Back in the mists of time, before the islands of Japan had formed, there lived two divine brothers. Neko-kun and Inu-kun were twins and, as it usually goes in stories like this, were in most things equal and second-to-none. Yes, they were both second-to-none. At the same time! I kid you not, but let me get back to the story before I ruin the mood. Their skill with the bow was unsurpassed.
News Bulletin: We interrupt this story to warn readers that
a three-hundred-foot-tall quadruped has materialized over Antarctica and has proceeded to mark its territory this is the third of a four-part series. It’ll make more sense—though not a lot more sense—if you read part 1 and part 2 first.
They could fold steel into the finest of blades, and know a sword’s temper simply by listening to it sing through the air. Their skill in the arts, too, was unequalled. To hear either of them play the shamisen was truly to hear the voice of the gods. And a thousand teenage girls would swoon at the mere mention of their love poetry.
So it was that one day in their explorations they found a shrine high above the clouds. Don’t ask me how they explored up there, but I think it had something to do with walking on the mists of time. Who knows? Maybe it was an alien abduction. Anyway, as they passed through the first gate, a most beautiful maiden appeared in the courtyard. She waved her hand across her face, signalling them to stop. To show how big and powerful they were, they shifted their shapes—Neko-kun took the form of a lion, and Inu-kun changed into a dog—and kept on going. Why didn’t they transform into giant armored robots? Or into an intergalactic battle cruiser? Nobody knows, but it might have something to do with the fact this is a legend, rather than a Japanese cartoon. After our shapechanging heroes were through the second gate, the woman crossed her hands in front of her chest, gesturing that it was forbidden to continue. But they were so captivated by her beauty that they kept walking. At the third gate they paused.
The young woman told them that they could enter the shrine grounds together, but only one person at a time could go into the building. Otherwise there would be dire consequences. They chose to tempt fate, and as they walked through the third gate, the maiden started to fade.
Don’t be alarmed. The fading maiden should come as no surprise, since beautiful young women are usually the object of male desire in stories like this. And in life in general, but I digress. The girl usually goes through some sort of trial, becoming the catalyst for a historic and/or world-changing event before being rescued by the guy. That may or may not happen in this story. Which I better keep writing so I can find out what happens next.
She told them that they must decide, through a method of their own choosing, who was to go first. Until then, she would no longer have a physical body. At least none that the boys could see. She then dissipated into mist, and went off to find something interesting to do. Nobody said that the winner would also get the girl, but nobody really needed to.
Our heroes decided that the best way to have a completely fair contest was to take on identical shapes. A form that had characteristics of both the lion and the dog. And that the most appropriate way to honour the beautiful woman who had vanished into thin air, was by having a breathing contest. Neko-kun, being the cat-like one, would breathe only through his nose, and Inu-kun, with his lolling tongue and wagging tail, would breathe only through his mouth. The first to do otherwise would lose.
So there they sat, one on either side of the shrine, breathing. A few weeks later, boredom had set in, and they started to think that it hadn’t been such a good idea. But neither of them could speak out for fear of losing the contest. As time went on, their expressions went from bored to bug-eyed to angry to that weird distorted look that test pilots get at really high speeds. Their faces eventually settled on grimaces that made it look like they were either attempting to strike fear in anyone who approached, or that they were in desperate need of dietary fibre. Or else really proud of their oral hygiene.
Ever so slowly, they began to change. Of their own accord, their bodies stiffened and became harder and heavier, and they started to sink out of the clouds. When they came to sea level, the water became solid and land spread out around their feet.
After the new-formed ground had grown into mountains, the shrine descended from the sky, and trees sprung up around it. People started to visit. Nobody knows where they came from, but since they’re incidental to the story, let’s just ignore that question. At first the people were curious, as are all rootless people. Then they partied, and then they started to make up legends to explain the shrine’s origin and purpose. As the building started to age, they began making replica shrines on wooded hillsides throughout the islands, going as far as to carve replica lion dogs out of stone. In true legendary fashion, no one knows where the originals are.
To this day, Neko-kun and Inu-kun are still toughing it out somewhere, though neither can move enough to know if one or the other has lost. When all was said and done, Neko-kun and Inu-kun were credited with creating the islands of Japan, and planting the seeds of Shintoism. Plus the pretty lady got her freedom, too. She never did reappear, though she’s rumoured to be studying naturopathic medicine in Toronto. Which, in a way, is lucky for her. After all, no matter how talented a poet he might be, who would want to spend eternity with a guy so stubborn that he self-fossilizes? The truth is, it’s not anyone who can get used to a poet.
Next: Shrine Guardians 4: Epilogue, where obscure references are explained, and mysterious poetic wisdom is shared.