Japanese Time Travel: the Fisherman and the Turtle

Imagine this:

You’re a peaceful fisherman, walking home after a day at sea.

As you tread up the shoreline, you come across a group of children tormenting a small turtle.

You’re not having any of it; you scold the children, frightening them off, and pick up the turtle.

Then, praying to the Goddess of the Southern Seas, Kannon, you release the frightened creature back into the waters.

Your name is Urashima Tarō, and life as you know it will never be the same…

Urashima Taro encounters children on the beach who are “toying with” a turtle. – Jinjō shōgaku kokugo tokuhon (the 3rd edition of Kokutei tokuhon) (1928)


A few days later, a giant turtle approached Urashima.

“Friend,” the creature said to the startled fisherman.

“You saved the Dragon King’s daughter. She would have your company in her father’s palace.”

The turtle then beckoned Urashima to ride on his back.

Terrified but curious, Urashima climbed on, and dove deep beneath the waters…

Mizuenoe no Urashima riding a turtle with a flowing tail (mino game).
—Ogata Gekkō, Gekkō zuihitsu (1887)


Ryūgū is the underwater palace of the Dragon King, Ryūjin.

Each of the four walls of his palace open up to a garden…

Each garden exists in its own season.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter. Pick any season you like to stroll through the gardens.

They say that spending a day in Ryūgū is akin to spending a century in the real world.

Ask Urashima…


After three days, Urashima longed to go home.

He had grown attached to Otohime, the Dragon King’s daughter, but his mother was aging, and he was duty bound to return to her.

Otohime begged him not to go, but he was adamant.

Finally, Otohime acquiesced, and Urashima set off for his homeland.

However, before he left, Otohime gave him a gift: an ornate box, and a warning as old as Pandora:

Don’t open the box.


Imagine walking up three hundred years in the future.

Urashima’s home was gone.

All traces of his family had disappeared.

Yes, some people he encountered remembered a fisherman named Urashima, but he had vanished a long, long time ago.

Distraught, Urashima unwittingly opened the mysterious box that Otohime had gifted him…

The box with the warning…

White smoke poured out from the box.

it coiled around him,

it covered him,

it swallowed him…

And then it cleared, revealing, Urashima…

Only three hundred years now marked him. His hair was white, his skin was like parchment, spread taut over his wiry frame, and his beard reached the ground.

Urashima sighed…


So, what happened to our heroic, if aged, fisherman next?

Some people say he withered away into dust.

Others say that he transformed into a crane who still circles his mother’s grave.

Still other, more romantic souls, believe this:

Urashima grew gills and swam back to the Dragon King’s palace, where he married Otohime, who took on her turtle form. They are still revered to this day as Shinto deities.

Urashima and Otohime cross a bridge in the kingdom under the sea. Japanese painting, late 16th or early 17th century

What’s my take-away?

We could all use a happy ending right about now.

Here’s to Urashima and Otohime, living blissfully together,

under the sea…

Urashima saves the turtle, from an Otogizōshi picture scroll in the Bodleian Library collection, late 16th or early 17th century.

References and Further Reading:

The full name Urashima Tarō was not given to the character until the 15th century first appearing in a genre of illustrated popular fiction known as otogizōshi. However, the story itself can be found in much older sources, dating to the 8th century, such as the Fudoki for Tango Province that survives in excerpts, the Man’yōshū and the Nihon Shoki.

In terms of English versions, the story entitled “The Fisher-boy Urashima” (1886) retold by Basil Hall Chamberlain was number eight in the “Japanese Fairy Tale Series” printed by Hasegawa Takejirō.

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