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.


Concerning them that go down into the sea in ships, and stay there, strange beliefs prevail on this far coast - beliefs more primitive, assuredly, than the gentle faith which hangs white lanterns before the tombs. Some hold that the drowned never journey to the Meido. They quiver for ever in the currents; they billow in the swaying of tides; they toil in the wake of the junks; they shout in the plunging of breakers. 'Tis their white hands that toss in the leap of the surf; their clutch that clatters the shingle, or seizes the swimmer's feet in the pull of the undertow. And the seamen speak euphemistically of the O-'bake, the honourable ghosts, and fear them with a great fear.

Wherefore cats are kept on board!

A cat, they aver, has power to keep the O-bake away. How or why, I have not yet found any to tell me. I know only that cats are deemed to have power over the dead. If a cat be left alone with a corpse, will not the corpse arise and dance? And of all cats a mike-neko, or cat of three colours, is most prized on this account by sailors. But if they cannot obtain one - and cats of three colours are rare - they will take another kind of cat; and nearly every trading junk has a cat; and when the junk comes into port, its cat may generally be seen - peeping through some little window in the vessel's side, or squatting in the opening where the great rudder works - that is, if the weather be fair and the sea still.


But these primitive and ghastly beliefs do not affect the beautiful practices of Buddhist faith in the time of the Bon; and from all these little villages the shoryobune are launched upon the sixteenth day. They are much more elaborately and expensively constructed on this coast than in some other parts of Japan; for though made of straw only, woven over a skeleton framework, they are charming models of junks, complete in every detail. Some are between three and four feet long. On the white paper sail is written the kaimyo or soul-name of the dead. There is a small water-vessel on board, filled with fresh water, and an incense- cup; and along the gunwales flutter little paper banners bearing the mystic manji, which is the Sanscrit swastika.[3]

The form of the shoryobune and the customs in regard to the time and manner of launching them differ much in different provinces. In most places they are launched for the family dead in general, wherever buried; and they are in some places launched only at night, with small lanterns on board. And I am told also that it is the custom at certain sea-villages to launch the lanterns all by themselves, in lieu of the shoryobune proper - lanterns of a particular kind being manufactured for that purpose only.

But on the Izumo coast, and elsewhere along this western shore, the soul-boats are launched only for those who have been drowned at sea, and the launching takes place in the morning instead of at night. Once every year, for ten years after death, a shoryobune is launched; in the eleventh year the ceremony ceases. Several shoryobune which I saw at Inasa were really beautiful, and must have cost a rather large sum for poor fisher-folk to pay. But the ship-carpenter who made them said that all the relatives of a drowned man contribute to purchase the little vessel, year after year.


Near a sleepy little village called Kanii-ichi I make a brief halt in order to visit a famous sacred tree. It is in a grove close to the public highway, but upon a low hill. Entering the grove I find myself in a sort of miniature glen surrounded on three sides by very low cliffs, above which enormous pines are growing, incalculably old. Their vast coiling roots have forced their way through the face of the cliffs, splitting rocks; and their mingling crests make a green twilight in the hollow. One pushes out three huge roots of a very singular shape; and the ends of these have been wrapped about with long white papers bearing written prayers, and with offerings of seaweed. The shape of these roots, rather than any tradition, would seem to have made the tree sacred in popular belief: it is the object of a special cult; and a little torii has been erected before it, bearing a votive annunciation of the most artless and curious kind. I cannot venture to offer a translation of it - though for the anthropologist and folk-lorist it certainly possesses peculiar interest. The worship of the tree, or at least of the Kami supposed to dwell therein, is one rare survival of a phallic cult probably common to most primitive races, and formerly widespread in Japan. Indeed it was suppressed by the Government scarcely more than a generation ago. On the opposite side of the little hollow, carefully posed upon a great loose rock, I see something equally artless and almost equally curious - a kitoja-no-mono, or ex-voto. Two straw figures joined together and reclining side by side: a straw man and a straw woman. The workmanship is childishly clumsy; but still, the woman can be distinguished from the man by .the ingenious attempt to imitate the female coiffure with a straw wisp. And as the man is represented with a queue - now worn only by aged survivors of the feudal era - I suspect that this kitoja-no-mono was made after some ancient and strictly conventional model.

Now this queer ex-voto tells its own story. Two who loved each other were separated by the fault of the man; the charm of some joro, perhaps, having been the temptation to faithlessness.

Then the wronged one came here and prayed the Kami to dispel the delusion of passion and touch the erring heart. The prayer has been heard; the pair have been reunited; and she has therefore made these two quaint effigies 'with her own hands, and brought them to the Kami of the pine - tokens of her innocent faith and her grateful heart.


Night falls as we reach the pretty hamlet of Hamamura, our last resting- place by the sea, for to-morrow our way lies inland. The inn at which we lodge is very small, but very clean and cosy; and there is a delightful bath of natural hot water; for the yadoya is situated close to a natural spring. This spring, so strangely close to the sea beach, also furnishes, I am told, the baths of all the houses in the village.

The best room is placed at our disposal; but I linger awhile to examine a very fine shoryobune, waiting, upon a bench near the street entrance, to be launched to-morrow. It seems to have been finished but a short time ago; for fresh clippings of straw lie scattered around it, and the kaimyo has not yet been written upon its sail. I am surprised to hear that it belongs to a poor widow and her son, both of whom are employed by the hotel.

I was hoping to see the Bon-odori at Hamamura, but I am disappointed. At all the villages the police have prohibited the dance. Fear of cholera has resulted in stringent sanitary regulations. In Hamamura the people have been ordered to use no water for drinking, cooking, or washing, except the hot water of their own volcanic springs.

A little middle-aged woman, with a remarkably sweet voice, comes to wait upon us at supper-time. Her teeth are blackened and her eyebrows shaved after the fashion of married women twenty years ago; nevertheless her face is still a pleasant one, and in her youth she must have been uncommonly pretty. Though acting as a servant, it appears that she is related to the family owning the inn, and that she is treated with the consideration due to kindred. She tells us that the shoryobune is to be launched for her husband and brother - both fishermen of the village, who perished in sight of their own home eight years ago. The priest of the neighbouring Zen temple is to come in the morning to write the kaimyo upon the sail, as none of the household are skilled in writing the Chinese characters.

I make her the customary little gift, and, through my attendant, ask her various questions about her history. She was married to a man much older than herself, with whom she lived very happily; and her brother, a youth of eighteen, dwelt with them. They had a good boat and a little piece of ground, and she was skilful at the loom; so they managed to live well. In summer the fishermen fish at night: when all the fleet is out, it is pretty to see the line of torch-fires in the offing, two or three miles away, like a string of stars. They do not go out when the weather is threatening; but in certain months the great storms (taifu) come so quickly that the boats are overtaken almost before they have time to hoist sail. Still as a temple pond the sea was on the night when her husband and brother last sailed away; the taifu rose before daybreak. What followed, she relates with a simple pathos that I cannot reproduce in our less artless tongue:

'All the boats had come back except my husband's; for' my husband and my brother had gone out farther than the others, so they were not able to return as quickly. And all the people were looking and waiting. And every minute the waves seemed to be growing higher and the wind more terrible; and the other boats had to be dragged far up on the shore to save them. Then suddenly we saw my husband's boat coming very, very quickly. We were so glad! It came quite near, so that I could see the face of my husband and the face of my brother. But suddenly a great wave struck it upon one side, and it turned down into the water and it did not come up again. And then we saw my husband and my brother swimming but we could see them only when the waves lifted them up. Tall like hills the waves were, and the head of my husband, and the head of my brother would go up, up, up, and then down, and each time they rose to the top of a wave so that we could see them they would cry out, "Tasukete! tasukete!" [4] But the strong men were afraid; the sea was too terrible; I was only a woman! Then my brother could not be seen any more. My husband was old, but very strong; and he swam a long time - so near that I could see his face was like the face of one in fear - and he called "Tasukete!" But none could help him; and he also went down at last. And yet I could see his face before he went down.

'And for a long time after, every night, I used to see his face as I saw it then, so that I could not rest, but only weep. And I prayed and prayed to the Buddhas and to the Kami-Sama that I might not dream that dream. Now it never comes; but I can still see his face, even while I speak. . . . In that time my son was only a little child.'

Not without sobs can she conclude her simple recital. Then, suddenly bowing her head to the matting, and wiping away her tears with her sleeve, she humbly prays our pardon for this little exhibition of emotion, and laughs - the soft low laugh de rigueur of Japanese politeness. This, I must confess, touches me still more than the story itself. At a fitting moment my Japanese attendant delicately changes the theme, and begins a light chat about our journey, and the danna-sama's interest in the old customs and legends of the coast. And he succeeds in amusing her by some relation of our wanderings in Izumo.

She asks whither we are going. My attendant answers probably as far as Tottori.

'Aa! Tottori! So degozarimasu ka? Now, there is an old story - the Story of the Futon of Tottori. But the danna-sama knows that story?'

Indeed, the danna-sama does not, and begs earnestly to hear it. And the story is set down somewhat as I learn it through the lips of my interpreter.

9 Many years ago, a very small yadoya in Tottori town received its first guest, an itinerant merchant. He was received with more than common kindness, for the landlord desired to make a good name for his little inn. It was a new inn, but as its owner was poor, most of its dogu - furniture and utensils - had been purchased from the furuteya. [5] Nevertheless, everything was clean, comforting, and pretty. The guest ate heartily and drank plenty of good warm sake; after which his bed was prepared on the soft floor, and he laid himself down to sleep.

[But here I must interrupt the story for a few moments, to say a word about Japanese beds. Never; unless some inmate happen to be sick, do you see a bed in any Japanese house by day, though you visit all the rooms and peep into all the corners. In fact, no bed exists, in the Occidental meaning of the word. That which the Japanese call bed has no bedstead, no spring, no mattress, no sheets, no blankets. It consists of thick quilts only, stuffed, or, rather, padded with cotton, which are called futon. A certain number of futon are laid down upon the tatami (the floor mats), and a certain number of others are used for coverings. The wealthy can lie upon five or six quilts, and cover themselves with as many as they please, while poor folk must content themselves with two or three. And of course there are many kinds, from the servants' cotton futon which is no larger than a Western hearthrug, and not much thicker, to the heavy and superb futon silk, eight feet long by seven broad, which only the kanemochi can afford. Besides these there is the yogi, a massive quilt made with wide sleeves like a kimono, in which you can find much comfort when the weather is extremely cold. All such things are neatly folded up and stowed out of sight by day in alcoves contrived in the wall and closed with fusuma - pretty sliding screen doors covered with opaque paper usually decorated with dainty designs. There also are kept those curious wooden pillows, invented to preserve the Japanese coiffure from becoming disarranged during sleep.

The pillow has a certain sacredness; but the origin and the precise nature of the beliefs concerning it I have not been able to learn. Only this I know, that to touch it with the foot is considered very wrong; and that if it be kicked or moved thus even by accident, the clumsiness must be atoned for by lifting the pillow to the forehead with the hands, and replacing it in its original position respectfully, with the word 'go-men,' signifying, I pray to be excused.]

Now, as a rule, one sleeps soundly after having drunk plenty of warm sake, especially if the night be cool and the bed very snug. But the guest, having slept but a very little while, was aroused by the sound of voices in his room - voices of children, always asking each other the same questions: - 'Ani-San samukaro?' 'Omae samukaro?' The presence of children in his room might annoy the guest, but could not surprise him, for in these Japanese hotels there are no doors, but only papered sliding screens between room and room. So it seemed to him that some children must have wandered into his apartment, by mistake, in the dark. He uttered some gentle rebuke. For a moment only there was silence; then a sweet, thin, plaintive voice queried, close to his ear, 'Ani-San samukaro?' (Elder Brother probably is cold?), and another sweet voice made answer caressingly, 'Omae samukaro?' [Nay, thou probably art cold?]

He arose and rekindled the candle in the andon, [6] and looked about the room. There was no one. The shoji were all closed. He examined the cupboards; they were empty. Wondering, he lay down again, leaving the light still burning; and immediately the voices spoke again, complainingly, close to his pillow:

'Ani-San samukaro?'

'Omae samukaro?'

Then, for the first time, he felt a chill creep over him, which was not the chill of the night. Again and again he heard, and each time he became more afraid. For he knew that the voices were in the futon! It was the covering of the bed that cried out thus.

He gathered hurriedly together the few articles belonging to him, and, descending the stairs, aroused the landlord and told what had passed. Then the host, much angered, made reply: 'That to make pleased the honourable guest everything has been done, the truth is; but the honourable guest too much august sake having drank, bad dreams has seen.' Nevertheless the guest insisted upon paying at once that which he owed, and seeking lodging elsewhere.

Next evening there came another guest who asked for a room for the night. At a late hour the landlord was aroused by his lodger with the same story. And this lodger, strange to say, had not taken any sake. Suspecting some envious plot to ruin his business, the landlord answered passionately: 'Thee to please all things honourably have been done: nevertheless, ill-omened and vexatious words thou utterest. And that my inn my means-of-livelihood is - that also thou knowest. Wherefore that such things be spoken, right-there-is-none!' Then the guest, getting into a passion, loudly said things much more evil; and the two parted in hot anger.

But after the guest was gone, the landlord, thinking all this very strange, ascended to the empty room to examine the futon. And while there, he heard the voices, and he discovered that the guests had said only the truth. It was one covering - only one - which cried out. The rest were silent. He took the covering into his own room, and for the remainder of the night lay down beneath it. And the voices continued until the hour of dawn: 'Ani-San samukaro?' 'Omae samukaro?' So that he could not sleep.

But at break of day he rose up and went out to find the owner of the furuteya at which the futon had been purchased. The dlealer knew nothing. He had bought the futon from a smaller shop, and the keeper of that shop had purchased it from a still poorer dealer dwelling in the farthest suburb of the city. And the innkeeper went from one to the other, asking questions.

Then at last it was found that the futon had belonged to a poor family, and had been bought from the landlord of a little house in which the family had lived, in the neighbourhood of the town. And the story of the futon was this: -

The rent of the little house was only sixty sen a month, but even this was a great deal for the poor folks to pay. The father could earn only two or three yen a month, and the mother was ill and could not work; and there were two children - a boy of six years and a boy of eight. And they were strangers in Tottori.

One winter's day the father sickened; and after a week of suffering he died, and was buried. Then the long-sick mother followed him, and the children were left alone. They knew no one whom they could ask for aid; and in order to live they began to sell what there was to sell.

That was not much: the clothes of the dead father and mother, and most of their own; some quilts of cotton, and a few poor household utensils - hibachi, bowls, cups, and other trifles. Every day they sold something, until there was nothing left but one futon. And a day came when they had nothing to eat; and the rent was not paid.

The terrible Dai-kan had arrived, the season of greatest cold; and the snow had drifted too high that day for them to wander far from the little house. So they could only lie down under their one futon, and shiver together, and compassionate each other in their own childish way - 'Ani-San, samukaro?' 'Omae samukaro?'

They had no fire, nor anything with which to make fire; and the darkness came; and the icy wind screamed into the little house.

They were afraid of the wind, but they were more afraid of the house- owner, who roused them roughly to demand his rent. He was a hard man, with an evil face. And finding there was none to pay him, he turned the children into the snow, and took their one futon away from them, and locked up the house.

They had but one thin blue kimono each, for all their other clothes had been sold to buy food; and they had nowhere to go. There was a temple of Kwannon not far away, but the snow was too high for them to reach it. So when the landlord was gone, they crept back behind the house. There the drowsiness of cold fell upon them, and they slept, embracing each other to keep warm. And while they slept, the gods covered them with a new futon - ghostly-white and very beautiful. And they did not feel cold any more. For many days they slept there; then somebody found them, and a bed was made for them in the hakaba of the Temple of Kwannon-of-the- Thousand-Arms.

And the innkeeper, having heard these things, gave the futon to the priests of the temple, and caused the kyo to be recited for the little souls. And the futon ceased thereafter to speak.


One legend recalls another; and I hear to-night many strange ones. The most remarkable is a tale which my attendant suddenly remembers - a legend of Izumo.

Once there lived in the Izumo village called Mochida-noura a peasant who was so poor that he was afraid to have children. And each time that his wife bore him a child he cast it into the river, and pretended that it had been born dead. Sometimes it was a son, sometimes a daughter; but always the infant was thrown into the river at night. Six were murdered thus.

But, as the years passed, the peasant found himself more prosperous. He had been able to purchase land and to lay by money. And at last his wife bore him a seventh - a boy.

Then the man said: 'Now we can support a child, and we shall need a son to aid us when we are old. And this boy is beautiful. So we will bring him up.'

And the infant thrived; and each day the hard peasant wondered more at his own heart - for each day he knew that he loved his son more.

One summer's night he walked out into his garden, carrying his child in his arms. The little one was five months old.

And the night was so beautiful, with its great moon, that the peasant cried out - 'Aa! kon ya med xurashii e yo da!' [Ah! to-night truly a wondrously beautiful night is!]

Then the infant, looking up into his face and speaking the speech of a man, said - 'Why, father! the LAST time you threw me away the night was just like this, and the moon looked just the same, did it not?' [7] And thereafter the child remained as other children of the same age, and spoke no word.

The peasant became a monk.


After the supper and the bath, feeling too warm to sleep, I wander out alone to visit the village hakaba, a long cemetery upon a sandhill, or rather a prodigious dune, thinly covered at its summit with soil, but revealing through its crumbling flanks the story of its creation by ancient tides, mightier than tides of to-day.

I wade to my knees in sand to reach the cemetery. It is a warm moonlight night, with a great breeze. There are many bon-lanterns (bondoro), but the sea-wind has blown out most of them; only a few here and there still shed a soft white glow - pretty shrine-shaped cases of wood, with apertures of symbolic outline, covered with white paper. Visitors beside myself there are none, for it is late. But much gentle work has been done here to-day, for all the bamboo vases have been furnished with fresh flowers or sprays, and the water basins filled with fresh water, and the monuments cleansed and beautified. And in the farthest nook of the cemetery I find, before one very humble tomb, a pretty zen or lacquered dining tray, covered with dishes and bowls containing a perfect dainty little Japanese repast. There is also a pair of new chopsticks, and a little cup of tea, and some of the dishes are still warm. A loving woman's work; the prints of her little sandals are fresh upon the path.


There is an Irish folk-saying that any dream may be remembered if the dreamer, after awakening, forbear to scratch his head in the effort to recall it. But should he forget this precaution, never can the dream be brought back to memory: as well try to re-form the curlings of a smoke- wreath blown away.

Nine hundred and ninety-nine of a thousand dreams are indeed hopelessly evaporative. But certain rare dreams, which come when fancy has been strangely impressed by unfamiliar experiences - dreams particularly apt to occur in time of travel - remain in recollection, imaged with all the vividness of real events.

Of such was the dream I dreamed at Hamamura, after having seen and heard those things previously written down.

Some pale broad paved place - perhaps the thought of a temple court - tinted by a faint sun; and before me a woman, neither young nor old, seated at the base of a great grey pedestal that supported I know not what, for I could look only at the woman's face. Awhile I thought that I remembered her - a woman of Izumo; then she seemed a weirdness. Her lips were moving, but her eyes remained closed, and I could not choose but look at her.

And in a voice that seemed to come thin through distance of years she began a soft wailing chant; and, as I listened, vague memories came to me of a Celtic lullaby. And as she sang, she loosed with one hand her long black hair, till it fell coiling upon the stones. And, having fallen, it was no longer black, but blue - pale day-blue - and was moving sinuously, crawling with swift blue ripplings to and fro. And then, suddenly, I became aware that the ripplings were far, very far away, and that the woman was gone. There was only the sea, blue-billowing to the verge of heaven, with long slow flashings of soundless surf.

And wakening, I heard in the night the muttering of the real sea - the vast husky speech of the Hotoke-umi - the Tide of the Returning Ghosts.