The hotel seemed to me a paradise, and the maids thereof celestial
beings. This was because I had just fled away from one of the Open
Ports, where I had ventured to seek comfort in a European hotel,
supplied with all “modern improvements.” To find myself at ease once
more in a yukata, seated upon cool, soft matting, waited upon by
sweet-voiced girls, and surrounded by things of beauty, was therefore
like a redemption from all the sorrows of the nineteenth century.
Bamboo-shoots and lotus-bulbs were given me for breakfast, and a fan
from heaven for a keepsake. The design upon that fan represented only
the white rushing burst of one great wave on a beach, and sea-birds
shooting in exultation through the blue overhead. But to behold it
was worth all the trouble of the journey. It was a glory of light, a
thunder of motion, a triumph of sea-wind,–all in one. It made me want
to shout when I looked at it.
Between the cedarn balcony pillars I could see the course of the pretty
gray town following the shore-sweep,–and yellow lazy junks asleep at
anchor,–and the opening of the bay between enormous green cliffs,–and
beyond it the blaze of summer to the horizon. In that horizon there
were mountain shapes faint as old memories. And all things but the gray
town, and the yellow junks, and the green cliffs, were blue.
Then a voice softly toned as a wind-bell began to tinkle words of
courtesy into my reverie, and broke it; and I perceived that the
mistress of the palace had come to thank me for the chadai,
and I prostrated myself before her. She was very young, and more
than pleasant to look upon,–like the moth-maidens, like the
butterfly-women, of Kuni-sada. And I thought at once of death;–for
the beautiful is sometimes a sorrow of anticipation.
She asked whither I honorably intended to go, that she might order a
kuruma for me. And I made answer:–
“To Kumamoto. But the name of your house I much wish to know, that I
may always remember it.”
“My guest-rooms,” she said, “are augustly insignificant, and my maidens
honorably rude. But the house is called the House of Urashima. And now
I go to order a kuruma.”
The music of her voice passed; and I felt enchantment falling all about
me,–like the thrilling of a ghostly web. For the name was the name of
the story of a song that bewitches men.
 A little gift of money, always made to a hotel by the guest shortly
after his arrival.
Once you hear the story, you will never be able to forget it. Every
summer when I find myself on the coast,–especially of very soft,
still days,–it haunts me most persistently. There are many native
versions of it which have been the inspiration for countless works
of art. But the most impressive and the most ancient is found in the
“Manyefushifu,” a collection of poems dating from the fifth to the
ninth century. From this ancient version the great scholar Aston
translated it into prose, and the great scholar Chamberlain into both
prose and verse. But for English readers I think the most charming form
of it is Chamberlain’s version written for children, in the “Japanese
Fairy-Tale Series,”–because of the delicious colored pictures by
native artists. With that little book before me, I shall try to tell
the legend over again in my own words.
Fourteen hundred and sixteen years ago, the fisher-boy Urashima Taro
left the shore of Suminoyé in his boat.
Summer days were then as now,–all drowsy and tender blue, with only
some light, pure white clouds hanging over the mirror of the sea. Then,
too, were the hills the same,–far blue soft shapes melting into the
blue sky. And the winds were lazy.
And presently the boy, also lazy, let his boat drift as he fished. It
was a queer boat, unpainted and rudderless, of a shape you probably
never saw. But still, after fourteen hundred years, there are such
boats to be seen in front of the ancient fishing-hamlets of the coast
of the Sea of Japan.
After long waiting, Urashima caught something, and drew it up to him.
But he found it was only a tortoise.
Now a tortoise is sacred to the Dragon God of the Sea, and the period
of its natural life is a thousand–some say ten thousand–years. So
that to kill it is very wrong. The boy gently unfastened the creature
from his line, and set it free, with a prayer to the gods.
But he caught nothing more. And the day was very warm; and sea and air
and all things were very, very silent. And a great drowsiness grew upon
him,–and he slept in his drifting boat.
Then out of the dreaming of the sea rose up a beautiful girl,–just
as you can see her in the picture to Professor Chamberlain’s
“Urashima,”–robed in crimson and blue, with long black hair flowing
down her back even to her feet, after the fashion of a prince’s
daughter fourteen hundred years ago.
Gliding over the waters she came, softly as air; and she stood above
the sleeping boy in the boat, and woke him with a light touch, and
“Do not be surprised. My father, the Dragon King of the Sea, sent me to
you, because of your kind heart. For to-day you set free a tortoise.
And now we will go to my father’s palace in the island where summer
never dies; and I will be your flower-wife if you wish; and we shall
live there happily forever.”
And Urashima wondered more and more as he looked upon her; for she
was more beautiful than any human being, and he could not but love
her. Then he took one oar, and he took another, and they rowed away
together,–just as you may still see, off the far western coast, wife
and husband rowing together, when the fishing-boats flit into the
They rowed away softly and swiftly over the silent blue water down into
the south,–till they came to the island where summer never dies,–and
to the palace of the Dragon King of the Sea.
[Here the text of the little book suddenly shrinks away as you read,
and faint blue ripplings flood the page; and beyond them in a fairy
horizon you can see the long low soft shore of the island, and peaked
roofs rising through evergreen foliage–the roofs of the Sea God’s
palace–like the palace of the Mikado Yuriaku, fourteen hundred and
sixteen years ago.]
There strange servitors came to receive them in robes of
ceremony–creatures of the Sea, who paid greeting to Urashima as the
son-in-law of the Dragon King.
So the Sea God’s daughter became the bride of Urashima; and it was a
bridal of wondrous splendor; and in the Dragon Palace there was great
And each day for Urashima there were new wonders and new
pleasures:–wonders of the deepest deep brought up by the servants of
the Ocean God;–pleasures of that enchanted land where summer never
dies. And so three years passed.
But in spite of all these things, the fisher-boy felt always a
heaviness at his heart when he thought of his parents waiting alone. So
that at last he prayed his bride to let him go home for a little while
only, just to say one word to his father and mother,–after which he
would hasten hack to her.
At these words she began to weep; and for a long time she continued to
weep silently. Then she said to him: “Since you wish to go, of course
you must go. I fear your going very much; I fear we shall never see
each other again. But I will give you a little box to take with you. It
will help you to come hack to me if you will do what I tell you. Do not
open it. Above all things, do not open it,–no matter what may happen!
Because, if you open it, you will never be able to come hack, and you
will never see me again.”
Then she gave him a little lacquered box tied about with a silken cord.
[And that box can be seen unto this day in the temple of Kanagawa, by
the seashore; and the priests there also keep Urashima Tarō’s fishing
line, and some strange jewels which he brought back with him from the
realm of the Dragon King.]
But Urashima comforted his bride, and promised her never, never to open
the box–never even to loosen the silken string. Then he passed away
through the summer light over the ever-sleeping sea;–and the shape of
the island where summer never dies faded behind him like a dream;–and
he saw again before him the blue mountains of Japan, sharpening in the
white glow of the northern horizon.
Again at last he glided into his native bay;–again he stood upon its
beach. But as he looked, there came upon him a great bewilderment,–a
For the place was at once the same, and yet not the same. The cottage
of his fathers had disappeared. There was a village; but the shapes
of the houses were all strange, and the trees were strange, and the
fields, and even the faces of the people. Nearly all remembered
landmarks were gone;–the Shintō temple appeared to have been rebuilt
in a new place; the woods had vanished from the neighboring slopes.
Only the voice of the little stream flowing through the settlement,
and the forms of the mountains, were still the same. All else was
unfamiliar and new. In vain he tried to find the dwelling of his
parents; and the fisherfolk stared wonderingly at him; and he could not
remember having ever seen any of those faces before.
There came along a very old man, leaning on a stick, and Urashima asked
him the way to the house of the Urashima family. But the old man looked
quite astonished, and made him repeat the question many times, and then
“Urashima Tarō! Where do you come from that you do not know the story?
Urashima Tarō! Why, it is more than four hundred years since he was
drowned, and a monument is erected to his memory in the graveyard. The
graves of all his people are in that graveyard,–the old graveyard
which is not now used any more. Urashima Tarō! How can you he so
foolish as to ask where his house is?” And the old man hobbled on,
laughing at the simplicity of his questioner.
But Urashima went to the village graveyard,–the old graveyard that
was not used any more,–and there he found his own tombstone, and
the tombstones of his father and his mother and his kindred, and
the tombstones of many others he had known. So old they were, so
moss-eaten, that it was very hard to read the names upon them.
Then he knew himself the victim of some strange illusion, and he took
his way hack to the beach,–always carrying in his hand the box, the
gift of the Sea God’s daughter. But what was this illusion? And what
could be in that box? Or might not that which was in the box be the
cause of the illusion? Doubt mastered faith. Recklessly he broke the
promise made to his beloved;–he loosened the silken cord;–he opened
Instantly, without any sound, there burst from it a white cold spectral
vapor that rose in air like a summer cloud, and began to drift away
swiftly into the south, over the silent sea. There was nothing else in
And Urashima then knew that he had destroyed his own happiness,–that
he could never again return to his beloved, the daughter of the Ocean
King. So that he wept and cried out bitterly in his despair.
Yet for a moment only. In another, he himself was changed. An icy chill
shot through all his blood;–his teeth fell out; his face shriveled;
his hair turned white as snow; his limbs withered; his strength ebbed;
he sank down lifeless on the sand, crushed by the weight of four
Now in the official annals of the Emperors it is written that “in the
twenty-first year of the Mikado Yuriaku, the boy Urashima of Midzunoyé,
in the district of Yosa, in the province of Tango, a descendant of
the divinity Shimanemi, went to Elysium [_Hōraï_] in a fishing-boat.”
After this there is no more news of Urashima during the reigns of
thirty-one emperors and empresses–that is, from the fifth until the
ninth century. And then the annals announce that “in the second year
of Tenchiyō, in the reign of the Mikado Go-Junwa, the boy Urashima
returned, and presently departed again, none knew whither.”
The fairy mistress came back to tell me that everything was ready,
and tried to lift my valise in her slender hands,–which I prevented
her from doing, because it was heavy. Then she laughed, but would not
suffer that I should carry it myself, and summoned a sea-creature with
Chinese characters upon his back. I made obeisance to her; and she
prayed me to remember the unworthy house despite the rudeness of the
maidens. “And you will pay the kurumaya,” she said, “only seventy-five
Then I slipped into the vehicle; and in a few minutes the little gray
town had vanished behind a curve. I was rolling along a white road
overlooking the shore. To the right were pale brown cliffs; to the left
only space and sea.
Mile after mile I rolled along that shore, looking into the infinite
light. All was steeped in blue,–a marvelous blue, like that which
comes and goes in the heart of a great shell. Glowing blue sea met
hollow blue sky in a brightness of electric fusion; and vast blue
apparitions–the mountains of Higo–angled up through the blaze, like
masses of amethyst. What a blue transparency! The universal color
was broken only by the dazzling white of a few high summer clouds,
motionlessly curled above one phantom peak in the offing. They threw
down upon the water snowy tremulous lights. Midges of ships creeping
far away seemed to pull long threads after them,–the only sharp lines
in all that hazy glory. But what divine clouds! White purified spirits
of clouds, resting on their way to the beatitude of Nirvana? Or perhaps
the mists escaped from Urashima’s box a thousand years ago?
The gnat of the soul of me flitted out into that dream of blue, ‘twixt
sea and sun,–hummed back to the shore of Suminoyé through the luminous
ghosts of fourteen hundred summers. Vaguely I felt beneath me the
drifting of a keel. It was the time of the Mikado Yuriaku. And the
Daughter of the Dragon King said tinklingly,–“Now we will go to my
father’s palace where it is always blue.” “Why always blue?” I asked.
“Because,” she said, “I put all the clouds into the Box.” “But I must
go home,” I answered resolutely. “Then,” she said, “you will pay the
kurumaya only seventy-five sen.”
Wherewith I woke into Doyō, or the Period of Greatest Heat, in the
twenty-sixth year of Meiji–and saw proof of the era in a line of
telegraph poles reaching out of sight on the land side of the way. The
kuruma was still fleeing by the shore, before the same blue vision of
sky, peak, and sea; but the white clouds were gone!–and there were
no more cliffs close to the road, but fields of rice and of barley
stretching to far-off hills. The telegraph lines absorbed my attention
for a moment, because on the top wire, and only on the top wire, hosts
of little birds were perched, all with their heads to the road, and
nowise disturbed by our coming. They remained quite still, looking down
upon us as mere passing phenomena. There were hundreds and hundreds
in rank, for miles and miles. And I could not see one having its tail
turned to the road. Why they sat thus, and what they were watching
or waiting for, I could not guess. At intervals I waved my hat and
shouted, to startle the ranks. Whereupon a few would rise up fluttering
and chippering, and drop back again upon the wire in the same position
as before. The vast majority refused to take me seriously.
The sharp rattle of the wheels was drowned by a deep booming; and as
we whirled past a village I caught sight of an immense drum under an
open shed, beaten by naked men.
“O kurumaya!” I shouted–“that–what is it?”
He, without stopping, shouted back:— “Everywhere now the same thing
is. Much time-in rain has not been: so the gods-to prayers are made,
and drums are beaten.” We flashed through other villages; and I saw
and heard more drums of various sizes, and from hamlets invisible,
over miles of parching rice-fields, yet other drums, like echoings,
 See _The Classical Poetry of the Japanese_, by Professor
Chamberlain, in Trübner’s _Oriental Series_. According to Western
chronology, Urashima went fishing in 477 A.D., and returned in 825.
Then I began to think about Urashima again. I thought of the pictures
and poems and proverbs recording the influence of the legend upon the
imagination of a race. I thought of an Izumo dancing-girl I saw at
a banquet acting the part of Urashima, with a little lacquered box
whence there issued at the tragical minute a mist of Kyōto incense.
I thought about the antiquity of the beautiful dance,–and therefore
about vanished generations of dancing-girls,–and therefore about dust
in the abstract; which, again, led me to think of dust in the concrete,
as bestirred by the sandals of the kurumaya to whom I was to pay only
seventy-five sen. And I wondered how much of it might be old human
dust, and whether in the eternal order of things the motion of hearts
might be of more consequence than the motion of dust. Then my ancestral
morality took alarm; and I tried to persuade myself that a story which
had lived for a thousand years, gaining fresher charm with the passing
of every century, could only have survived by virtue of some truth in
it. But what truth? For the time being I could find no answer to this
The heat had become very great; and I cried,–
“O kurumaya! the throat of Selfishness is dry; water desirable is.”
He, still running, answered:–
“The Village of the Long Beach inside of–not far–a great gush-water
is. There pure august water will be given.”
I cried again:–
“O kurumaya!–those little birds as-for, why this way always facing?”
He, running still more swiftly, responded:–“All birds wind-to facing
I laughed first at my own simplicity; then at my
forgetfulness,–remembering I had been told the same thing, somewhere
or other, when a boy. Perhaps the mystery of Urashima might also have
been created by forgetfulness.
I thought again about Urashima. I saw the Daughter of the Dragon King
waiting vainly in the palace made beautiful for his welcome,–and the
pitiless return of the Cloud, announcing what had happened,–and the
loving uncouth sea-creatures, in their garments of great ceremony,
trying to comfort her. But in the real story there was nothing of all
this; and the pity of the people seemed to be all for Urashima. And I
began to discourse with myself thus:–
Is it right to pity Urashima at all? Of course he was bewildered by the
gods. But who is not bewildered by the gods? What is Life itself but a
bewilderment? And Urashima in his bewilderment doubted the purpose of
the gods, and opened the box. Then he died without any trouble, and the
people built a shrine to him as Urashima Miō-jin. Why, then, so much
Things are quite differently managed in the West. After disobeying
Western gods, we have still to remain alive and to learn the height and
the breadth and the depth of superlative sorrow. We are not allowed to
die quite comfortably just at the best possible time: much less are we
suffered to become after death small gods in our own right. How can
we pity the folly of Urashima after he had lived so long alone with
Perhaps the fact that we do may answer the riddle. This pity must be
self-pity; wherefore the legend may be the legend of a myriad souls.
The thought of it comes just at a particular time of blue light and
soft wind,–and always like an old reproach. It has too intimate
relation to a season and the feeling of a season not to be also related
to something real in one’s life, or in the lives of one’s ancestors.
But what was that real something? Who was the Daughter of the Dragon
King? Where was the island of unending summer? And what was the cloud
in the box?
I cannot answer all those questions. I know this only,–which is not at
I have memory of a place and a magical time in which the Sun and the
Moon were larger and brighter than now. Whether it was of this life or
of some life before I cannot tell. But I know the sky was very much
more blue, and nearer to the world,–almost as it seems to become above
the masts of a steamer steaming into equatorial summer. The sea was
alive, and used to talk,–and the Wind made me cry out for joy when
it touched me. Once or twice during other years, in divine days lived
among the peaks, I have dreamed just for a moment that the same wind
was blowing,–but it was only a remembrance.
Also in that place the clouds were wonderful, and of colors for which
there are no names at all,–colors that used to make me hungry and
thirsty. I remember, too, that the days were ever so much longer
than these days,–and that every day there were new wonders and new
pleasures for me. And all that country and time were softly ruled by
One who thought only of ways to make me happy. Sometimes I would refuse
to be made happy, and that always caused her pain, although she was
divine;–and I remember that I tried very hard to be sorry. When day
was done, and there fell the great hush of the light before moonrise,
she would tell me stories that made me tingle from head to foot with
pleasure. I have never heard any other stories half so beautiful. And
when the pleasure became too great, she would sing a weird little song
which always brought sleep. At last there came a parting day; and she
wept, and told me of a charm she had given that I must never, never
lose, because it would keep me young, and give me power to return. But
I never returned. And the years went; and one day I knew that I had
lost the charm, and had become ridiculously old.
The Village of the Long Beach is at the foot of a green cliff near the
road, and consists of a dozen thatched cottages clustered about a rocky
pool, shaded by pines. The basin overflows with cold water, supplied
by a stream that leaps straight from the heart of the cliff,–just as
folks imagine that a poem ought to spring straight from the heart of a
poet. It was evidently a favorite halting-place, judging by the number
of kuruma and of people resting. There were benches under the trees;
and, after having allayed thirst, I sat down to smoke and to look at
the women washing clothes and the travelers refreshing themselves at
the pool,–while my kurumaya stripped, and proceeded to dash buckets of
cold water over his body. Then tea was brought me by a young man with
a baby on his back; and I tried to play with the baby, which said “Ah,
Such are the first sounds uttered by a Japanese babe. But they are
purely Oriental; and in Itomaji should be written _Aba_. And, as
an utterance untaught, _Aba_ is interesting. It is in Japanese
child-speech the word for “good-by,”–precisely the last we would
expect an infant to pronounce on entering into this world of illusion.
To whom or to what is the little soul saying good-by?–to friends in
a previous state of existence still freshly remembered?–to comrades
of its shadowy journey from nobody–knows–where? Such theorizing is
tolerably safe, from a pious point of view, since the child can never
decide for us. What its thoughts were at that mysterious moment of
first speech, it will have forgotten long before it has become able to
Unexpectedly, a queer recollection came to me,–resurrected, perhaps,
by the sight of the young man with the baby,–perhaps by the song of
the water in the cliff: the recollection of a story:–
Long, long ago there lived somewhere among the mountains a poor
wood-cutter and his wife. They were very old, and had no children.
Every day the husband went alone to the forest to cut wood, while the
wife sat weaving at home.
One day the old man went farther into the forest than was his custom,
to seek a certain kind of wood; and he suddenly found himself at
the edge of a little spring he had never seen before. The water was
strangely clear and cold, and he was thirsty; for the day was hot,
and he had been working hard. So he doffed his great straw hat, knelt
down, and took a long drink. That water seemed to refresh him in a most
extraordinary way. Then he caught sight of his own face in the spring,
and started back. It was certainly his own face, but not at all as he
was accustomed to see it in the old mirror at home. It was the face of
a very young man! He could not believe his eyes. He put up both hands
to his head, which had been quite bald only a moment before. It was
covered with thick black hair. And his face had become smooth as a
boy’s; every wrinkle was gone. At the same moment he discovered himself
full of new strength. He stared in astonishment at the limbs that had
been so long withered by age; they were now shapely and hard with dense
young muscle. Unknowingly he had drunk at the Fountain of Youth; and
that draught had transformed him.
First, he leaped high and shouted for joy; then he ran home faster than
he had ever run before in his life. When he entered his house his wife
was frightened,–because she took him for a stranger; and when he told
her the wonder, she could not at once believe him. But after a long
time he was able to convince her that the young man she now saw before
her was really her husband; and he told her where the spring was, and
asked her to go there with him.
Then she said: “You have become so handsome and so young that you
cannot continue to love an old woman;–so I must drink some of that
water immediately. But it will never do for both of us to be away from
the house at the same time. Do you wait here while I go.” And she ran
to the woods all by herself.
She found the spring and knelt down, and began to drink. Oh! how cool
and sweet that water was! She drank and drank and drank, and stopped
for breath only to begin again.
Her husband waited for her impatiently; he expected to see her come
back changed into a pretty slender girl. But she did not come back at
all. He got anxious, shut up the house, and went to look for her.
When he reached the spring, he could not see her. He was just on the
point of returning when he heard a little wail in the high grass near
the spring. He searched there and discovered his wife’s clothes and a
baby,–a very small baby, perhaps six months old!
For the old woman had drunk too deeply of the magical water; she had
drunk herself far back beyond the time of youth into the period of
He took up the child in his arms. It looked at him in a sad, wondering
way. He carried it home,–murmuring to it,–thinking strange,
In that hour, after my reverie about Urashima, the moral of this story
seemed less satisfactory than in former time. Because by drinking too
deeply of life we do not become young.
Naked and cool my kurumaya returned, and said that because of the heat
he could not finish the promised run of twenty-five miles, but that he
had found another runner to take me the rest of the way. For so much as
he himself had done, he wanted fifty-five sen.
It was really very hot–more than 100° I afterwards learned; and far
away there throbbed continually, like a pulsation of the beat itself,
the sound of great drums beating for rain. And I thought of the
Daughter of the Dragon King.
“Seventy-five sen, she told me,” I observed;–“and that promised to be
done has not been done. Nevertheless, seventy-five sen to you shall be
given,–because I am afraid of the gods.”
And behind a yet unwearied runner I fled away into the enormous
blaze–in the direction of the great drums.