A popular tale in Japan tells the story of a fisherman who decided one day to visit a dragon palace at the bottom of the sea. His name was Urashima Taro. He was a daydreamer, one of those who are happy just to spend the day gazing at the sky, the shoreline, and the beautiful sea. For him the most wonderful thing was to go out fishing with his boat and spend the entire afternoon admiring the water and imagining what it would be like to be in the middle of the deep blue sea. He did not care about fishing and whenever he caught something, he brought it back home at the end of the day to share it with his old mother. One evening, when he was walking home, he saw a group of boys standing in a circle, shouting and poking at something with a stick. Taro approached them and saw that they were teasing a baby tortoise. With an act of great courage and generosity he saved the baby tortoise and returned it to the sea. A few years after, when he was on his boat, he looked down at the water and saw a large tortoise swimming towards him. It was the tortoise that he had saved from the nasty boys. She had come back as a sign of gratitude to take Taro to the most beautiful place in the world, the Dragon Palace at the bottom of the Sea. Taro didn't hesitate for a second, stepped out from his boat and sat on the tortoise's shell. Down, down, he went, and the deeper he went, the more beautiful the scenery became, until they reached the bottom of the sea. This was as Taro had always imagined it, alive with thousands of brightly colored fish of every shape and size, whose movements filled the water with shining, swirling bubbles, with wonderful flowers that bloomed on rocks and cliffs. Taro was spellbound by everything he saw. There he met the enchanting Oto-hime, the beautiful daughter of the Dragon King, who invited him to live in her palace. From that moment Taro began a new life immersed in pleasure such as no man had ever known: dancing fish, mouth-watering feasts, strolls in the coral garden with the charming, lovely Oto-hime. It was a life beyond his wildest dreams. Wonderful as it was, however, it wasn't long before Taro began to miss his home and his mother. Oto-hime noticed the change and told him that the time had come for him to leave. She gave him a lacquer box as a reminder of the amazing time they had spent together and told him to open it only if he should find himself confused by anything he might see. She also warned him that if he chose to open the box, he could never return to the Dragon Palace. Taro called his tortoise friend and returned to his island. He ran along the beach towards his mother's house. Oddly enough, however, he didn't seem to recognize what he saw. People had changed, the village was no longer the same, and when he came to the place where his house should have been, there was nothing but an empty field of wild flowers! He could not believe it. He was sure that this was his village and his house, but nothing seemed to be the same. And what had happened to his mother? Totally confused he opened the box that Oto-hime had given him. A great cloud of white smoke came out, and it was like all his strength and energy had drained away, as if he weighed nothing at all and was drifting in the wind. Inside the box there was a mirror. He looked at it and was astonished. He saw that his face had changed and that he had a long, white beard! Suddenly everything was clear. While he had been enjoying life in the Dragon Palace, hundreds of years had gone by on land. Urashima Taro looked slowly up to the sky. His life with Oto-hime in her palace in the depths of the sea - had it all been a dream? Or was he dreaming now?
When I first read this tale in a book entitled Once Upon a Time in Japan (one of the few available books in English at the Narita Airport in Tokyo!), I was fascinated by it, for it reminded me of the near-death journey in the afterlife. In its simplicity, the story tells us of the possibility that we may leave our everyday reality and enter a different dimension which is much more pleasurable than our present one, but which in a sense does not belong to us. This shift from one reality to another is known in Japan as the 'urashima effect'.
The 'urashima effect' can be a useful metaphor for understanding what happens to those who voluntarily subject themselves to an anesthetic called ketamine with the aim of exploring new frontiers. The effects of ketamine are very significant for our discussion because they present various similarities to the NDE. Although those who were administered this substance did not face the actual threat of death, after an initial impression of dying and leaving the body, they often described entering new realities where they met other beings, such as angels, deceased loved ones, unknown figures and even, more rarely, God, as we saw in NDEs. We might ask: 'Did these people really enter alternative realities, or were they mere hallucinations induced by a drug?', 'Are the experiences similar to the near-death experience?' And if so, 'What are the main differences and similarities?' These, among other questions, will be the basis of the following analysis.
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