Today’s story talks about a monster called a bakemono (pronounced bah-keh-mo-no). Like yesterday’s henge, this is not a specific monster’s name, but a generic term for any monster. Bakemono is written 化物, and it also means “changed thing.” Like henge, bakemono were often thought to be animals using magic to change themselves or other things into monstrous shapes in order to mess with humans.
The main character of the story is a zatō, a word which I have chosen not to translate. A zatō was a member of a guild for blind people. These guilds were established to guarantee that blind people could find employment rather than having to rely on charity or welfare. They were granted monopolies of certain trades, including massage, acupuncture, moxibustion, and playing the biwa. Only zatō could legally perform these jobs.
Zatō functioned on the periphery of society. They traveled from place to place peddling their trades, and were able to do certain things that sighted people were forbidden to do. Because of this, they appear in a lot of yōkai tales. You can find zatō yōkai, like ōzatō, umizatō, and tenome, and there are famous legendary zatō like Zatōichi and Miminashi Hōichi. Even biwa yōkai is related to zatō.
This story also references Sanjō Kokaji, a man who might be more familiar to some as Munechika. Munechika was a legendary swordsmith who lived in the 10th century and is considered one of the greatest swordsmiths to ever have lived. It might feel like a weird casual name drop at the end of the story, but Edo period readers would have immediately understood the reference and recognized that a Munechika blade would be a holy relic, with powers beyond that of a normal sword.
The Zatō Who Met a Bakemono on a Journey
A zatō from the capital was traveling through the countryside with one of his disciples. They were passing through a remote mountain village when the sun went down. There was no place to stay in the village, so they made camp at a wayside shrine.
Sometime after midnight the zatō heard a woman’s voice: “Where have you visitors come from? My hermitage is not a very nice one, but instead of camping out here why not come spend the night at my place?”
The zatō replied, “You are generous, and I will not forget your kindness. But we are used to traveling, and so staying out here is no problem. On top of that, it is quite late and thus impossible to travel.”
The disciple said, “But it is a kind offer. Instead of staying in a place like this, wouldn’t it be better to rest in a place with a fire and hot water? Let us go.”
“Certainly,” said the woman.
“Nevertheless, we will stay here,” the zatō replied. And he refused to argue further.
“In that case, would you please watch my child for a short time,” said the woman.
“No, no. I am blind. On top of that it is the middle of the night. I cannot take care of a child,” the zatō was stubborn.
“That is so unkind! Please, you must watch my child,” she asked again and offered her baby.
“If it’s just for a short time, surely we can watch him,” said the disciple.
Upon hearing this the zatō became furious. “Never!”
“Well I don’t mind,” said the disciple. He took the child and cradled it in his arms, and the woman left.
Soon, the child began to grow larger in the disciple’s arms. By the time the disciple could call out, “What is going on?” the child had grown as large as a boy of 14 or 15 years. Then it started to bite and eat the disciple.
“What is happening?!” he screamed. In just a few moments, the child had eaten him up.
Then the woman’s voice reappeared. “Now let Master Zatō hold you,” she said.
The zatō was terrified. Fumbling around, he found the box containing his family sword. Gripping the sword tightly, he readied himself to stab at whatever might come close to him. The child was too scared to approach the zatō.
“Why won’t you let him hold you?” the woman’s voice scolded.
A child’s voice complained back, “I can’t get close enough to him.”
The zatō listened to them argue for a bit, and then they vanished.
“What a frightful thing to happen!” thought the zatō. He continued to grip his sword tightly, and soon dawn broke. The zatō decided to leave as quickly as possible. He hurried out to the street, and he bumped into a stranger on the road.
“Master Zatō, where are you headed to? Do you have a place to stay?”
The zatō told the stranger about his encounter the previous night.
“That place is haunted by bakemono!” the stranger said. “It’s a wonder that you escaped with your life. Please come inside and tell me all the details of what happened.”
The stranger brought the zatō to his home and prepared a fine meal for him.
“By the way, let me have a look at that sword of yours.”
The zatō considered for a moment, and then replied, “No, I cannot show this sword to anyone.” He held the sword at his side, ready to draw, just in case.
Then, right next to him, a voice said: “If he won’t show you, then devour him!”
The voice repeated itself over and over. The zatō knew it was the same bakemono from before. He drew his blade and slashed wildly in all directions. Then everything grew quiet. The zatō waited for a while, and the sky grew light. This time it was truly dawn.
It is said that the reason the zatō barely escaped with his life and made it back to the capital was thanks to his sword, which was forged by Sanjō Kokaji.