The Kiso Wayfarer

You know, Karuizawa at the time was a veritable ghost town. It was autumn of Meiji 24 (1891), and the area appeared to be at the height of decline. At any rate, the once thriving post town on the Nakasendo was now utterly desolate. The land was unsuited to farming, and it was hardly possible even to make a living any more—indeed, many people had moved elsewhere. Father and I alighted from the train at Yokogawa, and took the stagecoach along the old road over the Usui Pass, rattling and shaking along. Arriving at the deserted inn in Karuizawa, we found it to be so lonely it was depressing. How different it is these days! The world has changed, and that area has become quite civilized. At the time, the inn where we stayed cost a mere twenty-five sen a night, so you can imagine what it must have been like. Now that very same inn is a splendid large building calling itself a hotel. As for what on earth we were doing in such a place, well, my father had the poetic turn of mind to view the autumn colors in the area around Myogi and Usui. Having exhausted ourselves in Myogi we caught the Usui-bound stagecoach, but we came dangerously close to overturning several times on the mountain road. It really shook us up, I can tell you!

I was not in the slightest amused by our large, gloomy room in Karuizawa, but since Father found it to be nice and quiet, we were to stay there for four days or so. He really does have quite unusual tastes. And then, on the second day it poured with rain from morning. It was late October, a time when temperatures could suddenly drop here in old Shinshu province. Father and I sat before the large hearth at the center of the inn’s common room, and listened to the landlord tell stories about the local area until finally, around sunset, a large man about fifty years of age strode confidently in. This man was a woodcutter by trade, and he had apparently spent around five years in Kiso, but had so missed his hometown, as desolate as it was, that he had returned at the start of the summer.

Bored as we were, we called this woodcutter over to join us around the fire telling stories, and before long he started telling his own tales of when he had lived deep in the Kiso mountains.

“Living in such remote mountains, scary things must happen sometimes,” I prompted him. Being young, my curiosity had been somewhat aroused.

“Well, the mountains aren’t all that different from anywhere else, you know,” he answered, surprisingly calm. “Big storms are as scary as it gets, really. Although hunters are sometimes taken in by them things.”

“What do you mean, them things?”

“I don’t rightly know. Some say they’re age-old monkey spirits up to their tricks, but then again nobody has ever seen their true form. Well, to cut a long story short, say there’s a duck waddling along. How very unusual, thinks the hunter, and he goes after it, but then the damned thing suddenly makes off as if to tease him. And so he goes tearing after it again. But anybody else watching sees nothing but the hunter chasing after thin air. When that happens, the other person shouts loudly, ‘Watch out, it’s one of them things!’ and that’s the first the hunter realizes anything’s amiss. There hadn’t been anything there from the start—it had all just been in eyes of the hunter himself.

“That’s why hunters never go alone into the Kiso mountains. They always go in twos or threes. Another story I heard was of a couple of hunters in the mountains who drew some water from a mountain stream to cook rice. When they thought it was about time for it to be properly steamed one of them lifted the lid of the pot, but what should suddenly pop out but a large woman’s head! The hunter hastily replaced the lid and, holding it firmly down, shouted, ‘It’s one of them things! Quick, drive it away!’ Upon which his fellow hunter immediately grabbed his rifle and fired off two or three shots into the air. When they lifted the lid of the pot again, the woman’s head was nowhere to be seen. Well, this sort of thing is the work of them things, so they say, but the only ones ever to come across them are hunters and their ilk, and I never once saw anything of the sort in my woodcutter’s cottage, you know.”

He puffed away nonchalantly at his thick pipe as if that were the end of the matter. I was disappointed. In this desolate, decaying old post station, on a cold and rainy late autumn evening, I had been ready to listen to an uncanny tale from this man who had lived a good while in remote mountains, but my hopes had been dashed. Nevertheless, I pressed him further.

“But living deep in the mountains for five years or so, there must have been one or two occasions when you came across something strange. Something that even if you yourself, being used to such things, thought nothing of, someone else hearing about it might think it uncommon or mysterious…”

“Well now.” He furrowed his brow as if smoke from the firehad got into his eyes. “Come to think of it, in that long time there were indeed one or two strange happenings. But there was one occasion in particular that was somehow kind of creepy. Why, at the time I didn’t think anything much of it, although later it struck me as downright weird. But why that should be, I couldn’t say.”

He was called Jubei, and lived together with his son Takichi, then six years old, in a remote woodcutter’s cottage deep in the mountains of Kiso. It was set back a couple of miles off the Kurosawa road leading to the sacred peak of Mount Ontake, so apparently they rarely even saw either climbers or mountain porters. Well then, please consider the story proper to start here.

 

“Father, I’m scared!”

Takichi had been playing quietly, but suddenly he paled and clung to his father’s knees. Father and son lived alone together year round in the mountains, so Takichi was accustomed to solitude. He thought of the monkeys and the wild boars as his friends, and was rarely frightened even by the violent storms that buffeted their cottage or the thunder that sounded like crumbling mountains. Before today he had never made such a fuss, pale and trembling. His father gently reasoned with him, stroking his head.

“Why are you scared? I’m here, so nothing can happen to you.”

“But Father, I am scared.”

“You crybaby you. What are you scared of? Just show me what there is to be frightened of,” said his father, his voice a little rougher.

“Listen! That voice…”

Takichi pointed toward the forest. From the midst of the dense foliage of the great evergreens came snatches of a sad singsong voice. The late September evening sun had already dipped behind a distant peak, and the faint image of a crescent moon floated like a silver boat in the lake of pale blue sky filtering through the trees.

“How silly!” laughed his father. “Why are you scared of that? It’s just a woodcutter or hunter singing as they return to the village in the evening.”

“No! No, it isn’t. It’s really scary.”

“What an annoying little brat you’re being. A wimp like you can’t live in a place like this. Do you want to grow up to be a weakling?”

Takichi flinched at this scolding, and quickly crawled into a corner where he curled himself up into a ball, his terror clearly undiminished. Jubei was by nature a doting father, but given how tough he himself was, he found his own child’s timidity terribly galling.

“Come now, what do you mean by making yourself small like that? This is our house. We have no need to be scared of anyone who comes here. Stand tall and be a man!”

Takichi said nothing and stayed curled up small in the corner. His father became all the more irritated, but did not see any good reason to beat him, and merely tut-tutted in vexation.

“What a hopeless idiot you are. Nothing in the world is as frightening as all that! C’mon all you goblins, mountain spirits, them things or whatever you are! Come on over, and I’ll beat you all black and blue!”

In order to hearten his lily-livered son, and also to relieve his own feelings of unaccountable exasperation, he took a thick log from the hearth and boldly brandished it, still blazing, with a menacing look as if to say he would fell any foe with one blow. Charging headlong out of the cottage door he ran right into a man standing there outside, sending sparks showering down upon his face. The man was surely taken aback, and Jubei too was startled. Both glared at the other in silence for a moment, until eventually the stranger gave a high-pitched laugh. Jubei too burst out laughing.

“Please excuse my rudeness for having come flying out like that.”

“No, not at all,” the man said, bowing. “I’m sorry for barging in on you like this. The fact is that I’ve been walking in these mountains since morning, and I’m worn out.”

It had been this wayfarer whose mysterious song had so frightened the boy. Having been overtaken by night while in the Kiso-Ontake mountains, renowned for being cold even in summer, he must have seen the welcome sight of smoke rising from this fire and come to rest his tired feet. He had been singing in order to banish his exhaustion, and had come visiting out of his yearning for the hearth. This was the custom of wayfarers, and there was nothing strange about it. Woodcutters and hunters would also come to smoke and rest here, it being the only cottage in these parts. Travelers who had lost their way had on occasion come to ask for hot water. Such occurrences were not particularly rare, so kindly Jubei readily welcomed this wayfarer too, seating him before the fire where freshly cut wood smoldered.

The wayfarer was a young man of twenty-four or -five with a rather pale complexion and thin, angular cheeks, and yet with his round eyes, full of charm, he seemed a gentle person. On his head he wore a light brown fedora with a wide brim, and he was dressed lightly in a high-collared jacket in a not-unpleasing striped fabric, short trousers with gaiters, and straw sandals, with a brown cloth satchel like that of a schoolboy hanging from his shoulder. At first sight, he looked like a local government official come to inspect the imperial forest, or less flatteringly, an itinerant medicine peddler from the provinces—at least, that was Jubei’s first guess.

In such a situation, the questions the host asked the traveler generally followed the age-old convention.

“Where have you come from?”

“From Fukushima.”

“And where will you go from here?

“I plan to cross Mount Ontake headed for Hida.”

As they talked thus, the sun went down. The cottage was unlit, and in the dim red glow from the burning fire, the two faces—Jubei’s square, the wayfarer’s pointed—floated indistinctly amid the swirling smoke

***

“Thanks to you, I feel quite warm now,” the wayfarer said. “It’s only the end of September, but it gets really cold in these parts, doesn’t it?”

“It does get very cold at night. Indeed, there have been cases of people freezing to death on Mount Komagatake even in August,” replied Jûbei, adding another log to the fire.

This seemed to send a chill through the wayfarer, for he huddled into his collar and nodded.

It must have been around half an hour since the wayfarer had arrived. All this time young Takichi had remained curled up in the corner, motionless, like a shore crab trying to evade capture by a child. Yet he could not remain hidden forever, and eventually the gaze of the person he so feared did indeed fall upon him.

“Oh, I see you have a son! It’s so dark in here I hadn’t noticed him before. Well, here’s something he’ll like.”

The wayfarer opened the bag hanging from his shoulder, and took out a roll of newspaper containing a bamboo sheath. Inside were heaps of sushi rolls wrapped in seaweed.

“I didn’t want to go hungry on my trip over the mountains, so I stocked up on plenty of food, far more than I need… And look here! How about this?”

Inside another bamboo sheath were what appeared to be some leftover rice balls and shredded dried squid.

“Please do give some to your son.”

In such a remote location all year round, sushi rolls were a rare treat, and Jubei accepted the gift in delight.

“Hey, Takichi! Our guest brought us some really tasty things. Come here quick and thank him.”

Normally Takichi would have bounded over grinning, but tonight for some reason he did not even turn to look. He cowered, rigid, as though in the grasp of a fearsome invisible hand. The boy had remained like this for some time now, even in the presence of their guest, and Jubei couldn’t stop himself from scolding him.

“Hey, what are you sniveling about? Quickly now. Come here!”

“Ahh,” responded Takichi faintly.

“No ahh about it. Come right now,” roared his father. “Don’t be rude to our guest. Come on. You won’t come?”

Irritably, the father grabbed the nearest log and struck his son on the back.

“No, stop! Please don’t hurt him,” the wayfarer hastily intervened.

“What? But I always thrash him when he doesn’t do what he’s told. Come here, you brat.”

Seeing there was no way to avoid it, Takichi crawled reluctantly up behind his father, keeping his body as small as he could, like a snake coming out of its hole. Jubei opened the bamboo parcel and thrust it under the child’s nose, and the red pickled ginger bright against the blue-black laver indeed looked truly delicious.

“Look at that! It looks scrumptious, doesn’t it? Say thank you, and eat up quickly.”

Takichi remained hidden behind his father, and said nothing.

“Do eat,” the wayfarer also exhorted him with a smile.

Takichi shuddered again at the sound of that voice. Anyone would have thought he was being attacked by the way he clung tightly to his father’s back, not daring even to breathe. Why was he so frightened of this wayfarer? It might just have been a fear of strangers as is common in children, but ordinarily Takichi was not such a coward. On the contrary, growing up far from any village he greatly yearned for people. All visitors, be they woodcutters or hunters, or even unknown wayfarers, were friends of little Takichi the moment they set foot in the cottage. He would address them all familiarly as “Uncle.” But his sullenness tonight was out of the ordinary, and he truly seemed upset and fearful of this man. Since he was just a child, the wayfarer seemed not to pay any particular attention to him, but knowing what he was usually like, his father could not help feeling his behavior was somewhat strange.

“Why won’t you eat? He was kind enough to give us these treats, so why won’t you take them? You silly boy.”

“Oh, don’t scold him! Children can often be difficult if the mood takes them. Come now, he can eat it later, can’t he?” said the wayfarer placatingly with a chuckle.

“If you don’t want it, then I’m going to eat it all up. All right?” asked Jubei, looking back over his shoulder at Takichi. The boy nodded almost imperceptibly.

Jubei placed the package on a stump of wood beside him and opened it up to reveal rolls of sushi wrapped in dark laver, resembling rusty iron bars. In a twinkling he gobbled up five or six. Then he poured some hot water from the kettle, offered some to his guest, and gulped some down himself.

“Bye the bye, I suppose you like a drink now and then?” asked the wayfarer with a smile.

“Sake? Indeed I do! I love a drink, but living out here like this I don’t often get the chance.”

“Well then, look what I have here.”

The wayfarer opened up his bag and produced a large bottle.

“Oh, some sake!” exclaimed Jubei, drooling at the sight of it.

“How about a glass to ward off the cold?”

“By all means. Let’s put some on to warm right away. Oh, you’re in the way. Get off me, can’t you?”

Jubei shoved aside his son, who was huddled up against his back, and hurriedly took down a ceramic flask from the shelf beside him. Then he added a log to the fire, and poured some of the sake into the flask. Having been shaken off by his father, Takichi lingered indecisively, like a baby monkey abandoned by its trainer, but catching sight of the wayfarer’s face through the smoke, he once again began trembling, and lay face down on the straw matting refusing to raise his head again.

“Good evening! Jubei, are you home?” someone called from outside. It was a hunter, the same age as Jubei, with a large black dog in tow.

“Yashichi, is that you? Come on in!” responded Jubei as he heated the pot of sake.

“I see you have a guest,” said Yashichi. Unslinging the rifle from his shoulder, he began to step into the cottage, whereupon his dog suddenly began growling. “Come now, what’s up with you? This is our friend Jubei’s home! Ha ha ha ha!” Yashichi scolded his dog, laughing, but there was no calming the animal. Digging the claws of all four paws into the ground, it stood firm with its ears perked and eyes blazing, snarling ferociously.

“Kuro, you silly dog! What’s all that noise about? Quiet now!” Jubei also scolded from inside.

“You’ve come at just the right moment. Look what my guest here has brought,” he added, proudly waving the flask of sake.

“Oh my, some sake—what a treat! A bit of luck, indeed. Thank you heartily, sir.”

“Oh, no need to thank me. I’m afraid there isn’t much, but please have some to warm yourself against the cold. It’s rude to offer leftover food, but perhaps this can serve as a snack to go with it.”

The wayfarer held out the package of rice balls and shredded dried squid. There were still several sushi rolls left, too. Jubei and Yashichi were both fond of sake, and partook heartily of the feast. It was still early, but here in the mountains the night was hushed, the only sound coming from the wind that now and then came surging over the peaks in great waves.

The sake was not of the highest quality, but for this pair accustomed to the local brew it was the very sweetest nectar. They naturally felt rather sheepish at being the only ones drinking, and now and again they offered a cup to the wayfarer, but he just shook his head and smiled. Outside the cottage the dog was yelping impatiently. “What a noisy beast!” muttered Yashichi. “Maybe he’s hungry. Let’s share one of these rice balls with him.”

He picked up a rice ball and tossed it over, but it landed on the earthen floor just inside the door. Seeing the food there, the dog stuck his head in, but as soon as he saw the wayfarer’s face he started barking crazily, baring his fangs and making as if to pounce on him.

“Shhh! Quiet now.” Jubei and Yashichi both scolded and tried to chase him off, but the demented dog lunged toward the fire as if possessed. The wayfarer glared at it in silence.

“I’m scared!” whimpered Takichi, beginning to cry.

The dog became even more crazed. What with the boy crying and the dog barking, the little cottage was in uproar. Even complacent Jubei began to feel sorry for his guest and pulled a wry face.

“It can’t be helped. Yashichi, I think you’d better take your dog and leave.”

“Well, I’m afraid I’ve overstayed my welcome.”

Giving his thanks to the wayfarer over and over again, Yashichi quickly drove out his dog and left. But then he popped his head back round the door and beckoned to Jubei.

“You know, there’s something a bit strange about your guest,” he whispered. “Are you sure he’s not one of them things?”

“What nonsense! If he was, he wouldn’t be handing out sake and sushi, now, would he?” mocked Jûbei.

“I suppose not, but…” said Yashichi doubtfully. “We might not see anything odd about him, but Kuro here certainly seems to—and he’s a lot smarter than us humans.”

Jubei knew very well that Yashichi’s bearlike black dog was extraordinarily sharp. Just this spring, Kuro had been lying by the fire when a large monkey had come to the hut; he had immediately sensed its presence and chased it off, and even managed to kill it. There was probably a good reason why Kuro was barking so fiercely at his guest tonight. Given that his own child was also terrified of the wayfarer, Jubei began to feel a little uneasy.

“But surely he can’t be one of them things, now, come on.”

“I don’t think so either.” Yashichi did not look entirely convinced. “But you have to admit it’s really strange for Kuro to bark at a guest for no reason. It’s really out of the ordinary. Shall we fire a shot by way of a test?”

He took up his rifle and fired a shot into the sky. The retort reverberated all around, sending the birds roosting in the forest flying up in surprise. Jubei sneaked a look back inside, but the wayfarer had not even batted an eyelid and was still sitting quietly before the smoke rising from the fire.

“No reaction?” whispered Yashichi. “That’s odd. Well, I guess there’s nothing to do about it. I’ll be off home, then. You be careful now, won’t you?”

Shooing off his still growling dog, Yashichi set off down the mountain.

***

Up to now, Jubei had been entirely unconcerned, but Yashichi had given him a scare and he was beginning to feel spooked. Of course it wasn’t one of them things, he told himself. Even so, he could no longer feel so friendly toward the wayfarer as he had until now. When he went back inside in silence, the wayfarer asked him, “What was that rifle shot I heard just now?”

“It was a warning shot from a hunter.”

“A warning shot?”

“It’s because we sometimes we get one of them things around here. We can’t have a mere beast making fun of humans, you know,” said Jubei, looking searchingly at the wayfarer’s face.

“What’s one of them things? You mean a monkey?” asked the wayfarer, unperturbed.

“Of sorts. But however tricky it might be, it’ll never be a match for a human, you know.”

As Jubei said this, his eyes alighted on a large hatchet lying there. If in danger he could split open his opponent’s head with that hatchet, he thought, surreptitiously readying himself. Nevertheless, the man did not seem to sense anything amiss and Jubei too felt his determination wane as his suspicion that the wayfarer was one of them things faded.

He had just thought to himself that the man was just an ordinary wayfarer after all, when the wayfarer said, “Continuing my on way through the mountains at this time of night will be terribly difficult, so how about it? I don’t suppose you’d let me stay here tonight, would you?

Jubei was hard put for a reply. Just one hour earlier, he would of course have readily assented, but now he hesitated. He did not for one moment believe the wayfarer was one of them things, but he did have some kind of dark shadow about him, and Jubei just was not disposed to let him stay in his cottage until morning.

“I’m terribly sorry, but …” he said regretfully.

“It isn’t possible?”

Was he imagining that sharp glint in the wayfarer’s eyes? Normally so charming, they suddenly looked fierce as a wild beast’s. Jubei shuddered, but stood his ground.

“You see, the police give me trouble if I let strangers stay overnight.”

“Is that so?” The wayfarer smiled sardonically and nodded. Again there was something uncanny about his face.

The fire was gradually burning down, but Jubei made no move to add more logs. The wind blowing down from the dark peaks rattled the door of the cottage, and a monkey could be heard calling in the distance. Takichi was still cowering in the corner with a straw mat over his head. Jubei too was now seized with an unspeakable terror, and again began to have suspicions about this creepy wayfarer. He did his best to summon up the courage to drive him away.

“At any rate, the later you hang around here, the more advanced the night will become. You’d better be making up your mind whether to go back to Fukushima, or whether to go along the Kurosawa road and climb overnight.”

“Is that so?” the wayfarer smiled again, his pale face utterly unearthly in the dim light of the dying embers.

Jubei’s impatience grew. He hesitated to take up the hatchet, thinking it was probably his own cowardice that made the wayfarer seem so weird, but then the wayfarer seemed to make up his mind, for he rose abruptly to his feet.

“Well, I guess I’ll head back to Fukushima. I’ll need all my strength for tomorrow’s climb.”

“Yes, that would be the safest way.”

“Thank you for having me.”

“Not at all. Thank you for sharing such treats with us,” replied Jubei politely, half regretfully and half with loathing, as he saw him to the door. If he was a true wayfarer, then he was truly pitiful, but if he was one of them things out to fool humans, he was a hateful fellow. Uneasy at not knowing which was the truth, he watched the departing figure of the wayfarer being enveloped in the dark expanse of night.

“Father, where did that man go?” said Takichi, scrambling up to him as if restored to life. “He’s scary, I’m glad he’s gone.”

“Why were you so frightened of him?” Jubei asked his son.

“He’s a ghost. He definitely isn’t human.”

“How do you know?”

Takichi was unable to explain just what he meant, but he insisted, trembling, that he was certain the wayfarer was a ghost. Jubei himself was still of two minds.

“Anyway, let’s get some sleep.”

He was just about to close the front door, when another man in a narrow-sleeved, lined kimono and straw sandals appeared.

“Was a man of about twenty-four or -five dressed in Western attire here just now?”

“He was.”

“Which way did he go?”

The man hurried off in the direction pointed out to him. Almost immediately, from a couple of hundred yards into the forest Jubei heard several shots in quick succession. By the time he rushed out to see what had happened, the shooting had already stopped. There must have been a struggle between that man and the wayfarer, he thought, standing there uneasily.

A moment later, the man in the kimono came rushing back.

“Come and give me a hand. There’s an injured man.”

They hurried off together, and found the wayfarer lying in the forest, a pistol clutched in one hand.

***

“So that wayfarer, who was he?” I asked.

“It appears he was from Kofu,” explained Jubei. “A week or so earlier, there had been a young man and woman staying at a hot spring inn in Suwa. According to a maid, the woman had looked pale and wept daily, and for some reason the man scolded and threatened her about it. Given the woman’s apparent reluctance, the maid thought the man must have forced her to accompany him there. Nevertheless, during their stay nothing particularly untoward happened. After they left, though, somewhere, somehow or other, that very woman was found dumped by the wayside by a passerby with her face and breast cruelly slashed to shreds. Of course the suspicion fell on the man who had been her companion, and the police detective had pursued him all the way along the road to Kiso.”

“So that man wearing the narrow sleeved kimono was the detective, I suppose?”

“That’s right. And the man in Western attire was the woman’s murderer. When cornered, he fired two shots at the detective but missed. Apparently thinking the game was up, he shot himself in the throat and died.”

Father and I looked at each other in silence. After a while, the landlord of the inn spoke up.

“Well, the ghost of the woman must have tagged behind the man, I suppose. Given how much fuss your son and the dog kicked up…”

“That must have been it,” Jubei gulped meaningfully. “It sent a shiver down my back too, I’ll have you know. I didn’t see anything at all, though. And neither did Yashichi, apparently. But my son was shaking with fear, and the dog was barking like crazy. There must have been something strange.

“That’s true. Children can perceive some things that adults can’t. And animals can probably perceive things that humans can’t,” said Father.

I thought so too. However, I really could not say whether the shadow that had so frightened them had been cast by the burden of the man’s crime, or by the terrible figure of the murdered woman. Either way, I had the sensation I was being watched from behind, and I edged closer to Father. Just like little Takichi had clung to his father…

“Even now, when I think back to that time, I feel a bit queasy, you know,” Jubei again spoke up.

Outside in the dark, the rain came steadily down. The landlord added some more logs to the fire. The scene of that night is even now vividly etched in my mind.

Translation copyright 2010 by Ginny Tapley Takemori. All rights reserved.