Tonight’s yōkai is once again referred to by the generic word henge. Essentially it’s a shape-shifter, although we don’t know what its true form is. However, I find this story somewhat interesting in that it has two supernatural explanations at the end.
One of them deals with a prohibition against women entering certain places (usually sacred mountains). The reasoning behind this relates to kegare, a belief in a kind of spiritual impurity or defilement.
The other supernatural explanation is about a magical sword forged by a legendary swordsmith. We’ve seen this already a couple of times this month (here and here), which let’s us understand just how important these swords were in folklore. In Japan, a sword is not simply a piece of metal to defend yourself with. It’s also a talisman that protects a family like a guardian deity. So it’s no surprise that swords pop up from time to time in yōkai stories, or that a famous sword might keep yōkai at bay just by its existence.
The Farmer in Kumano Whose Wife was Taken by a Henge
A farmer living near Kumano, feeling hard-pressed to pay his annual tribute, gathered his wife and children, and ran away into the wilderness. Before long, the road grew dark, so they were forced to spend the night in a roadside temple. Suddenly a woman appeared out of nowhere.
“Where did all of you come from?” she asked.
The farmer was pleased, thinking this woman was looking for some company. “I am a farmer from this area, but for various reasons we had to leave,” he said.
“In that case, please live here. You can gather leaves and make a fire,” said the woman.
The farmer was pleased and went off to gather leaves. After that the woman grabbed his wife and disappeared.
When the farmer returned, he could not find his wife. He heard her voice screaming from the top of the mountains. Thinking that some henge had transformed into the woman from earlier and absconded with his wife, he went off in the direction of the voice. However, the mountains were deep, and he could not find the spot where her screams were coming from.
While he searched, the dawn began to break. He frantically searched here and there, and he came across a cedar tree. His wife’s body was torn in two halves, hanging from a branch twenty feet above the ground. Seeing this, the farmer screamed and cried, but there was nothing he could do.
Then a lone man approached him.
“What are you grieving about?” he inquired.
The farmer told him everything that had happened.
“What a tragedy! If you hand me the swords you are carrying, I will take down the body from the tree and give it to you,” said the man.
The farmer was grateful. He gave the man his katana, but said, “I will keep my wakizashi.”
“In that case, I’ll try to take her down,” said the man, and he slid up the tree. Then he tore the farmer’s wife into little pieces and ate her, cackling.
“If you had given me your wakizashi, I would have done this to you too!”
Then he flew up into the sky and disappeared.
The farmer was so perplexed that he asked the locals about it. They said to him, “That temple is one in which women are forbidden to enter. That must be why such a thing happened.”
The farmer’s wakizashi had protected him because it was forged by Sanjō Kokaji.