Japanese Tale #31 – A grumpy kitten


Once upon a time, there was a prosperous merchant who held a grocery store in old Edo. Hundred and hundred of sacks and crates were stocked from floor to ceiling. The place was always crowded with customers, with many lively clerks running errands everywhere around.

The man had a beautiful calico cat he pampered, sure his good fortune was directly linked to his furry friend lucky aura. He would say to patrons:

– Isn’t she the loveliest cat around? Look how beautiful she is! Come, come pet her, she’s so sweet and soft! Oh and have you seen, I have just received…

On the scene went on and on.

One day, the cat got pregnant. The merchant was overjoyed. He hired a doctor to look after her and made many prayers for her well being at the local shrine.

Finally, the calico cat gave birth to a single kitten. Yet, the merchant’s joy was short.

– What on earth is this?

The kitten was a tiny little thing, with closed eyes and drooping ears as many new born kittens have. But it also had the strangest little face, with a furrowed brow and a funny sulky muzzle.

– Well, it’ll get better when you’ll grow up.

Days passed. The kitten opened his eyes and started to walk. But its face was still the same. It looked more and more like a grumpy, sullen old man.

The merchant was horrified:

– You are such an ugly creature. This face of yours is so creepy, it’s like you’re bearing a personal grudge against the whole world. You are going to scare my customers away!

The merchant could not stand it. He called one of his clerks and ordered him to go abandoned the kitten by the temple grounds.

The young man put the unfortunate kitten in his cotton bundle and hastily took off for the temple. As he walk briskly he suddenly heard a muffled cry.

– Mew?

The kitten was waking up and it was hungry.

– Ah hush! Please don’t make it more difficult than it is!

The kitten only responded more forcefully:

– Meeeew!

– What, are you cold down there?

The clerk sighed and took the kitten out from his bundle. With his other hand, he loosened the folds of its kimono.

But, as he soon as he put the baby cat against his warm skin, the kitten disappeared far into his kimono and pressed its small mouth on his stomach.

– Wh-what! Hey, don’t bite me you silly!

The young man had not understood the famished kitten was only trying to suck milk.

The poor thing suckled and suckled, harder and harder, desperate to fill his belly.

The man twisted and turned as he tried to seize the little cat who had snuggled deep into his kimono. He suddenly shouted:

– Ouch! No, not the claws, don’t bare you claws!

Because of all this commotion, people had stopped into the street, eyeing curiously this comical man who cursed loudly and wiggled, never catching the obstinate rascal nestled beneath his juban.

Finally, an old man, crooked and bent, took pity on him.

– There, there. Don’t shout, you’re just scaring it. A big boy like you will get no harm from a kitten.

The old man led the embarrassed clerk into his modest teahouse. He took a basket which he filled with old cotton towels.

– There, a nest for our little friend. Now let see if we can convince it to release you!

The young man loosened its clothes and the teahouse owner caught the terrified kitten by the scruff of its neck. It hissed and spat forcefully.

–  My, my, you are a lively one! And just look at this scolding face!

In front a hot cup of tea, the clerk explained the whole story. The old man was truly surprised:

– Ugly? Well, it’s not a beauty for sure but I find it quite cute.

He added with mischievous eyes:

– Can you imagine: if we had to cast away every ugly people, Edo would have not many inhabitants left!

In the end, the old man decided to keep the ugly kitten. The clerk thanked and thanked him again, happy he didn’t have to abandon a tiny life to a certain death.

From this day on, the kitten and the old man lived happily together. Word spread of its funny face and many people visited the teahouse. Business was good and one night, after a long service, the old man commented while petting his strange friend:

– You might be ugly but for me you sure are a true lucky cat!


I have covered in this tale the lucky aura of calico cats. Maneki neko (lucky cats) appeared during late Edo period. They are still today favored by shops all across the world.

Tea houses (chaya) were an important part of daily life in old Edo. Because houses were small and often didn’t have good kitchen or place to stock food, many people eat in those tiny restaurants or from food stalls. Some chaya only served tea and snacks while others were truly little restaurants. They were very popular places, and it was not unsual to find entertainment there such as singers or comedians. Tea houses could also be found near passing roads (see the mizuchaya in this tale)

Kimono are clothes sewn with no pockets. But there are tricks you can use to carry things with you. Women can put objects in the sleeves, or tuck flat ones into their obi belt or their collars. Men carry things in their upper kimono and juban (under kimono) folds. In the past, they also carried special boxes called inro attached to their obi.

Others very useful objects for everyday life are tenugui (rectangle towels) and furoshiki (square fabrics). Very handy, they both are decorated fabric pieces which were and still are used for many purpose : wrapping, carrying, wiping, …

[pictures sources: 1 / 2 / 3]

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