Places: Tales of Ise

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Ise monogatari, tenth century, based on Narihira kashū, ninth century (English translation, 1968)

Type of work: Short fiction

Type of plot: Love

Time of work: Ninth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Ise

*Ise Tales of 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 Honshū. 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 the camouflage pattern of his hunting robe, which uses dyes from local plants. Appealing to the ironic connection of his clothes to their village, he tries to impress the young women.


*Nagaoka (nah-gah-o-kah). City north of Tokyo, lying below the harsh, wooded, and steep Mikuni Mountains, close to the Sea of Japan, where the emperor settled after leaving Nara. The area around Nagaoka was still relatively rustic. In episode 58, court ladies tease a nobleman for preferring to oversee his rice harvest, rather than wooing them. When the man retreats into his house, the ladies challenge him with a poem attributed to Lady Ise. However, the man does not come outside, even though the ladies imply his house is demon-haunted.

*Heian-kyo (Kyōto)

*Heian-kyo (Kyōto). In 794, the imperial dynasty moved to Heian-kyo, the contemporary Kyōto, which gave its name to their reign. Surrounded to the north and south by the Eastern Hills, in a valley traversed by the Kamo river, the city is site of many episodes. Within the wooden mansions, splendid gardens, far-flung palaces, and crowded streets, the nobles lead an active social life. Here, they conduct secret passionate affairs, host drinking parties and witty poetry competitions, and draw romantic inspiration from the tamed nature of their gardens. In Episode 81, Narihira admires a minister’s miniature imitation of scenic Shiogama Bay, in northeastern Japan, built within his private gardens.

*Provinces near the capital

*Provinces near the capital. Trips to scenic spots were popular pastimes of the aristocracy. Nunobiki Falls, with a drop of two hundred feet across fifty feet of rock surface, inspires the travelers to contrast the beauty and power of nature with the vanity of human efforts, in Episode 87.

Harbors and pleasant shorelines, like the beach of Sumiyoshi, situated west of Kyōto facing the Bay of Osaka, in Episode 68, move the poet. Even though he knows that fall will come soon, he enjoys his spring day at the beach. Given the poet’s feeling of nature’s longevity, it is sadly ironic that his admired beach no longer exists, due to human land reclamation.

Remote provinces

Remote provinces. Legend has it that Narihira was banished to the eastern provinces after having abducted an imperial princess. In Episode 9, he is disconsolate at seeing snow-capped Mount Fuji, because the mountain seems indifferent to the poet’s plight.

Other episodes tell of husbands and wives tearfully taking leave of each other, when one has to move to a faraway location. For the Heian aristocracy, the splendors of the countryside were best enjoyed in the knowledge that a return to the capital was assured.

BibliographyHarris, 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.
Categories: Places