KYOTO – Picture a procession of carriages departing a crimson palace. Ladies dressed in jūnihitoe (12-layer kimono) look through the wooden blinds of their carriages and see the streets of Heian-kyo (present-day Kyoto) go by. In the evening, under the soft, flickering light of candles on paper screens, men and women play instruments and write each other poetry.
At the height of the splendor of the Heian Period (794-1185), lady-in-waiting to the Imperial Court, Murasaki Shikibu, wrote “The Tale of Genji,” the story of Imperial officer Hikaru Genji falling in and out of love with his various suitors, set to a soundtrack of poetry and music. Located in and around then-capital Heian-kyo, Shikibu’s tale of love, political intrigue and social customs remains perennially popular.
The refinement of the Heian court is a far cry from the busy streets of today’s Kyoto. Yet I wanted to see if I could find remains of Heian-kyo after centuries of war, city-wide fires, rebuilding and tourist development.
Heian-kyo was built on a grid pattern inspired by the Chinese jō-bō city planning system, just like the previous capitals of Heijo-kyo (now Nara) and Fujiwara-kyo. Today, Kyoto’s layout and street names remain largely unchanged from the start of the Heian Period, when the capital was moved by the 50th emperor, Emperor Kanmu, in 794. Large plots of land were divided by wide boulevards and, within those, smaller parcels of land were allocated to high-ranking individuals.
I first wander toward Toji temple, which was built immediately after the founding of Heian-kyo. The imposing temple guards the south entrance to the city, which was once physically and spiritually protected by the Rajomon gate and Toji temple. Toji’s pagoda can be seen from far off in the distance and gives some indication of how imposing the city must have looked to travelers coming from the wild countryside in millennia gone by.
Next, I make my way to Arashiyama, which was once a serene place west of the city, chosen as the site for Nonomiya, a sacred house where the high priestess prepared to enter the Grand Shrines of Ise. In the tale, Lady Rokujo no Miyasudokoro moves here when her daughter is chosen to become the high priestess, and Genji pines for her.
Now, however, Arashiyama is filled with tourists, and Nonomiya, today a public shrine, is full of Japanese praying for luck in childbirth and spouse hunting. I don’t feel any sense of serenity. Even at the Togetsukyo Bridge, first built in 836, spanning the vast Katsura River, it’s hard to feel calm with tourists rushing past.
Disappointed by the lack of Heian flavor in Arashiyama, I decide to visit Kamigamo Shrine, in the far north of the city. Shikibu visited here and wrote a poem about wishing for luck in love at the Katayama Mikosha subshrine within the Kamigamo complex. In a poem collected in the “Shinkokin Wakashu” anthology, she writes of imagining her future husband, while listening to the sounds of a cuckoo bird below the trees surrounding Katayama.
When I visit, late in the morning, there’s almost no one wandering the grounds. Holding my umbrella to ward off the drizzle, I walk in search of Katayama Shrine, past the torii gates. At the back of the complex, built into the side of the hill by a stream, sits the small shrine, decorated with the ema (votive tablets) of those unlucky in love. Quiet and peaceful, I find myself lingering in the complex. Perhaps my time there will rub some love luck off on me, as it did for Lady Murasaki?
The next day, I witness Murasaki Shikibu herself, along with famous Heian ladies Sei Shonagon, Tomoe Gozen and Yokobue parading through Kyoto. It is the Jidai Matsuri, or “Festival of Ages.” The annual festival, which takes place on Oct. 22, the day that Emperor Kanmu relocated the capital to Heian-kyo, includes a procession of folk heroes, politicians and cultural luminaries of each age, from the Meiji Era (1868-1910) back through to the Nara Period (710-94). Though the festival only dates to 1895, the costumes, horses and carts parading through Kyoto are a sight to be seen.
Finally, I visit Uji, to the southeast of Kyoto and the location for the last 10 chapters of Shikibu’s tale. These chapters take place after Genji has died, and Uji is the backdrop for the melancholy that runs through the rest of the book. In addition to its relationship with the tale, Uji is also important because it has two of the few remaining examples of original Heian Period architecture: Byodoin Temple and Ujigami Shrine.
Byodoin was originally built as a country villa for courtier Minamoto no Shigenobu in 998 and was converted into a temple in the late Heian Period. I am astounded by the sculptures of praying bodhisattvas playing instruments on clouds. In contrast to the splendor of Byodoin, Ujigami Shrine, Byodoin’s guardian shrine, is stark and simple. The main hall is built of unpainted wood, grayed with age, peaceful against the edge of the forest.
As the sun begins to set, I sit on the banks of the Uji River, watching the river below. I can almost see a carriage going off into the distance.
Kyoto is accessible by bullet train from Tokyo, or by train or bus from Kansai International Airport. Kyoto has a comprehensive public transport system and is flat enough to cycle and walk around large parts of the city. For more information on the Jidai Matsuri, visit www.kyokanko.or.jp/jidai/index.html.