August 20, 2019 Tue
Urashima shrine in Ine

Written into the plunging cliffs and verdant valleys of the Tango peninsula are numerous folk tales, transmitted through the generations. Shrines often mark the locations associated with the tales. In the countryside just outside the fishing village of Ine is ‘Urashima jinja’ (浦島神社), a shrine associated with the legend of Urashima Taro. A few variations of the story exist, but the main details of one of Japan’s best-loved folk tales are the same:

The story centres around a young fisherman called Urashima Taro, who finds some boys beating a turtle on a beach. He chases the boys away, and helps the turtle to return to the sea. The next day, a larger turtle comes to the beach and thanks Taro for saving its brethren. As a reward for Taro’s kindness, the large turtle offers to take Taro to the ‘Dragon Palace’ under the sea. There, he is greeted by a beautiful princess and spends 3 days as the Dragon Palace’s honoured guest, enjoying the delights of the underwater kingdom. However, Taro gets homesick, and despite the princess’s protests, he returns home to his family. As a parting gift, the princess gives him a mysterious box: she explains that the box will protect him, but that he must never open it. When he returns to the shore, Taro finds that his home has gone; a man explains to him that several generations ago, a young fisherman disappeared into the sea and was never seen again. Realising that several hundred years have passed, Taro opens the box, but upon opening it immediately ages and becomes an old man.

There are other places in Japan that claim to be the origin of the legend, but it appears an appropriate story for a region that, in days of yore, relied heavily on its young men going out to the sea to fish, uncertain of returning. Despite its somewhat dark and unclear moral, the the legend of Urashima Taro is also a children’s favourite, and is performed by children at local festivals. It is just one example of the sometimes little-known tales echoing around the region, woven into the fabric of its communities and animating the landscape.

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