Japanese dragons are huge, wingless serpentine creatures with tri-clawed feet. They are often depicted as water deities; beings associated with seas, rivers, and ponds or with storms and rainfall. Almost always the Japanese dragon myths amalgamate the native legends with imported dragon stories from China, Korea and even as far as India.
I shall endeavour the retelling of one of these folktales.
Once upon a time in a small village by the Sea there lived a good hearted young fisherman, named Urashima Taro, and his aged mother. Every morning at dawn he would follow the narrow path to the seashore, where he had moored his boat in a sheltered spot and return at dusk with the day’s catch. This day being no different, he was following the narrow goat trail down when he spotted a group of children mercilessly torturing a small turtle trapped in some reeds by the shore. Rushing to the spot, he wrenched the poor thing from the hands of the biggest bully just before he was about to subject the distressed creature to yet another cruel prank.
“Leave the poor thing along, shame on you all. How would you like it if someone did this to you? ” He berated the rowdy children who responded with curses, protesting his intrusion. Eventually they dispersed, grumbling under their breath and promising dire repercussions.
After losing the bullies Taro carried the turtle to his boat and set it down on a soft cloth. Once the brief examination ensured that the turtle was not grievously injured, he commenced rowing.
When he was bit further out from the shore he stopped at an ideal spot, picked up the turtle and, gently lowering his hand over the side of the boat, watched as the poor thing slowly slid off of his hand and dove into the safety of the sea. Smiling, Taro turned back to the business of fishing.
On the next day when he was once more out at sea a rather huge turtle stuck his head out of the ocean and addressed him in human speech. This remarkable turtle told him how the small turtle he’d saved was none other than the daughter of Ryujin, the Emperor of the Sea.
“His highness wishes to see you and to thank you in person. Are you willing?” the giant turtle asked Taro.
Taro was elated to learn that the little turtle had returned to the safety of her home. This seemed enough and he was about to decline, saying no thanks were necessary, when his curiosity got the better of him and he acquiesced.
“First, you need to get into the water.” The giant turtle directed, and Taro readily complied. Even though he was a very good swimmer, Taro hung onto the side of his boat with one hand for safety sake. “Close your eyes.” the giant turtle instructed him then, once Taro complied, the turtle began an incantation.
Opening his eyes, Taro was elated to find that he had been endowed with gills. Hanging on tight to the shell, he rode the giant turtle to the bottom of the ocean. Along the way the wonders he saw delighted his senses and immeasurably lifted his soul.
At the spectacular palace of the Ryugu-jo he was granted an audience with the Dragon King attended by all his courtiers. After the formalities he was properly introduced to the small turtle, who appeared in her true form as the beautiful Princess Otohime. So taken was Taro by the Princesses’ charm, poise and beauty that he agreed to stay for a few days as their honoured guest.
For three days he experienced such wondrous things, delectable foods, fruit, drinks, music, colours, and entertainment that he entirely forgot the human world above. Besides which, he reminded himself, there were enough reserves of dried fish, beans and rice , to last his mother until his return.
Being a conscientious boy however, his worry about the welfare of his mom soon soured all his experiences. Reluctantly he asked Princess Otohime’s permission to leave and return to his home in the village. Of course the Princess was saddened by this request; however she understood his desire and wished him well. As a parting gift she gave him a magic box called a tamtebako. He was told that the box will protect him from all harm but that he must never, under any circumstances, open it. Securing the box, Taro with tearful eyes bid the Princess farewell and climbed onto the same giant turtle to begin his swift ascent to the surface. He was carried up close to the shore and was able to swim the rest of the way to the beach.
A great shock awaited him when he finally arrived where his home had once been, for everything was completely different. The house had been reduced to rubble, and the little sapling he had once planted was now a huge tree. Making his way to the village which, in three days had grown into a sizeable town, hoping against hope, he inquired after his mother and his relatives. But no one had ever heard of her, nor did they recollect the other acquaintances he named. In his desperation, he asked dozens of people, if anyone had ever heard of a young man by the name of Urashima Taro. The response was always a baffled look and a resounding “No, no, no!”
Finally an investigation of the temple records revealed the existence of someone named Urashima Taro who had perished at sea 300 years ago. Dumbstruck, his head in a daze, he groped his way back to the seashore, collapsed on the sand and, covering his face, began to sob. As he watched the sun setting on the horizon, grief-stricken and dismayed, his hand chanced on the box. In his confused state, he withdrew it from his pocket and absentmindedly opened it. Almost immediately he began to grow old. His hair turned all white, his smooth skin began to wrinkle and sag and his back became bent. As he continued to decay, just before he felt his body turn to dust, the sweet, sad voice of the Princes reached his ears. “All is lost now; I warned you not to open the box. It held your old age.”