The Badger-haunted Temple

The Badger-haunted Temple[1]

Once long ago, in southern Japan, in the town of Kumamoto, there lived a young samurai, who had a great devotion to the sport of fishing. Armed with his large basket and tackle, he would often start out in the early morning and pass the whole day at his favourite pastime, returning home only at nightfall.

One fine day he had more than usual luck. In the late afternoon, when he examined his basket, he found it full to overflowing. Highly delighted at his success, he wended his way homewards with a light heart, singing snatches of merry songs as he went along.

It was already dusk when he happened to pass a deserted Buddhist temple. He noticed that the gate stood half open, and hung loosely on its rusty hinges, and the whole place had a dilapidated and tumbledown appearance.

What was the young man’s astonishment to see, in striking contrast to such a forlorn environment, a pretty young girl standing just within the gate.

As he approached she came forward, and looking at him with a meaning glance, smiled, as if inviting him to enter into conversation. The samurai thought her manner somewhat strange, and at first was on his guard. Some mysterious influence, however, compelled him to stop, and he stood irresolutely admiring the fair young face, blooming like a flower in its sombre setting.

When she noticed his hesitation she made a sign to him to approach. Her charm was so great and the smile with which she accompanied the gesture so irresistible, that half-unconsciously, he went up the stone steps, passed through the semi-open portal, and entered the courtyard where she stood awaiting him.

The maiden bowed courteously, then turned and led the way up the stone-flagged pathway to the temple. The whole place was in the most woeful condition, and looked as if it had been abandoned for many years.

When they reached what had once been the priest’s house, the samurai saw that the interior of the building was in a better state of preservation than the outside led one to suppose. Passing along the veranda into the front room, he noticed that the tatami were still presentable, and that a sixfold screen adorned the chamber.

The girl gracefully motioned her guest to sit down in the place of honour near the alcove.

“Does the priest of the temple live here?” asked the young man, seating himself.

“No,” answered the girl, “there is no priest here now. My mother and I only came here yesterday. She has gone to the next village to buy some things and may not be able to come back to-night. But honourably rest awhile, and let me give you some refreshment.”

What was the young man's astonishment to see a pretty young girl standing just within the gate
What was the young man’s astonishment to see a pretty young girl standing just within the gate

The girl then went into the kitchen apparently to make the tea, but though the guest waited a long time, she never returned.

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By this time the moon had risen, and shone so brightly into the room, that it was as light as day. The samurai began to wonder at the strange behaviour of the damsel, who had inveigled him into such a place only to disappear and leave him in solitude.

Suddenly he was startled by some one sneezing loudly behind the screen. He turned his head in the direction from whence the sound came. To his utter amazement, not the pretty girl whom he had expected, but a huge, red-faced, bald-headed priest stalked out. He must have been about seven feet in height, for his head towered nearly to the ceiling, and he carried an iron wand, which he raised in a threatening manner.

“How dare you enter my house without my permission?” shouted the fierce-looking giant. “Unless you go away at once I will beat you into dust.”

Frightened out of his wits, the young man took to his heels, and rushed with all speed out of the temple.

As he fled across the courtyard he heard peals of loud laughter behind him. Once outside the gate he stopped to listen, and still the strident laugh continued. Suddenly it occurred to him, that in the alarm of his hasty exit, he had forgotten his basket of fish. It was left behind in the temple. Great was his chagrin, for never before had he caught so much fish in a single day; but lacking the courage to go back and demand it, there was no alternative but to return home empty-handed, before had he caught so much fish in a single day; but lacking the courage to go back and demand it, there was no alternative but to return home empty-handed.

The following day he related his strange experience to several of his friends. They were all highly amused at such an adventure, and some of them plainly intimated that the seductive maiden and the aggressive giant were merely hallucinations that owed their origin to the sake flask.

At last one man, who was a good fencer, said:

“Oh, you must have been deluded by a badger who coveted your fish. No one lives in that temple. It has been deserted ever since I can remember. I will go there this evening and put an end to his mischief.”

He then went to a fishmonger, purchased a large basket of fish, and borrowed an angling rod. Thus equipped, he waited impatiently for the sun to set. When the dusk began to fall he buckled on his sword and set out for the temple, carefully shouldering his bait that was to lead to the undoing of the badger. He laughed confidently to himself as he said: “I will teach the old fellow a lesson!”

As he approached the ruin what was his surprise to see, not one, but three girls standing there.

“O, ho! that is the way the wind lies, is it, but the crafty old sinner won’t find it such an easy matter to make a fool of me.”

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No sooner was he observed by the pretty trio than by gestures they invited him to enter. Without any hesitation, he followed them into the building, and boldly seated himself upon the mats. They placed the customary tea and cakes before him, and then brought in a flagon of wine and an extraordinarily large cup.

The swordsman partook neither of the tea nor the sake, and shrewdly watched the demeanour of the three maidens. Noticing his avoidance of the proffered refreshment, the prettiest of them artlessly inquired:

“Why don’t you take some sake?”

“I dislike both tea and sake,” replied the valiant guest, “but if you have some accomplishment to entertain me with, if you can dance or sing, I shall be delighted to see you perform.”

“Oh, what an old-fashioned man of propriety you are! If you don’t drink, you surely know nothing of love either. What a dull existence yours must be! But we can dance a little, so if you will condescend to look, we shall be very pleased to try to amuse you with our performance, poor as it is.”

The maidens then opened their fans and began to posture and dance. They exhibited so much skill and grace, however, that the swordsman was astonished, for it was unusual that country girls should be so deft and well-trained. As he watched them he became more and more fascinated, and gradually lost sight of the object of his mission.

Lost in admiration, he followed their every step, their every movement, and as the Japanese storyteller says, he forgot himself entirely, entranced at the beauty of their dancing.

Suddenly he saw that the three performers had become headless! Utterly bewildered, he gazed at them intently to make sure that he was not dreaming. Lo! and behold! each was holding her own head in her hands. They then threw them up and caught them as they fell. Like children playing a game of ball, they tossed their heads from one to the other. At last the boldest of the three threw her head at the young fencer. It fell on his knees, looked up in his face, and laughed at him. Angered at the girl’s impertinence, he cast the head back at her in disgust, and drawing his sword, made several attempts to cut down the goblin dancer as she glided to and fro playfully tossing up her head and catching it.

But she was too quick for him, and like lightning darted out of the reach of his sword.

“Why don’t you catch me?” she jeered mockingly. Mortified at his failure, he made another desperate attempt, but once more she adroitly eluded him, and sprang up to the top of the screen.

“I am here! Can you not reach me this time?” and she laughed at him in derision.

Again he made a thrust at her, but she proved far too nimble for him, and again, for the third time, he was foiled. Then the three girls tossed their heads on their respective necks, shook them at him, and with shouts of weird laughter they vanished from sight.

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As the young man came to his senses he vaguely gazed around. Bright moonlight illumined the whole place, and the stillness of the midnight was unbroken save for the thin tinkling chirping of the insects. He shivered as he realized the lateness of the hour and the wild loneliness of that uncanny spot. His basket of fish was nowhere to be seen. He understood, that he, too, had come under the spell of the wizard-badger, and like his friend, at whom he had laughed so heartily the day before, he had been bewitched by the wily creature.

But, although deeply chagrined at having fallen such an easy dupe, he was powerless to take any sort of revenge. The best he could do was to accept his defeat and return home.

Among his friends there was a doctor, who was not only a brave man, but one full of resource. On hearing of the way the mortified swordsman had been bamboozled, he said:

“Now leave this to me. Within three days I will catch that old badger and punish him well for all his diabolical tricks.”

The doctor went home and prepared a savoury dish cooked with meat. Into this he mixed some deadly poison. He then cooked a second portion for himself. Taking these separate dishes and a bottle of sake with him, towards evening he set out for the ruined temple.

When he reached the mossy courtyard of the old building he found it solitary and deserted. Following the example of his friends, he made his way into the priest’s room, intensely curious to see what might befall him, but, contrary to his expectation, all was empty and still. He knew that goblin-badgers were such crafty animals that it was almost impossible for anyone, however cautious, to be able to cope successfully with their snares and Fata Morganas. But he determined to be particularly wide awake and on his guard, so as not to fall a prey to any hallucination that the badger might raise.

The night was beautiful, and calm as the mouldering tombs in the temple graveyard. The full moon shone brightly over the great black sloping roofs, and cast a flood of light into the room where the doctor was patiently awaiting the mysterious foe. The minutes went slowly by, an hour elapsed, and still no ghostly visitant appeared. At last the baffled intruder placed his flask of wine before him and began to make preparations for his evening meal, thinking that possibly the badger might be unable to resist the tempting savour of the food.

“There is nothing like solitude,” he mused aloud. “What a perfect night it is! How lucky I am to have found this deserted temple from which to view the silvery glory of the autumn moon.”

For some time he continued to eat and drink, smacking his lips like a country gourmet in enjoyment of the meal. He began to think that the badger, knowing that he had found his match at last, Intended to leave him alone. Then to his delight, he heard the sound of footsteps. He watched the entrance to the room, expecting the old wizard to assume his favourite disguise, and that some pretty maiden would come to cast a spell upon him with her fascinations.

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Suddenly he saw that the three performers had become headless!... Like children playing a game of ball, they tossed their heads from one to the other
Suddenly he saw that the three performers had become headless!… Like children playing a game of ball, they tossed their heads from one to the other

But, to his surprise, who should come into sight but an old priest, who dragged himself into the room with faltering steps and sank down upon the mats with a deep long-drawn sigh of weariness. Apparently between seventy and eighty years of age, his clothes were old and travel-stained, and in his withered hands he carried a rosary. The effort of ascending the steps had evidently been a great trial to him, he breathed heavily and seemed in a state of great exhaustion. His whole appearance was one to arouse pity in the heart of the beholder.

“May I inquire who are you?” asked the doctor.

The old man replied, in a quavering voice, “I am the priest who used to live here many years ago when the temple was in a prosperous condition. As a youth I received my training here under the abbot then in charge, having been dedicated from childhood to the service of the most holy Buddha by my parents. At the time of the great Saigo’s rebellion I was sent to another parish. When the castle of Kumamoto was besieged, alas! my own temple was burned to the ground. For years I wandered from place to place and fell on very hard times. In my old age and misfortunes my heart at last yearned to come back to this temple, where I spent so many happy years as an acolyte. It is my hope to spend my last days here. You can imagine my grief when I found it utterly abandoned, sunk in decay, with no priest in charge to offer up the daily prayers to the Lord Buddha, or to keep up the rites for the dead buried here. It is now my sole desire to collect money and to restore the temple. But alas! age and illness and want of food have robbed me of my strength, and I fear that I shall never be able to achieve what I have planned,” and here the old man broke down and shed tears—a pitiful sight.

When wiping his eyes with the sleeve of his threadbare robe, he looked hungrily at the food and wine on which the doctor was regaling himself, and added, wistfully:

“Ah, I see you have a delicious meal there and wine withal, which you are enjoying while gazing at the moonlit scenery. I pray you spare me a little, for it is many days since I have had a good meal and I am half-famished.” At first the doctor was persuaded that the story was true, so plausible did it sound, and his heart was filled with compassion for the old bonze. He listened carefully till the melancholy recital was finished.

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Then something in the accent of speech struck his ear as being different to that of a human being, and he reflected. “This may be the badger! I must not allow myself to be deceived! The crafty cunning animal is planning to palm off his customary tricks on me, but he shall see that I am as clever as he is.”

The doctor pretended to believe in the old man’s story, and answered:

“Indeed, I deeply sympathize with your misfortunes. You are quite welcome to share my meal—nay, I will give you with pleasure all that is left, and, moreover, I promise to bring you some more to-morrow. I will also inform my friends and acquaintances of your pious plan to restore the temple, and will give all the assistance in my power in your work of collecting subscriptions.” He then pushed forward the untouched plate of food which contained poison, rose from the mats, and took his leave, promising to return the next evening.

All the friends of the doctor who had heard him boast that he would outwit the badger, arrived early next morning, curious to know what had befallen him. Many of them were very sceptical regarding the tale of the badger trickster, and ascribed the illusions of their friends to the sake bottle.

The doctor would give no answer to their many inquiries, but merely invited them to accompany him.

“Come and see for yourselves,” he said, and guided them to the old temple, the scene of so many uncanny experiences. First of all they searched the room where he had sat the evening before, but nothing was to be found except the empty basket in which he had carried the food for himself and the badger. They investigated the whole place thoroughly, and at last, in one of the dark corners of the temple-chamber, they came upon the dead body of an old, old badger. It was the size of a large dog, and its hair was grey with age. Everyone was convinced that it must be at least several hundred years old.

The doctor carried it home in triumph. For several days the people in the neighbourhood came in large numbers to gloat over the hoary carcase, and to listen in awe and wonder to the marvellous stories of the numbers of people that had been duped and befooled by the magic powers of the old goblin-badger.

The writer adds that he was told another badger story concerning the same temple. Many of the old people in the parish remember the incident, and one of them related the following story.

Years before, when the sacred building was still in a prosperous state, the priest in charge celebrated a great Buddhist festival, which lasted some days. Amongst the numerous devotees who attended the services he noticed a very handsome youth, who listened with profound reverence, unusual in one so young, to the sermons and litanies. When the festival was over and the other worshippers had gone, he lingered around the temple as though loth to leave the sacred spot. The head-priest, who had conceived a liking for the lad, judged from his refined and dignified appearance that he must be the son of a high-class samurai family, probably desirous of entering the priesthood.

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Gratified by the youth’s apparent religious fervour, the holy man invited him to come to his study, and thereupon gave him some instruction in the Buddhist doctrines. He listened with the utmost attention for the whole afternoon to the bonze’s learned discourse, and thanked him repeatedly for the condescension and trouble he had taken in instructing one so unworthy as himself.

In one of the dark comers of the temple-chamber, they came upon the dead body of an old, old badger
In one of the dark comers of the temple-chamber, they came upon the dead body of an old, old badger

The afternoon waned and the hour for the evening meal came round. The priest ordered a bowl of macaroni to be brought for the visitor, who proved to be the owner of a phenomenal appetite, and consumed three times as much as a full-grown man.

He then bowed most courteously and asked permission to return home. In bidding him good-bye, the priest, who felt a curious fascination for the youth, presented him with a gold-lacquered medicine-box (inro) as a parting souvenir. The lad prostrated himself in gratitude, and then took his departure.

The next day the temple servant, sweeping the graveyard, came across a badger. He was quite dead, and was dressed in a straw-covering put on in such a way as to resemble the clothes of a human being. To his side was tied a gold-lacquered inro, and his paunch was much distended and as round as a large bowl. It was evident that the creature’s gluttony had been the cause of his death, and the priest, on seeing the animal, identified the inro as the one which he had bestowed upon the good-looking lad the day before, and knew that he had been the victim of a badger’s deceiving wiles.

It was thus certain that the temple had been haunted by a pair of goblin-badgers, and that when this one had died, its mate had continued to inhabit the same temple even after it had been abandoned. The creature had evidently taken a fantastic delight in bewitching wayfarers and travellers, or anyone who carried delectable food with them, and while mystifying them with his tricks and illusions, had deftly abstracted their baskets and bundles, and had lived comfortably upon his stolen booty.

Footnote

[1] The badger and the fox as tricksters figure largely in Japanese superstition and folk-lore.

The Badger-haunted Temple – Romances of Old Japan