Many people across Japan are familiar with the basics of the tennyo (heavenly maiden) legend, and there are a lot of fun ways to read into it, and compare or combine it with the legend of the star-crossed lovers–including another heavenly maiden–who meet on Tanabata. Although commercially celebrated on July 7, the celestial activity it actually celebrates was on August 2 this year. Next year (2015), it will be on August 20.

This particular version of a well-known legend takes place in Kurayoshi, Tottori Prefecture. The kids of Kurayoshi still keep the associated drum and flute traditional alive, as you can see on their blog.

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A very, very long time ago, in the land of Hoki, a young woodcutter was going about his usual work when he discovered something hanging on a boulder which he had never seen before. It was a beautiful, pure white and transparent folded cloth. Something like this must belong to a heavenly maiden, he thought, and then took the garment home.

That evening, as he was eating dinner, there was a knock at the door. There, he found a frantic but very beautiful maiden. “I cannot return home. Please allow me to stay,” she said sorrowfully.

“Not to worry, come on in.”

The maiden went on to explain, “I am a heavenly maiden. The gods sent me on an errand to the land of Izumo, and on the way back I stopped to bathe. I lost my heavenly robes,” her voice began to waver as she succumbed to tears, “Now I can never return to the heavens.”

Upon hearing this, the young woodcutter decided to hide the robes and never tell her that he stole them.

The heavenly maiden remained at his house, and at some point she became his bride. She gave birth to two sons, and when they grew older, she taught them to play the drums and flute*, and the sounds reminded her of her time in the heavens.

The years passed, and one summer night her sons went out to the mountain to gather bamboo for Tanabata decorations. In light of the holiday, she decided to prepare a feast, and starting pulling out all of the dishes she would need from the cupboard. While searching for some misplaced dishes, she discovered a dark corner of the cupboard where there was a wrapped package.

Finding it curious, she opened it and was shocked. “Why, it’s my heavenly robes!”

Nostalgic over seeing her garment again, she immediately put it on, and her body became light and fluttered off the ground, lightly rising toward the sky.

Her sons returned from gathered bamboo and noticed her up above them. “Ma!” they shouted. “Where are you going? Ma!!”

They called and called, but her form grew further and further away and then disappeared from sight, and she never returned to them.

Since then, it has been said that you can hear the sound of drums and flutes coming from the mountain. This is the voice of the two children calling out to their mother in the heavens. At some point, they started calling the mountain Utsubukiyama* because of this. How pitiful! Even today, you can sometimes hear the sounds of the drums and flutes riding on the wind.

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*The name “Utsubukiyama” can be broken down as follows:
The verb for beating a drum is 打つ (utsu)
The verb for blowing a flute is 吹き (fuki)
The word for mountain is 山 (yama)
Utsubukiyama: 打吹山

This is a short and silly little folk tale from Matsue, around Lake Shinji. Eel is one of the Seven Delicacies of Lake Shinji (宍道湖七珍), especially in summer. The birds who make an appearance in this story are also a very typical part of the Lake Shinji scenery.

Photo from Naniwa Honten, one of the more famous restaurants along the banks of Lake Shinji. Click for source.

A long, long time ago, there was an old couple, and one day, the old man said to the old lady, “I’m goin’ out to catch some eel for a tasty dinner tonight. Set up the grill while I’m gone.” With a smile, she saw him off.

He lowered his fishing line into the water and laid back and waited, relaxing at the banks of Lake Shinji. For a long time, nothing happened. A bird circled above him, cawing, “The eels are all asleep! They’re down in their holes! They’re all asleep!” However, the old man paid them no mind and continued to relax and be patient.

At last, there was a tug on the line. “Now I gotcha!” he smiled and sprang to his feet to grab hold of the pole. He pulled and tugged and soon an enormous eel sprang out of the water. “Gotcha!” he shouted as he let go of the pole with one hand to grab hold of its slimy body. As the eel wriggled around and shot itself upwards out of his grip, he grabbed on with the other hand.

Again, the eel surged upwards to try to wriggle free, and as one hand came loose, he grabbed higher.

The eel spurted itself higher. The old man grabbed higher.

Higher and higher.

The old man didn’t even notice when they had gotten so high that his feet had lifted off the ground. Soon enough, he noticed that Lake Shinji was below them, looking further and further away, smaller and smaller, as he and the eel went higher and higher.

Meanwhile, the old lady was starting to wonder what was taking him so long to return home. She grew anxious, then grew worried enough go out and look for him, but she caught no sight of him.

For days, he did not return. With a heavy heart, the old lady thought, “Perhaps he’s never coming back. But where could he have gone?” She began to cry.

At that moment, a large bird swooped down towards her and dropped a piece of paper, which floated down into her hands. Curiously, she took a peek, and saw that it was a woman’s handwriting, yet the words of her husband. It read:

Dear, I caught a big eel the other day, but while tryin’ t’ wrangle it, it shot up towards the sky. I’m still tryin’ t’ catch the dang thing!

Note: Seeing as he is preoccupied catching the eel, your husband was unable to let go and write this message, so I have taken his dictation. Signed, a heavenly maiden.