Long, long ago there lived at the foot of the mountain a poor farmer and his aged, widowed mother. They owned a bit of land which supplied them with food. They were humble, peaceful and happy.
Shinano was governed by a despotic leader who, though a warrior, had a great and cowardly shrinking from anything suggestive of failing health and strength. This caused him to send out a cruel proclamation. The entire province was given strict orders to immediately put to death all aged people. These were barbarous days and the custom of abandoning old people to die was not uncommon.
The poor farmer loved his aged mother with tender reverence, and the order filled his heart with sorrow. But no one ever thought a second time about obeying the mandate of the governor. So, with many deep hopeless sighs, the youth prepared for what at that time was considered the kindest mode of death.
Just at sundown, when his day’s work was ended, he took a quantity of unwhitened rice, which is principal food for the poor, cooked and dried it. After tying it in a square cloth, he swung the bundle around his neck along with a gourd filled with cool, sweet water. Then he lifted his helpless old mother to his back and stated on his painful journey up the mountain.
The road was long and steep; the narrow road was crossed and recrossed by many paths made by hunters and woodcutters. In some place, the paths mingled in a confused puzzled. But, he gave no heed. One path or another, it mattered not. On he went, climbing blindly upward, ever upward, towards the high bare summit of what is known as Obatsuyama, the mountain of the “abandoning of aged”.
The eyes of the old mother were not so dim but that they noted the reckless hastening from one path to another. Her loving heart grew anxious. Her son did not know the mountain’s many paths and his return might be one of danger, so she stretched forth her hand and snapping the twigs from brushes as they passed, she quietly dropped a handful every few steps of the way so that they climbed, the narrow path behind them was dotted at frequently intervals with tiny piles of twigs. At last the summit was reached.
Weary and heart sick, the youth gently released his burden and silently prepared a place of comfort as his last duty to his beloved mother. Gathering fallen pine needle, he made a soft cushion. He tenderly lifted his old mother onto it and wrapped her padded coat more closely about her stooping shoulders. With tearful eyes and an aching heart, he said farewell.
The trembling mother’s voice was full of unselfish love as she gave her last injunction. “Let not thine eyes be blinded, my son,” she said. “The mountain road is full of dangers. Look carefully and follow the path which holds the piles of twigs. They will guide you to the familiar way down.”
The son’s surprised eyes looked back over the path, then at the poor old, shriveled hands all scratched and soiled by their work of love. His heart smote him and bowing to the ground, he cried aloud, “Oh, Honorable mother, thy kindness thrusts my heart! I will not leave thee. Together we will follow the path of twigs, and together we will die!”
Once more he shouldered his burden (how light it seemed now) and hastened down the path, through the shadows and the moonlight, to the little hut in the valley. Beneath the kitchen floor was a walled closet for food, which was covered and hidden from view. There the son put his mother, supplying her with everything needful.
Time passed, and he was beginning to feel safe when again the governor sent forth heralds bearing an unreasonable order, seemingly as a boast of his power. His demand was that his subjects should present him with a rope of ashes. The entire province trembled with dread. The order must be obeyed, yet who in all Shinano could make a rope of ashes? One night, in great distress, the son whispered the news to his hidden mother.
“Wait!” she said. “I will think. I will think” On the second day she told him what to do.
“Make a rope of twisted straw,” she said. “Then stretch it upon a row of flat stones and burn it there on the windless night.”
He called the people together and did as she said and when the blaze had died, behold upon the stones with every twist and fiber showing perfectly lay a rope of whitened ashes.
The governor was pleased at the wit of the youth and praised him greatly. But, he demanded to know where he had obtained his wisdom. “Alas! Alas!” cried the farmer, “the truth must be told!” and with deep bows he related his story.
The governor listened and then meditated in silence. Finally he lifted his head. “Shinano needs more than strength of youth,” he said gravely. “Ah, that I should have forgotten the well-known saying, “with the crown of snow, there cometh a wisdom!” That very hour the cruel law was abolished, and custom drifted into as far a past that only legends remain.