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