The Vow of Princess Konohanasakuya by the Cherry Tree
This story tells of events about three thousand years ago, when Ninikine (or Ninigi), well known from the ancient myths of divine descent, governed the nation from his Nihari Palace in Tsukuba.
The land had long been at peace. But the ensuing growth in the population had not been matched by progress in agriculture; water shortages had slowed the development of rice fields, and rice harvests were in decline.
So Ninikine conceived a plan for developing new rice fields. First, he went to his grandfather Amateru in Ise, proposing a grand tour of the provinces that would combine instruction on paddy field development with his search for a new capital.
But Amateru was not so easily convinced.
Undeterred, Ninikine built a temporary palace in Ise, where he would wait until Amateru changed his mind. But Ninikine was too keenly motivated towards the common good to let his obsession rest. While he waited, he built a dam in the upper reaches of the Miyagawa river at Yamadagahara (now part of Ise City), made embankments and water conduits, and in this way converted the local uplands to rice paddies.
Within five years, the rice grew in abundance and the people held great harvest festivals. Dams were built in eighteen other places, and the happy voices of the people celebrating their festivals could be heard throughout the locality.
When Amateru heard of these glad tidings, his heart was full of joy. He quickly summoned Ninikine and commanded him to conduct his tour of the eight provinces of the land.
And so it was that, on the first day of the second month, together with a celebration of the plum blossoms, a grand farewell party was held in the Hiyomi Palace. It was here that calendar matters were officially overseen.
Amateru marked his grandson's departure by conferring on him the Three Heavenly Treasures of divine authority. The "Mihata Oritome no Onfumi", a decree of government that Amateru himself had written, was bestowed on Ninikine in person. The "Mikagami" or Heavenly Mirror was conferred on Ame-no-Koyane (today celebrated as the deity of the Kasuga Shrine), who now became the Minister of the Left. The "Mitsurugi" or Heavenly Sword was bestowed on Komori, the 3rd Omononushi, making him the Minister of the Right. With this, Ninikine was now officially recognized as heir to Amateru's kingdom.
Ninikine placed the Three Heavenly Treasures in a chest, which, marked by an upright "sakaki" branch, was carried before him by his attendants. At the head of the entourage went Tachikarao, followed by Katsute and Komori, their horses led by attendants. These were followed by the chest containing the Three Heavenly Treasures, followed in turn by the Grand Palanquin bearing the person of Ninikine himself. Next came Koyane on his horse, followed by some eighty "mononobe" guards leading palanquins and horses.
After leaving Ise, they first went to the Asuka Palace, seat of Ninikine's older brother Kushitama Honoakari, to receive his felicitations. Then they moved on to the Nishinomiya Palace in the Land of Mitsu. Here they first dug a large dam at Kanzaki and opened up new paddy fields, before moving northwards to reach Manai on the Tango Peninsula. At Manai they paid homage and made offerings at the Asahi Shrine, where Lord Toyoke (deity of the Ise Outer Shrine) was venerated.
They next entered the Land of Koyene (now the Hokuriku region) and stayed at the palace of Achihaze. Achihaze presented Ninikine with a "minekoshi" palanquin, into which he promptly climbed and went off to tour the Shirayama peaks. Ninikine was very impressed with the palanquin, for it was so designed that it would not tilt even when climbing mountains.
"Who made this palanquin?" he enquired. Princess Kokori (now celebrated as the Shirayama-hime deity) replied: "It was made by my sister-in-law, Ukesuteme. When she was in Akagata (China), she married King Kurosonotsumi. She bore a child called Kurosonotsumeru and brought him up in that harsh mountainous land, until he took the throne of the Land of Korobitsu. She it was who invented the minekoshi to allow her to pass over the treacherous mountain peaks. She has come here today for an audience with your person."
Ninikine was delighted to hear such a tale. And to mark his unexpected meeting with Ukesuteme, he proclaimed that the province would thenceforth be known as the Land of Koshi and the mountain as Minekoshi. In return for the palanquin, he presented Ukesuteme with a Michimi peach tree, said to bear fruit once every three thousand years. She took it home as a keepsake, saying "Rare the peach so fine in both flower and fruit!"
On the fifteenth day of the third month, a banquet was held in Achihaze's garden. Seeing the plum blossom with its exquisite fragrance, Ninikine smiled and said, "Now, a month and a half after my departure with a plum-blossom party, I am again enjoying the plum blossom and have been blessed with a minekoshi. These have truly been sent from heaven!"
So saying, he placed plum blossoms above his head and set off. Traversing the west side of Lake Biwa, he came to a place called Sasanami in Takashima, where the cherry blossoms were already coming out.
"How fine these cherry blossoms are", he declared. Taking some in his hands, he again placed them above his head and moved south towards Kumano and Yorogi. There he planned to create new paddy fields. He gave instruction in agriculture to Komori's sons Ota (today remembered as the deity of Ota Shrine) and Minoshima (deity of Minoshima Shrine). He taught them how to build dams and make water canals, and in this way opened up the rice fields of Kumano and Yorogi.
The entourage set off again and moved southwards. But as they approached the Wototama river, they saw a huge man sprawled out asleep at a fork in the road. Snoring loudly, his body completely blocked their route.
He was seventeen hands tall, and his hairy face was a fiery red. His massive nose was nearly seven inches long, his eyes sharp and piercing like mirrors. Ninikine thought he might be a "god of the fork in the road". He turned to the eighty or so in attendance and commanded them to ask the man's identity. But all were sorely afraid of the giant's appearance, and none dared approach him.
Standing beside Ninikine was a woman named Uzume. Ninikine commanded her to beguile the giant with her physical charms. Without delay, she bared her ample bosom, then pulled the cords of her robe right down to her navel. With a quick laugh, she went up to the man.
Startled by her laughter, he awoke. And as he did, he saw Uzume approaching, half-naked with hips a-sway.
"Who in heaven are you?" he asked roughly. Uzume replied, "This road lies on the processional route of the Heavenly Grandchild. You are blocking the road. It is I who ask, who in heaven are you?"
"I heard that Lord Amateru's grandchild would be passing through this land", the giant replied, "so I built a temporary palace in Ukawa and prepared a feast. Then I came to this fork in the road to await him. My name is Sarutahiko, and I was born in Nagata in Takashima. Will you tell the Heavenly Grandchild who I am? I wish to accompany his procession."
Hearing this explanation, Ninikine gladly accepted the feast prepared by Saruta, who was now added to Ninikine's accompaniment. Ukawa was awash with Japanese snow flowers. Ninikine placed some of these over his head and resumed his journey.
After their dramatic meeting, Sarutahiko and Uzume only had thoughts for each other. Ninikine arranged for them to be betrothed. He bestowed the title of Lords of Sarube on them, and they eventually played a part in the beginnings of professional Kagura (courtly) dance.
The party now paid its respects and made offerings at Taga, where Isanagi (Amateru's father) had held court in days of yore. Next, they called in at Mino, residence of Amekunitama, son of Kanayamahiko. Amekunitama was overjoyed.
"I have been visited by misfortune", he explained. "I lost my child Amewakahiko, who was to be my heir, and didn't know what to do. But then, by chance, Kasuga gave me a melon seed that was supposed to bless its owner with children. I planted the seed and was blessed with the noble Takahikone (son of the Okuninushi) as the husband of my daughter Ogurahime. It is as if my child is born again. To wish you good luck on the rest of your journey, I have prepared one basket of melons for each of your eighty attendants. With these I hope you will share my joy. Please refresh yourselves."
So saying, he cooled the sweet, ripe melons in the river and handed them out to the assembled throng.
Grateful for their unexpected feast, they now proceeded along a mountainous course, guided by the Lord of Suwa (now celebrated at Suwa Shrine) as they cut through the highland clouds. They eventually arrived safely in the Land of Shinano (now Nagano Prefecture). There they went to Kai and climbed to the summit of Haramiyama (now Mount Fuji) to survey the land.
Seeing the expansive foothills spread out below, Ninikine decided to create rice paddies here. He knew that the area would be richly irrigated all year round by snow melting from the mountain. And he decided to move his capital from Tsukuba to Harami. The mountain was graceful and tall, and the eight lakes set out around it were deep and full of clear blue water. In ancient times, the eight lakes were Lake Yamanaka in the east, Lake Asu in the northeast, Lake Kawaguchi in the north, Lake Motosu in the northwest, Lake Nishino in the west, Lake Kiyomi in the southwest, Lake Shibire in the south, and Lake Sudo in the southeast.
Ninikine praised the splendid view, saying "The snow that falls on the mountain will melt and gather in the eight lakes. The tributaries leading from them will soon irrigate the new rice fields that we have created over the plains stretching for nine thousand leagues, and these will support the lives of thirty thousand people. Let us now start a twenty-year plan to develop this land."
So saying, Ninikine came down the mountain and entered the Palace of Sakaori (now Asama Shrine), centre for administration of the Land of Hotsuma (modern-day Tokai and Kanto regions, with Mount Fuji at their centre).
At Sakaori, the local lord Oyamazumi held a welcoming feast, grandly befitting the decision to move the capital here. At the table, it was Oyamazumi's beautiful and kind-hearted daughter Ashitsu who waited on Ninikine and served him.
Ninikine was instantly beholden to her charms. He called her to him that night and they were joined in the bond of love.
Early the next morning, Ninikine returned to Tsukuba, where he immediately arranged for Yuki and Suki pavilions to be built at his Nihari Palace. There he worshipped the gods and the heavens and held a Festival of Thanksgiving to celebrate his accession to the throne. He reported to his ancestors that he had received the Three Heavenly Treasures from his grandfather Amateru. And finally, he prayed for the peace and prosperity of his people.
The front of the Palace was adorned with an orange tree with sweet-smelling blossom and a banner dyed in eight colours.
On the following day, Ninikine appeared before the people in the Rite of Accession. Heaven and earth resounded long after with jubilant cheers and cries of "Long Live Ninikine!".
The Festival of Thanksgiving complete, Ninikine was now established as the Heavenly Sovereign and his rule continued peacefully. But his yearning for Princess Ashitsu grew stronger day by day.
One day, he entrusted the safekeeping of the palace to Ame-no-Koyane, the Minister of the Left, and, summoning Katsute, announced his plan to travel along the coastal route to Ise.
Oyamazumi once again received Ninikine with a grand banquet at a temporary palace in Izusaki. And again, it was his youngest daughter Ashitsu who waited on Ninikine at the feast. Her face a-blush, she confided gently to the Sovereign that she was expecting his child.
Greatly gladdened, Ninikine announced that they would travel together to Ise the next day to report the news to Amateru. He started making arrangements for Ashitsu to join him.
But now Ashitsu's mother came to Ninikine and requested an audience. When asked her reason, she replied, "Actually, I have another daughter who is far more beautiful than Ashitsu. Will it please you to see her?"
Her description was enough to tempt Ninikine. He agreed to see the older of the sisters, Iwanaga. But when he met her, he saw that her body was ugly and her face quite hideous. So taken aback was he that he withdrew into his inner quarters. And there, when he regained his senses, he realized so much the more how he longed for Princess Ashitsu.
News of the incident soon reached Oyamazumi, who rebuked his wife in no uncertain terms. "It takes a man to know the ways of a man's heart. I knew it would be like this from the beginning. That is why I declined to present Iwanaga to him. You have gone too far. Leave my presence immediately and go home to Mishima!"
The older sister and her mother now bore a grudge, and were bent on revenge. They bribed one of Ninikine's maidservants to spread a rumour that the child in Ashitsu's womb was the seed of another man.
It was when the entourage had stopped for a night at Shiroko that the malicious murmuring reached Ninikine's ear. And when he heard the rumour, Ninikine started to question how Ashitsu could have conceived his child on their only night of union. His decision was simple. He left the inn in the middle of the night and, accompanied by his retinue, continued to Ise without her.
Awaking the next morning, Ashitsu was astonished to find herself alone. She summoned up her strength and followed after Ninikine. But when she arrived at Matsuzaka, she found the way barred. Beg as she might, they would not let her pass. All she could do was return to the inn at Shiroko, sobbing through her tears.
Ashitsu soon realized that her mother and sister had, through sheer spite, accused her of something that was untrue. But this gave her a new resolve that swept away her former anxiety. As she now resolved to meet her fate, she made a vow beside a certain cherry tree.
Of old, Ashitsu's great-grandfather had been the renowned Sakurauchi, who had served as Amateru's Minister of the Left. He had come up with the idea of planting cherry trees inside palace grounds as a way of divining the "Way of Ise". "Ise" was a combination of the words for "male" and "female" and symbolized the compatibility between man and woman. His idea remains in the "Cherry Tree of the Left" and the "Orange Tree of the Right" that are found in some major shrines. In Ashitsu's day, these were vital barometers for the affairs of government.
"Cherry tree, oh cherry tree", she said, "if you have any heart at all, please clear this unjust shame from me. If this child in my womb is of inferior seed, let your blossom wither and die. But if it is of higher seed, let your flowers blossom proud when the child is born. Let them blossom without end."
She made this vow three times, then planted a sapling in the ground before returning to her family home in Mishima.
On the first day of the sixth month, Ashitsu gave birth to three healthy boys. And, oddly enough, their placentas bore the patterns of flowers: first plum, then cherry blossom, then finally the Japanese snow flower. Seeing in this a portent, she immediately sent word to Ninikine in Ise. But reply came there none.
Ashitsu saw that the stain on her name still remained, and fell to the depths of despair. She now resolved to protest her innocence by taking her own life and those of her children.
She built a doorless pit chamber in the foothills of Mount Fuji, surrounded it with brushwood, and uttered a final vow before shutting herself in with the babes. "If these three are not of Lord Ninikine, let us all die together", she said.
As she set fire to the wood, the little ones squirmed in the heat and wriggled to get out. A dragon from Lake Konoshiro near Mount Fuji heard their cries and came to their aid. The dragon spurted water and caused it to rain, then led the children out one by one.
People nearby, startled, rushed up in a throng and put the fire out. After rescuing Ashitsu, they sat her with her children in a palanquin and sent them to the Sakaori Palace, also sending word of the event to Ise.
Ninikine knew that the cherry tree at Shiroko had blossomed on the day the children were born, and had remained in bloom ever since. He now rushed to nearby Okitsu by "kamo" boat, and sent an express messenger to Sakaori saying he wished to be reunited with Ashitsu.
But her heart was now closed and she had no strength left to meet him. She stubbornly refused to move.
The messenger sped back and reported her reply to Ninikine. After pondering for a while, he recorded a poem on a small wooden tablet. It read:
"Seaweed from the offing drifts freely to the shore. But our bed of blissful purity is so distant. Alas, you birds of the beach!"
Okihiko was chosen as the official messenger to take the poem to Ashitsu.
When she read the poem brought by Okihiko, Ashitsu's tears of remorse dried in an instant. Her heart, now restored to its former innocence, was filled only with love for Ninikine. In her desperate wish to be reunited with him, she ran barefoot over the foothills of Mount Fuji and down to the beach at Okitsu, where she flew into the arms of her waiting love.
Ninikine met her with equal joy and gladness. And soon the pair were on their way back to Sakaori, their palanquins travelling side by side in contented harmony.
Soon after their arrival at the Palace, Ninikine addressed the nobles and people. "When I toured our eight provinces under Lord Amateru's command", he said, "I carried plum blossoms aloft as I traversed the Land of Koshi, cherry blossoms in Sasanami of Takashima, and Japanese snow flowers in Ukawa. For sure, these fine thoughts were conveyed to my love and reappeared in the placentas of her baby boys. Let us now give names to our three children. He who first crawled out of the flames will be called Honoakari ("Light of the Fire"), and his familiar name will be Mumehito, after the plum blossom. The second child shall be Honosusumi ("Advance of the Fire"), and his familiar name will be Sakuragi, after the cherry blossom. The third child shall be Hiko-Hohodemi, the True Fire Child, and his familiar name will be Utsukine, after the Japanese snow flower.
"And to the Princess Ashitsu I shall bestow from this day the name of Konohanasakuya ("Flowers-of-the-Trees-Shall-Bloom"), since the cherry tree in Shiroko has remained in bloom since the day the children were born."
Ninikine now built a new palace on the site of the old one at Sakaori, where his grandfather Amateru had been born, and lived here with his Princess and her three children. In accordance with custom, the Lady Natsume (now the deity of child rearing) wove the babes their swaddling clothes, and presented them to the court.
Princess Ashitsu, meanwhile, nursed her three children entirely alone without any need of a nursemaid. For this reason, she was referred to in later times as Koyasu (the deity for the protection of children).
Hearing news of these joyful events, the lords of the Four Marches ("Yoshina") of the Land of Shinano came to the court bearing gifts. After each had offered felicitations, they made a proposal. "Since we have a precedent from the birth of Amateru, may we take the placentas of the children as relics to be venerated in our homelands?" they asked.
Ninikine paused for thought before answering. "The Lord of Hani-Shina", he replied at length, "shall venerate the peak of Ena-ga-Take, where the placenta of Lord Amateru is enshrined. The Lords of Hae-Shina, Sara-Shina, and Tsuma-Shina shall take the placentas of the babes and enshrine them on peaks in their respective lands."
This story is the origin of the phrase "Yoshina-ni hakarau" (arranging things to perfection).
Ninikine's rule over the nation was good and true. So much so that his land was given the epithet "Hotsuma" ("Excellent Truth"). The people thrived and flourished, and long years of peace ensued.
Years came and went. It so happened that in the twilight of his days the "Heavenly Grandchild" was residing in the Palace of Takachiho in Tsukushi (now Kyushu), far removed from his beloved Konohanasakuya in the Land of Hotsuma.
It was in Tsukushi that Ninikine had spent his youth in his immense zeal to develop new rice-fields. For him, this was a land rich in memories of hard work and great exertion. Even the name of the province, Tsukushi ("Exertion"), had been coined in commemoration of his efforts.
For Ninikine, this second journey to Tsukushi was a journey of conclusion, one that he had promised himself at the end of his life. There, every morning he would pray to the sunrise over the Land of Hotsuma, land of his beloved wife, from the Palace of Takachiho. This gives the origin of Hiuga ("Facing the Sun"), the name of that region.
His wife, meanwhile, would pray from Asama to the moon as it set over Takachiho in Tsukushi. And so, together though parted, their hearts were likened to the sun (the Sovereign) and the moon (his Princess).
Eventually, as her days came to an end, Konohanasakuya passed away on the peak of Mount Harami. Ninikine followed in her stead, on Mount Takachiho. Thus, in death, they were united as mythic deities. For, even though parted in this world, they would surely be reborn and reunited one day...
Konohanasakuya was later revered as the deity Asama or Koyasu in the shrine of Fuji Asama. Ninikine was variously celebrated as the deity Wakeikazuchi ("Lightning-Divider") or Izu ("Awesome Power of the Divine") at Kamo Shrine in Kyoto.
Many generations later, his descendant Woshirowake (the 12th "Human Emperor" Keiko), on an imperial tour of Tsukushi, gave Hiuga the new name of "Tsuma" ("Wife") in honour of the romantic story of Ninikine and Konohanasakuya.
A trace of this past remains in the Tsuma Shrine (dedicated to Konohanasakuya) in Tsuma-cho, Saito City.
- END -
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