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The Bittersweet Tale of the Fox Who Loved Tea Ceremonies

Sotangitsune the fox was so fond of tea ceremonies that he would dress up as a tea master. But his downfall was his penchant to steal fried tofu.



A statuette of Sotangitsune the fox. (©Photo by John Carroll)

As in many other countries, there are countless tales in Japan of animals such as foxes and rats taking on human form, and not necessarily for nefarious purposes. Some foxes apparently wished to participate in religious services. And then there is the legend of Sotangitsune, the old fox who loved taking part in tea ceremonies and how he met his tragic end.

The Sen Family

This is how the story goes. The tea master Sen-no-Rikyu was of course a cultural phenomenon and the spiritual forefather of the wabi-sabi form of Japanese tea ceremony. After he committed suicide in 1591 on the order of the tyrant Hideyoshi, he was succeeded as chajin (tea master) by his adopted son, who was also married to his daughter Okame. 

This son was in turn succeeded by Sen no Sotan. His three sons established respectively the Omotesenke, Urasenke, and Mushakojisenke schools of chanoyu or the Japanese "way of tea." Our story takes place at the time of Sen no Sotan (1578–1658), who was also known as Genpaku Sotan.

 At around the age of ten, Sen no Rikyu sent his grandson Sotan to live at the Sangenin, a sub-temple of Daitokuji in Kyoto. There, he would be supervised by a priest who Rikyu knew. After Rikyu’s death, his family was scattered and faced many difficulties. But Sotan remained safe at the temple. Eventually, he was reunited with his father who soon left the leadership of the family to him. Sotan went on to do much to promote the Way of Tea in Kyoto.

Portrait of Sen no Sotan from the National Diet Library Digital Collection.

Shokokuji Temple

During the Muromachi period (1336-1573) there were five major officially recognized Zen temples belonging to the Rinzai sect (gozan) in Kyoto. The Shokokuji was ranked number two among them. It was located very close to the Hana no Gosho administrative headquarters of the Ashikaga shoguns as well as the imperial palace. 

The temple was founded in 1382 at the order of Shogun Yoshimitsu. Unfortunately, it was burned down several times. The 13 buildings that remain today are to be found at the rear of the main campus of Doshisha University. 

The gate of Shokokuji Temple. (©John Carroll)

A Fox Who Loved Tea Ceremonies

Now it just so happens that at this time, there was an old white fox living in a grove within the precincts of the Shokokuji. The fox enjoyed watching tea ceremonies and aping the actions of expert tea masters he observed from afar, especially Sotan. It got to the point where when autumn arrived, this fox liked to get dressed up like a tea master and pretend he was Sotan. Remember: foxes are said to be accomplished shapeshifters.

The cultured fox would visit various tea masters to drink tea and eat cakes along with them, although he was not hesitant to pilfer food when he got the chance. Eventually, everyone realized that they were socializing with a fox, especially since his tail sometimes popped out from under the hem of his kimono. They took to calling him Sotangitsune. 

Other times he would assume the guise of an unsui wandering monk. He would go out into the city to collect alms (takahatsu), which he gave to support the temple or help the poor. He also loved to take part in zazen meditation and sutra reading sessions and delighted in playing igo (go) with the head priest at the Shokokuji. 

Sotangitsune performing a tea ceremony. (©Photo by John Carroll)

The Fox Gets Caught

Then the big day arrived when the real Sotan was supposed to come to the Shokokuji to perform a tea ceremony in a newly established tea room within the Jisshoin sub-temple, called the Ishinshitsu. As Sotan did not arrive on time, the fox stepped in to take his place. When the real Sotan showed up, he stood to the side in the shadows and observed dumbstruck the strange spectacle of his doppelganger expertly making tea. He was utterly amazed by the skill displayed by the vulpine tea aficionado.

The Jisshoin sub-temple is located a few hundred meters to the northwest of the grounds of the Shokokuji proper. Looking out of the windows of the tea room in the sub-temple, a visitor can see a stone statue of Sotangitsune. An observant visitor will note that one window is bigger than most tearoom windows. 

(©John Carroll)

That is because when Sotangitsune was caught in the act and sought to flee in a panic, he burst through this window. However, when it was replaced it turned out to be bigger than the other windows. 

Incidentally, the Jisshoin is one of over 100 sub-temples of the Shokokuji nationwide, along with the world-famous Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) and Ginkakuji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion). Unfortunately, the Jisshoin is normally closed to visitors. 

Alternate Endings

There are several different stories about how Sotangitsune met his end. Although everyone liked and respected this accomplished fox, he simply could not get over the ingrained habit of stealing food. 

Like other foxes, he especially relished eating abura-age fried tofu. (That is why udon noodles served with fried tofu are called kitsune udon.) On one occasion, he was caught in the act of filching some abura-age at a neighborhood tofu store. The owner gave chase, and the shoplifting fox ended up falling into a deep well. 

A more poignant variation on this story tells how Sotangitsune had helped out the owner of his favorite tofu store who was facing bankruptcy. To repay him for his kindness, the owner prepared some rat tempura for Sotangitsune since everyone knew that this was a treat foxes dearly loved. 

Sotangitsune knew that if he ate the tempura he would immediately lose the miraculous powers he had gained through his rigorous spiritual training and revert to his original form. But he simply could not control himself and went ahead and consumed the meal with gusto. 

With that, his original form and scent returned, which set all the dogs in the neighborhood to howling and they soon came hunting for him. Sotangitsune rushed helter-skelter for the safety of a nearby grove but had the misfortune to perish in a well there. 

Sotan Inari Jinja. (©John Carroll)

The Author's Favorite Ending

I prefer the story that when Sotangitsune realized that he would soon die, he hosted a tea ceremony for other tea masters and the owner of his favorite tofu shop. It might be considered a very Kyoto-like version of the Last Supper.

After his death, many people missed the sociable fox. The Sotan Inari Jinja was therefore built within the grounds of the Shokokuji to honor his memory. It is to be found immediately to the east of the large bell tower. Although Inari shrines, said to be the most popular type of Shinto shrine in Japan, are of course associated with foxes (think of the Fushimi Inari Shrine also in Kyoto), this is the only one I can think of that honors one particular beast.

Here people come to pray for health, wealth, and the ability to make a better cup of tea.


Author: John Carroll

John Carroll is a Kyoto-based freelance writer and JAPAN Forward contributor. He is currently writing a book on the religious traditions and superstitions of Japan's ancient capital.