The legend of Kiyohime

The so-called “Anchin-Kiyohime” legend may be designated by various other names, such as Hidaka River legend (Hidakagawa legend). The theatrical versions, for which there are numerous playscripts, are collectively known as Dōjōji-mono.

Dōjōji is a famous Noh play originating from a longer 15th century play called Kanemaki (“Enwrapped in a Bell”) and it is set in the Buddhist temple  Dōjōji in Wakayama on the banks of the Hidaka River.

The story according to the present day Doji Temple sees Anchin, a traveling monk from the northern provinces, who would visit the shrine of Kumano annually, stopping at the house of a steward along the way. He would bring presents for the steward’s daughter, Kiyohime, who harbored deep feelings for the priest. In a jest, the steward once told her that she would be the priest’s wife when she grew up.

Regrettably, Kiyohime mistook the jest for truth and, one year, confronted the priest, demanding his hand in marriage. Anchin shouted that he had never seen her before and in her fury her face turned into that of a serpent. The priest fled to Dōjōji, crossing a swollen river and seeking shelter under the temple’s bell. In a fit of rage, Kiyohime, now fully transformed into a vengeful serpent, swam to the temple and coiled herself around the bell, unsuccessfully trying to move it.

As she circled the bell heated and she continued to circle faster and faster until she melted the bell, killing Anchin.

The serpent then dived into the sea, committing suicide.

A few days later, the head monk of the Doji Temple had a dream in which two snakes approached him and asked him for salvation. He and his disciples performed a Lotus-Sutra ritual in front of a thousand armed Kannon.

That night the monk was revisited by two enlightened beings – Kiyohime and Anchin – reunited in death, who in turn thanked and blessed the monk.

Other versions of the story depict, on one side of the river, the revered Doji Temple, inhabited by devout Buddhist priests who adhered to strict rules of conduct. Across the river, a renowned teahouse flourished, hosting a bevy of enchanting maidens. Among them, the most beautiful of them all, Kiyohime.

The priests, bound by their religious vows, were forbidden from interacting with women or entering the teahouse. However, one unsuspecting priest named Anchin chanced upon Kiyohime on his return to the temple and fell instantly under her spell. Battling with his emotions, Anchin succumbed to his desires, clandestinely venturing to the teahouse to court Kiyohime. Their love blossomed, and Anchin started sneaking out every night to be with her, willingly sacrificing his pursuit of enlightenment for stolen moments with his beloved Kiyohime.

Yet, as the affair unfolded, Anchin’s conscience awakened, troubling him with inner turmoil. Struggling between his passionate love for Kiyohime and the inexorable force of Karma, Anchin ultimately chose to sever the illicit bond. Witnessing the transformation in her lover, Kiyohime

desperately tried to win him back, employing all her charms. However, steadfast in his resolve, Anchin conveyed his decision and, recognizing the futility of reasoning with an enraged Kiyohime, made the difficult choice to depart from the teahouse and return to the sacred grounds of the Temple.

Driven by desire and anger, Kiyohime’s body transformed into that of a serpent and pursued Anchin. As the priests witnessed the scene, they frantically ran into the temple and hid him under the temple bell. Kiyohime arrived soon after and sniffed him out. In her lust for vengeance she wrapped herself around the bell, heating it with her anger until it melted, killing both herself and her lover.

As with many orally transmitted tales, details change across different regions. Nevertheless, this enthralling story continues to fascinate us with its interweaving complexities of love, devotion, and karmic consequences and its many captivating visual representations over the centuries.