Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Kaguya-hime and other Japanese tales

by aleks
Our Japanese book club was recently reading 'Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye' by Marie Mutsuki Mockett.  It was the most excellent book to read and ponder about, and it caused a spirited discussion, but this post is not about the book itself, but something I found in it:  a story of The Moon Princess - a tale as well known in Japan as "Cinderella" or 'Thumbelina' are in America.

SJG • 12/20/16 - winter garden

The legend of Kaguya-hime, sometimes known as ‘The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter’ (繪入竹とり物語, Eiri Taketori monogatari), dates back to the 9th or 10th century, and is considered  the earliest surviving Japanese narrative.  There are many short and longer versions of the story of the tiny, beautiful baby girl that an old and poor bamboo-cutter found in the shiny stalk of bamboo on his way home one day.  The childless bamboo-cutter and his wife were overjoyed to raise her as her own and they named her Nayotake-no-Kaguya-hime, the Princess of the Bending Bamboo that Scatters Light.

From the day the bamboo-cutter found the girl, he had been finding a gold nugget inside every bamboo he cut.  In a comfortable, loving home Kaguya-hime grew up to to be a gorgeous young lady of extraordinary beauty and kindness and soon attracted many suitors, including the emperor of that time, who fell in love with her at first sight. But Kaguya Hime did not want to marry anyone.

I will leave aside here what happened to her suitors and jump to the part of one mid-autumn when the bamboo-cutter and his wife grew very concerned about their daughter erratic behavior: they would often find her looking at the moon with tears in her eyes. It was soon revealed  that Kaguya-hime came from the moon, that she doesn’t belong to this world and it was soon time for her to return there. That made everyone very sad.  The bamboo cutter did not want Kaguya Hime to leave and he asked samurais to protect her from the moon people.

Kaguya-hime gave parting gifts to her parents and to her friends, including the Emperor, whom she gave a letter and a small bottle of the Elixir of Life.   On the night of the full moon the moon people came and  took Kaguya-hime back to the moon. The samurai could not do anything.

Her parents were heartbroken, and so was the Emperor, who asked his people to burn Kaguya-hime's letter and her gift at the top of the highest mountain - immortality meant nothing to him without her. The tale has it that this mountain was then named "Fuji" which means "immortality". The smoke from Kaguya-hime's burned letter can still be seen subtly rising form the top of Mount Fuji...

Here is a nice English language illustrated pdf long (72 pages) version of the Moon Princess story translated by Clarence Calkins, 1994.

And there is a 'The Tale of The Princess Kaguya' from Studio Ghibli, 2013, trailer here:

Japanese folktales are very rich and offer a different view of the world than American ones. Some day I'd like to do a children's tour of our Garden where instead of the usual garden narrative I'd just take the children for a quiet stroll around, and stop on the bench here, grass there and in azumaya, and simply share with them Kaguya-hime story and a few others.  Being in a Japanese style garden and listening to real Japanese stories must be at least as interesting and educational as explanations about the look of the garden. Or maybe more. Some other stories I might tell on that tour: Momotaro (Peach Boy) and Yuki-onna (Snow Woman), but there many, many more to chose from.

SJG • 12/20/16 - Polytrichum or 'sugi' (cryptomeria) moss- one of the most prized in Japanese temples and gardens

For adults I have this recommendation  (also from  Marie Mutsuki Mockett's book mentioned at the beginning of the post):  'Dreams, Myths and Fairy Tales in Japan' by Professor Hayao Kawai,  which 'addresses Japanese culture insightfully, exploring the depths of the psyche from both Eastern and Western perspectives'  (Amazon description). I normally try not to link to Amazon, but the book has only review there and  it's hilariously bad - wonder if I'll agree after reading the book, which is a collection of psychoanalytic lectures.

Seattle Japanese Garden opens March 1st for the public • First Viewing Ceremony Sunday, March 5th, 2017

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