Long ago, in an area of Japan that was covered with bamboo forests, an old bamboo cutter and his wife lived in a small, humble house. While the couple was happy, they regretted that they were without a child. Then, one day, while the old man was out cutting bamboo, he noticed a bamboo stump that was giving off a golden glow. When he examined the stump further, he noticed that a small girl was nestled inside. Deciding that she should not be left in the forest, he took her home with him. The man and his wife took very good care of the child, and treated her as if she were their daughter. On further outings, into the forest, the old man discovered other glowing bamboo stumps, in which he found gold.
As time passed, the young girl, whom the couple named Kaguya Hime (Bamboo Princess), grew very quickly into a very beautiful woman. And, from finding gold in the bamboo forest, the couple had become very rich. Then, on Kaguya Hime's birthday, the couple threw a lavish party to celebrate.
News of the party and the beautiful girl that it was held for spread quickly across the countryside, and soon many men, young and old alike, flocked to the couple's new, more luxurious house. However, Kaguya Hime was not interested in any of the men that visited her. Soon, many of her admirers gave up, except for five nobles.
While Kaguya Hime did not want to marry, she could tell that her father wished that she would. So, to please her father, she agreed to give each noble a chance to prove themselves. She gave to each noble a task, to test their character, and devotion to her.
The first noble to be tested was Prince Ishizukuri. His task was to bring Buddha's begging bowl from India. However, the prince had heard many bad things about those who tried to enter India, and figured that matters would only become worse if he were to try to take Buddha's begging bowl. So, he decided to find an old bowl in the Japanese mountains, and claim it was Buddha's. Kaguya Hime was not fooled, however, and dismissed the prince.
The next noble, Prince Kuramochi, was sent to P'englai to pick a silver branch laden with many jewels from a fabled tree. Seeing that this task was nearly impossible, the prince hired two Korean craftsmen to create a silver branch that fit the description of the one he was to obtain. After the craftsmen had completed their task, the noble took the branch back to Kaguya Hime.
Kaguya Hime was stunned, for the branch fit the description that she had given him, and she couldn't stand the thought of marrying the prince. Then, the two craftsmen, who the prince had neglected to pay, arrived at the bamboo cutter's house, and explained what they had done for the prince. Feeling ashamed for what he had done, the prince snuck away while Kaguya Hime paid the craftsmen for the branch.
Minister Abe, the third suitor, was given the task of retrieving a fire retardant coat made of the pelts of fire rats. However, fire rats only dwell in volcanoes, and the minister was frightened by the thought of entering a volcano. So, he instead ventured out to buy one. The closest he could find was a coat that looked like it was made of fire rat fur. When Kaguya Hime received the coat, she immediately tested the coat by lighting it on fire. Since it was not made of fire rat fur, it burned, and Minister Abe left the bamboo cutter's house for his failure.
The fourth noble, Councilor Otomo was sent to retrieve one of seven jewels that every dragon had on its head. So, the councilor hired a boat, and set out to find the dragon of the sea. However, the dragon of the sea proved to be too cunning for the councilor. Having failed in his task to find one of the jewels, the councilor gave up all hopes of marrying Kaguya Hime, and never saw her again.
The fifth and final suitor, Councilor Isonokami, was sent to find a swallow's cowrie shell, an item that was supposed to help women produce offspring. Thinking that this meant that Kaguya Hime really wanted to marry him, the councilor quickly set out to find a cowrie shell. Having found a tree where swallows normally gather, the councilor began climbing towards the top of the tree while checking all swallows’ nests along the way. At the top of the tree, the councilor happened to find a nest that contained a cowrie shell, but he would have to balance out on a limb to reach it. So he did, and right as he closed his fingers around the shell, he lost his footing and fell from the tree. Upon making contact with the ground, the councilor crushed the shell that he had worked all day for, and gave up.
While all this was happening, the emperor heard the news of Kaguya Hime's beauty, and decided to see her for himself. After laying eyes on Kaguya Hime, the emperor instantly fell in love, and asked for her to marry him. However, Kaguya Hime did not wish to marry him, but did enjoy his company, so they decided to be friends, and exchange letters.
After a few years, the bamboo cutter noticed that Kaguya Hime was no longer happy, and was in fact, very sad. Feeling that it was a necessary thing to do, Kaguya Hime explained that she was really from the moon, and was sent to Earth as punishment, and as a reward to the bamboo cutter for his hard work. She then told him that she would have to return to the moon upon the next full moon.
Then, as the next full moon rose up, into the night sky, a small cloud could be seen descending from the moon, to Earth. Aboard the cloud were many native moon men and women to take Kaguya Hime back to the moon with them. Once the cloud reached the Earth, Kaguya Hime silently boarded it, and prepared for her departure. Before they left, the moon men and women gave the bamboo cutter a pill that they claimed would make him live forever as thanks for taking such good care of Kaguya Hime.
Having lost the closest thing that he had to a daughter, the bamboo cutter did not want to live forever. So, he sent the pill, along with a letter that Kaguya Hime had written, to the emperor. Hearing the news, the emperor also did not want to live forever. So, he sent a servant to Mt. Fuji, the mountain closest to the moon, to burn the letter and the pill.
As the servant burned the letter and pill, long tendrils of smoke rose up into the sky, towards the moon. Today, one can sometimes see the smoke rising from Mt. Fuji to the moon.
I first heard this Japanese legend from the Sesame Street inspired movie Big Bird In Japan, when I was five.