"If any society in the world can be described as unique," wrote historian Ivan Morris, "it is that of Heian Kyo in the time of Murasaki Shikibu."

Heian Kyo is Kyoto; Murasaki Shikibu is the author of "The Tale of Genji"; her time is late 10th, early 11th century. Unique? In more ways than one.

What an island paradise Japan would have seemed ("Heian" means "peace and tranquility") to any civilized European fortunate enough to light upon it, had there been such a person — which of course there was not. Still reeling from the fall of the Roman Empire six centuries earlier and beset by waves of barbarian invaders whose latest incarnation was the fearsome Scandinavian Viking, Europe was mired in its seemingly terminal Dark Ages while Japan, its civilization barely 500 years old, had already spawned what still stands today among the world's greatest literary celebrations of love, art, leisure, "the good life" — namely "The Tale of Genji," whose eponymous hero is justly known as "the shining one."