I had always liked rice–although for most of my life, that meant wild rice of some variety, or if it was white rice, then it was the kind you could just throw in the microwave, add soy sauce to, and mix up with whatever meat or vegetables are being served with it. Why, I even recall making a single serving of microwaved white rice to eat as a snack sometimes. That became harder to do after my first trip to Japan, where the rice is served and kept a shiny bright white, eaten with something on top in the same bite such as a pickled vegetable or crumbled seasoning, or simply as it is–because it’s good exactly as it is. It is wonderful exactly as it is. I don’t really need to stress the importance of rice in Japanese culture here (because I’ve already done that before), but suffice to say people care about it being served properly, and although all rice is supposed to be good, some rice is simply better than others, and many prefectures are fierce about their pride in their rice. Nita Mai (“Nita Rice”, from a district of Okuiizumo town called Nita), is one such variety of luxurious tasting rice–I received some as a gift instead of buying it myself to try. And yes, the cool summer nights and clean water do indeed make for special rice. Makes for special sake, too.

Click for source and more photos

Click for source

Rice does not only have an important place at the dinner table (and at breakfast, and in the lunch box), but it is deeply engrained in Japanese culture at large. For centuries the communal management of rice paddies and prioritization of rice for agricultural land use are good starting points–back when a larger percentage of the population was made up of farmers, most people forged cooperation in their communities to make the most of natural resources, which likely contributed to the group-oriented spirit of cooperation still found today in other sectors. Since different paddies often shared the same water system, neighbors coordinated their planting efforts, often planting on the same day, so it’s easy to see how this labor-intensive activity would grow into a big happy get-together.

Sure, agricultural cooperation is important in several cultures, but rice has political and religious weight in Japan as well (before TPP and the like even became an issue). The emperor is often thought of as harvest deity, and back in the four-tiered class system of the Edo era, farmers were honored with the second highest rung on the social ladder (though that wasn’t reflected in riches) because of their valuable service in producing sustenance for the population. The samurai class was on top (but again, riches didn’t always reflect this), and according to their rank, they were paid in rice as opposed to cash.

Speaking of samurai and farmers, remember the scene at the end of the Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai when Shino and the other village ladies are all dressed up and singing in the mud? Sure, it’s great to celebrate that they were no longer terrorized by bandits so they could plant their rice in peace, but the song is not in celebration. That song is to entertain, and thereby invigorate the rice!

Every so often you hear people say not to waste rice, because seven lucky gods (or more) rest on each grain. Maybe the custom isn’t that specific, but there is some idea that there are deities lurking inside the young rice seedlings, and that entertaining them with song brings out their full potential. There are countless Shinto customs associated with rice (“rice” is almost interchangeable in anything having to do with “harvest”), so it’s not unsurprising that the planting of the rice is a pretty big deal. Since traditionally the whole neighborhood gathered and helped out, it’s a pretty festive deal, too.

Today, there are not as many farmers by profession, and therefore not as many villages centering their social lives on a common crop, but people still eat rice–lots and lots of rice–and the rituals go on, such as the festive Otaue (paddy-planting) ritual–in some places, such as Iruma, this is known by the more flowery title Hanataue.

However, to make them festive, sometimes you have to bring in a little outside amateur help. That’s where I got to come in!

Last year I joined a fellow CIR and an ALT, as well as some visiting students from Tokyo and a large group of Chinese women, in the Iruma neighborhood on the mountainous outskirts of Unnan. We, as well as a handful of local young women, were playing the role of the Saotome (the young maidens) who perform back-bending labor while the young men stand around in frilly pink hats singing songs with the little kids. However, the people who do the most work are probably the old men having to fix all of our poorly planted seedlings behind us! It takes even more people than that to actualize this annual event, and on that note, I’d like to extend a huge thank-you to Matthew McDonough for all these great photos!! Thank you, Matthew!

The event started with the musical procession up to the rice paddy, and the Shinto priest’s ceremony to pray for a successful harvest.

There had been one practice for the event beforehand, with the men and children practicing their rhythmic song and the ladies practicing working in unison. We had this sort of game plan to work with:

This is the one photo on this entry that I took, seeing as I was sort of preoccupied. Everything else is credit to Matthew McDonough.

However, while the men and children all looked and sounded great, chanting to the beat of bamboo continually struck by the lead chanter…

…I can’t say we ladies started out quite as coordinated.

We didn’t have as many words to learn ourselves, but there were a couple parts of the song when the lead chanter would sing (in thick, thick Izumo dialect): “How about giving your backs a break?” and we would respond (likewise in Izumo dialect), “Sounds good to me!” After a brief stretch, he’d continue and we’d put our backs back into it. As we went on, I think we all got a lot better at coordinating our movements.

For everyone one of the Saotome, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were at least two retirees with fancy cameras.

After finishing one half of the paddy, we went back for another dip to plant the other half, and the old men kept the rice seedlings coming.

When the planting and singing was finished, we Saotome washed the mud off in the mountain stream nearby, which I’m sure would have been much more quaint and picturesque if it weren’t so crowded with photographers asking us to look their way. It seems there is a big photo contest every year for the event, and I can imagine the competition is pretty stiff! After they all go home, however, the core group who organized the event, as well as all the singers and planters and re-planters who took part, all cleaned up, changed, and gathered for a little feast. Before going home, we were given rice from that paddy which had been planted in the previous year’s Hanataue ritual. I hope the rice I planted last year will prove to be just as tasty! Grow up big and strong this year, too, little seedlings!

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.

Matsue is considered a rather large city in the sparsely populated San’in region, and life in the center of town is easy. I have a ten minute walk to work or to Matsue Castle, and a plethora of grocery shopping options that are easy to get to. A car ride twenty minutes in any direction, however, will take you the outskirts of town where life is simplier. Nature is abundant, as are farmers. Agriculture is still a major industry for this reason, and it’s hard to see remnants of Japan’s burst bubble because the bubble economy didn’t reach this region much. In many ways, Shimane and Tottori seem to follow their own train of history which goes at a more leisurely pace than the better-connected areas of Japan. On that note, the Chuugoku mountain range makes it unlikely a bullet train route will ever be built out here.

In addition to being a place where rustic nostalgia paints the landscape, this is also the land of myth. Many of the Kojiki myths are tied directly to the geography of this region, and I’ve spent a handful of weekends getting my JET friends in the inaka–the rural areas–drive me around to go hunt down places associated with the Kojiki myths. On one particular September afternoon, I met up with a friend in Shinji, a southern district of Matsue on the banks of Lake Shinji which borders the town of Unnan. While driving along to where we think we’re going to find the shrine in my guidebook, we make small talk.

“So, how’s life in the inaka?”

“It’s good.”

“Ever see any tanuki around here or anything?”

“No, this is my third year, but I’ve never seen a tanuki. I’ve seen monkeys chilling by the side of the road, though!”

“I see nutria where I live sometimes, but never monkeys!”

Around this time of year, the rice is harvested when it turns the right shade of gold. Throughout the inaka of Japan, you’ll also notice the air is hazy with the smell of burning waste from the harvest.

When the maps on our phones are no longer helping, we look around on foot. We can’t find the shrine, but we can see the figs are ready for picking soon! These are a local product of the Izumo region (some Japanese friends in bigger cities didn’t even know that figs were grown in Japan).

We finally asked for directions from a group of ladies who were taking a break from their harvest, who very cheerfully informed us we were on the wrong side of the hill. Shimane is known for having record numbers of centenarians, and these ladies are perhaps the oldest looking people I have ever met in Japan. Furthermore, they spoke with the thickest Izumo dialect I have heard yet. Through toothless smiles and leathery skin they point up the road and give us detailed directions, and off we go, much better off having asked.

It took a bit longer than we expected, but we found the shrine, and I gathered material for a future post to go with a future manga myth rendition, with only a few autumn mosquito bites to show for it. As we were heading off to go meet up with friends for a dip in the onsen, I got one more glimpse of Shinji’s charming sights.

“STOP!!!! IT’S A TANUKI!! BACK UP! LOOK! LOOK, WE FOUND ONE!” – Buri-chan, the shotgun driver

Not everything in the inaka is so charming, though. Unlike my encounter with a mujina/nopperabo, however, I have photographic proof of this disturbing encounter! It’s as if she follows you all the way from Unnan back through Shinji, waiting on the side of the road just to jump out and startle you.

This is what I’m used to seeing. This happy child is something I’ve encountered all around Japan, a friendly warning to drivers to watch out for children who might dash out into the street. Brightly colored and noticable, he seems to do alright at his job.

But one day, she appeared.

It’s a good thing I wasn’t driving, or I might have crashed in surprise to suddenly see a disturbingly unhumanlike human suddenly accost me from the side of the road. She wasn’t just in one place, either–she was everywhere, lurking along the sides of innocent looking streets. As I was started to adjust to her presence, suddenly we really did see a real child standing at the side of a neighborhood road with a similarly wide stare. Though this was a good little girl who did not dash out into the street to give us the heart attack of our lives, both the driver and I were startled that time to see something live in the place of this soulless girl we had expected to be standing there.

She’s watching you…

When it’s hot out, I can think of many refreshing things I’d like to drink. Rice typically isn’t one of them.

I can think of a lot of words people might use to describe sake. “Health drink” typically isn’t one of them.

But apparently they both work.

This is amazake–literally, “sweet sake,” as produced by Okuizumo Shuzou (brewery). As mentioned before, Shimane is known for high quality sake thanks to it’s rice and clean water, not to mention the trained hands that handle the process. Okuizumo is especially good for this, as it is known for Nita Rice, which is gathered from locals cropped fitting very specific environmental requirements in order to be considered Nita rice–one of the ultimate rice crops of Western Japan. It’s been awarded the gold medal in national rice competitions for the past three years running.

Like regular sake, amazake it is made from fermented rice, but the process is such that it becomes low-alcohol or non-alcoholic (like this version). It is thick and textured, a naturally milky color, and in many processes it breaks down carbohydrates into simplier, unrefined sugars, resulting in a natural sweetness. Hence, this is used as a base for many other drinks–or even a cure for hangovers, or a base for baby food! This particular variety comes in three flavors (plain, matcha, and cocoa), and you can see much nicer photos here.

This is particularly popular in summer not as only as a refreshing sweet, but as a health drink to replenish your energy when the heat tries to suck it out of you (this is because it’s full of B vitamins–not the fearsome stuff you’d find in American energy drinks!). Whatsmore, because of its unrefined sweetness, it can be used as a replacement for sugar in recipes.

I could a couple of wagashi (traditional Japanese confectioneries) that were made with it. This is youkan, a gelatinous and smooth bar of sugar, agar, and sweet bean paste (azuki, resulting in its typically maroon color, or kidney beans, resulting in a translucent, easily changable color). Vegan and long-lasting though typically free of artificial perservatives, it is one of the oldest forms of wagashi. For these youkan, the plain amazake was used in place of sugar.

The package on the left is for plain amazake-youkan (which had a purpley-maroon azuki color all throughout), and the open example on the right is a citrus-flavored translucent youkan with some azuki paste in the center.

Youkan isn’t usually my wagashi of choice, but I was pleased with them. They were firmer and lighter in flavor than Jello, though just as refreshing and didn’t leave a sticky aftertaste.

I have a bottle of plain amazake waiting for whatever I may use it for this summer… still haven’t decided what to try. Smoothies? Pancakes? Maybe youkan myself is probably out of the question.

We got the overview of the home of the Yamata-no-Orochi last time. It didn’t only love the coolness of the Shimane mountains, it loved alcohol–especially Shimane’s rice wine.

If you drive around Unnan with a Yamata-no-Orochi tourism map, you can find your way to places like Kamaishi, a stone that marks the spot where the sake was brewed eight times over, or Kusamakura, a set of hills the monster used as a “grassy pillow” when it was tipsy.

Perhaps the most important site is Inze-no-Tsubogami, where the basins that held the potent liquor were buried (couldn’t have those falling into the wrong lightweight hands, after all!).

It’s a bit of a drive (or bike ride)…

…and then you need to abandon your car for a short hike.

Getting closer…

…and then you find this.

There’s not much on this mountain, but it does have atmosphere. The fenced area is around the rocks that closed off the sake basins from the outside world. A curse upon anyone who tries to dig them out!

Maybe a long time ago someone thought reaching in and leaving a 5-yen coin would bring them good luck.

Like the previously mentioned chopsticks, this legend is one of the first records of sake production in Japan. It is not the only legend that suggests the Izumo region was the first to enjoy the stuff. Rather, it’s association with Izumo City is stronger than with Unnan City, given the fame and prominence of Izumo Taisha even in modern Shintoism.

Izumo Taisha is where all the gods in Japan congregate for their annual meeting to decide the fates and interminglings of people and nature–otherwise known as en. It’s not all work, though–those gods are known for drinking lots and lots of sake. This perhaps has less to do with drunken kami-sama so much as sake‘s purifying qualities, hence, it is used extensively in Shinto rituals. Because there are so many gods to offer sake to at Izumo Taisha, it means that there is lots and lots of high quality sake contributed there.

The shrine is all fresh and new thanks to the Heisei Sengu!

Izumo Taisha is not, however, the leading sake shrine. Instead, that would be Saka Shrine (yes, there is sake-related history behind that name). You can read a more thorough description of the brewing-related rituals that take place there on the Connect Shimane website, but suffice to say for our purposes here that the main deity is the patron of brewers, and this is the lead shrine among all others that also worship that kami. This shrine is also sometimes called Matsuo Shrine, which should indeed sound familiar if you’ve been to this famous old shrine in western Kyoto.

So Shimane has history with sake, perhaps the first to make it. Sure, that’s great. But is it any good?

I tend to stick with Matsue’s tea and wagashi culture rather than drink alcohol so I can’t say for sure, but the general concensus is that it’s phenomenal.

Here’s what Sake-World.com has to say about it:

And most importantly, what’s it taste like? Indeed, Shimane sake has one of the most easily identifiable, describable, and likeable flavor and aromatic profiles in the country. In short, Shimane sake is comparatively dense in flavor, yet fine-grained and clean. There is usually a higher amino acid content, giving Shimane sake plenty of “umami.” More concretely, much sake from this region has a nutty touch with a subdued sweetness in the background, full flavor, and a brilliant acidity that both spreads the flavors and provides some backbone. Aromatically, flowers, melon-like fruit, and touches of autumnal things like pumpkins are common in Shimane sake.

Shimane is already known for award-winning rice due to the clean water and ideal temperature conditions in the mountains, but those qualities don’t just make for good staple food. To borrow more of Sake-World’s explanation:

Even more commendable is that 60% of all rice used in sake brewing in Shimane is proper sake rice. As 80% of all sake brewed in Japan is “table sake,” most of this does not use premium sake rice, but rather run-of-the-mill stuff. The fact that Shimane is way above that average is encouraging.

I’d ask the Yamata-no-Orochi if it agrees with all this sparkling praise of the sake fit for kami-sama, but it’s a little beat up and buried now. With that monster out of the way, Susano-o and Kushinada-hime had wedded bliss to keep busy with, which we’ll take a look at next time.

This is a similar story from Chizu, Yazu County, in Tottori Prefecture.

A long time ago, there was an old man and an old lady who struggled through a very meager life. Seeing as they could hardly even feed themselves, the old man tried picking flowers to sell, but no matter how many he picked, no one would buy them. At the end of the day, he’d always go to the Chizu bridge. There, he’d say, “I offer these to Otohime, the Princess of the Dragon Palace under the sea” and then ceremoniously chuck the flowers into the river before going home.

Every day it was the same thing. He told his wife, “Hey, Old Lady, I’m goin’ out to try to sell flowers again,” and when he couldn’t sell any, he’d drop them in the river, saying, “I offer these to Otohime, the Princess of the Dragon Palace under the sea.” It looked like they would float on forever, but one day they flowers sunk instead. Upon returning home, he told his wife, “I haven’t been able t’ sell a single flower. Aw, well, I guess I’ll just keep offerin’ ’em to the Princess of the Dragon Palace.”

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. A beautiful, young girl with eyes full of sympathy had come to pay a visit, holding the flowers. “Today, the lovely flowers you tried to send to the Dragon Palace wound up at my doorstep instead. I’d like to thank you very much for them. I told the Dragon King about you, and he said to bring you along to pay a visit to the Dragon Palace. Would you like me to take you?”

“Me? Go t’ the Dragon Palace? Well, I guess I’m not doin’ anything else,” he replied, and agreed to go along. She brought him to the ocean’s edge, where a giant turtle was waiting. She instructed him to ride on the turtle’s back, and the turtle told him to close his eyes. Just as soon as he did so, they had arrived at the Dragon Palace.

Upon entering the palace, he saw feasts prepared in every room, and he was treated to the finest of hospitality. The old man was quite enjoying himself, when the young girl whispered to him, “When Miss Otohime asks what she should give you, you should reply, ‘I don’t want anything, just a little boy with a runny nose will do.'”

Almost immediately afterward, Otohime said, “Now, what shall I bestoy on you as a parting gift?”

It seems the old man did indeed reply, “Ahh, I don’t really want anything, just a lil’ boy with a runny nose will do.”

“Very well,” replied Otohime. “That is what I shall give you.”

And that she did. He was a filthy little ragamuffin with a horrid runny nose, but the old man brought him home anyway. When they said to him, “Hey, Runny-Nose Boy, we got no more rice,” the boy made infinite amounts of rice appear. “How ’bout sake? Got any sake?” they’d ask, and he’d give them sake. Whatever they asked him for, he provided. When they said, “We want money!” the floor was covered in piles of gold coins.

Little by little, their lot in life improved and they lived quite comfortably. Their little old hut of a home could no longer suit them, so they told the boy they wanted a fancy dwelling place. Once that appeared, they even had use for servants, which the boy with the runny nose also provided. This was how they spent their days.

While this was all well and good, wherever the increasingly selfish old couple went, the boy with the runny nose was right at their side, and his presence was downright irritating. “What are people gonna think of us if we always have that nasty little brat around?” asked the old lady. They tried asking him to hold his runny nose shut, or at least to wipe his face, but it was no use.

At last, they said, “Just go away somewhere!”

“Alright, I’ll go away somewhere,” the boy with the runny nose replied, and he left.

Everything they had received from the boy rapidly disappeared–the rice, the sake, the money, even their fancy house turned back into an old hut.

It suited them perfectly.

This is a story from Chizu, Yazu County, in Tottori Prefecture.

A long time ago, there was an old man and an old lady who struggled through a very meager life. Everyday the old man went out to collect firewood and sell it and then use the money to buy rice. He wasn’t always able to sell it, though. When he had anything leftover, he would take it to the Chizu bridge. There, he’d say, “I offer this to Otohime, the Princess of the Dragon Palace under the sea” and then ceremoniously chuck the wood into the river before going home.

One day as the old man was about to head home, someone called out to him. “Excuse me, sir!” the stranger said. “I am a servant of Otohime in the Dragon Palace, and she has sent me here today. We had been having terrible problems getting wood for the castle, so you constant gifts of firewood helped us quite a bit. As thanks, Otohime told me to give this to you.” So saying, he pulled a gavel from his sleeve.

“A gavel?”

“Yes. Say what you want, then strike the gavel, and it will make anything for you. However, it has its limits–you can only use it three times.” The stranger then handed it to the old man, and immediately disappeared.

As the old man was taking the gavel home, he tripped and broke his sandal. Sighing, he decided to give the gavel a try. “One sandal,” he said, then struck the ground with the gavel, and immediately a wonderful sandal appeared. Wow! This really does work! he thought as he excitedly put on the sandal. But I can only use it three times. What should the other two things be?

On his way home, he noticed how dull and hard to use his axe had become, so he decided to try the gavel again. “One axe,” he said and struck the gavel, and there appeared a golden axe. Once again quite impressed, he took the golden axe home.

Upon his return, he asked his wife, “Old Lady, what’s the one thing we need?”

The old lady replied, “Old Man, we don’t have any rice to eat!”

“Then we should ask for rice!” he exclaimed, and raising the gavel he said, “Rice, a ton of it, Old Lady!” and then struck the ground.

Once he did so, a rather beautiful old woman appeared in front of them.

Oh no, thought the old man. There’s not even enough rice for my own Old Lady and I to eat, let alone to let this woman eat! Now what have I done?

At that moment, the beautiful lady sat straight up, and a couple grains of rice dripped out of her nose. Just as the old man and the old lady pondered how strange that was, another grain dripped out of the woman’s nose. Then another. And another. And another. And another.

Quite soon the grains of rice were spilling all across the floor and filling up the room. When it looked like it had accumulated to about a ton, the beautiful woman seemed to melt into the pile of rice, and disappeared. Given the wording of the old man’s request, she might have originally been rice herself.

This is a folk tale from Yoshiga Village, in southwestern Shimane Prefecture. It mentions a Jizo, which can be thought of as the patron Buddha of children (particularly deceased ones). Jizo statues are fairly recognizable, not just for his merciful face, but for the red scarf he wears. Jizo statues are found throughout Japan, and this is only the first of the Jizo stories I’ll be covering. Lafcadio Hearn, a famous author who lived in Matsue in the 1890’s, also wrote extensively about Jizo.

A long time ago, there was a boy whose mother had died. When he was about six years old, his father married another woman, and when his father was away, his step-mother would not let him eat any food. When he was out and about and saw others eating, he would sigh to himself about how tasty the food looked, and then he would return home and ask, “Mother, could I please have some food?”

“No, no, you can’t have any food right now, foolish child. Go out and play, and don’t say such silly things.”

And so he continued to go without food while his father was gone. Again and again he would ask, but to no avail, until one day his step-mother replied, “Fine, fine. If you want to eat so badly, take this riceball and feed it to the Jizo down there. If the Jizo eats it, then I’ll let you have some food. But if the Jizo doesn’t eat it, you can’t eat anything either.”

Overjoyed, the boy took the riceball and ran down to the Jizo. He cried, “Jizo-sama, Jizo-sama! I beg you, please eat this riceball. If you do, then I can eat something too! But… but if you don’t eat it, then I’ll never be able to eat while my father is away!” As he started to sob, the statue reached out a stone hand and took the riceball, with a crunch crunch he began to eat it.

The boy ran home and told his step-mother, “He ate it, Mother! He ate it! Jizo-sama ate the riceball, so I can have some food too!”

However, his step-mother replied, “Don’t say such stupid things! It’s impossible for a stone statue of a Jizo to eat a riceball! No matter what you say, I’m not giving you a thing!”

“I’m not lying!” he pleaded. “Come see for yourself! Get the old lady next door to come see, too! Quickly, while it’s still eating!”

Unable to calm him down while he was making such a fuss, they went along with him and say that the stone Jizo was still eating eating the riceball with a crunch, crunch, crunch.

The boy’s step-mother was shocked. “I’m such a horrible person!” she cried. “I never gave him any food, and told him to feed the stone Jizo even though I knew it was possible. Little did I think Jizo-sama would actually eat it! From now on, I’ll make sure to feed this child!”

From that time on, she always fed the boy, and she began to love him and treat him as her own child.

This is a famous Jizo in Matsue, “Oyukake Jizo.” It semi-literally translates to “the Jizo to pour hot water on.”