Early in my life here in Kyoto, I had an apartment about two blocks east of the main entrance gate to Heian Jingu. In those days, I worked evenings teaching English and each night I would bicycle home, passing by this gate lit up with flood lights that made the orange glow brightly against the inky blue night sky. And every night, as my heart sang with joy in the presence of such majestic beauty, I blessed the day I had chosen to live in Kyoto.
Heian Jingu is an imperial Shinto shrine on the east side of Kyoto. Although Shintoism is the oldest Japanese religion, predating Buddhism by several centuries, Heian Jingu is one of the newest religious structures in this city, having only been built in 1885 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto as the capital of ancient Japan. After passing through the massive gate shown above, one enters the immense courtyard, only a corner of which is shown in the photo below.
Within the walled enclave of the shrine, it’s easy to loose track of time and place. Inside there are few traces of modern Kyoto or its 1.5 million people bustling about their daily lives; no modern buildings tower above the various halls and shrine buildings that rim the courtyard. Only a few trees and the eastern mountains appear in the distance. I am told that the shrine architecture is intended to replicate the design of Kyoto’s original Imperial palace, destroyed by fire in 1227, and perhaps that accounts for the overwhelming sense of grandeur that permeates the site. The shrine itself honors two emperors: Kammu (737-806), who founded Kyoto in 794, and Komei (1831-66), the last emperor to live out his reign in Kyoto before the capital was moved to Tokyo.
Surrounding Heian Jingu on three sides, there are a series of gardens that are considered the finest of those laid out in the Meiji period (1868-1912). As is typical of such gardens, there are weeping cherries that blossom in springtime, irises and water lilies to nourish the soul during summer and a brilliant pageantry of maple leaves changing colors throughout the fall.
This being summer, we are in the height of iris season. Most Japanese irises today are ornamental water irises called hanashobu in Japanese. These grow in shallow marshes and along the edges of ponds and rivers, so the network of artificial riverlets and ponds constructed in the shrine gardens provide a perfect venue for these flowers. The meandering pathways that follow the water ways have been so artfully constructed within a relatively contained space that it is possible to wander along without quite realizing that the path has actually doubled back on itself to form a small circuit that can be repeated again and again with the joy of new observations.
The romance of the Japanese iris stems from Tales of the Ise, a mid-10th century collection of lyrical prose and poems, which among other stories, recounted a heartsick lover composing poetry to a wild iris (called kakitsubata) in place of his lost love. Thereafter, images of wild irises coupled with zig zag wooden bridges became indelibly linked as a romantic motif that was repeated in Japanese art and literature for the next several centuries with some particularly exquisite examples appearing in the 17th century lacquerware and painted screens by Ogata Korin.
Another interpretation of the iris is suggested by the recently published diary of Abbess Kasanoin Jikun. Entitled In Iris Fields: Remembrances and Poetry, the book is a compilation of essays and poems by Abbess Kasanoin Jikun (1910-2006). These irises were the ayame type that bloomed at Daishoji imperial convent where she was cloistered. Being a female child of aristocratic lineage, Kasanoin Jikun was sent to an imperial convent at age 5, designated to be raised to become its abbess. Those who enjoyed Memoirs of a Geisha may find an entirely new set of insights into the life of a Japanese woman trained in an utterly different environment for a totally different task during roughly the same time period. In Iris Fields is a translation of essays and poetry written by the Abbess herself, in which she shares memories of her childhood and stories of her friends and relations as she moved from court to convent during times of tremendous social upheaval in Japan. Those interested in further information about the book should click here.