I have just finished reading this delightful compilation of tales from medieval Japan (the bulk of them originating from the Heian era, c. 794-1185), translated by Royall Tyler. There are over 200 tales included in this translation, but the main source used by Tyler, the Konjaku monogatarishu ("Tales of Times Now Past" c. 1100), is itself a five-volume compilation. I won't complain further, though, as this tome in its entirety requires the investment of an exceedingly large sum of money. (Mr. Tyler's is the affordable snack-size version, and every bit as tasty).
The Heian period is generally described as a golden age in Japan when arts and culture flourished (one of the more interesting aspects being the existence of a number of renowned women authors and poets). The folk tales featured here are tiny windows into everyday life in medieval Japan spanning history, myth and fantasy, superstition, religious/Buddhist ideals, and the prevailing thoughts and desires of the day and featuring courtiers, beasts, demons, spirits, monks, warriors, gods, thieves, ghosts, and ordinary folks.
Many tales contain a surprising humor, like the one about the little acolyte who cleverly tricks his master in order to steal his master's sweet syrup; and others strike one as horribly tragic, such as the tale of a man who falls in love with and marries a goddess; he becomes homesick and is sent back to his own land, never to return, only to realize eons have past and he has now lost everything. They can sometimes be shockingly frank, as in the descriptions of the lustful snakes and foxes that can take on human form; or creepy, like the spirits that silently place their hands on the faces of those who sleep near their ponds. Some are quite profound, like the falconer who has a nightmare that he and his family have become the quarry he has long hunted; he watches as they are graphically picked off one by one, and upon waking gives up his passion for falconry. There are frightful encounters, like the demons that know you are hiding from them and announce they will find you and eat you; and disturbing contexts, like the man who in his religious zealotry believes he can fly and instead lands on a jumble of rocks. Yet other tales were surprisingly reassuring of one's faith in humanity, like the Governor that understands the plight of a hungry, desperate thief and spares his life; or the various monks that, unable to bear the cruelty endured by a fellow creature, save the life of an animal.
As this was a time period which solidified much of the cultural heritage of present day Japan (a time when the absorption of Chinese and Korean culture and ideals came to a close and was melded with their own local aesthetics, customs, and beliefs), one gets a better understanding of Japanese culture in general by reading these tales.
It is a strange and wonderfully winding path to walk. And now that I've read something more fanciful, I shall return to my bulky, picture-less The Cambridge History of Japan Vol. II : Heian Japan encyclopedia-like volume to learn more...I hit the chapter about land taxation, and well, you can see why I wandered...oh, suiko...right where I left off.
Thank you Mr. Tyler!