Folk Tales

This is a short and silly little folk tale from Matsue, around Lake Shinji. Eel is one of the Seven Delicacies of Lake Shinji (宍道湖七珍), especially in summer. The birds who make an appearance in this story are also a very typical part of the Lake Shinji scenery.

Photo from Naniwa Honten, one of the more famous restaurants along the banks of Lake Shinji. Click for source.

A long, long time ago, there was an old couple, and one day, the old man said to the old lady, “I’m goin’ out to catch some eel for a tasty dinner tonight. Set up the grill while I’m gone.” With a smile, she saw him off.

He lowered his fishing line into the water and laid back and waited, relaxing at the banks of Lake Shinji. For a long time, nothing happened. A bird circled above him, cawing, “The eels are all asleep! They’re down in their holes! They’re all asleep!” However, the old man paid them no mind and continued to relax and be patient.

At last, there was a tug on the line. “Now I gotcha!” he smiled and sprang to his feet to grab hold of the pole. He pulled and tugged and soon an enormous eel sprang out of the water. “Gotcha!” he shouted as he let go of the pole with one hand to grab hold of its slimy body. As the eel wriggled around and shot itself upwards out of his grip, he grabbed on with the other hand.

Again, the eel surged upwards to try to wriggle free, and as one hand came loose, he grabbed higher.

The eel spurted itself higher. The old man grabbed higher.

Higher and higher.

The old man didn’t even notice when they had gotten so high that his feet had lifted off the ground. Soon enough, he noticed that Lake Shinji was below them, looking further and further away, smaller and smaller, as he and the eel went higher and higher.

Meanwhile, the old lady was starting to wonder what was taking him so long to return home. She grew anxious, then grew worried enough go out and look for him, but she caught no sight of him.

For days, he did not return. With a heavy heart, the old lady thought, “Perhaps he’s never coming back. But where could he have gone?” She began to cry.

At that moment, a large bird swooped down towards her and dropped a piece of paper, which floated down into her hands. Curiously, she took a peek, and saw that it was a woman’s handwriting, yet the words of her husband. It read:

Dear, I caught a big eel the other day, but while tryin’ t’ wrangle it, it shot up towards the sky. I’m still tryin’ t’ catch the dang thing!

Note: Seeing as he is preoccupied catching the eel, your husband was unable to let go and write this message, so I have taken his dictation. Signed, a heavenly maiden.

This is a folk tale as told by an old lady from Kurayoshi, Tottori, who was born in the late Meiji era. Let’s keep in mind that the content was passed among common people for the sake of entertainment, not for accurate discussion of Buddhist cosmology.


This is a story that happened a long, long time ago. At that time, in the district of Wada, there was a temple called Jokoji, and they had a new head priest come in. The head priest at Tentokuji Temple in Tottori heard about this, and said, “I heard they just got a good new head priest out there at Jokoji Temple. I would like try him out with a few Zen questions.” He sent out a messenger saying such.

The head priest at Jokoji Temple was very distraught to hear this news. “Well, I’ve got myself in quite a pickle,” he sighed heavily. “I just came here for the money, I can’t answer any questions about Zen!” The upcoming visit made him very stressed.

At that time, it turns out Jokoji Temple was fairly popular with the religious pilgrims, so it was frequented by many visitors. As was common with many popular temples, there were business ventures based around these visitors and pilgrims. One such venture was a little manju (sweet dumpling) shop owned by a man named Chochibei. Based on a suggestion from his daughter when they were having trouble getting the right ratio of filling and dumpling, they specialized in selling very, very large manju for a cheap 2 cents, and there were always people lined up to get these giant manjuu.

Since his business was at the temple, Chochibei saw the new head priest everyday, and noticed he was in low spirits. “What’s the matter, Mr. Priest? You don’t look like you’re feelin’ so well lately.”

“I’m not sick or anything, not to worry.”

“Yeah, but I’ve rentin’ this space to sell manju for the past month or so, an’ in that time I’ve noticed a change. I really think you should see a doctor or somethin’.”

“Thanks, but a doctor wouldn’t find anything wrong with me.”

Still, Chochibei asked a third time if anything was wrong, and finally the head priest opened up to him. “You see, Mr. Chochibei, the head priest from Tentokuji Temple is going to visit on the 16th day of the 3rd month to quiz me, but I won’t be able to answer his questions.”

“A quiz? If it’s anything like a mathematics quiz that’s nothing t’ worry about. Two plus two is four, you know?”

“Well, something like that…”

“Hmm. If it’s troubling you that much, then just leave it t’ me! I’ll take your place when he comes!”

The 16th day of the 3rd month soon arrived, and the head priest of Tentokuji Temple arrived with a procession of monks. At that time Chochibei was out selling his manju, shouting loudly, “Two cents! Two cents! One giant manju, two cents!”

The head priest of Jokoji Temple was listening and sighed, wondering if it would really be alright to leave this task to a manjuu salesman. Before he could change his mind (not that he’d have had any better option), Chochibei dashed in and started changing his clothes, saying, “Alright! Let him come at me with those questions! I’ll any of ’em!” Now dressed as a head priest and hardly recognizable, he entered the hall just as the head priest of Tentokuji Temple did. The visiting priest bowed, and Chochibei decided to mirror him to try to look the part.

They were then seated in front of each other, silently. The visiting priest then raised his arms over his head like a large ring.

What? The head priest of Tentokuji wants my giant manju? Alright then! I usually sell them for two cents, but since he’s in charge of a loaded temple, I can charge him a little more, thought Chochibei, who then held up three fingers.

In response, the head priest held up two fingers.

Tryin’ to haggle with me since he already heard the price was two, huh? Tough! I just raised the price! he thought, and then pulled down his eyelid and stuck his tongue out at him.

The head priest then held out one outstretched hand, as if indicating the number five.

Chochibei was pleased. That’s more like it. He’ll take five manju at that price! He answered with a nod and approving grunt.

The head priest of Tentokuji Temple smiled, and nodded his head. “Very good, very good indeed.” He then stood and turned to leave.

“Wait a moment, Mr. Priest! We’ll prepare a feast for you right away, so please stay.”

“No, no need. I am already quite satisfied,” he continued to smile as he made his exit. “I can see that Jokoji Temple has a very good new head priest.”

On his way back, the head priest was still commenting to himself about what a good priest he had met. His followers eagerly asked him what they had discussed. “First, I started by asking him about the Earth,” he explained, “and he answered with the Three Realms. So I asked him Japan*’s place in all this, and he said that it is in Divine Eye. I asked if he was sure it wasn’t among five worlds**, and he was sure. So I was satisfied with that.” The other monks were all impressed by the depth of such answers.

Chochibei, on the other hand, was asked by the real head priest of Jokoji Temple what the other head priest had asked about. “Oh, that?” he replied. “Seems he just wanted to buy my manju. I said I’d charge him 3 cents, but he wanted ’em for 2 cents. He came around after I made a face at him and said he’d buy five of ’em. We didn’t talk about anything but manju.”

“Oh, I see. Well, alright then.”

In the end, despite the lack of mutual interpretation of the episode, everyone was quite satisfied.

Note: This story has puns!
*”Japan” is Nihon or Nippon, which is synonymous with “two (fingers)”
**”five worlds” (as I’ve translated it for simplicity’s sake) is gokai, which is synonymous with “mistake.”
With regard to the terminology, I’ve gone with Three Realms as opposed to the Trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu it was referring to in Japanese, and Divine Eye as opposed to just “eye” so as the capture the spirit of the story. Again, this is just a fun folk tale.

Modern day Jokoji Temple (click for source)

Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!

February 3rd was Setsubun, a holiday in Japan to mark the changing of the seasons and ward off bad luck to make room for good luck. Even my tea ceremony lesson room is decorated with a painting of a sad and comical looking oni. This creature of Japanese folklore is sometimes translated as “demon,” but I prefer “ogre” as sometimes they’re more misunderstood than evil. On Setsubun, the basic practice is to have a member of the household wear an oni mask and the other members of the household chase them around throwing dried soy beans at them, shouting “out with the oni, in with the luck! Out with the oni, in with the luck!” Then everyone eats however many beans for however many years they’ve lived–an 8-year-old would stop at eight beans, but an 80-year-old would have to eat eighty of them.

This was how I celebrated my first Setsubun last year, just hanging out with friends.

However, Setsubun can be a big deal for many shrines and temples, too. In Matsue, the biggest Setsubun festivities are at Kumano Taisha. Like Sada Shrine, it’s historically had a strong influence on the region and has close ties to Izumo Taisha.

Kumano Taisha, Matsue

This is one of the famous shrines dedicated to Susano-o (he’s a pretty big deal in the San’in region). Not only did he rid Japan of the terrible Yamata-no-Orochi, but he taught the earthy inhabitants of the lands how to create fire using tools. Hence, Kumano Taisha is known as a special place for the spirit of fire, and is also famous for its Sanka-sai Fire Festival in mid-October. There is an auxiliary hut on the shrine grounds dedicated to this, known as the Sanka-den.

Speaking of auxiliary shrines, Izanami–both considered Susano-o’s mother and the mother of many other lands and gods–who was killed giving birth to fire has a pretty sizable one here. She’s also kind of a big deal in the San’in region.

Ah, and those vermillion torii gates mark a spot for Inari, too. Commonly known as the fox god (though not necessarily a fox), this kami is thought to provide good harvests and riches, and the Matsudaira clan that ruled over the Izumo domain through most of the Edo period was especially dedicated to him (but sometimes argued “her”). One of the old men at the shrine this day awaiting the Setsubun festivities excited asked if I could read the sign over there. “Do you know this kami? It will give you lots of money! Haha!”

So just what were some of the festivities going on? Setsubun is like the sequel to the Hatsumode New Years visits, with a special emphasis on making sure you’re totally rid of all the impurities or bad luck or illness or disasters that piled up over the course of the previous year. It’s sort of like resetting your luck to start with a clean slate. As part of that, old good luck charms from the previous year are deposited at the shrine to be burned.

Some of the faithful pay to undergo a purifying ritual before the main event starts, while others just make their offerings and say their prayers.

Alcohol is useful for purifying things, so sake is served.

And household hygienic products are useful for similar illness-warding measures, so upon arrival everyone was given a lottery ticket to see what kind of cleanly item they would get to take home. I got soap-scented toilet disinfectant.

As the people gathered in anticipation, I overheard some interesting conversations. Some of the people who received big boxes of tissues complained, “how am I supposed to catch things while I’m holding this?” A man had brought his adult daughter who kept her hoodie on in the light rain, and demonstrated while he suggested how they should dive for fallen items in the crowd. She just have him a flat “no way” in response. Someone who seemed to be in-the-know instructed a guy with a camera about angle the first item would come and where it would hit the crowd. However, no one looked as fired-up as the elderly people, who turned out in the greatest numbers. That may have been because it was a weekday, it may have been because they’re really serious about their Setsubun and have years of perfecting their prize-catching techniques.

The sounds of the drums and flutes within the shrine grew louder, and the priest and the procession of dignitaries wearing traditional Japanese garb on top of their business suits entered the auxiliary hall beside the main hall. The prizes started with an arrow, a traditional good luck charm to pierce through evil influences, shot out into the audience at precisely the angle and distance I had overheard predicted, and people scrambled for it like a home run ball in a baseball stadium. A second arrow was fired after that one.

Then the mayor of Matsue Masataka Matsuura (say that five times fast–I do quite a bit when I’m interpreting) and other dignitaries starting tossing bags of dried soy beans (mame) and small pounded rice cakes (mochi) things got crazy. I couldn’t help but be reminded of our Friendship City, New Orleans, and the shouts of “throw me something, mister” at Mardi Gras. Sure, the scale was different, but the seriousness in catching throws and pocketing as many as you could was perhaps just as enthusiastic. The old people had to make sure they’d take home enough mame to match their years, after all!

As for the mochi, it was still edible but had grown a little hard by then. You know how I know this? Just as I was thinking, “hmm, this is perhaps a little scary” I got smacked in the forehead with a bag of them. Somebody snatched that bag before I could, though. It didn’t hurt, but it was a little red after that (which thankfully cleared up before the TV news crew interviewed me later. I tend to be reporter bait at these kinds of events). At last when the man in front of me bend out to pick something up, I was able to snatch the bag that was on his back, and then I retreated for a better view.

I’m not sure how long it lasted, maybe only ten minutes or so, but they went through a lot of mame and mochi in that time.

When being interviewed on my thoughts later, I was asked what I wished for this year. What? I was still supposed to be making wishes? I just wanted to get my mame! One of the reporters filled in with a typical local catch phrase, “Maybe some En-musubi?” “Uh… sure, yeah!”

Too bad those poor oni don’t get to make any New Year wishes.

Here’s another folk tale from Chizu Village out in Tottori to celebrate the Year of the Horse. For those you keeping track, the lunar year (as celebrated in other Asian countries) started on January 31 this year, but Japan has long ago switched to the Gregorian calendar, leading to another level of complexity of the calendar and meaning that we’re already a month into the Year of the Horse here.

A long time ago, there was a family with no worries, plenty of money, and a single child. There was a poor family nearby that also only had one child, the two of them got along quite well. They were always seen together. One day, while chatting as usual, one said, “When we grow up, we should go on a journey.”

“Sure, let’s do it.”

Their families were supportive. “Well, a journey would build character. Go ahead!”

Seeing as they were always together, they of course went on this journey together. The rich family provided a suitable amount of cash for their son, and the poor family managed to give their son a little bit of cash.

On their journey, they decided to stay at an inn. The rich boy fell fast asleep as soon as he lied down in bed, but the poor boy had trouble sleeping and tossed and turned and tossed and turned all night. In the middle of the night, a woman–he wasn’t sure whether she was the madame of the inn or her daughter or what–walked through the hall, the tatami mats creak, creak, creaking under her steps. Opening the door to their room, she slipped inside, and made her way over the sunken fireplace, where she took something out of her sleeve and began to stir around the ash as though she was cleaning up. Not so, however–she had husked rice, and planted it in the ashes. Immediately, it sprouted into a young rice plant and grew bigger and bigger, bearing a fresh ear of rice. The woman plucked it, and the rice turned into dango–rice dumplings.

The following morning, the dango was in bowls on the table. The poor boy was folding up their beds when we noticed the rich boy had begun eating the dango for breakfast, and couldn’t stop him in time.

Swallowing the dango, the rich boy turned into a horse.

He started neighing and grunting, and a man came inside and put a rope around his neck and led him out. He immediately put the horse to work in the fields, and continued forcing him to work as soon as he woke up every morning for the following days.

This is wrong! the poor boy thought. The only reason I didn’t turn into a horse is because I didn’t eat the dango. And since I’m still a human, I have to find some way to save my friend! He left the inn and ran, looking for anything thing that might help him.

He passed by an old man, who asked, “Where are you going, young man?” In a wordy breath, the boy told him what had happen, the old man nodded. “I see, so that’s what it is. I’ll tell you how to turn your friend back into a human. Over there, there’s a field. There’re eggplants in that field, you see. Lots of them! Look for seven in a row that are all pointing east. Pluck those seven, and take them back to your friend and make him eat them, and then he’ll turn back into a human.”

As he was told, the poor boy found the field full of eggplants, but he couldn’t find the seven in a row facing east. There would be four, or there would be five, but there would never be seven. For days, he continued to search and search through the field and managed to find a row of six, but there was not a seventh. He was growing very weary from searching and wondered how he would ever find them, but decided to go one more row for good measure. As he was walking along that row, there would be one or two here and there that faced east, but at last, there they were–the seven in a row all facing east!

He plucked them and ran back to the inn, and found that the horse had grown thin and weary from hard labor. The poor boy took the rope off of his neck and the horse neighed in thanks but said no human words. “Good, I made it in time,” the human breathed a sigh of relief, and began to feed him the eggplants. First one, then two, then a third, and a fourth, but after the fifth the horse turned his head and refused to consume any more. The poor boy tugged at his neck to try to get him to face him again, pleaded with him, drew pictures in the sand to try to explain that he needed to finish eating them in order to turn human again, and petted his neck.

The horse relaxed, and the poor boy forced the sixth eggplant in his mouth. “Just one more, you can do it!” he encouraged him, but the horse forced his head away again. The boy petted his neck and rubbed his shoulders and back, trying to make the horse cooperate. “Just eat one more, and then you can be human again!” The horse at last relaxed again, and the poor boy shoved the seventh eggplant down his throat.

The moment after the horse swallowed it, he turned back into a human, and–both quite relieved–they ran away from the inn together and returned home.

“Well, you weren’t gone for very long. Did you build some character?” the father of the rich boy asked.

“We sure did! You see, it was like this,” the rich boy answered. “I was put through all kinds of suffering like this and this and like that, and you know what, Father? My friend is a great friend, and he did this and this and that for me.

Hearing this, his father replied, “Really? We’re really owe you, then! You’re his savior! If you hadn’t have been there for him, my son would have had to be a horse for the rest of his life.”

“That’s right, Father! I would have been forced to hard labor in that field every day, and life would be miserable!”

“Thank goodness everything’s turned out alright. And you know what? We have such fortune in our family that we’re alright with only half of it. How about it? How about you inherit half my fortune, and your friend inherits the other half?”

He enthusiastically agreed, and the father followed through on his promise immediately. Both boys grew up supported by half each of the fortune, and lived very pleasant lives thereafter.

This was a story I heard at Matsue’s Izumo Kanbeno-Sato, told in a very charming setting with illustrations and a talented narrator.

There once was a lonely old man who nonetheless was a very hard worker. Every day, he tended to his fields, without complaint. One day, he found a red cap in his fields, but there was no one around who could have dropped it. Taking a better look at it, he heard a tiny voice. “Dear Ojiisan,” it addressed the old man respectfully, “you’re a very hard worker. I’m a god, and I’ve been watching you. Take this hat as a gift. It will allow you to hear all things, and it will bring you good fortune.”

Gratefully, he accepted it, keeping it on his person. After finishing his labor for the day, he sat under a tree to take a nap, but couldn’t sleep because the crows above him were being so noisy; kaa, kaa, kaa, kaa. “Those crows!” he grumbled. “How can anyone fall asleep with all that ruckus?” Kaa, kaa, kaa, kaa, kaa, kaa.

It then occurred to him to try out the cap he had been gifted with. Doing so, the cacophony subsided, and he could hear human speech coming from the birds above: “The poor village headman over there. Did you hear? He’s terribly ill, and none of the human doctors can figure out what to do to cure him.” “They have no idea it’s because of the snake that died in his storeroom. It’s just a pile of bones by now, but being stuck in there is causing it so much grief that the headman has been sickened by it. It would be such a simple matter to give the snake a proper burial, and then the headman would be healed.” “Yes, but there is no way to tell the humans there. What a terrible misfortune.”

The old man immediately set out for the neighboring village to help the sick man. It took him several hours on foot to crossed the mountain, but he was accustomed to hard work and fatigue did not slow him. When he arrived, he asked to visit the village headman, but his attendants regretfully told him he was too ill to welcome an visitors. “Every doctor has tried to heal him, but to no avail. We’re at such a loss.”

“That’s why I’m here. I know how to heal him.”

“By all means, please! Save our headman!”

He met with the sick man and told him off the snake that died in his storeroom, and that it should be handled appropriately. The villagers found the bones, and then made a proper grave and offered rites to the spirit of the trapped snake. The headman was soon back on his feet, and was eager to express his thanks, giving the old man many gifts to take home with him. Satisfied with his successful good deed, the old man accepted the gifts and returned to his lonely mountain dwelling, where he continued his usual work.

Months later, messengers from the village came seeking his advice on behalf of the village headman’s daughter, who had taken ill. The doctors had tried everything, but could not determine the cause for her illness or the right way to treat her. The old man grabbed his red cap and followed them, eager to help if he was able to.

Upon arriving, he stood outside of her quarters, put on his cap, and listened. All he could hear, however, was the counter of the girl’s labored breathing. He was distressed that he had no way to help, but continued to wait in the village. The night, he did not hear any gossiping crows; only the sound of the trees rustling in the wind. Basa basa basa basa basa basa… basa basa basa basa basa basa…

When he put on his cap, he heard the gingko tree say to its companions, “It is with great regret that I must part with you all…” it said weakly and quietly… “but headman’s daughter’s quarters were built upon my roots. My roots are now damaged, and I will soon shrivel and die.”

The other trees were crying. “It’s so unfair,” the pine replied. “You’re still so young! If only they would tear down those quarters and allow your roots to heal, you could still have a long life. The headman’s daughter would be saved that way, too! But humans are too foolish to know that.”

The old man immediately informed the village headman what he must do to save his daughter. They demolished her quarters, and treated the gingko’s roots. Soon enough, both the tree and the girl began to regain their strength. When the girl was her usual cheerful self again, she insisted that she and her father hold an audience with the old man. “You’re so kind, Ojiisan. You’ve rescued both me and my father,” she said. “There must be some way to repay you! Please tell me anything you want.”

“I have already accepted your gifts before, and my needs have always been met,” he replied. “Although I have managed, I live a very lonely life.”

“Then stay here with us! We’ll adopt you as my grandfather,” she offered. Her father enthusiastically agreed, and the old man felt so welcomed that he couldn’t refuse. He moved in with them, and they all lived very happy, fulfilling lives.

Two thirds of the Kojiki myths take place in the San’in region. Though most of them take place in the Izumo region (primarily modern the cities/towns of Izumo, Matsue, Unnan, and little bits of Okuiizumo and Yasugi), the White Hare of Inaba–Inaba-no-Shirousagi–takes place primarily on the eastern end of modern day Tottori in what used to be known as Inaba Province. The name makes my inner Persona 4 fan smile, but the name typically only remains as a general area name rather than a town itself (though there are districts in larger cities in other prefectures called Inaba, too). The white hare itself is originally from the Oki Islands, which you can read more about in this entry. Izumo still has a guest mention in this myth, as Onamuji and his 80 brothers are originally from Izumo.

While the actual location of the hare’s entry point on the mainland and godly encounters are fairly definitive, I haven’t found any materials indicating his point of departure from Oki. Based on the point of the island located closest to the Tottori shore, Daft Logic says it would be a 109.449 kilometer journey in a straight line. What’s more, if the hare’s fur was already white, then it would have been winter at the time. Talk about a brisk journey! And how about counting those sharks/crocadiles? If we were to assume a meter for each of them, then that’s 109,449 sharks/crocodiles. I think it’s fairly safe to assume the hare wasn’t counting.

I decided to have this blog cover the whole San’in region instead of just the Izumo region specifically to include this story in the Kojiki narrative, but I have to admit I still have yet to visit eastern Tottori, the Oki Islands, or for that matter, anything west of Hamada in Shimane. The Izumo region is where I gather most of my material, and I’m a touch biased. I meant to take my own photos though, really! For this entry, you’ll have to bare with borrowed photos, and I’ll focus on other sights when I eventually get to Tottori-shi and the Oki Islands myself.

First off, a huge thank-you to Bernice at Made in Matsue for letting me use some of her photos. Please check out her entries for more photos of Hakuto Beach and Hakuto Shrine.

Hakuto Beach is where the white hare was said to arrive, lose his fur, get fooled by the 80 brothers, and finally have his encounter with Onamuji. The place where the potential suitors met Yagami-hime is likely close to there, and though it is not explicit, it’s probably okay to assume she lived in or somewhere around Menuma Shrine, which is dedicated to her.

Thanks, Bernice!

Thanks, Bernice!

Hakuto Shrine, the shrine across the road from the beach, is said to be the specific place where the hare met Onamuji and healed himself in the Mitarashi Pond. As this is a shrine dedicated to the hare, it is also an En-musubi shrine, as well as a shrine to go to ask for healing from skin diseases. This also the sight of the most photographed statue of Onamuji and the hare (there are a handful of other statues in the Izumo region, too).

Thanks, Bernice!

Thanks, Bernice!

According to this 6 minute Japanese video about visiting the shrine, a special En-musubi custom of the shrine is to purchase a bag of white stones (five for 500 yen), and try to toss them on top of the stone torii gate. If it lands on top, your wish will be granted for sure. Otherwise, just leave the stone with the rabbit for good luck. This is just one of many, many special shrine customs in addition to the usual omikuji, ema, and omamori customs common to just about any Shinto shrine. En-musubi customs are especially popular.

Those are the primary points to cover for where the legend actually is said to take place. The Izumo region, though it is home to Yamata-no-Orochi and Yomi legends as well as legends I haven’t even touched on yet, doesn’t let the Inaba keep its claim to Kojiki fame. No, the hare has left its mark everywhere on this side of the region. Apparently it was a well traveled little hare, but if it hopped across over 100,000 beastsworth of sea, I supposed it’s not surprising it if made a tour around other parts of ancient Japan.

Just one variation on an iconic shot.

Despite being Matsue’s most festive month, October is passing me by and I’m not making it to many events due to being busy elsewhere or too busy doing things at the events to hold a camera! That means I have nothing to show for this year’s Little Mardi Gras parade and live jazz events to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Friendship City relationship between Matsue and New Orleans (besides saying it was great), and only have my memories and few photos of last year’s Dai-chakai and Do-gyoretsu Drum Parade.

October is also one of the only times of year when you can set foot on an iconic piece of Matsue, Yomegashima, the only island on Lake Shinji. Stretching 110 meters east to west and 30 meters across, the island near the southeast bank of the lake and looks like a round slab of flat island that flung onto the surface of the water and stayed there. Actually, that is the scientific theory–possibly lava from someplace like good old Daisen? That would make it very similar to Daikonshima, the volcanic island on Lake Shinji’s sister lake Nakaumi that is famous for its peonies.

Yomegashima is not famous for its scientic origins so much as for its legendary origins, though. It is said that a young bride was married off to a cruel family across the lake, and unable to bare it any longer, she decided to runaway and go back home. In her hurry, she took a short cut across the ice that had formed on the surface of the lake, but just as she was close enough to see the lights of her home village, the ice broke and she fell in and drowned in the icy waters. The gods that were watching took such pity on her that they made the island spring forth in her honor. Hence, it is called “Bride Island.”

I don’t know how long it’s been called this, though–back in the 8th century when the Chronicles of Ancient Izumo was being compiled, it was called something more like “Snake Island,” but it was already called “Bride Island” by the time Lafcadio Hearn arrived at the turn of the 20th century.

The poor drowned bride doesn’t always need to be lonely, though! I went just after the rain had cleared on a day last October when they were sending boats out (they did the same this October too, but I was busy!). Local guides explain scientic and legendary aspects of the island to visitors, and then you can take your time to wonder its 240 meter circumference and then stop and enjoy some matcha (because that’s what all the cool people do out here).

The view from the shore

The view from the boat

The view from the island

One of my first impressions when I arrived was how flat it was and that there were shijimi clam shells underfoot. It’s the most famous of the seven (tasty) wonders of Lake Shinji.

While apparently not totally resistant to waves on stormy days (unless those were very athletic shijimi), the island has been protected by rows of Jodei-ishi, designed by Kobayashi Jodei, a famous craftsman of the Matsue domain in the Edo period when Matsue was actively ruled by the samurai class. The material is Kimachi stone, which is still taken today from the Kimachi area of southern Matsue to carve into lanterns are other such decorative items. The Jodei-ishi that surround and protect Yomegashima today are the same stones that were placed there in the Edo era, and photographic evidence from the Meiji and early Showa periods shows that they were also placed around the Sodeshi Jizo, a pair of Jizo statues by the shores which are almost as iconic as Yomegashima itself in Matsue’s famous sunset scenery.

As for some human efforts made to ease the loneliness of the mythical drowned bride, early photographs show that there originally wasn’t much on the island at all, but early in the Showa period a couple of citizens donated a large number of pine trees so that a small forest grows there now. At the front of the forest, facing the sunset viewing spot on shore, is a torii gate so as to dedicate the island as a shrine to the goddess Benten.

I’ve been to the island by boat, but there is also an annual event you can sign up for to walk out to the island. They set up a walkway just below the surface of the water. I’ve missed this twice, but I hope next time both to try it out for myself and see what a trail of people walking on water would look like! With my luck I won’t have my camera with me, though.

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.

Have you ever heard of Tatara?

If you’re like me, the first thing that pops into your head is one of the 28 Chinese mansion constellations (婁), but if you’re more interested in iron working, steel working, and Japanese swords, perhaps you already know this as foot-operated bellows used in the firey production of these materials (踏鞴, though usually written phonetically as たたら).

It’s such a crucial part of this region’s history, however, that I’ve learned a thing or two–though lacking any craftsmanship sense, my knowledge is still limited. Here’s a basic introduce so as to introduce one of the local deities.

Tatara was likely imported into Japan from Korea by way of Shimane Prefecture, and seeing as the San’in region is rich with titanium magnetite, a necessary ingrediant for iron production, it took hold here very early on in Japanese history. Way back in ancient Japan–specifically 713ad, two years after the compilation of the Kojiki (originally ordered by Emperor Temmu) was completed, Empress Gemmei ordered the compliation of the Fudoki. While the Kojiki is like a history book (which we would now consider a book of Shinto mythology), the Fudoki were like encyclopedia, conducted in each province to chronicle geography, plant and animal species, the lifestyles of the people, and significant historical events (many of which we would now refer to as myths). Most of the Fudoki no longer exist, but the Izumo-no-Kuni-Fudoki remains mostly in tact. Therefore, we know a lot more about life in 8th century Izumo than about any other part of Japan. It includes many details about tatara.

One of the diorama at the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo.

Because we have so much information about its history and because it was practiced in Izumo province for hundreds of years, there are a number of museums, blacksmith family residences, archeological digs, ruins, and sword museums around the towns of Okuizumo, Yasugi, and Unnan. Okuizumo is best known for this because the The Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords has rebuild a tatara there called Nittoho-Tatara, and forges swords using traditional means once a year a so. Unfortunately, due to risk of injury, these are not typically open to the public (bummer!). The nearby Okuizumo Tatara Swords Museum, however, does a 90-minute forging display on the 2nd and 4th Sunday of every month.

Click for map source (Japanese)

There is a patron god of Tatara, though many of the popular local myths say she is a goddess. This is Kanayago, the kami that is revered throughout Japan for teaching craftsmen how to making iron. Having particular influence over Western Japan, she wanted to settle in the mountains there, so she descended upon a particular spot in southwestern Yasugi where a heron perched upon a katsura tree, a very brief hike up the hill from Kanayago-jinja, the head shrine of all Kanayago shrines.

Pretty humble for a head shrine.

As numerous as Kanayago shrines are (especially in the Chuugoku region), many of them make donations to this head shrine.

A short walk across from the entrance to the shrine is the folk tradition hall dedicated to the shrine and legends about Kanayago. It’s small, but well designed and with lots of information and 3D displays. I was running out of battery on my camera, though, so I didn’t take pictures of the birds and katsura and wisteria displays!

This shrine is mounted on a “kera.”

I thought the rat motif carved into the shrine was interesting, especially since there is another very famous kami in the Izumo region associated with rats. When I asked the museum staff about it, they said that because rats are numerous, they are a sign of good luck–that the blessings may also be numerous!

There is a kera featured in this photo, as well as a few outside the shrine. This seemingly unattractive 2.8 tone slab of rock is actually the result of 70 hours of heating 13 tons of iron and 13 tons of charcoal in the firey bellows, it is from this kera that they can get 1 ton or less of tama-hagane (“jewel steel”), from which katana and other Japanese blades are made.

Phew. That was a heavily paraphrased mouthful from the highly detailed and information Hitachi Metals’ English homepage. Please start reading here for the more thorough explanation of everything that goes into tatara.

For those of you like me who just want to cut to the mythology, here are a few stories about Kanayago, quoted directly from the Hitachi Metal’s page about her:

According to the legend in Hino County, Tottori Prefecture, a dog howled at Kanayago-kami when she descended from the heavens. The deity tried to escape by climbing a vine, but the vine broke. She was attacked by the dog and died as a result. The version of the story told in I’ishi County, Shimane Prefecture, is that, rather than ivy, she became entangled in hemp or flax and died. The legend in Nita County, Shimane Prefecture, holds that the ivy did indeed break, but she then grabbed onto a wisteria tree and was saved. She may be a deity, but in this humorous story she is a rather human character. Such legends are the reason why dogs are not allowed near tatara and hemp is not used for any tatara tools or equipment. Also, katsura trees are not burned in tatara because they are regarded as divine.

Kanayago-kami is a female deity so she hates women. A murage will not enter the tatara when his wife is menstruating. He shuts down his tatara temporarily just before and after his wife gives birth. If work is at a point that he cannot put it aside, it is said that he will not go home nor look at the face of his newly born child. It is also said that murage are especially strict about not getting into a bath if a woman has used it.

Festivals are held at the shrine Kanayago-jinja in the spring around the middle of the 3rd month and in the autumn early in the 10th month, the dates being determined according to the Chinese zodiacal calendar. In the past, the Kanayago festival at Hida was an event to which tatara masters and blacksmiths would come from distant provinces, as well as from Izumo and the neighboring province of Hoki.

(Notes: A “murage” was an iron-making master. Hoki Province is now western Tottori, and neighbored Izumo Province.)

To wrap this all up, if you’re a fan of Hayao Miyazaki and Ghibli studio movies, then you likely are already familiar with tatara after all. Iron Town in the 1997 film Princess Mononoke was based on Okuizumo (not to be confused with Higashiizumo)!

This is a story from the Oki Islands, a unique ecosystem where they are still discovering new species of weevils and other critters like mentioned in this story. Perhaps there are Tengu, too.

Oki Islands Geopark, Shimane

This is a story that happened a long, long time ago. There once was a filial but poor young man, and his greedy relative, Uncle Gonzou.

One day, the young man’s aged mother fell ill. He wanted to have a doctor see her, but had no money and was worried about what to do. With no alternatives, he went to his uncle for help. “I want to take my mother to see a doctor, so could you lend me some money? I’ll work to earn the money to pay you back,” he pleaded.

“A poor chump like you wouldn’t be able to pay back anything you borrow. I’m not lending you anything!” Gonzou refused.

The youth was at a loss and trudged home. On the way, he took a break to sit among the roots of a giant pine and think about what else he might be able to do. At some point, he nodded off to sleep.

Then an old man with a long, pure white beard approached him and gave him a pair of single-post geta sandals.

Ipponha Geta

The bearded old man said, “When you put on these geta and fall down in them, a small gold coin will come out of them. Only do it once a day, you hear? If you fall around too much, you’ll hurt your back and start to shrink.”

When the young man awoke, he found the pair of geta set right beside him. He happily hurried home to try them out. Putting them on and then sending himself tumbling, he found that the geta did indeed dispense a small gold coin. He then rushed to take his mother to see a doctor, and she soon recovered.

Uncle Gonzou noticed and found it strange. Something is fishy here. They couldn’t have had any money, so what happened? he thought, and then spied on the youth from the window. At that moment, he was putting on the geta, and then he threw himself down, and a gold coin came out of the sandles. So seeing, the selfish man began to covet the pair of geta.

The next day, he went to the young man’s home and asked, “I heard you’ve got a pretty special pair of geta in this house. Would you mind lending them to me for just a little while?”

“Sure, why not? But make sure you only use them once a day. If you fall down too much, you’ll hurt your back and start to shrink.”

Uncle Gonzou was beside himself with glee to take them home with him. As soon as he arrived, he closed the door behind him, spread out a large cloth on the floor, and then stood on top of it wearing the geta. He then proceeded to throw himself down over and over, tumbling and tumbling. He took a break to admire the mountain of gold coins he had amassed, but he then noticed the mountain was growing bigger and bigger because he was shrinking smaller and smaller. Soon, he body has shrunk so small that he was the size and shape of a beetle.

The young man soon began to wonder what his uncle was up to, and went to his house to check on him. Having received no answer when he knocked, he entered, and only saw a large pile of coins and the geta, but no sign of his uncle. He looked everywhere, but could only conclude that his uncle was gone. He gathered the gold coins and the geta to take them home, but only after flicking a bug off of them.

That’s why weevils (zoumushi) are called Gonzou Bugs, after the selfish old uncle, so they say.

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