The Old Man Who Made the Trees Blossom

The Old Man Who Made the Trees Blossom

As the world has been watching Japan this week I thought it fitting to share another Japanese folk tale. This is for everyone who is in Japan or who is waiting for news about friends and loved ones. Spring is on its way. The wonderful symbol of Japan, the sakura, will soon blossom again. Our prayers are with you.

There once was an old man and his wife who lived in a modest house in a small village. The old couple were very kind to all they met. Unfortunately, they lived next door to another man and his wife who were mean and unfriendly. The kind old couple owned a pure white dog named Shiro, and loved him with all their hearts. However, their neighbours hated dogs and threw stones at Shiro whenever the poor dog came too far into their garden.

One day, the kind old man heard Shiro barking excitedly behind the house. “Let’s go and see what he wants,” said his wife, and they followed Shiro into the garden. The dog began to dig furiously into the hard ground. The old man fetched a spade and helped Shiro dig, until he hit something hard which had been buried in the soil. It was a pot which was filled with gold coins. The old couple rejoiced over the find and thanked Shiro wholeheartedly, for they had never been well-off.

However, the old couple who lived next-door had also heard Shiro barking and had seen everything that had happened. They wanted gold for themselves too, and so asked to borrow Shiro for a while. The old couple were happy that their neighbours had taken to Shiro and so gladly lent him to them.

When the mean old couple had Shiro to themselves and their neighbours were not watching, they took the dog into their own back yard. “Now, dig!” said the old man, “and find us some gold too, or we will beat you!”. Dutifully the dog began digging. The mean old man was so excited that he pushed the dog aside and dug down with his own spade. However, all he found was a heap of smelly rubbish which had been hidden underground. The mean old man was so angry that he beat Shiro until the dog was dead.

The kind old couple were very sad when they heard that their beloved companion was dead, for Shiro had been like a child to them. The mean old couple had, of course, told them that Shiro had dropped dead of his own accord.

The old couple buried Shiro in the garden and planted a pine tree over his grave to protect it from the wind and rain. Every day they returned to water it. Soon the tree shot up and in just a few years had become rather big. In a dream, the old man saw many wild dogs attack the tree and pull it down. He told his wife, and they thought long and hard about what to do. Then the old woman had an idea. “Shiro loved rice cakes. Why don’t we cut the tree down to make a mortar, and make some in memory of him?”

So the old man cut down the tree, and the old woman placed rice into it to make rice cakes. But no sooner had they begun to pound the rice, it all turned to gold before their eyes. The old couple were amazed. They rejoiced and thanked the tree, as they knew that this was Shiro’s spirit which had returned to the tree to watch over them.

However, once again their mean and jealous neighbours saw everything and became jealous. “Let’s ask for that mortar so we can make ourselves some gold too,” said the mean old man. So they asked the kind old couple for the mortar. The couple gladly lent the mortar to their neighbours, who took it greedily and began pounding rice in it as soon as the kind couple were not looking.

However to the mean couple’s disgust, the rice turned not into gold but into sewage. The mean old man was so angry that he took up his axe and chopped up the beautiful mortar, burning it in his stove. When the kind old couple heard what had happened, they were very sad; the mortar had reminded them so of the little dog they had loved so much. Of course, the mean old couple did not tell them the truth about what had happened. That night the old couple went to bed sighing, for they no longer had anything to remember Shiro by.

Winter came swiftly and pretty soon, all the trees were bare. However, one night the old man dreamed that Shiro had told them to take some of the ashes from the mortar, and scatter them on the cherry trees in the garden. So when morning came, the old man went to his neighbour and asked for some ashes, which they then sprinkled on the barren trees.

To their astonishment all the cherry trees in the old couple’s garden began to bloom. The amazing sight soon drew onlookers from far and wide; even a great Daimyo, who was very taken with the beautiful trees. In the Daimyo’s garden was a magnificent cherry tree which had not blossomed for many years. He was so impressed by the old couple’s trees that he asked the old man to make his tree bloom like theirs. The kindly old man travelled to the Daimyo’s palace and sprinkled some of the ashes on the tree.

Merely days passed before the Daimyo’s tree flourished once more. He was so pleased that he gave the old couple many presents and so much money that they were able to build a much nicer house. The grateful Daimyo then gave the old man a special name; Hanasaka Jiisan [花咲か爺], which means ‘old man who made the trees blossom’. Hanasaka and his wife lived happily for many years after.

年々や
桜を肥やす
花の塵

Year upon year –
fertilizing the cherry trees:
cherry blossom dust.

Matsuo Bashō [松尾 芭蕉] 1644-1694

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