Smith, a Victorian traveller to Japan, compiled into this book a number of folktales that he heard from the people around him while there.
I have always been interested in mythology and folklore. My great-grandmother used to tell me stories from Hindu mythology when I was four or five (though unfortunately her versions are now lost to the sands of infantile amnesia), and throughout elementary school I branched out to Greek and Norse mythology as well.
I’m not sure why I love fairytales and folklore so much – the oral tradition of them means that they aren’t necessarily the most beautiful in form, and they can get quite repetitive. But I think I like them because they give you an insider glimpse into other cultures, into the themes that preoccupy them and the worldview of the tellers.
In recent years, I’ve been trying to read the stories of more diverse cultures. So when I saw a copy of this book at the Strand, I figured it would be an excellent jumping off point into Japanese folklore.
This book consists of a number of folktales from Japan, many of them quite local to the storytellers. Smith has a straightforward, lucid manner of recounting these stories, and does an excellent job of not intruding on them, usually interjecting only to explain how he came to heard the stories or in the form of clarifying footnotes.
There’s quite a wide range of stories here – quests, love stories, ghost stories, and curses just to name a few. I’d never heard any of them before, so it was exciting to go along with the storyteller with no idea of where we might be going. And the picture of ancient Japan that is painted is a beautiful, mysterious one – a lush land where the dead walk alongside with the living.