Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji

(Three translations of a passage from Chapter 21)




Genji had long had it in his mind, if only he could find a site sufficiently extensive and with the same natural advantages as the Nijo-in, to build himself a new palace where he could house under one roof the various friends whose present inaccessibility, installed as they were in remote country places, was very inconvenient to him. He now managed to secure a site of four machi in the Sixth Ward close to where Lady Rokujo had lived and at once began to build. . . .

The new palace was finished in the eighth month. The portions corresponding to the astrological signs Sheep and Monkey were reserved for Lady Akikonomu’s occasional use, for they stood on ground that her own suite of rooms had once occupied. The Dragon and Snake quarters were for Genji himself; while the Bull and Tiger corner was to be used by the Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers. Finally the Dog and Wild Boar quarters were made ready for the Lady from Akashi, in the hope that she would at last consent to install herself under his roof.

He effected great improvement in the appearance of the grounds by a judicious handling of knoll and lake, for though such features were already there in abundance, he found it necessary here to cut away a slope, there to dam a stream, that each occupant of the various quarters might look out of her windows upon such a prospect as pleased her best. To the southeast he raised the level of the ground, and on this bank planted a profusion of early flowering trees. At the foot of this slope the lake curved with especial beauty, and in the foreground, just beneath the windows, he planted borders of cinquefoil, of red-plum, cherry, wistaria, kerria, rock-azalea, and other such plants as are at their best in springtime; for he knew that Murasaki was in especial a lover of the spring; while here and there, in places where they would not obstruct his main plan, autumn beds were cleverly interwoven with the rest.

Akikonomu’s garden was full of such trees as in autumn-time turn to the deepest hue. The stream above the waterfall was cleared out and deepened to a considerable distance; and that the noise of the cascade might carry further, he set great boulders in mid-stream, against which the current crashed and broke. It so happened that, the season being far advanced, it was this part of the garden that was now seen at its best; here indeed was such beauty as far eclipsed the autumn splendour even of the forests near Oi, so famous for their autumn tints.

In the northeastern garden there was a cool spring, the neighborhood of which seemed likely to yield an agreeable refuge from the summer heat. In the borders near the house upon this side he planted Chinese bamboos, and a little further off, tall-stemmed forest-trees whose thick leaves roofed airy tunnels of shade, pleasant as those of the most lovely upland wood. This garden was fenced with hedges of the white deutzia flower, the orange tree “whose scent rewakes forgotten love,” the briar-rose, and the giant peony; with many other sorts of bush and tall flower so skilfully spread about among them that neither spring nor autumn would ever lack in bravery.

On the east a great space was walled off, behind which rose the Racing Lodge; in front of it the race-course was marked off with ozier hurdles; and as he would be resident here during the sports of the fifth month, all along the stream at this point he planted the appropriate purple irises. Opposite were the stables with stalls for his race-horses, and quarters for the jockeys and grooms. Here were gathered together the most daring riders from every province in the kingdom. To the north of Lady Akashi’s rooms rose a high embankment, behind which lay the storehouses and granaries, screened also by a close-set wall of pine-trees, planted there on purpose that she might have the pleasure of seeing them when their boughs were laden with snow; and for her delight in the earlier days of the winter there was a great bed of chrysanthemums, which he pictured her enjoying on some morning when all the garden was white with frost. Then there was the mother-oak (for was not she a mother?) and, brought hither from wild and inaccessible places, a hundred other bushes and trees, so seldom seen that no one knew what names to call them by. . . .

The various quarters of which the New Palace was composed were joined by numerous alleys and covered ways, so that access from one to another was easy, and no one felt that she had been bundled away into a corner. When the ninth month came and the autumn leaves began to be at their best, the splendours of Akikonomu’s new garden were at last revealed, and indeed the sights upon which her windows looked were indescribably lovely. One evening when the crimson carpet was ruffled by a gusty wind, she filled a little box with red leaves from different trees and sent it to Murasaki. As messenger she chose one of the little girls who waited upon her. The child, a well-grown, confident little thing, came tripping across the humped wooden bridge that led from the Empress’s apartments with the utmost unconcern. Pleased though Murasaki was to receive this prompt mark of friendship, she could for a while do nothing but gaze with delight at the messenger’s appearance, and she quite forgot to be resentful, as some in her place would have been, that an older and more dignified messenger had not been entrusted with the Empress’s gift. The child wore a silk shirt, yellow outside and lined with green. Her mantle was of brown gauze. She was used to running about on messages in the Palace, had that absolute faultlessness of turn-out and bearing which seems never to be found elsewhere, and was far from being over-awed at finding herself in the presence of such a person as Lady Murasaki. Attached to the box was the poem: “Though yours be a garden where only springtime is of price, suffer it that from my house autumn should blow a crimson leaf into your hand.” It was amusing to see how while Murasaki read the missive, her ladies crowded round the little messenger and plied her with refreshments and caresses. For answer, Murasaki placed in the lid of the box a carpet of moss and on it laid a very little toy rock. Then she wrote on a strip of paper tied to a sprig of five-pointed pine: “The light leaf scatters in the wind, and of the vaunted spring no tinge is left us, save where the pine-tree grips its ledge of stone.”

The Empress thought at first that it was a real pine-branch. But when she looked closer she saw that, like the rock, it was a work of art — as delicate and ingenious a piece of craftsmanship as she had ever encountered. The readiness of Murasaki’s answer and the tact with which, while not exalting her own favourite season above that of Akikonomu’s choice, she had yet found a symbol to save her from tame surrender, pleased the Empress and was greeted as a happy stroke by all the ladies who were with her. But Genji when she showed it to him pretended to think the reply very impertinent, and to tease Murasaki he said to her afterwards: “I think you received these leaves most ungraciously. At another season one might venture perhaps upon such disparagement; but to do so now that the Goddess of Tatsuta holds us all in sway seems almost seditious. You should have bided your time; for only from behind the shelter of blossoming boughs could such a judgment be uttered with impunity.” So he spoke; but he was in reality delighted to find these marks of interest and good will being exchanged between the various occupants of his house, and he felt that the new arrangement was certain to prove a great success.

Translated by Arthur Waley (1933)



Genji had been thinking that he needed more room for the leisurely life which was now his. He wanted to have everyone near him, including the people who were still off in the country. He had bought four parks in Rokujô, near the eastern limits of the city and including the lands of the Rokujô lady. . . .

The new Rokujô mansion was finished in the Eighth Month and people began moving in. The southwest quarter, including her mother’s lands, was assigned to Akikonomu as her home away from the palace. The northeast quarter was assigned to the lady of the orange blossoms, who had occupied the east lodge at Nijô, and the northwest quarter to the lady from Akashi. The wishes of the ladies themselves were consulted in designing the new gardens, a most pleasant arrangement of lakes and hills.

The hills were high in the southeast quarter, where spring-blossoming trees and bushes were planted in large numbers. The lake was most ingeniously designed. Among the plantings in the forward parts of the garden were cinquefoil pines, maples, cherries, wisteria, yamabuki, and rock azalea, most of them trees and shrubs whose season was spring. Touches of autumn too were scattered through the groves.

In Akikonomu’s garden the plantings, on hills left from the old garden, were chosen for rich autumn colors. Clear spring water went singing off into the distance, over rocks designed to enhance the music. There was a waterfall, and the whole expanse was like an autumn moor. Since it was now autumn, the garden was a wild profusion of autumn flowers and leaves, such as to shame the hills of Oi.

In the northeast quarter there was a cool natural spring and the plans had the summer sun in mind. In the forward parts of the garden the wind through thickets of Chinese bamboo would be cool in the summer, and the trees were deep and mysterious as mountain groves. There was a hedge of mayflower, and there were oranges to remind the lady of days long gone. There were wild carnations and roses and gentians and a few spring and autumn flowers as well. A part of the quarter was fenced off for equestrian grounds. Since the Fifth Month would be its liveliest time, there were irises along the lake. On the far side were stables where the finest of horses would be kept.

And finally the northwest quarter: beyond artificial hillocks to the north were rows of warehouses, screened off by pines which would be beautiful in new falls of snow. The chrysanthemum hedge would bloom in the morning frosts of early winter, when also a grove of “mother oaks” would display its best hues. And in among the deep groves were mountain trees which one would have been hard put to identify. . . .

There were elaborate walls and galleries with numerous passageways this way and that among the several quarters, so that the ladies could live apart and still be friendly.

The Ninth Month came and Akikonomu’s garden was resplendent with autumn colors. On an evening when a gentle wind was blowing she arranged leaves and flowers on the lid of an ornamental box and sent them over to Murasaki. Her messenger was a rather tall girl in a singlet of deep purple, a robe of lilac lined with blue, and a gossamer cloak of saffron. She made her practiced way along galleries and verandas and over the soaring bridges that joined them, with the dignity that became her estate, and yet so pretty that the eyes of the whole house were upon her. Everything about her announced that she had been trained to the highest service.

This was Akikonomu’s poem, presented with the gift:

“Your garden quietly awaits the spring.
Permit the winds to bring a touch of autumn.”

The praise which Murasaki’s women showered on the messenger did not at all displease her. Murasaki sent back an arrangement of moss on the same box, with a cinquefoil pine against stones suggesting cliffs. A poem was tied to a branch of the pine:

“Fleeting, your leaves that scatter in the wind.
The pine at the cliffs is forever green with the spring.”

One had to look carefully to see that the pine was a clever fabrication. Akikonomu was much impressed that so ingenious a response should have come so quickly. Her women were speechless.

“I think you were unnecessarily tart,” said Genji to Murasaki. “You should wait until your spring trees are in bloom. What will the goddess of Tatsuta think when she hears you belittling the best of autumn colors? Reply from strength, when you have the force of your spring blossoms to support you.” He was looking wonderfully young and handsome.

There were more such exchanges, in this most tasteful of houses.

Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (1976)



Genji wanted a quiet place to live — it might as well be large and handsome enough to accommodate any ladies who lived in uncomfortably far-flung mountain villages — and he therefore set aside four cho of land at Rokujô and Kyôgoku, where Her Majesty’s old residence had been, and had the work begun. . . .

Genji’s Rokujô estate was finished in the eighth month. Her Majesty had the southwest quarter, no doubt because that was where her residence had once stood. The southeast quarter was for himself. He gave the northeast to the lady from the east pavilion and the northwest to the lady from Akashi. He had the existing hills and lake shifted about as necessary, changing the shapes of mountains and waters to suit each resident’s wishes.

The southeast quarter boasted high hills, every tree that blossoms in spring, and a particularly lovely lake; and in the near garden, before the house, he took care to plant not only five-needled pines, red plums, cherry trees, wisteria, kerria roses, and rock azaleas, all of which are at their best in spring, but also, here and there, discreet touches of autumn. In Her Majesty’s quarter he planted the hill already there with trees certain to glow in rich autumn colors, turned springs into clear streams, added rocks to the brook to deepen its voice, and contrived a waterfall, while on the broad expanse of his new-laid meadow, flowers bloomed in all the profusion of the season. The result was an autumn to put to shame the moors and mountains of Saga and Oi. The northeast quarter, with its cool spring, favored summer shade. Chinese bamboo grew in the near garden, to freshen the breeze; tall groves offered welcoming depths of shade, as in a mountain village; the hedge was of flowering deutzia; and among the plantings of orange, fragrant with the past, of pinks and roses and peonies, there also grew spring and autumn flowers. The east edge of this quarter was divided off into a riding ground with a pavilion and surrounded by a woven fence. Sweet flag had been induced to grow thickly beside the water, for the games of the fifth month, and the nearby stables housed the most superb horses. The northwest quarter’s northern sector was given over to rows of storehouses. Along the dividing fence grew a dense stand of pines intended to show off the beauty of snow. There was a fence entwined with chrysanthemums to gather the morning frosts of early winter, a grove of deep-hued oaks, and a scattering of nameless trees transplanted from the fastnesses of the mountains. . . .

Between the quarters of the estate ran walls and galleries that Genji had designed so as to encourage friendly commerce between them all.

In the ninth month splashes of autumn color appeared, and Her Majesty’s garden became indescribably lovely. One windy autumn evening she sprinkled many-colored flowers and leaves into a box lid and sent them to the residence of His Grace. The tall page girl, in deep purple under a patterned aster layering and a light russet dress gown, came tripping with easy grace along the galleries and over the arched bridges. Despite the formality of the occasion Her Majesty had not been able to resist sending this delightful girl, whose long service in such company gave her an air and manner far more distinguished than any other’s.

Her Majesty had written,

“You whose garden waits by your wish to welcome spring, at least look upon these autumn leaves from my home, carried to you on the wind.”

The younger gentlewomen gave her emissary a lovely welcome. In answer their mistress spread a bed of moss in a box lid, dotted the moss with mighty boulder pebbles, and planted in it a five-needled pine to which she tied,

“They are trifling things, fall leaves scattered on the wind: I would have you see in the pine gripping the rock the truest color of spring.”

Close inspection of the pine among its rocks revealed exceedingly fine workmanship. Her Majesty was delighted by this evidence of the sender’s quick and searching wit, and her gentlewomen praised it, too.

“She has you, you know,” Genji remarked, “with this message of autumn leaves. You must answer her properly in the season of spring flowers. I wonder whether the way you spoke ill of autumn leaves just now may not offend the Tatsuta Lady — your answering poem would have greater force if you had retreated and sought refuge under the blossoms.” Giving forth as he did a youthful charm that unfailingly captivated those dear to him, he brought his home ever closer to his ideal. Back and forth the messages flew.

Translated by Royall Tyler (2001)


Three translations of a passage from Lady Murasaki’s novel The Tale of Genji (ca. 1015).

Copyright notice.

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