The Red Cow of Ike
The tale of a shape shifting, murderous dragon lord
Folktales in most cultures are a mix of fact and legend, but they generally serve the same purpose: to teach values and morals. Japan’s folktales are called mukashi banashi (stories from long ago). Each region has its own mukashi banashi, and many are variations of a similar story.
In the southern part of Ito City, in the foothills of the Amagi Mountain Range, lies a small village called Ike. It’s a small, quiet community with two Shinto shrines and a Buddhist temple. Ryukeiin was built 500 years ago, when it replaced an even older temple that was haunted by a murderous red cow.
The Red Cow of Ike is the most famous folktale from this village. A version of the tale was even chosen for an episode of the very popular and long run TV program called Manga Nihon Mukashi Banashi – Animated Folktales of Japan. You can watch the episode (in Japanese) on YouTube.
Fukusenji no Aka Ushi
This story takes place in the 17th year of Eisho (1520), about 500 years ago.
In the village of Ike, in the domain of Izu, there was a large pond brimming with water. The pond was sandwiched between two tall mountains: Mt. Omuro to the east, and Mt. Yahazu to the west. A temple called Fukusenji was located about 14 cho (roughly 1-5 km) beyond a river that flowed through the valley. This small temple had served the village for as long as anyone could remember.
After finishing their work in the mountains, the villagers would stop near the temple, take off their packboards, and sit down to catch their breath.
“Wonder if some priest will come back to Fukusenji this month . . .”
“If the next priest to visit doesn’t come out the next morning, that’ll make seven.”
“They say there’s a dragon lord that’s been living in that pond for a thousand years. It turns itself into a red cow and eats anyone who comes near the temple.”
“Fukusenji is full of ghosts! Those monks must have been eaten alive.”
. . . the villagers would say such things among themselves then hurry home before dusk.
In those days, the country was always at war. Wandering samurai were fighting for their domains. There was no end to the battles, and every day many people died.
Yoshitaka Izumi, the third son of Ryuoki Saito, a samurai from the Mino Province, became weary of that endless killing. He shaved his head and became a monk to pray for the souls of those who had died.
It was late autumn when Yoshitaka left Mino Province and began to walk east, visiting temples deep in the mountains of Mikawa, Toe, and Suruga Provinces.
By the time Yoshitaka had descended from the mountain road and arrived in Ike, the setting sun had descended almost behind Mt. Yahazu. He stared down at the pond, its surface awash in the red of the sunset.
Soon, the sun’s reflection became a city of fire, set ablaze by war. Women and children were running for their lives, and one by one they were swallowed up by the flames. Yoshitaka’s heart ached as he watched them.
When the sun disappeared, the flames quickly extinguished. All that remained was a silence spread over the water’s surface.
When Yoshitaka came back to himself, he impulsively clasped his hands and began to chant sutras. At that moment, Yoshitaka heard someone behind him call out, “Hello, priest.”
When Yoshitaka turned his head, he saw a group of villagers standing there.
The villagers told stories of the dreadful Fukusenji late into the night, when everyone suddenly realized that dawn had come.
“Thank you all very much for your help last night. I’ll try to visit the temple now. Even if just a little, I would like to return your kindness”.
Sensing the firmness in Yoshitaka’s decision, the villagers gave up protesting and showed him to the temple. Yoshitaka separated from the villagers near the outskirts of Fukusenji and went on toward the temple alone.
The temple was thoroughly in ruins. Yoshitaka sat down facing the dusty statue of Buddha in the main hall and began to chant quietly. He continued to chant the sutras, oblivious to the passing of time. At some point, his surroundings became enveloped in darkness.
All of a sudden, he heard the high-pitched bellowing of a cow coming from the temple grounds. The bellowing soon turned into a low growl. Yoshitaka stood up quickly, went out from the main hall, and stood in the temple’s sodden garden.
In front of him was the biggest cow he had ever seen. It was colored in the same red he had seen last night, and it seemed to have just emerged from the pond.
When the cow had become quiet, Yoshitaka said, “When you assume that kind of shape, it’s hard to understand what you’re trying to tell me. If you have something you want me to hear, it would be best to come back when you are able to speak.”
The red cow listened intently, and when Yoshitaka had finished speaking, it slowly stood up, turned around, and shuffled away through pampas grass, disappearing toward the outskirts of the temple.
Yoshitaka returned to the main hall and continued to chant the sutra again as if nothing had happened.
After a while, he heard the vague sound of a human voice coming from the temple grounds.
Yoshitaka stood up quickly and went out again to the wet garden. There, he saw a vague, white, human figure with sparkling eyes floating inside the pampas grass. It was a young and beautiful woman.
“We can’t speak comfortably here. Please come this way,” Yoshitaka said gently to the woman. She followed Yoshitaka into the main hall, sat down facing him, and began to speak slowly.
“I am the dragon lord of the pond that stretches across this village. I have lived a full thousand years, but in all that time, I have not been able to learn the teachings of the Buddha. Just once, I would be so grateful to experience those teachings. With that desire in mind, I came to the priests of this temple to request their guidance. However, they were horrified by my appearance and even tried to burn me to death with torches. I had no choice but to kill and devour those priests.”
“I thought to myself, ‘If I take the form of a cow, maybe the monks won’t fear me.’ Thinking so, when I heard chanting coming from the temple, I turned into a red cow. However, the priests must have thought I would stab them with my horns. Just as I had thought, they were horrified.”
When she finished speaking, the young woman began to cry, her voice shaking with the horror of what she had done. Yoshitaka went to her side and chanted a sutra called the Three Returning Precepts. It is a sutra that says if you give up everything and chant intently, you will receive salvation.
The young woman closed her eyes, put her hands together and listened intently. Her muffled voice overlapped with Yoshitaka’s chanting, and eventually their voices became louder and louder.
After they finished chanting the Three Precepts, Yoshitaka told her all about the Buddha’s teachings. She kept her hands clasped together and listened quietly. When Yoshitaka had finished, she bowed her head again and again, stood up slowly, and walked away without making a sound.
The sky in the east became brighter and brighter, and when night began to fall, Yoshitaka walked back along the road to the village, feeling refreshed.
The villagers were waiting for him at the spot where he had left them the day before. When they saw Yoshitaka in the distance, they rushed to him. Yoshitaka began to slowly recall the events of the previous night. The villagers nodded and listened attentively. Every once in a while, a loud sigh escaped their lips.
“And that is how the story ends,” Yoshitaka said.
As if they had been waiting for these very words, the villagers began to plead with him.
“Monk, please stay in this village and teach us the Buddha’s teachings.”
“Since Fukusenji has become a desolate temple, I have completely forgotten to chant the sutras.”
“You are such a noble monk that even the lord of the pond listens to you, as everyone can see.”
“You were able to lead the dragon, who has lived for a thousand years, to the Buddha’s side.”
Yoshitaka gently placed his hands on his chest. He felt as if his training had come to an end. So he decided to listen to the wishes of the people of his village.
Eventually, a temple was built near a place surrounding the pond where there had once been a smaller temple. The new temple was named Ryukeiin¹. The red cow/dragon, which was guided by the Buddha, is worshiped as a guardian deity of the temple and the village of Ike. Even today, it gently watches over the village.
¹ The first kanji character in the temple’s name is ryu, which means dragon. Ryukeiin (龍渓院) means something like ‘Dragon Valley Temple.
終 The End
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″
1 thought on “The Red Cow of Ike”
wonderful story! great place to visit with Jim