Friday, May 06, 2011

A Robe of Feathers (the story) - End Notes

I first heard the Hagoromo myth (A Robe of Feathers) soon after coming to Japan. I was an exchange student in Shizuoka and the story was said to have taken place on a beach not too far from where I lived at the time. I learned there are several versions (and even an old and popular Noh Play based on the tale) and while they all differ slightly, they are more or less the same.

A fisherman comes across a celestial being bathing in the ocean early one morning (or late at night depending on the story). He sees she's left her feathered robe hanging on a tree. He takes the robe. The angel pleads to him to give it back or she can't fly home. They make a deal and she dances naked (I'm assuming) for him. He returns robe, she flies away.

Except for the naked part it's not really that good of a story.

Here's a perfectly SFW drawing of the sexy lady.

You'll notice she has a soccer ball. She's also the mascot of Shimizu, a used-to-be-its-own-town-until-it-merged-with-Shizuoka that has it's own soccer team.

So anyway, I knew the story had been to Miho Beach lots.

Then a few years ago a lady came up to me at work and said something about me liking folktales, right? Sure. And she handed me this ancient little text. She said she had it on a bookshelf and wasn't interested in it. The tiny text was pure gold. It was written before the war and had a half dozen Japanese folktales in it, but they were all different versions than the ones we hear now. (I really need to find that book again, by the way. It's lost on one of my bookshelves.)

The A Robe of Feathers story was particularly interesting because the fisherman didn't give the robe back. He hid it and proceeded to spend years promising to give it back to the poor angel while in effect he kept her hostage for most of his life. A true horror story and reminiscent of the original Grimm tales.

Now *that* was the version I wanted to use in a story.

That said, my story ("A Robe of Feathers") is more about a thirty-something, grandpa loving, girl stalking, deco chari building man-boy. The Hagoromo myth was just icing on the cake.

Here are a few photos I took of the tree that supposedly held the magical robe.

And here. The tree is said to be 650 years old.

Here's one where you can see the little shrine at the base.

Back lit by the morning sun. We went really early to take some of theses shots. Yes, I looked, no bathing angels. But the place is really stunning.

Here's one of the famous prints from the artist Hiroshige Andou.

And here's a real photo taken at the beach around roughly the same spot.

The tree was in the news recently when it was discovered a ground's keeper had been weed eating a little too close to the roots. It had been going on for some time and evidently some serious damage had occurred. I haven't been recently, but I'll have to go check it out. I haven't heard anything else about the trees imminent demise, so I'm thinking it's out of danger. I'll let you know.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

A Robe of Feathers - End Notes

My father asked me to do this a long time ago, and I've had a handful of requests since. And then again another just recently, so I've decided to give it a go.

That is: once a month I'll spend a blog post or two on one of the stories from A Robe of Feathers and Other Stories, shedding a little light on the mythology/superstition/folklore or why on earth that story came to be. A kind of "end notes" to the tales. Especially for anyone not familiar with Japanese culture or thought, I've been told that this might be an interesting -- possibly enlightening? -- thing to do.

I'm game!

Today I'll do the introduction. And since I'm staring at a stretch of holidays (Golden Week), I'll put up the first installment tomorrow or soon thereafter.

If there is one thing I have loved and will always love about Japan, it's the way the culture blends reality and fantasy in a very natural and non apologetic way. It's an idea I've always had trouble explaining to people back home. How if I was with a group of friends discussing politics and someone said her dead grandmother had just paid her a visit during the obon festival no one would bat an eye. I was just no good at conveying the surreal-ness of those all too frequent situations. Voila'! The short story. And so trying to capture that feeling in short story form is basically where the idea for A Robe came from.

Even at the time of writing the stories, sending them out, and seeing them published in magazines, I didn't know exactly what they were. They didn't feel like fantasy. And later my agent agreed saying he believed for a story to be labeled fantasy it would have to be set in a fantastical world. My stories aren't. They're all set in Japan, past and present. The settings are real; however, what goes on inside the story can be a bit out there. I like magical realism, but the more I read about that category it didn't seem to fit either.

So in the end I made up my own genre -- mythical realism.

Every story in the book takes some aspect of Japanese culture (or folklore or superstition or history or mythical creature...) and presents it in the context of a short tale. You'll find sadistic bean washers and debonair devils, as well as a thousand-stitched belt and decoration bicycles (deco chari).

Not only will these posts offer inside information about the stories and myth, but I'll also put up scans of artwork I did for the piece or photos I've taken of relevant objects/places related to the story.

And to get us started...

The title story "A Robe of Feathers" is based on the Japanese tale Hagoromo. I'll go into more detail about that tale and the different versions of it in my next post, but for now just know there is a tree in the story where an angel hangs her robe of feathers while she frolics in the ocean early one morning. The entire event is said to have happened at Miho no Matsubara, only a hour's drive from my house.

Here is a photo of the sunrise behind the actual tree. If you look real hard you can see the angel bathing out there.

Okay. No you can't. But if I were any good with Photoshop you could.

I'll leave it to your imagination. Which is a lot of what A Robe of Feathers is...imagination. But the facts are there and I'll be telling you more about them with these posts.

Otanoshimi ni~!