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The Temple Of The Awabi

The Temple Of The Awabi


IN Noto Province there is a small fishing-village called Nanao. It is at the extreme northern end of the mainland. There is nothing opposite until one reaches either Korea or the Siberian coast--except the small rocky islands which are everywhere in Japan, surrounding as it were by an outer fringe the land proper of Japan itself.

Nanao contains not more than five hundred souls. Many years ago the place was devastated by an earthquake and a terrific storm, which between them destroyed nearly the whole village and killed half of the people.

On the morning after this terrible visitation, it was seen that the geographical situation had changed. Opposite Nanao, some two miles from the land, had arisen a rocky island about a mile in circumference. The sea was muddy and yellow. The people surviving were so overcome and awed that none ventured into a boat for nearly a month afterwards; indeed, most of the boats had been destroyed. Being Japanese, they took things philosophically. Every one helped some other, and within a month the village looked much as it had looked before; smaller, and less populated, perhaps, but managing itself unassisted by the outside world. Indeed, all the neighbouring villages had suffered much in the same way, and after the manner of ants had put things right again.

The fishermen of Nanao arranged that their first fishing expedition should be taken together, two days before the 'Bon.' They would first go and inspect the new island, and then continue out to sea for a few miles, to find if there were still as many tai fish on their favourite ground as there used to be.

It would be a day of intense interest, and the villages of some fifty miles of coast had all decided to make their ventures simultaneously, each village trying its own grounds, of course, but all starting at the same time, with a view of eventually reporting to each other the condition of things with regard to fish, for mutual assistance is a strong characteristic in the Japanese when trouble overcomes them.

At the appointed time two days before the festival the fishermen started from Nanao. There were thirteen boats. They visited first the new island, which proved to be simply a large rock. There were many rock fish, such as wrasse and sea-perch, about it; but beyond that there was nothing remarkable. It had not had time to gather many shell-fish on its surface, and there was but little edible seaweed as yet. So the thirteen boats went farther to sea, to discover what had occurred to their old and excellent tai grounds.

These were found to produce just about what they used to produce in the days before the earthquake; but the fishermen were not able to stay long enough to make a thorough test. They had meant to be away all night; but at dusk the sky gave every appearance of a storm: so they pulled up their anchors and made for home.

As they came close to the new island they were surprised to see, on one side of it, the water for the space of 240 feet square lit up with a strange light. The light seemed to come from the bottom of the sea, and in spite of the darkness the water was transparent. The fishermen, very much astonished, stopped to gaze down into the blue waters. They could see fish swimming about in thousands; but the depth was too great for them to see the bottom, and so they gave rein to all kinds of superstitious ideas as to the cause of the light, and talked from one boat to the other about it. A few minutes afterwards they had shipped their immense paddling oars and all was quiet. Then they heard rumbling noises at the bottom of the sea, and this filled them with consternation--they feared another eruption. The oars were put out again, and to say that they went fast would in no way convey an idea of the pace that the men made their boats travel over the two miles between the mainland and the island.

Their homes were reached well before the storm came on; but the storm lasted for fully two days, and the fishermen were unable to leave the shore.

As the sea calmed down and the villagers were looking out, on the third day cause for astonishment came. Shooting out of the sea near the island rock were rays that seemed to come from a sun in the bottom of the sea. All the village congregated on the beach to see this extraordinary spectacle, which was discussed far into the night.

Not even the old priest could throw any light on the subject. Consequently, the fishermen became more and more scared, and few of them were ready to venture to sea next day; though it was the time for the magnificent sawara (king mackerel), only one boat left the shore, and that belonged to Master Kansuke, a fisherman of some fifty years of age, who, with his son Matakichi, a youth of eighteen and a most faithful son, was always to the fore when anything out of the common had to be done.

Kansuke had been the acknowledged bold fisherman of Nanao, the leader in all things since most could remember, and his faithful and devoted son had followed him from the age of twelve through many perils; so that no one was astonished to see their boat leave alone.

They went first to the tai grounds and fished there during the night, catching some thirty odd tai between them, the average weight of which would be four pounds. Towards break of day another storm showed on the horizon. Kansuke pulled up his anchor and started for home, hoping to take in a hobo line which he had dropped overboard near the rocky island on his way out--a line holding some two hundred hooks. They had reached the island and hauled in nearly the whole line when the rising sea caused Kansuke to lose his balance and fall overboard.

Usually the old man would soon have found it an easy matter to scramble back into the boat. On this occasion, however, his head did not appear above water; and so his son jumped in to rescue his father. He dived into water which almost dazzled him, for bright rays were shooting through it. He could see nothing of his father, but felt that he could not leave him. As the mysterious rays rising from the bottom might have something to do with the accident, he made up his mind to follow them: they must, he thought, be reflections from the eye of some monster.

It was a deep dive, and for many minutes Matakichi was under water. At last he reached the bottom, and here he found an enormous colony of the awabi (ear-shells). The space covered by them was fully 200 square feet, and in the middle of all was one of gigantic size, the like of which he had never heard of. From the holes at the top through which the feelers pass shot the bright rays which illuminated the sea,--rays which are said by the Japanese divers to show the presence of a pearl. The pearl in this shell, thought Matakichi, must be one of enormous size--as large as a baby's head. From all the awabi shells on the patch he could see that lights were coming, which denoted that they contained pearls; but wherever he looked Matakichi could see nothing of his father. He thought his father must have been drowned, and if so, that the best thing for him to do would be to regain the surface and repair to the village to report his father's death, and also his wonderful discovery, which would be of such value to the people of Nanao. Having after much difficulty reached the surface, he, to his dismay, found the boat broken by the sea, which was now high. Matakichi was lucky, however. He saw a bit of floating wreckage, which he seized; and as sea, wind, and current helped him, strong swimmer as he was, it was not more than half an hour before he was ashore, relating to the villagers the adventures of the day, his discoveries, and the loss of his dear father.

The fishermen could hardly credit the news that what they had taken to be supernatural lights were caused by ear-shells, for the much-valued ear-shell was extremely rare about their district; but Matakichi was a youth of such trustworthiness that even the most sceptical believed him in the end, and had it not been for the loss of Kansuke there would have been great rejoicing in the village that evening.

Having told the villagers the news, Matakichi repaired to the old priest's house at the end of the village, and told him also.

'And now that my beloved father is dead,' said he, 'I myself beg that you will make me one of your disciples, so that I may pray daily for my father's spirit.'

The old priest followed Matakichi's wish and said, 'Not only shall I be glad to have so brave and filial a youth as yourself as a disciple, but also I myself will pray with you for your father's spirit, and on the twenty-first day from his death we will take boats and pray over the spot at which he was drowned.'

Accordingly, on the morning of the twenty-first day after the drowning of poor Kansuke, his son and the priest were anchored over the place where he had been lost, and prayers for the spirit of the dead were said.

That same night the priest awoke at midnight; he felt ill at ease, and thought much of the spiritual affairs of his flock.

Suddenly he saw an old man standing near the head of his couch, who, bowing courteously, said:

'I am the spirit of the great ear-shell lying on the bottom of the sea near Rocky Island. My age is over woo years. Some days ago a fisherman fell from his boat into the sea, and I killed and ate him. This morning I heard your reverence praying over the place where I lay, with the son of the man I ate. Your sacred prayers have taught me shame, and I sorrow for the thing I have done. By way of atonement I have ordered my followers to scatter themselves, while I have determined to kill myself, so that the pearls that are in my shell may be given to Matakichi, the son of the man I ate. All I ask is that you should pray for my spirit's welfare. Farewell!'

Saying which, the ghost of the ear-shell vanished. Early next morning, when Matakichi opened his shutters to dust the front of his door, he found thereat what he took at first to be a large rock covered with seaweed, and even with pink coral. On closer examination Matakichi found it to be the immense ear-shell which he had seen at the bottom of the sea off Rocky Island. He rushed off to the temple to tell the priest, who told Matakichi of his visitation during the night.

The shell and the body contained therein were carried to the temple with every respect and much ceremony. Prayers were said over it, and, though the shell and the immense pearl were kept in the temple, the body was buried in a tomb next to Kansuke's, with a monument erected over it, and another over Kansuke's grave. Matakichi changed his name to that of Nichige, and lived happily.

There have been no ear-shells seen near Nanao since, but on the rocky island is erected a shrine to the spirit of the ear-shell.

NOTE.--A 3000-yen pearl which I know of was sold for 12 cents by a fisherman from the west. It came from a temple, belongs now to Mikomoto, and is this size.

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

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