Once upon a time, there was a tiny teahouse up in the mountains. Built just beside the road leading to the harsh mountain pass, the old owner seldom saw travelers and mostly spent his days farming.
One Autumn day though, a weary samurai came to stop. His tattered blue pants and straw shoes, covered with mud and fallen leaves, were a poor sight. Yet the young man had a noble posture and very refined manners. He called gently:
– Hello? Is there somebody here ?
Letting go of his hoe, the owner rushed to greet him:
– Yes, yes! Welcome my lord! Please take place!
The samurai put down his traveling hat and gracefully sat on the little bench at the teahouse front .
– My good man, would you be so kind to bring me tea? Oh and I have heard many good words about your dango. I would love to taste them.
The owner was glowing:
– My grandfather’s famous recipe yes! I’ll make you some right away!
Happy as a clam, the owner prepared the treat, humming cheerfully to himself.
– Here you are, I hope you’ll enjoy them!
Picking a skewer, the samurai took a bite:
– They are very good! They really deserve their reputation!
Smiling broadly, the owner poured a teacup and handed it to the young man. But, as he was looking at him, something strange caught his sight.
The samurai’s ears were curiously long and pointed. And in some places, his dark brown hair were coarse and had a deep red shine.
(This kind fellow sure does look like a fox)
The owner didn’t know how to react . Tactfully, he finally poured clear water in a small bucket and brought it to the samurai.
– I was so eager to have you taste my dango I have been quite impolite…
Ill at ease, he cleared his throat:
– Your face and ears are a bit dirty from the road. Would you like to wash them off a bit?
The samurai smiled:
– It would be very nice indeed, thank you.
The young man reached for the bucket and suddenly stopped. The still water was mirroring his face faithfully.
(Oh no, my disguise is slipping!)
Oblivious of the owner, the kitsune could not stop staring at his reflexion.
Feeling the animal’s panic, the owner swiftly stuttered:
– N-now just please relax okay? I am going to fetch you a towel.
But, when he came back, the samurai had all but disappeared.
The teapot was cooling and leftover dango remained untouched. The fox had left in a hurry and quickly fled to the mountains.
(Poor thing, he was such a charming guest)
The next day, the owner went to the forest. Autumn was here and the turning trees made the whole woods blaze.
As he was gathering firewood while keeping an eye opened for tasty mushrooms, the old man suddenly heard:
– Hey! Hey my good man!
The owner looked around but no one was to be seen.
The kitsune’s voice kept echoing all around him:
– Do you hate me? I mean, I kinda tricked you yesterday…
The fox happily yelped:
-… but it was still fun, don’t you think?
The owner sat down and leant against a tree. He chuckled.
– Yes, I guess you are right my friend… To bad I had to eat all those sweet dango all by myself though.
There was a moment of silence. Then they both burst out laughing.
Roadside teahouses (called mizuchaya) were part of the scenery during Edo period. They were well-liked stops for weary travellers of all kinds, from humble merchants to rich Lords (and in our case, disguised kitsune). Famous roads (such as Tokaido) even had parchments very much like our travel guides, listing towns but also noting the best inns and teahouses on the way.
Mizuchaya offered tea of course but also snacks like dango. Those rice dumplings, served by three or five on a skewer, are still available today. You can find them served grilled, covered with syrup, stuffed with anko, flavoured with matcha etc.
If you have access to rice flours, dango are truly easy to make! I find this recipe very nice and clear if you wish to try.