Once upon a time, a man named Jiro and his family lived a very harsh life. For slum dwellers like them, times were difficult: despite all their hard work, money was often short and they didn’t always eat their fill.
One brisk day, as Jiro was rummaging through odds and ends, searching among garbage for things he could resell, a strange furry thing caught his attention.
The man took away some worm eaten planks only to found himself face to face with two scared eyes.
Looking back at him pleading, was a tanuki its head caught in a nasty rope loop. Its fur was ragged and dirty. Obviously the animal must have fought a long time to get free as its neck was partly red and sore.
– Well little buddy, looks like you’re having a bad day…
Jiro sighted. Tanuki meat was hard and truly distasteful. The man would have prefered to find a rabbit or a chicken.
– Guess I’ll let you run.
Careful to not get bitten by the panicked animal, he untied the rope. As soon as it was out of the vile trap, the tanuki fled and disappeared. Jiro burst out laughing:
– So much for a thank you!
That night though, as Jiro was lying down, cuddled with his sleeping wife and children, he heard a strange high pitched voice:
– Many would have let a beast like me die. I owe you a big one sir!
Jiro smiled in the dark. The tanuki chortled and added:
– You know what? I’ve heard the head priest of nearby temple is searching for a kettle. Tanuki like me are good at turning into objects. See where I am going pal?
This time Jiro chuckled.
– This must be the stupidest dream I have ever made. A tanuki is proposing me to scam a priest by turning into a kettle!
And laughing, the man drifted into sleep.
The morning after, Jiro was awoken by a surprised cry. Startled, he got up and found his wife holding an amazing golden kettle in her hands.
– Look what I just found! Where on earth does that thing come from?
The man opened wide eyes. But, years of hard street life has taught him to seize good opportunities. He washed his face and dressed hastily in his best clothes. Then he grabbed the glittering kettle, embraced his wife, and moments later, was out on the road to the temple.
Walking briskly in the cold morn air, Jiro muttered:
– I sure hope you know what you’re doing my friend!
At the temple, one look at the kettle was enough for the monks to led him to the head priest. It was a greedy man, with a nose and a mouth too small on his moon-like face.
As soon as he saw the teapot, his beady eyes shined with envy.
– Such a beautiful thing…
The priest threw a look at Jiro’s poor clothes and snorted:
– Between you and me, I don’t truly believe a street rat like you owes such an amazing object. But I’ll be generous, take this silver coin, and I won’t report you.
Jiro kept his mouth shut, as he had done many times before. He took the coin and left, muttering under his breath:
– My poor Tanuki, you’ve found a terrible master…
As soon as Jiro was gone, the head priest called a young apprentice in:
– I want this cleaned well and quick. Who knows what illness those filthy rats can bring!
The young boy bowed and quickly went to the well. He started to scrub and scrub thoroughly when suddenly…
– Hi hi, that tickles!
…the kettle started to giggle.
Shaken the child ran to the head priest. But the grim man simply mocked him.
– A talking kettle, really? Get yourself together boy, you’re here to work not joke.
The apprentice was nearly into tears:
– Enough! Boil some water will you? I wish to try on my new kettle right now.
As the head priest was taking seat near the fireplace, the young boy did as ordered. He poured fresh water into the golden kettle and hanged it over the sunken hearth.
– Ouch ouch, too hot! That’s too hot!
In front of the gaping humans, the kettle grew a paw, then two, then four. A fluffy tail sprang up and, from the spout, popped a furry head.
– That’s not the life I had in mind! I’ll take my leave then, goodbye to you my good sirs!
Before the priest could make a move, the kettle had ran away, fumbling on its short little legs.
Later, in the dead of the night, Jiro found a frozen tanuki on his threshold. He smiled, relieved:
– Come on in buddy.
And it was the beginning of many adventures.
This story is my take on a very famous Japanese tale usually called Bunbuku Chagama usually said to have taken place at Morin-ji temple in a city named Tatebayashi. This story has many variations, from Puss in Boots like events (the kettle owner ends his life rich and weds a princess) to more moral approaches (criticizing the spite and greed of some buddhists priests).
The particular kettle that tale is about is called a chagama and was especially used to boil water during chado (tea ceremony). They are mostly made from cast iron and have a round or plump form.
If for Summer tea ceremonies, chagama are placed over a portable brazier (furo), in Winter they are heated over a sunken heart called ro built into the floor of the tea room. The change from furo to ro usually happens around mid-November and coincides with the moment when Spring tea jars are finally opened (a special ceremony named Kuchikiri-no-chaji is held for the occasion).
Ro hearth is an echo of one of my favourite old Japanese house feature: the irori, a wide welcoming square hearth which was then used both for heating the house and cooking .