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Nara legends, myths and other weird tales

by Steve Finbow

From May 1974 until March 1985, Kenji Inui wrote the column “Hometown Legends” for the prefectural news magazine Kensei Nara.

LEGENDS OF NARA, by Inui Kenji. Translated by Matthew J. Eynon and Teruko Takamiya. Nara Newspaper, 2010, 259 pp., ¥1,800 (paper)

Published on the 1300th anniversary of Empress Gemmei’s establishment of Heijo-kyo as the capital at the beginning of the Nara Period, “Legends of Nara” contains 124 tales of history, legend and culture collected from Kenji Inui’s serialized stories. Illustrated with artwork by Isao Takechi, which accompanied the original newspaper articles, the stories are of emperors and empresses, ordinary people and gods, success and failure, rebellion and war. Nara and its citizens are traced from pre-history to the 20th century.

The book opens with a cautionary tale. During the Yamato Period (300-710), all people over 60 years of age were banished to die on Mount Yoshino, the vain feudal lord disliking the appearance of old people. Soon after the declaration, a foreigner arrived to test the intelligence of Japan’s inhabitants and asked them to solve three riddles. The inhabitants of Yamato could not do so and had to turn to their abandoned parents for help. Tales of wisdom and charity, deer and eels, tax officials and tax dodging, piety and philosophy follow this moral story, most containing a lesson or a warning. There are also potted biographies of gods, priests, and ordinary people who have experienced minor miracles, awakenings, devoutness, or love.

Other tales tell us about the naming of mountains, rivers and temples, and there is a humorous yet stomach-turning account of the Empress Komyo (701-760) building a steam bath in Hokke-ji Temple large enough to wash the filth from one-thousand people — the thousandth suffering from a condition involving pus-filled purple pimples that need to be sucked clean by a woman.

Reading these tales, it is interesting to note how legends from different places and times are similar in structure and story. The tale of Bishop Roben of Todai-ji, discovered by monks on the branch of a cedar tree after being delivered there by an eagle, has parallels in the eagle and child myths of France and Norway. The story of the search for the fragrant fruit of eternal youth is similar to the Norse myth of Idunn and various stories in Ovid’s tales.

Not all of the legends are mythical. Some tell of the origins of male and female sumo wrestling, the husbandry of watermelons, and delicacies such as Nara steamed buns, smoke-dried plums and Gosho persimmons.

Taken from historical documents such as “Genko shakusho,” “Nihonshoki,” “Nihon ryoiki,” “Nippon no minwa,” and “Kojiki,” plus innumerable novels, histories, guides, records, and oral narratives, “Legends of Nara” provides the reader with a series of non-connected tales that make up a comprehensive history of the area.

The stories range from the practical to the superstitious, superbly rendered by the translators in easy-to-read, bite-size narratives, a book one can dip into and return to at leisure.

One of my favorite stories in the collection concerns Inada Heibu who, in the Edo Period (1603-1868), spent years making a geocentric globe to explain the seasons and eclipses to the local people. Twenty-four years later, his niece told him that the Copernican sun-centered theory of the solar system had superseded the Ptolemaic theory he had used to create his Earth-centered model. He spent the rest of his life building a heliocentric orrery, which he took on tour to schools around Japan.

“Legends of Nara” contains many such narrative gems, a short history of remarkable things, the book is an attractive rattle-bag of myth and event and a good accompaniment to any factual guide to the area.