The old man who stole the rice ball

By Hayami Shungyousai (1767-1823)

There was a large mountain in Echigo province called Mount Tonami. A god lived on the mountain, and it was said that those who travelled deep into it never came out again. And so, lumberjacks and hunters would never dare step foot on it. But there was an audacious ronin by the name of Fukami Hachiro who lived in a village near the mountain.

“It is said there are, above all, many magnificent trees deep within that mountain, but because that god is also there, the treasure is going to waste. I will enter the mountain and ascertain whether there are truly any monsters there or not,” he said. Holding the famous sword that had been passed down in his family for generations, Hachiro entered the mountain with his faithful dog by his side.

As they went further in, their path that could barely be called a path was obstructed by fallen trees. He could not say that it was steep, but the hardy Hachiro jumped over the obstacles, and continued jumping over them as he progressed. Before long, the area before him became so densely packed with trees and so dark that he was unable to find a place to push his own body through. Then, his dog that had come all this way with him, suddenly became timid and cowered at his feet. Hachiro grew angry.

“You think I’m gonna go back now, after coming all this way?!”

He grabbed the dog and shoved him through the trees. Moments later, the dog came flying back at his face, howling. Unafraid, Hachiro picked his dog up again and shoved him back through the trees, but this time the dog came back torn in two.

Hachiro fell into a fit of rage and savagely cut down the trees. He pushed his way through, but there was nothing strange before him at all. Simply an open space. There were no pines, nor oaks, nor any other trees. Rocks were spread over the ground and it was frightfully clean. There was a large boulder, which, if one was to exaggerate, looked like a folding screen. When he climbed the rock and looked around in all four directions, it truly looked like a fairyland spread out beneath him.

Hachiro decided to take a break. He gathered some nearby branches to start a fire. Once he was warm, his fighting spirit blew up once more. He removed a rice ball from his hip to have some lunch, but then he heard a sound and felt the presence of someone nearby. Suspicious, he listened closer. He discovered a small grotto behind him which he had not seen, and from within it a small man, no larger than an infant, came crawling out. The face was like that of a small child, but he had grey hair, and so Hachiro assumed him to be an old man.

The old man did not move while Hachiro watched him. Hachiro went to take a bite of his rice ball, but then suddenly the tiny old man reached out to grab it. Righteously angry, Hachiro skewered the rice ball with his sword and waved it in front of the old man.

“If you take it, then I will kill you with this.”

But the old man wasted no time and swallowed the rice ball in a single mouthful. Hachiro tried to stab the old man but found himself unable to move, like his limbs were buried. All he could do was sit there. When the old man was done eating both the rice ball and the sword, he quietly returned to the grotto. Hachiro was able to move once more and ran back home, perplexed. He promptly took ill and slept for more than one hundred days straight.

I heard this story from a person who saw the remains of the sword that little old man ate. I wonder, just who was he? How strange it all is.

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