Tales of Ise

by Ariwara no Narihira

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Tales of Ise is considered one of the most important works of medieval Japanese literature (alongside the Tales of Genji, composed several hundred years later). The tales are a collection of poems from the Heian period, when the capital was moved to Kyoto. The form alternatives between prose and poetry, the latter comprising classical Japanese "waka" poems (the predecessor of the modern haiku).

The protagonist seems to be the notional writer himself, Narihira. The man described is young at the beginning, and loves a girl who is taken away to serve the Empress. When he tries to visit her, he writes, "The moon/ Springtime/ None are as they were in the past/ My body alone as it was in the beginning" (section 4).

Later in section 9, a man who questions the point of life is traveling with a few friends to the land of Suruga. One traveler writes, "A mountain unbeknownst to time/ Snow falling, Fujiʹs peak a/ Fawnʹs dappled coat," (section 9). He uses this simile to describe the snow on the mountain, despite the fact that the season is summer.

Section 82 contains the poetry of a Japanese emperor's son, who composes verses with a friend. The each write: "If there were never any cherry blossoms in this world,/ How easy would my mind be in Spring," and "It is because they scatter that cherry blossoms are so wonderful/ What lasts in this melancholy world ?" (section 82).

Tales if Ise contains many other stories of adventures of young lovers, travelers, and friends. The story's are really frames for the nature-based and love-inspired poems that make up the core of the collection.

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