According to ancient Chinese myth there lay, some where far, far east of the Chinese coast, five islands populated by men and women who had attained im mortality and who lived together in perfect harmony. Legend relates that they flew around the lofty peaks of the islands on the backs of cranes. The islands them selves were carried on the backs of giant sea turtles. Two of the islands were subsequently lost, however, following a battle with a sea monster.
The power which this myth exerted for hundreds of years over the imaginations of the Chinese and, later, Japanese is reflected in the expeditions mounted by the Chinese emperors to find the islands and snatch the elixir of youth from their immortal inhabitants. Around the turn of the first century BC, all such at tempts having failed, Emperor Wu decided to lure the immortals to his own palace by building a garden which resembled as closely as possible the mythical isles themselves. Thus he created a large lake contain ing four islands, all with palaces. On the shores of the lake he constructed a platform, two hundred feet high, from which to communicate with the immortals.”
The myth of the Isles of the Blest must have reached Japan even before the introduction of Buddhism, since it is the subject of a reference in the Nihon shoki, the Chronicles of Japan from around 720 AD. An entry for the year 478 mentions the son of one Urashima, toge ther with his beloved (who had emerged from a turtle), as having actually reached the Isles of the Blest and visited the immortals.”
As history shows, Japan was as captivated by this myth as by the myth of the mountain at the centre of the universe. It became a characteristic feature of Japanese gardens up until the end of the Era era. It must be said, however, that Japan condensed the five islands of the original Chinese myth into just one, the island of P’eng-lai, or Horai-zan in Japanese, which was symbolized in Japanese garden architecture as a Horai mountain, Horai island or Horai rock, and at times even as a crane or turtle island. Cranes and tur tles thereby became symbols of longevity in their own right; even today, Japanese celebrations such as weddings and anniversaries will always feature Ihe symbol of a turtle or a crane in some form, whether in a paint ing, flower arrangement or simply ongami shapes.
The similarities between the central archetypes of the myths described above inevitably led to their con fusion even before they had left China for Japan. The mountain at the centre of Ihe universe in the Hmdu-Buddhisi myth forms the backdrop to the drama of the quest for Nirvana, the state of eternal peace. The isles of the Blest at the heart of the Taoist myth become the stage setting for the attainment of eternal life Despite the parallels between their spatial metaphors, however, their paths to salvation are different: the first follows the path of meditation, the second Ihe path of magic.