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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Heian Ladies of Legend Ono no Komachi & Izumi Shikibu


Ono no Komachi, known for her beauty, poetry and madness, lived in the middle of the ninth century and served as a lady-in-waiting in the Heian court.

Ono no Komachi poem at Zuishinin, Kyoto.
Ono no Komachi poem at Zuishinin
Despite her legendary beauty and obvious passions, she never married. But her poems more than make up for whatever she may have missed in the way of marital bliss.

On such a night as this
When no moon lights your way to me,
I wake, my passion blazing,
My breast a fire raging, exploding flame
While within me, my heart chars.

(from An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry by E. Miner)

In mid life she was sent out of the capital to Yamashina, where she supposedly resided for some years at Zuishin-in Temple. She is said to have gone mad there and the temple now honors her every year with the Hanezu Odori. She probably wrote this poem during her stay at the temple:

The color of the blossoms have faded
Vainly, I age through the rains of the world
Watching in melancholy.

(translation by N. Teele)


Izumi Shikibu (circa 1000), another great woman writer of the Heian period, also wrote lasting poetry and had a difficult personal life.

Izumi Shikibu shown on an 18th century woodblock print.
Izumi Shikibu shown on an 18th century woodblock print
We know a lot more about her life than Komachi. Izumi Shikibu got her name from her marriage to the governor of the province of Izumi. She divorced him after their first child and returned to the court in Kyoto, where she had been raised. Soon she was having an affair with a prince, who died, and then his brother, who also died. She recorded both of these affairs in her diary, including a number of passages and poems that clearly indicate how much she loved and how much she had lost.

Lying down alone,
I am so confused in yearning for you
That I have forgot
The tangles of my long black hair,
Desiring the one who stroked it clear.

But she continued to see and be with other men. She eventually married (and then left) her second husband, the governor of the province of Tango. Her final years were spend on Mount Yoshiya at Toboku-in. And for the past hundreds of years Seshin-in, a subtemple of Toboku-in has been celebrating her life. The temple moved its location to the east side of Shinkyogoku, a little south of Rokkaku in the Momoyama period (1568-1600). Every March 21 at about 11.am, Noh chants are performed here and Edo period reproductions of handscrolls of her poems are displayed in her honor. Including this one:

Seeing the plum blossoms
I wait for the song of the warbler
Spring has come
Veiled in mist

Courtesy of Ian Ropke, founder and owner of Your Japan Private Tours: personalized quality private travel services all over Japan since 1992. To learn more, visit our site (www.kyoto-tokyo-private-tours.com) or call us on +1-415-230-

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