Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, Japan
June 25, 2009
A long long time ago…in a land far far away…there was a lady with powdery-white face, blackened teeth, and brows in the middle of her forehead. She allegedly retreated to a mountain temple and came up with an epic tale “on the night of the full moon.”
That was a thousand years ago – August 1004 to be exact.
The land is now Shiga Prefecture, just an hour away from Kyoto but fairly remote in most travelers’ itinerary.
The lady was Murasaki Shikibu, a courtier who may have looked as the aforementioned description, which was the standard of beauty during the Heian era.
The story is called The Tale of Genji, generally regarded as the world’s first modern novel.
And the temple is the astonishingly lovely Ishiyama-dera.
It wasn’t hard to imagine Lady Murasaki seized by overwhelming inspiration to weave a story that will last through the ages in this place. The temple and its grounds are surrounded by foliage-canopied vistas of tranquility. To commemorate this defining moment in world literary history, a room in the temple – the Genji Room - is fitted with a life-size figure of the author, pen in hand poised to write some parts of her historic novel.
This ancient temple is set on a rocky mountain slope; the name literally means “stony mountain temple.” There are rock gardens with pebbles raked to parallel perfection. Stone-strewn footpaths make hiking audibly crunchy with every step. Magnificent and craggy metamorphic rocks, called wollastonite, jut out, as if regurgitated from the bowels of the earth.
The dark grey slabs were mostly shrouded by the summery greens of cherry, maple, and cedar trees. The place must look aflame with the bright colors of momiji (maple) in autumn and sakura (cherry blossom) in spring. An obvious advantage of a summer visit, though, is the lack of crowds. I only had to share the meditative temple grounds with a handful of Japanese pilgrims.
A koi pond greets both pilgrim and tourist just past the gate. In Japanese culture, the koi is a symbol of love. I found a woman standing by the pond, transfixed by the sinuous cylindrical love fish and seemingly wishing for love.
A torii (Shinto gate), which I expected to see at Shinto shrines rather than Buddhist temples, took me by surprise. Religious pluralism seems to be the norm in Japan. Shintoism and Buddhism are not mutually exclusive; the Japanese can be both, depending on the occasion or time of year!
The torii separates the mundane from the sacred; thus, passing through it marks the transcendence to a spiritual dimension. It is distinctly Japanese – visually arresting in its minimalist and monochromatic design of vertical posts and double lintels painted in bright vermilion.
A good hike up the steep steps led to the tahoto (treasure tower or pagoda) that peeked out from the lush vegetation and huge rocks that partly conceal it. The temple had inspired artists of all persuasions – from Lady Murasaki a millennium ago to an anonymous lady sketching the spiry structure by the clearing the day I visited.
The hondo (main hall of the temple) is the most sacred place in the temple complex; the Buddha is enshrined at the far end behind a latticed curtain. A huge Japanese lantern hangs by the entrance with its sliding doors pushed back to welcome pilgrims in. Alas, photography was not allowed within the hall. This hondo is the oldest building in Shiga at almost a thousand years old, but still sturdy. Beside the main hall is the relatively tiny Genji Room which is, unfortunately, off-limits to visitors. I could only peek through a huge window to see the Murasaki-in-action tableau.
Groups of female pilgrims filed into the temple. Presumably, they came for the Concealed Buddha, a Bodhisattva sympathetic to women’s issues, such as marriage, childbirth, and divorce! Women through the ages have looked for love or escaped from it in this sanctuary. Lady Murasaki herself might have gone here for the same reasons, as her tale, although mainly a fictionalized account of courtly life, is essentially a convoluted love story. Her hero, Genji, is an incredibly handsome lothario who has a way with women.
The temple architecture employs the butai zukuri (hanging style) design, marked by verandas overlooking the forested precipice. Doors to the veranda were flung wide open, illuminating the dimly-lit hondo with natural light and pervading it with the fragrance of cedar. Delightfully sensuous, there was more than a dash of romance in this meditative milieu.
Further up the crunchy footpath were scenes of sheer natural beauty. Topiary trees and trellises, stony paths and terraces – a testament to Japanese aesthetic sensibilities based on nature – set a tranquil aura.
Dotting the mountainside were towering tsukimi-tei (moon-viewing pavilions), elevated wooden structures with an open viewing deck where the aristocratic Japanese celebrated the autumn moon with poetry and food. What a magical sight it must have been for Lady Murasaki as the moon cast its reflection on the still waters of nearby Lake Biwa and Seta River.
It is always said that Lady Murasaki was compelled by an unseen force to write her tale “on the night of the full moon.” The moon certainly worked its magic that night.
This visit to Ishiyama-dera spurred my interest in The Tale of Genji, despite its reputation as a tedious read. The title character seems to have much in common with his place of conception. Both are irresistibly beautiful and hopelessly romantic.