Last updated: 04-09-2023
The Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) story cycle has been popular in East Asia for nearly a millennium. Written and pictorial evidence points to it emerging in China by at least the 11th-century. Tales of the Tang Monk and his animal companions were well-regarded in Korea by at least the 14th-century (see here and here). I’m not sure when the story first arrived in Japan, but it received piecemeal translations starting in the 18th-century, and the first complete version was finished by 1835.  According to Shi (as cited in Chien, 2017), these translations “had a tremendous impact of spreading the story of Xuanzang far and wide in Japan” (p. 22).
Journey to the West came to influence all sorts of Japanese media (one example). In this article, I would like to focus on a lesser known Edo-period folktale from the Seven Wonders of Honjo (Honjo Nanafushigi, 本所七不思議)  called the “Foot Washing Manor” (Ashiarai Yashiki, 足洗邸; あしあらいやしき).
1. The “Foot Washing Manor”
The story tells of a filthy, titanic foot that plagues a samurai night after night. Matthew Meyer kindly gave me permission to reproduce his version of the story, as seen on his website yokai.com:
Long ago lived a hatamoto (a high-ranking samurai) named Aji no Kyūnosuke. One night at his manor in Honjo, a loud, booming voice was heard heard. It echoed like thunder:
“WAAASH MYYY FOOOOOOT!”
Just then there was a splintering crack, and the ceiling tore open. An enormous foot descended into the mansion. The foot was covered in thick, bristly hair, and it was filthy. The terrified servants scrambled to gather buckets, water, and rags. They washed the foot until it was thoroughly clean. Afterwards, the giant foot ascended up through the roof and disappeared.
The following night, and every night thereafter, the same thing occurred. A booming voice would demand its foot be washed. A giant foot would crash through the roof. And the dutiful servants would wash it clean.
A few nights of this was all that Aji no Kyūnosuke could take. He ordered his servants not to wash the foot anymore. That night, the foot crashed through the ceiling and demanded to be washed as usual. When it was ignored, it thrashed around violently, destroying vast swaths of the mansion’s roof in the process.
Kyūnosuke complained to his friends about the nightly visitor and the destruction it was causing. They were very interested. One of them wanted to witness the event so badly that he offered to swap mansions with Kyūnosuke, and Kyūnosuke quickly agreed. However, after his friend moved in, the giant foot never appeared again (Meyer, n.d.).
This story shares many parallels with an event from chapter 97 of Journey to the West.
Fig. 1 – “The Foot Washing Mansion” (足洗邸) by Utagawa Kuniteru (larger version).
2. The Monkey King’s Giant Foot
For context, the four monks are framed for the theft and murder of a rich layman who had originally hosted them for a month in the Bronze Estrade Prefecture (Tongtai fu, 銅臺府) of India. Sun Wukong captures the real perpetrators but is forced to release the bandits for fear that Tripitaka will chant the band-tightening spell for killing them. However, imperial troops later capture the monks with the stolen items, making them look guilty. After allowing Tripitaka to be tortured (fulfilling one of the 81 predestined tribulations), Monkey escapes from the prison at night to affect his master’s release.
First, he imitates the voice of the slain layman at his wake and threatens heavenly retribution if his widow, the person who framed the monks, doesn’t recant her false claims. Second, he imitates the voice of the deceased uncle of the city magistrate who had imprisoned them and again threatens heavenly retribution if the official doesn’t reexamine the case. And third, at dawn he appears as a giant, disembodied foot (fig. 2) before the district-level magistrates and threatens to stomp the city and surrounding area into oblivion as heavenly retribution if they don’t put pressure on their superior to free his master:
Pilgrim flew out of the hall, and he found that it was beginning to grow light in the east. By the time he reached the Numinous Earth District [Di ling xian, 地靈縣], he saw that the district magistrate had already seated himself in the official hall. “If a midge speaks,” thought Pilgrim to himself, “and someone sees it, my identity may be revealed. That’s no good.” He changed, therefore, into the huge magic body [da fa shen, 大法身]: from midair he lowered a giant foot,  which completely filled the district hall. “Hear me, you officials,” he cried, “I’m the Wandering Spirit [Langdang youshen, 浪蕩遊神] sent by the Jade Emperor. I charge you that a son of Buddha has been wrongfully beaten in the jail of your prefecture, thus greatly disturbing the peace of the deities in the Three Regions. I am told to impart this message to you, that you should give him an early release. If there is any delay, my other foot will descend. It will first kick to death all the district officials of this prefecture. Then it will stamp to death the entire population of the region. Your cities finally will be trodden into dust and ashes!”
All the officials of the district were so terrified that they knelt down together to kowtow and worship, saying, “Let the noble sage withdraw his presence. We will go into the prefecture at once and report this to the magistrate. The prisoner will be released immediately. We beg you not to move your foot, for it will frighten these humble officials to death.” Only then did Pilgrim retrieve his magic body. Changing once more into a midge, he flew back inside the jail through the crack between the roof tiles and crawled back to sleep in the rack (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 335-336).
Fig. 2 – A modern manhua depicting Monkey’s giant foot confronting the district-level magistrates (larger version). Comic found here. While the image shows Sun wearing shoes, the original Chinese doesn’t say whether are not his foot is covered.
Both stories involve a single, giant foot threatening high-ranking members of society within the confines of their living or working quarters. The former is a samurai, while the latter are district-level magistrates. The threat involves death and the destruction of property. Danger looms over the Samurai’s household as the monstrous foot demands cleaning, and when its wants are ignored, it destroys part of the building in a fit of rage. Monkey, on the other hand, threatens to stomp everything (people and buildings) into oblivion if his demands for Tripitaka’s emancipation are not met. Also, the Japanese tale refers to the foot being “covered in thick, bristly hair” (Meyer, n.d.). This may be a reference to a furry monkey’s foot.
Now, someone might question what foot washing and release from prison have to do with each other. The two don’t appear to be related at all. But Meyer (n.d.) explains:
“[W]ashing your feet” is also a Japanese idiom for rehabilitating a criminal. A culprit whose ‘feet have been washed’ can be said to have paid his debt to society.
This is indeed an actual ceremony performed by criminals wishing to cleanse themselves of their negative past and reenter society (Clark, 1994, pp. 122-123). Therefore, both concepts are intimately related. Someone released from prison can be said to be rehabilitated, and this again is symbolized by said foot washing ceremony. Therefore, the monster in the Japanese tale is likely demanding that the Samurai do his part to help release or pardon a prisoner just like the Journey to the West episode.
The final act of Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Xiyou: Jiangmo pian, 西遊·降魔篇, 2013) includes a trio of demon hunters looking to defeat the Monkey King. One is a seemingly crippled old man who hobbles around on a crutch because of an underdeveloped right leg. But when the time comes, he uses qi energy to grow the appendage to giant proportions, calling it his “Heaven-Destroying Foot” (Tiancan jiao, 天殘脚).
This character’s look and skill were copied directly from an HK martial arts film from 1965 commonly known in English as The Furious Buddha’s Palm (Rulai shenzhang nusui wanjian men, 如來神掌怒碎萬劍門; lit: “The Buddha Spirit Palm Shatters the 10,000 Sword Sect”). During the final battle, the main villain “Iron-Faced Asura” (Tiemian xiuluo, 鐵面修羅, played by Shih Kien) uses the same method to produce a giant foot. But what’s interesting for my purposes is that it appears to be covered in coarse hair like a primate (fig. 3).
A single, giant, destructive foot covered in hair sounds familiar doesn’t it? I wonder if this martial skill was influenced by the JTTW episode. This connection was first suggested to me by Jose Loayza (Twitter). A big thank you to him.
Note: A few hours after adding this update, it dawned on me that the “Buddha Spirit Palm” (Rulai shenzhang, 如來神掌) technique is used at the end of the film to combat the giant, monkey-like foot. This of course brings to mind the episode in JTTW when the Buddha defeats Sun Wukong with his palm by transforming it into Five Elements Mountain.)
Fig. 3 – A movie still of the Iron-Faced Asura summoning his hairy “Heaven-Destroying Foot” (larger version). Image found here.
1) The 18th-century translator Nishida Korenori (西田維則, d. 1765; penname: Kuchiki sanjin, 口木山人) began publishing Japanese translations of stories from Journey to the West in 1758, ultimately publishing a total of 26 chapters before his death. Others picked up where he left off, including Ishimaro Sanjin (石麻呂山人) (ch. 27-39 and later 40-47), Ogata Teisai (尾方貞斎) (ch. 48-53), and Gakutei Kyuzan 岳亭丘山 (ch. 54-65). This incomplete version, known as The Popular Journey to the West (Tsuzoku saiyuki, 通俗西遊記, 1758-1831) was published in five instalments over 31 volumes. The first complete version of the novel, The Illustrated Journey to the West (Ehon Saiyuki, 繪本西遊記), was published a few years later in 1835 (Tanaka, 1988, as cited in Chien, 2017, p. 21).
2) This page notes Honjo is “modern day Sumida ward in Tokyo”.
3) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates this as “leg” (p. 335), but the original Chinese says “foot” (jiao, 腳). I’ve corrected this throughout the quote.
Chien, P. (2017). A Journey to the Translation of Verse in the Five English Versions of Xiyouji [Unpublished Master’s dissertation]. National Taiwan Normal University. Retrieved from http://rportal.lib.ntnu.edu.tw/bitstream/20.500.12235/95894/1/060025002l01.pdf
Clark, S. (1994). Japan, a View from the Bath. Germany: University of Hawaii Press.
Meyer, M. (n.d.). Ashiarai yashiki. Yokai.com. Retrieved October 16, 2021, from https://yokai.com/ashiaraiyashiki/.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vol. 4) (Rev. ed.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
2 thoughts on “Watch Your Step: The Influence of Journey to the West on the “Ashiarai Yashiki” Yokai Story of Edo-Period Japan”
I wondered about the giant foot in that chapter! It did make me think of the Ashiarai Yashiki, but I wasn’t sure which way the influence might have gone. Now that I re-read the entry, it’s clear that Journey to the West came first, since the Edo period began later than the novel’s publication date. I also wonder if the yokai legend doesn’t mention a body attached to the foot because readers were expected to get the reference. Fascinating work!
Thank you. The two versions I’ve seen only mention a giant foot and not the body that it’s surely attached to.