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Ancient Tales and Folk-lore of Japan, by Richard Gordon Smith, [1918], at

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WHILE up fishing on Lake Biwa, and later shooting in the vicinity (shooting is not allowed on the lake itself, the water being considered a holy place), I often made Zeze my head-quarters. At the edge of the lake, just there, stands the cottage of an old old fisherman and his sons. They have made a little harbour for their boats; but they cultivate no ground, their cottage standing in wild grass near a solitary willow. The reason of this is that they are rich, or comparatively so, being the owners of an immense fish-trap, which runs out into the lake nearly a mile, and is a disgrace to all civilised ideas of conservation. They bought the rights from the Daimio, who owned Zeze Castle a hundred years or more ago (this is my own guess at the date, for I never asked or noted it). The trap catches enough to keep the whole of four families comfortable.

Two or three interesting little legends (truths the old

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senior fisherman called them) I got, either from himself or from his son while visiting his trap, or sitting under his willow, fishing myself—for stories.

'Surely the Danna San could not be interested in the simple old stories of bygone days? Even my sons do not care for them nowadays!'

'I care for anything of interest,' I said. 'And you will greatly please me by telling me any fishermen's legends of hereabouts, or even of the north-western end of the lake if you know any.'

'Well, there is our Fire Ball,' said the old fisherman. That is a curious and unpleasant thing. I have seen it many times myself. I will begin with that.'

8. The Fire-Ball or 'Shito Dama' of Akechi
Click to enlarge

8. The Fire-Ball or 'Shito Dama' of Akechi


'Many years ago there was a Daimio who had constructed at the foot of the southern spur of Mount Hiyei a castle, the ruins of which may still be seen just to the north of the military barracks of the Ninth Regiment in Otsu. The name of the Daimio was Akechi Mitsuhide, and it is his shito dama that we see now in wet weather on the lake. It is called the spirit of Akechi.

'The reason of it is this. When Akechi Mitsuhide defended himself against the Toyotomi, he was closely invested; but his castle held out bravely, and could not be taken in spite of Toyotomi's greater forces. As time went on, the besiegers became exasperated, and prevailed upon a bad fisherman from Magisa village to tell where was the source of water which supplied Akechi's castle. The water having been cut off, the garrison had to

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capitulate, but not before Akechi and most of his men had committed suicide.

'From that time, in rain or in rough weather, there has come from the castle a fire-ball, six inches in diameter or more. It comes to wreak vengeance on fishermen, and causes many wrecks, leading boats out of their course. Sometimes it comes almost into the boat. Once a fisherman struck it with a bamboo pole, breaking it up into many fiery bits; and on that occasion many boats were lost.

'In full it is called "The Spider Fire of the Spirit of the Dead Akechi." That is all, sir, that I can tell of it—except that often have I seen it myself, and feared it.'

'That is very interesting,' said I, 'and quite what I like. Can you tell me any more?'

'Perhaps, if Danna San found interest in that simple story, he would like to know the reason of why we always have such a terrible storm over the lake on February 25: so I will tell of that also.'

9. O Tani San's Tub Gets Swamped
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9. O Tani San's Tub Gets Swamped


'Long ago there lived in the village of Komatsu, on the south-eastern side of the lake, a beautiful girl called O Tani. She was the daughter of a wealthy farmer, and of a studious nature as far as it was possible for a girl to be so in those days; that is to say, she was for ever wishing to learn and to know things which were not always within the province of women to know. With the intention of inquiring and learning, she frequently crossed the lake in a boat alone, to visit a certain talented and clever young

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monk, who was the chief priest at one of the smaller temples situated at the foot of Mount Hiyei San, just over there where you are looking now.

'So deeply impressed was O Tani San with the priest's knowledge, she lost her heart and fell in love with him. Her visits became more frequent. Often she crossed the lake alone, in spite of her parents' protests, when the waves were too high for the safety even of a hardy fisherman like myself.

'At last O Tani could resist no longer. She felt that she must tell the good priest of her love for him, and see if she could not persuade him to renounce the Church and run away with her.

'The monk was greatly sorrowed, and did not quite know what to say, or how to put the girl off. At last he thought that he would give her an impossible task. Knowing that the weather on Lake Biwa towards the end of February is nearly impossible as far as the navigation of small boats is concerned, he said, probably not for a moment meaning it seriously:

'"O Tani San, if you successfully crossed the lake on the evening of February 25 in a washing-tub, it might be possible that I should cast off my robes and forget my calling to carry out your wishes."

'O Tani did not think of the impossible, nor did she quite understand the depth of the priest's meaning; young and foolish as she was with her blind love, she sculled herself home, thinking that the next time she crossed the lake it would be in the washing-tub and to carry off the young priest as her husband. She was supremely happy.

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'At last the 25th of February arrived. O Tani had taken care that the best and largest washing-tub had been left near the borders of the lake. After dark she embarked in her frail craft, and without the least fear started.

'When she was about half-way across a fearful storm broke over Hiyei Mountain. The waves arose, and the wind blew with blinding force. Moreover, the light that was usually burning on the Hiyei San side of the lake, which the priest had promised should be especially bright this night, had been blown out. It was not long before poor O Tani's tub was capsized, and in spite of her efforts to keep afloat she sank beneath the waves to rise no more.

'It is said by some that the priest himself put out the light, so as to cut off the last possible chance of O Tani's reaching the shore, being over-zealous in his thoughts of good and evil.

'Since the night that O Tani was drowned, every 25th of February has been wild and stormy, and fishermen fear to be out on that day. People say that the cause is the dissatisfied spirit of poor O Tani, who, though she did not fear death, died disconsolate at being deceived by the monk she loved.

'The washing-tub that O Tani used drifted ashore at Kinohama village, in Eastern Omi. It was picked up by Gensuke, a match-maker, who split it up and made matches of it. When this became known to the villagers of Kinohama, including Gensuke himself, they resolved that every 25th of February should be a holiday, and that a prayer should be said at their shrine for the spirit of

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[paragraph continues] O Tani. They call the day "Joya" (Dealer in Matches Festival), and on it no men work.'

'That is a capital story,' said I to the old fisherman; 'but I should greatly have liked to put the monk in another tub on the following 25th of February, and anchored him out, so that he should be sure of being drowned in the same way.'

'Does the Danna San know why all the little papers are tied in the black rocks at Ishiyama-dera?'

'No: I do not,' I answered; 'and, moreover, when I went there no one would or could tell me.'

'Well, it is not an uninteresting story, and I will tell it to you, for it is short.'

10. The Black Rocks at Ishiyama-dera Where Prayers Are Tied
Click to enlarge

10. The Black Rocks at Ishiyama-dera Where Prayers Are Tied


'As the Danna San has been to Ishiyama-dera, he will know about the temple and monastery, which has a history eleven hundred years long; 1 but few people know the real reason why the bits of paper with prayers on them are tied to the black rocks.

'The origin or the reason of tying these paper prayers—musubi no kami, as they are called—is pretty, if suicide for the romance of love can make it so.

'Many years ago in Baba Street of Otsu, then known as Shibaya Street, there was a teahouse called Kagiya, which kept very beautiful geisha. Among them was one, named O Taga hana, whose loveliness surpassed all imagination. Though scarcely seventeen, her heart was

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no longer her own. It had gone as completely to her lover Denbei as had his to her. It is difficult to imagine how this desperate affair came about at first, for Denbei was only the clerk of a rice-merchant in Otsu, and had but little money to spend on geisha, especially in such an expensive teahouse as Kagiya.

'Jealousy and unhappiness crept . into the heart of Denbei, not on account of any unfaithfulness on the part of O Taga hana San, but because he felt jealous of others being well enough off to go to the Kagiya teahouse and hear her sing and see her dance while they ate costly dinners.

'So much did these sorrows tell upon Denbei's heart at last, he used to falsify his master's account-books, frequently taking money, which he spent, of course, at the Kagiya teahouse in seeing the beloved O Taga hana.

'This state of affairs could not last long, and when Denbei told O Taga hana how he had procured the money to come and see her she was shocked beyond measure.

'"My dearest," she said, "the wrong which you have done out of love for me is sure to be discovered, and even were it not it would be wrong. Our love is so great that there remains but one chance for our future happiness—shinju (suicide together). Nothing else will enable us to become united, for if I ran away with you they would soon recapture me, most probably before a day and night had passed."

'"Will you leave with me to-night?" said Denbei.

'"I will meet you at two o'clock in the morning, when all are asleep, down at the flat-growing pine tree near

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the east end of the town. From there we will go to Ishiyama-dera, and after praying at that holy temple to our good Kwannon we will do shinju in the Hotaru Dani (Firefly Valley), and our souls will depart together."

'Denbei bowed to his sweetheart, and spoke words of gratitude for her faithfulness in recognising his love for her as the cause of his sin, and he promised that at the appointed hour he would meet her by the pine tree near the lake and take her off to Ishiyama, there to carry out their final act and die together.

'To save time, Danna San, in telling this story it is only necessary to say that Denbei and O Taga hana met, and that, after passing over the flat and uninteresting plain known as Awatsu, they reached and passed the Seta Bridge, and that shortly after, about daybreak, they found themselves at Ishiyama. There, in one of the teahouses, they remained some hours in bliss, and then went to the temple to pray to Kwannon. Then they went to the Hotaru Dani, and, after embracing each other for the last time on this earth, they each wrote a prayer on a piece of paper, twisted it into a piece of string, and fastened it in a double knot with their thumbs and little fingers through a small hole bored in the soft black rocks. Their being able to do this successfully was taken as an omen that all would be well with them after death, and was an answer to their prayer.

'Their spirits passed away together, just as the leaves of fragrant flowers blown off by autumn winds pass together under Seta Bridge.

'That, Danna San, is the origin and reason of tying

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these pieces of paper to the black rocks and other places at Ishiyama-dera. The custom is still followed by many country folks, who go to worship and pray for the spirits of Denbei and O Taga hana in the Firefly Valley itself.'


52:1 The temple was founded A.D. 749 by the monk Ryoben Sojo at the command of the Emperor Shomei. It is the thirteenth of the Thirty-Three Holy Places.

Next: VIII. A Miraculous Sword