Once upon a time, there was a small fortress overlooking a valley from the mountains. The Lord of the castle was sharp yet fair and life went on quietly in the little kingdom.
Sadly, harsh times were coming. War had been raging all around for years, destroying faraway lands and coming closer and closer each passing season.
The Lord had done everything he could to keep his small country neutral. His wisdom and temperance were recognized by both friends and foes and he had tried for months to finally settle a durable truce.
Yet all his wise words weren’t enough to stop mad men. And one grim day, rabid armies finally made it to the valley.
Villagers immediately fled to the castle. Men, women, children but also cattle and poultry, all sought refuge behind its high wooden walls and deep moats spiked with pikes.
After the last wain had entered, the Lord ordered all the gates to be closed and sealed.
– Blasted cowards! Hiding behind walls instead of honorably fight!
The enemy general was seething. From his position, he could see in the distance that people in the fortress were getting ready for siege.
– You wish to test my patience? So be it! Soldiers! Set the camp!
The army had no siege machines. But thank to the valley’s profusion, they had plenty of food and water. All they had to do was to wait.
Three weeks passed.
Each day, the General kept eyeing the fortress like a hawk watching its prey.
And each day, the Lord made a show of strolling his compound, inspecting goods and having a word with villagers.
On the fourth week though, the steward rushed to the Lord. The poor man whispered hastily:
– My Lord, the water! The last drop is gone!
The Lord stayed imperturbable, only closing his eyes for a moment.
– We still have have plenty of white rice and fine salt. But without water, it’s helpless!
The man was now shaking:
– Oh My Lord, what are we gonna do?
People were starting to look at them. The Lord firmly led the servant in the castle and said tightly:
– Don’t spread the word yet. We are under siege and the last thing we need is a panic reaction. And you know far well we’re too few to win a face to face battle against those barbarians outside.
The Lord then added with a pensive look:
– We only need to outwit them…
Suddenly, his face lit up:
– Go and fetch all villagers and want to talk to them! Oh, and I want all packhorses led to the storehouse!
At noon, as the sun was high and bright, the General squinted and witnessed quite a strange scene.
Men were charging gallons and gallons of rice on horses while women were bringing wide bowls and sparkling water jars in the courtyard. Joyful songs and children laughs were ringing in the air.
– But what are they doing? Preparing a feast on such hard times?
Sure that he had all his enemy’s attention, the Lord then loudly ordered:
– Ready? Now: begin!
Every villager start pouring and washing rice, happily smiling and joking with each others. Under the noon sun, the wide bowls shone and glittered.
The General was taken aback:
– After all this time, their water supplies should be low. How could they waste so much for a feast?
The rumor spread quickly in the camp: it seemed the fortress had so much water and food they were preparing a banquet!
Soldiers, already bored and homesick, started whispering:
– The General was wrong! We are nothing like close to win! It’s useless, we should just go home now!
And indeed soon enough, under the pressure of mutiny, the army finally left.
Little did they know that what they had taken for rice being lavishly washed was only bright white rice and shiny white salt jars sparkling like fresh water in the sun!
Technically, the Himeji castle picture I used to illustrate this story is inaccurate. Those elegant buildings have in fact never truly seen sieges as they were built/remodeled in (quite) peaceful times. Like European castles, it’s the difference between early fortresses and a late mansions. Japanese compounds designed for war were older and cruder, maze of moats, wooden fences and pikes, high walls etc. If you are interested, this reddit thread has excellent leads on the subject.
Rice is the base of Japanese alimentation. It is so important that the word gohan itself (“meal”) first meant “cooked rice”. Highest quality rice was polished to a white shine and called hakumai (it’s the rice evoked in today’s tale). It was then a rare delicacy only rich people and nobles could afford, the rest of population usually ate brown rice.
Many superstitions and traditions surround rice, from the way you wash it (which was then be a marrying quality for girls!) to the way it looks (the whiter and pearly like, the better). Same goes with salt, which was then expensive and is still today part of religious and folk traditions (both in buddhism and shinto, salt wards off evil spirits).