"The Crane Maiden" is an ancient Japanese fable, a moral tale involving an animal, set in the "snow country," the western area of the main island of Honshu. In this fable there are three main characters: Tsuru, the Crane Maiden, Tochibo, the old woodcutter, and Lan, his wife.
The tale begins as Tochibo's has gathered wood from the forest into bundles to sell in the village. As he journeys to the village, he hears a piteous cry and follows it to where a lovely crane is caught in a cruel trap. In sympathy for the entrapped bird, he calms it with soft words and frees it; the bird pauses as if to thank him, then flies away.
After returning in the evening with some good green tea for his wife Lan, there is a knock at the door as the old couple dine. At the door, Tochibo discovers a young girl who is dressed in a flowing white kimono, standing in the snow. "Forgive my intrusion, but I seem to have lost my way. May I stop and warm myself at your fire?" she asks him. Somewhat taken aback at the unexpected visit of such a beauty on such a cold evening, Tochibo hesitates, but soon recovers and invites her in. She says her name is Tsuru.
The old couple tell her to warm herself by the fire; then, Lan takes her husband aside, telling him that they cannot let this lovely girl go back out into the harsh winter cold. So, they offer her their bedroom for the night. The next morning Tochiro and Lan awake to the smell of porridge, and discover that Tsuru has prepared it for them. They laugh to themselves in their happiness, and Tochiro whispers, "In our old age, we have a daughter." And, Tsuru does, indeed, become like a daughter through the cold winter. But, when Spring approaches, Tochiro worries that he will not be able to afford a New Year's present for the lovely girl since he has not been able to gather much wood in the harsh cold and snow; in fact, he may not even be able to procure the necessities.
That evening Tsuru offers to help them by weaving a cloth on the old loom. But, she insists that they not disturb her while she weaves. The next morning Tsuru closes herself in, and does not emerge for three days; when she comes out, she carries a fabric unlike any Tochiro and Len have ever seen. Tochiro takes it to the village, returning with 100 gold pieces. With this fortune, they are now able to enjoy the New Year and invite neighbors join their celebration.
Throughout the spring and summer, Tsuru makes friends with the local children, but as winter approaches she tells her adopted parents that she must weave another cloth and retires to the room with the loom; however, some curious neighbors inquire about how the cloth is woven. Tochiro tells them even they do not know because they have been asked not to disturb Tsuru. Now, these neighbors become more inquisitive and Tochiro must hold the door shut as a neighbor attempts to open it. As his hand is heard on the door, the loom stops, and the embarrassed neighbor leaves.
Worried that she has fainted, Tochiro rushes to the door. Len cries, "No, Tochiro! Tsuru has forbidden it!" but her warning is too late, and the door is opened to reveal a beautiful crane with feathers in its mouth which it has just plucked to weave into cloth. Soon, Tsuru emerges with a nearly finished cloth, kisses the old couple tenderly and tells them she can not stay now that they know her identity. "Remember me," she says before transforming back into a crane, flying off with a cry upon the horizon, never to return.