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The Camphor Tree Tomb

The Camphor Tree Tomb


FIVE ri (ten miles) from Shirakawa, in the province of Iwaki, there is a village called Yabuki-mura. Close by is a grove some 400 feet square. The trees used to include a monster camphor nearly 150 feet in height, of untold age, and venerated by villagers and strangers alike as one of the greatest trees in Japan. A shrine was erected to it in the grove, which was known as the Nekoma-myojin forest; and a faithful old man, Hamada Tsushima, lived there, caring for the tree, the shrine, and the whole grove.

One day the tree was felled; but, instead of withering or dying, it continued to grow, and it is still flourishing, though lying on the ground. Poor Hamada Tsushima disemboweled himself when the sacred tree had been cut down. Perhaps it is because his spirit entered the sacred tree that the tree will not die. Here is the story:--

On the 17th of January in the third and last year of the Meireki period--that is, 1658--a great fire broke out in the Homyo-ji Temple, in the Maruyama Hongo district of Yedo, now Tokio. The fire spread with such rapidity that not only was that particular district burned, but also a full eighth of Yedo itself was destroyed. Many of the Daimios' houses and palaces were consumed. The Lord Date Tsunamune of Sendai, one of the three greatest Daimios (who were Satsuma, Kaga, Sendai), had the whole of his seven palaces and houses destroyed by the fire; the other Daimios or feudal lords lost only one or two.

Lord Date Tsunamune resolved to build the finest palace that could be designed. It was to be at Shinzenza, in Shiba. He ordered that no time should be lost, and directed one of his high officials, Harada Kai Naonori, to see to the matter.

Harada, accordingly, sent for the greatest house-building contractor of the day, one Kinokuniya Bunzaemon, and to him he said:

'You are aware that the fire has destroyed the whole of the town mansions of Lord Date Tsunamune. I am directed to see that the finest palace should be immediately built, second to none except the Shogun's. I have sent for you as the largest contractor in Yedo. What can you do? Just make some suggestions and give me your opinion.'

'Certainly, my Lord, I can make plenty of suggestions; but to build such a palace will cost an enormous amount of money, especially now after this fire, for there is a great scarcity of large timber in the land.'

'Never mind expenses,' said Harada. 'Those I shall pay as you like and when you like; I will even advance money if you want it.'

'Oh, then,' answered the delighted contractor, 'I will start immediately. What would you think of having a palace like that of Kinkakuji in Kyoto, which was built by the Shogun Ashikaga? What I should build would be a finer mansion than that of the present Shogun--let alone those of any Daimio. The whole of the hagi [354:1] to be made out of the rarest woods; the tokobashira [354:2] to be of the nanten, and ceilings of unjointed camphor-tree boards, should we be able to find a tree of sufficient size. I can find nearly everything, except the last, in my own stocks; the camphor trees are difficult. There are but few; they are mostly sacred, and dangerous to interfere with or obtain. I know of one in the forest of Nekoma-myojin, in Iwaki Province. If I can get that tree, I should indeed be able to make an unjointed ceiling, and that would completely put other palaces and mansions in the second rank.'

'Well, well, I must leave all this to you,' said Harada. 'You know that no expense need be spared so long as you produce speedily what is required by Lord Date Tsunamune.'

The contractor bowed low, saying that he should set to and do his best; and he left, no doubt, delighted at so open a contract, which would enable him to fill his pockets. He set about making inquiries in every direction, and became convinced that the only camphor tree that would suit his purpose was the one before referred to--owing chiefly to its great breadth. Kinokuniya knew also that the part of the district wherein lay this tree belonged to or was under the management of Fujieda Geki, now in the Honjo district of Yedo acting as a Shogun's retainer, well off (receiving 1200 koku of rice a year), but not over scrupulous about money, of which he was always in need.

Contractor Kinokuniya soon learned all about the man, and then went to call.

'Your name is Kinokuniya Bunzaemon, I believe. What, may I ask, do you wish to see me about?' said Fujieda.

'Sir,' said the contractor, bowing low, 'it is as you say. My name is Kinokuniya Bunzaemon, and I am a wood contractor of whom perhaps your Lordship has heard, for I have built and supplied the wood for many mansions and palaces. I come here craving assistance in the way of permission to cut trees in a small forest called Nekoma-myojin, near the village called Yabukimura, in the Sendai district.'

The contractor did not tell Fujieda Geki, the Shogun's retainer or agent, that he was to build a mansion for the Daimio Date Tsunamune, and that the wood which he wanted to cut was within that Daimio's domains. For he knew full well that the Lord Date would never give him permission to cut a holy tree. It was an excellent idea to take the Daimio's trees by the help of the Shogun's agent, and charge for them fully afterwards. So he continued:

'I can assure you, sir, this recent fire has cleared the whole market of wood. If you will assist me to get what I want I will build you a new house for nothing, and by way of showing my appreciation I ask you to accept this small gift of yen zoo, which is only a little beginning.'

'You need not trouble with these small details,' said the delighted agent, pocketing the money, 'but do as you wish. I will send for the four local managers and head-men of the district wherein you wish to cut the trees, and I will let you know when they arrive in Yedo. With them you will be able to settle the matter.'

The interview was over. The contractor was on the high road, he felt, to getting the trees he required, and the money-wanting agent was equally well pleased that so slight an effort on his part should have been the means of enriching him by yen 200, with the promise of more and a new house.

About ten days later four men, the heads of villages, arrived in Yedo, and presented themselves to Fujieda, who sent for the timber contractor, telling the four, whose names were Mosuke, Magozaemon, Yohei, and Jinyemon, that he was pleased to see them and to note how loyal they had been in their attendance on the Shogun, for that he, the Shogun, had had his palace burned down in the recent fire, and desired to have one immediately built, the great and only difficulty being the timber. 'I am told by our great contractor, to whom I shall introduce you presently that the only timber fit for rebuilding the Shogun's palace lies in your district. I myself know nothing about these details, and I shall leave you gentlemen to settle these matters with Kinokuniya, the contractor, so soon as he arrives. I have sent for him. In the meantime consider yourselves welcome, and please accept of the meal I have arranged in the next room for you. Come along and let us enjoy it.'

Fujieda led the four countrymen into the next room, and ate with them at the meal, during which time Kinokuniya the contractor arrived, and was promptly ushered into their presence. The meal was nearly at an end.

Fujieda introduced the contractor, who in his turn said:

'Gentlemen, we cannot discuss these matters here in the house of Lord Fujieda the Shogun's agent. Now that we know one another, let me invite you to supper; at that I can explain to you exactly what I want in the way of trees out of your district. Of course, you know my family are subjects of your feudal lords, and that we are therefore all the same.'

The four countrymen were delighted at so much hospitality. Two meals in an evening was an extraordinary dissipation for them, and that in Yedo! My word, what would they not be able to tell their wives on their return to the villages?

Kinokuniya led the four countrymen off to a restaurant called Kampanaro, in Ryogoku, where he treated them with the greatest hospitality. After the meal he said:

'Gentlemen, I hope you will allow me to hew timber from the forest in your village, for it is impossible for me otherwise to attempt any further building on a large scale.'

'Very well, you may hew,' said Mosuke, who was the senior of the four. 'Since the cutting of the trees in Nekoma-myojin forest is as it were a necessity for our lord, they must be cut; it is, in fact, I take it, an order from our lord that the trees shall be cut; but I must remind you that there is one tree in the grove which cannot be cut amid any circumstances whatever, and that is an enormous and sacred camphor tree which is very much revered in our district, and to which a shrine is erected. That tree we cannot consent to have cut.'

'Very well,' said the contractor. 'Just write me a little permit, giving me permission to cut any trees except the big camphor, and our business will be finished.'

Kinokuniya had by this time in the evening taken his measure of the countrymen--so shrewdly as to know that they were probably unable to write.

'Certainly,' said Mosuke. 'Just you write out a little agreement, Jinyemon.'

'No: I would rather you wrote it, Mago,' said Jinyemon.

'And I should like Yohei to write it,' said Mago.

'But I can't write at all,' said Yohei, turning to Jinyemon again.

'Well, never mind, never mind,' said Kinokuniya. 'Will you gentlemen sign the document if I write it?'

Why, of course, they all assented. That was the best way of all. They would put their stamps to the document. This they did, and after a lively evening departed pleased with themselves generally.

Kinokuniya, on the other hand, went home fully contented with his evening's business. Had he not in his pocket the permit to cut the trees, and had he not written it himself, so as to suit his own purpose? He chuckled at the thought of how neatly he had managed the business.

Next morning Kinokuniya sent off his foreman, Chogoro, accompanied by ten or a dozen men. It took them three days to reach the village called Yabuki-mura, near the Nekoma-myojin grove; they arrived on the morning of the fourth day, and proceeded to erect a scaffold round the camphor tree, so that they might the better use their axes. As they began chopping off the lower branches, Hamada Tsushima, the keeper of the shrine, came running to them.

'Here, here! What are you doing? Cutting down the sacred camphor? Curse you! Stop, I tell you! Do you hear me? Stop at once!'

Chogoro answered:

'You need not stop my men in their work. They are doing what they have been ordered to do, and with a full right to do it. I am cutting down the tree at the order of my master Kinokuniya, the timber contractor, who has permission to cut the tree from the four head-men sent to Yedo from this district.'

'I know all that,' said the caretaker; 'but your permission is to cut down any tree except the sacred camphor.'

'There you are wrong, as this letter will show you,' said Chogoro; 'read it yourself.' And the caretaker, in great dismay, read as follows:--

To Kinokuniya Bunzaemon,

Timber Contractor, Yedo.

In hewing trees to build a new mansion for our lord, all the camphor trees must be spared except the large one said to be sacred in the Nekoma-myojin grove. In witness whereof we set our names.


Representing the local County Officials.

The caretaker, beside himself with grief and astonishment, sent for the four men mentioned. On their arrival each declared that he had given permission to cut anything except the big camphor; but Chogoro said that he could not believe them, and in any case he would go by the written document. Then he ordered his men to continue their work on the big camphor.

Hamada Tsushima, the caretaker, did harakiri, disembowelling himself there and then; but not before telling Chogoro that his spirit would go into the camphor tree, to take care of it, and to wreak vengeance on the wicked Kinokuniya.

At last the efforts of the men brought the stately tree down with a crash; but then they found themselves unable to move it. Pull as they might, it would not budge. Each time they tried the branches seemed to become alive; faces and eyes became painful with the hits they got from them. Pluckily they continued their efforts; but it was no use. Things got worse. Several of the men were caught and nearly crushed to death between the branches; four had broken limbs from blows given in the same way. At this moment a horseman rode up and shouted:

'My name is Matsumaye Tetsunosuke. I am one of the Lord of Sendai's retainers. The board of councillors in Sendai have refused to allow this camphor tree to be touched. You have cut it, unfortunately. It must now remain where it is. Our feudal lord of Sendai, Lord Date Tsunamune, will be furious. Kinokuniya the contractor planned an evil scheme, and will be duly punished; while as for the Shogun's agent, Fujieda Geki, he also must be reported. You yourselves return to Yedo. We cannot blame you for obeying orders. But first give me that forged permit signed by the four local fools, who, it is trusted, will destroy themselves.'

Chogoro and his men returned to Yedo. A few days later the contractor was taken ill, and a shampooer was sent to his room. A little later Kinokuniya was found dead; the shampooer had disappeared, though it was impossible for him to have got away without being seen! It is said that the spirit of Hamada Tsushima, the caretaker, had taken the form of the shampooer, in order to kill the contractor. Chogoro became so uneasy in his mind that he returned to the camphor tree, where he spent all his savings in erecting a new shrine and putting in a caretaker. This is known as the Kusunoki Dzuka (The Camphor Tree Tomb). The tree lies there, my story-teller tells me, at the present day.



^354:1 Shelves.

^354:2 Kakumono corner-post.

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

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