The Demon Lady of Uji Bridge

In the time of Minamoto no Yorimitsu, known as Raikō, strange things happened throughout the land. One of the strangest was the unexplained disappearance of many people from their own homes, in full view of friends and family. They didn’t leave the room, they didn’t fall down and die; they simply vanished, as if blotted out. No one could find out where they had gone, or how it had happened. Nor did they know how to stop it — all the land was in a great panic.

Yorimitsu called his advisors and diviners to investigate. They learned that in the days of the Emperor Saga Tennō, (about one hundred and fifty years earlier), there was a lady of the court, the daughter of a high official, who feared that she was losing her lover to another woman. This lady became so jealous that she secluded herself in the shrine of Kibune for seven days, and prayed to the kami of the shrine:

“Grant that I may be changed into an oni (demon), so that I can kill the woman who is stealing my lover.”

The kami pitied the woman, and granted her wish.

“If you wish to become an oni, you must change your appearance and bathe in the Uji River for three times seven days.”

Overjoyed, the lady returned home and hid herself away. The divided her long hair into five tresses, which she shaped into five horns. She reddened her face and body with vermilion, and on her head she placed a tripod with a torch attached to each leg. In her mouth she held another torch, flaming at both ends. In this attire she rushed south down the Yamato highway after dark. The poor people who saw her thought for sure that she was a demon — some of them were so terrified that they died from their fear.

NewImageHashihime, From The Illustrated One Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past, Toriyama Sekien, 1779
Image: Wikipedia

The lady reached the Uji river and bathed there for three times seven days, and as the kami had promised, transformed living into an oni. She became known as Uji-no-Hashihime, or the Lady of Uji Bridge. As an oni, she killed not only her rival, but her lover as well, along with all of their relatives, rich and poor. When she wanted to kill a man, she would show herself as a woman, and when her intended victim was a woman, she would show herself as a man. All the people of the city were so terrified that they would shut themselves in their homes after the Hour of the Monkey (4 pm), neither going out nor allowing anyone in.

About this time, it happened that Yorimitsu had business in the town of Ichijo Omiya. He decided to send Watanabe no Tsuna, the mightiest of his four closest (and all quite powerful) retainers. Since Tsuna would have to travel after dark, Yorimitsu gave him a horse and one of his swords, Higekiri (“the Beard Cutter”). Tsuna went and accomplished his errand, and was on his way back. On crossing Uji Bridge, he saw a young woman in a plum-colored robe, with an amulet bag around her neck, and a volume of the Sutras in her sleeve. The woman was alone, and when Tsuna passed her she called out to him:

“Where are you going? I am on my way to Gojo, but night is falling and I’m frightened. Could you see me along the way?”

Naturally, Tsuna agreed, and put her on his horse, while he walked along beside her. As they went their way, the woman turned to Tsuna and said that she wasn’t really going to Gojo, but to her home just outside the city, and could Tsuna see her home?

Of course, Tsuna said, whereupon the woman suddenly transformed into a hideous demon and cried “My home is on Mt. Atago!” then grabbed Tsuna by his topknot and tried to fly away with him. Tsuna quickly pulled out the sword Higekiri and slashed at the oni, cutting off its arm.

NewImageWatanabe Tsuna fighting an oni. Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1855.
Image: WikiPaintings

As Tsuna fell back down to the ground, the demon flew away, towards Mt. Atago. Tsuna picked himself up and pulled the demon’s hand off his hair. Where the demon had grabbed him, his formerly jet-black hair was now silver-white!

Tsuna returned home and showed the demon’s arm to Yorimitsu. Yorimitsu summoned the magician Abe-no-Seimei, who advised Tsuna to lock up the arm, then seclude himself for seven days, and meditate on the two Benevolent Kings, the supernatural guardians of the Buddha (and of Buddhist temples). Tsuna did as he was advised.

On dusk of the sixth day, someone knocked on his door. He heard the voice of his aunt, who was also his foster mother. She had come from her hometown of Watanabe to visit him. Tsuna called to his aunt through the door, explaining that he was in seclusion until the end of the next day, but after that, he would gladly visit with her.

His aunt broke into tears.

“Is this the thanks I get for having raised you? I slept in the damp so that you would be dry; I stood in the wind so that it would not blow on you. Day and night, I prayed that you would grow up to be a great man. And now that my prayers have been answered, you won’t even open the door to me? What did I do that Heaven gave me such an ungrateful son?”

Well, what do you say to that? Tsuna opened the door and let her in. After chatting about the details of her journey, she asked him why he was in seclusion. Reluctantly, Tsuna told her the story.

“Oh, no wonder you wouldn’t let me in. Of course. But what does a demon’s arm look like? I would love to see it.”

Tsuna promised to show it to her after the seven days were over. “But I’m leaving early tomorrow,” his aunt said with a sulk. Tsuna didn’t want to displease her again, so he pulled out the box where he’d locked up the arm, and brought it out to show to her.

“Ho, so that’s what a demon’s hand looks like,” his aunt said. Then standing up, she suddenly transformed into the oni, and shouted “I’ll just take that back, thank you!” Grabbing the arm, she kicked her way through the roof of the house and flew up and away, flashing fire in her wake.

Luckily Tsuna was protected by his meditation on the Benevolent Kings, so even though he lost the demon’s arm, no harm came to him. And the sword Higekire was renamed to Onimaru (Demon queller).

  • My retelling is based on A.L. Sadler’s 1918 translation of The Tale of the Heike. I also referenced Zack Davisson’s recent translation of the Hashihime tale (again from The Tale of the Heike), on his blog, Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai. Where the two translations differed, I tried to split the difference.
  • There are many different versions of The Tale of the Heike. According to Noriko Reider, one of the standard classifications splits the versions into two lineages: the “recitation” (oral performance) lineage, and the “reading” lineage. Sadler’s translation is based on the Rufu bon, part of the recitation lineage. The story above is found in the “Swords Chapter.” The most prevalent version of The Tale of the Heike today (according to Reider) is the Kakuichi bon. The Kakuichi bon version of the “Swords Chapter” does not have this story.

    The idea that this text is based on oral variants (which evolve and borrow over time) makes sense to me, since the story actually feels like three different stories: the people vanishing from their homes during Raikō’s time; the story of Hashihime; and the story of Tsuna cutting off the oni’s arm (and the oni stealing it back). That would explain why the timeline jumps back and forth about one hundred and fifty years the way it does.

  • In fact, the last story (Tsuna fighting the oni) has another variant, maybe two. Wikipedia mentions a story of Tsuna fighting the oni Ibaraki at Rashomon Gate. Same story: the demon attacks Tsuna, Tsuna cuts off its arm, the demon steals back the arm by disguising itself as Tsuna’s aunt. And I have in front of me now reproductions of two Ukiyo-e by Utagawa Kuniyoshi: in my book, one is called “Watanabe no Tsuna about to cut off the arm of the demon of Rashomon Gate,” and the other is called “Watanabe no Tsuna battling with the demon Ibaraki of Modori Bridge.” They are titled differently online. Both prints show the oni grabbing Tsuna by the hair, as Tsuna reaches for his sword.
  • Sadler’s translation says that the magician Abe-no-Seimei told Tsuna to seclude himself and “read the Nio Sutra.” Davisson’s translation says Tsuna was to “pray to the two Deva kings.” I couldn’t find anything on the Nio Sutra, so I decided to go more with Davisson’s rendition. The Nio (Benevolent Kings) are the two temple guardians that stand at the gate of Japanese Buddhist temples. In Japanese Buddhism, they were also the guardians of Buddha during his life. They (and the Deva kings) are manifestations of Hindu deities that were incorporated into Buddhism as guardians against evil spirits. There are actually four Deva kings (or Heavenly Kings) in Buddhism, one to guard each of the cardinal directions. Deva, as I’ve mentioned before, is a Sanskrit term for deity. How do the Nio and the Deva kings differ? I’m afraid I don’t know enough about either Buddhism or Hinduism to answer that.

    I did discover a sixteenth century samurai named Suzuki Shosan, who founded a branch of Zen Buddhism called Nio Zen. Suzuki instructed his followers to meditate on the Nio in order to develop the vitality and courage and the readiness to confront death that is characteristic of a warrior. He believed that following Buddha’s way consisted in usefulness to one’s country and to the people in the world, rather than in a hermit’s lifestyle. He was kind of a Zen Ignatius of Loyola — the sixteenth century Spanish knight who founded the Jesuits, the “Soldiers of God.” At any rate, the idea of Tsuna meditating on the Nio and being protected by that activity seemed like a reasonable fusion of Sadler’s rendition and Davisson’s.

  • There are also many variations of the Hashihime story. Davisson has a really interesting discussion of them on his blog. If you are at all interested in Japanese ghost stories and demonology, and you aren’t following him yet — well, what are you waiting for?

6 thoughts on “The Demon Lady of Uji Bridge

    1. Ha! The oni was really good at doing the whole mother-guilt shtick, I gotta say. In the original (Sadler’s translation), it went on even longer than in my version.

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