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).


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.

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.

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.