Jofuku was the Wise Man of China. Many books he read, and he never forgot what was in them. All the characters he knew as he knew the lines in the palm of his hand. He learned secrets from birds and beasts, and herbs and flowers and trees, and rocks and metals. He knew magic and poetry and philosophy. He grew full of years and wisdom. All the people honoured him; but he was not happy, for he had a word written upon his heart.
The word was Mutability. It was with him day and night, and sorely it troubled him. Moreover, in the days of Jofuku a tyrant ruled over China, and he made the Wise Man’s life a burden.
“Jofuku,” he said, “teach the nightingales of my wood to sing me the songs of the Chinese poets.”
Jofuku could not do it for all his wisdom.
“Alas, liege,” he said, “ask me another thing and I will give it you, though it cost me the blood of my heart.”
“Have a care,” said the Emperor, “look to your ways. Wise men are cheap in China; am I one to be dishonoured?”
“Ask me another thing,” said the Wise Man.
“Well, then, scent me the peony with the scent of the jessamine. The peony is brilliant, imperial; the jessamine is small, pale, foolish. Nevertheless, its perfume is sweet. Scent me the peony with the scent of the jessamine.”
But Jofuku stood silent and downcast.
“By the gods,” cried the Emperor, “this wise man is a fool! Here, some of you, off with his head.”
“Liege,” said the Wise Man, “spare me my life and I will set sail for Horaizan where grows the herb Immortality. I will pluck this herb and bring it back to you again, that you may live and reign for ever.”
The Emperor considered.
“Well, go,” he said, “and linger not, or it will be the worse for you.”
Jofuku went and found brave companions to go with him on the great adventure, and he manned a junk with the most famous mariners of China, and he took stores on board, and gold; and when he had made all things ready he set sail in the seventh month, about the time of the full moon.
The Emperor himself came down to the seashore.
“Speed, speed, Wise Man,” he said; “fetch me the herb Immortality, and see that you do it presently. If you return without it, you and your companions shall die the death.”
“Farewell, liege,” called Jofuku from the junk. So they went with a fair wind for their white sails. The boards creaked, the ropes quivered, the water splashed against the junk’s side, the sailors sang as they steered a course eastward, the brave companions were merry. But the Wise Man of China looked forward and looked back, and was sad because of the word written upon his heart—Mutability.
The junk of Jofuku was for many days upon the wild sea, steering a course eastwards. He and the sailors and the brave companions suffered many things. The great heat burnt them, and the great cold froze them. Hungry and thirsty they were, and some of them fell sick and died. More were slain in a fight with pirates. Then came the dread typhoon, and mountain waves that swept the junk. The masts and the sails were washed away with the rich stores, and the gold was lost for ever. Drowned were the famous mariners, and the brave companions every one. Jofuku was left alone.
In the grey dawn he looked up. Far to the east he saw a mountain, very faint, the colour of pearl, and on the mountain top there grew a tree, tall, with spreading branches. The Wise Man murmured:
“The Island of Horaizan is east of the east, and there is Fusan, the Wonder Mountain. On the heights of Fusan there grows a tree whose branches hide the Mysteries of Life.”
Jofuku lay weak and weary and could not lift a finger. Nevertheless, the junk glided nearer and nearer to the shore. Still and blue grew the waters of the sea, and Jofuku saw the bright green grass and the many-coloured flowers of the island. Soon there came troops of young men and maidens bearing garlands and singing songs of welcome; and they waded out into the water and drew the junk to land. Jofuku was aware of the sweet and spicy odours that clung to their garments and their hair. At their invitation he left the junk, which drifted away and was no more seen.
He said, “I have come to Horaizan the Blest.” Looking up he saw that the trees were full of birds with blue and golden feathers. The birds filled the air with delightful melody. On all sides there hung the orange and the citron, the persimmon and the pomegranate, the peach and the plum and the loquat. The ground at his feet was as a rich brocade, embroidered with every flower that is. The happy dwellers in Horaizan took him by the hands and spoke lovingly to him.
“How strange it is,” said Jofuku, “I do not feel my old age any more.”
“What is old age?” they said.
“Neither do I feel any pain.”
“Now what is pain?” they said.
“The word is no longer written on my heart.”
“What word do you speak of, beloved?”
“Mutability is the word.”
“And what may be its interpretation?”
“Tell me,” said the Wise Man, “is this death?”
“We have never heard of death,” said the inhabitants of Horaizan.
The Wise Man of Japan was Wasobiobe. He was full as wise as the Wise Man of China. He was not old but young. The people honoured him and loved him. Often he was happy enough.
It was his pleasure to venture alone in a frail boat out to sea, there to meditate in the wild and watery waste. Once as he did this it chanced that he fell asleep in his boat, and he slept all night long, while his boat drifted out to the eastward. So, when he awoke in the bright light of morning, he found himself beneath the shadow of Fusan, the Wonder Mountain. His boat lay in the waters of a river of Horaizan, and he steered her amongst the flowering iris and the lotus, and sprang on shore.
“The sweetest spot in the world!” he said. “I think I have come to Horaizan the Blest.”
Soon came the youths and maidens of the island, and with them the Wise Man of China, as young and as happy as they.
“Welcome, welcome, dear brother,” they cried, “welcome to the Island of Eternal Youth.”
When they had given him to eat of the delicious fruit of the island, they laid them down upon a bank of flowers to hear sweet music. Afterwards they wandered in the woods and groves. They rode and hunted, or bathed in the warm sea-water. They feasted and enjoyed every delightful pleasure. So the long day lingered, and there was no night, for there was no need of sleep, there was no weariness and no pain.
The Wise Man of Japan came to the Wise Man of China. He said:
“I cannot find my boat.”
“What matter, brother?” said Jofuku. “You want no boat here.”
“Indeed, my brother, I do. I want my boat to take me home. I am sick for home. There’s the truth.”
“Are you not happy in Horaizan?”
“No, for I have a word written upon my heart. The word is Humanity. Because of it I am troubled and have no peace.”
“Strange,” said the Wise Man of China. “Once I too had a word written on my heart. The word was Mutability, but I have forgotten what it means. Do you too forget.”
“Nay, I can never forget,” said the Wise Man of Japan.
He sought out the Crane, who is a great traveller, and besought her, “Take me home to my own land.”
“Alas,” the Crane said, “if I did so you would die. This is the Island of Eternal Youth; do you know you have been here for a hundred years? If you go away you will feel old age and weariness and pain, then you will die.”
“No matter,” said Wasobiobe, “take me home.”
Then the Crane took him on her strong back and flew with him. Day and night she flew and never tarried and never tired. At last she said, “Do you see the shore?”
And he said, “I see it. Praise be to the gods.”
She said, “Where shall I carry you?… You have but a little time to live.”
“Good Crane, upon the dear sand of my country, under the spreading pine, there sits a poor fisherman mending his net. Take me to him that I may die in his arms.”
So the Crane laid Wasobiobe at the poor fisherman’s feet. And the fisherman raised him in his arms. And Wasobiobe laid his head against the fisherman’s humble breast.
“I might have lived for ever,” he said, “but for the word that is written on my heart.”
“What word?” said the fisherman.
“Humanity is the word,” the Wise Man murmured. “I am grown old—hold me closer. Ah, the pain….” He gave a great cry.
Afterwards he smiled. Then his breath left him with a sigh, and he was dead.
“It is the way of all flesh,” said the fisherman.
From Japanese Fairy Tales by Grace James, used under Public Domain.
Notes: This story is similar to The Story of the Man Who Did Not Wish to Die, which also features a land of immortality. That story can be found here.