“Mukashi mukashi, aru tokoro ni…” (昔々あるところに。。。) – Once upon a time, long long ago…
That was how my Sunday evening at Café Kino in Bristol began. I attended an event called ‘Myth and Music of Old Japan‘ by Mukashi Mukashi, a group of four musicians with one storyteller. All around the small stage in the over-crowded café basement were instruments: drums, various small percussion instruments, gongs and bells, a shakuhachi (尺八 / bamboo flute), a koto (箏 / stringed national instrument of Japan), a sanshin (三線 / three-stringed banjo from Okinawa), a cello and a harmonium.
Incense wafted through the air as glasses clinked and the crowd murmured. All the chairs were full, people stood, people sat on the floor, people squeezed in wherever there was a gap, all eagerly (yet calmly) anticipating a night of magical folktales…
The story being told was ‘Dojoji’. From the research I’ve done since, it seems this traditional tale is also a Noh play, but the story I heard differed a little from the variations I’ve read online (such as this one). So, let me recount the story as I remember it being told by the captivating Iwan Kushka on Sunday night.
Once upon a time, long long ago, there was a boy named Anchin. Anchin lived with his family in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. Anchin decided he wanted to become a monk, and set off on the long walk to Dojoji, a temple somewhere in Tohoku [in the other accounts, this temple (道成寺) is in Wakayama]. On his way, he stops at a famous family-run udon noodle shop and befriends a young girl called Kiyohime.
When Anchin reaches Dojoji he works hard and becomes a monk. He learns to strike the bell in the temple with the right kind of tone, and the senior monks are impressed with his progress. Anchin strikes a deal with the monks which allows him to live and train at the temple, but to return to Hokkaido once a year to see his family.
Every time Anchin makes his journey home and subsequent journey back to the temple, he stops off for udon and meets Kiyohime, and they become fast friends.
One day, when Anchin reaches Kiyohime’s family’s udon shop he suddenly realises he is more excited to see Kiyohime than he is to eat the noodles! He has become a man and he soon discovers she has become a woman.
Anchin finds himself attracted to the beautiful Kiyohime, but he can’t act on his feelings because he is a monk and has taken a vow of chastity. Confused, he promises Kiyohime he will return the following year once he has had time to think things over, but he knows in his heart he can never return.
Kiyohime waits for Anchin, but when he doesn’t return she gets worried, and then mad. Year after year she waits, driving herself slowly insane. She doesn’t speak to anyone or go outside, she just waits for Anchin. Eventually she becomes so crazy that she pulls at her hair and skin and finally she turns into a giant snake! In a rage, she slithers off to Dojoji to exact her revenge on Anchin.
Anchin hears she is coming and knows what he has done. Scared, he asks the monks to hide him inside the big bell at the temple, which is placed on the ground. However, when Kiyohime arrives she knows he is hiding underneath the bell and she circles the bell, making the metal white hot with her friction. In the end, when Kiyohime has gone [I think she gets killed or kills herself – I forgot!], the monks wait for the metal to cool and lift to bell, only to discover that Anchin is nothing but a pile of ashes.
The bell is re-hung, but it is cursed and comes crashing back down again. Eventually, the curse is lifted though, and all is well. Part of the method for lifting the curse was to chant the Lotus Sutra [which we all joined in with!] – “myoho-renge-kyo” (妙法蓮華経).
Traditional Japanese tales usually end with “Medetashi medetashi” (めでたしめでたし / So blissful), in a similar vein to our “And they all lived happily ever after”, although I don’t remember this being said at the end of this particular tale.
The story was fascinating, and really captured my interest. I’m sure most of you know I have a bit of a thing for fairytales, folklore and monsters, and this story ticked all of those boxes. The wonderful thing about folklore is that it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not – it’s just a story. Other accounts of Dojoji that I’ve read online have all sorts of differences, but similarities too. According to Wikipedia, this story was originally from Konjaku Monogatarishu (今昔物語集 / Anthology of Tales from the Past), a Japanese collection of over one thousand tales written during the late Heian period (平安時代) (794-1185).
Thank you to Mukashi Mukashi for sharing this tale with us on Sunday night! It was a wonderful show, and I hope there will be more in the future. Proceeds of this event went to a Japan Tsunami Relief Fund, and during the show there was a brief interlude in which Tohoku was discussed. This article by Richard Lloyd Parry was referenced, and I would also like to recommend you read it. Ghosts are not just something that haunt the folktales of the past – they live with us here today, too.