Once upon a time, there was a famous road which wound across Japan. Through paddy fields and soft hills, dark forests and mighty peaks, people walked all day long from station to station, travelling from the great Edo to charming Kyoto.
One of those post towns was a dreaded stop which stood near a steep pass named Suzuka. High in the mountains, the area was nothing but barren rocks and gloomy trees. And it was renowned at miles around for it hid a bandit’s den.
Those highwaymen were all former samurais. Masterless, with no other knowledge than the way of the sword, harsh lives had turned them cruel and bitter.
Like packs of rabid dogs, they terrorized the region, pillaging villages and farms. But their favourite hunting ground was the pass.
Armed with old blunt swords, wooden clubs and other makeshift weapons, the bandits would often ambush helpless merchants. Threatening the poor men, they would raid carts packed with luscious silk and pearly rice, fresh delicacy and glimmering silver, and vanished back to their lair.
Fearsome and merciless, those dismissed samurais had beaten down every single militia sent against them.
And as there was no other way across the mountains, travellers had no choice but keep crossing dreary Suzuka, praying for their safety and relying on sheer luck.
One misty morning, silhouettes emerged from the fog. Simply dressed in blue kimono and wide hats, two men travelled side by side. Behind them, an old horse pulled a small cart filled with wooden casks covered with thick straw matting.
In the peaceful air, a soft humming sound could be heard as the cart moved up the rocky road.
– I sure hope we will not encounter those rascals!
The younger man kept looking around, ready to flee at the slightest sign of danger.
– Be quiet. The boss asked us to deliver those casks and we will comply!
The older man was pale but he kept walking briskly.
Suddenly, a sole shadow appeared in front of them.
The older man froze. And before the younger one could run for his life, countless silhouettes materialized all around them.
An aristocratic voice rose:
– Good morning gentlemen.
Slowly, dishevelled men dressed in smelly rags encircled the cart. Armed to the teeth, they threw wolfish smiles at the merchants. The two men fell to their knees:
– Please, have mercy! We are only clerks running errand!
The chief of the bandits did not care to answer them. He approached and took a close look at the load. Rising a suffisant brow he sneered:
– My my, sake casks? How kind of you!
The younger man opened his mouth:
– But it’s not…
Before he could finished his sentence, one of the brutes hit him.
– Silence fool!
The chief turned to his men:
– Come on you all, to work! Tonight, we’re getting drunk!
The bandits cheered, howling like hungry dogs. And they started unloading the cart.
The former samurais were careless, eager as they were to taste this providential alcohol after month of temperance and muddy water.
They knocked the casks together, turning them upside down. And at each bump, the strange humming sound rose and rose.
The older merchant grew paler and paler:
– Please be carefull!
The chief snarled nastily:
– This sake is ours now! If we wish to take a sip right here right now, we will!
And to prove his dominance, he barked:
– You! Open that cask!
His minion took his axe and started hitting the cask. With each blow, the humming grew louder, soon turning into a droning.
– What on earth…
Before the chief realised, the cask cracked open, releasing a black and golden swarm.
The two merchants threw themselves to the ground, protecting themselves as much as they could under their hats and kimono.
Thousands and thousands of bees, infuriated by the noise and blows which had disturbed their slumber, attacked. They surrounded the ragged men in a maddened dance, viciously stinging arms, and legs, and hands, and faces.
In the other casks, other bees buzzed angrily, ready to defend their sisters.
The bandits ran around, waving their weapons without success, some already yelling with pain. And the more they writhed, the more the bees carried on their onslaught.
In a matter of moments, the highwaymen scattered in the forest, fleeing in panic. Soon, only the two merchants remained, frozen on the ground, not daring to breath.
Slowly the bees’ fury quieted and they returned to their wooden home. On the ground, fallen insects proved how bravely the swarm had fought.
Shaking, the clerks used one of their kimono to cover the cracked cask. The younger one exclaimed:
– Believe me, I’ll never mock the boss again for putting hives into old sake casks !
And they say that, from this day on, bandits never raided Suzuka pass ever again.
This folktale takes place near the 48th station of the famous Tokaido road. Suzuka pass was then a obligatory stop when traveling between Omi and Ise prefectures. I don’t know if bandits have truly haunted this area but it’s highly probable as during Edo period, peaceful times and banishment turned many samurais into ronin. Some settled down to quiet lives but others turned into dreaded city criminals and highwaymen, some terrifying whole regions.
In Japanese culture, bees are not revered as much as other insects and they are not often seen in tales. Their timid presence is probably due to the fact that beekeeping was introduced quite late in Japan. In ancient times, bees were nonetheless revered in some temple and used as offerings or for divination purpose.
Beekeeping became a popular pastime during Edo era with people keeping bees at home in makeshift hives made of rice straw… or in logs or old sake casks. I’ve found traces of bees associated with sake making, but I’ve not been able to find exactly why. Is it because bees were first kept in temple and as sacred as sake was? Or because sake brewers raised bees on their free time? Maybe to make brews like this modern one? The mystery is full and if you know more about it please share your thoughts 😉
The Japanese honey bee is quite a gentle kind, and very different from its natural enemy the aggressive Japanese giant hornet. Tales though tend to mix those two species’ behaviours quite liberally (like today’s one!).