Japanese tale – Ikkyu-san and the Tiger


Once upon a time was a little monk named Ikkyu-san. Despite his tender age, he was renown for his quick wit all around Japan.

Yet one Lord remained sceptical of Ikkyu-san’s talent:

This is just a mere boy. Is he really as clever as they all say?

The Lord decided to test him. One day, he summoned the little monk to his castle. As he sat regally in his audience chamber, he told Ikkyu-san:

Do you see this folding screen?

In the corner of the room shone an amazing screen with a rich gold leaf background. On it, a fearsome tiger lurked, barring wide fangs, and eyes cold and threatening in the candle light.

The lord continued, with mock worry in his voice:

Since I have bought this masterpiece, bad things happen in the middle of the night. I command you to tie up the tiger of my folding screen!

Ikkyu-san paused a moment. Then, he smile sweetly and said:

You are right my Lord, this tiger looks far too dangerous to be left free! It must be the cause of all your troubles!

The boy stood up and bowed:

I am going to tie it up and soon my lord, you’ll sleep well again. Please, give me a rope!

The Lord smiled behind his sleeve and ordered his servant to bring whatever Ikkyu-san would require.

When the night came, the boy rolled up his sleeves and tied a twisted towel around his head. He was ready for battle.

The servants brought the folding screen to the middle of the audience chamber. On the command of the Lord, everyone left the room.

Ikkyu-san squared his shoulders then he turned to the Lord:

I am ready my Lord. Please, make the tiger come out!

Taken aback by this unexpected demand, the Lord completely forgot his scheme and babbled:

What do you mean boy? This tiger is drawn on this screen! How do you want me to lure a painting out?

Ikkyu-san only answered:

So you mean this fearsome beast cannot come out the screen? Then we are all safe! This is such relief!

The boy risked a wink and grinned:

You know my Lord, even I cannot tie up a tiger that’s not really here!

The Lord stood stricken then, he suddenly burst out laughing:

You are right boy! How have I not realised that before!?

The Lord clapped his hands. Smiling then, he thoughtfully added:

You do have wits child…

Nothing more was said that night. And, the next morning, Ikkyu-san returned to his temple, a bag full of gold in his satchel.


Ikkyu-san is a very popular figure of Japanese folklore. This character is based loosely on a 15th century zen monk who served at Ankoku-ji Temple. Ikkyu-san is so famous that an anime was released in the mid 1970’s by Toei Animation.

Byôbu, or folding screens, were commonly used in high class Japanese mansions and castles to divide space. Like sliding doors, some were lavishly decorated. Some painting schools favoured gold leaf backgrounds, which showed power but had also practical use as gold reflects light.

Tying a towel around its head is called nejiri hachimaki and is quite common in Japan, even today. Tenugui (narrow and thin towels) are often used and come in every design you can imagine!

[pictures sources :  1 / 2 / 3]

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