The Romance Reader of Old Japan

I came across Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan as I procrastinated by casually researching Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the Japanese classic The Tale of Genji. Some of Murasaki Shikibu’s diaries are included in the volume. Yet, it wasn’t her writing I was drawn to but that of the anonymous author of “The Sarashina Diary,” who craves romance stories. I have excerpted some of the passages below and inserted images of her contemporaries, including the other diarists in the book, Murasaki Shikibu and Izumi Shikibu. However, most of the woodblocks in this post were produced in the 1800s, and “The Sarashina Diary” is dated from 1009-1059 A.D.

I was brought up in a distant province* which lies farther than the farthest end of the Eastern Road. I am ashamed to think that inhabitants of the Royal City will think me an uncultured girl.

*Her father Takasué was appointed Governor of Kazusa in 1017, and the authoress, who was then nine years old, was brought from Kiōto to the Province.

Somehow I came to know that there are such things as romances in the world and wished to read them. When there was nothing to do by day or at night, one tale or another was told me by my elder sister or stepmother, and I heard several chapters about the shining Prince Genji. My longing for such stories increased, but how could they recite them all from memory? I became very restless and got an image of Yakushi Buddha made as large as myself. When I was alone I washed my hands and went secretly before the altar and prayed to him with all my life, bowing my head down to the floor. “Please let me go to the Royal City. There I can find many tales. Let me read all of them.”

Poem by Empress Jitō, from the series One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets. Utagawa Kuniyoshi

When thirteen years old, I was taken to the Royal City. On the third of the Long-moon month [September], I removed [from my house] to Imataté, the old house where I had played as a child being broken up. At sunset in the foggy twilight, just as I was getting into the palanquin, I thought of the Buddha before which I had gone secretly to pray—I was sorry and secretly shed tears to leave him behind.

Outside of my new house [a rude temporary, thatched one] there is no fence nor even shutters, but we have hung curtains and sudaré.* From that house, standing on a low bluff, a wide plain extends towards the South. On the East and West the sea creeps close, so it is an interesting place. When fogs are falling it is so charming that I rise early every morning to see them. Sorry to leave this place.

*Ancient ladies avoided men’s eyes and always sat behind sudaré (finely split bamboo curtain) through which they could look out without being seen.

Sei Shōnagon. Utagawa Kunisada

On the fifteenth, in heavy dark rain, we crossed the boundary of the Province and lodged at Ikada in the Province of Shimofusa. Our lodging is almost submerged. I am so afraid I cannot sleep. I see only three lone trees standing on a little hill in the waste.

The next day was passed in drying our dripping clothes and waiting for the others to come up*

*High personages, Governors of Provinces or other nobles, travelled with a great retinue, consisting of armed horsemen, foot-soldiers, and attendants of all sorts both high and low, together with the luggage necessary for prolonged existence in the wilderness. … It took about three months in the year 1017.

On the seventeenth, started early in the morning, and crossed a deep river. I heard that in this Province there lived in olden times a chieftain of Mano. He had thousand and ten thousand webs of cloth woven and dipped them [for bleaching] in the river which now flows over the place where his great house stood. Four of the large gate-posts remained standing in the river.

Hearing the people composing poems about this place, I in my mind:

Had I not seen erect in the river
These solid timbers of the olden time
How could I know, how could I feel
The story of that house?

That evening we lodged at the beach of Kurodo. The white sand stretched far and wide. The pine-wood was dark—the moon was bright, and the soft blowing of the wind made me lonely. People were pleased and composed poems. My poem:

For this night only
The autumn moon at Kurodo beach shall shine for me,
For this night only!—I cannot sleep.

Early in the morning we left this place and came to the Futoi River on the boundary between Shimofusa and Musashi. We lodged at the ferry of Matsusato near Kagami’s rapids, and all night long our luggage was being carried over.

My nurse had lost her husband and gave birth to her child at the boundary of the Province, so we had to go up to the Royal City separately. I was longing for my nurse and wanted to go to see her, and was brought there by my elder brother in his arms. We, though in a temporary lodging, covered ourselves with warm cotton batting, but my nurse, as there was no man to take care of her, was lying in a wild place [and] covered only with coarse matting. She was in her red dress.

The moon came in, lighting up everything, and in the moonlight she looked transparent. I thought her very white and pure. She wept and caressed me, and I was loath to leave her. Even when I went with lingering heart, her image remained with me, and there was no interest in the changing scenes.

The next morning we crossed the river in a ferry-boat in our palanquins. The persons who had come with us thus far in their own conveyances went back from this place. We, who were going up to the Royal City, stayed here for a while to follow them with our eyes; and as it was a parting for life all wept. Even my childish heart felt sorrow.


It was dark when I arrived at the residence on the west of the Princess of Sanjo’s mansion. Our garden was very wide and wild with great, fearful trees not inferior to those mountains I had come from. I could not feel at home, or keep a settled mind. Even then I teased mother into giving me books of stories, after which I had been yearning for so many years. Mother sent a messenger with a letter to Emon-no-Myōgu, one of our relatives who served the Princess of Sanjo. She took interest in my strange passion and willingly sent me some excellent manuscripts in the lid of a writing-box,* saying that these copies had been given her by the Princess. My joy knew no bounds and I read them day and night; I soon began to wish for more, but as I was an utter stranger to the Royal City, who would get them for me?

*Lacquered boxes, sometimes of great beauty, containing India ink and inkstone, brushes, rolls of paper.

My stepmother [meaning one of her father’s wives] had once been a lady-in-waiting at the court, and she seemed to have been disappointed in something. She had been regretting the World [her marriage], and now she was to leave our home. She beckoned her own child, who was five years old, and said, “The time will never come when I shall forget you, dear heart”; and pointing to a huge plum-tree which grew close to the eaves, said, “When it is in flower I shall come back”; and she went away. I felt love and pity for her, and while I was secretly weeping, the year, too, went away.

Kesa Gozen, from the series Lives of Wise and Heroic Women (Kenjo reppu den. Utagawa Kuniyoshi

“When the plum-tree blooms I shall come back”—I pondered over these words and wondered whether it would be so. I waited and waited with my eye hung to the tree. It was all in flower and yet no tidings from her. I became very anxious [and at last] broke a branch and sent it to her [of course with a poem]:

You gave me words of hope, are they not long delayed?
The plum-tree is remembered by the Spring,
Though it seemed dead with frost.

She wrote back affectionate words with a poem:

Wait on, never forsake your hope,
For when the plum-tree is in flower
Even the unpromised, the unexpected, will come to you.

During the spring [of 1022] the world was disquieted.* My nurse, who had filled my heart with pity on that moonlight night at the ford of Matsuzato, died on the moon-birthday of the Ever-growing month [first day of March], I lamented hopelessly without any way to set my mind at ease, and even forgot my passion for romances.

*By pestilence. People were often attacked by contagious diseases in those days, and they, who did not know about the nature of infection, called it by the name of “world-humor” or “world-disease,” attributing its cause to the ill-humor of some gods or spirits.

I passed day after day weeping bitterly, and when I first looked out of doors* [again] I saw the evening sun on cherry-blossoms all falling in confusion [this would mean four weeks later].

*In those days windows were covered with silk and could not be seen through.

Flowers are falling, yet I may see them again
when Spring returns.
But, oh, my longing for the dear person
who has departed from us forever!

I also heard that the daughter of the First Adviser to the King was lost [dead]. I could sympathize deeply with the sorrow of her lord, the Lieutenant-General, for I still felt my own sorrow.

When I had first arrived at the Capital I had been given a book of the handwriting of this noble lady for my copy-book. In it were written several poems, among them the following:

When you see the smoke floating up the valley of
Toribe Hill,
Then you will understand me, who seemed as shadow-like
even while living.

I looked at these poems which were written in such a beautiful handwriting, and I shed more tears. I sat brooding until mother troubled herself to console me. She searched for romances and gave them to me, and I became consoled unconsciously. I read a few volumes of Genji-monogatari and longed for the rest, but as I was still a stranger here I had no way of finding them. I was all impatience and yearning, and in my mind was always praying that I might read all the books of Genji-monogatari from the very first one.

While my parents were shutting themselves up in Udzu-Masa* Temple, I asked them for nothing except this romance, wishing to read it as soon as I could get it, but all in vain. I was inconsolable. One day I visited my aunt, who had recently come up from the country. She showed a tender interest in me and lovingly said I had grown up beautifully. On my return she said: “What shall I give you? You will not be interested in serious things: I will give you what you like best.” And she gave me more than fifty volumes of Genji-monogatari put in a case, as well as Isé-monogatari, Yojimi, Serikawa, Shirara, and Asa-udzu. How happy I was when I came home carrying these books in a bag! Until then I had only read a volume here and there, and was dissatisfied because I could not understand the story.

*It is a Buddhist custom to go into retreat from time to time.

Now I could be absorbed in these stories, taking them out one by one, shutting myself in behind the kichō.* To be a Queen were nothing compared to this!

*A kind of screen used in upper-class houses

All day and all night, as late as I could keep my eyes open, I did nothing but look at the books, setting a lamp* close beside me.

*Her lamp was rather like an Italian one—a shallow cup for oil fixed to a tall metal stem, with a wick projecting to one side.

Soon I learnt by heart all the names in the books, and I thought that a great thing.

Once I dreamt of a holy priest in yellow Buddhist scarf who came to me and said, “Learn the fifth book of the Hokekkyo at once.”

I did not tell any one about this, nor had I any mind to learn it, but continued to bathe in the romances. Although I was still ugly and undeveloped [I thought to myself] the time would come when I should be beautiful beyond compare, with long, long hair. I should be like the Lady Yugao [in the romance] loved by the Shining Prince Genji, or like the Lady Ukifuné, the wife of the General of Uji [a famous beauty]. I indulged in such fancies—shallow-minded I was, indeed!

Could such a man as the Shining Prince be living in this world? How could General Kaoru [literal translation, “Fragrance”] find such a beauty as Lady Ukifuné to conceal in his secret villa at Uji? Oh! I was like a crazy girl.

Hotoke-gozen examining a poem written on the shoji by the light of a lantern. Utagawa Kuniyoshi

While I had lived in the country, I had gone to the temple from time to time, but even then I could never pray like others, with a pure heart. In those days people learned to recite sutras and practise austerities of religious observance after the age of seventeen or eighteen, but I could scarcely even think of such matters. The only thing that I could think of was the Shining Prince who would some day come to me, as noble and beautiful as in the romance. If he came only once a year I, being hidden in a mountain villa like Lady Ukifuné, would be content. I could live as heart-dwindlingly as that lady, looking at flowers, or moonlit snowy landscape, occasionally receiving long-expected lovely letters from my Lord! I cherished such fancies and imagined that they might be realized.


Once in the Rice-Sprout month, when I was up late reading a romance, I heard a cat mewing with a long-drawn-out cry. I turned, wondering, and saw a very lovely cat. “Whence does it come?” I asked. “Sh,” said my sister, “do not tell anybody. It is a darling cat and we will keep it.”

The cat was very sociable and lay beside us. Some one might be looking for her [we thought], so we kept her secretly. She kept herself aloof from the vulgar servants, always sitting quietly before us. She turned her face away from unclean food, never eating it. She was tenderly cared for and caressed by us.

Once sister was ill, and the family was rather upset. The cat was kept in a room facing the north [i.e. a servant’s room], and never was called. She cried loudly and scoldingly, yet I thought it better to keep her away and did so. Sister, suddenly awakening, said to me, “Where is the cat kept? Bring her here.” I asked why, and sister said: “In my dream the cat came to my side and said, ‘I am the altered form of the late Honoured Daughter of the First Adviser to the King. There was a slight cause [for this]. Your sister has been thinking of me affectionately, so I am here for a while, but now I am among the servants. O how dreary I am!’ So saying she wept bitterly. She appeared to be a noble and beautiful person and then I awoke to hear the cat crying! How pitiful!”

The story moved me deeply and after this I never sent the cat away to the north-facing room, but waited on her lovingly. Once, when I was sitting alone, she came and sat before me, and, stroking her head, I addressed her: “You are the first daughter of the Noble Adviser? I wish to let your father know of it.” The cat watched my face and mewed, lengthening her voice.

It may be my fancy, but as I was watching her she seemed no common cat. She seemed to understand my words, and I pity her.

I had heard that a certain person possessed the Chogonka [Song of the Long Regret] retold from the original of the Chinese poet Li T’ai Po. I longed to borrow it, but was too shy to say so.

On the seventh day of the Seventh month I found a happy means to send my word [the suggestion of my wish]:

This is the night when in the ancient Past,
The Herder Star embarked to meet the Weaving One;
In its sweet remembrance the wave rises high in the River of Heaven.
Even so swells my heart to see the famous book.

The answer was:

The star gods meet on the shore of the Heavenly River,
Like theirs full of ecstasy is my heart
And grave things of daily life are forgotten
On the night your message comes to me.

On the thirteenth day of that month the moon shone very brightly. Darkness was chased away even from every corner of the heavens. It was about midnight and all were asleep.

We were sitting on the veranda. My sister, who was gazing at the sky thoughtfully, said, “If I flew away now, leaving no trace behind, what would you think of it?” She saw that her words shocked me, and she turned the conversation [lightly] to other things, and we laughed. …

We sat together looking up into the firmament, and went to bed after daybreak.

Gio and Gijo picking flowers. Utagawa Kuniyoshi

At midnight of the Deutzia month [April, 1024] a fire broke out, and the cat which had been waited on as a daughter of the First Adviser was burned to death. She had been used to come mewing whenever I called her by the name of that lady, as if she had understood me. My father said that he would tell the matter to the First Adviser, for it is a strange and heartfelt story. I was very, very sorry for her.

Our new temporary shelter was far narrower than the other. I was sad, for we had a very small garden and no trees. I thought with regret of the old spacious garden which was wild as a deep wood, and in time of flowers and red leaves the sight of it was never inferior to the surrounding mountains.

In the garden of the opposite house white and red plum-blossoms grew in confusion and their perfume came on the wind and filled me with thoughts of our old home.

When from the neighbouring garden the perfume-laden air
Saturates my soul with memories,
Rises the thought of the beloved plum-tree
Blooming under the eaves of the house which is gone.

On the moon-birth of the Rice-Sprout month my sister died after giving birth to a child. From childhood, even a stranger’s death had touched my heart deeply. This time I lamented, filled with speechless pity and sorrow.

While mother and the others were with the dead, I lay with the memory-awakening children one on either side of me. The moonlight found its way through the cracks of the roof [perhaps of their temporary dwelling] and illumined the face of the baby. The sight gave my heart so deep a pang that I covered its face with my sleeve, and drew the other child closer to my side, mothering the unfortunate.

After some days one of my relatives sent me a romance entitled “The Prince Yearning after the Buried,” with the following note: “The late lady had asked me to find her this romance. At that time I thought it impossible, but now to add to my sorrow, some one has just sent it to me.”

I answered:

What reason can there be that she
Strangely should seek a romance of the buried?
Buried now is the seeker
Deep under the mosses.

Izumi Shikibu. Utagawa Kuniyoshi


[At about this time the author of this diary seems to have had some family troubles. Her father received no appointment from the King—they were probably poor, and her gentle, poetic nature did not incline her to seek useful friends at court; therefore many of the best years of her youth were spent in obscurity—a great contrast to the “Shining-Prince” dreams of her childhood.]

In Autumn [1026] I went to live elsewhere and sent a poem:

I am like dew on the grass—
And pitiable wherever I may be—
But especially am I oppressed with sadness
In a field with a thin growth of reeds.

After that time I was somehow restless and forgot about the romances. My mind became more sober and I passed many years without doing any remarkable thing. I neglected religious services and temple observances. Those fantastic ideas [of the romances] can they be realized in this world? If father could win some good position I also might enter into a much nobler life. Such unreliable hopes then occupied my daily thoughts.

At last, father was appointed Governor of a Province very far in the East.

[Here the diary skips six years. The following is reminiscent.]

He [father] said: “I was always thinking that if I could win a position as Governor in the neighbourhood of the Capital I could take care of you to my heart’s desire. I would wish to bring you down to see beautiful scenery of sea and mountain. Moreover, I wished that you could live attended beyond [the possibilities] of our [present] position. Our Karma relation from our former world must have been bad. Now I have to go to so distant a country after waiting so long! When I brought you, who were a little child, to the Eastern Province [at his former appointment], even a slight illness caused me much trouble of mind in thinking that should I die, you would wander helpless in that far country. There were many fears in a stranger’s country, and I should have lived with an easier mind had I been alone. As I was then accompanied by all my family, I could not say or do what I wanted to say or do, and I was ashamed of it. Now you are grown up [she was twenty-five years old] and I am not sure that I can live long.

It is not so unusual a fate to be helpless in the Capital, but the saddest thing of all would be to wander in the Eastern Province like any country-woman. There are no relatives in the Capital upon whom we could rely to foster you, yet I cannot refuse the appointment which has been made after such long waiting. So you must remain here, and I must depart for Eternity.—Oh, in what way may I provide a way for you to live in the Capital decently!”

Night and day he lamented, saying these things, and I forgot all about flowers or maple leaves, grieving sadly, but there was no help for it.

He went down* on the thirteenth of the Seventh month, 1032.

*Away from the Capital where the King resides is always down; towards the capital is always up.

For several days before that I could not remain still in my own room, for I thought it difficult to see him again.

On that day [the 13th] after restless hours, when the [time for] parting came, I had lifted the blind and my eye met his, from which tears dropped down. Soon he had passed by.* My eyes were dim with tears and soon I concealed myself in bed [tears were bad manners]. A man who had gone to see him off returned with a poem written on a bit of pocket paper.

*This scene will be better understood by the reader if he remembers that her father was in the street in the midst of his train of attendants—an imposing cavalcade of bow-men, warriors, and attendants of all sorts, with palanquins and luggage, prepared to make a two or three months’ journey through the wilderness to the Province of Hitachi, far in the East. She, as a Japanese lady could not go out to speak to him, but unconventionally she had drawn up the blind and “her eye met his.”

A message from her father:

If I could do as I wish
I could acknowledge more profoundly
The sorrow of departing in Autumn.

[The last line has, of course, reference to his age and the probability of never returning.]

I could not read the poem to the end.

In the happier time I had often tried to compose halting poems [literally, of broken loins], but at present I had no word to say.

—never began to think in this world even for
a moment from you to part. Alas!


1037. In the Tenth month we changed our abode to the Capital. Mother had become a nun, and although she lived in the same house, shut herself up in a separate chamber. Father rather treated me as an independent woman than as his child. I felt helpless to see him shunning all society and living hidden in the shade.

A person [the Princess Yuko, daughter of the Emperor Toshiyaku] who had heard about me through a distant relative called me [to her] saying it would be better [to be with her] than passing idle lonely days.

Koshikibu no Naishi. Utagawa Kunisada

My old-fashioned parents thought the court life would be very unpleasant, and wanted me to pass my time at home, but others said: “People nowadays go out as ladies-in-waiting at the Court, and then fortunate opportunities [for marriage] are naturally numerous; why not try it?” So [at the age of twenty-six] I was sent to the Court against my will.

I went for one night the first time. I was dressed in an eight-fold uchigi of deep and pale chrysanthemum colours, and over it I wore the outer flowing robe of deep-red silk.

As I have said before, my mind was absorbed in romances, and I had no important relatives from whom I could learn distinguished manners or court customs, so except from the romances I could not know them. I had always been in the shadow of the antiquated parents, and had been accustomed not to go out but to see moon and flowers. So when I left home I felt as if I were not I nor was it the real world [to which I was going]. I started in the early morning. I had often fancied in my countrified mind that I should hear more interesting things for my heart’s consolation than were to be found living fixed in my parents’ house.

I felt awkward in Court in everything I did, and I thought it sad, but there was no use in complaining. I remembered with grief my nieces who had lost their mother and had been cared for by me alone, even sleeping at night one on either side of me.

Izumi Shikibu. Utagawa Kunisada

Days were spent in musing with a vacant mind. I felt as if some one were [always] spying upon me, and I was embarrassed.* After ten days or so I got leave to go out. Father and mother were waiting for me with a comfortable fire in a brazier.

*The custom of the Court obliged the court ladies to lead a life of almost no privacy—sleeping at night together in the presence of the Queen, and sharing their apartments with each other.

Seeing me getting out of my palanquin, my nieces said: “When you were with us people came to see us, but now no one’s voice is heard, no one’s shadow falls before the house. We are very low-spirited; what can you do for us who must pass days like this?” It was pitiful to see them cry when they said it. The next morning they sat before me, saying: “As you are here many persons are coming and going. It seems livelier.”

Tears came to my eyes to think what virtue [literally, fragrance] I could have that my little nieces made so much of me.


In the Finishing month I went again to the Court. A room was assigned for my use.

I went to the Princess’s apartment every night and lay down among unknown persons, so I could not sleep at all. I was bashful and timid and wept in secret. In the morning I retired while it was still dark and passed the days in longing for home where my old and weak parents, making much of me, relied upon me as if I were worthy of it. I yearned for them and felt very lonely. Unfortunate, deplorable, and helpless mind!—That was graven into my thought and although I had to perform my duty faithfully I could not always wait upon the Princess. She seemed not to guess what was in my heart, and attributing it only to shyness favored me by summoning me often from among the other ladies. She used to say, “Call the younger ladies!” and I was dragged out in spite of myself.

Those who were familiar with the court life seemed to be at home there, but I, who was not very young, yet did not wish to be counted among the elderly, was rather neglected, and made to usher guests. However, I did not expect too much of court life, and had no envy for those who were more graceful than I. This, on the contrary, set me at ease, and I from time to time presented myself before the Princess; and talked only with congenial friends about lovely things. Even on smile-presenting, interesting occasions I shrank from intruding and becoming too popular, and did not go far into most things.

Ono no Komachi seated by her writing table, watching cherry-blossoms scattered by the wind. Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Sleeping one night before the Princess, I was awakened by cries and fluttering noises from the waterfowl in the pond.

Like us the water jowl pass all the night in floating sleep,
They seem to be weary
With shaking away the frost from their feathers.

My companions passed their leisure time in talking over romances with the door open which separated our rooms, and they often called back one who had gone to the Princess’s apartment. She sent word once, “I will go if I must” [intending to give herself the pleasure of coming].

The long leaves of the reed are easily bent,
So I will not forcibly persuade it,
But leave it to the wind.

In this way [composing poems] we passed [the hours] talking idly. Afterwards this lady separated from the Court and left us. She remembered that night and sent me word—

That moonless, flowerless winter night
It penetrates my thought and makes me dwell on it—
I wonder why?

It touched my heart, for I also was thinking of that night:

In my dreams the tears of that cold night are still frozen.
But these I weep away secretly.

The Princess still called my stepmother by the name of Kazusa—Governor’s lady. Father was displeased that that name was still used after she had become another man’s wife, and he made me write to her about it:

The name of Asakura in a far-off country,
The Court now hears it in a divine dance-song:—
My name also is still somewhere heard [but not honourably].

One very bright night, after the full moon, I attended the Princess to the Imperial Palace. I remembered that the Heaven Illuminating Goddess was enthroned within, and wanted to take an opportunity to kneel before the altar. One moon-bright night [1042 A.D.] I went in [to the shrine] privately, for I know Lady Hakasé who was taking care of this shrine. The perpetual lights before the altar burned dimly. She [the Lady Hakasé] grew wondrously old and holy; she seems not like a mortal, but like a divine incarnation, yet she spoke very gracefully.

Princess Shiranui. Utagawa Kuniyoshi

The moon was very bright on the following night and the Princess’s ladies passed the time in talking and moon-gazing, opening the doors [outer shutters] of the Fujitsubo.

*Special house devoted to use of a King’s wife.

The footsteps of the Royal consort of Umetsubo going up to the King’s apartment were so exquisitely graceful as to excite envy. “Had the late Queen been living, she could not walk so grandly,” some one said. I composed a poem:

She is like the Moon, who, opening the gate of Heaven,
goes up over the clouds.
We, being in the same heavenly Palace, pass the night
in remembering the footfalls of the past.

The ladies who are charged with the duty of introducing the court nobles seem to have been fixed upon, and nobody notices whether simple-hearted country-women like me exist or not. On a very dark night in the beginning of the Gods-absent month, when sweet-voiced reciters were to read sutras throughout the night, another lady and I went out towards the entrance door of the Audience Room to listen to it, and after talking fell asleep, listening, leaning, …* when I noticed a gentleman had come to be received in audience by the Princess.

*Some words lost.

“It is awkward to run away to our apartment [to escape him]. We will remain here. Let it be as it will.” So said my companion and I sat beside her listening.

He spoke gently and quietly. There was nothing about him to be regretted. “Who is the other lady?” he asked of my friend. He said nothing rude or amorous like other men, but talked delicately of the sad, sweet things of the world, and many a phrase of his with a strange power enticed me into conversation. He wondered that there should have been in the Court one who was a stranger to him, and did not seem inclined to go away soon.

There was no starlight, and a gentle shower fell in the darkness; how lovely was its sound on the leaves! “The more deeply beautiful is the night,” he said; “the full moonlight would be too dazzling.” Discoursing about the beauties of Spring and Autumn he continued: “Although every hour has its charm, pretty is the spring haze; then the sky being tranquil and overcast, the face of the moon is not too bright; it seems to be floating on a distant river. At such a time the calm spring melody of the lute is exquisite.

“In Autumn, on the other hand, the moon is very bright; though there are mists trailing over the horizon we can see things as clearly as if they were at hand. The sound of wind, the voices of insects, all sweet things seem to melt together. When at such a time we listen to the autumnal music of the koto* we forget the Spring—we think that is best—

*A thirteen-stringed musical instrument.

“But the winter sky frozen all over magnificently cold! The snow covering the earth and its light mingling with the moonshine! Then the notes of the hitchiriki * vibrate on the air and we forget Spring and Autumn.” And he asked us, “Which captivates your fancy? On which stays your mind?”

*A pipe made of seven reeds having a very clear, piercing sound.

My companion answered in favour of Autumn and I, not being willing to imitate her, said:

Pale green night and flowers all melting into one
in the soft haze—
Everywhere the moon, glimmering in the Spring night.

So I replied. And he, after repeating my poem to himself over and over, said: “Then you give up Autumn? After this, as long as I live, such a spring night shall be for me a memento of your personality.” The person who favoured Autumn said, “Others seem to give their hearts to Spring, and I shall be alone gazing at the autumn moon,”

He was deeply interested, and being uncertain in thought said: “Even the poets of the Tang Empire could not decide which to praise most, Spring or Autumn. Your decisions make me think that there must be some personal reasons when our inclination is touched or charmed. Our souls are imbued with the colours of the sky, moon, or flowers of that moment. I desire much to know how you came to know the charms of Spring and Autumn. The moon of a winter night is given as an instance of dreariness, and as it is very cold I had never seen it intentionally. When I went down to Isé to be present as the messenger of the King at the ceremony of installing the virgin in charge of the shrine, I wanted to come back in the early dawn, so went to take leave of the Princess [whose installation had just taken place] in a moon-bright night after many days’ snow, half shrinking to think of my journey.

“Her residence was an other-worldly place awful even to the imagination, but she called me into an adequate apartment. There were persons [in that room] who had come down in the reign of the Emperor Enyu. Their aspect was very holy, ancient, and mystical. They told of the things of long ago with tears. They brought out a well-tuned four-stringed lute. The music did not seem to be anything happening in this world; I regretted that day should even dawn, and was touched so deeply that I had almost forgotten about returning to the Capital. Ever since then the snowy nights of winter recall that scene, and I without fail gaze at the moon even though hugging the fire. You will surely understand me, and hereafter every dark night with gentle rain will touch my heart; I feel this has not been inferior to the snowy night at the palace of the Isé virgin.”

With these words he departed and I thought he could not have known who I was.

Daini no Sanmi. Utagawa Kunisada 

In the Eighth month of the next year [1043] we went again to the Imperial Palace, and there was in the Court an entertainment throughout the night. I did not know that he was present at it, and I passed that night in my own room. When I looked out [in early morning] opening the sliding doors on the corridor I saw the morning moon very faint and beautiful. I heard footsteps and people approached—some reciting sutras. One of them came to the entrance, and addressed me. I replied, and he, suddenly remembering, exclaimed, “That night of softly falling rain I do not forget, even for a moment! I yearn for it.” As chance did not permit me many words I said:

What intensity of memory clings to your heart?
That gentle shower fell on the leaves—
Only for a moment [our hearts touched].

I had scarcely said so when people came up and I stole back without his answer.

That evening, after I had gone to my room, my companion came in to tell me that he had replied to my poem: “If there be such a tranquil night as that of the rain, I should like in some way to make you listen to my lute, playing all the songs I can remember.”

I wanted to hear it, and waited for the fit occasion, but there was none, ever.

In the next year one tranquil evening I heard that he had come into the Princess’s Palace, so I crept out of my chamber with my companion, but there were many people waiting within and without the Palace, and I turned back. He must have been of the same mind with me. He had come because it was so still a night, and he returned because it was noisy.

I yearn for a tranquil moment
To be out upon the sea of harmony,
In that enchanted boat.
Oh, boatman, do you know my heart?

So I composed that poem—and there is nothing more to tell. His personality was very excellent and he was not an ordinary man, but time passed, and neither called to the other.

In Winter, though the snow had not come yet, the starlit sky was clear and cold. One whole night I talked with those who were in the Palace….*

*Something seems to have occurred which may have been her marriage to a noble of lower rank or inferior family than her own, but one can only infer this, she does not tell it.

Like a good-for-nothing woman I retired from the Court life.


I devoted myself in various ways for the World [her husband]. Even in serving at Court one had like-wise to devote one’s self unceasingly. What favor could one win by returning to the parents’ home from time to time?

As I advanced in age I felt it unbecoming to behave as young couples do. While I was lamenting I grew ill, and could not go out to temples for worship. Even this rare going out was stopped, and I had no hope of living long, but I wanted to give my younger children a safer position while I was alive.

Lady Ise. Utagawa Kunisada 

I grieved and waited for the delightful thing [an appointment] for my husband. * In Autumn he got a position, but not so good a one as we had hoped, and we were much disappointed.

*In 1057, as Governor of Shinano Province.

It was not so distant as the place from which he had returned, so he made up his mind to go, and we hastily made preparations. He started from the house where his daughter had recently gone to live.*

*She was thirty-five years old and her husband forty-one years old when they were married. We may suppose that she was his second wife. This daughter must have been borne by the first wife. The cause of starting from his daughter’s house is some superstitious idea, and not the coldness of their relation.

It was after the tenth of the Gods-absent month.*

*In October it was the custom for all local gods to go for a conference to the residence of the oldest native god, in the Province of Idzumo; hence, Gods-absent month

I could not know what had happened after he started, but all seemed happy on that day. He was accompanied by our boy. My husband wore a red coat and pale purple kimono*, and aster-coloured hakama [divided skirt], and carried a long sword. The boy wore blue figured clothes and red hakama, and they mounted their horses beside the veranda.

*The rank of the person determined the colour of his clothes. Red was worn by nobles of the fifth degree.

When they had gone out noisily I felt very, very lonely. As I had heard the Province was not so distant I was less hopeless than I had been before.

The people who accompanied him to see him off returned the next day and told me that they had gone down with great show [of splendour] and, then continuing, said they had seen human fire * this morning starting [from the company] and flying towards the Capital. I tried to suppose it to be from some one of his retinue. How could I think the worst? I could think of nothing but how to bring up these younger ones.

*The Japanese believed that “human fire” or spirit can be seen leaving the body of one who is soon to die.

He came back in the Deutzia month of the next year and passed the Summer and Autumn at home, and on the twenty-fifth of the Long-night month he became ill.

1058. On the fifth day of the Tenth month all became like a dream. My sorrows could be compared to nothing in this world.

Now I knew that my present state had been reflected in the mirror offered to the Hasé Temple [about twenty-five years before by her mother] where some one was seen weeping in agony. The reflection of the happier one had not been realized. That could never be in the future.

On the twenty-third we burnt his remains with despairing hearts, my boy, who went down with him last Autumn, being dressed exquisitely and much attended, followed the bier weeping in black clothes with hateful things [mourning insignia] on them. My feeling when I saw him going out can never be expressed. I seemed to wander in dreams and thought that human life must soon cease here. If I had not given myself up to idle fictions [she herself had written several] and poetry, but had practised religious austerities night and day, I would not have seen such a dream-world.


Years and months passed away. Whenever I recollected the dream-like incident [of his death] my mind was troubled and my eyes filled so that I cannot think distinctly of those days.

My people went to live elsewhere and I remained alone in my solitary home. I was tired of meditation and sent a poem to one who had not called on me for a long time.

Weeds grow before my gate
And my sleeves are wet with dew,
No one calls on me,
My tears are solitary—alas!

She was a nun and she sent an answer:

The weeds before a dwelling house
May remind you of me!
Bushes bury the hut
Where lives the world-deserted one,

Murasaki Shikibu composing the Tale of Genji at Ishiyamadera. Yashima Gakutei