A Tale from Japan
Edited by Fran Stallings, as retold by Toshiko Endo
In Taira on Mount Azuma, right where the Amado River and the Arakawa River meet, there once was a big, big Sugi tree (Cryptomeria, a Japanese cedar). It was such a magnificent tree that the morning sun cast its shadow to the foot of Mount Azuma. In the evening, its shadow reached to the Abukuma River beach. That’s was how magnificent the Sugi tree was.
In those days, there were many fine trees famous in the area, such as Willow in Shimizu, Cherry in Shiratsu, and Camellia in Yakata. When the wind blew from the west, their chatting came from the west. When it blew from the south, their chatting came from the south. When there was no wind, they asked the birds to send their messages. They were all living happily together. And the Sugi tree, so old that nobody could tell when it had come out of the ground, was the leader of them all.
By the Sugi tree, there was a big mansion of a Choja-sama (a village head-man). And there, a beautiful baby girl was born. She was such a beautiful baby.
Her parents discussed what to name her.”Her skin is as white as snow. Let’s name her Yuki (snow).”
“But snow isn’t so nice, because it melts quickly under the sun. She is as beautiful as a flower, so let’s name her Hana (flower).”
“No, flowers aren’t so nice, because they fade quickly. Hana would not portend a long and healthy life. What should we name her?”
“Well you know, the Orosugi (Old King Sugi) standing over there is said to have been there for hundreds and thousands of years. What do you think about naming her Orosu after that tree?”
“Yes, that’s a good idea.”
So she was named Orosu. At eight or nine, she was already a fine looking girl. Her parents brought her up with great care, never let her out in the wind or the sun. Within a few more years, she became a beauty surpassing all other young women in the area. From near and far, a lot of men came seeking her hand. Some asked to take her to wife, and some asked to marry into her family. Some even offered to marry into her family with a dowry of 1000 Cho (see notes) of rice-field. But when the man’s family was a good match, the man himself was not good enough. When the man himself was good enough, his family wasn’t a good match. Still waiting for her parents to decide on a husband for her, she turned sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen.
Every morning, Orosu used to come to her parents’ room to wake them up.”Good morning, Mother and Father,” she would call them with her beautiful voice like a bush warbler. So even when they were already awake, they would wait for her in their futon. But one morning, she didn’t come.
“What’s the matter with Orosu this morning? Is she sick?”
They waited for a little longer, but couldn’t wait any more. So they went to her room. She was in her futon. Her face was pale.
“Orosu, are you feeling sick?” they asked, and she said yes.
“Then you had better stay in bed today,” they told her. But when the evening came, she became uneasy, combing her hair and adjusting the kimono around her hips.
“What’s wrong with her?” they wondered.
Her room was in the deepest part of the house. That night, her mother woke up and heard some chatting voices from her room.
“How strange! What is it?” she wondered.
She quietly slid the fusuma (sliding door) a little. She saw a beautiful young man sitting right by Orosu, talking intimately with her.
“What a handsome young man! I’ve never seen such a fine man in this area. How did he get in? This house is well locked, all the doors and gates. How could he get in?” she wondered. But she didn’t ask.”Orosu is old enough to have a man visiting her.” She withdrew to her room.
After a while, something seemed to be different about their daughter.
“We’ve noticed someone is visiting you these days. Who is that man?” they asked.
She said she didn’t know.
“You must know it! You have to ask him his name and where he lives,” they told her.
“I’ve asked him. But he wouldn’t tell,” said Orosu.
“Well then, ” they thought, “we can do nothing about that. We will know it soon or later.”
But something serious was happening. Their precious daughter’s belly started growing bigger.
“We can’t wait any more. Orosu has got to ask him.” They told her to ask him. And she did.
She put it mildly like this, “So, where do you live?” But after this, the man stopped visiting her. They had been so intimate, and now the man stopped coming.
She missed him terribly. She became sick and pale, and retired to her futon.
Her parents were very worried, but didn’t know what to do.
After she became sick, the man started visiting her again. He sat by Orosu, cooled her head with a damp towel, massaged her hands, and left in the early morning.
“What should we do? We don’t know who he is, or when he is coming. We don’t know what to do,” her parents worried.
In those days, there were thirty-three temples on top of Shiratsu, and great monks were studying and training there. Sometimes they came down to the village and asked for rice and miso. One of them came to Choja-sama’s house one day. So they asked the monk,”Would you listen to our story and give us advice?” And they told him their problem.
He listened and said,”I’m still in training, but I will ask my superior monk.”
Next day, he came down and told them,”The superior monk said that if the man doesn’t tell you his name and where he is from, he may be an evil spirit. Tell your daughter to pin a threaded needle at the bottom of his hakama (trousers) when he visits her again.” And he left.
The mother had a loom. She pulled a thread from it and rolled and rolled it into a big ball. They told their daughter what to do with it. She said yes in her futon.
The night came, and it was after midnight when they heard very low voices coming from her room. The man was saying he wouldn’t be able to visit her any more. Then he disappeared.
The next morning, they started following the thread. To their surprise, it went through a little hole in a wooden shutter. From the hole in the shutter, it went over Tukiji (note: reclaimed land) and went further and further, further and further, and finally, they found the needle stuck into the bottom of the Orosugi tree and the thread wrapped around it.
“No one, no human being, can do this. It was this Sugi tree. We wanted the very best name for our daughter. Hana wasn’t good enough, and Yuki wasn’t good enough. So we named her Orosu. But that was wrong. She became the beloved of the Sugi tree.”
They resigned themselves to giving their daughter as an offering to the tree.
But people in the area were alarmed when they heard this.”No matter how old and precious the tree is, we don’t want it to turn into a man and seduce a human girl. What will happen next? We have no choice but to cut it down.” It was their conclusion.
When Orosu heard this, she turned paler. She didn’t care that he was really a Sugi tree, he was the man she loved so much. She cried every day. Her parents explained to her,”If we don’t cut it down, we won’t be able to save your life. Cutting it will break its attachment to you, and you can live.”
First, a great monk gave a prayer. All the people in the area gathered and hung a sacred straw garland around the tree, and then they started cutting the tree. They chopped the whole day. But when they returned to finish the job the next day, they found the tree intact. There wasn’t even a knick to be seen. The bark was completely whole.”How strange! We thought we cut the tree yesterday. Was it a dream? But it’s impossible that all of us saw the same dream.”
They chopped at the tree again, hoping they were cutting it for real this time. But next day, they all went back there only to find the tree intact again.”This Sugi tree surely has a stong spirit. If we do this wrongly, it will curse us. It’s too scary.” The villagers said they didn’t want to cut it and they all went home.
Even so, they knew that the only way to save Orosu was to cut the Sugi tree down. Besides, the villagers worried about their own daughters. Should Orosu die, the tree spirit might come next to one of the other village maidens.”By all means, we have to cut it down.”
This time, they hired woodcutters from a village far away across the river. They cut at the tree, only to find it back together again the next day.”We can’t do it. This tree surely has an evil spirit. We had better leave it alone.” Saying so, they all returned to their village.
Orosu’s father couldn’t sleep. Wondering what to do, he was turning from side to side in his futon. After midnight, he heard somebody knocking on the wooden shutters of his room.”Who on earth visits people at this time of the day?” he wondered.
“Who is it?” he asked aloud.
“I’m too humble to bother you with my name. I just came here to tell you something,” was the reply.
“Very well, then please come in.”
“I can’t show you my face. I want you to come out here, please.”
The father felt nervous, and was going to bring a light. But the visitor asked him not to.
“I came to tell you how to save your daughter’s life.”
The father would do anything to save his daughter. He jumped out onto the veranda and asked the visitor,”What is it? Who are you?”
The man said,”I came here because I was shamed. No one must see me, but I wanted to give away their secret.”
“What is it?” asked the father.
“Day after day, you hire dozens of people and try to cut that Sugi tree. But even if you chop for years, you won’t keep even a single woodchip out of it. Because every night, all the trees in this Shindatsu area come to it and pick up all the woodchips and the barkchips. ‘This one goes back here, and that one goes back there,’ they say, and put them back all together. When the morning comes, the tree is all in one piece again. So no matter how long you try, you can’t cut it down.”
The father asked him,”Why are you telling me this?”
“Well, my name is Toyogi (a kind of weed). All the trees around this area were saying ‘Orosugi-sama is wounded! It’s horrible, it’s horrible!’ Night after night, all the trees, even nameless bushes, even Hagi (Japanese bush clover), went to fix him. I look like a grass, but because my name is Toyogi (note: Toyo=tree), I thought I might be some kind of tree. I thought I should go to help him, too. So I went there and told them that I came to help. “You don’t belong to the tree family. You are a grass,’ Kusagi (a kind of tree only 3 meters tall) told me! I couldn’t stand being embarrassed by such a low class tree. I just couldn’t stand it, so I came here to tell you the secret.”
“All right, I see, but is there any way we can cut it down?” asked the father.
“Well, make a fire by the tree, and when you cut out a piece, put it in the fire. That way, the trees that come at night won’t be able to fix him. I think you can cut him down that way. What do you think?” asked Toyogi.
“I appreciate that. Thank you very much,” the father thanked Toyogi. Then Toyogi disappeared, and the father went back to his futon and slept. Next morning, he woke up and thought,”Was it a dream? I thought a weed Toyogi came here. Was he really here? He told me of trees coming to fix the wounded tree. But I have never heard of such things. What should I think about this?”
He put on his zori (formal sandals) and went up to the temple on Shiratsu. He told the story to the holy priest there.”I’m not sure if it was a dream or real, but that’s what I heard.”
Then the priest said,”It must be true. It makes sense. You had better try it right away.”
So the father called out people again and explained to them. They decided to try again. This time, they made a big fire by the tree. Every time they got a woodchip, they prayed and put it into the fire. Next day, when they came back to the tree, they found the tree still as it was when they had left it the evening before. They rekindled the fire and cut the tree again. They kept at it day after day. I don’t know how long it took to cut down the tree. Because it was such a big tree, I’m pretty sure it took weeks, or even a month.
Finally the tree was about to fall. Pale Orosu watched it crash, her tears falling in drops.
Since it was a tree with such a strong spirit, people didn’t want to waste it in the making of small boats.”Every year, the bridge down Sugawa River is washed away by the flood of Arakawa River. We have not been able to make a bridge strong enough to withstand the floods. This Sugi tree would make a sturdy bridge if its spirit were successfully persuaded. And that way, its second life would be calm and quiet.”
They tried to carry it down the mountain. But it didn’t move an inch.
They hired people from across the river and over the mountains. Hundreds of people pulled ropes tied around the trunk, shouting with one voice. But it didn’t move even an inch.
The elders said,”The tree is still attached to Orosu. That’s why it doesn’t move. Perhaps we should ask Orosu to come and go with the tree?”
The father couldn’t say no. He told his pale daughter, who was in futon. She agreed, got herself ready, and came out.
Maybe she thought it was her last time to see her lover. She had her hair done beautifully, and wore beautiful kimono and zori with red thongs. When she came out holding her father’s hand, she looked so beautiful and graceful, not even the most beautiful bride in the whole world would be a match for her.
Orosu came and touched the fallen tree.”I’will stay with you, so please come with me,” she said and touched it gently. The trunk, which hundreds of people couldn’t move at all, started moving by itself. Orosu kept telling it,”I’m coming with you, I’m coming with you,” and touched it gently again and again. She brought it all the way down to the river.
From this wood, people built the bridge that you see today, down at the Sugawa River. It was very sturdy. Thanks to the bridge, crossing the river became a lot easier. Without being washed away, it has been there for a long time.
By the way, Orosu gave birth to two babies. They were twins. But they didn’t grow well, and they died soon. Futagotsuka (name of a place, meaning “twins’ mound”) is where they were buried. A little while later, Orosu followed the twins in death.
After that, people started hearing voices chatting at the foot of the bridge. Sometimes, they heard some giggling, too.”Orosu’s spirit went to the bridge, to the Sugi tree. They are back together and living happily now,” people said. And they would put their hands together in a prayer of thanks when they crossed the bridge.
- Azuma is the name of a mountain east of Fukushima-city. “Taira” is not a place, it is a flat area in the mountain. Shimizu, Shiratsu, Yakata are all in Fukushima city.
- Orosugi is written with three Chinese characters, Oh (King), roh (Old) , and Sugi (Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria) = “Old King Cryptomeria,” but here it is pronounced “Orosugi.” For the girl’s name, it was shortened to “Orosu.” .
- A dowry of 1000 Cho. (1 Cho was about 10,000 square meters, ie 100x100m)
Ordinarily a woman brought a dowry and married into her husband’s family, taking his family name. Penniless men sometimes took the bride’s family name. For a man to marry into a woman’s family AND bring a dowry indicates extraordinary motivation!
I think this story probably has very ancient roots parallel to European myths of tree spirits. Perhaps our human spirits feel kinship with trees, tall and upright like our own bipedal form, with huggable “trunks,” graceful “limbs,” and whispering voices. Yet trees are alien and unattainable: the stories never end with a conventionally happy relationship.
Such melancholy endings do not bother the Japanese, who highly esteem “a-wa-re” (often translated “pity” or “compassion”) as an aesthetic value. A happy-ever-after ending would ruin that.
This version of the story is embellished with word play, which characterizes much Japanese folklore. Other versions do not give the girl a name which predestines her to an ill-omened connection with the tree.
I heard a simpler version of this story from Hiroko Fujita in March 2000. We had an afternoon off during a week’s work with Kevin Cordi and colleagues in the Hanford CA area, so we paid a visit to General Sherman in California’s Sequoia National Park. She told me this story during the long drive back to Hanford.
Fujita-san says she heard it in Japan from elderly folkteller Toshiko Endo, who (like Fujita-san) grew up in rural Fukushima Prefecture hearing oral traditional tales from elders. Fujita-san was able to tape record and transcribe about 200 of Endo-san’s stories, and hear another 200, before the elder woman suffered a paralytic stroke which left her aphasic.
When I asked Fujita-san for permission to post my remembered synopsis on this website, she insisted instead on sending this unpublished transcription. The rough English translation was done for us by Makiko Ishibashi. I did a little polishing on the text.
Fujita-san told me that the legendary wooden bridge has been replaced by a modern steel one, but a piece of the wood is preserved in a riverside museum.
“The Pine of Akoya” in The Solstice Evergreen: History, Folklore and origins of the Christmas by Sheryl Ann Karas. (Aslan Publishing, 1991) cited by Cristy West.
The heroine’s name is Akoya and her father is Fujiwara Toyomitsu, the governor of the prefecture of Uzen. She plays a koto. In response to her music, a man with a flute introduces himself—Natori Taro is his name. They fall in love. He disappears. She is in despair. Then a bridge is to be built over the Natori River, to replace one that has been swept away. A huge pine tree is chosen at the foot of Mt. Chitose. But after it’s cut down, no one can move it. Until Akoya comes to help—and then it moves easily. She never marries and lives by the stump of the felled tree and eventually a young tree grows up. “To this day an old tree stands at the foot of Mt. Chitose, in the suburbs of Yamagata-shi.” synopsis by Cristy West:
“The Pine of Akoya” in Mysterious Tales of Japan retold by Rafe Martin, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996, seems essentailly identical to the above except that Martin added the reappearance of the flute, with the lovers’ names carved in it. Martin based his retelling on a version in Richard Dorson’s Folk-Legends of Japan, which is in turn based on Too Ibun (Strange Things Heard from the Eastern Districts of Oshu) collected by Kizen Sasaki.
Dorson seems to be the primary source of the versions currently available in English. Note that it locates the tale in a different Prefecture. Like American legends of “crybaby bridges,” this story seems to have taken root in various places.
About the Contributor
Fran Stallings is a versatile storyteller, environmental educator, and author who conducts workshops, residencies and festival performances nationwide. Every spring she tours America with Japanese collaborator Hiroko Fujita, the source for the tale offered here. To learn more about Fran and her work, please visit her website at: www.franstallings.com.