Once upon a time, there was in old Kyoto a wide sanctuary which was the pride of the locals. Dedicated to the thunder gods, the shrines stood at the North-East of town, shielding the capital from disasters and demons.
For those old days, many strange creatures still haunted Japan. And in the forest surrounding that holy sanctuary, a fox and a tanuki lived – but not in peace nor harmony.
The beasts were not friendly neighbors and did not get along well. Both sly and mischievous, they were also consummate shapeshifters.
All day long they competed, doing everything in their power to show off their skills and topple their rival.
– My, my friend. What a lousy trick is that? I can see a patch of fur peeking here.
Would the tanuki laughed.
– Well, well my friend. At least I don’t look like some plump sake flask.
Would the fox sneered.
And bickering would go on and on and on.
Of course one day, the two foes finally came nose to nose. The fox hissed between clenched teeth:
– I am the best shifter of all! Why can’t you fried-brain simply admit it once and for all?
The tanuki scoffed:
– Oh come on tofu-face! Even you could see how great my changes are… if only you weren’t such a snotty dork!
Finally, both had enough and, in the heat of the argument, the gauntlet was thrown:
– You, me. At the shrine, tomorrow morning. Let’s see which one of us is the best!
– The loser leaves the forest?
And all was set and done.
The next morning, the tanuki entered the sanctuary on swift paws. Monsters such as him usually avoided such holy grounds. But mischief was mischief and the beast was on a mission:
– I’ll show that snobby how good I am!
The tanuki strolled for a while between buildings of bright red wood. He waited and waited, watching to catch any sign of his nemesis but nowhere the fox could be seen.
– That coward turned tail for sure!
Suddenly, a mouth-watering smell made his nose twitch.
– I smell… fresh rice yes and… oh crispy tempura! Yummy!
The tanuki ran on his little legs. And indeed, on a nearby bench, was a fine meal nestled in a beautiful black lacquered box.
The beast looked left and right but no humans were in sight.
– I guess I have not lost my time here today!
And with a delighted wolfish smile, he sprang.
In a puff of smoke, the rice evaporated and turned into the fox.
The tanuki, surprised and taken by his momentum, collided with the bench as the sly animal snickered:
– I definitely won!
Grumbling, the tanuki puffed his fur. Dusting his face, he mumbled:
– I want a rematch. Let’s do this again tomorrow!
The fox chirped and posing as a true gentleman, he gracefully accepted the challenge.
The next day, the fox returned to the sanctuary.
Sure of his talent, he crossed the grounds with confidence. Yet nowhere the tanuki could be found.
– That lazy animal slept in for sure!
The fox sighed and settled by the temple hall to wait for his late opponent. He had only starting to groom his fur to pass the time that a delicate whiff made his whiskers fluttered.
Alerted, the fox turned his head sniffing. And indeed, down the hall, set on the altar below the sacred mirror, was an offering bowl of freshly cooked fried-tofu.
The beast pricked up his wide ears, but no priest and priestes could be heard.
– Luck is with me today!
The fox entered the hall, silent as a shadow. He approached the wooden altar and rose to his hind legs, mouth already watering.
But he was not able take even one bite. In a swirl of leaves, the bowl disappeared, leaving in its place the tanuki who rolled with laughter:
– It’s the biter bit!
The fox too was a sore loser
– It’s a draw! I called for a playoff and…
He could not finished his sentence. Thunder roared, making the whole shrine shook. The two animal jumped into each other’s arms, trembling.
The tanuki stuttered:
– Was that what I think it is?
The fox whispered:
– All things considered, holding our contest in a consecrated temple might have been a tad too m…
Thunder rumbled once again. And the beasts ran away without further ado, vanishing in a blink into the forest.
It is said that this misfortune did not stop fox and tanuki from bickering. But, on common ground, they never brought their games to the sanctuary ever again.
Even the most skilled shape-shifting monsters do not dare to rouse the thunder gods.
This tale takes place in an ichi no miya, a first rank shinto sanctuary. Kyoto’s ones are the Kamo-jinja : those twin sanctuaries (dedicated to the thunder kami Kamo Wake-ikazuchi) have been built alongside the Kamo river, whose Nord-East direction is of bad omen in traditional geomancy, to shield the ancient imperial capital from evil.
Kitsune (fox) and tanuki (racoon dog) are animals who were thought to have similar uncanny shape shifting abilities… and some stories stressed the heavy competition between those two youkai. Usually though, they got along well enough : kitsune were more posing as nobility or pretty ladies, while tanuki loved pretending to be merchants or shops owners.
It is funny to note that those animals are said to be so fond of some foods that their names have been given to popular dishes. A tanuki-don is a bowl of rice topped with tempura crusts, while kitsune-don is topped with abura age (fried tofu). You can also find many variations such as the well known tanuki/kitsune-udon, thick noodles dressed with those animals favourite toppings. Yummy !