezing in your prayers along those of all the other visitors and trading in the old good luck charms for freshly powered new ones. Hirahama Hachimangu Takeuchi Shrine, located in southeastern Matsue, is especially popular with people who are seeking longevity, trying to avoid bad luck, seeking prosperous business, safety for one’s family, and especially traffic safety. Though they may have the specialties they are known for, no shrine is limited to their specialities, and many general wishes are made at any given place as well.

The primary deity at Hachimangu shrines is Hachiman-jin, considered a god of war in Shinto and in Buddhism. Historically he has been popularly worshipped by the samurai class, along peasants have worshiped him as a harvest god (though Inari is usually the more notable harvest god, and samurai like local hero Matsudaira Naomasa had a notable devotion to the fox deity). Seeing as success in war is a not a common wish for many people in Japan nowadays, the “safe return from war” seems to now translate as “a safe commute home with no traffic accidents.” Furthermore, although Hachiman-jin is not readily associated with success in passing one’s exams (Tenjin’s the obvious choice there), one could consider exams a sort of battle in and of itself.

With that in mind, these statues seem right at home in the most well-known Hachimangu shrine of Matsue.

First, we have a frog.

Frogs are frequently used for good-luck puns, since they are called kaeru in Japanese. This is synonymous with “to return,” such as in “many returns of good fortune.” In this case, it more blatantly refers to the safe return home of both people and their cars. The statue is called “Buji Kaeru.” This phrase means “return home safely” (無事帰る) but in this case, you could call it the “No Mishap Frog.”

It makes sense to have something like at a shrine well-known for its good graces it is supposed to provide in avoiding traffic accidents (among many other special intentions you could also select ema (prayer boards) for).

Then there’s the Daruma next to it. The Yaruki Daruma.

Daruma is the Japanese name for Bodhidharma, a monk said to have transmitted Chan/Zen Buddhism to Japan. In Japan, it is popularly said that he meditated so long that his legs fell off due to atrophy, and cute, round, and humorously serious Daruma dolls are a popular symbol for the merit of hard work (though if your legs fall off, I’m not sure how fortuitous that can really be). They are found at Shinto shrines throughout the country, with many shrines putting their own spin on how to use the simple and recognizable doll. A common practice is to purchase a Daruma when you have a goal in mind, and to paint on one eye. It is after you attain the goal that you needed to work hard for that you paint on the other eye. You can put any kind of spin on accomplishing any kind of goal, such as Yaegaki Shrine‘s blue and pink En-musubi dolls for couples.

The Yaruki Daruma provides willpower (yaruki) for studying. We all need a little help with this sometimes, right? I know I do. The sign next to the Yaruki Daruma says:

Willpower Daruma
冷頭静修: Cool your head and study quietly.
Pour some cold water on Daruma-san’s head and then say your prayers.

Pouring water on statues when saying prayers is a pretty common practice throughout Japan, such as pouring hot water on the Oyukake Jizo at Matsue Shinjiko Onsen (and yes, his name is literally “the Jizou to pour hot water on”). I like how stark the advice is on this statue. It’s not just a blanket “study, study, study!” command, it’s “hey, COOL IT and sit down and be quiet and DO THE THING.”

The advice seems even more effective when you imagine this face saying it to you.


It’s hard to be in Japan a long time and not encounter a story or two about kappa.

Are they monsters? Are they sprites? Are they… real?

Among the varied cast of Japanese haunts, kappa seem to be taken more seriously for their possible existance. Given the abundance of water throughout Japan and the dangers that come with it, this does not surprise me, but whether kappa warn children about the dangers of drowning, or whether the kappa themselves are the dangers, differs depending on the stories of each locale. Their descriptions vary according to each account, but in general, they are child-size aquatic creature with a little depression on the top of their head that serves as a little basin for water. Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai is a blog that focuses on Japan’s stories of ghosts and other strange things, and they have written more extensively about kappa, but being a San’in region blog, I’ll leave the more detailed descriptions to them.

Here in Matsue, if you want kappa, you go to Kawatsu-cho, a neighborhood with a river running through it where kappa are said to live. The local elementary school has made kappa-themed signs and posters, both taking the creatures as an unofficial mascot. In Sakaiminato City right across Lake Nakaumi, which is of course known for its connections with Mizuki Shigeru, Japan’s ultimate modern folklorist, has kappa mixed in with the hundreds of other haunts found there.

However, the best place in the region for any dedicated kappa fan is Okinoshima-cho, on the largest of the Oki Islands. A neighborhood near the ferry port is so filled with kappa legends that the Kappa Federal Republic (yes, that’s a thing) held their 26th annual summit there in 2013, with members of this roughly 500-person Republic coming together from all over Japan. I was there the following year and found their commemorative statue.

A kappa tour by boat is offered April through September by the Okinoshima-cho Tourism Association. Besides taking you on a hunt for the possibly real, possibly mythical creatures, they provide a nice view of the harbor, island, and neighborhood scenery and a good way to cool off on a hot summer day.

Although I did not spot any live kappa from the boat, I did receive a nice kappa fan, which was great for the weather. Ah, not to mention the kappa I met while walking around afterward.

Although people everywhere has some idea what a kappa is and what sorts of places you’d find them in, locales like Okinoshima-cho have a public awareness of these creatures’ supposed presence, evident both in local shrines and art.

Even without the kappa, the Oki Islands are the ultimate quiet island-life getaway, with a very unique homegrown culture almost as unique as the islands’ geological and biographical features. I very much so enjoyed during my visit, but despite the decreasing population like that which plagues most of rural Japan, this is the kind of place that grabs so people’s hearts and attention so much that they happily drop their city lives and transplant themselves here for good.

It probably helps that the kappa here are on the friendly side–sort of. There are many stories throughout Japan of kappa being helpful tricksters only if you trick them first, after which point they keep their promises. One such story took place in this neighborhood, where an old lady named Saito caught a kappa strealing cucumbers from her garden (kappa do love cucumbers, after all). Old Lady Saito caught it and cut off its hand, which shriveled up as the kappa escaped into the river. She kept the shriveled hand as a trophy, and some time later, the kappa sheepishly returned and begged for its hand back. She agreed, on the condition that the kappy protect her family. Thereafter, all the neighborhood kids would shout “I’m the grandchild of Saito!” before jumping into the river so that they kappa would not attack them or save them if they face drowning.

This spot, across the river from the neighborhood, is said to be where a kappa lives.

While no one can promises a kappa encounter where they are nonetheless frequently sighted(?), your best bet any time of year is to visit the Kappa Park, which an amusing array of kappa themed art to enjoy. I feel it’s fairly safe to say that these are on the harmless side.

Noh is a heavily stylized theater form with religious connotations and representative of high Japanese culture, and Kagura is a heavily stylized dance form with religious connotations and representative of Japanese folk culture. If you want to see something right in between them, you want to see Sada Shin Noh (佐陀神能) at Sada Shrine (佐太神社).

I have written before about the unique architecture of this shrine in a couple of entries before (see here and here), and in the previous entries I have written about the birth of the primary deity, but today our focus is on this piece of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Sada-no-Okami himself (official photo)

This two-day ritual take places on September 24th and 25th every year, and I saw it shortly after I arrived in Matsue. The atmosphere left an impression on me, but I did not have a good view, and like many Shinto rituals, it was initially interesting because of the atmosphere created by the firelight and traditional musical instruments and costumes, but then it started to drag on. However, I only went on the first day, when the holy part of the ritual takes place with the Gozagae dance, which purifies the new tatami mats before placing them inside the shrine in preparation for all the visiting kami during Kamiarizuki (The Month of the Gods, when 8 million deities from around Japan congregate not only at Izumo Taisha, but at a few other shrines throughout the Izumo region as well–meaning, the rest of the country has Kannazuki, the Month Without Gods).

Gozagae ritual (official photo)

The following day is for celebratory dances and performances to entertain the gods (and which, by extension, tend to be more entertaining for the human audiences as well). Unlike the night before, it builds up the drama as the night goes on, and unfortunately, this was not the night I was present.

Thanks to Jihye Park for the photo! Thanks to Jihye Park for the photo!

There are Sada Shin Noh performances occasionally held throughout the year, and I was invited to go along to a spring performance. It was still ritualized, but not the annual, holy ritual around which these folk performance is based. I say folk, but there are historic ties and influences from high-class Noh performances in Kyoto, which people who served at the shrine studies and incorporated. The dances of Sada Shin Noh went on to influence the flamboyant Kagura dance styles throughout Shimane. Nearly every Kagura form around Shimane has their own version of the local legends, especially Susano-o’s battle with the Yamata-no-Orochi.

Thankfully, that was the performance I got to see, called Yaegaki (you often hear this phrase associated with this legend, such as in Yaegaki Shrine). It had a slow start as the chanters set up the story like a conversation between Susano-o and Kushinada-hime, and then built up to the fight between Susano-o and the 8-headed-serpent (presented by one dancer with one head, though other styles of Kagura in Shimane have full coiling and fire-breathing beasts). Susano-o and Kushinada-hime were also in masks, and the subtleness with which they catch the light seems to lend different expressions to unmoving masks, a constant factor among a stream of stylized movements meant to evoke different emotions that a mask alone cannot.

 Thanks to Jihye Park for the photo! Thanks to Jihye Park for the photo!

It was of a different style and approach than seen in this 2003 video, but just when I thought the special performance might be wrapping up, they started the Akugiri dance (see 5:23). This made me sit up and pay extra attention, as it was the most impressive sword-slinging I had ever seen, coupled with valiant shouts from the old man which could easily have scared off any evil spirit. Although the percussion sounds in the video seem primary, the howl of the flutes guided the atmosphere more than anything else, and on that quiet night, I can only imagine how far the sounds carried through the quiet neighborhoods of Kashima-cho in northern Matsue.

It is a very closely held neighborhood traditional, and the people involved tend to be very tightly involved. Watching the performances also became more interesting once I had more of an understanding of how closely they are tied to the locale, especially since I could watch and recognize some of the people. Like, “Oh, that old priest on the big drums gave me a tour around the roof construction of the shrine” and “he has a mask on, but I can tell that the guy playing Susano-o is someone I know from city hall, and we went to a yakiniku party together once” and “now I finally get to hear one of my tea ceremony classmates perform the flute.”

There are a number of other dances among the Sada Shin Noh repertoire, and who knows, perhaps I will have another chance to go enjoy the atmosphere they create and oogle at the skills of the performers.

This is a well-known story in the Oki Islands. It’s a story about Yurahime Shrine on Nishinoshima, but it is said to have originated on Chibu. They are both small islands to the west, and Nishinoshima is one of my favorite hiking spots in Japan. Despite all the semi-wild horses that roam Nishinoshima, the island’s mascot is a squid.

One day, Yurahime, who was said to be a daughter of Susano-o*, floated out to sea in a wash bucket for potatoes. What she was doing in the bucket, I do not know.

Along the way, she amused herself by lightly dipping her hand in the water. A squid thought it would be funny to mess with her and yanked on her hand. Some say that it bit her.

As punishment for that one squid that picked on her, giant groups of squid has to gather in the harbor right in front of Yurahime Shrine every year.

(*Some people say that this is another name for Suseri-bime, but I don’t see much to back this up, and that’s just asking for more confusion. At least I’m pretty sure she’s not a potato.)

I don’t know, if I were Yurahime and was trouble by the squid teasing me, I probably would not want bunches of them showing up at my door step.

This is a real occurence, though. So many squid would show up in this harbor that, from the Meiji period through about 1945, there used to be about thirty fisherman’s’ shops set up annually right around the harbor to wait for them, and they come in huge group into such shallow water that they can just put on a pair of rubber boots and then scoop up bucketfuls with their hands.

However, the squid eventually figured this out and stopped flooding the harbor. Or at least, they don’t do it as often any more. Every few years it still occurs, it seems.

However, even if this phenomenon is not quite what it used to be, squid fishing is still a big, big thing on the Oki Islands (and other places along the Sea of Japan coast of the San’in region).

Especially around Oki, fishing for them at night is very common, and they use boats with lots and lots of giant light bulbs. They’re really massive, cool looking things that are also used for decoration around some spots on the islands, and their light is so bright that the seasoned squid fishers have tanned skin from working all night right under them. The squid think that this bright light is daylight and come to the surface, only to caught. Who is the joke on now, squids?

They look somewhat squid-like, too.

They look somewhat squid-like, too.

I didn’t used to like squid, but I’ve come to appreciate it while living here, the translucent raw squid that is often served as part of a sashimi course at fancy dinners. For those looking to try it for the first time, dried squid is nice. One of my earlier interpreting jobs was explaining how to gut the things and prep them for drying, but I didn’t do it myself.

My most distinctive San’in squid memory was last December, on a winter night spent at the Takobana cottages in Shimane-cho, overlooking the Sea of Japan from high cliffs. While making hot pot and playing games with my coworkers and waking up to the sound of the waves was nice, we all shared a strange experience looking out at the sea that night and seeing the bright white lights on the horizon. In the sky, however, they were straight, vertical lines of white light, not reaching down to the horizon and not reflecting off of any visible clouds. If we were not away that it was squid abduction going on, we all would have been convinced that it was alien abductions going on.

When you hear of the old province of Inaba, you might already be aware of the famous White Hare of Inaba thanks to his role in a popular Kojiki myth. He is not the only famous animal of the region, which is also known for the Inaba-Go-Kitsune—the Five Foxes of Inaba.

Foxes (kitsune) are known throughout Japan as tricksters that are adept are transforming, especially into humans, and especially into beautiful women. Of these local five, one was called “Otonjoro,” based on the name she took while pretending to be a prostitute (joro) in Yoshiwara (the famed red light district of Tokyo back when it was Edo). While acting as “Otomi” she used her trickery to fool around with the men of the big city, but when she got bored of that, she returned home to Inaba Province. This is one of the stories about her.

The villagers could tell she was up to no good in the area, and dreaded falling victim to her tricks. “We should offer a big reward for someone to do away with that Otonjoro,” they said.

Two young men stepped forward, confident in their abilities to best the beast. “We’ll get rid of her, so make sure it’s a really big reward!”

When it was a full moon, they staked out that night in the shadows of a big tree, and soon they saw a big fox come by. Silently, they watched as she placed a leaf from the tree on her head, spun around, and then ever so slowly transformed into a young woman. She took a large stone and plopped it into the river, and when she took it out, it was topped with water plants. This she cradled into her arms, and then it took the shape of an infant. As she walked off with the stone baby, the two young men stalked after her back towards the village.

The fox women came to a house, where the old man and old woman inside welcomed her, thinking it was their daughter and grandchild. The young men watched and listened from the windows, and when the old lady came outside, they addressed her in hushed tones. “Pssst! Old Lady! That woman in your house is a fox–it’s Otonjoro!”

“Don’t be stupid!” she laughed.

“It really is! You’re being fooled by a fox. She only looks like your daughter because she’s in disguise!” they pleaded and desperately tried to gain her trust.

As their voices grew louder, the Old Man soon came outside. “What’s going on out here?”

“Oh, Dear, these two young men are trying to tell us we’re being fooled by a fox.”

“That’s absurd!” he bellowed. “How dare they insult our daughter and grandchild that way?”

“It’s true!” the young men retorted. “If you don’t believe us, throw the baby in a pot of boiling water. It’s not a baby, it’s a stone. The disguise will boil away and you’ll see we’re telling the truth.”

“Fine, if you’re so insistent, that’s what I’ll do!”

They boiled a pot of water and threw the baby in, but to the young men’s horror, the baby did not turn back into a stone. “How can this be?” they asked, incredulous and turning pale. “We were so sure–we saw it with our own eyes!”

The old couple was livid. “How dare you! Because of your accusations, our adorable grandchild is dead! We’re going to have you thrown in jail!”

Before the young pair could fumble any defense on their part, a monk heard their raised voices from outside, and then welcomed himself in to mediate. “Pardon the intrusion,” he said. “I heard what happened, and I do not think you should condemn these men to prison. Doing so will not erase their sin or bring your grandchild back to life. Instead, you should have them go to the temple and become monks, and they will spend their days in there praying for the child’s soul. What do you think of this?”

The old couple agreed, and forgave the young men. Fearful as though they had already been to hell, the young men eagerly followed the old man inside the temple, where they shaved their heads and offered a large fish at the altar. In order to atone for their sin, they began fervent prayers, praying with all their might throughout the night.

Several hours later they were startled by the sounds of people calling their names, and astonished to see that the sun had already rose. With the morning light, however, they saw that they were sitting in the middle of a grassy field rather than inside of a temple. There was only grass where the old couple’s house stood, as it had all been an illusion of Otonjoro’s making. The fish they offered, as well as the the fox they were trying to catch, was gone.

“That Otonjoro!” they growled. “She’s thoroughly had us.”

Vexing though it was, they rubbed their newly shaven heads and returned home.

Following up the introduction of capricious crow-like creatures called Tengu, and especially Hokibo, the Daitengu of Mt. Daisen, I went looking for one in southern Matsue. For as many times as I’ve strolled through the Tamatsukuri Onsen area (see here, here, and here), I’ve never gone looking for this one.

Considering I already finished a short manga about another famous Tengu earlier this year (which is running in Asiascape‘s online publication, “Interpreting Kurama Tengu“, starting on page 34), I figured it was time to fix that. I was off to hunt down that Karasu Tengu!

The journey starts at Tamatsukuriyu Shrine. Instead of going up the stairs to the wishing stones, you take the path towards the ruins of Tamatsukuri-Yougaisan Castle, one of the castles of the Amago clan. The ruins are hard to see among the changing levels of forest, but at least there are signs you’re on the right track towards the Tengu (and everything else you discover a long the way).

This is a story from the old Izumo Province. Like the story in the previous entry, it has a wandering monk finding himself the target of trouble.

Although I haven’t really wandered into abandoned temples, you don’t have to in order to find giant spiders everywhere–in late summer and autumn, the colorful Japanese Wood Spiders sit in pairs in the middle of their webs, which are practically clustered among any stretch of branches or bushes, or the very industrious ones make rather ambitious webs stretching up to the tops of power lines. Scary though they might appear (and I’m not putting pictures here for viewers’ comfort, however interesting their appearance is) the humans and arachnids here stay out of each others’ way, and even if they do accidentally wind up in each others’ space, these spiders are not particularly dangerous. To humans, anyway. And that just goes for the normal spiders, anyway–can’t say the same for demonic spiders like in the story.

This story took place a very, very long time ago. One evening, there was a traveling monk making his way between temples. Rain started to fall in heavier and heavier droplets. The sun went down and the rain showed no sign of letting up, so he decided he should find a place to spend the night.

Far away from any villages, he at last found an old, secluded temple. He tried to inquire about the place, but he found nowhere there, and invited himself in to the living quarters meant for the head priest. He found that it was damp, stank of mold, and was filled with spider webs–it had fallen into horrendous ruin. “Well, it’ll be fine,” he decided. “I’ll just keep the fire lit until morning.”

He hurried to gather some burnable sticks from the garden, and then lit it up in the fireplace in the center of the room. The damp and dark room was immediately filled with a warm, red glow. Just as his body was starting to feel a bit warmer, he laid on his side by the fire, and was soon softly snoring.

After some unknown amount of time has passed, he sensed someone moving around, and his eyes shot open. The rain had let up, and through the window he could see the moon peaking out behind the pine trees. Staying completely quiet, he listened carefully.

There was a creak, creaking sound coming from the main hall. They were footsteps, growing closer. Then came the sound of old, broken shoji screens sliding aside.

“Who goes there, in this run down old temple?” he asked as he sat up. At that moment, the shoji screen to the room he occupied slid open, and a woman carrying to a baby stood there. The monk was quite surprised, and said, “I didn’t expect anyone to be living an old place like this.”

The woman took a seat on the floor, and then said in a pretty voice, “Is there any way I could ask you to take of this child for the night? Please don’t ask me why, just take him, please.”

Seeing as he was taking the liberty of staying in that place for the night anyway, and seeing as she had some dire reason for requesting this of him, he accepted.

“Thank you,” she said, then set the baby on the floor and stood up, slipping out of the room just as suddenly as she had come in. Following her exit, the baby, which had been set on his back, rolled over on to his stomach and began crawling towards the monk. One step, two steps, three steps, and so on it came.

The monk thought it was rather strange behavior, but then was distracted by what felt like a rope around his neck. When he tried to lift a hand to it, it started squeezing him with a terrible force. Looking back at the baby, he saw that it was no longer merely crawling, but it had a glint in its eyes as it fixated on him, and then starting sliding straight towards him.

“A monster!” the monk tried to shout, but his voice could not escape his throat.

Then, the baby began to rise towards the crickety ceiling by what looked like a silky thread, and then crawled towards a large hole.

Trying to escape, are you? the monk thought, and grabbed a large piece of firewood from the pit, and threw it at the baby with all the strength he could muster. When hit, the baby cried out with a loud, echoing scream, and this was the last thing the monk heard before he fainted.

Soon enough, morning came, and the monk came to. The hole in the ceiling was still there, and he went up to take a look. What he saw there shocking–many, many human bones scattered about, and two disturbingly large, dead spiders, a parent and child pair, skewered by a sharp piece of firewood.

The traveling monk gathered the bones and buried them appropriately, and buried the spider corpses somewhere deeper, somewhere further away.

A few weeks ago, I was invited out to woods of Yakumo-cho, a mountainous district in southern Matsue, to watch a dress rehearsal of a short play performed by Ashibue called “Nijuniya Machi“, taking place in Shiinomi Theatre, an intimate little performance space surrounded by trees. It is a story that takes place in the late Heian era in a rural village where they observe the classically recorded phases of the moon, but their activities at the temple are interupted by a ruff outlaw, and whether the hero is a good man or just an idiot is up for humorous interpretation. As much as I love theater, even the most amateur of productions, there are big differences between people taking part for fun, and people taking part for art.

One look at the stage and the level of detail in the costumes, and I could tell there were very capable people involved. Once the actors hopped on stage and started speaking, I could tell they were far more than simply amateur. After watching the production and making comments, I learned that many of the people involved were not locals, and had come out to San’in region specifically to work on this piece which will be showing at the 5th Yakumo International Theatre Festival.

The festival takes place every three years, and this year there are productions performed by theater groups from Japan, Hungary, Bulgaria, Canada, Argentina, and South Africa. The languages differ, but the groups involved know that there will be linguistic varience among their audience, and have tailored performances to reach beyond words. There will be productions for adults and children to enjoy together in Japanese or various native languages, multi-lingual performances, or performances with no words at all. It seems a lot of people are really looking forward to the wordless performance of “Sheep”, in which the actors–all dressed as sheep–will be performing outdoors should the weather permit.

I was invited to watch and comment on Ashibue’s performance to critique their use of English (see a couple photos on the Asashi Shimbun article here). A few weeks beforehand, the actors had suddenly been told that they were adding English lines to the script to make it more understandable to an international audience. Shocked though they were, they all learned them quite well, and many of the suggestions I made were only because I was listening very critically. The English lines blended well among the Japanese lines, saying what is necessary while matching the flow and mood of the scene, similar to a completely bilingual rakugo performance I was very impressed by when I first moved here. The actors, both from elsewhere and locals–very practiced at their craft–as well as the professionals brought in to oversee the production were all very easy to work with, as they all striving for perfection in what was already a very enjoyable play. Please take a look at Ashibue’s website to get a feel for the style and Shiinomi theater’s charms.

And lucky me… I’ll get to watch the final product at the opening night! It will take place on the larger stage so not everyone will be able to see the costume details quite as well, so even luckier for me, and I already got to see that version.

(But unlucky for you, my photos in no way do it any justice:)


The really hard part right now is choosing which performances I’m going to watch, because there are so many to choose from. I was originally thinking I’d just go for one day, but now I really think I need to be there all four days of performances! After all, there will be food from the represented countries to try as well!

This year’s event is offically October 30 to November 3 (a holiday) with performances open to the public starting on October 31. The next festival will be in 2017, so international theater groups that would like to participate should start looking into it now.

I better get tickets fast if I don’t want to miss anything!

Many people across Japan are familiar with the basics of the tennyo (heavenly maiden) legend, and there are a lot of fun ways to read into it, and compare or combine it with the legend of the star-crossed lovers–including another heavenly maiden–who meet on Tanabata. Although commercially celebrated on July 7, the celestial activity it actually celebrates was on August 2 this year. Next year (2015), it will be on August 20.

This particular version of a well-known legend takes place in Kurayoshi, Tottori Prefecture. The kids of Kurayoshi still keep the associated drum and flute traditional alive, as you can see on their blog.

Click for source

A very, very long time ago, in the land of Hoki, a young woodcutter was going about his usual work when he discovered something hanging on a boulder which he had never seen before. It was a beautiful, pure white and transparent folded cloth. Something like this must belong to a heavenly maiden, he thought, and then took the garment home.

That evening, as he was eating dinner, there was a knock at the door. There, he found a frantic but very beautiful maiden. “I cannot return home. Please allow me to stay,” she said sorrowfully.

“Not to worry, come on in.”

The maiden went on to explain, “I am a heavenly maiden. The gods sent me on an errand to the land of Izumo, and on the way back I stopped to bathe. I lost my heavenly robes,” her voice began to waver as she succumbed to tears, “Now I can never return to the heavens.”

Upon hearing this, the young woodcutter decided to hide the robes and never tell her that he stole them.

The heavenly maiden remained at his house, and at some point she became his bride. She gave birth to two sons, and when they grew older, she taught them to play the drums and flute*, and the sounds reminded her of her time in the heavens.

The years passed, and one summer night her sons went out to the mountain to gather bamboo for Tanabata decorations. In light of the holiday, she decided to prepare a feast, and starting pulling out all of the dishes she would need from the cupboard. While searching for some misplaced dishes, she discovered a dark corner of the cupboard where there was a wrapped package.

Finding it curious, she opened it and was shocked. “Why, it’s my heavenly robes!”

Nostalgic over seeing her garment again, she immediately put it on, and her body became light and fluttered off the ground, lightly rising toward the sky.

Her sons returned from gathered bamboo and noticed her up above them. “Ma!” they shouted. “Where are you going? Ma!!”

They called and called, but her form grew further and further away and then disappeared from sight, and she never returned to them.

Since then, it has been said that you can hear the sound of drums and flutes coming from the mountain. This is the voice of the two children calling out to their mother in the heavens. At some point, they started calling the mountain Utsubukiyama* because of this. How pitiful! Even today, you can sometimes hear the sounds of the drums and flutes riding on the wind.

Click for source

*The name “Utsubukiyama” can be broken down as follows:
The verb for beating a drum is 打つ (utsu)
The verb for blowing a flute is 吹き (fuki)
The word for mountain is 山 (yama)
Utsubukiyama: 打吹山

Does the term “Tengu” mean anything to you? Although sometimes translated as “goblin,” “gargoyle,” or simply “demon”, this particular type of mythical creature conjures images of human-esque anatomy, attire of a yamabushi (mountain monk often involved in esoteric practices), holding fans that control the wind (and possibly more), and red-faced with a long nose that reflects the inflated sizes of their egos.

Karasu-Tengu as illustrated by Mizuki Shigeru

Karasu-Tengu as illustrated by Mizuki Shigeru

Although the term (天狗) refers more literally to dogs of heaven, they are more commonly thought of as birds. Some of the lower ranked kotengu (小天狗), who are often pictured with more bird-like faces with beaks as opposed to the signature long nose. Infamously capricious, they are often involved in folktales throughout Japan, like this one. Tengu are as also sometimes known as Karasu-Tengu (カラス天狗), literally “crow Tengu.” As far as their form is concerned, however, they’re more likely based on black kites–not toys, but the giant birds of prey throughout Japan that light to steal people’s bentou in their talons in single swoops.

Some black kites and a large crow in Izumo for size comparison.

Hanging out with the Karasu-Tengu of Tengu Forest at Izumo Kanbeno Sato in southern Matsue. I've also found a Karasu-Tengu hiding in the forest behind Tamatsukuriyu Shrine in the Tamatsukuri Onsen area...

Hanging out with the Karasu-Tengu of Tengu Forest at Izumo Kanbeno Sato in southern Matsue. I’ve also found a Karasu-Tengu hiding in the forest behind Tamatsukuriyu Shrine in the Tamatsukuri Onsen area…

If there are lower ranked Tengu, then there are also higher ranked Tengu–Daitengu (大天狗). Although there is no known limit to the Kotengu dwelling throughout the mountains of Japan, according to various texts from Kamakura era and referred ever since, there are only 17 Daitengu, though only the top eight (perhaps that should be Top Eight) are mentioned very often. All the Daitengu possess superior intellect, and whether to the ire or to the honor of the locale (attitudes towards Tengu and whether they are good or bad vary from era to era), they have specific areas they inhabit.

The 7th of these 17 is Hōkibō (伯耆坊), who resides on Mt. Daisen, the highest mountain of the San’in region.

Click for source

Click for source

One of the local famous wagashi (Japanese confectionary) producers in Matsue, Saiundo, has a signature sweet named after the local Daitengu. The Hōkibō sweet has sugar and slightly chunky red beans on the outside with a layer of soft mochi on the inside, and is based off the shape of his fan, as illustrated below.

Click for source.

Click for source and a larger version.

Hōkibō has generally been looked upon favorably by the locals in Tottori, but according to Edo period records, he moved to Mt. Ōyama in Kanagawa to oversee the flocks of Tengu there due to a Daitengu vacancy left after Sagamibō left to comfort a banished emperor. Hōkibō’s name still reflects his original home, seeing as Mt. Daisen is in the old Hōki Province. He also still makes appearances in Daisen Town’s parade of characters in historical costumes (see here, and here, and here).


You know the funny thing about Mt. Daisen and Mt. Ōyama? They’re both written 大山 (quite literally, “big mountain”).

Seeing as he is often mentioned when the Top Eight of the Daitengu are cooperating in something, such as–under the leadership of the top ranked Daitengu, Sōjōbō of Mt. Kurama near Kyoto–watching over a young orphan of the Genji clan who would eventually grow up to demolish the oppressive Heike clan, as well as be one half of Japan’s most legendary of dynamic duos. It just so happens the other half of that duo was born and raised here in the San’in region, and trained on Mt. Daisen!

Click for source and to view a larger verson of the image. This is an ukiyo-e by Tsukioke Yoshitoshi, one of the last great ukiyo-e artists, although he was known for some rather grotesque subject matter. Hōkibō is taking Benkei down by his leg, while Sōjōbō sits back and watches with Ushiwaka.

This is just one interpretation of the famous meeting on Gojo Bridge in Kyoto between Yoshitsune (or Ushiwaka, his childhood name he still used at the time) and Benkei. In general, the start of their story is that Benkei was a powerful naginata user and beat everyone up, but when he was beaten by young Yoshitsune, he swore fealty to him, and this was the start of their semi-historical, semi-fantastical adventures. Their story has been continually expanded upon in literature for hundreds of years with some basic running themes, such as how Yoshitsune trained with Sōjōbō on Mt. Kurama before meeting Benkei. There are many, many stories of young Benkei (called Oniwaka) here in the San’in region, such as how his mother had cravings for iron when she was pregnant with him, so he was born with a black face and strong as iron, but that’s for another time.

In the meantime, just a little plug for Asiascape‘s “Manga as/in Essay” online magazine. I’ll have a 17 page manga piece running in the “Kurama Tengu” issue. I know, what a traitor I sound like, writing about a Kyoto Tengu rather than a San’in Tengu! But research for that piece is what lead to this entry, and Hōkibō was mentioned in the script for the Noh drama, and by liberally extended definition even the northern part of Kyoto Prefecture can be called part of the San’in region. Well, off to go reward myself with another Hōkibō of the wagashi variety.

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