The Seven Komachi

(Nana Komachi, 七小町)

Publisher: Mikawa-ya Tetsugorô



This series of prints shows beautiful women likened to seven legends concerning Ono no Komachi, a beautiful ninth century poetess.  The seven legends are taken from the “Nanakomachinoh plays, which deal with apocryphal incidents from the poetess’s life (hence the title Nana Komachi).  The seven episodes are: Shimizu Komachi (or Kiyomizu Komachi), Amagoi Komachi (or Yamamoto Komachi), Soushi-arai Komachi, Kayoi Komachi, Ômu Komachi, Sekidera Komachi and Sotouba Komachi.  The series is listed as number 126 in Kuniyoshi by Basil William Robinson (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1961).  The prints are each about 14 by 10 inches (36 by 25 centimeters), a size known as ôban.  I am grateful to Ward Pieters for assisting with this series.


Komachi: Kiyomizu Komachi (きょう小町)

Description: Woman seated before her meal, with an attendant visible through screens decorated with Kuniyoshi’s paulownia crest

Inset: The Kiyomizudera in Kyoto surrounded by cherry blossoms

Comments: In an episode from chapter 168 of Yamato monogatari (Tales of Yamato), Komachi exchanges poems with the priest Henjô at Kiyomizudera (Shimizu is an alternate reading of Kiyomizu).  The poem associated with this scene reads, “What is happening—does the belt fall heedlessly from the body?  The scenery of a waterfall is something that never changes.”  Representations of this motif typically show a beautiful woman paired with the Otowa Falls (Otowa-no-taki) at Kiyomizudera during the cherry-blossom season.


Print title: Rain-prayer Komachi (Amagoi Komachi, 雨ごい小町)

Description: Woman bending over at the waist looking into a sake bottle while two cats play at her feet

Inset: The poetess Ono no Komachi having had her prayers for rain answered, is sheltered by an umbrella held by an attendant

Comment: Komachi ends a drought by offering the following poem as a prayer for rain, “It is only reasonable since this is the Land of the Rising Sun for the sun to shine.  Nevertheless, it is also called ama-ga-shita. (both [heaven] and [rain] reads ame/ama). Usually depicted is the petitioning Komachi by the shore of a pond in heavy rain–often with a servant holding an umbrella.


Komachi: Book Washing Komachi (Soushi-arai Komachi, 草紙洗小町)

Print title: Komachi Washing a Book (Soshi arai no Komachi, そうし洗の小まち)

Description: Courtesan wiping her hands on a cloth standing in front of a sake barrel inscribed “Kuniyoshi”

Inset: The poetess Ono no Komachi washing a book

Comment: The night before a poetry contest at the Imperial Palace, Ootomo no Kuronushi overhears his rival, Ono no Komachi, recite her entry aloud to herself.  Hoping to disqualify her, he writes it into a copy of the Man’youshuu, and on the day of the competition accuses her of plagiarism.  However, Komachi washes (arai) the book (soushi), whereupon the fresh ink washed away and exposes Kuronushi’s scheme.  The poem reads, “No one has sown it–from what seed issues the floating grass which in the watery furrow of the waves sprouts and grows thick?”


Another state of the above design




Komachi:  Travelling Komachi (Kayoi Komachi, かよい小町)

Print title: Travelling (Kayoi, かよい) 

Description: Woman on a wooden balcony bending over to receive something from a woman below her

Inset: Building on a wooded hillside

Comment: Captain Fukakusa no Shoushou fell in love with Komachi.  She promised to spend a night with him if he slept 100 nights outside her door.  The captain braves the elements for 99 nights, marking each night by a notch on the carriage shaft bench, but expires on the 100th.  The poem reads, “One hundred times or more, I hear the fluttering of the snipes’ wings as I count the lonely hours till dawn when you have not come.”  Typically, the captain is portrayed traveling to visiting Komachi–often by oxcart on a snowy night.


Another version of the above print.  It is a less labor-intensive printing than the above, which almost invariably means a later edition.  In this print, the delicate shading (bokashi) on Komachi’s kimono was omitted.  Bokashi was achieved by hand applying a gradation of ink to the wooden printing block rather than inking the block uniformly.  This hand-application had to be repeated for each sheet of paper that was printed.


Komachi: Parrot Komachi (Omu Komachi, おうむ小町)

Print title: Parrot (Ômu, おうむ)

Description: Woman playing a koto outdoors on a platform with a waterfall behind her

Inset: A parrot

Comment: The emperor sends a poem of pity to the aged Komachi: “Although above the clouds things do not change from how they were in the past, do you look back fondly on your time spent within the jeweled curtains”.  By changing only one word of the emperor’s poem, Komachi demonstrates that age has not dulled her wit, “Although above the clouds things do not change from how they were in the past, I do indeed look back fondly on my time spent within the jeweled curtains.”  Illustrations frequently include a parrot–often painted on a screen–because to repeat another’s words mechanically is called “parrot’s repetition”.


Komachi: Sekidera Komachi (Sekidera Komachi, せきでら小町 or 関寺小町)

Print title: Sekidera (関寺)  

Description: Courtesan standing on a platform in a garden, pointing at a painting of the full moon

Inset: The poetess Ono no Komachi seated amongst grasses

Comment: The priest of Sekidera, accompanied by a child, visited the aged Komachi to discuss poetry.  The child invited her to the temple, where the Tanabata (Star Festival) was held.  The child danced and then Komachi danced, too, forgetting her age.  The poem reads, “Wretch that I am–a floating waterweed, broken from its roots.  If a stream should beckon, I would follow it, I think.”


Print title: Gravestone Komachi (Soto Komachi, そうと小町) 

Description: Standing woman admiring chrysanthemums with another woman behind her leaning over a fence

Inset: Reeds blowing in the wind

Comment: A traveling monk reprimanded an old woman for resting her aged body disrespectfully on a stupa (spiritual monument representing Buddha’s body).  He found that the woman was a withered Komachi, who started to talk about the tragic love with Captain Fukakusa.  After her confession, his soul attained peace.  The poem read, “Were I in Heaven the stupa was an ill seat.  But here, in the world without, what harm is done.”