the online database of Japanese folkore

Urashima Tarō

浦島太郎
うらしまたろう

Translation: none; this is his name
Alternate names: Urashimako, Ura no Shimako, Mizunoe Urashima, and others

Appearance: Urashima Tarō is the name of a boy who visited the palace of the dragon king, met a princess, and returned to tell about it.

Origin: The Urashima legend is one of Japan’s most famous stories. The oldest recorded versions of the Urashima legend are found in 8th century works such as Nihon shoki, Manyōshū, and Tango no kuni fudoki. Early on he was known as Mizunoe Urashima, but by the middle ages the name Urashima Tarō had become widespread. His legend has changed considerably throughout the ages, in various details including his name, how long he spends away from home, the location that he visits, and so on. Despite this, they all follow the same pattern of a boy who rescues a turtle, visits a magical land, and returns to a world he no longer recognizes. The Urashima Shrine on the Tango Peninsula in Kyōto, founded in 825 CE, is dedicated to him.

Legends: Long ago lived a fisher boy named Urashima Tarō. Every day he went down to the sea and fished for food to support himself and his elderly mother. One day, while returning home with his meager catch, he spotted a group of boys torturing a turtle on the beach. He pitied the poor animal, and offered to buy the turtle from the with his day’s catch. The children took the trade, and Tarō released the poor turtle back to the sea. As it swam into the waves, it looked back at Tarō, seemingly in thanks.

The following day, as Tarō returned home from fishing, a large wave washed up next to him and an enormous turtle appeared on the beach. It bowed, and then spoke to Tarō. It thanked him for rescuing his daughter the other day. As a reward, the turtle offered to take Tarō to Ryūgū, the palace of the dragon king of the sea.

Urashima Tarō climbed on to the turtle’s back. The turtle dove into the sea. Deeper and deeper they went, all the way to the bottom. They approached a splendid palace. A beautiful young princess named Otohime emerged from the palace and welcomed Tarō to Ryūgū.

Inside the palace, fish swam to and fro throughout the great hall. A great banquet was laid out for Urashima Tarō, and a party was thrown in his honor. He had never experienced such a grand feast or such hospitality. Otohime invited Tarō to stay in Ryūgū for as long as he liked. It was all like a dream. The beautiful princess served, and Tarō ate, and drank, and soon he lost all track of time.

One day, Otohime brought Tarō to a room in the palace with four great windows. She opened the first window, and behind it was a scene of spring, with birds chirping and flowers at the peak bloom. Tarō marveled at the beauty. Otohime opened the second window, revealing a scene of summer. Cicadas sung and a pleasant breeze fell on Tarō’s face. Next, Otohime opened the third window into a scene of autumn. Tarō marveled at the colorful foliage on the trees. Finally, Otohime opened the fourth window. Tarō stared out into a cold and snowy landscape. It looked like his fishing village, and felt homesick. He thought of his mother he had left behind, and how she must have been worrying about him. Tarō turned to Otohime and thanked her for the hospitality. Then he told her that must return to his home. Otohime begged him to stay, but Tarō would not change his mind.

When Otohime realized that Tarō could not be convinced to stay, she relented. She gave him a small box as a keepsake to remember his time at Ryūgū, and in hopes that they may meet again some day. But she warned him to never open the box. Tarō accepted the box with thanks, and then rode home on the back of a giant turtle.

When Tarō returned to his village, something seemed off. Everything looked different. He did not recognize anybody, nor did anybody recognize him either. He asked a villager if he knew the way to Urashima Tarō’s house. The villager replied that a fisherman by that name had gone out to sea and never returned. But that was over three hundred years ago. His family was long dead by now.

Tarō fell to his knees. Everything and everyone that he knew was gone. The only thing he had left was the box that Otohime had given him. In his despair, he forgot her warning and opened the lid. A puff a smoke from the box engulfed Tarō. When the smoke cleared, his beard had grown long, his hair had grown white, and his skin was wrinkled. In the blink of an eye, he had become an old man, for the box had contained the years that Urashima Tarō spent under the sea.

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