Japanese fairy tales almost always begin with the phrase "Mukashi mukashi ... " (むかしむかし)
It's the equivalent of "Once upon a time ..."
It's pronounced moo-KAH-she.
One was quite old, each line on his face held a thousand stories of lifetimes lived and lessons learned. The other was quite young, and so beautiful that the Sun and Moon alike fought to touch his cheek. But here the snow bit most viciously that the lines on his face were soon filled and smoothed with a sharp sheen of ice. And the winds did howl and screech creating such a tempest that their frightened eyes could no longer see further than their own fingertips, let alone the dancing rays of the Sun or the Moon. So they crawled, with a painful weary slowness, into an abandoned hut on the mountainside, too tired anymore to fight or flee. Finally, protected from some of the wind, they slumped onto the icy floor and soon embraced sleep.
Outside the wind changed, the screeching dulled to buzzing whispers and if anyone had been awake to listen they would’ve heard a soft flute dancing between buffeting currents of air. And then, she appeared. She was impossibly tall, a pillar of eerily still white robes, and translucent skin lined with streaks of bright blue veins, the people who lived in those mountains called her Yuki-Onna. Only her black hair wriggled and reacted in delight to the piercing winds, framing her round face and drawing attention to her equally blackened lips. She glided, suspended in air above legs that seemed to be missing feet, towards the two men’s shelter. A slight smile dancing on her lips, for she was quite hungry, and here were two warm snacks nicely bundled up in their own exhaustion and foolishness.
She reached the old man first, and without hesitation, leaned down and kissed his lined forehead. Instantly, he went rigid and frost covered his whole body; he was dead. Licking the leftover life off of her lips, she was pleased but not quite satiated. So slowly she slid towards the other sleeping figure, but at that moment the Moon saw his chance to slip through a crack in the window and illuminate a sliver of the young man’s face. Feeling the open door, and the touch of the moon, his eyes blinked open in surprise. He was not the only one filled with surprise, Yuki-Onna realized as she felt the hunger in her stomach replaced by an oddly warm flow of affection. This young man was so pure, and so handsome—she knew that she could not be responsible for his death.
And so she spoke “I had every intention of killing you while you slept, like the other man. But you are as beautiful as the freshly laid snow in the morning when the sun makes it gleam, so I will let you live this one time. But you may never tell anyone about tonight, if you do, I will know instantly and you will lose what you love most, your life will be forfeit.”
His eyes round with terror, he nodded, and she followed the stream of wind slipping out of the cracks in the walls into the night.
Many years went by from that night, the young man took a wife with bright blue laughing eyes and when she asked why he was afraid of the winter snow, he did not break promise and kept his secret buried in his chest. And so they lived happily married.
More years passed by from that night, and the man and the woman had three children, and when they asked why he would not go into the icy mountains, he did not break his promise and kept his secret buried in his chest. And so they lived as a happy family.
And then one night, his tongue slipped, “I love you so very much, my dearest one, and so, I am certain I can trust you with my secret.”
Her blue eyes flashed in the firelight, but she said nothing.
“The reason for my fear of snow and ice, oh my love, all that fear… I have met the ghost Yuki-Onna, once when I was very young.”
At the mention of Yuki-Onna, the wife’s lips began to darken with rage, but the young man was so absorbed in his truth telling that he did not notice.
“She was the one who killed my father but for some reason, she allowed me to live. For years the fear has burdened my heart, but I think the secret is safe in our love.”
Finally he looked up into his beloved’s face, and was met with that of Yuki-Onna. Those blue eyes he adored so much had frozen over, and her soft lips had blackened into the pucker that had stolen his father’s life. He had been married all those years to the ghost that held his life in her hands, and he had just doomed himself.
Voice full of rage, but also a tortured sorrow, twisted their way out of her lips, “I thought you had learned to keep your wagging tongue still, apparently I was wrong. I, unlike you, always keep my promises.”
She spat those last words at his cowering form in the corner of the room.
And with that, a furious gale of wind threw the front door open, and she was gone.
And he was left shivering in the corner, alone and afraid, but still very much alive.
(My mother brought this ancient Japanese folk tale to my attention. I retold the story in my own words to add character, so some points are different from the original. It's obviously too long in this form, but perhaps it can be adapted to fit within three minutes. Enjoy!)
It is said that on sultry summer nights when the full moon is reflected in the mirrorlike waters of Lake Biwa, the celestial maidens descend from the heavens to bathe in the lake.
It was on such a night that the only son of the Shogun went walking on the shores of the lake, being unable to sleep due to the oppressive heat in his chambers. As he walked, he noticed something shimmering on the sand. Drawing closer, he found that it was a garment that glowed softly as if it had a light within. It was lighter than air and softer than silk, and though it was clearly woven, it had the appearance of feathers. At first glance, the cloth looked white, but when examined closely it contained all the colors of the rainbow. The young man, marvelling at this thing of beauty he had found and not thinking from whence it had come, took it home with him.
When he returned to the castle near daybreak, he saw a light burning in his grandmother’s room. His grandmother was the wisest and most respected person that the Shogun’s son knew, and he wanted her opinion about this strange object he had found. When he showed the garment to the old lady, the first rays of dawn were breaking and the robe shone even more brilliantly than it had in the moonlight. The old lady drew in her breath sharply.
“My child,” she said, “this cloth is clearly not from this earth. There is no creature in this world that could have spun thread this fine, no weaver so skilled that could have woven the thread, and no dyer that could have brought these colors to life in the cloth. This is a treasure worth more than all of the gold and rice in your father’s realm. You must keep it safely hidden away, and tell no one about it.” The Shogun’s son vowed to have a strongbox made and to keep the key with him at all times.
Later that day, as the Shogun dined with his family, a visitor was announced. “Who is it?” asked the Shogun. “I cannot say,” answered the majordomo, “but although she is dressed in rude clothing, she is clearly of noble birth. She requests a boon from your lordship.” “Show her in,” he replied.
When the strange woman entered the room, a silence fell. Her skin was paler than moonlight upon snow, her hair was as black as the heavens, and her face was beautiful to look upon. She bowed low and spoke in a clear voice.
“Honored lords and ladies,” she began, “I awoke this morning on the shores of the lake, naked, and with no memory of who I am or where I came from. Some kind fisherfolk found me as I wandered in a daze and clothed me, fed me, and brought me here. I beg of you to please help me find my family so that I may return home. I do not even know my name.” As she spoke, she shed a single tear that fell glistening onto the tatami. Every heart in the room was moved.
The Shogun spoke. “Of course we will help you. I will have ten messengers mounted on my ten swiftest horses leave within the hour to ride through the land with your tale. We will find your family! In the meantime, please accept my hospitality for as long as is needed.”
The beautiful young woman bowed again deeply in acceptance of the offer and left the room.
The Shogun’s mother had observed the girl keenly and had glanced at her grandson several times during the brief interview. Now she noticed that he merely picked at his food and often looked at the door. “Ha!” she thought to herself. “The boy is lovesick at first sight, and he does not realize who she is, nor why she is here. But I will say nothing and we shall see how this plays out. What an honor it would be to have one of heaven’s maidens in the family!”
As the weeks turned to months and the messengers returned with no news of a family missing their daughter, the Shogun’s son spent many hours wooing the beautiful guest. They would walk together along the shore of the lake, and she would stop to listen to the mournful calls of the waterbirds. In the evenings, he sometimes found her gazing at the heavens with longing. “Listen!” she said once. “Can you not hear the music pouring down from the stars?” The Shogun’s son tried, but heard nothing but the normal night sounds of crickets and frogs. After that night, the girl said nothing more about it.
A full year and more passed, and on a chill midwinter morning with snow on the ground, the lovely visitor finally accepted the Shogun’s son’s offer of marriage. They were married in the spring underneath the falling cherry blossoms, and their first child, a boy, was born the following spring. Three other children followed, two girls and another boy, and they were the joy of their parents’ lives. As they played and laughed together, the children’s voices sounded like silver bells, and when they leapt about it seemed as if they might leave the earth and never return.
Fifteen years went by and the Shogun’s son’s wife still looked as fresh and beautiful as the day when she had been found naked by the lakeshore. The son himself became the Shogun after his father’s death. One day, he called his family together. “My beloved wife and children,” he said gravely, “I must leave you for some time. War has broken out to the north, and I must ride with my army to ensure the safety of our homeland.” The youngest girl began to cry and was comforted by her mother. The Shogun dismissed everyone but his eldest son, with whom he walked to the family vault.
“My son, I give you now the key to the most precious treasure of our family. Inside this box,” he said, showing the boy a plain but stout chest of iron, “lies something so valuable that it can never be mentioned. If something should happen to me, the responsibility falls to you, as my eldest son and heir, to keep it safe and hidden. Guard it well and keep the secret!” And he handed a small intricate key to his son, who took it solemnly and bowed to his father.
A fortnight later, a messenger brought the sad news that the Shogun had been killed in battle. His wife rent her clothes and tore her hair in grief, and the children wept until their eyes were red and swollen. It was not until after the Shogun’s body had been returned and the burial rites had been observed that the eldest son remembered the cunning key his father had given to him. That day he went alone to the vault to open the box. When he raised the lid and saw what was inside, he was dumbfounded. He took the precious garment, hid it in his sleeve, and went to see his mother in her rooms.
“Honored Mother,” he said, “before my father the Shogun left, he gave me the key to our family’s greatest treasure. I opened it today and found this.” And he pulled the robe from his sleeve and offered it to his mother. “Have you seen it before? Do you know what it is? Can you tell me?”
When his mother felt the touch of the cloth in her hand, her eyes closed and she shuddered. “Ah, my son,” she said, “I do know what this is, and where it came from, and to whom it belongs. Please, if you love me, say nothing, but gather your brother and sisters and meet me on the shore of the lake when the moon rises tonight.” The boy, being a dutiful and obedient son, asked no questions but bowed and left.
At moonrise, the eldest son led his siblings to the lake. They found their mother at the water’s edge, gazing at the moon’s road on the water. She turned to face her children and they saw the tracks of tears on her cheeks.
“My beloved children,” she began, “it is only today that I have rediscovered who I am, and the joy it brings me is as keen as a knife, but it pierces my heart as well, for it means that I must leave you.” She pointed up at the night sky. “My true home lies there, among the stars,” she said. “I am a maid of the heavens; I am not human. Years ago, before you were born, I came down from the aether with my sisters to bathe in the lake, and I carelessly left my robe on the sand. Your father must have found it and taken it with him. When I left the water and could not find my robe, I was distraught. My sisters and I searched everywhere along the shore but we could not find it. As dawn approached, my sisters donned their robes and ascended to the heavens, leaving me behind. When the first light of the rising sun touched my skin, I fell to the sand and all memory of my previous life was swept from my mind. The rest of my story you know,” she concluded, pulling the cloth of the heavens though her fingers. “I do not blame your father for what he did, although if he had returned my robe to me I could have returned home that night. But then I would not have learned the joys and sorrows of being human, nor received the love of a good man, nor had the unparalleled blessing of being your mother. I would not now trade those experiences for all the stars burning in the sky. Yet now that I know who I am, I do not belong on this earth. I must return home and once again take my place in the chorus of the heavens. You have heard the music of the stars, have you not, my children?” They all nodded. “Good. Then when you listen at night, you will always be able to hear my voice, because I will be singing a special song just for you. And I promise that one night out of every year, I will return to this place to visit you. So this is farewell, but only for a little while.”
She hugged and kissed each of her children in turn and then turned to face the lake. With a single graceful movement, she slipped off her earthly clothes and then settled the celestial robe around her shoulders. The feathers grew into wings and the children watched with tears in their eyes as their mother transformed into a beautiful white bird larger than any crane they had ever seen. She spread her wings and sprang into the air. The children stood in silence as the bird flew into the heavens, dwindling in size until it was a point of light as small and as bright as any star. But before they turned away to return home, the youngest cried out, “Goodbye, Mama!” and the newest star in the sky twinkled in reply.
There was once a boy named Kenji who lived with his pregnant mother near the woods. His father had died leaving them behind. Kenji was a very curious boy and spent many summer days turning over rocks, climbing trees and playing in the water while his mother sold fish at the market.
One sunny day, Kenji was chasing a dragonfly when he came across a hut he had never seen before. Being as curious as he was, he quietly approached and peered through the window. Inside he saw a very old woman pouring herself tea.
As she did, she spoke aloud, “and the ogre, waist deep in the sea, held his son over the water and placed him out of harm’s way while he shielded the village from the storm. His son cried and as he turned to look at him, he slipped and drowned. Years later a large rock that resembled the ogre appeared where he had stood protecting the villagers.”
Kenji gasped and covered his mouth, but the old woman had already noticed him. “Come in, child. I will tell you more tales if you bring in the firewood,” she said through her open window.
After telling Kenji several stories, she urged him to go home. As she opened the door it began to rain although there were no rain clouds in the sky. “Ahhh kitsune no yomeiri,” she whispered. “Come back in, child. It is better for you to stay inside.”
“Why must I stay inside? What is kitsune no yomeiri?” he questioned.
“Today must be the day in which foxes marry. The rain on a sunny day is a distraction so that humans may not see them.”
“I want to see the foxes’ wedding!”
“No, child, it is dangerous!” she warned.
Whether he heard her or not is uncertain, for he had already dashed out of the hut heading deep into the forest. As he passed the rock that looked like a raccoon, he heard the sound of flutes and drums. He hid behind the large rock.
Before him was a display he had never before seen. Kimono clad foxes were walking in a wedding procession. Among them was a fox wearing a white kimono and beside her in a midnight shade of blue was the fox she was to marry. Kenji was astonished and could not stop his mouth from gaping.
It was at that moment that a dragonfly flew into his mouth. Kenji coughed and fell over. The music stopped. Kenji looked up into the eyes of the bride and in her eyes was a cold, rage. He got up and ran as fast as he could back home.
When he arrived, his mother was crying. “Kenji, take this knife and leave. You cannot come back here ever again. The foxes are looking for you and they mean to kill you.”
“Mother, I am frightened. Where will I go?”
“I do not know Kenji. You should not have broken the rules. Now I have lost a son. I will not lose this baby as well.”
Kenji ran to the old woman’s hut. She would know what to do. When he got there, he pounded on the door but there was no answer. He looked through the window and there was no one there. The house was empty, as if no one had ever lived in it.
Kenji sat down and cried.
The next morning, a boy’s sandal was found by the river...
This story was inspired by actual Japanese folklore. Whenever it rains on a sunny day, avoid the forest for the fox's wedding is taking place.
*Apr 16: my apologies, I somehow got the word order mixed up. It is actually kitsune no yomeiri, thanks to Debit72 and her mom for their eagle eyes! I have corrected the title and the errors in the story
For another Japanese tale, please check out: The Tale of Sakura (kamishibai story)