Focusing on images taken while visiting the beautiful Arashiyama Bamboo Forest in Kyoto I looked for a story to tell. After a bit of research, I came across the most beautiful fairy tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.
This tale is considered to be the oldest surviving monogatari, a fictional prose narrative which contains elements of Japanese Folklore. A manuscript dating back to 1592 has been found although the author is unknown.
Using this as inspiration I took up the challenge of creating some illustrations using only images taken while visiting Japan. This has proven to be a much larger undertaking than I originally expected but, at the same time, has probably been one of my most enjoyable Photographic ventures.
I set out the story below in a summarised form along with images depicting scenes as I visualise them to be. The story is incredibly rich in mystery and imagery (hence the summarisation) and has been a joy to work with. I hope you enjoy both the tale and my accompanying interpretations.
The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter
Long ago there lived an old bamboo wood-cutter. He was very poor, sad and childless with no hope of rest from work until he died. Every day he would cut some bamboo, take it home and make it into various household articles to sell thereby generating a small income.
The little girl is found
One morning as usual he had gone out to his work, and having found a nice clump of bamboo, had set to work to cut some of them down. Suddenly the grove was flooded with a bright soft light, as if the full moon had risen over the spot. In astonishment, he saw that the brilliance was streaming from one bamboo. The light came from a hollow in the bamboo in which stood a tiny, exquisitely beautiful, little girl. He took home the little creature and, with his wife, brought her up as their own.
From this time onwards the old man often found gold and other precious stones in the notches of the bamboos when he hewed them down and cut them up. By degrees he became rich. He build himself a fine house and was no longer known as the poor bamboo wood-cutter but as a wealthy man.
After three months the girl was fully grown. She was of such beauty that they placed her behind screens like a princess. It seemed as if she were made of light for the house was filled with a soft shining. so that even in the dark of night it was like daytime.
They named her Princess Moonlight, as she gave forth so much light she might've been a daughter of the Moon God.
Fame spreads far and wide
For three days festivities were held to celebrate the naming of Princess Moonlight. The fame of the Princess's loveliness spread far and wide, and many were the suitors who desired to win her hand.
After waiting day after day, night after night, most of the men lost heart and hope and returned to their homes. All except five Knights. They wrote letters but no answer was returned. They then wrote poems telling her of their hopeless love which kept them from food, rest and their homes, to no avail.
The bamboo cutter eventually felt sorry for these faithful suitors. He told the Princess that he was anxious to see her safely and happily married before he died. The Princess expressed doubt that she was as beautiful as she was proclaimed to be and that any suitor's heart might change over time. The Princess said she would like to make further trials of their love before she would grant their request to meet with her.
The Five Suitors
The five warriors were to prove their love by each bringing her from distant countries something she desired to possess. She promised to marry whoever was successful in bringing her what she wanted.
- The First Knight was asked to bring her the stone bowl which had belonged to Buddha in India.
- The Second Knight was asked to go to the Mountain of Horai and to bring her a branch of the wonderful tree that grew on its summit. The roots of this tree were of silver, the trunk of gold, and the branches bore as fruit white jewels.
- The Third Knight was told to go to China and search for the fire rat and to bring her its skin
- The Fourth Knight was told to search for the dragon that carried the stone radiating five colours on its head and bring it to her.
- The Fifth Knight was to find the swallow that carried a shell in its stomach and bring it to her.
The First Knight
Lacking the courage to travel all the way to India for in those days travelling was very difficult and full of danger, the Knight went to one of the temples in Kyoto and took a stone bowl from one of the alters there, paying the priest a large sum of money in return. He then wrapped it in a cloth of gold and waited 3 years before returning to the old man.
Princess Moonlight took the down from its gold wrapping, expecting it to fill the room with light, but it did not shine at all, so she knew it was a sham and not the true bowl of Buddha. The Knight threw the bowl away and returned to his home in despair.
The Second Knight
The second Knight left his home and sent word to the Princess that he was setting out for Mount Horai to bring her a branch of the wonderful tree that grew on its summit.
He only allowed his servants halfway and then sent them back. He reached the seashore and embarked on a small ship, and after sailing for three days, he landed and employed carpenters to build him a house that no one other than he could access. He then shut himself up with six jewellers and endeavoured to make such a gold and silver branch as he thought would satisfy the Princess.
When the branch was finished he travelled home and tried to make himself look wearied with travel. He put the jewelled branch into a lacquer box and carried it to the bamboo cutter begging him to present it to the Princess.
After some persuasion, Princess Moonlight took the branch and looked at it carefully. She declared it impossible for the man to have obtained such a branch from the gold and silver tree from Mount Horai so quickly and declared it a fake.
The old man asked the Knight where he had found the branch. The man made up a long story involving storms in the Eastern Seas, landing ashore at a place inhabited by demons who threatened to kill and eat him. He then told how he made friends with those creatures who repaired his boat so that he could set sail again. After five hundred days at sea, he saw an island with a high mountain. He landed and wandered about for two or three days until he climbed to the summit and broke off a branch.
At this point in the story, the six unpaid jewellers arrived at the house and demanded to be paid for their labour. They said they had worked for a thousand days making the branch of gold, with its silver twigs and jewelled fruit. The Knight was thus found out. The Princess paid the jewellers liberally and sent the man on his way.
The Third Knight
The Third Knight had a friend in China. He promised his friend any amount of money if he could get him the desired article.
His friend sailed from China and once the news came that the ship was in port the Knight rode seven days on horseback to meet him. He handed his friend a large sum of money and received the fire rat's skin.
When he reached home he carefully put it in a box and sent it to the Princess while he waited outside for her answer.
The bamboo cutter took the box to the Princess. She said that before she would agree to see the Knight she must first test the skin by putting it into the fire.
She took off the wrapper and opened the box. She then threw the skin into the fire. The skin crackled and burnt up at once, and the princess knew that this man had not fulfilled his word. So the Third Knight failed also.
The Fourth Knight
The Fourth Knight was more enterprising than the rest. Instead of heading out himself, he ordered his servants to seek it out far and wide and not to return until they had found it.
His retainers believed the task to be impossible so they simply took a holiday travelling and enjoying pleasant places.
Thinking his retainers could not fail to find the dragon that carried the stone radiating five colours on its head he spent time working on his house fitting it up beautifully for the reception of the Princess.
After a year the Knight became desperate. Taking only two men he hired a ship and commanded the captain to go in search of the dragon. After only a few days at sea they encountered a great storm and were, at last, blown ashore in a strange land.
While he was thus stranded, his love for the Princess turned to anger and he blamed her for all the hardships he had undergone. He came to believe she had wished to kill him so that she might be rid of him.
When his servants returned they were surprised to find praise rather than displeasure awaiting them. The master said he was sick of adventure and would never visit the Princess's house again.
The Fifth Knight
Like all the rest, the Fifth Knight failed in his quest; he could not find the swallow's shell.
By this time fame of the Princess's beauty had reached the ears of the Emperor and he send one of the Court ladies to see if she really were as lovely as the report said; if so he would summon her to the palace to serve in his court.
Princess Moonlight refused to see the Court lady and told the old man that if she were forced to go to the Palace she would vanish from the earth. The Emperor then determined to go and see her himself.
The next day the Emperor travelled to the bamboo cutters house and went straight to the Princess. He then fell deeply in love with her and begged her to come to the Court. She again refused saying that if she were forced she would turn into a shadow. Her figure then began to fade. The Emperor then promised to leave her alone if she resumed her former shape which she did. He left with a sad heart. He then spent much of his time writing poems telling of his love and devotion. Although she refused to see him again she replied telling him gently that she could never marry anyone on this earth.
The Moon World
Night after night the Princess would graze for hours at the moon, in a spirit of dejection ending always in tears. One night the old man found her weeping as if her heart were broken. Through her tears she told him that she did not belong in the world, she had come from the moon and her time on earth would soon be over. It was time for her to leave her foster parents.
The Emperor heard of this and sent messengers to see if the reports were true. The old man confirmed the story and said that he would do all he could to prevent the Princess from being carried back by the moon envoys.
The Emperor sent two thousand warriors to watch the house and the bamboo cutter hid the Princess in an inner room. One night the yellow harvest moon rose in the heavens, flooding the world with a golden light. Suddenly the watchers saw a cloud form around the moon and, while they watched, the cloud rolled earthwards. In the midst of the cloud there stood a flying chariot, and in the chariot a band of luminous beings.
The Princess emerged shining in her own radiance, bright, wonderful and full of beauty. One of the moon beings held a wonderful coat of wings, another had a phial of the Elixir of Life which was given to the Princess to drink. She sipped a little then, thinking of the Emperor, wrote him a letter asking the old man to deliver both the letter and the remaining Elixir to the Emperor.
The chariot rolled heavenwards towards the moon.
Princess Moonlight's letter was carried to the Palace. His majesty was afraid to touch the ELixir, so he sent it with the letter t the top of the most sacred mountain in the land, Mount Fuji, and there the Royal emissaries burnt it on the summit at sunrise. To this day people say there is smoke to be seen rising from the top of Mount Fuji to the clouds.