Once upon a time, there was a village nestled deep in the heart of the snow country. It was a faraway land, far from the mellow life of the capital. Enshrouded in white during long Winter months, its people were known to be hard to the task, stubborn and resilient.
Surrounded by heavy snow, villagers only get out from time to time, wearing massive coats and boots made of straw to fend off sharp blizzards. Most days, they kept to their homes, tending to daily tasks. They weaved and sew clothes, sculpted and sharpened tools, tended their animals and waited. Waited again and again.
In every houses, all eagerly yearned for Spring. For them, a softer snow felt like a victory, the cracking of melting ice was a joyful music. And villagers watched for the first sign of budding on grim trees or the first bird finally returning.
Yet, one year, nothing happened.
Days passed and turned into weeks. But the land did not stir. Snow stayed as thick as ever, blanketing the whole world. And icy winds kept howling in sudden gales.
Hiding in their homes, the villagers despaired:
– Our supplies will soon be running low. What will we do then?
– If the snow doesn’t melt soon, we’ll never be able to gather crops this year!
Everywhere, the laments spread until one day, a young man named Saburo rose and said:
– Something must have infuriated the gods. We must find what it is!
His two older brothers stood up, nodding vigorously:
– You’re right! But we won’t let you venture outside alone: let’s do this together!
As their worried mother shed tears, the three of them put on their bulky coats and boots and bid farewell to the village.
The wintery air was still and bright. Not a sound could be heard but their heavy steps treading upon the snow. All around them, as far as their eyes could see, was nothing but shimmering white under a tranquil sky.
The older brother, Ichiro, walked ahead, opening the path. The second, Jiro, followed him, searching for any sign of life on this frozen land. And Saburo brought up the rear, alert and careful.
Jiro finally muttered, his breath coming in misty puffs:
– There’s nothing here. Seems everything is dead!
Ichiro stopped and turned to him. He grunted:
– Hush you fool! You’re gonna bring us bad fortune!
He had just finished his sentence that the sky darkened. A freezing gale suddenly knocked Ichiro to his knees. As quickly as it had appeared, the gale vanished, leaving but snowflakes dancing in the air.
– Brother !
Jiro and Saburo rushed to his side but Ichiro waved them off indignantly:
– I’m fine, I’m fine.
His brothers helped him up and the three men resumed their journey.
Ichiro walked twice as fast, angry that his younger brothers had seen him on his knees. Saburo shook his head, smiling, as Jiro teased:
– If you wanted to play in the snow, all you had to do was ask brother!
The older man sighed but did not answer, keeping his gaze on the horizon. Swirling snow caught his eyes. A hundred feet from them, a strange whirlwind was drifting around a bare tree.
– What the devil is…
In a blink, the whirlwind went straight at them. Ichiro only had the time to threw himself on the side, his warning cry stuck in his throat.
Moment later, Jiro laid on the ground. He let out a distressed sob:
– My legs! My legs!
His brothers froze. Jiro’s straw boots were torn apart. Underneath, the poor man’s skin was shredded in precise and clean cuts. His red blood dripped on the snow.
Using his knife, Ichiro immediately tore his outer kimono into strips to tend his wounds the best he could.
Saburo, eyes wide, brought a shaking hand to his face:
– Brothers… I-know what we’re after…
Before anyone could stop him, he began to run, madly wobbling in the snowy field toward the lone tree. But before he could go far, the strange whirlwind appeared from thin air.
Saburo throw himself to his knees, brow lowered down to the snow. Gale encircled him with chilling tenders, wailing. The agitated young man risked an eye opened. Small supple silhouettes were running in the wind. He shrieked:
– I am sorry, oh so sorry! I shouldn’t have forgotten you!
The whirlwind slowed and finally stopped. In front of Saburo now stood three weasels, sharps razor-like claws glimmering in the wintery light. Behind them, nestled in a snowdrift, laid an old sickle battered by the elements.
– You helped me with so many harvests yet I’ve left you under that tree. What harsh times you must have face all alone in the cold!
In perfect harmony, the weasels tilted their heads to the side. Then one approached the sobbing man, its black beady eyes unreadable.
A soft wind blew and they were gone.
In his hands, Saburo now held the weathered sickle. An amazed cry shook him from his daze: behind him, Jiro was back to his feet, his legs completely healed. No trace of blood was left in the snow.
In the field, the bare tree was now a dashing spot of color, its branches bearing fresh budding leaves.
Spring at last was on its way.
The snow country (Yukiguni) is the western area of Honshu between Japanese Alps and the Sea of Japan known for its heavy, several meter high snowfalls. In Spring, this abundant snow melts and irrigates fields and paddies giving bountiful crops. This remote area has been isolated from the rest of the country for centuries : court officials appointed in those “end of the earth” provinces saw those posts as a punition.
Life there was very hard, with its long cold winter months. This Begin Japanology episode give a good idea of how people managed to survive in this harsh environment thanks to solidarity and ingenious devices. Recently, the snow country has been slowly developing winter activities, hoping to attract tourists and make their region known.
The strange youkai encountered in this tale are called kama itachi (weasel sickle). They are found all across Japan but most stories come from the snow country area, especially old Echigo province (actual Niigata). Kama itachi are three weasels with long sickles-like claws running so fast in circles they create gusts of wind. If you meet a kama itachi, the first one will knock you, the second one cut you, and the third heal your wounds – often so fast you won’t realised what just happened!
Usually, youkai weasels (bake itachi) are not very dangerous monsters (they are mainly tricksters). Kama itachi though can be true demons. A lesser known version also links them to tsukumogami (objects developing a spirit with old age – and sometimes searching revenge): that’s the one related today.