Based on a folktale from Japan.
‘Mukashi mukashi’ as they say in Japan or as we say, ‘once upon a time’, there was a young and handsome fisherman named Urashima Taro. He lived with his old Mother in a cottage near to the sea shore and was known by the local villagers to be a kind and thoughtful young man.
Early one morning he went to the shore as usual to begin a day of fishing when he spied several children all crowded around something on the sand. They were laughing and shrieking and seemed to be poking at something in the sand. Urashima went over to them to see what they were doing. As he got closer he saw the children were tormenting a small sea-turtle or umigame as they say in Japan. Urashima could not abide cruelty and told the children to please stop upsetting this creature. But they were too deeply absorbed in poking the poor animal with driftwood and laughing at it to hear Urashima’s pleas. He tried a different tactic. “Children!” he said more loudly, “my old Uncle is the owner of a fine restaurant and will be happy to pay you very well for this turtle!” As soon as the children heard Urashima mention payment, they quietened down and stopped annoying the turtle to look at him.
“My Uncle will pay you a whole bag of rice for this lovely plump turtle,” said Urashima “but only as long as it remains undamaged!” The children looked at each other and grinned then they threw down their wooden sticks and left the turtle alone.
“A whole bag of rice!” one of them said, “we shall be rich!” Then the children excitedly held out their hands to Urashima and he gave the tallest child a small bag of rice.
“Please share it equally between you,” he told the boy. The children eyed the small bag with joy and then all of them ran to path which would take them back to the village. Urashima smiled as he heard then excitedly talking about what they would do with their new found riches. Then he turned his attention to the little turtle. He bent down low on the sand to look at the creature and saw to his delight that it was not at all injured though it did regard him with sad dark eyes as if pleading to be put back in the water. Urashima picked up the forlorn turtle and paddled out into the water. “You swim back to your home, dear turtle, I do not really have an Uncle with a restaurant,” he told it as he waded out deeper into the water, “they were just silly children who really meant no harm to you.” When he was a little deeper into the sea, he set the creature free and it swam away and disappeared beneath the gentle waves. Urashima was happy to have rescued it and next he went to his boat to start his day of fishing.
The next day Urashima again went to the shore and as he stepped into his boat he heard a voice call his name.
“Urashima Taro!” said the voice. Urashima looked around but could not see anyone. “Urashima Taro!” said the voice again. Urashima looked again but still saw no one. “Urashima Taro!” said the voice and then Urashima saw there was a turtle in his boat near to his feet. It was much larger than the turtle he had seen the day before. He stared at this turtle, who then repeated his name again. “Urashima Taro,” it said looking straight at him, “yesterday you rescued a small turtle and set her free and she wishes you to be rewarded,” said the turtle. “Please climb onto my back and I shall take you to her.”
Urashima looked into the eyes of the turtle and said, “I am much too big to climb onto your back!” But the turtle shook its head and repeated that Urashima should climb on. “But I shall crush you if I were to sit on you!” protested Urashima. But the turtle seemed to be growing bigger by the moment and as it climbed out of the boat it was very large; large enough for a full grown man to sit on.
“Please climb onto my shell and I will take you to see the turtle you rescued,” said the now enormous turtle. Urashima was surprised but did as the turtle bade him and climbed on. Then the huge turtle began walking out into the sea with Urashima sitting on its back.
“But I shall not be able to breathe under the water!” protested Urashima. “I shall drown!”
“No,” the turtle told him, “you have gills now and shall be able to breathe quite normally. Please hold tight as we have a long swim ahead!” and so off they went, diving below the waves and swimming far, far out into the ocean. Urashima noted with much relief that he could indeed breathe perfectly normally under the water, as the turtle had told him.
They swam far out and then very deep down until far into the distance, Urasima could see a city with sloping roofs on all the dwellings and a magnificent palace in the centre. “The city you see ahead,” said the turtle, “is the Great Dragon King’s realm, he is called Ryugo-jo and the turtle you rescued is his daughter. You are going to the Rin Gin Palace to meet her.”
Soon enough, the turtle announced that they had arrived at the Dragon King’s palace and he swam downwards to let Urashima off his back. The palace was the most beautiful building that Urashima had ever seen with its coral walls and lovely pearl adornments. He got off the turtle’s shell and was greeted by sea creatures that the turtle called “the chief vassals of the Dragon King.” They were a Cuttlefish, a Red Bream, a Flounder and a Sole. They welcomed Urashima and bade him follow them into the palace. Urashima was unable to speak as he was so very overwhelmed by what he saw but he followed them inside the doors of the Rin Gin Palace and was taken to an immense reception hall where he was introduced to the Dragon King’s daughter.
“Princess Otohime Sama, daughter of the Great Dragon King Ryugo-jo, this is Urashima Taro,” said the Cuttlefish and bowed.
The Princess was very beautiful. More lovely than any human. She was dressed like the underside of a wave, in red and green floating garments, that were shot through with golden threads. Her long black hair which was bejewelled with pearls, floated around her shoulders. She said, “Urashima Taro, you set me free and I must reward you.” Her voice was like the most wonderful and gentle music. Urashima could barely speak. He glanced away in shyness. The Princess continued to speak, “Would you like to be my husband and stay forever here with me in this land of eternal youth where summer never dies?” she asked Urashima.
“Yes,” said Urashima, who had by now fallen deeply in love with the beautiful Princess Otohime Sama. “Yes, that is my dearest wish.”
Immediately, servants brought out the most wondrous plates of food and the most fantastical decorations so the wedding could take place right away. The happy couple pledged themselves to each other in the wedding cup of wine, three times three. Songs were sung and music played as the wedding party feasted and danced and made merry. After they had eaten and danced, Princess Otohime Sama and new Prince, Urashima Taro went to walk around the four-seasons gardens outside the Rin Gin Palace. There were four gardens; one was as blossoming Spring, one as Summer with plentiful fruits, one as gold and orange leaved Autumn and one lay in snow for winter.
Urashima was so happy with Princess Otohime and every day was filled with joy and new wonders but three days later he began to feel a little homesick. He wondered how his poor aged Mother was managing without him. He felt a little guilty that he had just upped and left without a word to her, without a word to anyone and so he asked his bride, Princess Otohime if it was possible for him to visit the village where he had lived and his old Mother.
The Princess was upset and did not wish for him to go. “Just for one day,” said Urashima, “just one day and I will come back to you.” With tears in her eyes, Princess Otohime pleaded with him not to leave but he reassured her again it was for just one day and he would be back. When she saw how very much he wanted to go back, she relented.
Princess Otohime Sama gave Urashima a black lacquered box secured with a cord of red silk. “This box is the Tamate-bako,” she said as she passed him the box. “It contains something very special and extremely precious,” she told him. “Please Urashima, never open it. Never.” Then she looked at him with tears flowing down her cheeks and told him the turtle who brought him to her, would take him back to the shore where he had first found her and set her free.
Urashima and his Princess bride walked to the entrance of the Rin Gin Palace and kissed goodbye. The turtle that had brought him to the Dragon King’s realm appeared and bade Urashima to climb on his back. Urashima sat on the turtle’s shell and waved to Princess Otohime as she stood in front of the palace, her face so sad that Urashima thought his heart would break in two. But his homesickness pulled at him and he had to visit his Mother, he must see that she was well and could manage without him.
The turtle swam with Urashima on his back for such a long time. Through the water they sped until finally the turtle carrying Urashima stopped swimming and began to walk on the sand up to the shore. They arrived back at the place where Urashima had found the children tormenting the small turtle just days before. The turtle that had brought him back, waited until Urashima had alighted before he bade him farewell and swam away.
Urashima stood on the shore and looked about him. He saw several people walking across the beach and though he did not recognise them, he waved. They waved back and Urashima began walking towards the path that would take him back to the village. Urashima Taro looked at the horizon and saw the familiar hills in the distance welcoming him home. He reached the village and walked past the little houses of his friends and neighbours. He did not see anyone he recognised so far, but carried on walking until he reached the cottage he lived with his Mother. But something did not look right. The cottage was not where it should be. The tiny piece of land on which his home stood was empty. Urashima’s brow furrowed in confusion. Where was his house? He hurried to a neighbour’s house and knocked on their door until an old man came to open it.
It was not the face Urashima had been expecting to see but he said, “Good afternoon to you. Do you know what has happened to my house and what has happened to my Mother?” Urashima gestured to the empty space where his house had been but three days earlier. The old man looked at him in surprise and confusion.
“There has been no house there on that plot for many, many years,” he said. “I am very old but even I do not remember a house being there.” Then the old man asked Urashima if he would like to come inside and sit down for some tea as he did look rather upset. Urashima thanked the old man but said he must find out what had happened to his Mother and his house. The old man shook his head and closed the door as Urashima ran to the village square to ask someone else. There were lots of people there buying things at the tiny food market and Urashima rushed to them, one at a time telling them his name was Urashima Taro and then asked if they knew what had become of his Mother and his house. None of the people were familiar to Urashima and none of them recognised him. Urashima was beginning to despair when one of the people peered closely at him and repeated his name over and over.
“Urashima Taro… Urashima Taro… Wait a moment, that name does sound familiar to me, now that I think about it,” said the lady who was shopping at the market with her own mother. “Mother,” she said to the lady by her side, “didn’t you mention the name of Urashima Taro to me in a story when I was a little girl?” The lady’s Mother was obviously a little deaf and her daughter had to repeat herself three times before the tiny old woman finally announced in the smallest voice that yes, she had indeed told her daughter the tale of Urashima Taro many, many years ago. Her own Mother was the great , great niece of an old neighbour of a woman whose son had one day disappeared from the shore and had never been seen since. His name had been Urashima Taro and the story she had been told was that he was the boy who had run away from his responsibilities and had been eaten by a huge sea-monster to serve him right for not being more respectful of his dear Mother. It was an oft told tale to teach children that they should not shirk their duties to their parents.
Urashima listened to the two ladies in horror and confusion. “But I am Urashima Taro!” he loudly cried so as the deafer one of the two would hear him. The two ladies looked very shocked then turned and ran. “Ghost!” they screamed as they went, “Ghost!”
Urashima Taro shook his head but it was too late, they had gone. He saw that other people at the market had overheard their conversation and were also rushing away. He was on the point of despair when a younger couple cautiously stepped a little closer to him. He looked at them hopefully with his hands outstretched. They said good afternoon and asked him if he was indeed Urashima Taro. “Yes I am,” he told them.
“We heard your conversation with those two ladies,” said the couple. “We did not mean to be rude but you did speak quite loudly. We know you are not a ghost as we can see your feet! Everybody knows that ghosts do not have feet, of course!” Urashima felt a little better knowing that these people knew that he was in fact a real man and not a ghost. He knew for sure he was not a ghost! “Then there is magic at work,” said one of them “because the tale of Urashima Taro is at least three hundred years old and if you really are him then you are still alive and well and defiantly not a ghost.” Urashima felt lightheaded. Three hundred years had passed? He felt very frightened. He had been at the Rin Gin Palace under the sea with Princess Otohime for only three days. How could so much time have passed here on the land? He could make no sense of it and felt his legs buckle under him. “Please come and sit down,” said the kind couple and helped him to a nearby bench where Urashima sat with his head in his hands.
Presently, they excused themselves and left Urashima on the bench to come to terms with this shocking news. Urashima sat there in the market square for more than an hour trying to understand. He had been gone for three hundred years. That is why he did not know anyone in the village and they did not know him. That is why his house no longer stood and why his dear Mother was long gone.
His life here was quite obviously over and done. He must get back to his Princess bride. He stood and began to make his way from the village back to the path that led to the shore. He walked back to the edge of the water. But there was no boat there but more importantly there was no turtle. Nothing to take him back to the Dragon King’s undersea realm where he had lived so briefly but so very happily with Princess Otohime Sama in the Rin Gin Palace. Urashima broke down into tears there on the shore, longing to be back with his love.
Then the distraught Urashima remembered the box that Princess Otohime had given him. It was here in his pocket. The beautiful black lacquered box, tied with the cord of red silk. She had told him not to open it. She had insisted he did not open it. He took the box from his pocket and gazed upon it. Princess Otohime had called it the Tamate-bako. Urashima wondered what it could hold. What was in this small lacquered box that he must not see? He did not think he should open it but he was desperate to get back to his Princess and the wonderful life he had lived in the undersea realm of the Great Dragon King. He wondered if the box could hold the secret of how to get back there. Did it contain a magic spell to transport him back to the Rin Gin Palace?
He stood there on the shore of the small village where he had lived all his life, aside from the last three days which had actually been three hundred years, staring out to sea. He did not know what to do. His life here was finished. Reluctantly he began gently gently tugging at one end of the red silk cord that was tied around the little black box. Then he stopped. Princess Otohime had begged him not to open it. But why had she given it to him? And why was he not allowed to open it? It made no sense to a man who had lost his senses to grief. Urashima continued to pull the cord that held the box shut.
As the cord of red silk released the lid of the black lacquered box, it flew open and from the depths of the box came a cloud of purple smoke. It rose up as high as Urashimas’s face then split into three smoky wisps that caressed his face before they dissipated into the late afternoon air.
As soon as they had vanished from his sight, Urashima’s back bent so he was forced to lean forwards into a stooped position and his hair turned whiter than mountain snow. He felt his skin loosen and his scant beard grew so long that it reached his belly. He put his hands to his face and felt the wrinkled, leathery skin of a very, very old man. He felt the pain of very old bones and joints and the all-consuming tiredness of a man who has never stopped working. Urashima Taro had lived three hundred years in an instant because the Tamate-bako had contained his old age. He sagged then fell onto the sand. Minutes later from the depths of his misery, he heard a voice call his name.
“Urashima Taro! Urashima Taro! You have been called home by the Great Dragon King and Princess Otohime Sama,” said the voice. Urashima tried to raise his head to look toward the voice but found he could not because his old bones would not allow him. He lay still on the sand and hoped that the owner of the voice which sounded very much like the large turtle who had taken him the undersea realm, would take him back to his Princess and his life in the Dragon King’s realm. Urashima felt a tugging sensation and then found himself laying across the shell of a huge turtle. The turtle walked across the sand and then dived beneath the waves. “Please hold tight, Urashima Taro,” he said, “as we have a long swim ahead!”
Eventually Urashima and the turtle arrived back at the Rin Gin Palace and Princess Otohime was there waiting for Urashima. As soon as he put his feet down onto the undersea sand, Urashima regained his youth and looked once more like the young man of twenty four that had first rescued the Princess from the children who had been teasing her.
“My beloved Father, the great Dragon King Ryugu-jo has granted my dearest wish,” said Princess Otohime through her joyful tears as she embraced him. “He has restored you, Urashima and given you back to me so we may live together again here in the land of eternal youth, where summer never dies.”
The undersea realm celebrated for three days.
Prince Urashima Taro and Princess Otohime Sama still live happily to this day, at the Rin Gin Palace in the realm of the Great Dragon King, Ryugo-jo.
Owari as they say in Japan or as we say, The End.