Mermaid's gift - or curse?

Once Upon a Time...

A girl born to a wealthy man in the mid-seventh century was admired by all
for her beauty, especially her complexion, which was as fair as snow.

One day, her father went fishing and was swept out to sea. He spent days
drifting in a small boat, until he finally came upon a white sand beach where
two women beckoned him.

"Our king is waiting for you. We will lead the way," one of them said, taking
him to a palace.

Greeted by the king and queen, he was treated to dishes he had never seen
before. He was so hungry that he could not resist the feast_except for a
dish of white, fatty meat. "What is this?" he asked.

"Oh, that is mermaid meat," the king said. "It is tasty and grants eternal
youth and a long life. Please have a bite." However, the man could not bring
himself to try it.

When he finally left the palace, the king and queen gave him a box
containing mermaid meat. By the time the man returned to his town, the
people were so glad to see him back that they held a party.

"I have brought something new for you," he said to his friends and relatives,
offering them the meat, but no one touched it_except for his daughter, who
tried a bite unnoticed. She was then 16 years old.

Two years later, then 10 years older, the girl did not appear to have grown
older. She remained as youthful and as beautiful as she was at 16.

Everyone began to wonder what was wrong with her. Her father then
suddenly realized that she had eaten the meat that he had brought from the

All of her friends aged and passed away, but she did not grow older.
Saddened by her fate, she decided at the age of 120 to shave off her hair
and become a nun.

She then set out on a journey, spending 50 years here, 100 years there, and
finally returned home in the 1400s.

At the age of 800, she made her home in a cave near Kuinji temple, where
she had planted white camellias. She said to them, "When you turn red, I will
have finally died." She is called Happyaku Bikuni, or the 800-year-old nun.

                       *** *** ***

The legend of Happyaku Bikuni has been handed down from generation to
generation in Obama, Fukui Prefecture.

According to the legend, the nun visited places around the country. Different
versions of the tale survive in at least 115 cities and towns. The Obama
government held a "Happyaku Bikuni Summit Talk" in 1991 in which 13
other municipalities participated, including Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture,
and Ome, Tokyo. To mark the occasion, the city government planted
camellia trees with white blossoms at the mouth of the cave.

"When I was a child, the whole hill behind the temple was full of red
camellias," said Kodo Kishimoto, a priest at Kuinji temple. Although the nun
is said to have died a long time ago, ever since the summit white camellias
have bloomed there as if she were still in the cave.
                                                  --Story by Asami Nagai