Nazo no Tokkuri – The Enigmatic Sake Bottle

Translated from Edo Tokyo Kaii Hyakumonogatari

In July 28th, in the seventh year of Kaei (1854), a sake seller plied his trade between the Kamakura riverbanks and the lower valley. On that day, an old monk of about sixty years of age came to the sake dealer, bearing a small sake bottle that could hold no more than three or four swallows. “Please fill this with three masu (about three cups) of sake” the monk said. Now, there was absolutely no way three masu of sake would fit in the old monk’s bottle. The young sake seller was suspicious of some trick, but he did his job dutifuly and smoothly poured the three masu into the small bottle. Much to his surprise and wonder, the sake bottle held the volume.

The monk readily paid for three masu of sake, then went on his way. Overcome by the enigma of the sake bottle, the young sake seller silently followed the monk. He followed the monk to a temple in the Jinai area of Asakusa, and crouched by the Yadaijin statue near the front gate.

“Why have you followed me here?” the monk said in a reproachful.

“Because I have never seen such a mysterious thing in my life as your sake bottle.” the young sake seller answered.

“There is no mystery,” came the voice. “I am a servant of the goddess Kannon, and I have something to tell you. This year, at the closing of the month of July, a terrible illness will ravage the land. You will want to flee to safety, but instead you must make peony rice cakes and eat them for the rest of this month. Go home quickly and tell the people of your house!”

With that said, the monk vanished.

The young sake seller ran home as fast as he could and told his master what he had seen and heard. The people of the house did as the monk said and ate the peony cakes, and when the sickness came not one of them fell ill.

There is another example of this kind of story.

Tales are told of the tengu of Ohira mountain. This is one of them.

In Ohiru mountain, in the country of Dewa (Modern day Yamagata prefecture), an old man came into a sake dealers shop. The old man was carrying a sake bottle, but ordered only a single spoonful of sake. To the sake dealer’s surprise, the sake bottle was filled to the brim by that one spoon. He decided to follow the old man, and learn the secret behind his magical bottle.

Following him into the mountains, the old man showed his true form as the tengu of the mountain, and prophesied both a rich harvest and a terrible disease for the coming year. If the old man wanted to escape the ravages of disease, then he must take an image of the tengu to a temple and place it before for the gates and pray to it.

The old man did as he was told.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bill Ellis
    Feb 10, 2012 @ 08:03:16

    Sounds like a Scots fairy legend to me. According to Katharine Briggs:

    The Laird o’ Co was one day returning from a ride around his lands. Near the castle gate he met a very small boy with a wooden tankard in his hands, who begged for a drink for his old mother, who was ill. The Laird did not know the child, but he told the boy to go to the butler and tell him to fill his tankard.

    The butler had a half-empty barrel of ale on tap, and he turned it on. But though the ale ran and ran into the tankard, the tankard stayed half fulll. The butler thought half a barrel was enough for the wee boy’s mother, but the wee boy would not go.

    “The Laird says it’s to be fu’,” he said. “And ye maun fil it.”

    At length the butler sent to ask the Laird what he was to do.

    “Broach the next cask, man” said the Laird. “I promised the wee laddie his can should be filled, and filled it shall be.”

    So the butler broached the second cask, and at the first drop the can was full, and the wee boy went with many thanks.

    [There is a second half in which the Laird later is captured by his enemies and condemned to death, but the wee boy magically enters the dungeon and transports him back to his castle, saying, “Ae guid turn deserves anither,/Tak ye that for being kind to ma mither.”]

    [A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales, Part B (Folk Legends), v. 1, pp. 298-99. Bloomington: Indiana U Pr., 1971.]


  2. Zack Davisson
    Feb 10, 2012 @ 09:59:11

    That is a cool old story! I used to live in Scotland as well, so I love Scottish folktales. I visited a few fairy spots in Scotland.

    I think the “never filling vessel” is a standard fairytale trope. #564 in the Aarne-Thompson clasification sytem, I believe. “The Marvelous Pitcher.”

    The twist with these two stories is that the enigmatic sake bottle is not the main thrust of the story, but only a lure. The magical creature (monk; tengu) uses the sake bottle to con the sake dealer into following him, so that he can warn the dealer about some upcoming calamity, and how to avoid it.

    Both of those endings are so non-sequitur, I assume they were added later. Folktales and mystery stories often had Buddhist morals or characters tacked on them to make them palatable for official government censors.


  3. Photobooth Journal
    Feb 13, 2012 @ 22:23:03

    A wonderful post, Zack. Do peony cakes still exist? Are they rice cakes? Have you had one?


  4. Photobooth Journal
    Feb 18, 2012 @ 15:27:36

    I do love japanese sweets!


  5. Trackback: Sentimental Tales from Tama River | The Yokai Grove

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Copyright notification

All translations and other writing on this website were created by Zack Davisson and are copyright to him.

Copyright notification

In accessing these web pages, you agree that any downloading of content is for personal, non-commercial reference only.

No part of this web site may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission of Zack Davisson.

Copyright notification

For rights clearance please contact Zack at:

zack.davisson (at)

Thank you.

%d bloggers like this: