Chapter Six. By the Japanese Sea


IT is the fifteenth day of the seventh month - and I am in Hokii.

The blanched road winds along a coast of low cliffs - the coast of the Japanese Sea. Always on the left, over a narrow strip of stony land, or a heaping of dunes, its vast expanse appears, blue-wrinkling to that pale horizon beyond which Korea lies, under the same white sun. Sometimes, through sudden gaps in the cliff's verge, there flashes to us the running of the surf. Always upon the right another sea - a silent sea of green, reaching to far misty ranges of wooded hills, with huge pale peaks behind them - a vast level of rice-fields, over whose surface soundless waves keep chasing each other under the same great breath that moves the blue to-day from Chosen to Japan.

Though during a week the sky has remained unclouded, the sea has for several days been growing angrier; and now the muttering of its surf sounds far into the land. They say that it always roughens thus during the period of the Festival of the Dead - the three days of the Bon, which are the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth of the seventh month by the ancient calendar. And on the sixteenth day, after the shoryobune, which are the Ships of Souls, have been launched, no one dares to enter it: no boats can then be hired; all the fishermen remain at home. For on that day the sea is the highway of the dead, who must pass back over its waters to their mysterious home; and therefore upon that day is it called Hotoke-umi - the Buddha-Flood - the Tide of the Returning Ghosts. And ever upon the night of that sixteenth day - whether the sea be calm or tumultuous - all its surface shimmers with faint lights gliding out to the open, - the dim fires of the dead; and there is heard a murmuring of voices, like the murmur of a city far-off, - the indistinguishable speech of souls.


But it may happen that some vessel, belated in spite of desperate effort to reach port, may find herself far out at sea upon the night of the sixteenth day. Then will the dead rise tall about the ship, and reach long hands and murmur: 'Tago, tago o-kure! - tago o-kure!' [1] Never may they be refused; but, before the bucket is given, the bottom of it must be knocked out. Woe to all on board should an entire tago be suffered to fall even by accident into the sea! - for the dead would at once use it to fill and sink the ship.

Nor are the dead the only powers invisible dreaded in the time of the Hotoke-umi. Then are the Ma most powerful, and the Kappa. [2]

But in all times the swimmer fears the Kappa, the Ape of Waters, hideous and obscene, who reaches up from the deeps to draw men down, and to devour their entrails.

Only their entrails.

The corpse of him who has been seized by the Kappa may be cast on shore after many days. Unless long battered against the rocks by heavy surf, or nibbled by fishes, it will show no outward wound. But it will be light and hollow - empty like a long-dried gourd.


Betimes, as we journey on, the monotony of undulating blue on the left, or the monotony of billowing green upon the right, is broken by the grey apparition of a cemetery - a cemetery so long that our jinricksha men, at full run, take a full quarter of an hour to pass the huge congregation of its perpendicular stones. Such visions always indicate the approach of villages; but the villages prove to be as surprisingly small as the cemeteries are surprisingly large. By hundreds of thousands do the silent populations of the hakaba outnumber the folk of the hamlets to which they belong - tiny thatched settlements sprinkled along the leagues of coast, and sheltered from the wind only by ranks of sombre pines. Legions on legions of stones - a host of sinister witnesses of the cost of the present to the past - and old, old, old! - hundreds so long in place that they have been worn into shapelessness merely by the blowing of sand from the dunes, and their inscriptions utterly effaced. It is as if one were passing through the burial-ground of all who ever lived on this wind-blown shore since the being of the land.

And in all these hakaba - for it is the Bon - there are new lanterns before the newer tombs - the white lanterns which are the lanterns of graves. To-night the cemeteries will be all aglow with lights like the fires of a city for multitude. But there are also unnumbered tombs before which no lanterns are - elder myriads, each the token of a family extinct, or of which the absent descendants have forgotten even the name. Dim generations whose ghosts have none to call them back, no local memories to love - so long ago obliterated were all things related to their lives.


Now many of these villages are only fishing settlements, and in them stand old thatched homes of men who sailed away on some eve of tempest, and never came back. Yet each drowned sailor has his tomb in the neighbouring hakaba, and beneath it something of him has been buried.


Among these people of the west something is always preserved which in other lands is cast away without a thought - the hozo-no-o, the flower- stalk of a life, the navel-string of the newly-born. It is enwrapped carefully in many wrappings; and upon its outermost covering are written the names of the father, the mother, and the infant, together with the date and hour of birth, - and it is kept in the family o-'mamori-bukuro. The daughter, becoming a bride, bears it with her to her new home: for the son it is preserved by his parents. It is buried with the dead; and should one die in a foreign land, or perish at sea, it is entombed in lieu of the body.