Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Ise (ee-say). City, in province of the same name, that is the site of the great Ise Shrine which dramatically faces the Pacific Ocean at the southern tip of Nagoya Bay, almost in the middle of the Japan’s central island of Honsh. According to legend, it was at Ise that the human Amaterasu gave birth to a child conceived with a god, founding Japan’s imperial family. An imperial Virgin served as High Priestess at the Inner Shrine. The central episodes of the novel, now placed in the middle of the narrative, tell of Narihira’s one legendary night of love with the Virgin of Ise, Princess Tenshi.

Leading a hunting expedition through the rich forests of Ise with the task of returning game birds fit for the table at the nearby imperial capital, the aristocratic poet had been allowed to room at the Virgin’s fine residence at Ise, built in the classic wood-and-rice paper style of medieval Japanese architecture. On the second night, while he was resting on his futon atop tatami mats and looking out at the moonlight in the garden before his open screen door, the Virgin appeared with a little girl. Delighted, Narihira led the Princess into his room. Yet she departed at two-thirty in the morning, and his official duties prevented any second meeting. The erotic meets the sacred at Ise, and Narihira’s tryst echoes the earlier love between a god and a human at the same location.


*Nara. Traditional capital surrounded by the picturesque Kasuga Plain and the Kasugayama hills, located southwest of Tokyo, that Emperor Kammu left in 784. Outside the city lay the hunting estates of the noblemen. In the first episode of the novel, an aristocratic hunter spots two beautiful local sisters. Cleverly, he tries to seduce them with a poem inspired by...

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(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Harris, H. Jay, trans. Introduction to The Tales of Ise. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1972. This translation also has a running commentary on the each episode. The introduction gives background information and summarizes the speculations about the origins and authorship of the text.

Keene, Donald. Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century. New York: Henry Holt, 1993. Gives a picture of the probable circumstance of the composition of the Tales of Ise, the text as it is now, and other poem tales of the period.

McCullough, Helen Craig. Tales of Ise: Lyrical Episodes from Tenth-Century Japan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1968. This complete translation of the work is scholarly and readable. There is a lengthy introduction to the Tales of Ise and to the poetry and poets of the early Heian period.

Okada, H. Richard. Figures of Resistance: Language, Poetry, and Narrating in “The Tale of Genji” and Other Mid-Heian Texts. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991. Has a chapter devoted to the Tales of Ise that deals with the political and social background of the work.

Tahara, Mildred M., trans. Introduction to Tales of Yamato: A Tenth Century Poem-Tale. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1980. This translation of another major tenth century poem tale has a short introduction and a succinct history of Japanese literature in an appendix.