Japanese tale #61 – Tengu’s nose

nose tengu.jpg

Once upon a time, many tengu still haunted the forests of Japan, and those demon-like creatures were highly feared by all.

With their muscular frames topped with wide black wings and their sharps talons, they were known to prey upon unholy monks and nuns and innocent travellers alike.

All across the country, their angry red faces and long, long pointy noses plagued the nightmares of many.

One day, a tengu, among the strongest of all by the length of his nose, heard commotion coming down from the narrow road which wound into the deep forest.

– Trespassers!

Swiftly gliding from one tall cedar to the next, the devil approached, silent as the wind.

A Daimyo’s procession​ was slowly making its way between the ancient trees and dense undergrowth.

Followed by heavy oxen carts, hundred of people carried huge lacquered trunks and shiny trinkets. Everywhere, silk banners flapped in the clear air, their bright colors contrasting with the starkness of nature.

Nestled in all this magnificence, a breathtaking palanquin escorted by prancing war horses was lazily making its way uproad, gold ornaments glittering in the faint light.

From his perch, the tengu let out an infuriated croak.

The beast rose his talon-hand and seized the large feathered fan which hung from his belt. A curt flick from his wrist launched a devastating gale which shook all trees in the vicinity.

All forest life seemed catch its breath as old cedars, uprooted by the blunt force of the blow, started to dangerously sway.

And in loud thundering crack, they fell on the road in a thick cloud of dust.

The procession stopped as stricken by lightning. Then, panicked shouts rose as men jumped in to soothe the agitated horses and oxen.

The tengu started to snicker, delighted by the ongoing chaos. But his glee didn’t last long.

An imperious voice ordered from the palanquin:

– Why aren’t we moving?

A little man scurried, nervously smoothing his scarce moustache:

– Huge trees has fallen on the road my Lord. We are going to be badly delayed.

The voice dropped lower:

– Nonsense. I refuse to spend the night in those woods. You have an hour to take care of this.

The skittish little man paled but only bowed and hurried to share his master’s orders.

The tengu hissed: how could those mere humans simply ignore his ire?

Spreading his mighty wings, the demon soared and landed near the palanquin, so forcefully the earth quaked around his feet as the men squeaked in sheer terror.

Rising to his full height, talons gleaming darkly, the tengu roared:

– Who are you to dare opposing me?

A delicate hand carefully rolled up the palanquin bamboo screens. Then, the lord calmly stepped out, cautious to not let his priceless attire touched the soil. Precious brocade glittered as sun caught the elegant twin swords at his side.

Like one, all fell to their knees, bowing so low in complete deference that their heads touched the ground. The tengu’s face grew even redder:

– Those insects only cower at me yet crawl before you?

The lord’s lips twitched. His eyes seized up the angered giant dwarfing his lither frame. A flicker of something that wasn’t truly fear crossed the noble man’s face. He finally answered coldly:

– Pardon me but we have not been introduced properly. Galant company must bow to present themselves. I’ll start.

In a flourish, the lord dropped to his knees. With dignified movements, he placed his hands before him and bowed deeply:

– I am pleased to meet you, great keeper of the forest.

The lord sat up straight and simply said:

– Now it’s your turn.

Somehow astonished by the man’s nerves, the tengu thought to himself:

(well, if he wish so, let us play and exchange civilities. I’ll kill him soon enough)

And with a sly smile baring his dark red face, the monster tried to bow. Tried only as his nose was so long he could just tilt his head toward the ground.

The noble man patiently guided:

– Maybe roll your shoulders further in, yes like so. And spread your legs, you should be able to touch the ground this way.

The tengu had inclined his face as low as he could, his pointy nose planted in the forest soil like a strangely colored trunk.

Eager to stop this little game, the beast hungrily growled:

– I am pleased to meet-

Before he could finished, the lord had unsheathed his sword and in a fast and precise blow, he cut the tengu’s nose clean.

His wings furiously flapping, the monster shrieked:

– I am the great keeper of those lands how dare you-

The noble man snickered:

– Without your big nose, you are now nothing but a lesser demon with no power. Begone!

Shocked and ashamed to have been tricked by a human, the tengu fled and soon disappeared deep in the forest.

As his men let out victory roars, the noble man, swiping blood from his blade, simply ordered:

– One hour to clear the road, not a minute more.

All sighted. This long day had only started.


Tengu inhabitat mountains or forests. Sometimes seen as gods sometimes depicted as bloodthirsty monsters, they always are powerful forces of nature. If they all share links with birds of prey and/or crows (wings, talons) several kinds exists, from the imposing Daitengu (great Tengu, who have long noses), to the smaller Kotengu (lesser tengu, who usually have bird like faces).

Popular folklore stated that the longer his nose, the more powerful the tengu is (this explains why today’s one loses his rank and power when his nose is cut). Though they are fierceful and cunning warriors, tengu can still be outmatched. Their biggest flaws are their angry nature, and their pride and absolute confidence in themselves – weaknesses smart humans don’t hesitate to use to save their lives!

Daimyo processions (daimyo-gyoretsu) were common in Edo period as the feudal lords had to follow Sankin kotai, a policy created to strengthen shogunate control over powerful warlords after the warring states era.

Japanese culture uses many kind of bowing salutations (ojigi). If some are polite salutes following ranks and circumstances, others are used to show complete submission, like the impressive dogeza, where people prostrate themselves on the ground. (if you wish to learn more, Tofugu has published this neat guide showing many different bows).

[pictures sources: 1 / 2 / 3 ]


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