It is a story of a man who, while cutting bamboo, finds a tiny baby girl the size of his thumb inside a glowing stalk of bamboo and he and his wife raise her as their own daughter, naming her Kaguya-hime or Princess Kaguya - "radiant night princess". Over the following 20 years, under their loving care, she grows into a beautiful young woman. Kaguya-hime has a secret however, which she keeps from them. She is from the Moon, has been sent to Earth as punishment, and must one day return.
I can't do the story justice in this short space, so I encourage anyone interested to track down a translation. I was fortunate to have worked in a bookstore for a time and thanks to a thoughtful co-worker who knew my interest in Japanese culture and alerted me to the one copy of this book that the store received, I obtained it. The book I purchased has both modern Japanese and English translations as well as the original old Japanese, with many beautiful illustrations by the master of "kiri-e" (paper cut art) Masayuki Miyata (1926-1997). I treasure it. But back to our story...
The truth threatens to come out when Kaguya-hime's adoptive parents try to arrange a marriage for her and she sends each of five suitors on what she knows to be impossible tasks to win her hand. All fail.
The situation becomes critical as the Emperor falls in love with her and she with him, and he tries to prevent her departure by sending archers to guard her. But Kaguya-hime's celestial people blind the guards with a strange light. In the end she takes an elixir of immortality, leaving some for the Emperor, dons a cloak of feathers (which relieves her of her emotional attachment to Earth, her parents and the Emperor) and is lifted on a chariot into the heavens to return to the Moon.
The emperor writes a sorrowful poem that translates as: "What use is it, this elixir of immortality, to one who floats in tears because he cannot meet her again?"
He gives the jar of elixir and the poem to a messenger and commands him to take them to the summit of a great mountain in Suruga and burn them together. His men, accompanied by soldiers did as he requested and to this day the mountain is called by the name that means immortal - "Fuji".
Fast forward one millennium...
On Saturday morning, JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) launched a rocket carrying a spacecraft called SELENE (SELenological and ENgineering Explorer) which is now on its way to the Moon. "Selene" is also, of course, the name of the Greek goddess of the Moon.
The spacecraft represents the most intensive exploration effort of the Moon since the Apollo missions of the 1960's and 70's. SELENE has fourteen different kinds of sensors and carries two small satellites with it. From a polar orbit, one will map the moon's magnetic fields, the other will provide a continuous relay of data between SELENE and Earth. SELENE will be orbiting just 60 miles above the surface and will map the entire Moon with radar and high definition television images in addition to recording the Moon's gravitational field. We should be treated to some spectacular images of the Earthrise in high definition TV as well. It is hoped that the information gathered will allow scientists to learn something that Apollo did not - the mysteries of the origins and evolution of our neighbor. At the same time, the observation equipment installed on the orbiting satellite will observe plasma, the electromagnetic field and high-energy particles - information critical to any future long term manned Lunar missions.
SELENE has been nicknamed KAGUYA and is referred to by that name within JAXA and in press reports in honor of the ancient tale of the bamboo cutter's daughter. Once again Kaguya-hima has risen into the heavens on a chariot and is going home - to the Moon.
TRIVIA - The story refers to the smoke from the fire of the poem and elixir as being visible to this day. This reference is what dates the story to around the beginning of the 10th century as the last time smoke was visible from Mt. Fuji was in 905. The book I own is "The tale of the Bamboo Cutter" by Yasunari Kawabata.