Once upon a time, there was an old man and an old woman, his wife. They were poor farmers, with a small field, and lived in a hut. One day the old man found an injured sparrow on the ground. It was a very young sparrow, and had fallen from its nest and broken its wing. The old man carefully took it home, and set its wing with a piece of wood and some cloth. He fed it porridge, although they were very poor and did not have much food, and took good care of it until it was strong enough to stand on its legs.
One morning when the old man was out in the field, the old woman made some paste with the precious little rice they had, for she was going to re-paper the sliding paper doors. She left the bowl of paste on the porch, and went to remove the first door and scrape off the old paper. When she came back to get the paste, the bowl was empty. The sparrow had walked to it and eaten all the paste.
“You pest!” she screamed. “We took care of you when you were injured, and this is how you repay us! I have no more rice to make paste with, and I’ve already scraped off the old paper!” The old woman was so angry that she took a pair of scissors and clipped off the sparrow’s tongue. When she let the sparrow go, it beat its wings in pain until the splint and bandage fell off, and unsteadily flew away.
When the old man came home from the field, he asked his wife where the sparrow had gone, and heard what had happened. He was very sad, and scolded his wife for being so cruel. Then he lit a lantern and went in search of the sparrow. He wanted to apologize and take care of it until it was fully healed.
He wandered until he came to a path through a bamboo forest. He continued to call out, “Sparrow! Oh, Sparrow!” as he walked on. Then, in the distance, he saw some lights. As he drew closer, he heard music, as though there were a festival. He was very curious, since there was no village in this area. Just as he was beginning to make out the song that was being played, a shadow appeared on the path before him.
“Good evening, kind sir,” it said. He raised his lantern, and saw that it was a sparrow, as tall as a person, dressed in a kimono. “I am the sparrow that you cared for. I came to welcome you to the Sparrows’ Inn. We are having a festival in your honor, because you cared for me until I was well enough to fly.”
Astonished beyond words, the old man followed the sparrow to the Sparrows’ Inn, and was received by a host of sparrows, dressed in kimonos and dancing to the music. They sat him on a red cushion of honor, and brought him the finest delicacies to eat. The sparrow he had cared for sat next to him, and kept his wine cup always filled with sake.
When the festival came to an end, near dawn, they asked him to take a gift home with him. They showed him two baskets, a very large one and a rather small one, and asked him to choose whichever one he wanted. He refused to take either, saying they had thanked him more than enough with the festival. When they insisted that he take one, he finally agreed to take the smaller one. They lined up in a row in front of the Sparrows’ Inn, and bowed deeply as he walked by.
When he got home, he told his wife what had happened, and they opened the small box he had received. To their amazement, it was filled with coral, pearls, and gold coins. But instead of being glad, the old woman was very angry, and scolded her husband for not choosing the other box. She insisted that he go back and get the large box that night, but when he refused to do so, she decided to go herself. Nothing he said could change her mind.
So she set out that night with the lantern, and came to the bamboo forest. She went along the path, calling out, “Sparrow! Oh, Sparrow!” very loudly. When the sparrow finally appeared on the path, she reminded it that she had cooked the porridge the old man had fed it, and that it had eaten all the paste she had made with the last of their rice. Burdened by obligation, the sparrow nevertheless guided her graciously to the Sparrows’ Inn. There, she asked for all the delicacies her husband had described to her, and kept the sparrows hopping busily, carrying the dishes to and from the kitchen. After she had stuffed herself as much as she could, she demanded a gift to take home, and was presented with two boxes, as the old man had been. Without hesitating, she chose the large box and, bent almost double, carried it on her back and hurried away.
It was very heavy, so when she was just out of sight of the Sparrows’ Inn, she decided to set it down and open it. She lifted the cover, expecting to see it filled with shiny gold coins – however, to her horror it was filled with monsters and goblins, three-eyed snakes and other horrible things. She cried out in dismay and fell, so frightened that she could not walk, and they tormented her until the next morning, when the old man finally found her trembling in the bamboo forest.