the author’s quest for murasaki shikibu

I first read Arthur Waley's classic translation of the romantic novel centering on the figure of the Shining Prince Genji when I was sixteen. I read it slowly over the course of a summer, and each time I opened the book I was transported from a humid backyard gazebo in Indiana to the Japanese imperial court of a thousand years ago, a world refined and shaped by poetic sensibilities. I was swept away by the powerful ability of this fiction to create a compelling world utterly removed from the reality of my 20th-century, midwestern, teenage life. Since then, I have re-read The Tale of Genji numerous times, in each English translation, as well as in modern Japanese. Over the years I became increasingly fascinated by Murasaki Shikibu.

‍   Legend has it that she wrote about Prince Genji in a frenzy of inspiration prompted by gazing at the full moon during a religious retreat to Ishiyama Temple. Indeed one may see the "Genji Room" at this very temple, complete with a life-size mannequin of Murasaki sitting at her writing table, with an appealing little girl meant to be her daughter Katako, peering out from the background. This is a fiction, of course, but Japanese have an irrepressible urge to fix the place—for homage if nothing else—by asserting that this is where her Tale was created. 

‍   The historical Murasaki Shikibu is glimpsed through the fragments of her diary that still exist and, in refraction, through her work, the Tale of Genji—yet unless some long-lost manuscript should happen to come to light after a millennium of obscurity, there is nothing else that can be established about her. Despite (or because of) the lack of hard biographical data, Murasaki continued to grip my imagination. I thought of her drawing on her experiences and her imagination to write episodes of The Tale of Genji, perhaps suffering writer's block or false starts, and finding her work eventually taking on a life of its own. I latched on to glimpses of her inner life from her historical diary and tried to picture the surroundings of this woman writing a thousand years ago. Interest turning to obsession, I dreamed she descended from Amida Buddha's western paradise on a golden cloud, floating over my back deck, silently encouraging me. The more deeply I tried to imagine her, the more I felt her presence as I wrote, moving events along. After a time, I felt that while I performed the chores of everyday life, my mind wandered in the eleventh century. For a week, I painted my teeth black in an attempt to understand Heian-era notions of personal beauty.

‍   Who knows why some parts of her diary survived the centuries and some did not? Perhaps Murasaki destroyed parts of her journal and her letters, or perhaps her heirs did. Or perhaps the fragile notebooks were consumed in one of the many fires that swept through ancient Kyoto, a city built largely of wood and paper. The tantalizing notion that she probably recorded much more of herself during her remarkable life gave me the impetus to imagine her story. Thanks to a grant from the Japan Foundation, I returned to the city of Kyoto for two months in the autumn of 1998 in order to search out traces of eleventh-century Miyako. I took flowers and incense to Murasaki's grave, and visited the temple Rozanji, situated on the plot of land where it is claimed she was born. Here were Murasaki's poems, by now so familiar, inscribed in stones set about the courtyard. Hidden in the temple's inner precincts is a garden called the Genji no tei consisting solely of raked white pebbles and pines on islands of moss. For one month alone there is color: the murasaki purple of bellflowers, blooming only in September.

‍   I bicycled along the Kamo River to its northern reach. Snowy egrets and great blue herons waded the shallows spearing fish; iridescent black dragonflies darted about. Just once I spied a blue jewel, a migrating kingfisher, perched on the reeds. I reached the Upper Kamo Shrine, so important to the people of Murasaki's world, still a sacred Shinto religious center today. There I commissioned a purification ceremony for myself, having looked at a placard and suddenly realized 1998 was an unlucky year for a woman of my age. Perhaps I had been steeping myself in Heian-era superstition too long, but afterwards I felt better able to avoid a bicycle accident. On the night of the full harvest moon, the night Murasaki was said to have begun writing Genji, I went to the Lower Kamo Shrine to view a performance of bugaku dance and music—precisely the sort of entertainment Murasaki and her crowd would have enjoyed. Wisps of cloud raced across the face of the full moon.

‍   The Imperial Palace and grounds lie in a great, open rectangle at the center of the modern city of Kyoto, shifted eastward from the configuration of the palace of eleventh-century Heian-kyō. There I toured the replicas of Heian buildings along with the dozens of other tourists who applied for permission from the Imperial Household Agency. On another day, as I was taking flowers to the Shinenji temple where my geisha mother is buried, I realized that her grave is located precisely in the area where the emperors and their consorts would have dwelt in the original imperial palace compound of a millennium ago.

‍  I discovered that at the Nishijin Orimono Kaikan, one could be dressed in the elaborate twelve-layered set of robes worn by the women of Murasaki's circle. It's obvious why I would be eager to experience the clothing that played such a huge role in the lives of Heian court ladies, but I wondered why this service existed in the first place. Who else wanted to dress like that? —Genji fans, I was told.

‍ I retraced my heroine's journey to Echizen, boarding a tour boat at the southern tip of Lake Biwa, transferring to train at the eastern edge of the lake, proceeding by local across the Shiozu Mountains, over the Hokuriku Road to Tsuruga and on to Takefu City where Tametoki had been posted as governor. I was surprised when someone asked whether I wasn't lonely taking the trip by myself. The thought had never occurred to me. I was traveling with Murasaki, thinking of her poems at each of the sites that had inspired them. 

‍   Back in Kyoto, I visited the western hills of Arashiyama, and the eastern hills where Kiyomizu Temple is located. Of course I went to Uji, to Ishiyama Temple, and to Suma. I discovered the Murasaki Shikibu Appreciation Society of Kyoto, which sponsors various Genji-related activities, and was able to attend several of their lectures on aspects of Heian culture, as well as a talk by Setouchi Jakuchō on her new Genji translation. I was invited to don kimono and participate with other members of the Society in the game of matching shells (kai awase), an amusement popular among Heian women, and to try my skill at guessing incense blends in the pastime called Genji kō. My nose was not first, but it did come in second out of fifteen guests. 

‍   Twenty-four years before, I had lived in the city of Kyoto among the geisha of Pontochō, doing research for my dissertation on the place of these traditional entertainers in Japanese society. Like a frog in a well, my view of Kyoto had been formed from that single perspective. As a geisha, the world comes to you, and geisha don't ride bikes. Searching out the dim outlines of Murasaki's Miyako from the beginning of this millennium now ended, I have had the good fortune to discover this ancient city more deeply. The shadows still exist, if one but knows where to look.

Liza Dalby as modern Murasaki