Taro Urashima is the Japanese Rip van Winkle or Peter Klaus, who lives among the Pacific merfolk. Now more about these merfolk, and the fact that they're as close to dragons as they are to Norse mers or Mediterranean sirens and nereids, will be told below in the tale itself.
Mukashi mukashi, in a little coastal village on a little island, there lived a stripling by the name of Taro Urashima. He was a good-natured, kind-hearted lad, and no matter if he, like most of his countrymen, lived off the ocean as a fisherman catching fish and seafood in a little junk-like sailboat, he had a soft spot for all the various animal species that dwell in the vast Pacific.
One bright summer morn, when about to set sail, he saw the three village bullies tormenting a green sea turtle which the tide had beached upon the shore. Now you may have noticed that not all boys are as friendly as they ought to be, and these three wicked brothers were the worst lads on the whole island, so they were beating on the poor beached turtle's carapace as if it were a drum, or trying to break it with beach pebbles, as one of them did, in fact. Who knows how old this reptile was --turtles can live for centuries!--, and how mournful a look she had in her eyes!
"Let the poor thing go!" Taro said, but the three bad boys kept on with their cruelty. So he kept on trying to coax them with friendly smiles, and even offering the bullies a pair of koban from his own savings; that settled it, the three brothers went away, and Taro put the free turtle in his boat and, after having calmed her on board, set her free in the middle of the ocean.
A few days after that, Taro got lost in a terrible storm, so far away from land that all he could see were leaden waves as high as mountain peaks with snow-crests of foam. He was still young and inexperienced, after all, and thus he had set sail without looking forwards at the ominous nimbus clouds. His sailboat was a tossing and turning nutshell, and soon it capsized, as it should, and the poor stripling was swallowed up by the waves only to cling to something hard, round, and with a plaque pattern that turned out to be a rather familiar carapace. In her beak, the turtle held a strand of algae, and she seemed to encourage Taro to consume it. So he put the algae to his lips, and, wincing slightly, swallowed it whole. Right then he began to be overcome by a strange drowsiness, and, as he fell asleep, he heard the turtle speak in his own language: "Please cling to my carapace tight, Taro Urashima."
Now Taro would have drowned and been torn away by the currents had he not clung that tightly to the turtle, and he felt that his kindness had been rewarded with such a life-saving deed, and, as he fell unconscious clinging to the turtle's carapace, she plunged back into the Pacific, fathoms below, with Taro on her back. The stripling did not drown, however; evidently, the algae he had ingested proved to be some kind of gillyweed that endowed him with underwater respiratory organs.
When Taro Urashima awoke he looked left and right, and wondered what ever had happened: he lay on a bed with a mattress of algae, in the midst of a bedchamber made out of brightly coloured coral; he doubted whether he was dead or alive. What's more, he was underwater, yet he could breathe saltwater and stay alive for some reason. Looking down, he saw the gills, like a blood-red collar, protruding on the sides of his throat. Various cetaceans (dolphins, orcas...), turtles, an octopus, a pair of puffers, and three maidens with gills and dragon tails --dragons from the waist downwards-- surrounded him in the bedchamber. Luminescent sea jellies lit up the chamber as lamps of cold, icy light.
Since childhood, Taro had, like many other children, heard of the Dragon Palace, the court of the dragons or merfolk. In Asia, unlike here in Europe, dragons are considered creatures of the water rather than fire; they live in both freshwaters and seas, they can turn human from the waist downwards as reptilian merfolk, or into green turtles... and their ruler, the Dragon Queen Otohime, keeps her court at a royal palace of colourful corals right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Hither it was that Taro Urashima had been carried. So the Dragon Palace was not a folktale!
A shrill squeaking from the dolphins, like a cetacean fanfare, filled the bedchamber and in strode the loveliest maiden Taro had ever seen, also with a dragon's tail for legs and a collar of gills; but by the array of the pearl tiara and coral jewellery she wore, he recognized none other than the Queen herself.
Standing up to bow very low in her presence, Taro began to feel a little twinge in his chest as she approached.
"You saved Our life, Taro Urashima, when We were beached on your shore not long ago. As a token of Our gratitude, you are heretofore a guest of honour at Our court; an honour which few to no mortals have ever held."
"Th-th-thank... you..." a blushing, awkward Taro replied, not understanding why the lovely voice of Otohime and the look in her eyes, so reminiscent of the one she'd had as a turtle, made him feel at a loss for words. She clapped her dainty hands and more octopi entered, carrying a tray full of delicacies of sushi and algae in each of their arms. After the feast, all the courtiers --fish and turtles, dragons and cetaceans-- danced with one another in a ballroom full of luminescent jellies, and the Queen herself danced with her mortal guest, whom she had proclaimed to be her consort.
The next day, she gave the stripling a tour of her palace, showing him the turtles which the mer-dragons rode through the ocean, the rehearsals of the court's dolphin choir, the lovely lush anemone and algae gardens, and she led him to a garden arbour with four windows, each one oriented towards a different cardinal direction; the eastern window showed cherry blossoms and butterflies in springtime on land, the southern one a searing summer complete with loud chirps of cicadas, the western one the warm colours of the autumn maple woods, the northern one a winter landscape enchanting with snow and frost. In such a manner did the merfolk amuse themselves, since they could not live on land, by looking at what it was like through these enchanted windows.
There were also many different theatre plays and operas performed at the Dragon Palace, as they were at any mortal royal court on land; and a new show, which always was an exciting one, was put on every day.
Thus sped what seemed to be a week, or maybe a fortnight, among underwater courtly entertainments, when the stripling began to miss his good mother and friends back in his native village. Queen Otohime lent him one of her fastest turtles to take him to shore, as well as the antidote algae that would give the lad back his lungs, and the two consorts took their leave of one another with a warm kiss and a little lacquered casket, a tamatebako (what we here in Europe call a Pandora's box), for a keepsake with the obvious interdiction not to open it.
Now anyone should know that the greatest temptation when it comes to Pandora's boxes is to let the lid fly open. You cannot entrust such a box to anyone because the interdiction has the effect of making the longing for opening the box grow stronger and stronger until the lid is finally pried. Yet the gods, all over the world and across cultures, keep on giving away Pandora's boxes to mortals precisely for that reason.
When he had swallowed the seaweed that made him become human once more, Taro Urashima came in sight of his own shore... or was it his own shore? He might as well have said with the Ancient Mariner: "Is this the hill? Is this the shrine? Is this my old country?" Because a middle-sized town stood where his village should have been, yet he recognized the hills and the cliffs in its environs, and the local shrine, as those of his native community.
Upon landing, most of the faces that met his eye were strangers'. He asked for his mother left and right, and an aged man, about a century old, was the one to give him a reply: Mrs. Urashima had fallen seriously ill and died, her heart having ostensibly broken in twain, when her only boy Taro had not returned from the ocean on that stormy summer day ninety years ago.
Steeling himself, holding back the tears, Taro asked the old man: "Did Taro Urashima really never return?" And the aged one replies: "My lad, you are the spitting image of that young man... Last time I ever saw him, I remember, my brothers, bless their souls, and I were playing with... or rather bullying a beached turtle, and he coaxed us to leave it be in exchange for a pair of koban..."
So the old man was one of those three bad boys who had bullied Otohime on that bright summer morning... and it had been ninety years ago! Storming uphill to the shrine, looking all over the cemetery, and finding his mother's grave overgrown with moss, drying up his tears on the hard gravestone, the stripling realised that time sped far slower in the underwater realm of dragons than on land... Now there was no place left for him... The temptation to open the lacquered box could not be stronger. He counted to three and lifted the lid.
The casket was full of purple mist, or smoke, which Taro Urashima breathed in, as he rapidly weakened and aged into seniority, just like Walter Donovan in The Last Crusade.
At this point, all sources differ when it comes to relating the end of his tale. Some say he finally crumbled into dust, just like Walter Donovan. Others relate that he lived on in his own birthplace as the local old madman, entertaining children with anecdotes of the century before during the decades he had left of his life. A third version, the one towards which I am the most inclined, states that he ran back down to shore and begged the Ocean Queen for his pardon; Otohime forgave him and fed him more gillyweed, and thus he returned to her coral palace as her consort, for the centuries to come.
REMARKS ON THIS TALE:
- The Year-Inside-Hour-Outside chronology of magical lands is also mentioned in references to Celtic Fairylands and in Story the Third of Andersen's Snow Queen, with the good witch's garden of eternal springtime in which Gerda is kept for half a year: she enters in mid-springtime and does not leave until late autumn, around November. However, just like Rip van Winkle, Peter Klaus, or the Seven Sleepers of Norse lore, Taro Urashima is kept in the underwater realm of dragons for decades.
- As for Asian dragons and their overlapping with merfolk, I explain it in the story itself. To give another example, seahorses are called "baby dragons" (tatsu no ko) in Japanese. The same I have said about dragons and merfolk goes for Pandora's boxes.
- Juan Valera has retold this story in Spanish and made it quite popular in Spain.
- The story, due to its Year-Inside-Hour-Outside premise, is one of the most frequently retold mukashibanashi, lending itself particularly well to science fiction, since in outer space, just like in the realm of merfolk, time moves at a far slower pace than on Earth. It's therefore also been used by serious physicists, in academia, to explain the theory of relativity to students.
- "Urashima-jótai" (浦島状態) is a phrase used in popular culture to describe someone who has been left behind by the times, or otherwise rendered unaware of his changing environment. It can also be used describe someone who is unfamiliar with a formerly familiar surrounding, upon his return from an absence. Its Western equivalent is Odysseus syndrome / el síndrome de Ulises, obviously taken from the titular character's return to Ithaca in the Homeric Odyssey.
- A Brazilian TV commercial for the airline Varig which aired in the late 60s and 1970 (as a promotion for Expo 70) did feature Taro as a fisherman who nursed a sick turtle - the retelling of the storyline was that he and the turtle ended up in Brazil and living among natives (with two mountain peaks resembling Sugarloaf and Urca Hill (landmarks of Rio de Janeiro), where he is marooned for the remainder of his life, aging into an elderly man (with imagery of Brazilian landscape including Iguaçu Falls). Despite his old age, one of the natives gives him a sealed box - he opens it where he experiences reverse aging and it has a Varig Airways boarding pass (plane ticket) - a second TV commercial has him back in Japan where he meets up with his relatives and back in his village until a tsurumaru transforms the village into a futuristic scenery - the landscape of the Expo 70 grounds. In both TV commercials, Varig Airlines was promoting its Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo international route.