A Piece of Straw: A Japanese Legend

This week I would like to retell a story from the book Legends of Japan, which are retold by Hiroshi Naito.

“A Piece of Straw

Long, long ago, there lived in Kyoto a young man who had no kith or kin in the town. One day he visited Hase Temple in Yamato Province to pray to Kannon (Goddess of Mercy).

“O merciful Kannon- sama! Please give me your mercy. Since I am in dire poverty, I have nothing to eat. I shall starve to death soon. If I must starve, I would like to do it here in your presence. Please take pity on me and tell me how to live.” So praying, the young man prostrated himself before the image of Kannon.

The temple priests, who saw him daily praying for something, talked about him:

“Look! That poor man is praying again today.”

“I wonder what he is praying for so earnestly.”

“He looks very pale. Maybe he is hungry.”

“If he should starve to death here, we shall have trouble in clearing off his body.”

One of them approached the poor man and asked what he was praying for. Then the man replied that he wanted the mercy of Kannon- sama, and that he would not move an inch until the goddess gave it to him.

The priests admired him for his enthusiastic praying and gave him meals so that he might not die of hunger. Thus the young man continued praying day after day.

On the night of the twenty- first day, when his term of worship was to expire, the man dozed off. In his dream a noble- looking Buddhis priest appeared and addressed him: “You are suffering now because you committed many sins before you came into this world. So you will not be given the mercy of Kannon. But you are so earnestly praying for her mercy that I will give you a small gift. When you leave this temple you will pick up something. That is what I give you. So you must not throw it away. Follow my directions and you will be all right.”

With that, the priest disappeared and the man came to himself. He thought that the priest must have been Kannon- sama in disguise. So he at once lift the temple for home, bidding farewell to the kind temple priests who gave him a package of rice balls for lunch.

As he came a little way from the temple he suddenly stumbled over a stone. When he tried to raise himself he found something in his right hand. “What is it?” he wondered.

It was a piece of straw.

Image via sotreadsoftly.typepad.com

“A piece of straw! Let me see…. Oh, yes, this must be what Kannon- sama has bestowed upon me.” So, instead of throwing it away, he carefully put it in his pocket and went on farther.

As he was passing by a paddy field a bee came flying from somewhere and buzzed around his head. Though he beat at it again and again, it still came back to him, so he angrily caught it and tied it with the straw to the end of a twig he had in hand. But the bee went on buzzing with the straw attached to it.

It was not long before he met an ox- drawn court carriage attended by a group of men. Riding in the vehicle were a court lady and her little son. Seeing the bee, the boy wanted it so earnestly that the lady politely asked the traveller to give her son the insect.

The poor man, though unwillingly, gave the bee to the boy, who then became very happy with the insect. In return for the bee, the lady gave him three oranges wrapped in a sheet of paper. The man was very happy to find that the piece of straw had now turned into three oranges and he hung them from the twig.

Image via wordsandphotos.org

The sun was shining very brightly. Soon the young man came across a group of travelers- a beautiful lady and her servants. She appeared quite exhausted from walking under the burning sun. As a matter of fact, she was very thirsty and badly wanted a drink of water. But since they found neither a well nor a pond around, the servants did not know where to find any.

One of them asked the young man where they could get drinking water for their mistress. Then the man, replying that no water could be obtained around there, asked why they needed it. They told him they were on their way to Kannon Temple with their mistress, who was very thirsty.

Hearing that, the man felt very sorry for her and offered them his oranges to appease her thirst. They gratefully received them and took them to the lady who was resting by the road. She was so thirsty that she ate them all in a moment and expressed her deep gratitude to the poor man. In return for his kindness, she gave him silks.

The man was very happy to receive the fine goods and expressed his thanks to the merciful goddess, who had now turned the gift of straw into silks. That night he sought a night’s lodging in a farmhouse.

The man, witnessing the scene, promptly proposed to exchange the dead horse for his silk goods. Since the footmen were at a loss as to the means of clearing away the animal, they accepted his offer and went away with the silks.

Left alone, he said to himself:

“A piece of straw, which I received from Kannon- sama, turned into three oranges at first, then into silk goods, and now into a dead horse. I am sure Kannon- sama will soon bring this dead animal back to life.”

He purified himself by washing his hands and rinsing his mouth and prayed to the goddess: “O merciful Kannon- sama! Please bring this dead horse back to life at once. It must be what you have bestowed upon me.”


The dead animal suddenly opened its closed eyes and raised its head. At this sight the poor man was greatly delighted and helped the animal rise to its feet. Thanking Kannon- sama for her mercy, he immediately took the horse into a wood by the road to give it a good rest. The animal soon regained strength, and so the man continued his journey to Kyoto riding on the horse.

When he came into a village near Kyoto, he saw a wealthy family busily preparing themselves for a journey. The man thought: “If I should be seen riding on such a fine horse in the capital, I should be mistaken for a horse thief and arrested by the police. It seems better to sell this horse to that family who will perhaps need it for their trip.”

Whereupon he immediately got off his horse and asked the family if they would buy it. Admiring the animal, the master of the family said that he had never seen such a fine horse and proposed to buy it at once. But as payment for the horse, he gave the man his vast paddy fields. Therefore the young man had to settle down in the village. From that day on he worked very hard on the farm, which produced plenty of rice crops in autumn. Many years later he at last became the richest farmer in the village. Thanking Kannon- sama for her tender mercy, he lived a happy life with his family.”

What do you think?

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