Category Archives: Folklore and Urban Legends

Japan has many interesting and sometimes disturbing urban legends and folklore. Discover harvest festivals, myths, and even bathroom ghosts!

Momotaro: Little Peachling

Momotaro's BirthMany hundred years ago there lived an honest old woodcutter and his wife. One fine morning the old man went off to the hills with his billhook, to gather a faggot of sticks, while his wife went down to the river to wash the dirty clothes. When she came to the river, she saw a peach floating down the stream; so she picked it up, and carried it home with her, thinking to give it to her husband to eat when he should come in.

The old man soon came down from the hills, and the good wife set the peach before him, when, just as she was inviting him to eat it, the fruit split in two, and a little puling baby was born into the world. So the old couple took the babe, and brought it up as their own; and, because it had been born in a peach, they called it Momotaro, or Little Peachling.

By degrees Little Peachling grew up to be strong and brave, and at last one day he said to his old foster parents: “I am going to the ogres’ island to carry off the riches that they have stored up there. Pray, then, make me some millet dumplings for my journey.”

Momotaro PheasantSo the old folks ground the millet, and made the dumplings for him; and Little Peachling, after taking an affectionate leave of them, cheerfully set out on his travels.

As he was journeying on, he fell in with a monkey, who gibbered at him, and said: “Kia! kia! kia! where are you off to, Little Peachling?”

“I’m going to the ogres’ island, to carry off their treasure,” answered Little Peachling.

“What are you carrying at your girdle?”

“I’m carrying the very best millet dumplings in all Japan.”

“If you’ll give me one, I will go with you,” said the monkey.

So Little Peachling gave one of his dumplings to the monkey, who received it and followed him. When he had gone a little further, he heard a pheasant calling: “Ken! ken! ken! where are you off to, Master Peachling?”

Little Peachling answered as before; and the pheasant, having begged and obtained a millet dumpling, entered his service, and followed him.

A little while after this, they met a dog, who cried: “Bow! wow! wow! whither away, Master Peachling?”

“I’m going off to the ogres’ island, to carry off their treasure.”

“If you will give me one of those nice millet dumplings of yours, I will go with you,” said the dog.

“With all my heart,” said Little Peachling. So he went on his way, with the monkey, the pheasant, and the dog following after him.

Momotaro's Battle with OgresWhen they got to the ogres’ island, the pheasant flew over the castle gate, and the monkey clambered over the castle wall, while Little Peachling, leading the dog, forced in the gate, and got into the castle. Then they did battle with the ogres, and put them to flight, and took their king prisoner. So all the ogres did homage to Little Peachling, and brought out the treasures which they had laid up. There were caps and coats that made their wearers invisible, jewels which governed the ebb and flow of the tide, coral, musk, emeralds, amber, and tortoise shell, besides gold and silver. All these were laid before Little Peachling by the conquered ogres.

So Little Peachling went home laden with riches, and maintained his foster parents in peace and plenty for the remainder of their lives.

Momotaro's VictoryThis charming story teaches the importance of parents in Japanese society. Little Peachling set out on a dangerous journey in order to take care of his aging parents. He had little thought of collecting the wealth for himself. In fact, he was generous with his only possession: millet dumplings. His generosity collected him a monkey, a pheasant, and a dog. They followed him out because of his selflessness and allowed him to fight the ogres and win.

Little Peachling even took the king of the ogres prisoner. All the other ogres paid him homage, but instead of staying and ruling as the new king of the ogres, he returned home to make sure his foster parents would be taken care of for the rest of their lives.

Momotaro is one of Japan’s most well known stories. Momotaro is considered a good role model for boys: he is kind, generous, and strong enough to fight against demons (or ogres). He also takes care of his parents and respects them. Other stories of Momotaro have him traveling to Onigashima (ghost island) upon request by people being tormented by demons. He only uses his abilities to protect people. He reminds me of Superman in many ways because of his character.


A. B. Mitford, Tales of Old Japan, (London: Macmillan, 1871), vol. 1, pp. 267-269.

Momotaro. Wikipedia.

Momotaro. Project Gutenberg.


Visu the Woodsman and the Old Priest

Visu The WoodsmanMany years ago there lived on the then barren plain of Suruga a woodsman by the name of Visu. He was a giant in stature, and lived in a hut with his wife and children.

One day Visu received a visit from an old priest, who said to him: “Honorable woodsman, I am afraid you never pray.”

Visu replied: “If you had a wife and a large family to keep, you would never have time to pray.”

This remark made the priest angry, and the old man gave the woodcutter a vivid description of the horror of being reborn as a toad, or a mouse, or an insect for millions of years. Such lurid details were not to Visu’s liking, and he accordingly promised the priest that in future he would pray.

“Work and pray,” said the priest as he took his departure.

Unfortunately Visu did nothing but pray. He prayed all day long and refused to do any work, so that his rice crops withered and his wife and family starved. Visu’s wife, who had hitherto never said a harsh or bitter word to her husband, now became extremely angry, and, pointing to the poor thin bodies of her children, she exclaimed: “Rise, Visu, take up your ax and do something more helpful to us all than the mere mumbling of prayers!”

Visu was so utterly amazed at what his wife had said that it was some time before he could think of a fitting reply. When he did so his words came hot and strong to the ears of his poor, much-wronged wife.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Painting_of_Mount_Fuji“Woman,” said he, “the Gods come first. You are an impertinent creature to speak to me so, and I will have nothing more to do with you!” Visu snatched up his ax and, without looking round to say farewell, he left the hut, strode out of the wood, and climbed up Fujiyama, where a mist hid him from sight.

When Visu had seated himself upon the mountain he heard a soft rustling sound, and immediately afterward saw a fox dart into a thicket. Now Visu deemed it extremely lucky to see a fox, and, forgetting his prayers, he sprang up, and ran hither and thither in the hope of again finding this sharp-nosed little creature.

He was about to give up the chase when, coming to an open space in a wood, he saw two ladies sitting down by a brook playing go. The woodsman was so completely fascinated that he could do nothing but sit down and watch them. There was no sound except the soft click of pieces on the board and the song of the running brook. The ladies took no notice of Visu, for they seemed to be playing a strange game that had no end, a game that entirely absorbed their attention. Visu could not keep his eyes off these fair women. He watched their long black hair and the little quick hands that shot out now and again from their big silk sleeves in order to move the pieces.

Shinno_(Shennong)After he had been sitting there for three hundred years, though to him it was but a summer’s afternoon, he saw that one of the players had made a false move. “Wrong, most lovely lady!” he exclaimed excitedly. In a moment these women turned into foxes and ran away.

When Visu attempted to pursue them he found to his horror that his limbs were terribly stiff, that his hair was very long, and that his beard touched the ground. He discovered, moreover, that the handle of his ax, though made of the hardest wood, had crumbled away into a little heap of dust.

After many painful efforts Visu was able to stand on his feet and proceed very slowly toward his little home. When he reached the spot he was surprised to see no hut, and, perceiving a very old woman, he said: “Good lady, I am amazed to find that my little home has disappeared. I went away this afternoon, and now in the evening it has vanished!”

The old woman, who believed that a madman was addressing her, inquired his name. When she was told, she exclaimed: “Bah! You must indeed be mad! Visu lived three hundred years ago! He went away one day, and he never came back again.”

“Three hundred years!” murmured Visu. “It cannot be possible. Where are my dear wife and children?”

“Buried!” hissed the old woman, “and, if what you say is true, you children’s children too. The Gods have prolonged your miserable life in punishment for having neglected your wife and little children.”

Big tears ran down Visu’s withered cheeks as he said in a husky voice: “I have lost my manhood. I have prayed when my dear ones starved and needed the labor of my once strong hands. Old woman, remember my last words: “If you pray, work too!”

We do not know how long the poor but repentant Visu lived after he returned from his strange adventures. His white spirit is still said to haunt Fujiyama when the moon shines brightly.

This story is a fun tale about a man who lived, as we would say today, in a binary way. He worked all the time without praying until a priest scared him with tales about a terrible rebirth after death. The woodsman then started to do nothing but pray. He prayed to the point where his family starved. He abandons his familial responsibilities to go off to pray when he is tricked into watching a 300 year game of Go by a pair of foxes.

Inari-foxIn Japanese mythology, foxes are said to be magical, wise, and able to assume human forms. Their are two types of foxes, Inari and Yako. Inari are said to be good, celestial foxes associated with the god Inari. Yako are tricksters. The poor woodsman falls prey to a pair of tricksters who punish him for abandoning his duties as a father by making him live far past his natural age.

Japanese culture is very family oriented. One of the chief jobs of father is to provide for their children. In this story, the woodsman shirked his duties because he was afraid of dying and being reborn into unfortunate circumstances.  He was unable to pray and work.

The story warns us about how it is not a good idea to be extreme in work or prayer. A good life is one of balance. Too much prayer is just as bad as too much work. It also warns about being distracted by entertainment for too long. Go is a strategic board game that is related to chess in some ways. The woodsman fell under the spell of entertainment and missed out on a life with his family.

Tawara Toda, My Lord Bag of Rice

tawara-todaLong, long ago there lived, in Japan a brave warrior known to all as Tawara Toda, or “My Lord Bag of Rice.” His true name was Fujiwara Hidesato, and there is a very interesting story of how he came to change his name.

One day he sallied forth in search of adventures, for he had the nature of a warrior and could not bear to be idle. So he buckled on his two swords, took his huge bow, much taller than himself, in his hand, and slinging his quiver on his back started out. He had not gone far when he came to the bridge of Seta-no-Karashi spanning one end of the beautiful Lake Biwa. No sooner had he set foot on the bridge than he saw lying right across his path a huge serpent-dragon. Its body was so big that it looked like the trunk of a large pine tree and it took up the whole width of the bridge. One of its huge claws rested on the parapet of one side of the bridge, while its tail lay right against the other. The monster seemed to be asleep, and as it breathed, fire and smoke came out of its nostrils.

At first Hidesato could not help feeling alarmed at the sight of this horrible reptile lying in his path, for he must either turn back or walk right over its body. He was a brave man, however, and putting aside all fear went forward dauntlessly. Crunch, crunch! he stepped now on the dragon’s body, now between its coils, and without even one glance backward he went on his way.

He had only gone a few steps when he heard some one calling him from behind. On turning back he was much surprised to see that the monster dragon had entirely disappeared and in its place was a strange-looking man, who was bowing most ceremoniously to the ground. His red hair streamed over his shoulders and was surmounted by a crown in the shape of a dragon’s head, and his sea-green dress was patterned with shells. Hidesato knew at once that this was no ordinary mortal and he wondered much at the strange occurrence. Where had the dragon gone in such a short space of time? Or had it transformed itself into this man, and what did the whole thing mean? While these thoughts passed through his mind he had come up to the man on the bridge and now addressed him:

The Dragon Princess and Fujiwara no Hidesato, Utagawa Kuniyoshi 1845.

The Dragon Princess and Fujiwara no Hidesato, Utagawa Kuniyoshi 1845.

“Was it you that called me just now?”

“Yes, it was I,” answered the man: “I have an earnest request to make to you. Do you think you can grant it to me?”

“If it is in my power to do so I will,” answered Hidesato, “but first tell me who you are?”

“I am the Dragon King of the Lake, and my home is in these waters just under this bridge.”

“And what is it you have to ask of me!” said Hidesato.

“I want you to kill my mortal enemy the centipede, who lives on the mountain beyond,” and the Dragon King pointed to a high peak on the opposite shore of the lake.

“I have lived now for many years in this lake and I have a large family of children and grand-children. For some time past we have lived in terror, for a monster centipede has discovered our home, and night after night it comes and carries off one of my family. I am powerless to save them. If it goes on much longer like this, not only shall I lose all my children, but I myself must fall a victim to the monster. I am, therefore, very unhappy, and in my extremity I determined to ask the help of a human being. For many days with this intention I have waited on the bridge in the shape of the horrible serpent-dragon that you saw, in the hope that some strong brave man would come along. But all who came this way, as soon as they saw me were terrified and ran away as fast as they could. You are the first man I have found able to look at me without fear, so I knew at once that you were a man of great courage. I beg you to have pity upon me. Will you not help me and kill my enemy the centipede?”

Fujiwara no Hidesato shooting the giant centipede, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi 1890.

Fujiwara no Hidesato shooting the giant centipede, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi 1890.

Hidesato felt very sorry for the Dragon King on hearing his story, and readily promised to do what he could to help him. The warrior asked where the centipede lived, so that he might attack the creature at once. The Dragon King replied that its home was on the mountain Mikami, but that as it came every night at a certain hour to the palace of the lake, it would be better to wait till then. So Hidesato was conducted to the palace of the Dragon King, under the bridge. Strange to say, as he followed his host downwards the waters parted to let them pass, and his clothes did not even feel damp as he passed through the flood. Never had Hidesato seen anything so beautiful as this palace built of white marble beneath the lake. He had often heard of the Sea King’s palace at the bottom of the sea, where all the servants and retainers were salt-water fishes, but here was a magnificent building in the heart of Lake Biwa. The dainty goldfishes, red carp, and silvery trout, waited upon the Dragon King and his guest.

Hidesato was astonished at the feast that was spread for him. The dishes were crystallized lotus leaves and flowers, and the chopsticks were of the rarest ebony. As soon as they sat down, the sliding doors opened and ten lovely goldfish dancers came out, and behind them followed ten red-carp musicians with the koto and the samisen. Thus the hours flew by till midnight, and the beautiful music and dancing had banished all thoughts of the centipede. The Dragon King was about to pledge the warrior in a fresh cup of wine when the palace was suddenly shaken by a tramp, tramp! as if a mighty army had begun to march not far away.

Hidesato and his host both rose to their feet and rushed to the balcony, and the warrior saw on the opposite mountain two great balls of glowing fire coming nearer and nearer. The Dragon King stood by the warrior’s side trembling with fear.

“The centipede! The centipede! Those two balls of fire are its eyes. It is coming for its prey! Now is the time to kill it.”

Hidesato looked where his host pointed, and, in the dim light of the starlit evening, behind the two balls of fire he saw the long body of an enormous centipede winding round the mountains, and the light in its hundred feet glowed like so many distant lanterns moving slowly towards the shore.

Hidesato showed not the least sign of fear. He tried to calm the Dragon King.

“Don’t be afraid. I shall surely kill the centipede. Just bring me my bow and arrows.”

The Dragon King did as he was bid, and the warrior noticed that he had only three arrows left in his quiver. He took the bow, and fitting an arrow to the notch, took careful aim and let fly.

The arrow hit the centipede right in the middle of its head, but instead of penetrating, it glanced off harmless and fell to the ground.

Nothing daunted, Hidesato took another arrow, fitted it to the notch of the bow and let fly. Again the arrow hit the mark, it struck the centipede right in the middle of its head, only to glance off and fall to the ground. The centipede was invulnerable to weapons! When the Dragon King saw that even this brave warrior’s arrows were powerless to kill the centipede, he lost heart and began to tremble with fear.

hidesato-last-arrowThe warrior saw that he had now only one arrow left in his quiver, and if this one failed he could not kill the centipede. He looked across the waters. The huge reptile had wound its horrid body seven times round the mountain and would soon come down to the lake. Nearer and nearer gleamed fireballs of eyes, and the light of its hundred feet began to throw reflections in the still waters of the lake.

Then suddenly the warrior remembered that he had heard that human saliva was deadly to centipedes. But this was no ordinary centipede. This was so monstrous that even to think of such a creature made one creep with horror. Hidesato determined to try his last chance. So taking his last arrow and first putting the end of it in his mouth, he fitted the notch to his bow, took careful aim once more and let fly.

This time the arrow again hit the centipede right in the middle of its head, but instead of glancing off harmlessly as before, it struck home to the creature’s brain. Then with a convulsive shudder the serpentine body stopped moving, and the fiery light of its great eyes and hundred feet darkened to a dull glare like the sunset of a stormy day, and then went out in blackness. A great darkness now overspread the heavens, the thunder rolled and the lightning flashed, and the wind roared in fury, and it seemed as if the world were coming to an end. The Dragon King and his children and retainers all crouched in different parts of the palace, frightened to death, for the building was shaken to its foundation. At last the dreadful night was over. Day dawned beautiful and clear. The centipede was gone from the mountain.

Then Hidesato called to the Dragon King to come out with him on the balcony, for the centipede was dead and he had nothing more to fear.

Then all the inhabitants of the palace came out with joy, and Hidesato pointed to the lake. There lay the body of the dead centipede floating on the water, which was dyed red with its blood.

The gratitude of the Dragon King knew no bounds. The whole family came and bowed down before the warrior, calling him their preserver and the bravest warrior in all Japan.

Another feast was prepared, more sumptuous than the first. All kinds of fish, prepared in every imaginable way, raw, stewed, boiled and roasted, served on coral trays and crystal dishes, were put before him, and the wine was the best that Hidesato had ever tasted in his life. To add to the beauty of everything the sun shone brightly, the lake glittered like a liquid diamond, and the palace was a thousand times more beautiful by day than by night.

His host tried to persuade the warrior to stay a few days, but Hidesato insisted on going home, saying that he had now finished what he had come to do, and must return. The Dragon King and his family were all very sorry to have him leave so soon, but since he would go they begged him to accept a few small presents (so they said) in token of their gratitude to him for delivering them forever from their horrible enemy the centipede.

As the warrior stood in the porch taking leave, a train of fish was suddenly transformed into a retinue of men, all wearing ceremonial robes and dragon’s crowns on their heads to show that they were servants of the great Dragon King. The presents that they carried were as follows:

First, a large bronze bell.
Second, a bag of rice.
Third, a roll of silk.
Fourth, a cooking pot.
Fifth, a bell.

Hidesato did not want to accept all these presents, but as the Dragon King insisted, he could not well refuse.

The Dragon King himself accompanied the warrior as far as the bridge, and then took leave of him with many bows and good wishes, leaving the procession of servants to accompany Hidesato to his house with the presents.


The warrior’s household and servants had been very much concerned when they found that he did not return the night before, but they finally concluded that he had been kept by the violent storm and had taken shelter somewhere. When the servants on the watch for his return caught sight of him they called to every one that he was approaching, and the whole household turned out to meet him, wondering much what the retinue of men, bearing presents and banners, that followed him, could mean.

As soon as the Dragon King’s retainers had put down the presents they vanished, and Hidesato told all that had happened to him.

The presents which he had received from the grateful Dragon King were found to be of magic power. The bell only was ordinary, and as Hidesato had no use for it he presented it to the temple near by, where it was hung up, to boom out the hour of day over the surrounding neighborhood.

The single bag of rice, however much was taken from it day after day for the meals of the knight and his whole family, never grew less—the supply in the bag was inexhaustible.

The roll of silk, too, never grew shorter, though time after time long pieces were cut off to make the warrior a new suit of clothes to go to Court in at the New Year.

The cooking pot was wonderful, too. No matter what was put into it, it cooked deliciously whatever was wanted without any firing—truly a very economical saucepan.

The fame of Hidesato’s fortune spread far and wide, and as there was no need for him to spend money on rice or silk or firing, he became very rich and prosperous, and was henceforth known as My Lord Bag of Rice.

This fun little tale illustrates Japanese cultural values and tells a cool story too! Hidesato is a good example of the virtue of perseverance. He is afraid, but he doesn’t let fear get the better of him. He walks right over the dragon in order to get to where he was going. It makes us consider the dragons we too must walk across. Only Hidesato’s dragon was a troubled, kindly person in disguise. Threatened by a giant centipede, the Dragon King asked Hidesato for help (In some versions the Dragon King is a princess). The kindly warrior listened patiently and decided to help. When the centipede attacked, Hidesato’s arrows just plinked off the tough armor of the centipede. Hidesato didn’t give up and used an old folk trick to defeat the giant menace.  Hidesato refused to be defeated.

How many anime characters can you think of that are similar toHidesato? Hard headed characters are an anime staple for a reason; they have deep roots in Japanese story telling.

Hidesato is also humble. He didn’t want to take all the rewards offered.  He even dedicated a bell to a temple. A bell was quite expensive to make. Hidesato was generous to give the bell away when he could have sold it.  The rewards also illustrates all aspects of a person’s needs: the need for spiritual things (the bell), the need for food (the endless bag of rice), the need for clothing (the endless silk), and the need for relaxation (the no-need-to-heat cooking pot). The reward points to how a generous, persevering, humble person can be rewarded for their good deeds.

However, I have to point out that Hidesato didn’t seek reward. It was forced upon him by the Dragon Lord.  He didn’t need to be rewarded to be happy. He was satisfied with simply helping the Dragon Lord. This moral lesson illustrates a Zen influence. A person’s external situation doesn’t dictate their mental state or happiness. Hidesato would have been just as happy at the end of the story if the Dragon Lord didn’t reward him.


Ozaki, Yei Theodora (1907). Japanese Fairy Tales. New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers.

The Mirror of Matsuyama

Mirror of MatsuyamaIn ancient days there lived in a remote part of Japan a man and his wife, and they were blessed with a little girl, who was the pet and idol of her parents. On one occasion the man was called away on business in distant Kyoto. Before he went he told his daughter that if she were good and dutiful to her mother he would bring her back a present she would prize very highly. Then the good man took his departure, mother and daughter watching him go.

At last he returned to his home, and after his wife and child had taken off his large hat and sandals he sat down upon the white mats and opened a bamboo basket, watching the eager gaze of his little child. He took out a wonderful doll and a lacquer box of cakes and put them into her outstretched hands. Once more he dived into his basket, and presented his wife with a metal mirror. Its convex surface shone brightly, while upon its back there was a design of pine trees and storks.

The good man’s wife had never seen a mirror before, and on gazing into it she was under the impression that another woman looked out upon her as she gazed with growing wonder. Her husband explained the mystery and bade her take great care of the mirror.

matsuyama-mirrorNot long after this happy homecoming and distribution of presents the woman became very ill. Just before she died she called to her little daughter, and said: “Dear child, when I am dead take every care of your father. You will miss me when I have left you. But take this mirror, and when you feel most lonely look into it and you will always see me.” Having said these words she passed away.

In due time the man married again, and his wife was not at all kind to her stepdaughter. But the little one, remembering her mother’s words, would retire to a corner and eagerly look into the mirror, where it seemed to her that she saw her dear mother’s face, not drawn in pain as she had seen it on her deathbed, but young and beautiful.

One day this child’s stepmother chanced to see her crouching in a corner over an object she could not quite see, murmuring to herself. This ignorant woman, who detested the child and believed that her stepdaughter detested her in return, fancied that this little one was performing some strange magical art–perhaps making an image and sticking pins into it. Full of these notions, the stepmother went to her husband and told him that his wicked child was doing her best to kill her by witchcraft.

When the master of the house had listened to this extraordinary recital he went straight to his daughter’s room. He took her by surprise, and immediately the girl saw him she slipped the mirror into her sleeve. For the first time her doting father grew angry, and he feared that there was, after all, truth in what his wife had told him, and he repeated her tale forthwith.

When his daughter had heard this unjust accusation she was amazed at her father’s words, and she told him that she loved him far too well ever to attempt or wish to kill his wife, who she knew was dear to him.

“What have you hidden in your sleeve?” said her father, only half convinced and still much puzzled.

matsuyama“The mirror you gave my mother, and which she on her deathbed gave to me. Every time I look into its shining surface I see the face of my dear mother, young and beautiful. When my heart aches–and oh! it has ached so much lately–I take out the mirror, and mother’s face, with sweet, kind smile, brings me peace, and helps me to bear hard words and cross looks.”

Then the man understood and loved his child the more for her filial piety. Even the girl’s stepmother, when she knew what had really taken place, was ashamed and asked forgiveness. And this child, who believed she had seen her mother’s face in the mirror, forgave, and trouble forever departed from the home.

The idea that a mirror can steal one’s soul is a common belief in many cultures. Usually, the stories do not end well. The Mirror of Matsuyama is an odd mirror story. The mother is seemingly lost to the powers of the mirror. However, the event is turned around as an expression of love a daughter can have for her mother. The idea of the mother living in the mirror is a source for comfort.

In Japan, there is a strong tradition of respecting and honoring one’s parents. This story serves as an example of what a good daughter is to be. She endured the abuse of her step-mother without wishing ill, and the daughter still cherished the memory of her biological mother. The father is touched by his daughter’s devotion and so is the step-mother. The step-mother is so impressed that she changes her behavior and asked for forgiveness for her abuse. The good child forgave her.

The story also illustrates the fact that our parents are always with us, even after they have died. The face that reflected in the mirror was the child’s own, but she could see her mother in herself. We forever carry with us our parents, grandparents, and other ancestors. Every time we look into a mirror, we see our entire family history and the influences of the people around us. Even in the most trying situations, we can see love in a mirror.


F. Hadland Davis, Myths and Legends of Japan (London: George G. Harrap, 1917), pp. 196-198.

James, K. The Matsuyama Mirror.

Onbashira, the deadly log-riding festival of Japan

onbashiraWhen I first saw videos like the one posted above, I took it as a given that Japanese men would ride gigantic logs down steep slopes at the risk of death and maiming, because OF COURSE Japanese men would ride gigantic logs down steep slopes at the risk of death and maiming. Japan is pretty famous for its weird, wacky stuff.

However, upon looking closer, the reasoning behind the deadly log rides that have become fodder for Youtube videos and Western head-shaking is not only fascinating, but deeply rooted in traditional Japanese culture.

What you have just witnessed is one part of one of Japan’s largest religious festivals. Onbashira occurs every six years (every seven according to the Japanese way of counting things)in the Lake Suwa region near Nagano, Japan. Comprised of two parts, the traditional Shinto festival attracts as many as two million visitors to the region, and it has existed for nearly 1200 years. Onbashira (“the honored pillars”) are large tree trunks that sit in the four corners of the four shrine complexes of Suwa Taisha, the Suwa Grand Shrine.

‘Coming out of the mountains’

The source of the onbashira are 200 year old Japanese fir trees, sixteen of which are carefully selected for harvest come time for the festival. Their harvest and the laborious process of transporting them to Suwa Taisha comprise the first half of the festival, called Yamadashi, literally ‘coming out of the mountains’.

Trees who are to become onbashira are felled using axes and adzes specifically made for the ceremony. Once the logs are felled, and after various Shinto ceremonies are performed, it is time to move the 12 ton hunks of wood down the mountain. This is done by hand, using ropes, and is performed by specially selected groups of men. The traditional route down the mountain includes steep slopes. Ki-otoshi, meaning “tree drops”, occur at these point. Men ride the logs down the slopes in order to prove their courage. As might be expected, injuries and deaths are not all that uncommon during the wild slides down the steep slopes. But not to worry; dying during ki-otoshi is considered an honorable death.

The onbashira come home

Once the onbashira are man-handled down the mountain side, they (and the men who pulled/rode them) are allowed to rest a month, during which time the festival continues. Once the rest is over, the second phase of the Onbashira festival, Sabotiki, begins. As you might have guessed by now, it features lots of physical labor and the threat of bodily harm. The huge logs are carried through the streets of the city to the Suwa Taisha complex, where they are raised by hand at the four corners of each shrine. Young men intent on showing their bravery ride the logs as they are erected. Men have died during this ceremony by falling off the top of the logs, or by being crushed if the ropes slip and the log topples over. However, if all goes well and the onbashira are seated correctly, there they will remain for the next seven years, until it comes time to replace them.


Japan Atlas — Onbashira Festival

The Telegraph — Two die in Japan’s notorious tree-sliding festival

Wikipedia — Onbashira

CNN Travel — Onbashira-sai festival: The log surfers of Lake Sawa


The Two Frogs: A Japanese Folktale

Two Frogs - Japanese Folktale

Once upon a time in the country of Japan there lived two frogs, one of whom made his home in a ditch near the town of Osaka, on the sea coast, while the other dwelt in a clear little stream which ran through the city of Kyoto. At such a great distance apart, they had never even heard of each other; but, funnily enough, the idea came into both their heads at once that they should like to see a little of the world, and the frog who lived at Kyoto wanted to visit Osaka, and the frog who lived at Osaka wished to go to Kyoto, where the great Mikado had his palace.

So one fine morning in the spring they both set out along the road that led from Kyoto to Osaka, one from one end and the other from the other. The journey was more tiring than they expected, for they did not know much about traveling, and halfway between the two towns there arose a mountain which had to be climbed. It took them a long time and a great many hops to reach the top, but there they were at last, and what was the surprise of each to see another frog before him!

They looked at each other for a moment without speaking, and then fell into conversation, explaining the cause of their meeting so far from their homes. It was delightful to find that they both felt the same wish–to learn a little more of their native country–and as there was no sort of hurry they stretched themselves out in a cool, damp place, and agreed that they would have a good rest before they parted to go their ways.

“What a pity we are not bigger,” said the Osaka frog; “for then we could see both towns from here, and tell if it is worth our while going on.”

“Oh, that is easily managed,” returned the Kyoto frog. “We have only got to stand up on our hind legs, and hold onto each other, and then we can each look at the town he is traveling to.”

This idea pleased the Osaka frog so much that he at once jumped up and put his front paws on the shoulder of his friend, who had risen also. There they both stood, stretching themselves as high as they could, and holding each other tightly, so that they might not fall down. The Kyoto frog turned his nose towards Osaka, and the Osaka frog turned his nose towards Kyoto; but the foolish things forgot that when they stood up their great eyes lay in the backs of their heads, and that though their noses might point to the places to which they wanted to go, their eyes beheld the places from which they had come.

“Dear me!” cried the Osaka frog, “Kyoto is exactly like Osaka. It is certainly not worth such a long journey. I shall go home!”

“If I had had any idea that Osaka was only a copy of Kyoto I should never have traveled all this way,” exclaimed the frog from Kyoto, and as he spoke he took his hands from his friend’s shoulders, and they both fell down on the grass. Then they took a polite farewell of each other, and set off for home again, and to the end of their lives they believed that Osaka and Kyoto, which are as different to look at as two towns can be, were as alike as two peas.

Japanese Frog FairytaleIn this story, two silly frogs are discontent with their hometowns of Osaka and Kyoto. They meet each other on mountain and decide to help each other see their destinations. Being silly little frogs, they mistakenly stood up so they can only see where they came from. The Osaka frog faced Kyoto, but he could only see Osaka. The Kyoto frog did the same. The silly frogs mistakenly believed the towns were exactly the same.

The story has several lessons. First, it is easy to be mistaken about something. What is reality isn’t always what we see or think we see. In Buddhism there is a saying about mistaking a rope for a snake. Next, it illustrates the differences between the two cities. Osaka has a long history of being a hub port for trade. It was also the capital city various times during the Asuka and Nara periods of Japanese history. Being a major port city, Osaka was an important commercial center.

Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years. The city was founded as the capital during the 700s. I have to note that Tokyo (Edo) was the defacto capital of Japan during much of imperial history. Kyoto was the home of the imperial family; Edo was home of the Shogun. Japanese politics is complex.

In any case, this folktale points at how people are mistaken to think the economic center of Japan (Osaka) and the imperial/cultural center of Japan (Kyoto) are the same.

Finally, the tale speaks about our adage “the grass is not always greener.” Each frog sets off thinking their destination will be better than their hometowns. This mistaken idea leads the frogs to be disappointed when they see their “destinations” on the mountain. The story warns us about how expectations and our easily mistaken senses can lead us astray.


Andrew Lang, The Violet Fairy Book (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1901), pp. 125-126.

Kyoto. Wikipedia

Tokyo. Wikipedia.