E64 To Hell and Back


Show Notes for episode 64 of our Podcast – To Hell and Back.

Story Notes

To Hell and Back

Listeners discretion advised for this episode. It is gory, and graphic, and due to the age of the document translated, sexist.  

Now you may recall this from Yasuke, but I mentioned a tale known as The Tale of the Fuji Cave, or Fuji no hitoana sōshi 富士の人穴草子 as it is known in Japanese. The story of a man journey into hell. 

Two of our earliest texts which include the tale date to the 1603 and 1607, but we is know that it dkd exist in some written form from at least 1527, because the Kyoto courtier Yamashina Tokitsugu 山科言継 (1507–1579) records in a diary entry from that year that he presented a copy to a “new lady of the Handmaid’s Office,” at her request. 

And so the story begins on the morning of the third day of the fourth month of 1201. 

At this time the shōgun Yoriie summoned Wada no Heida Tanenaga and spoke: 

 “Heida, there are people who aways talking about the Fuji cave. I want you to explore, I want you to find it, and tell me what mysteries you find.” 

Heida took in his master’s words. “My lord your request leaves me at a loss. Yet to disobey you would be to invite wrath down from the heavens. So for you I’ll give my one and only life.”  

And so Heida went to see his uncle Yoshimori. He explained the task at hand given to him and feared he may never see anyone ever again should he not return. His uncle wept at the news, there was nothing he could do to help his nephew. It was the order from the shogun after all. And so he wishes him luck and that he hoped he would find glory and eentually return to them. 

Heida stood to go, his eyes welling with tears. His cousin Asaina no Saburō Yoshihide saw the tears in his eyes and taking up his great sword, the sword known as Teimaru, he drew it two or three inches from its sheath and glared at Heida. 

“You stupid fool!” exclaimed the cousin.”What a discgeace to weep Infront of a samurai. You make our family look like cowards, and if that is what you are extend your neck so I may behead you. 

Heida replied he was no coward and no cave or lair, no matter what creature may hide inside would deter him.  

His cousin them wished him well, telling him to make the family proud and that he was sad he could not join him on the mission to come. But it was one given to him alone. 

“Be sure to preserve the family honor and make us all proud,” were his cousins last words to Hieda before he left. 

“I shall be gone merely a week,” he declared as he left. Ready go enter the cave. 

Tale of the Fuji Cave, Fuji no hitoana soshi
19th century edition of a 1627 copy of The Tale of the Fuji Cave

He hadn’t gone far into the cave before he saw snakes with mouths of red writhing in front of him. But he had to push passed, the shogun had ordered it, and so jumping through them he continued. Further in still he came across a frightening stench but still he pressed on. 

Next he came across a woman, not more than 17 or 18 years of age, dresses in a robe of 12 layers she held the 32 marks of feminine beauty. All the while sitting there next to a silver loom and golden shuttle (again the gold and silver together here. She demanded to know who had come into her home and so the man replied. Her voice rung out like a heavenly bird. 

“I am Wada no Heida Tanenaga of the Moira Clan, here at the behest of the shogun.” 

“I do not care whose orders you follow. Just know if you try to pass here I shall kill you.” 

He decided her words were to be listened to. There was no use in being killed this day. And so he returned to tell the shogun of what had occured, but not before she told him one last thing. 

“Now you are merely 18. But when you become 31. That spring will see you die fighting Izumi no Kosaburō Chikahira of Shinano Province

And so the Shogun listened to the tale, but was much troubles that the deepest recesses of the cave had not been explored and so he said he would gift 400 Cho of land to anyone who may venture in again. At first noone came forward, after all, what good was this land if you died trying to get it. 

But eventually someone stepped forward, Nitta no Shiro Tadatsuna. The gift of land would round his estates up to 2000 Cho, allowing him to leave one thousand each for his sons on his death. And so he went to the shogun to declare he would enter into the Fuji Cave 

The land given over to Nitta approached his boys with the news. Both wishes their father wouldn’t go. It didn’t even matter to them if the Shogun had gifted them 1,000,000 Cho. It wouldn’t be enough if it meant the death of their father. 

Nitta tried to placate his sons “if I am to die, then surely I will see a sign before it happens. And if it were to kcxour, then please do not mourn for me, just remain loyal to one another and serve this family and the Shogun well. 

And so assuming as he left the other samurai now must hate him for taking the offer from the shogun. He sertt forth to the Fuji Cave, and his potential death. 

But unlike the previous man, the Shogun gave to Nitta a retainer by the name of Kudo Saemon no Suke, and Nitta had him carry a bundle of torches for the journey. A declaration was made, to return in seven days time, and they ventures forth. 

They went forth, but there were no snakes as previously reported, the was no foul stench, and even further in, no woman sitting at a loom. And so they went deeper than the previous man had gone before. 

Brandishing his sword as they went, suddeny they saw the moon above them, a forest of blue, yellow, red, white and black spreading before them. A small stream lay beyond, footprints in the bed showing someone had recently passed by. And over the river they saw 9 8-ridges palaces with rooves made of Cyprus. 

Entering into the palace they found it wonderful. Water dripped around them, it’s sound like a lute playing the ge-ke-shu-jo or the Salvation of all Sentient Beings’. Night and day were undeterminable except for the opening and closing of lotus blossoms. Brocade was all around in reds and blues, gold’s and silvers. And when the men spoke it echoed like bells all around them. 

Nitta became overjoyed, it was a although they had entered into the Pure Land. And exploring north-east they found an island upon a lake, a palace upon it glistening like gold. 89 bridges joined the island to the shire, each bridge with 89 bells. The first bell chimed the Lotus Sutra, all the other ringing out the sylabbles of the Lotus. The final bell rang out with a separate prayer and soon Nitta noticed in the lake an 8 petalled lotus in the water which he approached to see closer  

And when he did a voice from inside the island palaces chimed in asking who it was who visited their abode. It was a snake with eyes akin to the sun and moon, twenty fathoms in length sixteen horns feasted upon its head, a head with 108 eyes. 

The snake announced who they were, the Asama Bodhisattva of Fuji. They declared the luck of the Shogun had now run out, now that Nitta had found them. But then in a strange turn they said, with shame, that 3 times daily their body was wracked with pain. And so they asked to eat Nittas sword. 

Nitta obliged, handing it over, and after the snake asked for his short sword too. The snake thanked him and then declared he would now show him the Six Realms.  

The snake said, “people say paradise is wonderful, but none have seen it. People say hell is frightening, yet none have returned to speak if it. And so I will show you hell and send you back.” And so transforming himself into an 18 year old boy he took him on a tour of hell. 

Fiest he would take him to Sai no Kawara, the Childrens Riverbed Hell. As they approached he told them of the 6 magistrates of hell. Hakone Gongen, Izu Gongen, Hakusan Gongen, Mishima Gongen, Tateyama Gongen, and finally the snake himself as the last. They were the magistrates of the 136 hell’s and so it was best Nitta not disregard them. 

They looked upon the Children’s Riverbed Hell. Children all younger than 10 holding hands together and stricken with grief. Nitta demanded to know what the meaning of all of this was, to which he was told.  

“These are the children who died without compensating their mothers for all the lain they caused for them whilst in the womb. They will differ here for 9000 years. A fire swept through the expanse then, consuming the children. Who were the restored to their former selves by demons they arise once more. Such was there torment to repeat until their nine thousand years ended  

And turning the the west, Nitta looked upon the Samzu river. Here an old woman stripped people of their robes, each robe linked to a sin they had caused. Those that had no robe had their skin removed instead. The skin left on the boughs of a tree to later be turned into feather gowns.  

They crossed said river to arrive at the Mountain of Death, here when the dead receive memorials to their passing the soriirts would come here to report upon it. As they receive their memorial, creatures would arrive to record news of the memorial, writing down good deeds they would hear of the deceased, to writ it in their good book, these good deeds enabling some sinners here to finally leave and enter into the Pure Land  

To their side, people were being flogged by demons, these people made to carry a heavy stone. Their sin the snake said, for having overburdened their horses in life for more profit. Not for 18,000 years they would suffer what they did to their horses. 

The snake warned Nitta to tell all when he returned to never over burden their horses again! 

Next Nitta saw people empaled on swords, made to climb the mountain of swords. These were the people Nitta was told, to never repaid their obligations to their masters and family in life. 

To the west he could see people made to walk through towers of fire and water. The demons affixing iron shackles to their wrists and ankles. And in another place close by they pounded nails into the people. These were the punishments for the judiciary officials the snake said. One should always avoid being a judge it is said. 

The snake Bodhisattva then led him east to the Crossroads of the Six Realms where the Bodhisattva Jizo stood. Sinners before him cried to be saved but he ignored their please, demons grabbing the sinners saying they would be dripped into the Hell of No Respite. 

Nitta demanded to know of Jizo, to which the snake answered. 

“Jizo will not help those who only ever wanted fame and fortune, and those who never chang his name. Make sure to tell all in the human wotld about this upon your return. If there are those wanted to go to the Pure Lands, each day they should chant Jozis name 100, 200 times at dawn! Now I must tell you. The six realms are made up of Hell, Hungry Ghosts, Animals, Ashura, Humans and Heaven. Let us go to the Animals first. And so Nitta was led to a place with 3 snakes. Two were fables, the other male, the females sucking on the males eyes and mouth.  

Nitta wanted to know what this meant and the snake replied. In life this man had had two wives and they had both been enraged, and so they will remain here for 7,300 years. 

Nitta saw people who had spoken badly about their family and masters while they lived. Their tongue stretched for twelve feet and filled with nails. A woman who had cheated on her husband was being sawn in half. A woman who had tried to improve her looks in life was having her face peeled of its flesh. 

Nitta saw a sinner being pulled toward him by thirty sets of iron chains. Looking closely, he saw that it was a disheveled nun. This is the nun Usui from the Akatsuka estate he was told. She delighted at others misfortunes and in life served herself the best of foods and other nothing but gruel. And so she is going to be pushed down to the bottom of a boiling pot. 

“It is a shame,” the snake said, “that women’s thoughts are all evil. Many more women that me fall down to hell. It is a shame.” 

He saw other sinners hunted by packs of dogs, this punishment for those who didn’t like farming, but envied those who grew their own things. Another man, a priest from Sodeshi was being beaten with iron cudgels, he fate to then be placed for eternity in a box and never to reach the Pure Lands. He had spent temple money on his family instead and had failed to abstain from forbidden food. 

Woman were having tongues pulled, punishment for making false claims against their servants. Another man, who looked like he had been the master of people in real life was pulling weights down upon servants, the punishment for those who do not honor their contracts. Here the snake told Nitta to tell those in the world above that if they agree to something, it must be done. And that it was also a great crime to not return a contract once they time of it had ended. 

And then looking to the sky Nitta saw a most beautiful woman in an ornate carriage she was being ked to the Pure Lands and Nitta wished to know why. The snake spoke up saying it was all her good deeds in life. Helping others. Feeding others.  

Tell the human world the snake said that should you show wholehearted compassion to everyone and everything then you will surely go to the Pure Lands upon your passing. But then Nitta saw more sinners, some bound by an iron cable, demons torturing them, these people having killed all manner of living things. And then yet more, men with rocks weighing them down upon their chests, punishment for selfishly eating whatever they pleased in life, including baby birds. 

A priest was seen, hunt mercilessly upside down, demons taking strips of flesh from his head. This man had only pretended to be holy, but his heart had always been full of filth and frees. He never prayed or offered incense and so this was his punishment. Another demon was stabbing a dinner in the eyes, the punishment for stealing from others in life. 

The snake spoke a warning then to Nitta to never speak badly if those who know the sutras no matter how small the part is they know, it would just cause you to fall into the Hell of no Respite  

Others who stole in life were bound shivering in the Crimson and Great Crimson Lotus Hells. For 30,000years they were to remain bound in the ice. 

Next he saw a woman with hair reaching 300 hundred yards in length. This woman it is said when alive wanted 1000 news strands of hair for everyone she lost. And so now she would spend 9000years ha ing her forehead burned with iron round weights. 

The snake then went on a rant about women stating it was a sin for them not to bear a child, and even a sin for her to not bear another after her first. And then to top it off the snake said to not have ones period was also very bad……. 

He saw a demon taking off a man’s arms and legs, punishment for cutting down grasses and trees for no reason. 

Hungry Ghosts
The Hungry Ghosts

But after all of this. They moved on finally to a new Hell. Going to the Hell of the Hungry Ghosts. These sinners here had bellies the size of oceans, wafer thin necks and mheads as large as mountains. These ghost perpetually hungry had food before them, but Everytime they went to take it. It burst into flame. These people had been wealthy when alive, but bad never shared their food or riches. So now they would be hungry eternally. 

And so the snake told Nitta to tell the human world, “no matter rich or poor, you will find wealth if you clean your home, prepare good food, and fees others and yourself. 

Some of the Hungry Ghosts gave birth before Nitta and they devoured their mother, the lunshment for those who sold their children to feed themselves and for those who abandoned their own children. 

Hourneying onwards they reached a new crossroads again finding Jizo before them with a man and woman before them. They were the lucky ones, they were to head to the Pure Lands and recieve a golden hall, having spent their lives taking holy orders and praying for their lives to come.  

Looking again to the Animal Realm Nitta could see birds and beast that had Ben spliced together. This was the punishment for those who had been overly attached to their parents as well as those too attached to their children 

In the Ashura Realm he saw flames rising all around, men locked in endless combat. This was for those who had fallen in battle. Here to fight for the next 2,300 years. 

Finally after seeing all of the hells the snake took him to the court of Enma (he who judges if a soul goes to heaven or hell) and also to see the Ten Kings of Hell. Here the Ten Kings dwelt in a golden palace. Here people could face the records of their lives, good deeds written in gold tablets, bad in those of iron. Simmers were forced to gaze upon their sins and those that denied them would have themselves weighed in the scale of karma. 

Those that still protested were shown a Johari Mirror and so they could say no more. They would throw themselves to the floor imploring Buddha to save them. Those begging, who had children in the land of the living would then be put to the side.the others dropped straight down into the Hell of No Respite  

The snake spoke up, “it is wise to read the sutras, and recite the nenbutsu. Do not hate or envy others and show compassion. The Ten Kings will Revere those who do.” 

The others that had been put to the side were now harassed by Demons. 

“Listen here sinners,” they said “if you receive no prayer upon the 7th. 14th. 35th. 49th or 100th day after you died then you will go to the Hell of Repiste.” 

To this the Ten Kings wept, imploring the demons to wait until the 3rd year. And so it was agreed, these people would have 3 years to wait and hope someone prayed for them.  

And so that was it for the most part, the snake saying he had been shown most of hell. But upon his return he was not to talk of what he had seen, not to anyone until three years and three months had passed. If he did so, he would end up in hell, and so would the shogun.  

 He returned then to the Shogun and after gathering a crowd of Nobles asked to know what he had seen. Nitta explained he could not speak of the, as it would cause the Shogun harm, but still the Shogun insisted. He would risk the harm to come. 

And so Nitta regaled them all with the tales of what he had seen. All were amazed by the tale, utterly spell bound. And so as he finished his tale, the snake spoke out.  

“You told the tale when you should not.” And so Nitta’s life was taken from him. And all those who heard the voice of the snake, were frightened to their core.  

Nitta body was taken back to his family where he was then cremated and mourned over. 

Where did the retainer go? 

Poem Notes

To perhaps give us a break from all this Hell we saw today, Heather found a senryu for us about the ocean.


The sea 
Something to look at 
When we are angry 

Header Image: Buddhist Hell, from Pixabay.


  • Blyth, R.H. (1949) “Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses”. Japan: Hokuseido Press.
  • Kimbrough, R.K. (2006) “Translation: The Tale of the Fuji Cave.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. [Online Only] pp.1-22.

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