In a world before Nintendo…

…there were a variety of games to play.  And since my wonderful computerized electronic whizball of a sewing machine had to be sent off for a week in a sewing machine hospital, I was forced spend the weekend trying to remember what I did before that lovely electronic toy entered my life.

Fortunately for me, there was a Genji exhibition at the Museum of Kyoto this week, celebrating the thousand year anniversary since The Tale of Genji was published by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, an 11th century aristocrat. Widely considered the world’s first novel, Genji is a classic of Japanese literature detailing courtly life in ancient Kyoto.Japanese woodblock pictureFor ten centuries The Tale of Genji has been a source of inspiration for the Japanese arts. Bugaku dance and Noh performances have re-enactedJapanese board game and playing pieces the life of Prince Genji, while the games and pastimes described in the story were adapted and expanded to reflect the novel. The playing pieces for the 19th century board game shown at right were painted to represent all the main characters from Genji. The center panel of the woodblock print above shows the same game being enjoyed by a cluster of noblewomen.

Likewise, the kaiawase clam shell matching game with its hexagonal storage box were delicately painted with scenes from the novel. kaiawase clam shell game Kaiawase matching is an ancient game, but quite similar to the card game “concentration”. Pairs of cleaned and polished clam shells are painted with matching images, then multiple sets of clam shells are collected to form a complete game set. To play, the clam shells are placed painted side down and the players take turns trying to find and match the identical pairs. Though I’ve never had a chance to play the game itself, I’ve always been fascinated by the elaborately detailed imagery painted on the shells and storage cases.19th century Japanese manga

And of course, there is manga. Reading manga has always been one of the quintessential forms of Japanese entertainment. The books shown here are examples of a 19th century retelling of Genji. Never having been stigmatized as “mind-rot”, the way western comic books have been, manga have always enjoyed an appreciative audience in Japan. In an earlier time, they were simply called e-hon (picture books) and attracted some of the brightest artistic stars of the day.

There were, of course, vastly more games on display in the exhibition, involving skills as diverse as incense sniffing and poetry reciting — far too many of course for a simple blog entry to recount. But it seemed as though in a simpler world, the goal was to find ways to delight each of the senses rather than just to kill time.

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