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TEXT: Literature is not just about reading. It also provides a space for cultural interaction. You are invited to journey through ancient and modern Japanese stories with your favorite work in hand.

Learn About the World’s Oldest Full-Length Novel

A masterpiece of dynastic literature in a romantic full-length novel by the 11th-century lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu— Explore the appeal of a work of classic literature still read today as a refined example of Japanese aesthetics.

Kyoto flourished as a political and cultural center, reaching its peak during the Heian period (794–1185). As aristocratic society took root, the uniquely elegant dynastic culture of Japan blossomed.

It was at the peak of this golden age, in the early 11th century, that the world’s oldest extant full-length novel, The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), was written by author and noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu. The story centers on the life of prince Hikaru Genji, depicting the peaks and valleys of his life as he falls in love with woman after woman, rising to power within noble circles, and finally living out his later years in disappointment.

The work comprises 54 volumes, featuring over 500 characters and spanning 70 years in this fictional world. Murasaki Shikibu elegantly captures the comings and go- ings of court life on a grand scale. The novel has captivated legions of readers and has been translated into some 40 languages, beginning with an English translation done by a British literary scholar.

The Tale of Genji has also inspired derivations of many kinds throughout the ages. The best known of these are Genji-e (“Genji Scene”) paintings. There are so many paint- ings from the Heian period to the present day which at- tempt to reproduce the world of this novel that they form heir own genre. The novel also profoundly influenced subsequent performing arts such as the incense and tea ceremonies, as well as noh and kabuki theatre, and even today it features as the subject of anime and manga. It is no exaggeration that The Tale of Genji pioneered the mixed genre arts at which Japan has excelled in recent years.

Those who have the chance to visit the spots in Kyoto and elsewhere associated with the story, or to see Genji-e paintings and other art in person, will enjoy envisioning the world that unfolds in The Tale of Genji. The novel is a wonderful guide for exploring the soul of Japanese culture by pondering a dynasty from more than 1,000 years ago.

Where The Tale of Genji Comes Alive

A Spectacular Aristocratic Procession

The Aoi Matsuri

The Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival), held in early May, is a quintessential Kyoto festival highlighted by a proces- sion of over 500 people dressed in Heian period court costume through the city streets. Officially known as the Kamo Festival, it is believed to have begun over 1,400 years ago, and it features in the Aoi chapter of The Tale of Genji.

Ancient Imperial Palace Setting

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Most of The Tale of Genji story unfolds in Kyoto. Many locations closely associated with the novel still exist today, and the most important of these is the Kyoto Imperial Palace.

This ancient imperial palace, where the emperors of Japan resided and held court before the capital was moved to Tokyo in the 19th century, is the birthplace of Hikaru Genji and the setting of many of the dramas that take place in the novel. Although the Kyoto Imperial Palace as it stands today has been reconstructed, the architecture faithfully follows the Heian period style to preserve the courtly atmosphere of that time. There is no better spot to experience the ambience of The Tale of Genji so directly.

Temple Stay for Murasaki Shikibu

Ishiyama-dera Temple

Founded in the 8th century in Otsu City, Shiga Prefecture, Ishiyama-dera Tem- ple is where Murasaki Shikibu is said to have stayed while working out her ideas for The Tale of Genji. The Room of Genji, where she is said to have written the novel, is still part of the temple’s main hall to this day. The Ishiyama-dera and Murasaki Shikibu Exhibition, held each spring and autumn, displays mate- rials related to The Tale of Genji.

Encounter Authentic Genji-e Paintings

The Tokugawa Art Museum

This art museum in Nagoya City in Aichi Prefecture is home to the oldest extant Genji Monogatari Emaki (“The Tale of Genji Illustrated Scroll”), created in the first half of the 12th century. Handed down by the Owari Tokugawa family for generations, the original manuscripts are ex- hibited here each year in November, and there is also an exhibition of gorgeous wedding ceremony furnishing inspired by the Tale of Genji.

Immerse Yourself in a 3D Genji World

The Tale of Genji Museum, Uji City

This museum, themed after The Tale of Genji, is lo- cated in Uji City in Kyoto Prefecture, the main setting of the novel’s latter chapters, which are commonly referred to as “Uji Jujo,” or the “Ten Chapters of Uji.” The unique museum offers visitors an opportunity to learn firsthand about the world of The Tale of Genji via exhibits detailing court life and clothing of the nobles during that period.

Ningyo Joruri

Tales Told in Puppet Theater

Alongside noh and kabuki, ningyo joruri puppet narratives are one of the three major traditional Japanese performing arts. Dating back to the Edo period (1603–1868), the art of using puppets in storytelling has been passed down to present day Japan.

In this type of puppet theater, a performer called the tayu narrates the story, while the shamisen three-stringed lute paints the scene in sound and the puppets vividly move in time. Ningyo joruri is a uniquely Japanese collaborative performing art in which three performers work in perfect unison to tell the story.

The origins of these puppet narratives lie with katarimono, a style of storytelling in which verses are set to music. Ini- tially accompanied by the biwa (plucked lute) and the clap- ping of fans, this art form shifted to joruri narratives sung to music in the 16th century when the shamisen (three-stringed fretless lute) was introduced. Ningyo joruri then came into being in the 17th century in Osaka when joruri blended with the puppet theater. Though the idea of the puppet show may bring to mind children’s stories, ningyo joruri has always been entertainment for adults. Many of the stories are based on historical tales and incidents, or the love between parent and child, or affection between man and woman, as in the masterpiece Sonezaki Shinju (“The Love Suicides at Sone- zaki;” written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon; first performed in1703), which is still popular today.

Ningyo joruri eventually spread from its birthplace in Osaka to rural towns across Japan. These performances were a particular hit in Tokushima Prefecture in the Shi- koku region of Japan, where scores of theater troupes were formed in the Edo period and outdoor theaters for public performances were built on shrine grounds. More than 20 puppet theaters are still in existence today, with almost daily performances still held today at the Awa Jurobei Yashiki Theater in Tokushima City.

The story most often performed at this theater is based on a local family feud, and poignantly depicts the love between parent and child. In one scene, as mother and child are reunited, the puppet’s shoulders tremble slightly and she gently lifts her hand to her face in a gesture so realistic that the puppet appears to be shedding actual tears. What makes this realistic depiction possible is a unique method, unmatched anywhere else in the world, in which three different people manipulate a single puppet. Each puppe- teer operates a different part of the puppet— the head and right hand, the left hand, or the legs— to achieve smooth, human-like movements with richly detailed gestures and emotions. The intonation of the narration by the tayu and the lingering notes of the shamisen add even more nuance. The voices, sounds, and movements of the puppets come together to create an exquisite world of puppetry.

You can find ningyo joruri performances not only in Tokushima Prefecture, but all over Japan. The puppet the- ater spins nuanced tales of the rich inner lives of the people, making for an unparalleled experience.

The Murakami Haruki Experience

A library dedicated to the globally renowned novelist, Murakami Haruki, has opened in Tokyo. From the architecture and furniture to each book on the shelves, this intoxicating space is filled with the best of Murakami literary inspiration.

Over his 40-year career as a writer, Murakami Haruki has produced numerous masterpieces, including A Wild Sheep Chase (Hitsuji o Meguru Boken), Norwegian Wood (Noru- wei no Mori), and 1Q84. His novels have been translated into more than 50 languages. Fans around the world are fascinated by his uniquely sophisticated yet easy to read narratives.

Dedicated to bringing Murakami's work closer to readers, the Waseda International House of Literature (The Haruki Murakami Library) opened in October 2021 at Waseda University, his alma mater, in Tokyo. Passing through the arched entrance, visitors come face-to-face with “stairway bookshelves” stacked with books lining either side of an atrium. The architect, Kuma Kengo, sees Murakami’s works as “a tunnel connecting reality and unreality,” and has designed the space accordingly, to give the visitor a sense of moving into the world of Murakami.

Descending into the basement, Murakami’s study with desk and chair has been reproduced in great detail, down to the size of the shelves and even his favorite pencils. This replica of the environment where Murakami creates his works is an ideal spot to come for some inspiration.

The first floor of the library is filled with rare first edi- tions and translations of Murakami’s works in many dif- ferent languages. Reading nooks are scattered throughout, inviting the visitor to pick up any book that catches the eye and settle in to a comfy spot to read. There is also an audio room, another great place to sit down for a read.

A jazz aficionado, Murakami has spoken publicly many times about the influence this music has had on his writ- ing. He even ran a jazz bar called “peter-cat” at one time. Sitting down to read a favorite Murakami novel with an album from the author’s own vinyl collection playing on the sound system makes for a truly special time.

The facilities also feature a student-run cafe and research lab for meetings and events. More than simply a Murakami archive, the library reflects the author’s intention to foster spaces for human connection. It offers a comfortable place for all kinds of people to immerse themselves in the atmo- sphere of Murakami’s world and enjoy some conversation about the fascination of literature.


Miyagawa Asaichi Market Street (Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture)

Produced in 2012, the mystery series Hyouka features a group of four high school students who solve mysteries that unfold around them. Set in Gifu Prefecture’s Takayama City, where the author of the original novel, Yonezawa Honobu was born, the series carefully depicts the atmosphere of the town and its traditional buildings in great detail. The photo shows the site of the morning market, Miyagawa Asaichi Market Street on the bank of Miyagawa River, which flows through the city center.


Omi Jingu Shrine

(Otsu City, Shiga Prefecture)

Airing in 2011, the television series centers on the world of karuta, traditional Japa- nese competitive card games. It follows a young protagonist, who aims to become the highest-ranking female karuta player, and explores her relationships and conflicts with friends. The detailed focus on such Japanese traditions as waka poems and kimono are part of the series’ appeal. The setting is Omi Jingu, a shrine dedicated to Emperor Tenji—an emperor deeply associated with karuta. The shrine still hosts karuta tournaments today.

Laid-Back Camp (Yurukyan)

Lake Motosuko

(Minobu Town, Yamanashi Prefecture)

Produced in 2018, the series is a gently unfolding depiction of a group of high school girls as they camp and go about their daily lives in Yamanashi Prefecture. The natural scenery and townscapes around Yamanashi Prefecture are depicted beautifully, and the story introduces all things camp-related, including camping etiquette and how to use the gear. The Koan Campsite overlooking Mount Fuji and Lake Motosuko is pictured here.

Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (Anohi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai)

Old Chichibu Bridge

(Chichibu City, Saitama Prefecture)

The story of five former friends overcoming conflicts to reunite when the ghost of their childhood friend appears to them. The work is set in Chichibu City in Saitama Prefecture and features many of the city’s actual buildings and landscapes. The photo shows the old Chichibu Bridge, a city symbol that opened in 1931.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2023


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