Today’s tale showcases an exceedingly famous kind of yōkai: a tengu. They are one of the “big 3” yōkai of Japanese folklore, along with oni and kappa (and sometimes kitsune is thrown in for a nice round 4).
Tengu are great. They have such a rich and varied history, and they look awesome to boot—like a cross between hawks and monkeys, sometimes with a human face and a very long nose. The word tengu is written 天狗 and means “heaven dog.” It probably referred to shooting stars or comets, which run across the sky like a heavenly dog might. In many cultures, comets were seen as evil omens, and tengu were no exception. For much of Japanese history, tengu were considered THE baddies.
Tengu were evil souls who slipped out of the cycle of karmic reincarnation found in Buddhism and existed in their own little world. As such, they were the chief antagonists of Buddhist monks and nuns, and of good lay people attempting to walk the spiritual path. Tengu were said to do awful things. They would kidnap children and force feed then feces until they went insane, and then return them to their villages years later. They would tie people to treetops, then bend the branches down and fling them into the sky and over mountains like a catapult. And they especially loved to corrupt monks and nuns into debauchery.
By the Edo period, tengu’s image had changed a bit. They were often seen not just as wicked monsters, but as amusing, tricky rascals. What’s more, some tengu were even seen as honorable mentors. Tengu were extremely knowledgeable about all kinds of things. They were experts in magic, and in swordplay. The esoteric religion of Shugendō, which focuses on mountain worship and asceticism, viewed tengu as mountain gods who would bestow their knowledge upon the worthy. It was almost a complete reversal of their terrible image from earlier centuries.
One thing that has never changed is that tengu love to punish the wicked. Whether it is by tempting a hypocritical monk to commit terrible acts of debauchery, or by punishing a haughty lord to put him in his place, tengu are masters of knocking people off of their high horses. And that’s what today’s story is about. And when you’re finished, you can read more tengu stories at yokai.com.
How Dōchin’s Pride Was Wounded by a Tengu at Kuragari Peak in Kawachi
Deep in the mountain called Kuragari Peak in the provice of Kawachi, about 1.4 kilometers in, there is a remote temple. A man named Dōchin lived in alone this temple. Dōchin was fifty-one years old, and during his whole life he had never felt real fear. He often boasted to people how he wanted, even just once, to experience something truly terrifying.
One day, he went to the nearby village of Imakuchi for his afternoon meal. It was raining, and he was bored, so he stayed and chatted with the villagers until dusk before returning to his temple.
About eight or nine hundred meters into the mountains is a stone bridge. Earlier in the day there was nothing on this bridge, but on Dōchin’s way back there was a dead man lying across it. He thought this was strange, but being a man who had never known fear, he trod on the dead man’s belly and crossed the bridge. As he did so, the dead man bit the hem of Dōchin’s robe and held him fast. Dōchin figured that stepping on the corpse’s belly must have caused its jaw to clamp shut involuntarily. He stepped on its belly again, and its mouth opened back up, releasing him.
Dōchin considered that this person’s family must have been too poor to send his body to a temple for a proper burial, so they just abandoned him here on the bridge. He decided to bury the man. He hoisted the corpse up onto his back and carried it back to his retreat. And, since the corpse had tried to bite him earlier, Dōchin decided to tie it to a pine tree for the night and bury it in the morning.
That night, as Dōchin slept, from somewhere outside the gate a voice called out:
Dōchin woke up and wondered what it was.
“Who has come to visit me in the mountains so late at night?” he called out.
“Why have you tied me up? Untie me immediately!” said the voice.
Dōchin was even more puzzled. He remained quiet.
“If you won’t untie me, then I will come to you!” cried the voice. It was followed by the sound of a rope being cut. Dōchin began to feel uneasy. He took out a large sword he had been practicing with, secured the lock on his door, and then shrank back.
Suddenly, the door opened. Dōchin, thought he was done for. He drew his sword and waited behind his closet door. The dead man searched here and there for him. Suddenly Dōchin jumped out and slashed at his side, severing its arm. The dead man vanished.
Dōchin picked up the arm and examined it. It was a monstrous arm, covered in hairs like needles. Dōchin locked the hand up in a trunk like a precious object. The rest of the night passed peacefully.
Now, Dōchin’s mother made a daily pilgrimage every morning to Dōchin’s temple, but that morning she came earlier than usual. Dōchin was still sleeping, but her visit woke up him. Dōchin rushed to get out of bed.
“You’re earlier than usual, mother,” he said.
“Last night I dreamed something terrible. Did anything happen to you?” she asked.
Dōchin told his mother what had happened the previous night, and she looked surprised.
“Show me the arm,” she said.
“I can’t,” he protested.
“Oh, please!” she insisted.
So Dōchin retrieved the arm and showed it to his mother. Then she reached out with one hand and snatched up the arm.
“This is my arm!” she said. And then she vanished.
The sky, which up until that moment had been clear, suddenly turned dark. A terrible laugh rang out in the air. It was so frightful that the brave Dōchin fainted, as if dead.
In a short while the actual dawn broke. As usual, Dōchin’s mother visited the temple. She was shocked to find Dōchin lying unconscious, and she ran back to the village for help. She returned with other villagers who gave Dōchin some medicine and looked after him until he revived.
“What happened here?” they asked.
Dōchin explained everything. From that day on, everyone said that Dōchin was the biggest coward in all of Japan.
This was all the work of a tengu, who punished Dōchin for being too proud.