✍️ The Hunter and the Mikoshi Nyudo

2023 July 25


In 2020, I participated in NaNoWriMo 2020 and tried to make a collection of folktales and short stories. They are set in a fictionalized Japanese province called Uraha, loosely based on the real-life Dewa Province made up of modern-day Akita and Yamagata Prefectures. It features the Shirahagawa (白羽川, "white wing river") that I based on the real-life Mogamigawa.

Even though I never ended up finishing this, Daikon used the world of these stories as the setting of Choju Yokai Giga. I'm currently in the process of going back and seeing what I can salvage from this. The Hunter and the Mikoshi Nyudo is one such story that I extracted, pulling from the legends of the Mikoshi-nyūdō. In this telling, the Nameless Child is regaling to Big Brother of Shiraha Village the legend of how the river returned to Otonashisan, an imposing mountain which is based on Mt. Chokai. (Please note that the image in this post is actually from Genbikei Gorge in Iwate Prefecture from 2013. It turns out I don't have any photos from Mt. Chokai or the Mogamigawa, eek!) Anyway, let's get to it!

The Hunter and the Mikoshi Nyudo

1770 words

River snaking through a rocky gorge with trees on either side.

I was born on the nameless mountain you call Otonashisan. The snow melt that runs from the peaks of the mountains form the great waters of the river you call the Shirahagawa if you are from the southern plains, or the Kuroishigawa if you are from the port towns of the Western Sea. There, the water is proud, uproarious with laughter, generous with its bounty. I have heard that ships even come as far away as the Capital to hawk their wares at the markets.

But up on the nameless mountain, the water has no name. It sneaks past the dark beech tree forests, the silent and mighty cedars. The tengu gather over the mountains and summon the rains, and this too contributes to the life waters. It is yet a formless mass, a primitive water that does not know the touch of man nor beast.

It is said that a hundred years ago, the waters of the river ran dry. The sun could not pierce the icy crown of its peaks, and the spring melt never arrived. Days turned to weeks and then weeks into months, until the slimy rocks lining the ancient river bed cracked into dust.

At the heart of the forest on the northernmost peak stood a crumbling stone temple. No one alive knew what disaster had befallen the structure, only that the people within had long since turned to bone and ghosts. But at night, blue foxfire can be seen drifting within the broken stone, faithfully tracing the paths of the monks who once lived there.

In the late summer of the tenth year since the river vanished, a hunter was tracking a bear through the woods. Both hunter and hunted were desperate with hunger and thirst, and so moved slowly and carefully up the slopes along the stony bed. Before long, full night closed around the pair.

They drew to a halt once their path reached the broken and half-buried stone steps of the mountain temple. Upon placing a single paw on a step, the bear's fur lit with an unearthly blue glow. The hunter raised his spear, but the bear vanished, leaving only foxfire lingering in the air.

The hunter, startled, glanced behind to see if the bear had escaped past him. When he turned back towards the steps, a monk wearing fine silk robes stood on the steps.

"The bear," gasped the hunter. "Have you seen the bear?"

The monk did not respond. Instead, his porcelain face broke into a hideous grin. His shadow seemed to lengthen in the moonlight. The hunter took a step back. Strangely, though the monk's body seemed to remain in place on the stone steps, its face seemed to loom higher and nearer to where the hunter stood.

The hunter turned on his heel and fled. A horrible cackling filled the woods around him. He glanced over his shoulder to see the head of the monk, now the size of a boar, crashing towards him through the treetops. Trailing behind was an obscene long neck, like that of an enormous snake.

"The bear did not get past me," screeched the monk. "And neither will you!"

The hunter slid down a frozen hill and into a clearing near the stones and mud of the river bed. He turned back again to see the monk's head, now the size of the bear he had been pursuing earlier. He scrambled to his feet and raced down the slopes. The booming laughter of the monk seemed to grow louder and deeper the longer he ran.

"The monks did not get past me!" The cries of the monster made the dried leaves shudder and fall away. "And neither will you!"

The hunter pulled to a stop near the Three Stones, a pile of enormous white limestone that marked where once the river fell into open air. Dead tree branches clawed at the sky over the sheer cliff. The hunter turned one last time.

The monstrous face, once possessing the wrinkled face of an elderly monk, was now a deathly pale blue. A third eye glared ferociously out of the center of its forehead, and a great white beard floated through the air and threaded itself around the nearby trees. The mouth hung open, exposing mossy green teeth and a pitch-black tongue. Its head was now much larger than even the stone temple, and filled the entire sky.

"The ogres of Hell did not get past me!" The monster reared its enormous neck back. The hunter held up his arms before his face. "And neither will you!"

"Demon!" screamed the hunter. "Past your left ear, I can see the twinkle of the North Star!" The beast shuddered to a halt. The hunter put down his arms and straightened his back.

"Past your right ear, I can see the Summer Moon!" The monster shrieked and writhed, its enormous neck rippling through the tree branches.

The hunter closed his eyes and breathed in deep. When he opened his eyes again, his voice radiated with the deep power of the earth. "You are not so large, demon. I can see the great peak of this nameless mountain! I've seen past you! You are nothing but the Mikoshi Nyudo of the Southern Peaks!"

The yokai let out a scream that shook the moon in the sky. Its vast neck fell to the earth, winding back in on itself. Its head shrank smaller and smaller as it crashed through the foliage. But before it could disappear entirely, the demon opened its cursed mouth one last time.

"Hunter! You will fall into feverish dreams in three nights and three days. You will never awake. I will see you at your deathbed, and I will drag you with me down to Hell!" And with one last shuddering cry, the Mikoshu Nyudo was gone.

The hunter fell to his knees with exhaustion. It took three days and three nights to make his way back to his camp, sapped as he was of all his strength. On the third evening, just as the demon had predicted, he burned with fever and fell into a deep sleep.

In his dreams, a shining black otter appeared before him. "Hunter," it spoke to him. "The Mikoshi Nyudo has claim on your soul, and you will die of fever before the sun rises. I can save you, but you must do one thing for me."

The Hunter fell to his knees. "I will do anything," pleaded the hunter. "Please, do not let that foul monster drag me into Hell."

The otter rose to its hind legs, towering over the Hunter. "Return to the stone temple. Find the stone step the Mikoshi Nyudo was standing on, and yank it from the earth. Throw it into the river bed and speak my name. Do this for me, and you will be free from that demon's grasp." The otter fell backwards and crashed into the wide and black river that once flowed through the veins of the forest.

The hunter opened his eyes as naturally as if it were morning, and moved with a lightness that belied his raging fever. He started back up the slopes, racing along the dried river bed. The moon was still high in the sky and seemed to light a path for him along the white stones peeking out of the frozen mud.

The hunter arrived at the stone temple moments before daybreak. He dropped to all fours and scoured the broken and half-buried steps, trying to find the one the Mikoshi Nyudo had been standing on. The monster that seemed so solid and real in the moonlight had left no trace of its destruction. He circled the temple again and again, the fever burning through his strength and blurring his vision, until at last he collapsed onto the stones. It was then that he remembered that this was the step that the bear had touched before disappearing, and he leapt back to his feet. He whirled around to see the monk standing on that broken stone step, its unnatural face pulled into a wide grin.

"Hunter," said the monk, its head swelling once more into a ghoulish moon. "It is time to come with me."

"Mikoshi Nyudo!" cried the hunter. "You are not half as large as you appear. You stand on the stone heart of the river, which is longer and greater even than this mountain and the plains below! For this is the river that feeds the cedars, the beeches, the kites, and the bears. Mothers along the Western Sea will never know that their children bathe in the same waters as the mountain tengu! I see past you, monster, to the life waters of this ancient land!"

The monster once more shrank in on itself. The hunter dashed forward with his spear, struck at the brittle mud at the base of the stone step, and pulled it clean out of the earth. He flung the stone with all his might towards the dried river bed at the base of the stone temple. The hunter shouted the sacred name of the river at the great demon, collapsed, and died. The Mikoshi Nyudo, too, vanished into the stone.

The sun did not break that day over the nameless mountain, for the skies filled with dark clouds. Rain fell, at first at a drizzle and then to a deluge. The tengu fled the treetops, for this was an unnatural rain that they had not called on. The rocks and trees sang with joy. For three days and three nights it poured, washing over the cracked stones of the river bed and filling with mud and swirling leaves.

On the morning of the fourth day, the sun at last broke through the clouds. As the hunter had seen, the black waters of the river did indeed flow wide and swift down the slopes, cascading into waterfalls over the high cliffs, stretching down longer than even the nameless mountains. And so did the Shirahagawa return, down the slopes of Otonashisan and winding through the Old Men and feeding into the Shiraha Plains. It flows on through the port towns that call it the Kuroishigawa, churning on and on until it is reunited with its great elder, the Western Sea.

The body of the hunter was later found by the Great Tengu, who prepared his body for the earth. The snows came and went. No longer did the stone temple glow at night with foxfire, and never again did the people of the mountain speak of the impassable demon, the looming head of the Mikoshi Nyudo.