Once upon a time, there was sweet couple who lived a comfortable life by the sea. Despite their material comfort, both were very sad for they could not have children.
They had tried everything, patiently summoning famed physicians, and hiring priests for ritual chants and prayers. But alas, years and years passed, and no infant came to brighten their lives.
Finally, they both decided to make a pilgrimage to the mountains which stood at a few days walk from their home city.
They walked through soft hills, then ascended grassy slopes towered by heavy peaks, going up and up until thick fog veiled the world around them.
After a stony ridge, a lone weathered shrine appeared draped in mist. A beaten bell and faded rope dangled from the porch, shielding worn out carved doors closing the tiny sanctuary.
The couple clapped their hands and bowed, tolling the bell to beckon whatever god guarded this far off place.
– Please, send us a child.
Only winds answered their prayers, and after long, silent hours, both reluctantly made their way back to their so quiet home.
Surprisingly, a few months later, the lady became pregnant and soon, she birthed a lively baby girl.
The couple was overjoyed to see their hopes at last came true. Their little girl was for them the most beautiful thing they had ever seen.
With her wistful dark eyes and brilliant smile, she looked as mysterious and changing as the sea. Lovingly, they decided to celebrate her wavering nature, naming her Onami from the waves which crashed on the coast near their house.
Time passed as Onami grew up brightening their home with joy. Soon, she had become a young lady, with flowing hair nearly as long as herself, and pearly translucent skin.
And one day, her aging parents received a first marriage proposal.
– Oh fast years flies…
Onami was still young and carefree, so her parents did not spoke a word about the proposal.
But, a few months later, a second letter soon followed. Then a third arrived, then a fourth, each time from more and more respectable families.
The old couple could not ignore them anymore.
They summoned their beloved Onami and handed her the letters. She rose shocked eyes already filling up with tears:
– But, I don’t want to leave you! No, I refuse to marry!
Her parents exchanged worried looks. Yet, seizing their daughter’s obvious distress, they said no more and put the letters away, promising to forget about all this.
Smile blossomed on Onami’s face and quiet life returned to their home. But, those halcyon days did not last.
Months went by and the couple could felt their bones aching, each and every day taking a toll on them. They could not stop worrying about Onami’s fate.
– What will happened of her after we died? We are her only family!
Finally, they could not take it anymore:
– Onami dear, we have found you the best husband a girl could wish for. He is sweet and his family kind and good hearted. They will care after you.
Their daughter eyed them, face unreadable. In the end, she sighed and bowed in agreement. Then she said:
– I am only asking for one thing. And then you will not have to worry about me.
Relieved, her parents rejoiced:
– Everything you wish love!
– Please, let us all make a pilgrimage to that shrine in the mountains where you prayed and prayed so many years ago…
This was such an humble wish that the old couple eagerly agreed.
The three of them soon departed, taking the road through soft hills, ascended grassy slopes, and passing the stony ridge.
The lone shrine still stood as weathered as before. Yet this time, no winds howled, no mist draped the place. And beneath bright noon sun, a cobalt mountain lake glittering behind it.
The old couple and their daughter prayed once more, thanking the god for its kindness. Then, they decided to rest for a while on the bank before heading back.
The man and his wife sat down, as Onami stood unmoving, water softly kissing her feet.
Suddenly, a ripple shook the surface. It grew and grew, until becoming a huge wave. Before her parents could make a move, it had swooped Onami on, carrying her away deep into the abyss as her long hair billowed behind her.
The old couple remained alone on the bank, wailing as their hearts bled at the loss of their cherished daughter.
Yet, as the waters stilled indifferent to their cries, a white shadow flashed underwater.
It glided and wound smoothly, until finally pearly scales broke the surface.
As the old couple fell to their knees trembling, a huge white snake emerged from the lake. It coiled lovingly around them and in a sad hiss, it murmured:
– Fear no more you who prayed so fervently at my shrine. Worry not, for you have brought me joy for years to come.
And as husband and his wife cried tears of mixed sadness and pride, fondly stroking the soft ivory scales, the snake uncoiled its long gracious body.
And Onami disappeared back into the mountain lake, never again to be seen.
This folk tale ends at the volcano group of Mount Kirishima. There, stands the beautiful crater lake of Onami, named after a ruyjin (dragon/snake god) which incarnated into a baby until returning to nestle its waters forever.
Snakes and dragons share in Asia many characteristics. They are watery creatures, sometime bad, but often of good omen. And much like in this past tale, today’s snake story also stresses their ancient underlying role of fertility bringers, interesting here as volcanic soil is known to be incredibly fruitful.
On a side note, it’s worth noting that adoption was in fact pretty common in Japan: you could be adopted as a child or an adult, for sentimental and/or business reasons. So an infertile couple -especially rich like today’s one- would have probably simply adopted a relative’s child (but it’s always nice to be blessed by a snake god ;)).