Once upon a time, in remote area of Mie, was a mighty dragon who lived nestled in the depths of Osugidani river.
As fearless as the beast itself, the mountain stream flowed swift, bouncing among ancient trees and leaping over rocks in thunderous waterfalls.
Life here was a harsh one. Everyday, the few foresters who dwelled there had to brave steep slopes and slippery paths to work. All knew the mountain was moody and unpredictable. Dangerous.
And one night, a gigantic storm rose.
Deafening thunder and howling winds rattled the village for hours while rain poured and poured over humble shacks.
Holding each other tightly, all prayed, anxious souls turning to the raging skies.
Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the storm finally vanished, letting behind a clear sunrise, pink and tranquille.
Foresters exited their homes and sighted. Violent gales had blown away some huts. And a few feet away, the stream, overflowed by the heavy rain, had turned river and taken the bridge apart.
But villagers, accustomed to the austere mountain life, were hard to the task and not easily disheartened. They rolled up their sleeves and started to clean and repair.
As one of them was cutting of fallen trees upstream, he spotted on the bank a strange log tangled among branches. Puzzled, he came closer to get a better look.
The log was huge, taller and wider than the man himself. The woodgrain, fine and regular, seemed polished and gleamed with a red shine in morninglight.
– Such beautiful wood will be perfect for the bridge!
Beaming, the man raised his axe, ready to cut the smooth surface.
His blade had barely touched the wood that lightning struck, spreading from his arms to his head, shattering him to the bones. The man let out a distress cry.
Staggering, he took a step back, taking shaking hands to his face.
Visions like nothing he had ever seen invaded his mind, pounding beneath his skull. Eerie nightmares of dark rolling clouds, and vicious whirlwinds, and pelting rain, and hammering thunderclaps.
Wailing madly, the forester fled to the village. Stumbling, he clutched at the first person he could reach like a drowning man. But before he could uttered a single words, his eyes rolled and he caved in, falling down unconscious.
The entire village tried to shake him awake, without success. The man was laid down on his futon, his heap held firmly up by his wooden pillow.
Days passed yet the man kept on dreaming, laying as still as a corpse.
A few weeks later, a mountain monk came to pass by, lured by rumors across the hills. The holy man respectfully bowed in front of the family and asked:
– If you don’t mind, I’d like to see him. Maybe I’ll find why he so deeply sleep.
The monk took out a small bowl and a wooden bell. He sat down by the head of the bed, lighted incense, and started to chant.
During a whole day, the heady rhythm of his mumbles filled the room. The incense had long stopped burning when the monk’s incantations finally quieted.
Visibly shaken, he turned toward the family and said:
– This man had been struck by dreams that aren’t his. He tried to cut down a log…. But that wasn’t simple wood. It was the pillow… of the Osugidani Dragon.
The villagers gasped as the monk pondered aloud:
– The dreams of Osugidani-sama must have soaked his pillow. Such a mighty creature, no wonder it was too much for but a mere human.
Somewhere a woman started to weep. The sound shook the holy man out of his musings, and he added with a smile:
– Keep hope my friends. Show Osugidani-sama your brother didn’t meant any harm. Build a sanctuary around his pillow and his dreams will release him.
So was said and done. Foresters untangled the huge log from the fallen branches, taking great care of not letting a blade, let alone a bare hand touch it.
They then rose a sanctuary to shelter the pillow of the dragon. And as pilgrims came to pay reverence, the sleeper started to regain colors until one day, he opened his eyes, finally free of the formidable dragon’s dreams.
In the past, Japanese didn’t use pillows made with feathers. Makura were stands, made of wood, metal or ceramics, sometimes made comfier by adding a small cushion on top. Makura came in all kind of shapes (you can see here a very nice collection) and you could even find lighter ones for cooling yourself during summer. Today still, maiko apprentice use those ancient pillows as they help to maintain their hairstyles.
Etymology of this word is not clear, but some claims makura could come from tama-kura (魂蔵, litterally « soul depository »).
I have evoked in previous tales the link between Asian dragons/snakes and all kind of water phenomenons. Those mythical beasts – mostly auspicious, often lived in rivers and were seen as powerful rain and storm bringers.
This story takes place in a remote area of Japan who is now part of the Yoshino National Park. The Osugidani river (大杉谷川), known to be wild and untouched, is now part of an UNESCO biosphere reserve and is a paradise for trekkers.