The Tale of the Heike

When I wrote the story of Gio last Sunday, I was quite surprised to find that I haven’t talked about “The Tale of the Heike” yet. Here’s to remedy that oversight!

Heike Monogatari

cover image of "The Tale of the Heike". The Heike Monogatari is an epic tale that essentially tells the story of the Japanese Genpei War. This war from 1180 – 1185 was a power struggle between the Heike/Taira clan and the Minamoto/Genji clan that had been going on for a while already.

At first, Taira-no-Kiyomori is one of the most powerful men in the country, even having married his daughter to the emperor. However, when he tries to put his grandson, 2-year old Antoku, on the throne, the rival Minamoto conspire with the deposed emperor to overthrow him. Both sides gain allies and prepare from war that starts with the Battle of Uji. From there, a series of battles between the two clans ensues in which the Minamoto eventually gain the upper hand and Emperor Antoku is killed. At the end of the war, the Taira clan is defeated and all but wiped out, while the victorious Minamoto establish the Kamakura shogunate.

The monumental Tale of the Heike is comprised of numerous stories and legends that were at first passed on orally by so-called biwa-hoshi bards. It was complete by 1330. A number of individual stories have been transformed to Noh plays that are still performed to this day, as well as movies, manga etc.

Personally, I found the first part that deals with Kiyomori and the scheming by and against him the most interesting. Once Kiyomori dies of old age and his son takes over, the war soon begins and the story turns to detailed accounts of who-killed-whom-and-how. This part I found a bit tedious because there were so many people involved that they were hard to keep track of, and most were killed on the very page they entered the scene anyway. Yet, having read the Heike Monogatari gave me an insight both into Japanese history and beloved heroes like the unbeatable Benkei and Yoshitsune, whose stories are an important part of Japanese culture.

If you’d like to try one of the famous Japanese books on war, you can get the Heike Monogatari on amazon.

The Tragic Loves of Gio-ji

While I was out and about in Saga for the Dainenbutsu Kyogen last weekend, I also veered a bit off the beaten tracks to a tiny temple called Gio-ji (emphasis on the o). Well, it’s not really a temple, more of an hermitage, with a single building. There is one Buddha statue in a room that is not bigger than most modern living rooms. In fact, the temple is mostly garden; huge maples and other trees in a bed of moss with the occasional lantern or memorial stone. Right now is not the best time to visit, as you can see below. The moss is at its prime during the rainy season and the temple shows off its beauty when the maples are blazing in autumn, of course (as in the last two photos).

Gio-ji was not alwasy that small though. Once it was part of a larger temple complex called Ojo-in which is said to have reached all the way up the mountain. This temple was allegedly founded in the late 12th/early 13th century by a disciple of Honen, he himself founder of Jodo-shu Buddhism. Be that as it may, this large temple fell into disrepair, and all that’s left today is the little hermitage and the moss garden.

However, Gio-ji is more than just a remnant of another temple, and it is more than just another pretty spot for moss and maples in the Arashiyama mountains. What makes Gio-ji famous is the story behind its name, the story of a woman. The following is a story as related in the Heike Monogatari:

Gio was one of the most beautiful women of the 12th century. She was a shirabyoshi, a dancer, and, as beautiful women often do, she had numerous admirers. One of them was Taira-no-Kiyomori, the military leader of Japan in the late Heian period. This powerful man took a liking to Gio and, as powerful men often do, wanted to have her all for himself.

Gio fought hard. She resisted with everything she had, brought up a younger sister and an ailing mother she had to take care of. But Kiyomori insisted, sent poems, beautiful robes, and other gifts. Eventually, Gio’s defenses broke down. Besides, what could go wrong as the mistress of the country’s de-facto leader? So, Kiyomori installed Gio in the palace. She had traded her freedom for the easy life plus all the attention a dancer could crave. But of course, it couldn’t last forever.

Gio’s luck ran out when that of another woman started: Kiyomori had cast his eye on a new, younger dancer called Hotoke. And the story repeated itself: Kiyomori courted Hotoke with all he had and eventually installed her in his palace. And Gio had to leave.

Stone lantern at Gio-ji temple surrounded by moss.

Even though Gio was only in her 20s at the time, she decided to become a nun. And it is said that she together with her sisiter and mother, took up residence in the little hermitage that today is Gio-ji. This is why you will find not only Buddha, but also statues of several nuns in the little room at Gio-ji. And among the temple’s graves are that of Gio and her family.

Is the story true? Probably. It is told to us in the Heike Monogatari, one of the epic tales of Japan, that dates back to at least 1330. We can expect that the story was embellished over time, of course; a Noh play, and many other retellings of the story did help with that. No wonder, it’s a timeless story that we have all heard one way or the other…

Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen

I had a great day yesterday, spending some time in Arashiyama. It was not as busy as it used to be, no wonder, all the foreigners are yet to return… The reason I went yesterday were the performances of Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen at Seiryo-ji Temple. I wrote about them in detail before, but this time, probably thanks to COVID-19, somebody had recorded the plays and put them online. These are the two kyogen that were shown yesterday:

The first play was called Shaka Nyorai and it’s a funny or “soft” Yawarakamon play. The title refers to a Buddha statue that is set up in a temple by a priest. When a beautiful woman comes to worship, the statue turns his back. The priest and a samurai (or worker?) at the temple ask her to worship again so that the Buddha will turn his back and face the proper side once more. Instead, the Buddha lays his arm around the woman and leaves with her. The priest takes the Buddha’s place and the same thing happens with the woman’s beautiful daughter. Finally, the worker at the temple tries the same – will he succeed in finding a wife too?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTUjgGQpeLs

The second play was the famous Funa Benkei (Benkei on a Boat) and it’s a serious or “hard” Katamon with an origin in Noh, or rather, in the Heike Monogatari. The story tells how famous warrior Yoshitsune is urged by his friend Benkei to leave the city to save his life. He first takes leave of his lover, Shizuka Gozen before he reluctantly boards a boat together with Benkei. When they have sailed for a short while, the ghost of Taira no Tomomori appears and tries to kill Yoshitsune in revenge for his own death. The two fight but almost draw until Benkei recites prayers that send Tomomori back to the underworld.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iw-V_5zx5D0

All Dainenbutsu Kyogen are pantomimes that need no words, but it does help if you know the story. They are rather slow moving with stereotypical costumes and accessories and the players – all male – wear beautiful masks. In the background, music is played, a simple beat that speeds up at the most exciting parts like fight scenes. Enjoy! (I have no idea why the embed is not working, but the links should).

Labour Thanksgiving Day

Today is the end of a long weekend in Japan, with Labour Thanksgiving Day – kinro kansha no hi – today. This national holiday was established in 1948 and is meant to “praise labour, celebrate production and give thanks to one another”. Especially the “celebrate production” was important after WWII when Japan and its economic miracle took the world (and the car industry in particular) by storm…

When it comes to Kyoto, the most celebrated type of production was going on in the textile industry. For centuries, it was a thriving industry with thousands of people working in it, and even today, it is one of the main industries in Kyoto (after tourism, of course). In Kyoto, the traditional textile industry has seen some of its most interesting innovations, like yuzen, shibori and other types of dyeing, and of course, nishijin-ori weaving for obi. Interestingly, when it comes to looms for weaving, Nagoya’s Toyota company was a large manufacturer, before they moved into the automotive business.

Although modern looms are used almost everywhere, obi are usually still woven by hand with traditional Jacquard machines – which have been modernised from punch cards to computer controls at least. Still, there is something special about seeing a craftsman working on a traditional loom. And even though the photo below was taken in a studio and does not depict the reality of an 1875 weaving workshop, it does come pretty close to how the work is done even today.

Pictures From Taisho

I’m very interested in Japanese history, in particular in the time of the Meiji and Taisho Emperors.

The Meiji Era (1868 – 1912) was when the Shogunate was abolished and Japan opened up to the Western world and had to speedily catch up with it. It was an era of extreme modernisation, in particular in the cities, while I would assume that most people in the countryside kept living their lives like they had for the last 250 years.

The Taisho Era (1912 – 1925) that followed saw a similar development, but at the same time, the West’s fascination with the newly discovered Japan lessened and whatever was left was drowned out by WWI.

In any case, below is a video of early film recordings taken in Tokyo in the very early years of Taisho, 1913 – 1915. You can see most of the people, in particular children, wearing traditional Japanese clothing and sporting traditional hairdos (I’m a fan of those!) The streets are crowded (as they are today) and I don’t recognise anything except the big lanterns at Asakusa temple in the very end.

The old film has been colored for this video, and there is an underlying soundtrack. The coloring is pretty good, but I’m not happy with the soundtrack – Japanese people are never so noisy! On the other hand, these are mostly children, and maybe things have changed in the last 100+ years. Anyway, enjoy!