Once upon a time, there was a woodcutters couple who spent all the good season up high in the mountains.
The lumberjack worked hard all day long, cutting trees and burning wood to make charcoal. And his wife sat dutifully in front of her spinning wheel, her nimble fingers coiling fine glossy threads.
Everyday, after her man had left for the woods, a tanuki came sniffing around the camp. Searching for food, the beast lazed around, rummaging through the woodcutters’ belongings.
The couple had tried everything to stop it. They had hung their food up in nets, and buried their supplies deep underground. Las, the clever animal kept coming back, thwarting their plans. And every morning, the woodcutters found their things freshly gnawed on.
Fed up, they decided to put big, heavy stones over a solid wooden chest, hoping it would discourage the cunning rascal.
The tanuki came. It turned around the chest. It pushed, and clawed, and pushed again. But no stones nor chest moved one inch. The animal threw a puzzled glance at the woman who stood by watching the scene. She laughed:
– Yes my little friend. This time, we’ll keep our food!
The tanuki whined, tail and ears low, and it disappeared into the bushes. But, the animal was one stubborn beast.
That night, a thundering drumming woke up the woodcutters.
The couple shared a dazed look. The man uttered with disbelief:
– T-tell me it’s not what I think it is…
But is was. Outside in the dark, the tanuki was loudly hitting his belly. And all night long, it danced under the moon, and howled and sang at the top of its lungs.
When the sun rose, the lumberjack had not slept a wink all night. He got up in foul mood, swearing nasty curses under his breath.
– This must end right now! Enough with it, I’ll set a trap and kill this stupid beast!
The tanuki did not show that day. Nor the day after it. Then one afternoon, as the woman was working at her spinning wheel, quietly humming, she caught two shiny black eyes watching her from the threshold. She raised her voice and told the tanuki off:
– You’ve make a mistake little friend. My husband wants your hide now. Could you not just behave?
The tanuki squealed, looking a little contrite. Then, with a little poof, it suddenly turned into a shiny spinning wheel.
The woman could not hold a laugh.
– See, you can be cute when you want to!
Days passed. The tanuki visited the camp from time to time and slowly, the spinner and the animal established a quiet routine. She would take her spinning wheel outside while the tanuki watched her work with plain curiosity.
One sunny morning thought, as the woman was cooking in her hut, a distressed cry startled her. She ran outside.
– Oh no!
The oblivious tanuki had put its head in one of the lumberjack’s many traps. The snare had caught it and the poor beast now hung miserably from a tree, slowly choking.
The woman ran to it and hastily cut the rope loose.
– Be careful little friend, my husband is still mad at you. Believe me he would be delighted to eat you!
She gave a friendly pat on its head:
– It would be better if you stop visiting for a while. You’re in danger here!
The tanuki bowed deeply. And when it finally returned back into the woods, the animal kept glancing back at the woman who sat at beside her spinning wheel.
Winter came. The woodcutters returned to the village, down in the valley. Yet, the woman could not help herself looking at the mountains.
– I hope you are well little friend…
Snow fell, river iced and finally, after days of cold, vivid green sprouts appeared again. Spring was back.
The lumberjack and his wife packed their belongings and took the road to their mountain house. Their camp was nearly unchanged. A tree had fallen during winter without doing any true damages. In the clear air, birds sang.
The lumberjacked put down his bundle:
– I am going to inspect the forest and bring back water. Clean the house and start a fire, will you?
The spinner agreed. The lumberjack embraced her and went on his way. But, when she opened their door, the woman could not believe her eyes.
Not a speck of dust had touched the shack. The polished wood of her spinning wheel shone warmly in the light. And, spooled neatly beside it, pure white silk threads glittered.
– How is this possible…
The astonished woman entered her house. She removed her shoes and approached the white spools, trembling. The air shimmered.
The spinner let out a strangled scream, retreating hastily. With a little poof, the tanuki appeared and in a strange little voice:
– No, no, no fear. Me help. See?
The animal sat on its fluffy bottom beside the spinning wheel and with nimble paws, it started winding threads into neat glossy coils.
– See. Help. Me good?
The woman brought her hand to her heart and sat, her head spinning:
– This much silk! Thanks to you we will live well for years to come.
The tanuki squealed and bowed happily:
– Me good!
The woman caught the beast into her arms, tears of joy in her eyes, and laughed:
– Yes, yes you are!
Reeling and spinning thread have been considered a feminine activity across the world for a long time. It was an everyday task, often done in the evening after a day out in fields -and often followed by hours of weaving during winter days. Spinning and weaving were both done to take care of family’s needs and to earn money.
In Japan, the star of fiber was of course silk (this Begin Japanology episode is a very nice introduction on the subject). But many other fibers were also spinned depending of what was available. Across century, people have used hemp, cotton, wool, but also wisteria and other trees fibers such as basho (japanese banana) in Ryukyu islands or bast in Hokkaido.
I have already covered the tanuki’s mischievous personality in other tales (see here and here). Today’s story shows another famous feature of those playful youkai: the tanuki-bayashi. This ruckus was immortalized in a very famous nursery rhyme by Ujō Noguchi and depicted in Ghibli’s movie Pom Poko.