The sound of a trumpet across a mountain valley leads a young man to befriend a mysterious stranger. During repeated visits to the cave where the stranger has set up home, the young man learns about his past – in the mines, villages and ports of the region. The stranger’s hilarious, bawdy and touching narratives captivate the young man, but he begins to doubt their veracity. Finally, as the young man decides his own fate, the full truth about the stranger is revealed.
I was attracted to Tales from a Mountain Cave by Hisashi Inoue (井上 ひさし) (translated by Angus Turvill) as soon as I realised the stories were set in Northeast Japan. Originally published in Japanese as Shinshaku Tono Monogatari (新釈遠野物語) in 1976, the stories within this book are set in the Kamaishi (釜石) area of Iwate Prefecture (岩手県). Kamaishi was devastated by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and royalties on sales of this new book will be donated to post-tsunami community support projects.
The other thing that attracted me to this book was the theme of mysterious stories featuring characters from Japanese folklore, such as enchanting foxes (狐 / kitsune) and kappa (河童) – a kind of Japanese supernatural creature or yokai (妖怪). As regular readers of this blog will know, I do love yokai.
Tales from a Mountain Cave begins with a short introduction from the translator, in which he provides some information about Kamaishi and the surrounding area, explaining that the author lived in Kamaishi in the 1950s when he was a young man. Tono (遠野), which also features in the book and lies about 50 kilometres inland from Kamaishi, is known as the ‘City of Folklore’. Story telling has always thrived there, and in 1910 a collection of stories called Tono Monogatari (遠野物語) by Kunio Yanagita (柳田 國男) was published. An English translation (next on my reading list!) called Legends of Tono by Ronald A. Morse was published in 1975. Tales from a Mountain Cave was written with Tono Monogatari in mind, and could be seen as a kind of modern-day tribute to it. The Japanese title, Shinshaku Tono Monogatari, can even be translated literally as Variations on the Legends of Tono.
And so it was with great excitement that I sat down in the quiet carriage of the train from Bristol to London last week and opened up Tales from a Mountain Cave for an hour and a half of blissful undisturbed reading time. By the time I returned from my short trip a few days later I had entirely devoured the book, much like a yokai feasting on human organs (as some are known to do). And it was wonderful. There were just nine short stories, each self-contained, but each adding a little more to the overall story of Hisashi Inoue and his encounters with Takichi Inubuse, a trumpet playing stranger living in a cave near Tono.
I was enchanted by foxes (as surely I would be if I ever met one in rural Tohoku), led astray by kappa, and well and truly sold on each story the ‘story seller’ (one of the characters in the book) tried to sell me. I’m happy to say I was so taken in by each tale in this magnificent collection that I found myself gasping out loud at the consequences (yes, in the quiet carriage!), and I was surprised at my own gullibility, as I was so willing to believe every word printed before me. If you want to lose yourself in tales of mystery and magic, whilst learning about a part of Japan with a rich cultural history, this is surely the book for you!
For those of you able to get to London on 11th December, there will be a book launch event featuring translator Angus Turvill at the Japan Foundation from 6:30pm. Please visit the Japan Foundation’s website for more information.