There will always be the moon


My family recently returned from Japan, where I had hoped to do a bit of stargazing, especially when we traveled to more rural regions. Unfortunately, our couple of nights at a mountaintop Buddhist temple were clouded out, and the rest of the nights were cloudy or hazy — with one exception.

Finally, at the end of our journey, we returned to Tokyo, one of the most light-polluted cities on Earth, in preparation for the long flight home. That night was crystal clear, but Tokyo’s extreme outside lighting erased the stars.

From downtown Columbus, a few stars are visible during summer. In Tokyo, not a single star was visible. The only object visible was the moon.

The stargazers’ plight will only worsen as the world pollutes the sky with unwanted light. “At least,” I mumbled, “There will always be the moon.”

My daughter, a classical scholar with extensive knowledge of world mythology, reminded me of an old Japanese story about the moon. It resonated with me because it refers to several elements of the Japanese social landscape my family and I experienced for ourselves.

Even as light pollution quickly wipes out Japan’s starry sky, some elements of Japanese culture have not changed since an unknown poet wrote the story down in the 10th century CE.

The story begins in a bamboo forest. An old bamboo cutter named Taketori no Okina happens upon a brightly shining bamboo stalk. (His name literally means “Old Bamboo Harvester.”)

He is surprised to find a thumb-sized baby inside when he cuts the stalk open. He and his wife have not been blessed with children, so they raise the tiny baby as their own daughter. They name her Nayotake no Kaguya-hime, the “Shining Princess of the Young Bamboo.”

From that moment on, every time Taketori cuts a bamboo stalk, he finds a gold nugget inside. As the family grows wealthy over the next three months, Kaguya-hime matures quickly, much too quickly, into a charming young woman. They begin to realize that she is of supernatural origin. How often does a thumb-sized baby mature into a fully grown woman in three months?

Word of her beauty and her family’s wealth spreads throughout Japan. Much to the dismay of her adoptive father, Kaguya-hime is besieged by suitors with marriage on their minds.

Among the suitors are five young men of noble birth who will not take “no” for an answer. They eventually persuade the old bamboo cutter to order Kaguya-hime to choose among them.

Kaguya-hime is distinctly uninterested in marriage to any of them. She is not particularly interested in the everyday life of mortals on Earth.

Thus, she assigns each noble an impossible task and says she will marry the one who fulfills his task first.

There’s no chance for any of them. Some of them cheat and are caught. Others abandon their quest or die trying to fulfill it.

For example, Kaguya-hime demands that one of the nobles brings her the Buddha’s stone begging bowl. Instead, he presented her with a fake bowl made from a blackened pot.

Another of the nobles must present Kaguya-hime with a jewel plucked from a dragon’s neck. He boards a ship to seek a sea-faring dragon, but a storm forces him to return to dry land.

A third noble must obtain a cowry shell from a swallow’s egg. (A cowry is a large snail-like creature.) Despite the unlikelihood of finding such an odd pairing, he tries anyway and falls from a tree to his death as he reaches into a swallow’s nest.

Soon thereafter, the emperor of Japan comes for a visit and is immediately smitten. He repeatedly asks for Kaguya-hime’s hand in marriage, but she repeatedly rebuffs him despite his god-like status. She cannot go with him to his palace, she says, because she is “not from his country.”

It becomes increasingly apparent to her family that she is not of this Earth. Her behavior becomes agitated and otherworldly. Whenever she sees the full moon, she begins to weep.

Kaguya-hime finally reveals her secret to her parents. She is from the moon. The kami, the spirits who inhabit the moon, banished her to Earth as punishment for some unstated crime.

Her punishment is that she will develop an attachment to the people and pleasures of Earth and never want to return to the heavens. The moon spirits showed their gratitude to her adoptive parents by providing the gold nuggets for her upkeep.

But now she must return to the moon, and a delegation of heavenly moon spirits would soon descend to Earth to escort her back home.

The Emperor, who still loves her deeply, sends his royal guards to protect her from the moon spirits, but in vain. Before she leaves, she writes a letter to the emperor.

As a parting gift to salve his sorrow, she attaches a bottle of the elixir of immortality to the letter. One sip by the emperor, and he will live forever.

The lunar delegation places a robe on her shoulders. The magical garment helps her forget her earthbound attachments. Then, attended by the moon spirits, up to the heavens she soars.

Her parents are devastated, and so is the Emperor. When the emperor reads the letter, he wants desperately to communicate with her. He sends his servants to the closest place to heaven, the venerable summit of Mt. Fuji, where they burn the letter and smash the bottle of immortality elixir. The emperor thus rejects an immortal life wherein he will never see Kaguya-hime again.

Mt. Fuji, the name of which derives from the Japanese word (fushi) for immortality, stands to this day. And sometimes smoke still rises from that mostly extinct volcano. The smoke is said to be the smoke from the burned letter, which smolders still.

Why does the story mean so much to me? I have walked through the bamboo forests of Japan. I have watched the bamboo being cut in the old way. I have seen the immortal Mt. Fuji wrapped in a blanket of clouds resembling smoke.

The story may be just a legend, but I have never heard a truer story about obsessive love, misplaced passion, and a longing for home.

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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