The Maiden with the Wooden Bowl
Adapted from Myths & Legends of Japan (Project Gutenberg) | Author: F. Hadland (Frederick Hadland) Davis
In the ancient days of Japan, there lived an old couple who had an only child. She was a girl of remarkable charm and beauty and was much loved and well cared for by the couple. It came to pass that the old man fell sick and passed away. His widow was now left to care for their daughter and became more and more concerned for her future well-being.
One day she called her child to her and said:
“Little one, your father lies in yonder cemetery, and I, being old and feeble, will surely follow him soon. The thought of leaving you alone in the world troubles me much. You are very beautiful, and beauty is a temptation and a snare to men. Even the whitest and most pure of flowers can be plucked and pulled down in the mire. My child, you are too young to understand this now, but your face is all too fair. It must be hidden from the eager eyes of men, lest it causes you to fall from your good and simple life to one of shame.”
Having said these words, with the best of intentions she placed a lacquered wooden bowl upon the maiden’s head so that it covered much of her face, and veiled her beauty.
“There now. Promise to wear it always, little one,” said the mother, “for it will protect you when I am gone.”
Shortly after she performed this loving deed, the old woman died, and now without her father and mother to support her, the maiden was forced to earn her living by working in the rice-fields. It was hard, weary work, but the girl kept a brave heart and toiled from dawn to sunset without a murmur of complaint. And every morning before leaving the house, she dutifully placed the bowl on her head as her mother had made her promise.
Over and over again her strange appearance created a considerable comment, and soon enough she was known throughout the country as the “Maiden with the Bowl on her Head.”
Young men laughed at her and tried to peep under the vessel. Not a few endeavored to pull the wooden covering off her head, but she would not allow it to be removed.
Laughing and jesting, the young men had to be content with a glimpse of the lower part of the fair maiden’s face.
The poor girl bore this rude treatment with a patient but heavy heart, trusting that from her beloved mother’s wisdom would someday come a joy that would more than compensate for all her suffering and sorrow.
One day, a rich farmer noticed the maiden working in his rice-fields. He was struck by her diligence; The quick and excellent way she performed her tasks, the steady concentration she kept without being distracted by the other workers.
He was pleased with that bent and busy little figure and did not laugh at the wooden bowl on her head. After observing her for some time, he came to the maiden and said: “You work well and do not chatter to your companions. I ask that you continue to labor in my rice-fields until the end of the harvest.”
When the rice harvest had been gathered and winter had come, the wealthy farmer was still more favorably impressed with the maiden. Anxious to do her a kind service, he bade her become an occupant of his house.
“My wife is ill,” he added, ” I should very much like you to be her nurse. I trust that you above all others would take good care of her, for me.”
The maiden gratefully accepted this welcome offer. She tended the sick woman with every ounce of care she had. The same quiet diligence she had shown in the rice-fields showed again in her gentle labor in the sick-room.
And as the farmer and his wife had no daughter, they took very kindly to this orphan and treated her as if she were their own daughter.
After a time, the farmer’s eldest son returned to his old home. He was a wise young man who had studied much in the lively city of Kyōto and was weary of a merry life of feasting and frivolous pleasure.
His father and mother were happy to have him home once more and worried that their son would soon grow tired of his father’s house and its quiet surroundings. Every day they feared that he would come to them, bid farewell, and return once more to the city of the imperial palace gate, the Mikado.
But to the surprise of all, the farmer’s son expressed no desire to leave his old family home.
One day the young man came to his father, and asked: “Who is this maiden in our house, and why does she wear such an ugly black bowl upon her head?”
When the farmer told the sad story of the maiden his son was deeply moved. Nevertheless, he could not refrain from laughing a little at the bowl. The young man’s laughter, however, did not last long. Day by day the maiden became more fascinating to him.
Now and again he peeped at the girl’s half-hidden face and became more and more impressed by her gentleness of manner and her nobility of nature. It was not long before his admiration turned into love, and he resolved that he would marry the Maiden with the Bowl on her Head.
Most of his relations were opposed to the union.
They said: “She is all very well in her way, but she is only a common servant! Most likely, she wears that bowl in order to arouse curiosity, and captivate the unwary. We do not think it hides beauty, no, no – but rather, that it hides the ugliness. Seek a wife elsewhere, for we will not accept and tolerate this ambitious and scheming maiden.”
From that hour forth, the maiden suffered greatly. Bitter and spiteful things were said to her. Even her mistress, once so good and kind, turned against her and treated her with malice. But the good farmer did not change his opinion. He still liked the girl, and stood behind her quietly, though all but his son had turned against her. The rich farmer was quite willing that she should become his son’s wife, but, owing to the heated remarks of his wife and relations, he dared not reveal his wishes in the matter.
All the opposition, none too kindly expressed, only made the young man more determined to achieve his goal. At length his mother and relations, seeing that their opinions were useless, consented to the marriage, but with a very bad grace.
The young man, believing that all difficulties had been removed, joyfully went to the Maiden with the Bowl on her Head, and said: “All troublesome argument is at an end. Now there is nothing to prevent us from getting married!”
“No,” replied the poor maiden, weeping bitterly, “I cannot marry you. I am only a servant in your father’s house, and therefore it would be unseemly for me to become your bride.”
The young man spoke gently to her. He expressed his ardent love over and over again. He argued, and he begged, but the maiden would not change her mind. Her attitude made the relatives extremely angry.
Little knowing that she dearly loved the farmer’s son, they said that the girl had made fools of them. The maiden with the Bowl on her Head in her loyal heart came to believe that marriage could only bring discord in the home that had sheltered her so kindly in her poverty.
That night the poor girl cried herself to sleep, and in a dream, her mother came to her and said: “My dear child, let your good heart be troubled no more. Marry the farmer’s son and all will be well again.” The maiden woke the next morning full of joy, and when her loved one came to her and asked once more if she would become his bride, she yielded with a gracious smile.
Over the next months, great preparations were made for the wedding. When the day came and the company assembled, it was deemed high time to remove the maiden’s wooden bowl.
She herself tried to take it off, but now it remained firmly fixed to her head. Some of the guests and relations, with many unkind remarks, proceeded to assist her, but when they attempted to remove the bowl, it uttered strange cries and groans, shocking them all.
At length, the bridegroom approached the maiden.
Pushing the guests away, he comforted her, saying: “Do not let this treatment distress you. You are just as dear to me with or without the bowl.” and having said these words, he commanded that the ceremony should proceed.
Then the wine-cups were brought into the crowded room and, according to custom, the bride and bridegroom were expected to drink together at the tejime, the “three times three” clapping, in celebration of their union.
Just as the maiden put the wine-cup to her lips the bowl on her head broke with a great noise.