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Celebrating The World’s First Novel

03/26/09 0 Comments

The Tale of the Genji Turns 1,000:
Make Your Own Pilgrimage to Visit Where It Was Inspired

Her straight jet hair hanging down her back, her multi-layered kimono a rustling riot of oranges and golds, Lady Murasaki Shikibu crept through the verdant pine- and moss-covered grounds of the Ishiyama Temple. Here, away from the court intrigues of nearby Kyoto, she could think.

On this particularly bright August night 1,000 years ago, she settled into the temple’s moon-viewing pavilion and let her imagination wander. In heightened excitement, she scribbled notes and, gradually, a character took on distinctive traits. As his bold exploits became clearer, she bestowed a name on her “shining prince”—Hikaru Genji.

Or that’s what the folks at Ishiyama would like us to believe. A marble statute of the author holds pride of place, and a vignette featuring a long-haired mannequin writing at a low table cements the legend: That it was on this hill that she conceived the monogatari which eventually became The Tale of Genji— Japan’s most celebrated written work.

While it’s certainly true that the site was part of a pilgrimage popular during the Heian era in which Lady Murasaki wrote, parts of the actual temple buildings, including the pagoda, the oldest surviving in Japan, are slightly newer (dating to the Kamakura period of the 1190s).

No matter. Now’s a perfect time to plan your own pilgrimage, one that pays homage to the novel and takes advantage of the exodus of autumn’s maple-viewing hordes. Blanketed in snow, the watery reflections, sloping roofs, and bright red torii gates of the region’s temples take on different aspects and silhouettes in the wintertime. These centuries-old parks and buildings make it easy to soak up some Heian atmosphere, but if that’s not enough, several of the area’s museums are running exhibitions in observance of the tale’s 1,000th anniversary. Best, of all, this season is the cheapest time to travel in Japan.

This anniversary is a big deal, because not only is the book widely regarded as the world’s first novel, it also is a perfect encapsulation of the essence of things Japanese. It was in the Heian era that the aesthetic codes so critical to Japanese culture were formulated. Loosely gathered under the phrase “mono no aware”— a melancholy sensitivity to things—these codes include appreciation for everyday objects, ritualization of daily activities, and harmony with nature.

The book depicts a feminine society where a letter might be rejected because its paper, ink color, calligraphy, or scent caused displeasure, and where a woman might be mocked for her poor skills at mixing and matching the various layers of her ensemble. But, equally important to this world, are the veiled subtleties of behavior (more than speech), the changing of the seasons, and the observance of religious festivals.

It’s at the region’s temples where you can really feel that spirit. Byodin, in the small city of Uji, about 10 miles south of Kyoto, is the only surviving example of Heian temple architecture—and certainly one of the loveliest in this land of a thousand (and counting) temples. Like its more ?famous brethren, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, this building sits in the middle of the water, but it ?reveals itself gradually and its graceful horizontal lines and muted grey hues are the epitome of zen. An adjacent, but nicely tucked away, ?museum displays the interior’s fixtures and art, since the building is not open to the public.

Also in Uji—which is the setting for the novel’s little-read final chapters—is the newly-renovated Tale of Genji Museum (www.uji-genji.jp). It offers a brisk introduction to the era via films and models, but includes only a few original pieces, such as an ox wagon and 12-layer kimono.

While in Kyoto proper, be sure to visit two of the city’s oldest shrines: Shimogamo, which lies deep in a forest near the Imperial Palace, and Kiyomizu, famous for its cantilevered position at the top of a hill near Gion, the geisha (or geiko, in Kyoto dialect) quarter. Both were popular sites during Murasaki’s time, and she set several pivotal scenes at each.

One of Kyoto’s newest temples, on the other hand, is also worth a Genji-inspired visit. The Heian Shrine may have been erected in 1895, but it was done in observance of the city’s 1,100th anniversary and as such is a careful attempt at creating a Heian-era stroll garden. A Chinese-style covered bridge with bench seating and a stepping-stone pond crossing are among visitor favorites.

Finally, don’t forget to walk the streets of Gion, where wooden machi-ya merchant’s homes still ply their owners’ wares—from handpainted fans to lacquered pottery—and house tearooms, marked by red lanterns. These architectural treasures with their signature latticework, Japanese joinery, courtyard gardens (tsubo niwa), and sliding door entryways are the stuff of every samurai movie. And the 300 or so geiko and maiko (apprentice geisha) who frequent them—with their perfectly made up faces and their elaborate kimono—are the very ideal of Heian beauty.

For Further Information
To learn more about Tale of Genji, see http://2008genji.jp.

The Kyoto Winter Special (www.kyotowinterspecial.com) campaign runs through this March and features hands-on cultural activities, special Japanese culinary offers, time limited admission to historic facilities normally closed for public viewing, as well as events showcasing the unique beauty of the famous city.

Special hotel packages include the Granvia (www.granviakyoto.com), which offers guests private access to the Kamigamo Shrine (a sister to Shimogamo, mentioned above), and the Hyatt Regency (kyoto.regency.hyatt.com), which offers a fourth night free with any three-night stay.

JoAnn Greco is a freelance writer who has specialized in travel, arts and design, architecture and planning, and lifestyle since 1991. She has written for National Geographic Traveler, The Washington Post, Art & Antiques, Conde Nast Portfolio.com, Newsday, Historic Traveler, CNN.com, USA Today, and many others. She is from Philadelphia, Penn., and can be reached at jphila@aol.com.