Jidai Matsuri

The Jidai Matsuri ( 時代祭り, literally "The Festival of Historical Epochs"), celebrated in Kyoto on October 22 of each year. This festival represents a magnificent opportunity to experience over a thousand years of Japanese feudal history as direct spectators in a single day.

Jidai Matsuri, the Festival of Historical Epochs

Guest Author: Myriam

Jidai Matsuri

photo credits: travel-on.planet-muh.de

The origins

This festivity has its roots in the oldest history of Japan and recalls, through an impressive historical costume parade, the events and characters that have marked the life of the city since its foundation. It has been held since 794 by Emperor Kanmu (桓武天皇, Kanmu Tennō) until the transfer of the capital to Edo in 1868 by the decision of Emperor Mitsuhito.

Since its creation under the name of Heian Kyo (平安京, "capital of tranquillity and peace"), Kyoto has remained the capital of Japan almost uninterruptedly for over a thousand years. With the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the beginning of the Meiji Era, the entire imperial court was transferred to Edo, which became Tokyo (東京, literally "eastern capital").

In 1895 on the occasion of the 1100th anniversary of its foundation, the governments of the city and the prefecture of Kyoto established the Jidai Matsuri with the intention of restoring lustre to the ancient capital. Along with this, the aim was to honour the memory of the emperors Kanmu and Komei through the construction of the majestic Heian shrine.

A thousand years of history on the road

Jidai Matsuri

photo credits: fodors.com

Since then, on October 22 of each year, Jidai Matsuri brings back to life the splendour of feudal Japan. This allows residents and tourists to relive the life of the ancient capital for a few hours. Today, the main attraction of the festival is the Jidai Gyoretsu. It is a historical parade in which over two thousand participants take part, dressed in period costumes or in costumes meticulously reproduced by the craftsmen of Kyoto.

At the head of the parade are the mikoshi (portable sanctuaries) dedicated to the Kanmu and Komei emperors and the festival's honorary commissioners, on horse-drawn carriages in the style of the mid-19th century and from there the parade unfolds in reverse chronological order, from the Meiji Era to the Heian period, through about twenty thematic groups, which make it possible to rediscover, era after era, the characters who contributed to the history of the city, from simple peasants and soldiers to prestigious historical figures, such as the unifiers of the country Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, or figures of religious or cultural importance, such as Murasaki Shikibu, author of the famous "Genji Monogatari". The figures are accompanied by the music of drums and flutes, which together with the over 12,000 historical artefacts used, allow spectators to immerse themselves completely in the atmosphere of past eras.

Jidai Matsuri

photo credits: blog.halal-navi.com

The long procession leaves at 12.00 noon from Kyoto Gosho, the imperial palace. It then winds for hours through the streets of the city centre, touching the most evocative and significant places. We see it passing by Oike and the Okazaki district, finally reaching the Heian Sanctuary. Here the Festival ends with the ceremonies foreseen by the Shinto rite.


Nada no Kenka Matsuri

From October 14th to 15th of each year, in the Matubata Hachiman Shrine (松原八幡神社) in the city of Shirahama in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, the Nada no Kenka Matsuri (灘のけんか祭り) one of the biggest autumn festivals in Japan is held.

Nada no Kenka Matsuri, Fighting for blessings

Author: Sara

Nada no Kenka

photo credits: armidaleexpress.com.au

The term "kenka"(けんか) contained in the name of the Festival means "to fight", for this reason, in the current language, it is defined as "the Festival of the fight" in which the Kami (the gods) will bless the winner of the fight with a good harvest. Given the impetuousness with which it takes place, only high school boys and men up to the age of 45 can participate in the event according to Shinto tradition. In addition, participants must belong to 7 specific villages: Higashiyama (東山), Kiba (木場), Matsubara (松原), Yaka (八家), Mega (妻鹿), Usazaki (宇佐崎), Nakamura (中村).

October 14: The Eve "Yoi-Miya" (宵宮)

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At 11:00 am everything is ready for the "Neri-dashi" parade (練りだし). The 7 Yatai (small sacred floats) from the 7 villages go to the Matubata Hachiman Shrine to receive the divine blessing, "Miya-Iri" (宮入). Here the Yatai compete in the first competition called "Neri-Awase" (練り合わせ), competing against each other. A sort of "preparation" because the real "fight" will take place the next day and will be even more difficult. At this point, the "Shishimai" takes place: a dragon dance in front of the elementary school of Shirahama.

October 15: Hon-Miya the heavy Yatai clash

Nada no Kenka

photo credits: diversity-finder.net

The main event of the Festival starts at 5:00 am. The lion of the village of Matsubara (松原の獅子) celebrates the dragon dance at the Sanctuary to worship the gods. Afterwards, the ceremony moves to the ocean where the participants of the villages eliminate their impurities of the spirit by bathing in cold water (Osogi 禊). At this point, the Miya-Iri (opening ceremony) at the Matubata Hachiman Shrine is started with the blessing of the gods. At last, the thinking confrontation begins: the first are the 3 Mikoshi (the least expensive portable sanctuaries of the Yatai) of the village in charge of hosting the festival (every year the place changes alternating between the 7 villages).

The first Mikoshi (一の丸) is very heavy and is carried by men over 36 years old. The second (二の丸) is a bit lighter and is carried by men between 26 and 35 years old. The third Mikoshi (三の丸) is very light and is worn by men under 25 years old.

They fight each other twice (神輿合わせ, mikoshi-awase): first in front of the main building of the Sanctuary, then in the battlefield at the foot of Mount O-Tabi-Yama (御旅山). At the end of this clash, it is the Yatai's turn on the battlefield (Neri-awase 練り合わせ).

Nada no Kenka

photo credits: kabegami.image.coocan.jp

The excited cries of spectators and participants make the event particularly lively and full of passion. At the end of the battle, the 3 Mikoshi and 7 Yatai are taken to the top of the mountain where prayers are said. the Nada no Kenka Matsuri ends with the descent from the mountain which will take place in the same order in which the villages have climbed.


Fuji san, a deep focus on the symbol of Japan

Snow-capped peaks, dizzying slopes, harmonious and perfect shape: Mount Fuji. Breathtakingly majestic, a famous cultural icon: a mystical and spiritual place. There are no words to describe what it feels like to be in front of this wonder of nature. Its importance is such that it is often said that, more than a symbol of Japan, it is Japan.

Mount Fuji 富士山 The symbol of Japan

Guest Author: Flavia

Fuji (富士山 Fu-Ji-San) is located in the Chūbu region (中部地方), about 100 km southwest of the capital Tokyo. It lies between the current prefectures of Yamanashi and Shizuoka, with Kanagawa prefecture to the east. The entire area is part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park (富士-箱根-伊豆-国立公園Fuji-Hakone-Izu Kokuritsu-Koen). Together with Mount Tate (立山) and Mount Haku (白山) is part of the CDs. Three Sacred Mountains ( 三霊山 San-Rei-Zan ) so identified because they are sacred to the Japanese tradition.

The numerous cultural-historical sites around the mountain testify to the great spiritual significance that has always been attributed to it. In pre-modern times it was, in fact, a pilgrimage destination for monks engaged in spiritual research and self-discipline, as well as for ordinary people.

Today this religious connotation has been lost. Although the idea is still widespread that climbing to the top of Fuji at least once in a lifetime is almost a religious duty. Nowadays, climbing is also facilitated by modern means, thanks to which the route to be made on foot is more than halved!

Source of inspiration for a vast cultural production (literature, poetry, art...), its influence has reached the West. It is now well known how much the prints of the masters Hokusai and Hiroshige, portraying Fuji, influenced Monet and Van Gogh.

The fact that it appears among the yen bills and in the name of the main television station is indicative of the central role it plays for the people of the Rising Sun. So much so that it is classified as a "Special Site of Scenic Beauty" and protected as cultural property by the Agency for Cultural Affairs (branch of MEXT). In 2013 it is declared World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. It is included in the category culture - rather than nature - because its impact goes far beyond its natural essence. There are at least twenty-five sites of interest recognized by UNESCO, on Japan's most important mountain.

Fuji

photo credits: expedia.it

Fuji Geological History

Fuji is classified as a stratovolcano, a volcano formed by the accumulation of layers of solidified lava and volcanic ash. Its particularly steep slopes, its perfect conical and symmetrical shape are the results of this overlapping process. It has a crater with a diameter of about 600 meters, 250 meters deep, and at least 70 small secondary peaks including Mount Hōei and Omuro. Its volcanic activity began more than 100,000 years ago.

It was long agreed that there were three stages of the stratification process, called "Small Peak" (小御岳Ko-Mitake), Old Fuji (古富士Ko-Fuji ) and New Fuji (新富士Shin-Fuji). Since 2004 new studies and explorations have revealed the existence of a fourth phase Proto-Komitake (小御岳 Sen-Komitake). It is currently believed that the Komitake originated as a result of eruptions produced by the Proto-Komitake hundreds of thousands of years ago. Just as about 100,000 years ago an eruption of the Komitake gave rise to Old Fuji, the summit of which reached about 2,700 meters with subsequent eruptions. So the Fuji over the millennia has been gradually shaping itself. It reached its present form about 10,000 years ago, after Old Fuji and Komitake also disappeared under the layers of lava.

It erupted nine times between 781 and 1083, and then it remained quiet for a few centuries. Its last eruption - which formed Mount Hōei - dates back to 1707, which for a while led to classify it as dormant. But around 1960 there is a change of definition: it is defined as "active" every volcano whose eruption has ever been documented. In 2003 a further update extends the definition to every volcano that has ever erupted in the last 10,000 years and that continues to give signs of activity. Under these last two designations, Fuji is now considered active. It ranks at 5 in the Volcanic Explosivity Index on a scale from 0 to 8 (like our Vesuvius and Etna).

monte fuji fuji

photo credits: web.archive.org

Geography and territory of Fuji San

Thanks to its 3,776 meters of height, our Fuji is undisputed as the highest peak in Japan. However, between 1895 and 1945 it was climbed by another mountain! How? Because of the post-war agreements closing the first Sino-Japanese conflict, with the Treaty of Shimonoseki, when Taiwan came under Japanese control. Therefore, formally, in those years Taiwanese territory was Japanese. Thus, the Taiwanese "Jade Mountain" (玉山 Yu-Shan) - then called by the Japanese "New High Mountain" (新高山Nii-Taka-Yama) - with its 3,952 meters manages for 50 years to overtake Fuji-San.

There are three towns on its slopes (whose names also characterize three of the main access routes to Fuji): Gotemba (御殿場) to the east, Fujinomiya (富士宮) to the south-west, Fujiyoshida (富士吉田) to the north.

Five, the lakes (富士五湖 Fu-Ji-Go-Ko) that surround it: Yamanaka (山中湖); Kawaguchi (河口湖); Saiko (西湖); Shōji ( 精進湖 ); Motosu (本栖湖). Curiosity: the latter in particular would be the Japanese version of Loch Ness. Legend has it that in 1970 they sighted a creature of 30 meters with rough skin and full of humps: it was promptly christened Mossie!

Near the lakes, to the north-west, we also find a forest of 3000 hectares: Aokigahara (青木ヶ原), also known as Jukai (樹海) or "sea of trees" (sadly known for the primacy of suicides, second only to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco). The area is also rich in caves and hot springs.

Mishotai (御正体山) and Shakushiyama (杓子山) in the northeast, Kurodake (黒岳) in the north and Kenashi (毛無山) in the west, are the closest peaks from which you can see Fuji in the front row.

fuji

photo credits: itinari.com

Fuji, etymology and meanings: But what does "Fuji" mean?

The first thing to note: the name "Fuji" already existed before the introduction of Chinese ideograms or sinograms. The characters used to indicate it were therefore chosen according to their pronunciation so that the latter would coincide with the pre-existing pronunciation. Written as it is today, i.e. 富士山 (Fuji-San), it is given the meaning of "Prosperous Mountain".

There are, however, different opinions that in the past "Fuji" meant something else. Everything always depends on the writing: the same pronunciation can correspond to more than one meaning. Ergo more words, distinguishable at that point from the writing (as well as the context).

Here are the most popular theories about the meaning of Fuji:

  • Unparalleled Mountain【不二山】: very popular is the theory that the name of the volcano was originally written with these Kanji-ideograms- to mean "Unrivaled Mountain" (二 is the number two, so "not two").
  • Monte dell'immortalità【不死山】: This interpretation is based on three works of the past: the ancient Chinese chronicles "Shiki" (史記), the Taketori Monogatari (竹取物語) and the Fuji Sanki (富士山記). The first reports the existence of an elixir of immortality on top of the volcano; the third describes the mountain as the home of immortal beings. The fire of Fuji so metaphor of the inexhaustible "fire" of life. The Taketori Monogatari suggests another etymology, however, that of "mountain rich in warriors" (富 = abundance, 士 = warrior).
  • Winterless Mountain【不尽山】: Many people bring back such "inexhaustible being" to the snow because the summit is almost perpetually covered with snow.

These are still theories but, I must say, this last interpretation would be quite precise. Personally I do not disdain even the alternative of the "Mountain without equal", it is certainly right!

The misunderstanding "Fujiyama"

Speaking of Fuji names, it seems necessary to open a parenthesis on the issue "Fujiyama". If only for those who do not know the language. Since it has escaped the pen of its first transcriber, you might also come across this term in some tourist guides. Well, this is a linguistic misunderstanding! An error dating back to the first transcriptions from Japanese to Western languages.

The character 山, which indicates the mountain, is pronounceable with the Chinese reading "san" but also with the Japanese reading "yama". The Chinese reading (on'yomi) is clearly due to the fact that the ideograms come from China. The reading of Chinese origin is mostly taken when you have compound words, otherwise, the Japanese one (kun'yomi) is used. The exceptions are not rare, but Fuji is not among them.

That's why using "Fujiyama" as a translation of "Mount Fuji" (富士山) is an error. 山 " 山 " alone can be read "yama", but next to the name "Fuji" takes the pronunciation "san". Therefore, "Fuji-San" is the only correct pronunciation for 富士山 [Mount Fuji].

If ever, the form "Fuji no Yama" (富士の山 "Fuji mountain") would be admissible since 山 and 富士 are divided by the specification particle の. Actually there is also this expression, but it is obsolete, found in ancient literary works. Some also recognize the possible contraction of this rare term from "Fuji no Yama" to "Fuji-Yama". Even if it was, the eventual absence of the particle の assumes the presence, however, as much as it is understood. This is not the case in the wrong transcription "Fujiyama", where nothing is contemplated between "Fuji" and "Yama". Then, the latter is always an error.

Other courtly or disused versions are:

  • Fu-Gaku (富岳 "Abundant Top");
  • Fuji no Takane (富士の高嶺 "High peak of Fuji");
  • Fuyō-Hō (芙蓉峰 "Lotus Summit").

fuji

photo credits: kyuhoshi.com

The sacredness of the mountains in the Japanese tradition

Mountains and volcanoes have always had a special place in Japanese spirituality, which has given them a special meaning since the beginning. They are seen as mysterious places, home to spirits as good as bad. A mountain or a volcano is definitely a special, sacred place. A deity, or the seat of one or more gods, perceived by the people as the protector of the whole community.

This autochthonous sensibility - pre-existing to Buddhism - was a form of shamanism that resulted in those beliefs and practices that constitute Shintoism. Shintō made nature an object of worship as an earthly manifestation of the Kami (神 Divinity). Not only the mountains but also the rocks, trees, rivers and waterfalls, lakes...all are perceived as the earthly expression of the Kami. Fuji for example is also defined in Shintō as "Yama no Kami" (山の神).
This Shintō practice of mountain veneration is part of the Kannabi Shinkō (神奈備信仰 "Kannabi Faith"). Kannabi" are all those sacred places used to celebrate and give thanks to the Kami; in the case of mountains, the gods or spirits of the mountain.

This autochthonous conception is then intertwined with the Buddhist vision of the mountain as an ascetic place for the search for enlightenment and the realization of Buddhism; the Taoist one, of the mountain as a mystical place, of Yin-Yang harmony and the five elements; the Confucian one, of the mountain as a cosmic place that connects all living beings in the common search for harmony and self-realization (not in a selfish sense, of course).

fuji

photo credits: tripadvisor.com

The ancient faith Fuji: why worship a mountain?

The question is very simple but full of meaning. The Japanese have always looked at Fuji - at nature in general - with the eyes of a child, I dare say. With attention to its behaviour, reacting and adapting their actions accordingly. To begin with, and before anything else, this "looking", alone, is distinctive of the type of approach that distinguishes these people. Then comes into play as they have observed, that is, with attention. Which brings us to step three: their response after what they have caught. An answer as pertinent as the initial, careful, observation. An answer that communicates nothing else but the acknowledgement "I have recognized you, I have recognized your existence; I respect your will". Only a careful perception could lead to this kind of response.

So think of Fuji, so imposing, so perfect...and so explosive in ancient times: the ancient Japanese could only be impressed by such a manifestation. The first settlements of which there are traces are very ancient: they date back to a period between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago, called Jōmon Incipiente (very first Japanese prehistoric era). Well, among other things, stones have been found, whose arrangement indicated unequivocal ceremonial signs!

Its power, together with its grandeur, led the ancient Japanese to fear it and admire it at the same time. They came to the conclusion that that volcano so powerful had to be the expression of a deity or just a deity (神Kami). For obvious reasons, they tended to consider it a deity of fire. So the Fuji began to be worshipped with the intent to avert its eruptions, inevitably interpreted as the wrath of the deity present there.

The nature of this ancient autochthonous faith remains, in any case, a little mysterious, but it should not be surprising. After all, we are talking about really ancient times.

Fire and Water: the dualism of Fuji-Kami

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One thing, however, that can be seen with more confidence is that double attitude/reaction of admiration and fear on the part of the ancient Japanese. Despite its smoky character - pass me the term - of the time, Fuji was not perceived as a mere intractable or evil divinity. It was simply what it was. And the Japanese ancestors also considered its positive aspects...almost all of them converging in a single word: water.

In ancient times the water of Fuji has in fact represented an important source of sustenance for the inhabitants of the surrounding areas as well as for the fauna and flora. Suffice it to say that the abundance of water - and food - was considered a valid reason to want to continue living near the volcano, despite the danger it represented.
Even today the abundant rainfall and snowfall that is poured every year are decisive for the maintenance or formation of rivers and springs underground. And even today the water of the mountains - and the mountains themselves - are seen as a source of fertility (think of rice crops). Moreover, the water of Fuji was also considered sacred, so much so that it was later used for ablutions and purifications for religious/spiritual purposes.

Fuji was therefore seen in a twofold way as fire and water-vulcano and spring, divinity of fire and at the same time source of purification. Fear and respect for the power of the volcano: simply two sides of the same coin. Duality, in truth, is a characteristic of this people (it is found in history, in language...). Apparently, not even Fuji is exempt from it!

mount fuji

photo credits: matcha-jp.com

Sengen-Asama Sanctuaries

The wrath of the divine-Fuji was very frequent between the end of the 8th and mid-10th century. Thus, around the ninth century, the sanctuaries dedicated to it began to sprout like mushrooms, not only on the slopes of the volcano, but throughout the archipelago. We talk about Asama or Sengen (浅間) sanctuaries when it comes to the god of Fuji (浅間の大神Asama/Sengen no Ōkami). The terms Asama and Sengen are only two different readings of the same word. However, while "Asama" can also be found in other mountains, "theengen" ends up identifying all the Fuji sanctuaries of worship, particularly those on its slopes.

It is often read that the Kojiki (古事記) - "Tales of ancient events" - associates the divinity of Fuji to the figure of the goddess Kono Hana Sakuya Hime (木花咲耶姫). According to the myth, the goddess "Princess who makes the trees bloom" is said to descend directly from Izanami and Izanagi, the original creator gods of the Japanese archipelago. While it is true that the oldest Japanese narrative collection narrates about Sakuya-Hime and her father, the god Oyamatsumi (大山津見神 "mountain goddess"), the association to Fuji is not so obvious. In fact, the historian Byron Earhart - among the main sources of this article - warns that this link is actually recent. And that the Kojiki, in fact, would not make any direct connection between Fuji and the goddess.

In any case, it is in such Sengen sanctuaries that those rituals to prevent catastrophes caused by the volcanic god Sengen-Asama take place. In order to calm his anger, he is even given the title of Myōujin (明神 "Illustrious Kami") or "Illustrious Gods". The rituals consisted of rites of pacification and thanksgiving, accompanied by the reading of Buddhist sutras.

In this phase of the cult, however, Fuji is not yet climbed but rather venerated from afar. This is certainly due to the fact that around the 11th century its volcanic activity was still unstable. It is only with the inclusion of Esoteric Buddhism in this framework - and with the end of the eruptions - that religious pilgrimages will begin.

fuji

photo credits: livingnomads.com

Shugendō: where Shintō meets Buddhism

You can't talk about Fuji without talking about Shugendō. It is in fact this practice that significantly increases the popularity of Fuji through asceticism. Shugendō (修験道 "Via della Pratica Ascetica") is the encounter between Shintō tradition and Esoteric Buddhism. A hybrid between native shamanic practices and Buddhist rituality. This "hybridization" consists as much in a mix of elements of each tradition as in a coexistence of the same (some Shintō elements, for example, remain well intact).

The Shugendō takes shape towards the end of the Heian period (794-1185) but the "mountain" Buddhism of the Saichō and Kūkai ascetics of the Nara period is its precursor. As we know, around 1083 Fuji ceased its intense activity. Since then it began to be identified as a place of "apparition of the Buddhas": a place for all those seeking a spiritual path. This path is also understood in the true sense of the word, as witnessed by the spiritual pilgrimages that are becoming more and more a "phenomenon". The practitioners, mainly known as Yamabushi (山伏) or Shugenja (修験者), included different types of ascetics in addition to actual monks.

Its origins can be traced back to the semi-legendary figures of Prince Shōtoku (who would have inspired the above mentioned Saichō) and the mystic-ascetic En no Gyōja or En no Ozunu. Legend has it that both the prince and Ozunu reached Fuji in flight - just in Taoist magician style (仙人 Sen-nin). En no Ozunu is remembered as the legendary founder of Shugendō, the one who would bring rituals and ascetic practices to the mountains.

Shugendō is key because he elaborated and developed the mountain practice born in the Nara era, bringing it to Fuji. And making the latter popular as a place of spiritual asceticism. A fundamental element that characterizes it are the ascetic experiences of its main exponents and the insights they receive from it, determining the syncretization between Kami shintō and Buddhist divinities.

Murayama Shugendō, Matsudai and Raison

If En no Gyōja is the "legendary" founder of Shugendō, more historical are instead Matsudai (end Heian) and Raison (presumably end Kamakura). The two ascetics, which constitute the Shugendō linked to Fuji.

Matsudai, the "Saint of Fuji" (富士上人 Fuji Shōnin) - according to the chronicles the first to climb the mountain - is the one who inaugurated it as a place for ascetic practices. In 1149 he would in fact erected on its summit a first form of a temple dedicated to Dainichi Nyorai (大日如来 the "Great Sun-Buddha"). Thus operating a first syncretism between the divinity of Esoteric Buddhism and Sengen-Asama Ōkami. However, since, then as now, the conditions up there are impervious almost all year round, Matsudai places the base of the neo-movement on the slopes of the mountain. Precisely, in the village of Murayama (today's Fujinomiya)- hence the name "Murayama Shugendō". A complex of temples begins to rise all around the mountain. Since then, Murayama Shugendō becomes a movement of such magnitude that it exerts full control over the mountain (even collecting "tolls" for access to the summit).

But if Matsudai is the forerunner, it is the monk Raison who gives the movement a truly organized structure. Through the network of temples, religious practices and paths - "inaugurated" under Murayama -, Fuji becomes institutionalized.

It is said that Matsudai gives the movement the vertical structure while Raison the horizontal one. Raison opens the ascetic practice on the mountain also to ordinary people, establishing contacts with the so-called lay ascetics (行人 Gyōnin) and leaders of local groups. This already marks a small difference from Matsudai, at that time the movement was more linked to the court and the imperial family (and later to the feudal dominated class).

Raison's work is thus a forerunner to subsequent mass pilgrimages, but it also carries within itself the seed of the decline of the movement. Accomplice the advent of the Sengoku era, with the increase of flows towards the mountain, at a certain point Murayama Shugendō will no longer be able to control all the routes. The killing of the daimyō of Suruga, on which the movement rested, will be the final blow that will mark the sunset of Murayama.

fuji fuji

photo credits: yamabushido.jp, mundo-nipo.com

Fuji-Ko ( 富士講 ), Kakugyō and Miroku

It is, therefore, the interweaving with politics and the ruling classes that drags down the Murayama Shugendō. Also because, the new times required new responses to the new historical paradigms that were occurring. We are in the Sengoku era (戦国), the hard era of the Warring States: an era marked by hunger, general disorder and terrible battles, where nothing was stable. In the context of these dramas, people needed new answers. It is at this juncture that those religious groups known as Fuji-kō originated (富士講). "Confraternities" that were inspired by the popular cult inspired by Fuji and that identified Fuji as their place of worship. The emphasis on the inclusion of all social classes is what distinguishes Fuji-kō from Murayama Shugendō.

It is in this frame that the figures of Kakugyō and - a little later - Jikigyō Miroku (1671- 1733) come into play. Kakugyō with his activity further increases the fame of Fuji, making many ordinary people come to the mountain, going to form such associations (講). Miroku does the same thing, however, with a ritual suicide act on the mountain, which puts Fuji even more in the spotlight. For this reason, both of them are considered inspiring the popular Fuji-kō cult.

The experience of Kakugyō circumvents the Murayama tradition, becoming separate from that of Matsudai and Raison. The revelations he would first receive from the spirit of En no Gyōja and then from the syncretized divinity of Fuji Sengen-Dainichi are fundamental. He would have been revealed that Mount Fuji and its divinity would be the source of all that exists. That all the suffering of that period was due to an imbalance between heaven and earth. And the way to remedy it, that of unifying the Fuji faith in a "cosmological" system of beneficial practices open to all people. From this follows the mission of Kakugyō, to unify practices and beliefs related to Fuji as the basis of the popular cult of Fuji-kō.

The activity of Kakugyō is characterized by purifications and ablutions in the lakes around Fuji. As well as the ascetic practices in the Hitoana (人穴), the caves of the volcano indicated by the essence of En no Gyōja in the first revelation, where he would then "come into direct contact" with the Sengen-Dainichi.

Fuji Mandala

Yes, even in Japan there were mandalas! Originally from India, and passing through China, through Buddhism they also came to the Land of the Rising Sun. We want to remember them, because they were a characteristic and functional tool for Esoteric Buddhism of the Muromachi era. His practitioners used them to reach the understanding of Cosmic Truth and as a support during meditations.

Such mandalas represented the universal order of things-the essence of which is Buddhism and the relationship between it and its earthly manifestations. To embrace this truth in words alone was not considered sufficient and, for this reason, it was recognized in iconographic language as the best way to internalize it. The image, more than the word, seems to be the preferred tool of this people to get in touch with the essence of things. After all, even ideograms, what are they if not images?

Specifically, the Fuji mandalas represent the ambivalent path of the pilgrims - that is, the geographical and spiritual path they decided to take. Typical of this era, the representation of the three peaks of Fuji associated with the triad of Buddhist deities Dainichi, Yakushi and Amida (as well as the Isshin Sangan doctrine 一心三観). So popular was it, that the three peaks became a custom of Fuji iconography. Without prejudice, of course, to the normal variations characteristic of all times.

photo credits: medium.com/@jamesinjapan/

Meisho (名所): the Fuji in the arts

The meisho ("famous locality") are those places sculpted in the collective imagination because they were made famous by the Japanese arts. They are a reflection of that special relationship with nature from which the Japanese have always drawn inspiration. Nature is associated with moods and the image is the best way in which this people can give voice to their innermost feelings. Seasons, rhythms and colors of nature, places...become so essential, in their specificity, to express moods otherwise difficult to describe in words. The attention to nature is thus expressed through an aesthetic sense that transcends the very representation of the "object".

This tendency can already be seen in the Nara period (8th century), when the written tradition had not yet fully established itself. It is from this period the poetic anthology Man'yōshū (万葉集 "Collection of ten thousand leaves"). The Man'yōshū speaks of Fuji as a "mysterious" god, with "burning fires"; he paints it as an ideal mountain and highlights its importance as a protective deity. That one of the very first written works speaks to us immediately about Fuji is indicative. It means that the mountain was somehow "installed" in the collective imagination, like meisho, even before the passage to the written tradition! And this even though at that time it had not yet emerged as an absolute icon (although kami, it was still "only" one of the many existing sacred mountains).

Around the thirteenth century it began to become markedly more protagonist. In the Muromachi period it became central both as a religious subject (as in the Fuji Mandalas) and as a purely landscape icon (ink paintings in Chinese style). Among these, the "Eight Fuji Views" marked the beginning of Fuji's serial representations, inspiring in the Edo period the masterpieces of the masters Hokusai and Hiroshige.

Other famous works in which Fuji appeared: Literature Taketori Monogatari (竹取物語) and Ise Monogatari (伊勢物語) both from the 10th century; novels by contemporary writers Natsume Sōseki and Dazai Osamu. Visual Arts The 11th century Shōtoku Taishi Eden/Emaki paintings on roll; the Ukiyo-e woodcuts by Hokusai and Hiroshige from the 18th-19th centuries; and, of course, photography and cinema in modern times.

Climb Fuji to the present day

There are four possible access routes or routes to the summit. In ascending order of altitude:

  • 1450 m, path Gotemba - the longest of all, without medical care centers, is not very popular;
  • 2000 m, Subashiri trail - less popular and, perhaps because of this, devoid of medical care centers;
  • 2300 m, Yoshida trail - the most popular, because it is easier and full of services (shelters, medical centers...) so ideal for beginners too;
  • 2400 m, Fujinomiya trail - the shortest but also the steepest ever, has a medical center and is on average crowded.

All four start from 5ᵃ station (the term "station" indicates the level of difficulty of the climb): from 7ᵃ to 9ᵃ, the last one, the level is maximum. Between ascent and descent the total time is about 10-12 hours. It is therefore necessary to plan, and keep in mind that part of the ascent will be done at night. In fact, if you want to be present at the sunrise show - destination of almost all visitors - the advice is to calculate well the time in order to reach the refuge between 16.00 and 19.00. To rest until midnight, and then continue the climb for about 4 hours arriving at the top right, right for the dawn (at 4.30!).

The official climbing season runs roughly from the beginning of July to the end of August (maximum, until mid-September). Various Shintō ceremonies open the access to Fuji on July 1st and end with a big torchlight procession to the Yoshida sanctuary on August 26th. To venture outside of these dates is possible...but strongly discouraged! Since the climate is always severe and moreover, out of season, the shelters remain closed. In fact, every year, unfortunately, there are deaths, whether from avalanches, slippage, or frostbite... therefore, unless you are superman, don't go there out of season!

fuji

photo credits: linkedin.com

No to the "Bullet Climbing"

When climbing Fuji, it is recommended in any case to arrive at 5ᵃ station and stop there for at least a couple of hours, before resuming the ascent, so that your body can adapt to climate and altitude; to always hydrate a lot, in addition to taking several breaks during the climb. It is always not recommended, even more so for beginners, to try everything during the daytime hours to return at sunset. While starting the ascent early in the morning and taking it easy, it can be tiring. This is demonstrated by the upsurge in sickness following which the Japanese government itself was forced to dissuade itself from practicing "crazy climbs" or Bullet Climbing.

By the way: did you know that until the 19th century women could only climb up to the 2ᵃ station? There, they were made to wait for the return of their male relatives, but they went further. This is because at one time she was not considered capable of withstanding the harsh conditions of the mountain and that this would have hindered the practitioners in isolation. Just think that the first woman to climb Fuji in 1833 disguised as a man! Also from the 19th century, then, the first foreigners on the summit.

When and where to best admire it

The best seasons in which to admire it without the clouds constantly interfering, are always autumn and winter - from November to February. Especially winter, in December and January, which are played out depending on the weather and climate. Some years the visibility is better in December, others in January.

The visibility is not optimal instead between April and August, especially in the months of April, June and July, when it is particularly reduced; but also in September, being the latter period of typhoons.

In short, what is decisive in terms of visibility, more than the weather conditions (a sunny day is not equivalent to good visibility!), are the seasons.
Between late summer and early autumn, then occurs the phenomenon of Fuji Rosso so defined because of the color that the mountain assumes at dawn. Since the period in which it occurs is precisely circumscribed, assisting you is considered a good omen. In particular for business and fertility (it seems that the Japanese see in Red Fuji a woman in a state of interest!). In general, that brings good luck and makes one's dreams come true.

photo credits: ameblo.jp/ameba20091/

The best time of the day to observe it in full is always in the morning, especially at 8.00 am. The further you go in the day, the less it is visible for the whole day, the better.

From Tokyo it is visible - mist or clouds permitting - especially from: Metropolitan Government Palace in Shinjuku (on the 45th floor, free entrance!), Roppongi Hills, from the iconic Tokyo Tower, but especially from the impressive SkyTree. You can also do it from the 5th floor of Haneda International Airport, open 24 hours a day! Good to know, in case you are waiting for a flight right at dawn...isn't it?

To keep in mind also the location Miho no Matsubara (三保の松原), historical for the view of Mount Fuji. And, in spring, the spectacle of the "carpet" of Shibazakura, pink moss flowers that cover the meadows at the foot of the mountain. Every year the Shibazakura Festival is celebrated for the occasion (芝桜祭).

You can also get a great view from Mount Takao, 1 hour from Shinjuku, ideal if you have to stay close to Tokyo. Finally, a personal opinion: the view of Fuji rising against the backdrop of the city of Yokohama at sunset is simply wonderful. I could observe it from one of the mini cruises available in the bay.

photo credits: pinterest.it


Japan History: Saitō Hajime

Saitō Hajime (Yamaguchi Hajime, February 18, 1844 – September 28, 1915) was a Japanese samurai of the late Edo period, who served as the captain of the third unit of the Shinsengumi. He was one of the few core members who survived the numerous wars of the Bakumatsu period. He was later known as Fujita Gorō and worked as a police officer in Tokyo during the Meiji Restoration.

Saitō Hajime of the third unit of the Shinsengumi

Author: SaiKaiAngel

Saitō Hajime

photo credits: wikipedia.org

He was born in Edo, Musashi Province (now Tokyo) as Yamaguchi Hajime and he had an older brother named Hiroaki and an older sister named Katsu. According to the published records of his family, Saitō left Edo in 1862, after accidentally killing a hatamoto (a samurai in the direct service of the Tokugawa shogunate of feudal Japan).

He went to Kyoto and taught in the dōjō of a man named Yoshida who had relied on Saitō's father Yūsuke in the past. His style of swordsmanship is not clear. According to a tradition of his descendants, his style comes from Ittō-ryū and to be a Mugai Ryū that originates from Yamaguchi Ittō-ryū. He is also considered to have learned Tsuda Ichi-den-ryū and Sekiguchi-ryū.

He adherently lived by the Shinsengumi code "Aku Soku Zan" ( literally: "Slay Evil Immediately", but more poetically rendered as "Swift Death to Evil"), though he never has shown much regard for human life, at some points even letting on that he likes to kill. He was rather arrogant, but none of these flaws prevent him from being a superb investigator and fighter. He expected those involved in the military, whether Shinsengumi swordsmen or Meiji era policemen, to carry out their duties without letting their personal feelings interfere.

He believed in peace and order, even in the society created by his former enemies. Throughout the series, to uphold this new peace, Saitō has often been shown as the foil of Himura Kenshin who walks and carries out his duties in the shadows of society in his own way; following his lifelong code of purpose with devotion, Saitō was the man who did the dirty work, killing off the bad persons. Anyone he considered to be corrupt or despotic was a target for elimination, in the honor of his country and his fallen men.

Even if he was normally serious, Saitō had a slight sense of humor that is also a lot sadistic, shown as he used his sword to casually attempt to stab Sanosuke Sagara in the butt through the roof of the horse carriage they were riding with Himura Kenshin.

During the Kyoto Arc, Saitō joined forces with Himura Kenshin to fight against Shishio Makoto. However, he considered Kenshin to be more of an adversary rather than an ally. Later, after acknowledging Himura Kenshin’s vow to never kill again, Saitō decided to put an end to their rivalry.

Saitō was an able observer and a quick analyst (working as a spy for the Meiji government). In addition to being a skilled swordsman, he is revealed to possess immense physical strength when he punched the herculean Sagara Sanosuke in a hand-to-hand fistfight. He considered Sanosuke to be a dimwitted amateur with mild potential, due mostly to Sano's lack of insight.

Saitō was highly recognizable by his narrow eyes, "spider-like" strands of hair in front of his forehead (he was also said to resemble a wolf), his propensity for smoking and the katana on his left side.

Shinsengumi Period

As a member of the Shinsengumi, Saitō was said to be an introvert and a mysterious person; a common description of his personality says he " he was not a man predisposed to small talk" but unusually tall 180 cm. He was also noted to be very dignified, especially in his later years, he always made sure that his obi was tied properly and when he walked he was careful not to drag his feet and he always sat in the formal position, called seiza. He also was very alert so that he could react instantly to any situations that might occur.

He was known to be very intimidating when he wanted to be. Along with his duties as Captain of the Third Squad in the Shinsengumi, he was also responsible for weeding out any potential spies within the Shinsengumi ranks.

His original position within the Shinsengumi was assistant vice commander. During the Ikedaya incident on July 8, 1864, Saitō was with Hijikata Toshizō's group that arrived later at the Ikedaya Inn.

In August 20, 1864, Saitō and the rest of the Shinsengumi took part in the Kinmon incident against the Chōshū rebels. In the reorganization of the ranks in November 1864, he was first assigned as the fourth unit's captain and would later receive an award from the shogunate for his part in the Kinmon incident.

At the Shinsengumi new headquarters at Nishi Hongan-ji in April 1865, he was assigned as the third unit's captain. Saitō was considered to be on the same level of swordsmanship as the first troop captain Okita Sōji and the second troop captain Nagakura Shinpachi. In fact, it seems that Okita feared his sword skill.

Despite prior connections to Aizu, his descendants dispute that he served as a spy. His controversial reputation comes from accounts that he executed several corrupt members of the Shinsengumi; however, rumors vary as to his role in the deaths of Tani Sanjūrō in 1866 and Takeda Kanryūsai in 1867. His role as an internal spy for the Shinsengumi is also questionable; he is said to have been instructed to join Itō Kashitarō's splinter group Goryō Eji Kōdai-ji faction, to spy on them, which eventually led to the Aburanokōji incident in December 13, 1867.

Together with the rest of the Shinsengumi, he became a hatamoto in 1867. In late December 1867, Saitō and a group of six members of the Shinsengumi were charged with protecting Miura Kyūtarō, who was one of the main suspects in the murder of Sakamoto Ryōma. On January 1, 1868, they fought against sixteen assassins who tried to kill Miura in revenge at the Tenmaya Inn for what was known as the Tenmaya incident.

After the outbreak of the Boshin war from January 27, 1868 onwards, Saitō, under the name of Yamaguchi Jirō, participated in the Shinsengumi's fight during the battle of Toba-Fushimi and the battle of Kōshū-Katsunuma, before retiring with the surviving members in Edo and later in the domain of Aizu.

Saitō became commander of the Aizu Shinsengumi around May 26, 1868 and continued in the battle of Shirakawa. After the battle of Bonari Pass, when Hijikata decided to withdraw from Aizu, Saitō and a small group of 20 members separated from Hijikata and the rest of the surviving Shinsengumi, continued to fight alongside the Aizu army against the imperial army until the end of the battle of Aizu. This separation was recorded in the diary of the conservative Kuwana Taniguchi Shirōbei, where it was recorded as an event that also involved Ōtori Keisuke, who Hijikata asked to take command of the Shinsengumi; therefore the aforementioned clash was not with Hijikata.

Saitō, together with the few remaining men of the Shinsengumi who went with him, fought against the imperial army at Nyorai-dō), where they were severely outnumbered. It was during the battle of Nyorai-dō that Saitō was thought to have been killed in action; however, he managed to return to the lines of Aizu and joined the army of Aizu's domain as a member of the Suzakutai. After the fall of the Aizuwakamatsu castle, Saitō and the five surviving members joined a group of former Aizu services who traveled southwest to the Takada domain in Echigo province, where they were held as prisoners of war. In the registers listing the Aizu men detained in Takada, Saitō is registered as Ichinose Denpachi.

Meiji Restoration

Saitō, under the new name of Fujita Gorō, went to Tonami, the new domain of the Matsudaira clan of Aizu. He settled with Kurasawa Heijiemon, the karō of Aizu who was an old friend of his from Kyoto. Kurasawa was involved in the migration of Aizu samurai to Tonami and the construction of settlements in Tonami, particularly in the village of Gonohe. In Tonami, Fujita met Shinoda Yaso, daughter of an Aizu believer. The two met through Kurasawa, who then lived with Ueda Shichirō. Kurasawa sponsored the marriage of Fujita and Yaso on August 25, 1871. It was also during this period that Fujita may have been associated with the Police Office. Fujita and Yaso moved out of the Kurasawa house on February 10. When he left Tonami for Tokyo on June 10, 1874, Yaso moved to Tokyo with Kurasawa and the last registration of the Kurasawa family dates back to 1876. It is not known what happened after that. It was during this period that Fujita Gorō started working as a police officer in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department.

In 1874 Fujita married Takagi Tokio, the daughter of Takagi Kojūrō, a servant of the Aizu domain. Her original name was Sada; she served for a time as a companion of Matsudaira Teru. Fujita and Tokio had three children: Tsutomu (1876-1956); Tsuyoshi (1879-1946); and Tatsuo (1886-1945). Tsutomu and his wife Nishino Midori had seven children; the Fujita family continues to this day through Tarō and Naoko Fujita, the children of Tsutomu's second son, Makoto. Fujita's third son, Tatsuo, was adopted by the Numazawa family, maternal relatives of Tokyo whose family had been almost annihilated during the Boshin war.

Saitō Hajime

photo credits: wikipedia.org

Fujita fought on the Meiji government's side during Saigō Takamori's Satsuma rebellion, as a member of the police forces sent to support the Imperial Japanese Army.

During his lifetime, Fujita Gorō shared some of his Shinsengumi experiences with a select few, but he didn’t write anything about his activity in the Shinsengumi as Nagakura Shinpachi did. During his life in the Meiji period, Fujita was the only one who was authorized by the government to carry a katana despite the collapse of the Tokugawa rule. In 1875, Fujita assisted Nagakura Shinpachi (as Sugimura Yoshie) and Matsumoto Ryōjun in setting up a memorial monument known as Grave of Shinsengumi in honor of Kondō Isami, Hijikata Toshizō, and other deceased Shinsengumi members at Itabashi, Tokyo.

Following his retirement from Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department in 1890, Fujita worked as a guard for Tokyo National Museum, and later as a clerk and accountant for Tokyo Women's Normal School from 1899.

Saitō Hajime

photo credits: wikipedia.org

Fujita's heavy drinking was believed to have contributed to his death from a stomach ulcer. He died in 1915 at age 72, sitting in seiza in his living room. Upon his will, he was buried at Amidaji, Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima, Japan.


Japan History: Yamaoka Tesshu

Ono Tetsutaro, better known as Yamaoka Tesshu, was born in Tokyo on June 10, 1836. His father was Ono Asaemon, of the Tokugawa court, and her mother Iso was the daughter of a monk of the Kashima temple. At the age of 9 he began the practice of Jikishinkage ryu and a few years later the Hono ha Itto ryu, while at the age of 17 he started the study of the spear with the master Yamaoka Seizan, who died prematurely two years later. Tetsutaro was adopted into the master's family, and married his sister, taking the name Yamaoka Tesshu.

Yamaoka Tesshu and his history

Author: SaiKaiAngel

Yamaoka Tesshu

photo credits: musubi.it

Although he had a not negligible physicality, considering his 185 cm height and his weight of 110 kg, he was able to assert himself only with his incredible personality and sensitivity. However many times he was not able to stop himself, even to the point of denying the existence of Buddha, sentient beings and realization. Nothing to give and nothing to receive.
At that point, Master Dokuon struck him with his pipe and said: "If nothing exists, then where does this anger come from?”

From the world of the sword, he received many teachings. In one of the meetings with master Sasakibara Kenkichi, he stood still for 40 minutes together with his opponent, facing each other in their respective guards until both rested their weapons. At the age of 28, Tesshu was unexpectedly defeated by the 40-year-old Asari Gimei, master of the Nakanishi Ha Itto-ryu school. From that moment on, he could no longer give peace to the idea of defeat against an older man, of whom he had become a disciple but failed to understand his teaching. Asari, without hitting him, forced him to step back out of the dojo by closing the door in his face.

Tesshu's introspective study lasted 16 years, without being able to understand what was wrong with his technique, his lifestyle, despite the training and Zen teachings. On March 30, 1880, Tesshu during a zazen session went to Asari and asked him for a new fight. Asari declined, justifying himself with these few words, "Now you have arrived". From that moment he left teaching and his school to Tesshu who succeeded in developing a method called Muto ryu (school without sword) different from the Itto ryu especially in teaching, still practised but by a very small group of people. He died on July 19, 1888, at fifty-three years of age due to stomach cancer. Before dying, he wrote his Jisei no ku (poem of death), closed his eyes and, even in death, did not abandon his style assuming the formal posture of zazen, as can be seen from the drawing of his disciple Tanaka Seiji.

During Tesshu's funeral at the Zensho-an temple the monk Tekisui composed these verses:

Sword and brush balanced between Absolute and Relative
His loyal courage and noble strength pierced Paradise.
A dream of fifty-three years,
Wrapped by the pure fragrance of the flourishing lotus in the middle of the roaring fire.

Again, Katsu Kaishu, a great swordmaster, wrote the following words next to a portrait of Tesshu:

Valiant and wise, this virile man accomplishes great things
His sword was incomparably sublime
Its illumination embraced everything
Will future generations ever see the same?

Explanation of Mute Ryu

Yamaoka Tesshu

photo credits: wikipedia.org

The goal of Muto Ryu is "no enemy". Everything depends on the mind. If we imagine a very skilful opponent, our sword stays still, if we imagine a weak opponent, the mind opens and the sword is free. This is proof that nothing exists except the mind. Taken by agitation, a warrior would move the sword without thinking and confusedly without hitting the opponent. From this idea was born the school of non-sword (Muto ryu). Out of mind there is no sword, this means: not sword corresponds to not mind; not mind means a mind that is stable everywhere. If the mind stops, the opponent appears; if the mind keeps moving there is no enemy. Continuous and intense training leads to the stage of no enemy.

Tesshu's method required intensive and incessant training focused mainly on basic principles. The first 3 years were dedicated to the study of the 5 basic kata of Muto ryu and it was forbidden to follow in that period the teachings of other schools. Three levels of seigan were foreseen for advanced students, who were admitted only after having passed a trial period consisting of 1000 consecutive days of training. In order to pass the first seigan level, 200 sword fights had to be fought in a single day; the second level provided for 3 days with 600 fights and the third, 7 days with 1400 fights.

The name of Yamaoka Tesshu's dojo, Shumpukan, comes from a poem by Chinese monk Bukko Kokushi:

In heaven and on earth there are no points to hide
Joy belongs to those who recognize that things
They are empty and man is also nothing.
Splendid indeed the long Mongolian swords
Blasting the spring wind like a flash of light

The shumpu, the spring wind, gave the name to the dojo.

The writings of Yamaoka Tesshu

Below we have some writings by Tesshu that better describe his strong personality:

Return to the Beginner's Mind, August 1882

If the wonders of swordplay elude you, it returns to the beginner's mind. The beginner's mind is not just any kind of mentality: striking as the only intention without thinking about the movement of the body and moving forward with force is proof that you have forgotten yourself. Technicians are hindered by analytical thoughts. When the obstacle of a discursive approach is overcome, the wonders of the art of the sword can be appreciated. In the beginning, it is necessary to practice with well-tempered swordsmen in order to discern one's own inadequacies. Pursue your study to the end, awaken your irresistible strength, practice tirelessly until your heart is immovable, and then you will understand. Practice until no doubt remains. Surely the time will come to discover the wonders.

From Itto shoden Muto Ryu Kanaji Mokuroku: Suigetsu (the moon in the water), April 10, 1884.

Even when the water from a puddle is moved in the ladle, the moon is reflected in it. The moon's reflection is not lost when the water moves from ladle to ladle. When you are disturbed, then there is no reconnaissance; the moon does not appear in the agitated water. If your mind is calm and the ladle is still, the moon's reflection is maintained.

Do not concentrate
When hitting your opponent
Move naturally
Like moonbeams penetrating
In a homeless hut

You may be unhappy with a roofless hut, but the same moon that illuminates the skies naturally fills it with its light. So, you can attack your opponent and win. Regardless of keeping your little self, charge towards your opponent. If you are confused or nervous you will surely lose.

Other Famous Phrases

As a samurai, I must strengthen my character; as a human being I must perfect my spirit

Thirst for victory leads to defeat; not tiring of defeat leads to victory.

If you want to obtain the secrets of such wonderful techniques, drill yourself, harden yourself, undergo severe training, abandoned body and mind; follow this course for years and you will naturally reach the most profound levels. To know if the water is hot or cold you must taste it yourself.

Zen is like soap. First, you wash with it, and then you wash off the soap.

Do not think that this is all there is. More and more wonderful teachings exist.
The world is wide, full of happenings. Keep this in mind and never believe 'I'm the only one who knows.'

The moon does not think to be reflected, nor does the water think to reflect, in the Hirosawa Pond.

Unfortunately, many of his writings are apocryphal, but that does not make them less profound and important for life than anyone who has read them. We think that they can be a help even nowadays in many situations.

Political and Social Life

Yamaoka Tesshu

photo credits: wiki.samurai-archives.com

Tesshu also had an active political and social life as a negotiator. He was first in the service of the shogun, so at the end of the war Boshin in 1869 treated the surrender in front of the siege of the imperial forces commanded by Saigo Takamori.

His success was the fact that he focused on establishing contact with the enemy forces, with linear but provocative conduct: he intimidated the enemy of the emperor to let him pass without fear.

If we think of Tesshu's impetuous character, never willing to give in to compromises, it is really strange to see him as a great negotiator. In his short and adventurous life he was also the emperor's bodyguard, with his readiness of reflexes and decisions.


Wabi-Sabi, introduction and detailed focus

What is Wabi-Sabi and why is it so fundamental for the Japanese? Accepting the natural cycle of growth and decay of reality. To grasp its meaning, its beauty. To live life as it is, without wanting to change its colours, and yet to fulfil your sense of life to the best of your potential. Japanese sensitivity and psychology could be traced back to these two elusive words alone.

Wabi-Sabi 侘寂 The most ineffable experience in the design of Imperfection

Guest Author: Flavia

In the world is often associated with design, but Wabi-Sabi is much more than that. Its origins are linked to those of the Tea Ceremony, therefore, the matrix once again is Zen.

It is actually an experience, translated into a worldview as well as a refined aesthetic sensibility, which would manifest itself when the highest form of something is achieved. A mix of emotions and feelings emerging from a state - an instant - of awareness that allows us to grasp the true nature of life's lights and shadows. So when we speak of beauty from now on, it will be understood in a broad sense, not only as aesthetic beauty in the strict sense. Also because, it is an aesthetic consciousness that encompasses the outward appearance, but also transcends it.

It must be said immediately that, since it is a metaphysical concept that we have in our hands, any attempt to frame it in words once and for all will always be risky. Therefore, the best way to know it remains to experience it directly. The fathers of Wabi-Sabi themselves - immediately realizing that a cognitive approach would not be the most appropriate - used images or allegories to try to render the idea. Even the modern Japanese, when questioned about the definition, tend not to throw themselves into verbal transpositions without the slightest moment of doubt. Or, each one, gives a different explanation according to his own sensibility.

It is with this awareness, then, that today we propose to explore with you this concept as mysterious as ineffable.

Wabi-Sabi

photo credits: reddit.com

Imperfection, Impermanence and Incompleteness

It is the trinomial par excellence to which the Wabi-Sabi aesthetic is irremediably conducted and synthesized. It refers to the Buddhist vision of life, whereby the beauty of things does not lie in the absence of defects or in eternity - which is not of this world - but in their imperfect and ephemeral intrinsic characteristics.

However, there seems to be something more in what Wabi-Sabi seems to reveal: Imperfection, Impermanence and Incompleteness would be a point of departure rather than a point of arrival. They would be the basis to keep in mind, in our co-creation with reality, rather than the summit of the mountain to be reached. In other words, it would suggest to recognize reality as it is, to be realistic: not to insist on forcing it to be something that cannot be, that is, perfect. But at the same time it would suggest - and that's the beauty of it - to do everything necessary to accomplish your task or role, given this base of imperfection, in the best possible way. Similar to what happens in Chadō, but on this, we will come back later.

Personally, I find that Impermanence and Incompleteness are also "sub-sets" of the mother concept of Imperfection. What else denote the impermanence and incompleteness of something if not its imperfection? Similar speech for the concepts of defect and beauty. They are different but they are also the same thing: the "ugly" can be referable to the size of the defect, ergo of the imperfection (which makes it beautiful). I believe that keeping this in mind helps to approach the Beauty discourse at 360°. Since Wabi-Sabi could refer as much to a work of art as to a situation or even a map.

Now, however, the time has come to finally get to know the terms Wabi and Sabi.

Wabi (侘) - Beauty and tranquillity in essentiality

Indicates a taste for simplicity and tranquility. From the linguistic point of view the Kanji - ideogram -「侘」è composed of the radical 「⺅」di person + 「宅」di home. Almost as if to visually indicate a person who, alone, is leaning against his little house. I use the verb "leaning" because that little man so placed inside a Kanji can be explained as if the little person was leaning against what is represented. Well, as we will see shortly, the original meaning of Wabi 侘 was one of loneliness.

The beauty promoted by Wabi is discreet by virtue of the presence of imperfections generated in a natural, spontaneous (never intentional!) way. Natural defects are the essential value of the object, the person or the situation. It makes them perfect ... and consequently, beautiful. A rustic or not ostentatious beauty that prefers the natural instead of the artificial.

Natural defects find space where functionality - and not form as an end in itself - is the main criterion of life. In other words, in simplicity. On the contrary, in sumptuousness or complicity defects are invariably suppressed: beauty thus becomes an end in itself. The exasperated complicity then, tends to accumulate concepts, thoughts, forms etc., weighing down with complex tangles what could be essential and therefore even more functional. For these reasons, Wabi seems more oriented towards Incompleteness and Imperfection.

Wabi-Sabi

photo credits: youtube.com

Sabi (寂) - Beauty and quietness in the advance of time

The Kanji Sabi「寂」è given by the union of the radical tetto「宀」con kanji「叔」che may mean uncle or old or mature man. The suggested image is therefore that of a person in the final stage of his life under a roof. Going through the various meanings, the concept in the background refers in any case to an idea of decline or deterioration. The meaning of Sabi寂 is still today that of loneliness, desolation, calmness, maturity (think that the adjective 寂しい "Sabishii" means to be or feel lonely). And although they are written with different Kanji, the root of the Japanese words of "rust", "rusting" or "deteriorating" is pronounced by chance "Sabi".

Well, the beauty promoted by Sabi has to do with the passing of time. It enhances the intrinsic qualities of things and people that originated as a result of the effect of time on them (deterioration/aging but also experiences). Because it is only thanks to time that these qualities have been able to emerge in that particular way.

Then there is a message in the "wear and tear damage" that if we are able to grasp it, especially in time, it is of enormous value: that of reminding us that nothing, from objects to situations, is forever. And that therefore it is necessary not to "chinchishize" and seize that precious moment in which we can appreciate them because they are still here with us: now.
This is why Sabi seems more oriented towards Impermanence and Imperfection.

Wabi-Sabi, self example

But it was not always so. There was a time when such awareness was not yet there. Originally, in fact, the moods associated with Wabi and Sabi were quite low:

  • Wabi, as anticipated, indicated a sense of loneliness; one to be on one's own associated with nature, in the style of hermit isolation.
  • Sabi, for its part, denotes a sense of coldness or aridity, poverty, restriction, decay.

They had in common this dimension of loneliness and desolation... and the sense of melancholy for not being able to enjoy the company of their fellow men.
In short, they had their own low notes.

Usually, however, it is from the lowest notes that the best (re)births take place. And this is what has happened. With the advent of Zen Buddhism the general consciousness undergoes a metamorphosis and so around the fourteenth century the connotation of the two concepts is reversed.

  • Wabi: isolation in nature is now seen in all its value and "rustic simplicity" revalued. Thus takes shape the pleasure for the quiet and simple life.
  • Sabi: it evolves in the beauty of Impermanence that is the added value and serenity that things and people achieve with wear and aging.
    Bitterness is now softened by mixing with it a sense of calm. The melancholy - given by an existential condition felt as miserable - thus turns into a bitter-sweet feeling that some have tried to define "serene melancholy" or "sad beauty". In some ways it might, at times, remind one of the Portuguese/Brazilian Saudade (also difficult to transpose verbally). But what it most strongly recalls is the previous Mono no aware (物の哀れ), another key concept of Japanese aesthetics.

Summing up: in their early days Wabi and Sabi represent nothing more than their shadow side. A dark version of themselves that "exorcised" from Zen, is born to new life. Abandoning forever the darkness in which they were born, illuminating themselves in those characteristics previously corroded by darkness.

The divine, essence of nature

The sense of austere and quiet beauty that Wabi and Sabi together transmit could only originate in the spiritual isolation of Zen Buddhism. Only in a state of mental and therefore spiritual stillness is it possible to observe joy and sadness alternating exactly like the cycles of nature and seasons. Joy for what has been or what will be, sadness for what has made its time or what is to come.

The only thing that always remains the same is stillness. A stillness given perhaps by this very certainty about the cyclical nature of things. Their coming to an end may generate some melancholy, but at the same time it gives us confidence, because we know that the time will come for a new rebirth, a new beginning. For this reason, nature is also a teacher of patience. Every end presupposes a new beginning, nothing really dies. In the present moment, however, the only thing we know is what is manifest in this moment, inside and outside of us.

Serenity and confidence in becoming, awareness and attention to what we see unfolding in the present moment: these, the only certainties of the human being present to himself.
If there is stillness there can be no fear. Serenity and fear are mutually exclusive. If fear manages to make its way, it means that, at least in that present moment, there is no state of inner stillness. To be able to understand all this, and perhaps to experience Wabi-Sabi, even a single moment of waking would be enough.

Wabi-Sabi

photo credits: 4travel.jp

«Kata–Katachi»: as diligent as nature

To accept the natural becoming, to let it flow, does not mean to become passive, to let oneself go to "disorder". The diligent execution of the gestures of the Tea Ceremony, in which Wabi-Sabi has its roots, shows us just that. As we said in the article dedicated to it, the principle of kata-katachi - common to all Japanese disciplines - aims at achieving harmony with oneself and the surrounding world. How? Through a constant, diligent repetition of certain gestures aimed at making these same gestures our own, to make them come natural to us.

This is the essential Japanese logic: observe-apply, simply; but apply diligently. And this is a bit what happens with the observation of nature itself. Observing the behavior of nature and replicating it could be said to be the very first great application of this principle by the Japanese people.
This suggests us, as we said at the beginning, that it would not be enough to stop to accept the Imperfection: but that everything should fulfill its task or function within the design of the Imperfection. For human beings, it is a matter of acting in their roles by completing everything in the highest possible version. In essence, giving the best of oneself.

And if in all this some "defect" wants to manifest itself, at that point, to welcome it, just because you have already done your part. Seize then the beauty of that defect, in truth so perfect in its imperfection, so complete in its incompleteness, just for having emerged in that way.

In this way we would be more like nature...dancing with it at its own pace. It is in such a frame that Wabi-Sabi could come. I could be wrong, but it would seem to be a moment between one cycle and another, an instant of silence between the cycle at the end and the next. An empty space where both times do not exist but, at the same time, are connected. As if it were a very thin, invisible thread, visible only at that juncture. It is in that moment of stasis, where the boundaries between outside and inside are missing, that Wabi-Sabi could manifest itself.

Wabi-Sabi

photo credits: Film The Last Samurai

Imperfection as a "touch of the divine"

The perception of Wabi Sabi would therefore seem to emerge where a degree of awareness has been reached such that there is a detachment from the idea of absolute perfection. One understands the sense of imperfection and transience of things and one can grasp its spontaneous and genuine beauty. You welcome it as an added value - divine touch - to your creation: it is a balanced beauty.

Knowing how to recognize that Imperfection is the touch of the divine implies understanding when it is time to let go of your "brush". It is necessary to know how to let go when everything that had to be done has been completed and the feasible moves all exhausted. To get caught where our task is finished or to try to intervene on the "touch of the divine" - not recognizing it as such - is certainly a point where Wabi Sabi cannot emerge. Because it lacks its basic fertile ground: tranquillity.

Wabi-Sabi

photo credits: youtube.com

Wabi-Sabi, the origins: the Buddhist vision

The principle that is the premise of the Wabi Sabi experience is to be found in the Buddhist philosophy of the Three Signs of Existence, so everything that manifests itself in this reality is subject to three characteristics:

● Impermanence
Everything that is, outside and inside us, is destined sooner or later to leave room for something new. It is a constant cyclical becoming in which everything that has a beginning also has an end. Moreover, the very existence of matter is regulated by duality: everything necessarily manifests its opposite. This is because the One, in matter, must necessarily split into two parts. If an element of a binomial (beginning-end, light-dark, positive-negative, male-female, birth-death...) is missing, imbalance is generated... because they are two aspects of the same thing. You may like it or not, but that's how matter works. Therefore - as long as you are in it - it is not possible to escape such laws.

● Insubstantiality
Nothing is random: each event derives from the concatenation of n factors even very far away in time and space. Therefore nothing exists, in itself, as a manifestation independent of what originated it. There is therefore a link between all the things of the world, so apparently disconnected from each other, including our human Self. By participating in the changing nature of reality it can only be fragile, incomplete: therefore, much emphasis is placed on disidentification from that part of oneself. The unharmonized Ego tends to draw sap from material reality alone, making us remain trapped in the temporal illusion of past and future. Thus also allowing other types of illusion to make their way. That is why the present moment, the attention to the here and now, is essential.

● Suffering
Nothing in the world will ever generate lasting satisfaction. At the very moment when there is happiness, its end is inevitably written in it (it is the law of polarity). And in fact, the true existential goal to be set is Serenity, not happiness. Only Serenity can guarantee constant well-being, even in dark moments, because it is born of Presence. Happiness, as beautiful as it is, is nevertheless the child of emotions. Therefore, of duality.
Accepting this vision of things allows for greater realism. Become aware of how things are, accept, adapt and thus understand how to move in reality. Develop a healthy, lucid, vision of the reality around us is essential to move in this world.

Wabi-Sabi

photo credits: youtube.com

Zen philosophy, fertile ground for Wabi-Sabi

Eliminating the root of suffering is therefore possible: the key lies in adapting to the nature of reality as it is. Suffering originates precisely from a denial of reality: from resistance, from attachment. That is, from control, dictated by fear, which does not allow things to flow. But what gives rise to this fear? Probably, from the mistaken belief that imperfection somehow leads us to existential ruin. As if every time, we risk to die.

Instead it makes no sense to resist something that is bigger than us, on the contrary it gets worse. It is to want to sail against the current. Such is the physiological nature of the reality that surrounds us: isn't it better to "make friends" and find a way to collaborate?

Here then are the "tips" of Zen philosophy for a more balanced and serene life:

● Perfection does not mean absence of defect
The imperfection of something does not qualify it as negative. The perception of what is "defect" or "ugly" is also relative. It varies from civilization to civilization, from person to person...even within the same person. And if by hypothesis they were fixed law, there would still be a precise reason for being, wouldn't there? In order to internalize this vision, however, it is essential to acquire an important state of mind: non-judgment.

● Accept Transience and Imperfection
Why reject something that is a structural part of the reality in which we live? That's just the way it is. It is wiser to accept what is not in our power. And still keep an open heart! Because the same Impermanence, which we fear so much, often reserves us pleasant surprises and opportunities.

● Remove all that is not needed
To free oneself from unnecessarily necessary things in favor of a more direct and deeper contact with the things of our life, starting from the most "insignificant". Their essence, their meaning, their beauty...become so perceptible. To relieve ourselves from the useless superstructures with which we often tend to weigh everything down and which distract us from simplicity - which alone would be enough to make things flow even more efficiently.

● Live the present, detached from the result.
There is no such thing as the perfect moment. Chasing an objective at an imaginary point in the future is a trap: the future, in itself, simply does not exist. The "never having enough" signals the onset of the second trap. You become the so-called hamster in the wheel. This doesn't mean that you don't have to have goals: it simply means to set the right goals but, let them go, without obsessively staring at them, losing sight of the present.

How Wabi-Sabi is rooted in the Japanese spirit

However, we can't leave ourselves, given our common origin with Wabi-Sabi, without remembering Chadō. Previously we have already had the opportunity to enter the Tea Way. In our dedicated article we have seen how the Tea Ceremony has gradually evolved from the more opulent form Shoin to Wabi-cha (Cha 茶 means tea). At the head of this "Wabi-cha", a direct line of Zen masters. Murata Jukō and Sen no Rikyū in particular, are still considered the fathers of Cha no Yu. In addition to them there will be another character to anchor the Wabi-Sabi in another important area of the Japanese cultural scene.

Here then is a snapshot of the historical evolution of Wabi-Sabi:

● XII century
It all begins with Myōan Eisai, a Buddhist monk from the tent school. Eisai is the one who brings from China the Zen doctrine (Rinzai) and with it the use of tea, thus paving the way for the development process of the Tea Ceremony.
● XIV century
The terms Wabi and Sabi undergo that semantic metamorphosis of which we spoke at the beginning. Their meaning begins to overlap and they gradually begin to use them together. For example, they will notice the rustic objects that will increasingly take the place of the luxurious Chinese objects typical of the initial Shoin-cha.
● XV century
Murata Jukō makes his appearance. With the approval of the Shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, he manages to introduce the Wabi style in the practice of tea that spreads in the country. Jukō acts for example by reducing the number of utensils of the ritual, thus bringing more attention to them (remember, take away what is necessary).
● XVI century
It is the turn of Takeno Jōō, a student of Jukō, who instead focuses on the simplification of the tea ritual environments. For example, he introduces more modest materials such as clay, bamboo and removes wood from some parts. In antithesis to the Shoin style, he also brings the use of indigenous objects on a par with those of Chinese origin.

The student of Jōōō, Sen no Rikyū, the most revolutionary of all, will complete the work by codifying the Ceremony once and for all.

● XVII century
Matsuo Bashō, the greatest Japanese poet, will transpose Wabi-Sabi into poetry. During his long wander in solitude in the nature of Japan he will succeed, just like a painter with his canvas, to capture its images. The success of his Haiku compositions, so essential, silent and empty, lies in having used words to paint the situations and landscapes he encountered rather than describe them.

wabi

photo credits: angelotrapani.wordpress.com, allpainters.org

Balance is the matrix of everything

At the end of our journey through the "landscapes" of Wabi-Sabi we have understood that the underlying condition of everything is inner peace. We must be silent inside ourselves and silence everything that makes noise inside us. In other words, we need to (re)establish balance. Order, balance...if you pay attention to it, you always go back there. Too much of anything generates imbalance.

The secret to make friends this reality resides instead in learning to move in duality, in knowing how to govern the extremes.
We have also understood that letting reality flow includes our range of action. For us too, just like nature, to fulfill our function in the highest form of expression possible. Instead, we should not be confused with a passive letting ourselves be overwhelmed by events which, on the contrary, is an imbalance in everything and for everything.
Passiveness and control, two sides of the same coin.

The error of us Westerners, for example, more than in our idea of beauty per se, lies in our negative approach to Defect. We have always culturally recognized beauty in flawless perfection. Which, in itself, is not wrong: it indicates that we have well understood the metaphysical nature of the divine which, as such, has no defects.

However, we have not calculated one thing: that "original" perfection is not of this world! And so, in our search for the meaning of life, we try at all costs to bring that kind of perfection here. Not understanding, that this part of the Universe is designed to be imperfect. And that the divine, in these parts, also manifests itself through the defect (indeed, often the Imperfection is the most direct manifestation of it). Our misunderstanding is all there.

Imperfect means simply imperfect. We abandon judgment because it precludes us from seeing a whole spectrum of possibilities, making us remain confined in a narrow slice of reality.

Defective, 100% Western friends, does not mean absolute evil: let's drop this illusion. If evil can be spoken of, then this should rather be sought in the imbalance. For it is imbalance that prevents us from being quiet, lucid and present to ourselves.
And it is only in quietness that, when we least expect it, in a moment of emptiness we can suddenly find ourselves, from the divine point of view. From there, "from above", magically, we will be able to see the dance of duality and there our human nature will return melancholy to remind us how, for the moment, we are part of that dance.

sabi

photo credits: wakuwakumedia.com


Introduction to Japanese poetry

Italy, France, England, America and many other countries in the world offer a vast poetic production, but what is Japanese poetry like? Here we are on this fascinating literary journey to discover something more about the Land of the Rising Sun!

Poesia giapponese

photo credits: grangerprints.printstoreonline.com

Introduction to Japanese poetry

Author: Sara | Inspiration: Tokyo Weekender

Japanese Poetry: Kanishi

photo credits: wikimedia.org

Curiously, most of the literary works of Japanese poetry were born during the Tang Dynasty, from the encounter of Japanese poets with Chinese ones. And so, under Chinese influence, Kanshi 漢詩 became the most popular form of poetry during the early Heian period among Japanese aristocrats and became increasingly popular in the modern period, especially among academics and intellectuals. The themes were free, while the forms were more rigid: the classical ones counted about 5 or 7 syllables in 4 or 8 lines, following the rules of Lushi 律詩 (rhyme on even lines with a regulated tone) and jueju 絕句 (rhyme in even lines and composed only of quatrains) based mainly on the tone of Mandarin Chinese.
The major exponents of this style are certainly Kukai, Sugawara no Michizane, Maresuke Nogi and Natsume Soseki.

Waka

Poesia giapponese

photo credits: https://matcha-jp.com/jp/289

Unlike Kanshi, Waka 和歌 was classical poetry written in Japanese with two very precise forms: Choka, 長歌, or long poems with no length restrictions. The structure is simple and consists of 2 lines of 5 or 7 syllabic sounds (which determine the accent) that ends with 3 lines of 5, 7 and again 7 syllabic sounds. Tanka, 短歌, instead has a similar structure, but they are shorter poems, often consisting of only five groups of words respectively of 5, 7, 5, 7 and, finally, 7 syllabic sounds. Waka does not follow the rhyming rules and is still very popular in modern Japan, even if now the Tanka form is preferred: the more incisive brevity reflects as always the essentiality of deep culture. The poet par excellence is certainly Machi Tawara.

Haiku

Poesia giapponese

photo credits: wikimedia.org

What is the Japanese poetic composition that we consider among the most famous? Without a shadow of a doubt, it's the Haiku, 俳句. Loved by all, it is usually composed of 3 verses and 17 total syllabic sounds, schematically 5/7/5. Haiku experienced its development in the Edo period when many poets relied on this genre to describe nature and human events directly related to it. In fact, these small "compositions of the soul" express the beauty of every single instant, representing "the moment" and giving the reader that sense of "enlightenment" thanks to the images that the words evoke. The most famous and beloved poets are undoubtedly Basho, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa, and Masaoka Shiki.

Our journey into Japanese poetry ends here, for now. This is a very short overview that has allowed us to enter the world of literature of our beloved Japan. What is your favourite form of poetry among the above? Mine is easy to guess: I particularly love Haiku. Here is one of my favourites by Matsuo Basho:

Let's take
the marshy path
to get to the clouds.

Continue to follow us to discover other little pearls of this oriental world and I recommend that you continue on the path you have taken: happiness is always in front of you!


Genji's Tale

Murasaki Shikibu is the name behind the Japanese woman who wrote what is called the world's first novel, The Genji monogatari (源氏物語 lett. "The Genji Tale").

Genji's Tale, The World's First Novel

Author: SaiKaiAngel | Source: Tokyo Weekender

Genji

photo credits: tokyoweekender.com

Every work of contemporary art is the result of centuries of cultural history. In the case of Japanese literature, we are talking about 1,000 years of written prose and poetry. It all began in the Heian period (794-1185) with Murasaki Shikibu, a companion and member of a minor branch of the powerful Fujiwara clan. Murasaki was the author of one of the most important literary works in the world, The Tale of Genji, published in the early 11th century. By way of comparison, it is thought that the first novel in modern European history is Cervantes' Don Quixote, first published in 1605.

Heian aristocracy

While Shikibu was undoubtedly a pioneer of fiction in Japan, not much is known about her, not even her first name. At that time, the maiden names of elite women were not registered. The name Murasaki Shikibu would have been created based on one of the characters in The Tale of Genji and on his father's status (Shikibu, which means "Ministry of Ceremonies" in Japanese), although historians still dispute this theory.

Like many women of her status, she lived relatively comfortably, although the aristocratic lifestyle had some restrictions. The elite of the Heian period favoured high education and culture, and often the most powerful individuals were also the most educated.

Men learned everything from poetry and languages to law and politics. Women, on the other hand, were limited to the arts because this was what was considered attractive at the time. Chinese was an important language to know for those directly involved with the court and to participate in literary circles, but women usually could not study it.

Genji

photo credits: wikipedia.org

This has not prevented aristocratic women from investing in the creative field, using hiragana and contributing significantly to the genre of the poetic diary. Lady Murasaki's Diary together with Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book are the main representatives of the genre to date.

Through fragments of Shikibu's diary and narrative work, historians have been able to learn about the unique aristocracy of classical Japan. At the time, poetry and prose were written based on the lives of their authors, but Shikibu's was distinct from the masses in that it was clearly a work of fiction - although many claim that the stories in The Tale of Genji were inspired by real events.

Genji's Tale

Genji's Tale is thought to be the world's first written work of fiction. It’s not certain whether Shikibu wrote the complex story in a couple of years or decades, but what is certain is that this complete literary work is a portrait of the Heian aristocracy in all its complicated hierarchies.

What is even more impressive is that, despite the long list of characters and appearances throughout the book, the story still surrounds only what at the time was less than 1% of the population, the highest elite.

Reading the chapters gives you a vivid idea of what it was like to be a man or a woman in the Heian period, with the corresponding expectations. The protagonist, Genji, is the archetype of a hero of the period, the perfect man. Son of an ancient emperor, his right to the throne was taken away from him and he was demoted to populan when he changed his name to Morimoto.

The Story of Genji Monogatari

The work tells of one of the sons of the Japanese emperor of the Heian era, known by the name of Genji or rather Hikaru Genji (Genji Splendente). Genji, however, is just a different way to read the kanji of the Minamoto clan (the reading On of Minamoto is in fact 源 Gen, the same kanji present in the word Genji), a family that really existed and to which the author wanted to allude. Born from the emperor's relationship with one of his concubines, and therefore unable to be part of the main branch of the imperial family or aspire to the throne, Genji is adopted by the court which allows him to climb the high ranks starting from the position of simple court official.

The whole story then revolves around Genji's love life and his various relationships, thus showing the customs of the court society of the time. Despite his numerous relationships and the different wives he will have during his life, as a libertine Genji still shows his particular loyalty and bond with all the women in his life by not abandoning any of his wives or concubines, especially at a time when for a concubine or wife to be left by her protector meant abandonment of society and marginalization.

Among them, however, one woman was a particular presence in the life of the young Genji: Fujitsubo. The premature death of his mother left in Genji a void that the young man tried to fill throughout his life, always looking for a mother figure in all the women with whom the young man fell in love. He thought he would find the mother figure in Fujitsubo, a concubine of the Emperor, his father.
In the woman, Genji saw not only the sweetness of the mother but also beauty and gentleness, and although he was reciprocated by the woman, the two were forced to repress their feelings because she "belonged", as concubine and then bride, to the Emperor, and Genji had recently joined the Emperor in marriage with Princess Aoi.

The story continued telling the intertwined stories of all the characters whose lives were intertwined and united until the end of the novel, with the conclusion that saw Genji in old age, reflecting in solitude on the meaning of life and the transience of things and their fleeting beauty. However, there are other chapters, known as Uji's Chapters, which, like the rest of the work, continue to recount events even after Genji's death and have as their protagonists Genji's son and a friend struggling with their love affairs.

However, the story ends abruptly, almost in the middle, leaving the various foreign scholars and authors who have translated the English version to imagine that the work has not been completed by the author. In fact, it seems that Murasaki didn't plan any end for the novel but simply continued to write it as long as he wanted or could leave it incomplete.

Structure of the Genji Monogatari

Genji monogatari

photo credits: rugrabbit.com

The story that tells the life of Prince Genji, tells about the young prince's youth, his rise to success, his worldliness and loves until his fall and then rise again. A plot in which there are bewitching and beautiful female figures as a frame. As for the language, it is very complex and not easy for modern readers: being from the Heian period and moreover in a court environment, Murasaki's language has a very complex grammar.

Each character is almost never called by name but by their honorary title or according to their class. For women, instead, typical colour of their clothing is indicated, different for each female character, or alludes to a woman using the rank of a male relative of the first order to which she belongs.

Another difficulty of the novel is the presence of poetry and conversations written in verse. This often served the characters to communicate subtle and veiled allusions in a court environment: poetry is classic Tanka poetry. Like most writings of the Heian period, the Genji was most likely written all, or almost all, in kana, and not using Chinese characters as it is written by a woman for a female audience.

It is well known that in the Heian era writing in Chinese characters was something purely masculine, but women were forbidden.

Besides many suggestions of a society dominated by men, the novel was proof of something that could be even more crucial: women had undeniably played a great role in the propagation of the arts. In fact, while the Heian period saw many failed attempts to revolutionize Japanese government policies, what's left is a rich attachment to the culture that Japanese society still clings to today.

The prose and poems written in hiragana by the women of the court ensured that the lower classes could also enjoy them. In other words, the Heian period is seen as a time when the art world in Japan was born. Not only Shibiku is an important historical figure for its legacy in Eastern and international literature, but she is a symbol of an era in Japan when women were successful in ways never seen before.

Murasaki Shikibu in popular culture

Shikibu is one of the most significant historical figures in East Asian cultural history and, over the next millennia, has remained a staple in Japanese high schools and colleges, just like Shakespeare in Europe and North America.

There have been many important translations and interpretations, as well as a fair amount of criticism. In Japan, Genji's tale is commemorated on the rare 2,000 yen note and Murasaki Shikibu is the name of the Japanese berry plant.

Like the story of the 47 ronin, Genji's Tale has been adapted for the big screen several times, and the latest is the feature film Genji monogatari: Sennen no nazo (2011). In recent years, Murasaki Shikibu herself has appeared in mobile games such as Fate/Grand Order and Monster Strike, where the characters are inspired by her work.