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When Taro and Ito went home that night with their kites, they were glad to sit down and rest, for they had been running about until they were quite tired. When they had eaten their suppers of rice from their little brown bowls of lacquer, they begged their grandmother to tell them a story, and she told them the famous old story of Momotaro, beloved of every child in Japan. And this is what she told them: Once upon a time an old man and an old woman lived near a river at the foot of a mountain. Every day the old man went to the mountain to cut wood and carry it home, while the old woman went to the river to wash clothes. Now, the old woman was very unhappy because she had no children; it seemed to her that if she only had a son or a daughter she would be the most fortunate old woman in the world.
Well, one day she was washing the clothes in the river, when she saw something floating down the stream towards her. It proved to be a great pear, and she seized it and carried it home. As she carried it she heard a sound like the cry of a child. She looked right and left, up and down, but no child was to be seen. She heard the cry again, and now she fancied that it came from the big pear. So she cut the pear open at once, and, to her great surprise and delight, she found that there was a fine baby sitting in the middle of it. She took the child and brought it up, and because he was born in a pear she called him Momotaro.
Momotaro grew up a strong, fine boy, and when he was seventeen years old he started out to seek his fortune. He had made up his mind to attack an island where lived a very dreadful ogre. The old woman gave him plenty of food to eat on the way--corn and rice wrapped in a bamboo-leaf, and many other things--and away he went. He had not gone far when he met a wasp.
"Give me a share of your food, Momotaro," said the wasp, "and I will go with you and help you to overcome the ogre."
"With all my heart," said Momotaro, and he shared his food at once with the wasp.
Soon he met a crab, and the same agreement was made with the crab, and then with a chestnut, and last of all with a millstone.
So now the five companions journeyed on together towards the island of the ogre. When the island was reached they crept up to the house of the ogre, and found that he was not in his room. So they soon made a plan to take advantage of his absence. The chestnut laid itself down in the ash of a charcoal fire which had been burning on the hearth, the crab hid himself in a washing-pan nearly full of water, the wasp settled in a dusky corner, the millstone climbed on to the roof, and Momotaro hid himself outside.
Before long the ogre came back, and he went to the fire to warm his hands. The chestnut at once cracked in the hot ashes, and threw burning cinders over the ogre's hands. The ogre at once ran to the washing-pan, and thrust his hands into it to cool them. The crab caught his fingers and pinched them till the ogre roared with pain. Snatching his hands out of the pan, the ogre leapt into the dusky corner as a safe place; but the wasp met him and stung him dreadfully. In great fright and misery the ogre tried to run out of the room, but down came the millstone with a crash on his head and killed him at once. So, without any trouble to himself, and by the help of the faithful friends which his kindness had made for him, Momotaro gained possession of the ogre's wealth, and his fortune was made.
Then the grandmother told them of Jizo, the patron saint of travellers and children, the helper of all who are in trouble.
Everywhere by the roadside in Japan is found the figure of Jizo. Sometimes a figure of noble height, carved in stone or in the living rock, sometimes no more than a rough carving in wood, he is represented as a priest with kindly face, holding a traveller's staff in his right hand and a globe in his left. He stands upon a lotus-flower, and about his feet there lies a pile of pebbles, to which pile each wayfarer adds a fresh pebble.
And the old grandmother bade the children never pass a figure of Jizo without paying it the tribute of a pebble, for this reason: Every little child who dies, she said, has to pass over So-dzu-kawa, the river of the underworld. Now, on the banks of this river there lives a wicked old hag who catches little children as they try to cross, steals their clothes from them, and sets them to work to help her in her endless task of piling up the stones on the shore of the stream. Jizo helps these poor children, and every one who throws a pebble at the foot of this shrine also takes a share in lightening the labour of some little one down below.
Another favourite story is that of Urashima, the fisher-boy. Urashima was a handsome fisher-boy, who lived near the Sea of Japan, and every day he went out in his boat to catch fish in order to help his parents. But one day Urashima did not return. His mother watched long, but there was no sign of her son's boat coming back to the shore. Day after day passed, and Urashima was mourned as dead. But he was not dead. Out on the sea he had met the Sea-God's daughter, and she had carried him off to a green, sunny land where it was always summer. There they lived for some time in great love and happiness. When it appeared to Urashima that several weeks had passed in this pleasant land, he begged permission of the Princess to return home and see his parents.
"They will be sorrowing for me," he said. "They will fear that I am lost, and drowned at sea." At last she allowed him to go, and she gave him a casket, but told him to keep it closed.
"As long as you keep it closed," she said, "I shall always be with you, but if you open it you will lose both me and this sunny summer land for ever."
Urashima took the casket, promised to keep it closed, and returned home. But his native village had vanished. There was no sign of any dwelling upon the shore, and not far away there was a town which he had never seen before. In truth, every week that he had spent with the Princess had been a hundred years on earth, and his home and native village had passed away centuries ago, and the place where they had stood had been forgotten. In his despair, he forgot the words of the Princess, and opened the forbidden box. A faint blue mist floated out and spread over the sea, and a wonderful change took place at once in Urashima. From a handsome youth he turned to a feeble and decrepit old man, and then he fell upon the shore and lay there dead. In the box the Princess had shut up all the hours of their happy life, and when they had once escaped he became as other mortals, and old age and death came upon him at a bound.