The Red Cow of Fukusenji

Folktales are a mix of fact and legend, but in most cultures they serve the same purpose: to teach values and morals. Japan’s traditional folktales are called mukashi banashi (stories from long ago). Each region has its own mukashi banashi, and many are variations of a similar story.

Here is Izu, in the southern part of Ito City, in the foothills of the Amagi Mountain Range, lies a the village of Ike  (E-K). It’s a small, quiet community with two Shinto shrines and a single Buddhist temple. Legend says that Ryukeiin replaced an even older temple that was haunted by a murderous red cow.

The Red Cow of Fukusenji is the most famous folktale from Ike Village. The tale was even made into an episode of the very popular and long run TV program called Manga Nihon Mukashi Banashi – Animated Folktales of Japan.

Dragon carvings at Ryukeiin Temple

The Red Cow of Fukusenji Temple

Long ago, in the 17th year of Eisho (1520), in the quaint village of Ike, nestled in the domain of Izu, there lay a large and tranquil pond. This pond, teeming with water, was cradled between two majestic mountains: Mt. Omuro to the east and Mt. Yahazu to the west. Beyond a river that flowed through the valley, about 14 chō (approximately 1.5 km) away, stood a small, ancient temple named Fukusenji. This temple had served the people for as long as anyone could remember.

The villagers, weary from their toil in the mountains, would often rest near the temple on their way home. There, they would remove their packboards and sit to catch their breath, exchanging hushed words filled with trepidation.

“I wonder if another priest will show up at Fukusenji this month,” one would say, anxiety lining their face.

“If the next priest to stay the night doesn’t come out the next morning, that’ll make seven,” another would reply, eyes wide with fear.

“It’s the dragon lord that lives in the pond. It turns itself into a red cow and eats anyone who comes near the temple,” an elder would solemnly declare.

“Fukusenji is full of ghosts! Those monks must have been eaten alive,” another would add, their voice a whisper.

“Horrible! So horrible!” they would murmur, their fear palpable as they hurried home before the sun dipped below the horizon.

In those days, the land was rife with war. Samurai roamed the countryside, constantly engaged in battles for their lords. The air was thick with the cries of the fallen, and rivers ran red with blood.

Yoshitaka Izumi, the third son of Ryuoki Saito, lord of Mino Province, grew weary of this endless strife. Desiring peace, he shaved his head and took the robes of a monk, dedicating his life to praying for the souls of the departed.

In late autumn, Yoshitaka left Mino and journeyed east, visiting temples hidden deep within the mountains of Mikawa, Tōtōmi, and Suruga Provinces. One day, as he descended the mountain road near Ike, the setting sun cast a crimson hue upon the pond, making it seem as if it were ablaze. Women and children appeared to flee from the flames, only to be swallowed by the inferno. Yoshitaka’s heart ached at the sight, a vision so vivid it felt real.

With the sun’s descent, the fiery vision extinguished, leaving only silence upon the water’s surface. Yoshitaka instinctively clasped his hands and began to chant sutras, his prayers mingling with the whispering wind. As he chanted, he heard a voice behind him.

“Hello, priest.”

Turning, Yoshitaka saw a group of villagers, their faces etched with concern.

“Traveling priest, surely you seek refuge at a temple, but the only one in this village is Fukusenji. We can’t stop you from staying there, but Fukusenji is a terrible place,” one of the villagers said, his voice trembling.

The villagers, their voices tinged with fear, urged Yoshitaka to stay in their homes instead. Grateful for their hospitality, he accepted and accompanied them away from the pond.

That night, after a humble meal, the villagers recounted tales of the dreadful Fukusenji, their voices hushed and fearful. Dawn broke before anyone took notice of the time. Yoshitaka, filled with a sense of duty, thanked his hosts and announced his intention to visit the temple.

Despite their protests, the villagers led him to the outskirts of Fukusenji, where Yoshitaka continued alone.

The temple, a relic of times past, stood in ruins. Undeterred, Yoshitaka entered the main hall, seated himself before a dust-covered statue of Buddha, and began to chant sutras, his voice resonating through the desolate space.

As darkness enveloped the temple, a high-pitched bellow echoed from the grounds, morphing into a low growl. Yoshitaka, undaunted, stepped outside to confront the source of the sound. Before him stood a colossal red cow, its body dripping with water from the pond. The beast’s fiery gaze met Yoshitaka’s calm eyes.

“When you assume that form, your intentions are obscured. If you wish to communicate, return when you can speak,” Yoshitaka intoned.

The red cow, seemingly understanding, turned and lumbered away through the pampas grass, vanishing into the night. Yoshitaka returned to his chanting, the temple’s eerie silence his only companion.

Later, a faint human voice reached his ears. “Priest! I’m sorry . . . I’m sorry.” Stepping outside once more, he beheld a ghostly figure with luminous eyes—a beautiful young woman, her form ethereal amidst the grass.

“We can’t speak comfortably here. Please, come inside,” Yoshitaka invited.

The woman followed him into the main hall, her voice trembling as she recounted her tale. “I have been the dragon lord of this pond for more than a thousand years. In all that time, I hoped just once to learn the Buddha’s teachings. Each time I approached the priests of Fukusenji, I was met with terror and violence. I had no choice other than to devour them. I’m sorry . . .”

Moved by her plight, Yoshitaka chanted a sutra, offering her the salvation she sought. Together, their voices rose in prayer, a harmonious blend of human and spectral. When the chanting ceased, Yoshitaka imparted the Buddha’s teachings, the dragon lord listening intently, her hands clasped in reverence.

As dawn broke, the woman, her spirit soothed, departed silently. Yoshitaka, his heart lightened, returned to the village, where the villagers anxiously awaited him. He recounted the night’s events, their faces a mixture of awe and relief.

“Monk, please stay in this village and teach us the Buddha’s teachings,” they implored.

“You are such a noble monk that even the dragon lord of the pond listens to you. Everyone can see,”
another pleaded.

Feeling a profound sense of purpose, Yoshitaka humbly accepted their request. A new temple was in the village, named Ryukeiin, where the dragon lord, now a guardian deity, watches over the village with benevolence.

Fukusenji Temple was abandoned, its ruins a silent testament to a bygone era. The villagers of Ike found peace under Yoshitaka’s guidance. The tale of the red cow continues to be told as a symbol of redemption and harmony.

 

終  The End

To learn more about the village of Ike, including a live reading of The Red Cow of Fukusenji in the Ryukeiin temple, book a tour:

Ike Village Walking Tour

The ruins of Fukusenji

All that remains of the ancient Fukusenji temple is a five stone memorial, and a historical marker.

The sign barely mentions the temple, and instead focuses on the stone memorial.

 

Stone pagoda (five-ring pagoda) at the entrance of Fukusenji Site

This pagoda is called a “stone pagoda,” but it is thought to be a “five-ring pagoda” rather than a mere stone pagoda.

If the bottom stone is called “Shimodai” and the next is called “Kamodai”, then the top is called “Godai”, which means “Five Elements” in ancient India. Earth * Water * Fire * Wind * Sky.

Ike Historical Research Association, November, 2008″

Statue of Kensoyo Yamato Osho, founding priest of Ryukeiin (the story's Yoshitaka Izumi).

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