the online database of Japanese folkore

Jigoku tayū


Translation: hell courtesan

Appearance: Jigoku tayū is a legendary figure from Sakai (present-day Ōsaka). Her story takes place during the Muromachi Period, but she first appears in literature and artwork during the Edo Period, when novels and images depicting life in the red light districts were popular. Her legend is intertwined with that of the eccentric and iconoclastic Zen master Ikkyū—one of Japanese Buddhism’s most influential figures who was known for his outrageous lifestyle.

Legends: Long ago lived young girl named Otoboshi, the daughter of a samurai. When her father was killed, she fled with her family into to Mount Nyoi, but they were ambushed by bandits. Otoboshi was kidnapped and sold to a rich brothel owner in Sakai named Tamana. She was trained to become a yūjo—an upper-class courtesan.

Otoboshi grew up to be very beautiful. She was also intelligent and sharp-witted. Although her life was full of misfortune, she believed that her misfortunes were merely her karma—the result of things she did in her past lives. As a courtesan, she gave herself the name Jigoku (“Hell”) as a way of mocking her misfortunes. She wrapped her body in kimono decorated with skeletons, fire, and scenes from hell. She spoke with elegance and wit, and recited poetry with such grace that those who heard her were instantly charmed. And in her heart, she constantly recited the name of Buddha, hoping to achieve salvation from her sins. Jigoku’s grace, beauty, and wit quickly distinguished her from the other courtesans. Her unique name also caused her to stand out from competing courtesans who had flowery names like Hotoke gozen (“Lady Buddha”).

Jigoku quickly rose to the rank of tayū, the highest rank possible for a courtesan. Word of this strange woman caught the attention of Ikkyū, a Zen monk. He visited the Takasu pleasure district of Sakai and went to the Tamana brothel to seek out the peculiar courtesan whom he had heard so much about. When Ikkyū appeared before Jigoku, she recited a poem to him:

Sankyo seba
miyama no oku ni
Koko ha ukiyo no
sakai chikaki ni
If you live in the mountains
It is best to stay
Deep in the mountains
This place is close to the border
Of the floating world

The poem was rich in metaphor and multilayered, playing on the word sakai (“border”) and Sakai (the city). Ikkyū did not miss what Jigoku was implying. She was asking what a monk like him, who ordinarily should not leave his temple deep in the mountains, was doing on the edge of a pleasure district—the “floating world” of sorrow and grief from which Buddhists seek escape. Intrigued, Ikkyū replied with a poem of his own:

Ikkyū ga
mi wo ba mi hodo ni
Ichi mo yamaga mo
onaji jūsho yo
As for me
This body I have
Means nothing to me
A city and a mountain retreat
Are both the same place

He implied that, as a Zen priest, he has no attachment to his body—and therefore it makes no difference if he comes to a brothel. To the enlightened, the body does not truly exist, nor is there any intrinsic difference between a brothel and a temple. There are one and the same. He followed up with another poem:

Kikishi yori
mite otoroshiki
jigoku ka na
Seeing hell in person
Is much more terrifying
Than hearing about it

Jigoku understood that Ikkyū was really explaining that he came specifically to see her, and complimenting her on her terrifying beauty and wit. Jigoku finished his poem for him:

Shi ni kuru hito no
ochizaru ha nashi
There is none who dies
Who does not fall into hell

Her poem, while playing on Buddhist themes, simultaneously implied that everyone who sees her falls in love with her.

Jigoku admitted Ikkyū into her presence. She offered him a vegetarian meal appropriate for a monk. Ikkyū refused and instead asked for sake and carp. Jigoku became suspicious. Monks were forbidden from indulging in alcohol, meat, and sex, and this man certainly did not appear to be a monk. She had girls sent to Ikkyū to test his true character. The girls sang, played drums and flute, and danced for Ikkyū. The monk enjoyed the performance and joined them in celebration.

Jigoku listened to the performance in secret from the next room. Suddenly, she noticed something odd about the shadows on the paper doors. She peeked into the room and saw that all of the dancers had turned into skeletons, reveling together in the music. When Jigoku re-entered the room, everything had turned back to normal.

Ikkyū partied until he passed out. In the middle of the night the monk awoke and went to the veranda where, having indulged too much, he vomited into the lake. When the vomit hit the water, the carp that Ikkyū had eaten turned into a live fish. Jigoku winessed this too.

The following morning Jigoku asked Ikkyū if she was dreaming, and told him about the things she saw the previous night. Ikkyu taught her about heaven and hell, and how looks can be deceiving. He explained to her:

“When are we not in a dream? When are we not skeletons? We are all just skeletons wrapped with flesh patterned male and female. When our breath expires, our skin ruptures, our sex disappears, and superior and inferior are indistinguishable. Beneath the skin of the person we caress today, there is no more than a skeleton propping up the flesh. Think about it! High and low, young and old, male and female: it is all the same. If you awaken to this one basic truth, you understand.”

Jigoku vowed to renounce her profession and become a nun, but Ikkyū told her to remain a courtesan. He told her that she should find her own way to enlightenment; that religion is hypocritical and a prostitute is more worthy than a nun.

From that moment, Jigoku became Ikkyū’s student. She remained in her brothel, and Ikkyū visited her time and time again to meditate and pray with her. She came to understand that all people are merely skeletons in bags of flesh, and she found peace. She continued to work as a prostitute, and gave generously to charity. She meditated and prayed every day, and eventually achieved enlightenment.

Like most courtesans, Jigoku became ill and died at a young age. Ikkyū was by her side at her death. Her final poem expressed her last act of compassion:

Ware shinaba
yakuna uzumuna
no ni sutete
uetaru inu no
hara wo koyase yo
When I die
Do not burn me or bury me
Throw me into a field
So that I may feed
The starving dogs

Ikkyū lay her to rest in a field as she wished, and then built a grave for her in Kumeda Temple in the nearby village of Yagi.

Alphabetical list of yōkai