Recalling the glorious Heian Period in Japan’s history from 794 to 1185 at once conjures up images of a world of courtiers, 12-layered kimono, elegant poetry competitions beside winding streams — and secret trysts in scented chambers.
At its heart, the immensely privileged Heian court cultivated an intensely self-preoccupied culture — one in which the clumsy composition of a single line of poetry could doom a promising romance.
For members of the Imperial court in Kyoto, Uji — now a Kyoto Prefecture city just 30 minutes by rail from the former Imperial capital — must have felt to be a world apart. As a country retreat for aristocrats, it gloried in elegant retirement estates and dreamlike gardens built beside the Uji River. From their villas, the nobility could take their ease while regarding — should they wish — the soft line of hills forming a backdrop to the river, which even now is still home to herons and sweetfish.
The world beyond the fragrant confines of these villas was of little interest to their exalted occupants. While court ladies mixed perfumes and recorded amorous experiences in their diaries, the peasantry working on the Uji estates lived in the cramped and dirty wattle-and-clay huts, whose grass or shingled roofs, earthen floors and miserable peat fires would have afforded little comfort in the winter months.
In Murasaki Shikibu’s 1,000-year-old masterpiece, “The Tale of the Genji,” the eponymous hero of what is generally cited as the world’s first novel finds himself obliged to move to his estate at Uji — with the result that the last sections of the book are known as the “Uji Chapters.”
Read more: Japan Times