Monthly Archives: June 2014

Halifax, Nova Scotia – The Tale of Genji

Another trip to Canada, so more reading time. I quite fancy reading The Tale of Genji again.

It was written by a woman – Murasaki Shikibu – in tenth century Japan, and it’s thought to be the oldest novel in the world. There are older books, certainly, but they are religious, myths, or factual. This is purely fiction, designed to entertain. It’s the story of a son of the emperor, Prince Genji, ‘the shining one’, and his many romantic entanglements.

Court ladies lived life behind screens, so the men can’t even see the women they’re wooing (like online dating, but so much more beautiful). Prospective lovers are judged not by their appearance, but by how well they can compose poetry, how good their calligraphy is, whether the paper they have chosen is appropriate. There are about 800 short poems in all, mostly about love in its various forms.

It’s romantic, and sad, and beautiful – but I’m travelling light, and ‘The Genji’ as Japanese scholars call it, is one big honking book.

I first read the Seidensticker translation – but that was an Everyman hardback, and I ended up reading it with The World of the Shining Prince, by Ivan Morris (lots of useful background information about Heian Japan) so together they take up a lot of space. There is a more recent version by Royall Tyler with loads of footnotes, but I struggled with that translation – and even in paperback, it took up half my hand luggage.

If only someone could make a book of just the love poems from Genji…

Someone has.

It’s called A String of Flowers, Untied. Jane Reichhold and Hatsue Kawamura have chosen about 400 of the poems, in Japanese with English translations, and written a short summary of each chapter to give them some context, as well as notes explaining references, and puns (a string untied was apparently a euphemism for making love). It’s great for dipping into if I only have a few minutes, and just as beautiful as the Genji – and far more portable. The book itself is a lovely item, and simply would not look this good on a Kindle.

As is often the case, I find life echoing what I read. Summer has finally come to Halifax, so there is cherry blossom (suitably Japanese) – and would you believe I got to meet a prince?

Yes, HRH the Prince of Wales is on a flying visit to Canada, and I get to shake his hand on a walkabout at the Grand Parade in Halifax. There’s something I never thought I’d blog.

In another Japanese connection, one morning when I stroll down to the boardwalk, there are about fifty girls dressed in very cute costumes – a Japanese fashion walk is about to begin. There’s a lot of pink and frilly, and cute, but there are also some gothic costumes, and as the walk progresses they’re joined by people who prefer to dress in more heavily armoured costume – leading to some strange sights, like a Klingon holding a big cuddly toy, Thor holding a cup of coffee, and a Star Wars stormtrooper being impaled by a girl dressed as a unicorn…

That’s one of the reasons I love Halifax. There’s always something to see or do, even for free. More than once I find myself in Jennifer’s of Nova Scotia, drooling over Arcane Angel‘s jewellery (gorgeous silver steampunk creations, made using antique moulds and vintage watch parts).

I also drool (literally) at Rousseau Chocolatier – a new chocolate shop where there’s a viewing room so you can watch the chocolatier at work. They make chocolate with a filling of orange and balsamic vinegar (sounds weird, tastes amazing) – and a really rich hot chocolate, which I take back to my room to savour with some more poetry.

And at least this time my hotel wasn’t haunted – but that’s another post…

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Posted by on June 11, 2014 in Books, Canada, Nova Scotia