5 Real Places in Kyoto Featured in The Tale of Genji, the World’s Oldest Novel
The Tale of Genji, said to be the world's first novel, remains popular worldwide despite being a historic work written more than 1,000 years ago. This article introduces five real places in Kyoto that were depicted in the novel.
What Is The Tale of Genji?
The Tale of Genji is a 54-chapter novel written by a female writer named Murasaki Shikibu during the Heian Period (794 - 1185). (There are various theories about the actual number of chapters). It is a story centered on the romantic liaisons of the protagonist Genji Hikaru, a nobleman. Murasaki Shikibu is one of Japan's most iconic literary writers and The Tale of Genji is the only novel she wrote.
The novel is set in the Heian Period. In Japan, there is an expression "Heian aristocrat" that is used in connection with the Heian Period, indicating that the Heian Period is generally thought to be a time of splendor. In truth, the Heian Period lasted for about 390 years, and although the aristocrats were in charge of politics during the first half, conditions changed dramatically as warriors gradually took power. The Tale of Genji tells not only a story of the protagonist's love affairs, but also depicts the aristocratic society and politics of the time.
The Tale of Genji Museum in Uji City, Kyoto, has a variety of exhibits related to the novel and the Heian Period at large and is a great place to immerse yourself in the world of The Tale of Genji. Be sure to visit if you can.
In the upcoming sections, we will introduce a few real locations in Kyoto that were the settings for various scenes in The Tale of Genji.
1. Rozanji Temple
Rozanji is a temple that was built by Ryogen (also called Ganzan Daishi), a Heian-era monk of the Tendai school of Buddhism (a sect originating in China), between 938 and 947.
It is known as the site of the residence of Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji. It is said that Murasaki lived her whole life here, from the time she was a child through to her marriage and time as a mother raising her daughter.
I've visited Rozanji Temple before and found the experience very moving, as it was the home of such a world-famous author.
Within the grounds of Rozanji Temple, you will find the Genji Garden which was built to commemorate the temple's significance as the site of Murasaki's residence. It is a beautiful garden with white sand and moss. The "asagao" that is mentioned in the Tale of Genji refers to a flower called "kikyo" in modern Japanese, and these beautiful purple flowers can be seen blossoming here from late June to early September.
Access: Approx. 15 minutes on foot from Demachiyanagi Station or Jingu-Marutamachi Station on the Keihan Oto Line
2. Kyoto Imperial Palace
The Kyoto Imperial Palace was the residence of the Emperor of Japan from 1331 to 1869, and the place where he conducted official affairs and ceremonies.
The Kyoto Imperial Palace appears at the beginning of The Tale of Genji as the place the protagonist, Hikaru Genji, was born and raised. It is not to be missed if you want to visit spots related to The Tale of Genji.
Access: 5 minutes on foot from Imadegawa Station on the Karasuma subway line
The Kyoto Imperial Palace is surrounded by a nature-rich national park called Kyoto Gyoen, which is popular as a place to enjoy seasonal scenery such as cherry blossoms in the spring and colorful foliage in the fall.
3. Shosei-en Garden
Shosei-en is a traditional type of Japanese garden featuring a pond with a walking path around it. It is located outside of the grounds of Higashi Honganji Temple.
Shosei-en is said to be on the site of Kawarano-in, the residence of Minamoto no Toru (a Heian-Period aristocrat and son of Emperor Saga), on whom Genji was modeled after. In the tale, Genji lives in a house called Rokujo-in, and it is said that Kawarano-in was also the model for Rokujo-in.
The garden features a nine-story pagoda dedicated to Minamoto no Toru.
Access: 10-minute walk from JR Kyoto Station
4. Nonomiya Shrine
Nonomiya Shrine is a Shinto shrine where saio (unmarried female members of the Japanese Imperial Family selected to serve at Ise Grand Shrine) went through a purifying ceremony before going to Ise Grand Shrine. Today, it is said to enshrine deities for good marriage matches, fertility, and academics, and is visited by many worshipers from both Japan and abroad.
Nonomiya Shrine appears in Chapter 10, "Sakaki" (The Sacred Tree), as the place Genji says his farewells to Lady Rokujo, with whom he had a love affair. Imagine the heartbreak that Lady Rokujo must have felt as you visit the shrine and you'll gain a deeper connection to the story.
Access: About 10 minutes on foot from Saga-Arashiyama Station on the JR Sagano Line
5. Daikakuji Temple
Daikakuji (Saga-in) is a Buddhist temple that was originally built as Emperor Saga’s villa and has a history of over 1,200 years. It is famous as the site of Japan's oldest garden pond.
In Chapter 49, "Yadorigi" (The Mistletoe), of The Tale of Genji, Genji enters priesthood in his later life and spends two to three years at this temple. You may be able to get some insight into Genji's feelings when you visit the temple, imagining what he must have thought about his life and how he spent his days here.
Access: About a 20-minute walk from Saga-Arashiyama Station on the JR San-in Main Line
Did you find a spot that piqued your interest? If you have the chance, be sure to visit Kyoto and experience the world of The Tale of Genji first-hand.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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