The Tengu

Gnomes, trolls, gremlins, and lots of other supernatural beings are popular subjects of European fairy tales. Japan, too, has its supernatural pranksters, the most famous and popular of which are the "tengu." A tengu is a creature with a long red human-like nose and mouth that often dresses in a cape and uses a leaf from the Yatsude tree to fan itself. Tengu are usually accompanied by several Kurasu-tengu, or "Crow goblins," smaller beings with bodies like a person, but having wings like a crow. They have a beak like a bird instead of a mouth, and their nails are like a tiger's claws. Their eyes are round and flash light like a lightning bolt. Tengu and their companion kurasu-tengu live in high mountains and deep forests and love to play pranks on unsuspecting humans. Japanese legends contain many stories about tengu, and as a result, many shrines and temples have been dedicated to tengu as a way of keeping them from making mischief against people.

Ushiwaka and the tengu - One of the most famous Japanese stories about tengu concerns the young nobleman, Ushiwaka-maru. Ushiwaka's father, Yoshitomo, had been involved in an unsuccessful rebellion and had been killed. To be sure that the sons would not seek to avenge their father, the winning war-lord had Yoshitomo's three young sons sent to temples to enter religious life. Ushiwaka, the youngest, was sent to Mount Kurama to become a priest.

As he grew up, Ushiwaka became both inquisitive and rebellious. He would often sneak out of the temple grounds at night to go hiking in the nearby deep mountain woods. One night he stumbled across a group of strange creatures practicing sword fighting in a moonlit clearing in the forest. Having found out about his father, Ushiwaka was determined to seek revenge, and asked the tengu to teach him how to fight. From then on, night after night, Ushiwaka would sneak out of the temple late at night, stealthily travel through the forest to the clearing, and practice the secrets of tengu swordsmanship.

After several years of secret practice, young Ushiwaka decided that the time was right to come down from the mountain and seek revenge. He packed his sword, descended from the temple, and joined his uncle in a rebellion against the war lord who had killed his father. Even today, he is remembered by his adult name, Yoshitsune, and honored as one of Japan's most famous generals and swordsmen.

The tengu and the borrowed hands. There was once a priest who lived in a temple and was well known for his beautiful calligraphy. One night, a tengu came to his temple and asked the priest if he could borrow the skill of his hands. The priest was shocked and said he could not lend the tengu his hands because he needed them.

"No, no," said the tengu, "I don't want to take your hands. I only need for you to lend me their skill for a while." Being a compassionate man, the priest agreed. The tengu thanked the priest and disappeared into the blackness of the night.

The next morning the priest woke up and found that his hands were paralyzed. Try as he might, he couldn't make his hands work. They stayed that way for about a month until, one evening, the tengu reappeared at the temple.

"I have come to give you back your hands," said the tengu. "To show my appreciation, I have brought you a charm that will protect you from fire." The priest gratefully accepted the charm and showed the tengu out of the temple and back into the forest.

The next morning, when the priest woke up, he had completely regained the use of his hands. He placed the tengu's charm in the temple, and since that time the temple has never been struck by a fire.

Mysterious letter of apology. One time, about 350 years ago, travelers walking along a stretch of beach in eastern Japan were always bothered by the mischief of some unseen beings. Finally, the local people went to the priest of the near-by Buddhist temple and asked the priest to help. The priest, a man named Nichian, held a solemn ceremony during which he recited Buddhist scriptures and appealed to the supernatural beings to stop troubling the human travelers in the area. Shortly after the service, a mysterious scroll appeared at the edge of the forest. Measuring about two feet by nine feet, the scroll was covered with thousands of words that no one could understand. From the time the scroll appeared, no one was ever bothered again by the mischievous tengu, so the priest and local people decided that the scroll must be from the tengu and must contain an apology and a pledge from them to stop making trouble for humans.