Tawara-no-Tota Hidesato Slaying the Giant Centipede
Adapted in English by Philbert Ono based on an old folktale. Updated: July 21, 2023.
*Audio version (5 min.) of this story is now available! Click the play button below. （音声で聞けます。）
Once upon a time during Japan’s Heian Period in the 10th century when Kyoto was the capital of Japan, there was a young warrior prince named Fujiwara Hidesato (藤原 秀郷), also known as Tawara-no-Toda (俵藤太). (This prince is actually the earliest ancestor of the Sato family lineage, now Japan’s most common surname.)
One day, when Hidesato was going to cross the Seta-no-Karahashi Bridge over Seta River, Lake Biwa’s sole outflowing river in the city of Otsu, he saw a commotion of people near the bridge.
“How awful!! What shall we do??” “Look at how big it is!!” “I’m too frightened to cross the bridge!” The large crowd was fraught with fear and anxiety.
When Hidesato looked at the bridge, he saw a giant dragon-serpent (orochi) sleeping on the middle of the bridge.
“Oh, I see. Well, it doesn’t scare me at all,” thought Hidesato. He then started walking across the bridge. Everyone gasped as they watched him. “Who is that?? He is either very brave or absolutely CRAZY!!” said one man.
Hidesato was fearless as he approached the giant orochi. He then shocked everyone by climbing and walking over the 66-meter-long giant serpent to the other end of the bridge. The giant serpent did nothing and everyone was amazed. “He’s the bravest man in Omi!!” shouted one man. The dragon-serpent slithered back into the river.
That evening, Hidesato stayed at a lakeside inn. When he was about to sleep, a beautiful, radiant maiden appeared before him.
In a heavenly voice, she spoke, “I am the daughter of the Dragon King, the god of water and all creatures in Lake Biwa. I have come to request a big favor. A monster centipede (omukade) on Mt. Mikami has been killing and eating our native lake fish like nigorobuna and gengorobuna carp that are the Dragon King’s sons and daughters. It greatly affects the food supply for people too.
We were looking for a strong and brave warrior who could get rid of the monster centipede. So I disguised myself as a giant dragon-serpent on Seta-no-Karahashi Bridge and waited for someone brave like you. Without fear, you walked over me and crossed the bridge. I was so impressed by your courage. Can you please help us get rid of the monster centipede? It can wrap itself around Mt. Mikami seven and a half times. It’s huge.”
Hidesato was very taken by the lake princess. “Yes, I would be happy to do it. I love great challenges. Life would be boring without any challenges.”
He then took a bow and large arrows and marched to Seta-no-Karahashi Bridge. He gazed at Mt. Mikami and could hardly wait for the monster centipede to show itself. Hidesato was an expert archer.
As he waited, the late-night dark sky soon filled with a terrible thunderstorm. The lake swelled with rough waves, and the earth started to shake and rumble.
On Mt. Mikami, a thousand little fires danced in the darkness led by two big fireballs. Hidesato didn’t have a good feeling about this. Very soon, a huge, dark body with many thick legs on both sides appeared and coiled around the mountain. It was the monster centipede! Along with the thunder, it made a dreadful sound as it crawled slowly.
Hidesato got his thick arrow and shot it right between the two fireballs which were the centipede’s eyes, but it only bounced off the centipede. He shot another arrow, but again, nothing happened. “Whoops!! That didn’t work at all!”
For the first time in his life, he started to feel a little panicky. He had only one arrow left. He prayed to Hachiman, the guardian deity of the samurai and the god of archery. He then remembered that human saliva can penetrate and poison a centipede. He spit on his fingers and rubbed the saliva on the arrowhead.
He held the third arrow firmly and pulled back the bow string as much as he could. “OK you giant mukade, take that!!” He shouted, “YAHH!!” and let go of the string and shot the arrow at the centipede’s forehead.
The arrow whizzed through the dark rain and perfectly pierced the giant mukade. Hidesato pumped his fist into the air and rejoiced, “Alright I got him!!” His prayers were answered.
Then suddenly, the thunderstorm cleared, the little fires stopped, the lake calmed, and the rumbling earth quieted. The monster mukade was finally dead. Hidesato gave a short prayer for the soul of the omukade so that it could rest in peace.
A few days later, the Dragon King’s daughter visited Hidesato. “Thank you very, very much for getting rid of the giant centipede! We are all so happy and relieved in Lake Biwa!
Our unique, native fish found nowhere else in the world can now swim without fear. My father, the Dragon King, wants to invite you to his Dragon Palace in Lake Biwa and thank you personally.” Hidesato could not refuse.
They rode on Lake Biwa giant catfish and traveled deep down into the river and lake below Seta-no-Karahashi Bridge where even sunlight could not penetrate. The water was cold and dark.
Then suddenly, colorful lights emerged from the lake bottom. It was the palace of the Dragon King who has been living here for over 2,000 years protecting Lake Biwa and all its creatures and plants to enrich Omi Province for all. All local fishermen worshipped him along with Benzaiten, the goddess of water and everything that flows.
The Dragon King was overjoyed that Hidesato was able to put down the monster mukade. In appreciation, the Dragon King held a grand banquet for Hidesato with delicious delicacies from Lake Biwa such as funazushi (fermented nigorobuna carp), Biwa salmon (Biwa masu), and Seta shijimi clam soup.
He also showered Hidesato with many magical gifts including a straw bale of rice that never ran out of Omi rice, a roll of silk cloth that never ran out of silk, a hot pot that never ran out of simmering food, a sword, and a temple bell that was made while the Buddha was alive. The straw bale of inexhaustible rice gave Hidesato his nickname of “Tawara Tota” (俵藤太) meaning Bale of Rice.
The Dragon King’s servants carried all these gifts to Hidesato’s home. Since he had no use for the bell, Hidesato donated the bell to Miidera Temple in Otsu which became the temple’s first bell. With the other gifts, Hidesato led a happy and prosperous life and married the Dragon King’s daughter.
- Although there is no real monster centipede eating Lake Biwa’s fish, there are other little monsters (invasive species) eating or killing the fish and pollution making the lake dirty.
- The bronze bell given to Miidera Temple was later famously stolen about 200 years later by the warrior monk Benkei (12th c.) who dragged it up to rival temple Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei. The bell was returned and is now quietly retired and publicly displayed at Miidera Temple in Otsu (photo below).
- The sword the Dragon King gave Hidesato is kept at Ise Jingu Grand Shrines in Mie Prefecture and nicknamed “Mukade-cutting sword” (蜈蚣切).
- The whereabouts of Hidesato’s other gifts are unknown, but whoever possesses them is enjoying great riches.
- As with most Japanese legends/folktales, there are different versions of this story, but the above covers the basic gist.
- Perhaps the most well-known, but archaic, English translation of this folktale is My Lord Bag of Rice by Yei Theodora Ozaki in 1908. The “bag of rice” refers to the straw bale of inexhaustible rice.