Ikkyū and the Hell Courtesan

What is not a dream? Who will not end up as a skeleton? We appear as skeletons covered with skin — male and female — and lust after each other. When the breath expires, though, the skin ruptures, sex disappears, and there is no more high or low. Underneath the skin of the person we fondle and caress right now is nothing more than a set of bare bones. Think about it — high and low, young and old, male and female, all are the same.”

–Ikkyū (“Skeletons,” 1457) Translated by John Stevens


I was lucky enough to catch the Asian Art Museum’s Seduction exhibit before it closed about a week ago. The exhibit was a view into Japan’s “Floating World,” in particular the Yoshiwara District of Edo, as represented not only in prints and booklets, but in textiles, too. Everything was lovely, but the piece that caught my interest most strongly was Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s diptych Monk Ikkyū and the Hell Courtesan:

Monk Ikkyū and the Hell Courtesan, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, ca. 1845. (Click to enlarge).
Image photographed from the Seduction catalog two-page spread; I couldn’t find this online, and I couldn’t bring myself to rip apart my catalog for a better photo.

Those skeletons! That the piece itself (especially with that title) should get my attention is no surprise, if you read my blog. The story that the diptych refers to worth repeating, too.

Jigoku Dayū, the Hell Courtesan

The stories say that the woman who became known as the Hell Courtesan was named Otoboshi, the daughter of a samurai. Her father died in battle, and when the family fled after his death (I think Otoboshi was about four at the time), they ran into bandits, who murdered Otoboshi’s mother and sold Otoboshi and her older sister to a woman in the business of selling young girls to brothels. Otoboshi eventually became a renowned, high-ranking courtesan (dayū) in Sakai, a port town near Osaka. Convinced that the state of her life was punishment for deeds in a past life, Otoboshi changed her name to Hell (Jigoku) and had an image of Hell embroidered into her gown as penance, hoping to expiate her sins and eventually be reborn into paradise.

Hell Courtesan (Jigoku Dayū), Utagawa Kuniyoshi, late 1840’s. (Click to enlarge)
In the middle of her back you can see Enma, the King of Hell, consulting his scroll to judge the souls in front of him. On the bottom of the robe you can see a demon weighing a soul on the Karma Scale (right), and another forcing a soul to review a murder that he committed, in the Karma Mirror (left). On the left end of her obi (sash) is Amida Buddha with the bodhisattvas Kannon and Seishi, in Paradise. Jigoku’s attendant is holding a Zen priest’s whisk.
Image from the Asian Art Museum Facebook page. You can see close-up details of Jigoku’s robe here.

During the same period, there lived a famous, eccentric Zen monk and poet named Ikkyū. Ikkyū habitually frequented brothels, finding “virtue in the midst of vice” — along with sake and sex. He would ask those he met riddles and philosophical puzzlers, hoping to provoke people into enlightenment. As the story goes, Ikkyū hears about this famous Hell Courtesan, and decides to go see her. He finds the brothel where she was based and asks for her. The brothel servants, seeing only a poor, shabby monk, refuse. Ikkyū curses them; the servants throw him out, and are about to beat him, when Jigoku arrives.

Intrigued, she agrees to see him, sending her servants for sake and vegetarian snacks (as appropriate for a monk, who would be vegetarian). Ikkyū instead asks for hot broth with carp. When Jigoku sees her guest scarfing down fish and guzzling sake, she suspects that he’s not really a monk, but a charlatan. To test him, she sends for young female dancers and singers to entertain her guest.

Ikkyū, drunk, gets up and joins in the dancing. Jigoku leaves the room, but as she leaves she notices odd shadows on the paper of the sliding doors. She peeks back in, and sees Ikkyū carousing among the skeletons of the entertainers (the scene in the diptych, above). When she reenters the room, everything is back to normal. Strange….

Ikkyū parties on until he passes out, so Jigoku brings him back to her room to look after him. In the middle of the night Ikkyū gets up, crawls out to the verandah, and throws up into the garden pond. As the vomit hits the water, Jigoku sees it turn back into live carp!

Realizing that this is no ordinary man, Jigoku asks Ikkyū about heaven and hell (after he sobers up, of course). He speaks of the 136 hells, and of the deceptiveness of surface appearance: without eyes, a beautiful woman is no different from a skeleton in a bag of flesh. When you realize that, nothing can deceive you. Moved by his answers, Jigoku vows to become a nun, but Ikkyū tells her that her current profession is more worthy than that of the (hypocritical) religious; she should try another route to enlightenment. He gives her a poem and a priest’s whisk as payment for the evening.

Inspired, Jigoku has a beautiful chair made, which she puts into her chamber. Every day, she sits in the chair and meditates.

Jigoku, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1845. From the series Biographies of Exceptional Persons of Loyalty and Renown. (Click to enlarge)
Image from ukiyo-e.org

Eventually, Ikkyū returns to see her. He watches her meditate (as he enjoys some sake), then tells her that she has achieved enlightenment, and breaks her chair into pieces. Jigoku, now at peace with herself, continues to work in the brothel (“as if she were a mere skeleton wrapped in flesh,” with nothing to be ashamed of), giving alms generously from her earnings. Sometime later, she falls deathly ill.

On the forty-fifth day of her illness, Jigoku predicts that she will die that very day, and sends for Ikkyū. He arrives with his disciple Gosuke, and tells Jigoku that on the night he spent with her, he saw the seven moles on her right arm and realized that she was Otoboshi, the daughter of the samurai Umezu no Kamon Kageharu — and Gosuke’s sister.

Jigoku struggles out of bed to play the koto and sing. At the end of the song, she falls dead. Ikkyū tells the people to dress her in a simple white robe and leave her body out in the fields. When they object, the monk tells Gosuke to look under Jigoku’s pillow. Sure enough, they find a note with the same instructions [but Gosuke, Ikkyū’s disciple, found the note. Hmmmmm]. The people of the brothel agree to honor the request.

After forty-nine days, nothing is left but Jigoku’s robe and her skeleton. Returning to the field, Ikkyū lifts up the bones; they are still connected, the skeleton complete! This is a sign that Jigoku was no ordinary woman. When Ikkyū cremates the remains, seven stars emerge and fly up into the sky.

You can still see Jogoku’s tomb, they say, at a temple in the village of Yagi.

  • The story I’ve summarized is originally from Honchō suibodai zenden (Complete Accounts of Drunken Enlightenment in our Country) by Santō Kyōden, published in 1809. I read it in the essay “Kuniyoshi and the Hell Courtesan” by Julia Meech, found in the Seduction catalog. I don’t know if Dr. Meech has published the essay anywhere else, but if you can find it, I highly recommend it.

  • Dayū (or tayū) was the designation for the highest rank of courtesan; they were expected to provide dance, music, and conversation, as well as sex. The term jigoku denoted streetwalkers. So for the Hell Courtesan to name herself Jigoku is in some sense a double self-denigration.

    Geisha were also skilled entertainers, but not prostitutes. Courtesans (including dayū) wore bright robes with the obi (sash) tied in the front — because they tied and untied them frequently, I suppose. Geisha wore more restrained colors, and tied their obi in the back.

  • Ikkyū was a historical figure; a fervent believer in Zen, but a gadfly who was critical of institutional Zen — that is, the formal monastic life and empty rule following. He believed in finding Zen in everyday life.

    Ten days
    In the monastery
    Made me restless.
    The red thread
    On my feet
    Is long and unbroken.
    If one day you come
    Looking for me,
    Ask for me
    At the fishmonger's,
    In the tavern,
    Or in the brothel.

    Whether he was as wild-living as the stories say, I don’t know, but he did eventually leave temple life, surrounding himself with artists and poets and entering a romantic relationship with the blind singer Mori. He wrote some spicy poetry, too. Later in life, he served briefly as the abbot of Daitokuji Temple. He was also influential in shaping the modern Japanese tea ceremony.

  • Ikkyū’s disciple (and Jigoku’s brother) Gosuke had the nickname ‘Weatherworn” because of the image on his robe of an old weathered skeleton, the bones scattered among the grass. A morbid pair, this brother and sister. In Santō Kyōden’s story, Gosuke gets in a fight and kills two brothers, who turn out to be the bandits who murdered Gosuke and Jigoku’s mother.

  • Utagawa Kuniyoshi, whose work illustrates this post (his work inspired this post, as it was central to the Hell Courtesan section of the Seduction exhibit), was so into the story of Hell Courtesan that he not only produced several works based on her story, he also portrayed himself in Jigoku-style robes. He liked cats, too, as you can see.

    Left:Self-portrait, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1839. Image from WikiArt
    Right:Self-portrait with Utigawa Kunisada and Keisai Eisen, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1849.
    Kuniyoshi is bottom-right. From Nihon kijen den (Biographies of Remarkable Japanese), vol. 2. Image from Boston Museum of Fine Arts (Click to enlarge)

6 thoughts on “Ikkyū and the Hell Courtesan

    1. Glad you liked it! I love Kuniyoshi, too, and ukiyo-e in general. Plus, I love Japanese ghost stories and fantastic tales.

      A lot of the prints in this exhibit were on loan, but I think a few of the fine arts museums here in San Francisco have pretty good Japanese print collections, partly due to donations from James Michener (who was a big manga and Japanese print collector). Every so often they’ll show them. It’s very cool.

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