A scene from Chapter 24 'Butterflies', The Tale of Genji, illustrated by Tosa Mitsuyoshi (1539–1613) and Choujirou, Kyoto National Museum
Here at Zusetsu we love the era of beauty that was Japan's Heian era. It's a time of poetry and beautiful art that reflect the changing seasons.
Nature and the seasons have long been a prominent feature of Japanese poetry. A natural image – often a bird or a flower - was frequently used to represent and convey heartfelt emotions. This tradition was drawn into the beautiful literature written by the ladies of the 11th century Heian court – most notably Murasaki Shikibu, author of the world’s first novel The Tale of Genji.
Murasaki sets her tale in the world of the Kyoto court that was her life and home. It is the tale of an Imperial Prince who is unable, owing to the lack of familial sponsors, to ascend the Imperial throne. His father makes him a Genji, that is, a member of the Minamoto clan.
Genji is known as the ‘shining prince’ owing to his beauty, intelligence, charm, and gentle nature: he is uniquely fitted to be an Emperor but unable to attain the role: his destiny leads him instead to ascend to the highest rank a commoner can attain, as well as being the father of both an Emperor and an Empress.
The first two parts of the Tale follow Genji in his love entanglements, his banishment from the city that he loves, his return to Heian-kyou and the building of his magnificent palatial residence known as the Rokujou-in.
Let’s have a look at this beautiful, enchanted place!
The Rokujou Estate recreated at The Tale of Genji Museum, Uji, near Kyoto.
Central to Murasaki’s novel and constructed just as Genji rises to the peak of his powers, is the Rokujou-in: a grand estate that occupies four-times the usual plot of land allocated to the aristocrat in Heian-kyou’s grid-like streets.
Each quarter of the Rokujou estate has a south-facing garden that is carefully planted to reflect the beauty of its special season, and each of the four residences is occupied by the lady whose character has become associated with her designated season.
It creates a rooted harmony at the core of the novel: a gentle interweaving of palace life, seasonal celebrations, and the beauty of nature. Festivals are held at Rokujou to celebrate the prettiness of the seasons, and while the weather is fair and the flowers perfect, all is perceived to be well within Genji’s Rokujou world.
Rokujou Estate Interior from Waseda University EdX Online Course: Invitation to The Tale of Genji, The Foundational Elements of Japanese Culture (The Tale of Genji museum, Uji).
From Chapter 18, The Wind in the Pines:
‘Genji’s east pavilion was now finished, and he brought the lady called Falling Flowers [Hanachirusato] to live there. All along the bridgeway from its west wing to the main house he provided suitable accommodation for his household office and retainers. Its east wing he reserved for the lady from Akashi. He had the north wing made especially large and partitioned it into separate lodgings so that he could gather there all the ladies whom his attentions, however fleeting, had encouraged to trust in a lasting tie with him, and each apartment was done up with exquisite charm.’
A messenger walks across the watadono (covered walkway) at Rokujou to reach Murasaki's apartments in Chapter 21, The Maidens, illustrated by Tosa Mitsunobu.
So, who are Genji’s favoured ladies who live at Rokujou, and which seasons do they represent?
Genji’s beloved Murasaki lives in the Spring Quarter in the south east sector of Rokujou. She is associated with spring because her astonishing beauty is often likened to cherry blossoms.
From Chapter21, The Maidens:
The southeast quarter boasted high hills, every tree that blossoms in spring, and a particularly lovely lake; and in the near garden, before the house, he took care to plant not only five-needled pines, red plums, cherry trees, wisteria, kerria roses, and rock azaleas, all of which are at their best in spring, but also, here and there, discreet touches of autumn.
The Lady Murasaki from The Tale of Genji, illustrated by Tosa Mitsuyoshi (1539–1613) and Choujirou, Kyoto National Museum
The beauty of The Tale of Genji is partly encapsulated in scenes of events and festivals, and none more so than the boating party that takes place at the Spring Quarter, where the nobles float on dragon-prowed boats on the lake that is shared by both the Spring and Autumn Quarters:
From Chapter 24, Butterflies:
The twentieth of the third month had passed, and the spring garden’s flowers and birdsong were lovelier than ever, until people began to wonder how they could possibly have lasted so long. The groves on the hill, the views of the island, the expanses of richly glowing moss – when all these seemed to make the younger women restless, Genji had Chinese-style barges made and outfitted, and on the very day they were launched, he summoned people from the Office of Music to perform aboard them. A great many Princes and senior nobles came.
Her Majesty was then at home. The mistress of the southeast quarter thought it time to answer Her Majesty's challenge to one "whose garden waits to welcome spring," and he himself had spoken of wishing he could show her all their flowers, but since she could not visit without sufficient reason, merely for the pleasure of the blossoms, he had young gentlewomen of hers—ones apt to enjoy the adventure—board a boat and row toward them along the southern lake. The boundary knoll he had put between the gardens did not keep them from coming right round its little promontory and up to the east fishing pavilion, where he had assembled other women from his side.
The dragon-prow and roc-prow barges were adorned magnificently in continental style, and the boys wielding the steering oars wore twin tresses as in China. The astonished women were thrilled and delighted to see them launched on so broad a lake, and they felt as though transported to an unknown land.
Admiring the seasons in Chapter 24, Butterflies, illustrated by Tosa Mitsunobu.
Akikonomu, the daughter of the Rokujou Haven, and former Ise Priestess, lives in the Autumn Quarter that bears her name (aki means ‘autumn’). It is her mother who used to own the Rokujou estate – she is the dramatic figure in the Tale who is so obsessed with Genji that her jealousy manifests itself as a vengeful spirit that kills her love rivals. The Rokujou Haven entrusts Akikonomu to Genji, and on her death the estate transfers to him. Akikonomu later becomes Empress to Genji’s son, Emperor Reizei.
From Chapter 21,The Maidens:
In Her Majesty’s quarter he planted the hill already there with trees certain to glow in rich autumn colours, turned springs into clear streams, added rocks to the brook to deepen its voice, and contrived a waterfall, while on the broad expanse of his new-laid meadow, flowers bloomed in all the profusion of the season.
A scene from the Tale of Genji, illustrated by Maeda Masao
We begin to see an amusing and friendly competition over which of the seasons is best, in this passage:
From Chapter 21, The Maidens:
In the ninth month splashes of autumn colour appeared, and Her Majesty’s garden became indescribably lovely. One windy autumn evening she sprinkled many-coloured flowers and leaves into a box lid and sent them to the residence of His Grace [Genji]. The tall page girl, in deep purple under a patterned aster layering and a light russet dress gown, came tripping with easy grace along the galleries and over the arched bridges. Despite the formality of the occasion Her Majesty had not been able to resist sending this delightful girl, whose long service in such company gave her an air and manner far more distinguished than any other’s.
Her Majesty had written,
‘You whose garden waits by your wish to welcome spring, at least look upon
These autumn leaves from my home, carried to you on the wind.’
The younger gentlewomen gave her emissary a lovely welcome. In answer their mistress [Murasaki] spread a bed of moss in a box lid, dotted the moss with mighty boulder pebbles, and planted in it a five-needled pine to which she tied,
‘They are trifling things, fall leaves scattered on the wind: I would have you see
In the pine gripping the rock the truest colour of spring.’
A scene from The Tale of Genji, illustrated by Tosa Mitsuyoshi (1539–1613) and Choujirou
Hanachirusato was a consort to Genji’s father, the Kiritsubo Emperor. Genji has an endearing quality in that he cares for the women who have become a part of his life, and so it is with Hanachirusato that he provides the Summer Quarter for her and entrusts his son Yuugiri to her care.
Hanachirusato, The Tale of Genji, illustrated by Tosa Mitsunobu.
From Chapter 21, The Maidens:
The northeast quarter, with its cool spring, favoured summer shade. Chinese bamboo grew in the near garden, to freshen the breeze; tall groves offered welcoming depths of shade, as in a mountain village; the hedge was of flowering deutzia; and among the plantings of orange, fragrant with the past, of pinks and roses and peonies, there also grew spring and autumn flowers. The east of this quarter was divided off into a riding ground with a pavilion and surrounded by a woven fence. Sweet flag had been induced to grow thickly beside the water, for the games of the fifth month, and the nearby stables housed the most superb horses.
Horseback archery at Rokujou: Chapter 25, Fireflies, illustrated by Tosa Mitsunobu.
The games that are mentioned in this passage include the exhilarating horseback archery contest yabusame shinji. It can still be seen in Kyoto today during the Aoi Matsuri, at the ancient Kamogama and Shimogama shrines north of the Imperial palace.
From Chapter 25, Fireflies:
At the hour of the Sheep, Genji went out to the riding ground pavilion and, sure enough, found Their Highnesses gathered there. This contest, unlike the one at the palace, brought in the Captains and Lieutenants as well, and Genji enjoyed these novel amusements until darkness fell. The ladies understood little of what was happening, but even the rank-and-file guardsmen were most attractively dressed, and it was a pleasure to watch their dashing display of the archer's magic. The southeast quarter, too, offered a clear though distant view of the riding ground, and young women watched from there as well.
A scene from The Tale of Genji, illustrated by Tosa Mitsuyoshi (1539–1613) and Choujirou
The Akashi Lady meets Genji during his self-imposed exile from Kyoto. She lives in a rural environment, and when a child is born of their liaison, Genji determines that the little girl, destined to become an Empress, should be raised in the city under the careful guidance of his Lady Murasaki. And so the Akashi Lady is associated with winter, because of the following beautiful passage where she mournfully waits for Genji to arrive to take their little daughter:
From Chapter 19, Wisps of Cloud:
The last month of the year had come. The weather turned to snow and sleet, and her affliction grew. How strangely I was born to bear many sorrows! she lamented, and more than ever she caressed and fussed over her daughter. One morning when falling snow darkened the skies and she was absorbed in pondering all that had been and would be, she who seldom approached the veranda sat dressed in many layers of soft white, gazing at the ice along the edge of the water; and it seemed to her women that her pensive figure, the lines of her hair, and her figure from behind made her the very picture of the greatest lady in the land. ‘I shall miss you much more on days like this!’ she sighed charmingly, brushing away a tear.
‘The snow may be deep and the paths across the hills lost in banks of cloud,
but please still keep coming here, never fail to keep in touch.’
The Akashi Lady waits with her little daughter: The Tale of Genji, illustrated by Tosa Mitsunobu.
Happily, the Akashi Lady is reunited with her daughter once she moves to Genji’s Rokujou, but she is forever associated with winter and white. Her accommodation in the northeastern part of the estate is described beautifully, like this:
From Chapter 21, The Maidens:
The northeast quarter’s northern sector was given over to rows of storehouses. Along the dividing fence grew a stand of pines intended to show off the beauty of the snow. There was a fence entwined with chrysanthemums to gather the morning frosts of early winter, a grove of deep-hued oaks, and a scattering of nameless trees transplanted from the Rokujou-in fastnesses of the mountains.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief stroll through these gorgeous Heian gardens. Genji’s Rokujou estate is believed to have been inspired by the riverside estate of Minamoto no Touru which was located on the 6th avenue (the ‘rokujou’) of what is now modern-day Kyoto, in the years that Murasaki was writing her novel. Minamoto’s estate Kawara no In was well-known for its dazzling celebrations and events. What’s really exciting is that part of this beautiful estate still exists in the form of Shousei-en Garden, which is about a ten-minute walk from the JR Kyoto Station!
1. A scene from Chapter 24 'Butterflies', The Tale of Genji, illustrated by Tosa Mitsuyoshi (1539–1613) and Choujirou: Kyoto National Museum
2. Rokujou Estate from the Tale of Genji Museum, Uji, by Ctny - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62190303
3. Rokujou Estate Interior from Waseda University EdX Online Course: Invitation to The Tale of Genji, The Foundational Elements of Japanese Culture.
4. A messenger walks across the watadono (covered walkway) to reach Murasaki's apartments in Chapter 21, The Maidens, illustrated by Tosa Mitsunobu, Harvard Art Museum.
5. The Lady Murasaki from The Tale of Genji, illustrated by Tosa Mitsuyoshi (1539–1613) and Choujirou, Kyoto National Museum.
6. Admiring the seasons in Chapter 24, Butterflies, illustrated by Tosa Mitsunobu, Harvard Art Museum.
7. A scene from the Tale of Genji, illustrated by Maeda Masao, www.ukiyo-e.org.
8. A scene from The Tale of Genji, illustrated by Tosa Mitsuyoshi (1539–1613) and Choujirou: Kyoto National Museum.
9. Hanachirusato, The Tale of Genji, illustrated by Tosa Mitsunobu, Harvard Art Museum.
10. Horseback archery at Rokujou: Chapter 25, Fireflies, illustrated by Tosa Mitsunobu, Harvard Art Museum.
11. A scene from The Tale of Genji, illustrated by Tosa Mitsuyoshi (1539–1613) and Choujirou, Kyoto National Museum.
12. The Akashi Lady waits with her little daughter: The Tale of Genji, illustrated by Tosa Mitsunobu, Harvard Art Museum.
Murasaki Shikibu, Royall Tyler (trans.), The Tale of Genji, Penguin Books, 2003.
Haruo Shirane, Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons, Columbia University Press, 2013, p.54-55.
Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince, Kodansha America Inc., p.20-21.
Melissa McCormick, The Tale of Genji: A Visual Companion, Princeton University Press, 2018.
Waseda University EdX Online Course: Invitation to The Tale of Genji, The Foundational Elements of Japanese Culture.