Urashima Tarō



The evening sun projected a tongue of flame over the calm sea. Red and blue fishing boats, moored a little distance from the shore, gently rocked on the waves. Urashima Taro, a fisher-boy of Suminoye, walked home along the beach. He was dreaming of the day he would take his own vessel and sail it over the horizon, out of sight. Ahead, he could see children playing at the water’s edge. They were running about wildly and chanting, and some of them were carrying sticks. When he got closer, he saw that the children were tormenting a sea turtle that had been washed up on the sand. Every time the little creature made for the water, they would poke it with their sticks and try to flip it over onto its back.

Urashima ran up among them and grabbing hold of one of the children’s sticks, held it above his head and shouted, “This turtle has done you no harm! Why do you torment it?”. The children were quiet and stared at their feet. After a few moments, their mothers could be heard calling them inside for their evening meal of fish and rice. They left silently in groups of twos and threes, trailing their sticks behind them in the sand. Urashima watched them go and then stooped down to see what condition the turtle was in. The poor creature was not physically damaged but was quite obviously exhausted and afraid. It had tucked its head and feet in under its black and green patterned shell.

Urashima spoke to it kindly, saying: “Now little turtle. Your ordeal is over. You can go on your way. I won’t hurt you.” But the turtle wouldn’t budge an inch. It lay there helplessly, no doubt wishing to be left alone. Urashima cupped his hands, and scooping up some sea water, poured it over the turtle’s back. He did this four or five times before the turtle dared to poke out its curious head and open its beady eyes. Urashima sat with it and spoke to it soothingly. After a while, the turtle extended its legs, and looking around warily began slowly, very slowly, to move towards the breaking surf. Urashima watched it as it tumbled around in the first breakers and finally disappeared beneath the waves. “Goodbye, my friend!”, he whispered, and turned for home.

Five years or more passed before Urashima fulfilled his wish to sail into the horizon. His father had grown old and seldom used the boat for fishing. In the natural course of things, Urashima had taken over as the family’s breadwinner, and it was now he who plied the waters and brought home the catch. And so, it happened that one evening Urashima was fishing a few miles out to sea. He had been fishing all day, but had caught nothing. He was loath to return home empty-handed. After all, his ageing father and mother depended on him for food. He made a wish and cast his net one last time into the darkening waves. Immediately he felt a small tug. “At last,”, he thought to himself, “something to show for my troubles!”. When he pulled the net in, he did not see the familiar silvery struggling body of a fish. Instead, a round body thumped down on the planks in the bow of the boat, entangled in the nets. “Turtle meat!”, he said aloud, and laughed. But when he had disentangled the creature, he saw that it was too small to feed even one person; let alone three hungry people. He was about to throw it overboard when a small voice said, “Don’t throw me back! I’ve come to find you. You who saved me all those years ago”. Urashima stood holding the turtle for a moment. He looked around him to see who was speaking. He was afraid. It was getting dark and he feared that it might be an evil spirit that was summoning him from the deep. He kept calm, however, and asked aloud,  “Who speaks?”. Again the little turtle piped, “Here I am. Do you not remember me?”. Urashima had no doubt this time who had spoken and, in his fright, dropped the creature overboard. At this, the turtle grew to an enormous size and swam alongside the boat. Lifting its head out of the brine, it said, “Don’t be frightened. I was sent by the daughter of Ryujin, the Dragon of the Sea. I have come to fetch you and bring you to Ryugu-jo, the Dragon’s Palace in the deep. The turtle paddled around to the stern of the boat and pushed its hind quarters up against it. “Sit up on my back and I will take you there.”

As though in a trance, Urashima, forgetting all danger, climbed over the stern and onto the turtle’s back. As he did so, he felt a great internal change come over him. He gasped like a fish on dry land and suddenly wished only to plunge into the sea’s murky depths. Soon, he was gliding through the deep waters, breathing naturally as though it were his native element. He held tightly to the turtle’s neck and thought not of his vessel far above nor of his distant home and parents. How long the journey lasted, he could not say. For who can tell the time when all is unchanging darkness? He must have slept, however, for when he awoke he was on dry land, lying on a bed of lush, green sea-grass.

When his eyes had re-adjusted to the light, he saw that a beautiful maiden was seated next to him, weaving a garland of anemones and singing a strange and enchanting song:

“Come to my father’s palace in the deep,

where time does pass but none do weep.

I’ll be your companion and flower-wife,

for this day you spared my life.”

She smiled down at him and made him drink a thimbleful of water. To his parched lips and tongue it tasted sweeter than honey. She kissed his forehead and bade him sleep. But he was not tired. He gazed around him in wonder. There was no sky above; only a vault made of red coral, resting on slender pillars of solid crystal. He looked and listened for what seemed like a long time and then fell into a deep slumber.

Urashima awoke to the same sight every morning – if morning it really was; the smiling maiden, the garlanding of flowers, the gorgeous palace above his head. He felt no need or desire to move. Words were rarely exchanged between him and the maiden. An understanding and appreciation of beauty and love seemed to pervade all things. He lived in a blissful, awakened dream, and wanted for nothing. He neither longed for the past nor hoped for the future. All was an eternal, unchanging present, where the hours were undivided and toil and hardship unknown. On awakening, he would drink a thimbleful of water and listen to the song of the beautiful maiden. The song never varied, and he never got tired of hearing it sung. The maiden, indeed, was a flower-like creature, and her kisses were as sweet as nectar. But, unlike an earthly flower, her splendour did not fade.

One morning Urashima awoke and found that he was alone. He was greatly astonished and afraid. He called out but only the echo of his own voice replied. He stood up, feebly, and walked slowly towards a source of light at one end of the palace. As he passed through a high arched doorway, he could hear long-forgotten sounds: the chirping of birds, the hum of insects and bees, and the great surging movement of life itself. He wandered, leaving the glittering palace behind. He walked through flower-carpeted meadows until he reached the sea. He walked along the beach blindly, drinking in the tastes and sounds and smells that reached his senses. He walked and walked following the curve of the shore. The landscape became barren and rough. The sea roared and thumped against the cliffs. Sea-birds were swept inland by high winds, shrieking. The sea-spray bit into his skin. It was cold and harsh. Still he continued onwards, the faint sun at his back. Again his surroundings changed. Thick drifts of snow blanketed the fields. Life seemed scarce in the air and on the ground. Small birds clung to the black-barked trees and did not sing. His feet were red and frost-bitten; his hair and eyebrows were encrusted with ice. Urashima realised that he must be on an island, or that he must have wandered a long time, for presently the sun shone on his face again. It was springtime and the grass grew underfoot. The Dragon’s Palace stood out against a clear blue sky.

At the doorway of the palace stood the maiden, his wife. She looked at him oddly. “Where have you been?”, she asked. “Have you seen the four seasons?”, she added with a smile. Urashima replied, “Yes, my love, and my heart is filled with sadness and longing.” The maiden looked puzzled as he uttered these words. “How can you be sad when you have me and all else you desire?”, she asked. “I must travel back to see my home and family again. I will never be happy unless you grant me this wish”, Urashima replied bitterly. The maiden looked at him strangely, and said, “You will be taking a great risk in parting from these shores. No mortal has ever done so and lived to tell the tale. But if it is your heart’s wish, I cannot stop you.” There were tears glistening in her beautiful eyes. She took him gently by the hand and said, “Before you go, take this box, where the weight of all the time you have passed here is stored. It will protect you. But I warn you: under no circumstances must you open it. For then surely we shall never meet again. ” Urashima accepted the box and kissed his wife on the forehead. A swirling mist enveloped the palace and, in the twinkling of an eye, the giant turtle appeared by his side and bade him sit up on its back. He took one last look around, but the maiden had vanished, and the Dragon’s palace grew faint like an image distant in time and space.

When Urashima reached the shores of Suminoye, he was surprised to find it familiar but somehow different to how he remembered it. No longer were there colourful fishing boats bobbing on the waves, and the wooden huts among the dunes were rotting, half-buried in the sand. No children played on the shore and, apart from an old woman sitting on the beach cooking a herring on a stick over a fire, not a soul could be seen. The old woman had spotted him as soon as he emerged from the waves. She hid the charred fish under her shawl and watched him suspiciously as he approached. He bowed to her and asked her if he might dry himself by the fire. He stood in silence for a long time. The old woman, perceiving that there was little threat to her fish, began toasting it over the embers again. Eventually, he asked her did she know his parents and if some disaster had overtaken the fishing folk thereabouts. The old woman looked at him curiously and said that there had been no fishing folk here for as long as she could remember, and that the names he had mentioned belonged to a time long past, and all but forgotten.

He was puzzled, and leaving the old woman he walked again among the dunes searching for a sign of life. He found nothing; only scraps of wood and iron. Desolately, he came down to the shore and looked out to the west. The evening sun projected a tongue of flame over the calm waters. He sat down on the sand and, handling the box the maiden had given him, thought of his father and mother and how they must be buried somewhere in the dunes. Perhaps some planks from his little fishing vessel had floated in with the tides and confirmed their worst fears and imaginings? Perhaps they had died of hunger, or of grief? Too much time had passed to know the truth; and yet, for Urashima it had hardly passed at all. For a long time he looked out to sea. At last, the sky grew dark and slivers of moonlight were reflected on the surface of the inky black waters. The chariot of stars rode across the heavens from east to west. His thin cloak ruffled and flapped in the breeze. “Goodbye, eternity”, he whispered and, lifting the lid of the box, he was immediately turned to dust.

– Freely adapted from the Japanese folktale, Urashima Tarō, by Rua Breathnach.

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