Memoirs of a Genji

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 retreated to a mountain temple and came up with an epic tale “on the night of the full moon.”

Lady Murasaki in Ishiyama-dera

That was a thousand years ago – August 1004 to be exact.

The land had come to be called Shiga Prefecture, an hour away from Kyoto.

The lady was Murasaki Shikibu, a Heian Era courtier whose likeness has been immortalized within the temple.

The story was The Tale of Genji, regarded as the world’s first modern novel.

And the temple was the astonishingly lovely Ishiyama-dera.

A Canopy of Cherry Trees: Ishiyama-dera
Momiji (Maple) in Ishiyama-dera

It wasn’t a stretch to imagine Lady Murasaki seized by overwhelming inspiration to weave a story that would last through the ages in this place. The temple and its grounds were surrounded by foliage-canopied vistas of tranquility. To commemorate this defining moment in world literary history, a room in the temple – the Genji Room was fitted with a life-size figure of the author in the act of writing her historic novel. 

This ancient temple, set on a rocky mountain slope, literally meant “stony mountain temple.” There were rock gardens with pebbles raked to parallel perfection. Stone-strewn footpaths made hiking crunchy with every step. Magnificent and craggy metamorphic rocks jutted out, as if regurgitated from the bowels of the earth.

Magnificently Metamorphic: Wollastonite @ Ishiyama-dera
Rock Garden in Ishiyama-dera

The dark grey slabs were mostly shrouded by the summery greens of cherry, maple, and cedar trees. The place looked aflame with the bright colors of momiji (maple) in autumn and sakura (cherry blossom) in spring. An obvious advantage of a summer visit was the lack of crowds. I shared the meditative temple grounds with only a handful of Japanese pilgrims.

A koi pond greeted both pilgrim and tourist just past the gate. The koi being a symbol of love, I found a woman standing by the pond, transfixed by the sinuous cylindrical fish and seemingly wishing for romance.

Looking for Love: Woman by the Koi Pond in Ishiyama-dera
Koi, not Coy

torii (Shinto gate), which I expected to see at Shinto shrines rather than Buddhist temples, took me by surprise. Religious pluralism seemed to be the norm in Japan. Shintoism and Buddhism were not mutually exclusive; the Japanese could be both, depending on the occasion or time of year.

The torii, separating the mundane from the sacred, marked the transcendence to a spiritual dimension. The gate looked distinctly Japanese – visually arresting in its minimalist and monochromatic design painted in bright vermilion.

Torii (Japanese Shinto Gate)
An Artist Sketching Ishiyama-dera

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 concealed 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 (the temple’s main hall), the oldest building in Shiga at almost a thousand years old and the most sacred place in the temple complex, enshrined the Buddha at the far end behind a latticed curtain. A huge Japanese lantern hung by the entrance with its sliding doors pushed back to welcome pilgrims in. Alas, photography was not allowed within the hall, beside which was the tiny Genji Room, off-limits to visitors. I could only peek through a huge window to see the Murasaki-in-action tableau.

Hondo Hall: Ishiyama-dera

Groups of female pilgrims filed into the temple. Presumably, they came for the Concealed Buddha, a Bodhisattva sympathetic to women’s concerns about love, relationships, and childbirth. Women through the ages had 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, was essentially a convoluted love story. Her hero, Genji, was an incredibly handsome lothario who had a way with the ladies.

The temple architecture was 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.

Butai Zukuri (hanging style) Design @ Ishiyama-dera

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 an aura of harmony and elegance.

Twirl under the Trellis
Scene of Tranquility
Colors of Summer: Ishiyama-dera
Temple Flora: Ishiyama-dera

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.

Tsukimi-tei: Between the Moon and Otsu City

In Ishiyama-dera, 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 seemed to have much in common with his place of conception. Both are irresistibly beautiful and hopelessly romantic.

Genji Wannabe: Ai Jie, The Love Hero

47 thoughts on “Memoirs of a Genji”

  1. whoa ! the Koi is NOT really coy , he seems friendly to you.. photogenic ( L” @ L” ) Nice shot..
    another must-read entry… bravo!!! ti queeeerrroohhh…..

  2. Another great post, thanks for writing. I actually have to read the Tale of Genji for university, I’ve only got through 11 chapters so far but to be honest I absolutely hate it… but I don’t have much of an appreciation for classic literature haha. Anyway, I do have to admit though that Murasaki Shikibu was very talented to have written it, I’ll be glad once I’ve finished it lol!

    1. Haha I’m no better! I can’t stand classic lit either. I was thinking of the manga version of The Tale of Genji. 🙂

  3. Sorry, man, when I visit your sight I usually am awed by the photos but now I am more awed by the story of Murasaki. if what I know is true that she is the best known writer to emerge from Japan’s glorious Heian period, I definitely want a copy ofThe Tale of Genji. Just kidding, I am still awed by the photos and the way you write. Very impressive.

    1. Wow, I’m not worthy, Mr. Lakwatsero. 🙂 Oh, there’s a Manga version. I plan to get that one rather than the voluminous book! 😀

  4. As always this site is worth my time. It provides professional photography and a well-thought of article, well-researched, and very informative as well.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Oh Earlie, you can’t imagine how your comment made it worth pouring hours on writing and posting in this blog. #genuflects

      But really, the photography is not pro. The professional photogs here might raise their eyebrows. I’d settle with artistic, haha!

  5. It shows a very distinct Japanese identity. Your stories as you have written them depict the beauty of their culture and how I love reading it.

    I love the red Torii photo with the green background.

    1. @Romelo: I suppose the inspiration for anime would be Japanese scenery. 🙂 Not really into anime, but perhaps I should check it out.

      @Edmar: I appreciate the appreciation. 🙂 I love the torii too! Both its form and its symbolism.

  6. wow what a big Koi! i love reading novels but not so much of classical literature.. but i love your post! so enlightening! thanks so much for writing this i like it better than reading the book.. your post is enough for me.. 😉

    1. @Noel: You’re welcome to come visit. I just have to post new entries regularly. 😀

      @Violy: I can’t possibly steal the thunder of a 10,000-year-old classic! But thanks for the vote of confidence. 🙂

    1. @Simurgh: True, but since our world has become Western-centric, not many people know about the literary heritage of other (especially non-English speaking) countries. I mean, I just heard about Lady Murasaki and her novel when I went to Japan. So I’m doing my bit in getting this out into the word, or at least to my world.

      @GayE: It’s just the gate as far as I know (which is rather limited). Oh yes, this place is aflame with colors during sakura (cherry blossom) and momiji (maple) seasons.

  7. I would love to visit that place during autumn or spring if only for the surreal sight of maple trees and cherry blossoms. From what you wrote, Lady Murasaki seems to have a lot of character and I would love to meet her in person if only she wasn’t dead for more than a thousand years.

    1. @Joan: Right, spring and autumn are more colorful and visually striking seasons. But even in the greens of summer, the place is still picturesque. I was also intrigued by the lady. I wonder what drove her to this temple for a lengthy retreat. Love problems perhaps?

      @DocWends: This is just an hour or two away by train from Kyoto. It’s not very famous though so I just saw a handful of foreign visitors. There were more Japanese pilgrims than tourists during my visit.

  8. Hi Aj! 🙂 Nice pictures and I really love your style of writing. If ever I will have the chance to visit Japan, I would love to see this side of the country. I’m very interested with their culture and of course, I love the scenery with the cherry trees and the Japanese Shinto Gate. The Koi fish is looking straight at you, hehe.

    1. @Karla: That koi was a camwhore! 😀 Yes, do include this in your tour. Anyway it’s quite near Kyoto, the one place in Japan that you shouldn’t miss in any circumstances. I love how the Japanese have the traditional vis-a-vis the futuristic. Kyoto itself is an interesting study of contrasts. I think any Japanese city is.

      @Cha: That makes the two of us (on all counts)!

      1. Hi Aj, Ihope you can read this. As per your question about the Malinta Tunnel Light Show, I believe the additional fee is around 150 pesos. 🙂 Yes, that koi was such a camwhore, hehe. I really hope I can visit Japan soon. I think the contrast is very interesting.

  9. What a temple… the place is really as tranquil as what you mentioned by the way I perceive it. The tale of Genji, a Japanese beautiful and romantic ancient, legendary story.

  10. i am a certified japanophile 🙂 hehehe I have collecting Japanese novels, and The Tale of Genji is kinda hard to find.. But luckily my boyfie who lives at Shinjuku says he had it and will send it to me this Valentine’s day… of course, the legendary Momotaro story is a must 🙂 You have a wonderful article.. Arigatou Gozaimasu!

    1. Arigatou Blair! I heard The Tale of Genji is a really challenging read: overly lengthy, way too many characters with confusing names, episodic, and sometimes not very cohesive. I’ve been reading A Dream of Red Mansions, a Chinese classic, and I think it’s similar to that. I couldn’t read all the way through it; I had to stop every so often and go back to it after some time. Anyway, do post a review when you’re done.

    1. Nabola na naman ako. Perahin na lang, Elal! 😀 When are you going to Japan? I suggest spring or autumn para mas bongga ang mga photos.

  11. It took a while for those photos to appear on my screen and I glad I waited because I was not disappointed. The pics are lovely and the tale of Genji is interesting. This is another great post.

    By the way AJ…are you still in Japan now?

    1. Sorry for the loading lag, Enzo. I re-uploaded most of my photos by linking to Photobucket. I didn’t know it would have that lag. I used to upload photos directly to WP, but they were eating up the storage space pretty fast.

      Nope, I was just a tourist in Japan. I’m based in the Philippines. Are you in Japan?

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