Kyoto Celebrates a 1,000-Year Love Affair
ON a glaring, color-drenched day in Kyoto, I walk unsteadily out of the traditional restaurant where I have spent the morning being costumed, painted and bewigged. Two chic dressers who turned a tatami room into a staging area for a literary fantasy mind the train flowing behind my heavy robes. Hiking up my red silk trouser skirts as I mince forward, I squint without my glasses — a modern touch that would betray the fact that I’m only pretending to be a noblewoman straight from “The Tale of Genji.”
The last year has been busier than most in Kyoto. This city, known for its shrines, temples and blazing autumn hills, is celebrating the millennial anniversary of Murasaki Shikibu’s episodic story of love and loss among the imperial set.
Considered by some to be the world’s first novel, “Genji” evokes particular pride in Japan’s ancient capital. The author’s ancestral home was on Teramachi Street, and she served as a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court. Even better, Lady Murasaki set much of the amorous action involving her decadent hero, the “Shining Prince,” in the mansions and palaces of Heian-kyo, as Kyoto once was called.
Across Japan, the anniversary has been marked by music festivals, parades, a chrysanthemum-doll competition and a hairstyle show featuring looks popular in Lady Murasaki’s time. In Kyoto, the festivities have included “Genji”-themed poetry readings, moon-viewings and even performance art, which I have chosen.
For two hours (and about $245), I indulge in the peculiar local custom of swanning about like a Disney character in traditional costume — in this case, the juni-hitoe, or “12 layers of robes,” fashionable in the Heian era. My outing in Arashiyama, a scenic district that encompasses bamboo groves and a park for macaques, includes a leisurely boat ride with friends on the Katsura River. As a boatman poles through the water, I pretend to be an aristocrat admiring “red leaves, beautiful in the autumn wind,” in the words of Lady Murasaki.
But that idyll is eclipsed by the opening of my “Tale of Genji Special Experience.” When my entourage and I step into a parking lot full of buses, an ant trail of tourists bound for the river halts and redirects itself. The sight of a foreigner with a pale-moon face, cherry-blossom lips and a raven wig prompts shouts of laughter. “Beautiful!” exclaims a tweedy man, stepping into my path with his camera.
Clearly, understanding a visionary whose work shaped Japan’s literary culture requires more than walking a few steps in her geta. Lady Murasaki’s own genius lay in exploring her subjects’ inner lives.
At a time when fiction — in the form of fables — was dismissed as brain-candy for females, she produced an epic whose psychological resonance was unprecedented. And she crafted her tales in Japanese, whose written form was still being developed. “Genji” was “a pyrotechnical display of literary creativity,” in the words of the anthropologist Liza Dalby, who imagined the writer’s life in “The Tale of Murasaki.”
A walk through downtown Kyoto in early November underscored the novel’s lasting power. Posters of the ingénue Yuki Shibamoto, the face of the national celebration, gazed from windows in office buildings and bridal shops. At the Museum of Kyoto, visitors inspected illustrated scrolls and painted screens from across the centuries depicting Genji’s exploits, and they walked out with playing cards and refrigerator magnets bearing images of Japan’s own Casanova. At the Starbuck’s on Sanjo, a schoolboy in a Harry Potter uniform paged through a manga inspired by Genji’s adventures.
These days, few digest the full epic, which runs more than 1,000 pages in English. In Japan, the home of the cellphone novel, the tale has morphed with the culture; inventors at Kyoto University have even produced a Murasaki robot that recites passages from her work. Eager to reach the masses, publishers offer racy mangas and abridged renditions in modern Japanese that can be “quite crude and even obscene,” says Donald Keene, a professor emeritus of Japanese literature at Columbia.
While “The Tale of Genji” spans three generations, the best-known sections focus on its title character, the son of the emperor and a lesser consort who dies when the boy is young. Genji has no chance of succeeding his father, but he’s still a lethal charmer. Lady Murasaki describes him at 17: “Over soft, layered white gowns he had only a dress cloak, unlaced at the neck. ... lying there in the lamplight, against a pillar, he looked so beautiful that one could have wished him a woman.”
To modern readers, the book’s enormous, emotive cast can seem overwrought: Addicted to “the rare amour fraught with difficulty and heartache,” the married hero impregnates his stepmother, falls in love with a child whom he raises to be his wife, and retreats into exile after he’s discovered in mid-tryst with the daughter of a political enemy. Supporting characters fall victim to amnesia and die of heartbreak; they exchange poems and dampen brocade sleeves with bitter tears.
Though a fragmented diary and her poetry survive, details about the author, whose stories captivated the Heian court, have faded. She belonged to a minor branch of the powerful Fujiwara clan, but her given name (like those of other women) was omitted from genealogies. Her nickname, Murasaki, is the name of one of Genji’s loves, and Shikibu comes from an office held by her father, a regional governor and Chinese scholar.
Look around, though, and her spirit materializes around Kyoto and beyond. Ishiyama-dera Temple, for example, is built atop a massive rock on Mount Garan, a half-hour train journey from the city. Begun in the middle of the eighth century, the temple complex, a shrine to the bodhisattva Kannon (the goddess of mercy), is known for its wild beauty; in a mossy forest punctuated by the neon maroons of Japanese maples and the brassy golds of gingkoes, the open-sided main hall, or hondo, feels like a whimsical treehouse.
But Ishiyama-dera is also, in a sense, a shrine to Lady Murasaki. According to tradition, “Genji” was conceived on a single night here in August 1004, as the author contemplated the moon.
On a steel-gray November day, the sacred hall there was suffused with the sedate buzz of the temple circuit in high season. Pleasant-looking women in eerily well-coordinated autumn colors padded about in their stocking feet, murmuring to one another. Older couples who blinked behind glasses too big for their faces trailed crisp-looking guides holding pennants.
A visitor stood apart: a solemn young woman whose floor-length mane fell over the blue-green mantle of a juni-hitoe. A companion followed her with a camera as she tugged a heavy rope to ring a sonorous bell and tossed coins into a wooden box. Gliding past a counter where others were choosing cellphone charms, the acolyte paused on the veranda before a pair of narrow rooms (with a moon view) where, as the story goes, the author had her epiphany.
In the front alcove, isolated as if on stage, a life-size Murasaki doll knelt behind a writing desk with her violet and green robes spilling around her; nearby was a screen used for privacy. Far behind her was a figure representing her daughter, Katako, staring past her mother’s shoulder with the look of an only child too proud to acknowledge that she’s lonely.
THE real Lady Murasaki was hardly a cloistered figure; at a time when mastering Chinese was considered unwomanly, she devoured the work of Chinese writers. Unlike the aristocratic women who became her readers, she cultivated a traveler’s perspective; before she married a wealthy courtier, she almost certainly accompanied her widowed father to a posting in Echizen.
The author also was able to eavesdrop on life at court. Her husband’s observations may have helped fuel her vivid stories, according to Ms. Dalby. In 1006, the regent Fujiwara Michinaga invited Lady Murasaki (by then widowed) to become Empress Shoshi’s companion and tutor — apparently because early sections of “Genji,” which is believed to have been completed around 1008, had found a delighted audience in her household.
In her diary, Lady Murasaki reveals that her privileged neighbors were given to jealousy, drunkenness and ennui. She felt estranged from vapid figures, including a lady-in-waiting who spread “malicious, unfounded rumors” about her.
“I cannot be bothered to discuss matters in front of those women who continually carp and are so full of themselves: it would only cause trouble,” she writes. “So all they see of me is a facade. There are times when I am forced to sit with them, and on such occasions I simply ignore their petty criticisms, not because I am particularly shy but because I consider it pointless. As a result, they now look upon me as a dullard.”
The woman who held her tongue, of course, had the last word: conjuring precise elements that brilliantly reflected the refined ambience at court.
Another pilgrimage popular with Murasaki fans is to Uji (about 20 minutes by train from Kyoto) where the Tale of Genji Museum channels the sensuality of Lady Murasaki’s work. A rugged but romantic retreat for Heian-era aristocrats, Uji is set in hilly and fertile terrain; Japan’s most highly prized green tea is grown there, and local delicacies include tofu scented with matcha.
On the ancient bridge across the Uji River, weekend visitors savoring soft-serve green-tea ice cream leaned against the railings to watch cormorants wading in the shallows. Nearby, at a monument to Lady Murasaki, “Genji” fans shot photos of one another with her statue to post on Flickr.
Uji’s centerpiece is its museum, an artfully landscaped glass structure that evokes Genji’s world with ceremonial costumes and an ox-drawn carriage and a scale-model version of his mansion. A display of exotica used to concoct incense was a reminder that the “Shining Prince” could be identified by his alluring scent alone.
Fragrant coils of incense were burning in the tiny gift shop, which sells hard candies bearing Genji’s likeness. Next door, there was a happy ruckus in the “Get to Know Genji Corner,” where well-dressed visitors crowded around computers where they could insert photos of their faces onto images of Lady Murasaki’s characters. Men resembled upholstered Sumo wrestlers in the Genji look, which involves chunky robes and what appears to be a pillbox hat topped with a jaunty handle.
The atmosphere was more serene — and the author’s spirit, closer — at the site of her ancestral home in Kyoto. Just east of the Imperial Palace Park, it is now the site of Rozan-ji Temple, a brooding, tile-roofed structure in a leafy neighborhood where ladies in jogging suits share sidewalks with grownups furiously pedaling low-tech bikes.
In the 10th century, the property belonged to Lady Murasaki’s father, a poet; tradition has it that at least part of Genji was written there. In a city where disastrous fires were endemic, the mansion eventually gave way to a temple that itself was rebuilt over the centuries. Only one tile from the home remains, but the place has a stillness that would suit the lonely work of writing.
When I visited Rozan-ji on a drizzly afternoon, the property was flooded by a tour group. While they gazed at the black and gold altar room, I slid along the ancient, satiny floor in my socks. An enormous obsidian crow from the throng in the park shrieked comically and landed on the garden wall.
Following the cry, I sat on the porch by the Zen garden, a space called Genji-niwa. Unlike other places touched by Lady Murasaki’s legacy, it seems timeless: white gravel defines the simple curves of moss islands punctuated by the occasional tree or rock. Stare at the design for long minutes, and it turns into a puzzle — one that I decided will look the same in a thousand years.
A 2D MILLENNIUM
Though the Genji millennial celebration is over, visitors can commune with the spirit of Murasaki Shikibu at these sites in and near Kyoto.
Ishiyama-dera Temple (1-1-1 Ishiyama-dera, Otsu-shi; 81-77-537-0013; www.ishiyamadera.or.jp, in Japanese only) is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is 500 yen (about $5.40 at 93 yen to the dollar.
Rozan-ji Temple (397 Kitanobe-cho 1-chome, Teramachi-dori Hirokoji-agaru, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto; 81-75-231-0355; www.pref.kyoto.jp/visitkyoto/en/theme/sites/shrines/temples/m_rozan) is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. General admission, 400 yen.Tale of Genji Museum (45-26 Uji Higashiuchi, Uji-shi; 81-774-39-9300; www.uji-genji.jp) is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except on Monday. General admission, 500 yen.