April, 2005

This page is written monthly
by Harumi Okochi.
Sometimes Harumi's friends join.
We'd be happy if you look at
r previous issues.


Biwa and camellias
Red for Heike, White for Genji

A spring night dream

The Tale of The Heike

The knell of the bells at the Gion temple
Echoes the impermanence of all things.
The colour of the flowers on its double-trunked tree
Reveals the truth that to flourish is to fall.
He who is proud is not so for long,
Like a passing dream on a night in spring.
He who is brave is finally destroyed,
To be no more than dust before the wind.

First of all, let me extend my heartfelt gratitude to you for your patience to have let me continue this page for these five years. This is the 61st article under the name of GREETING. I can't believe that I have done this! Of course some of the articles were written by my friends, but even so, it was I that persuaded or blackmailed them to write.
What encouraged me most was the mails from readers whom I didn't know. So thank you to the readers, and congratulation to me!

This month I will tell you about a fantastic evening of Biwa playing at Yoyokaku.

Do I have to explain what Biwa is ?
Biwa is a short-necked fretted lute whose origin is far east via the Silk Road. It has 4 strings ( modern biwa sometimes has 5), and a plectrum ( wooden or ivory) is used to scratch strings. It is one of the oldest instruments in Japan, and it once became almost extinct in the 20th Century. But these days, I feel a movement to re-discover the rejoice of Biwa playing is tiding.

The Evening of Biwa was held on February 21 and 22. More than a hundred people joined and enjoyed. Biwa was played by a nun. Her name is Chikyo Ikeda, and she is the priest in charge of Fukoji Temple in Fukuoka Prefecture.

I enjoyed myself very much preparing the stage, decorating flowers, thinking about the menu for the guests. I needed to re-read The Tale of The Heike hurriedly, to confirm my vague knowledge about the world of the time. The Tale of the Heike is the most beloved theme when Biwa is performed.
Just like the Western minstrels chanted ballads of the histories, tragedies of heroes in ancient times, say, Rolland in La Chanson de Rolland, or King Arthur or Lancelot, or even Odyssey or Iliad, in Japan, blind Buddhists entertained higher people, or sometimes visited gate to gate of commonfolk to ask for a small amount of money.

The Tale of The Heike is the tragedies of the rise and fall of the Heike (Taira Clan) about 900 years ago. The antagonist here is the Genji (Minamoto Clan). There are tragedies of Genji Clan too, but the grief is deeper in the stories of Heike because Heike was perished utterly. Even an infant emperor was involved and went to "The Capital of Undersea ". Legends about haunting Samurais were born.
To comfort the souls and spirits of the dead, tales were chanted with the accompaniment of Biwa. People shed tears for the victims.

On The Evening of Biwa at Yoyokaku, Reverend Chikyo chanted three tales. "The
Rev.Chikyo Ikeda
Death of Atsumori", which is a most beautiful and sorrowful story of a young nobleman of Heike Clan. "The Battle of Dan-no-Ura", where the infant Emperor Antoku, embraced in his Grandmother's arms, dived into the sea. Another story was about Lady Shizuka, and it was a tragedy in the side of Genji Clan after Heike was perished.

The low sound of Biwa, sometimes harsh and strong, sometimes trembling and feeble, filled the hearts of the listeners with fear and grief.
The candle lights flickered, and the voice of the chanter was flickering too.

The evening of Biwa was just like a passing dream on a night in early spring.

Below is a translation of The Death of Atsumori.  I hope you will enjoy it.

From The Tale of the Heike
The Death of Atsumori
translated by Helen Craig McCullough
Stanford University
Stanford, California


Kumagae-no-Jiro-Naozane walked his horse toward the beach after the defeat of the Heike.  "The Taira nobles will be fleeing to the water's edge in the hope of boarding rescue vessels," he thought.  "Ah, how I would like to grapple with a high-ranking Commander-in-Chief!"  Just then, he saw a lone rider splash into the sea, headed toward a vessel in the offing. The other was attired in a crane-embroidered nerinuki silk hitatare, a suit of armor with shaded green lacing, and a horned helmet.  At his waist, he wore a sword with gilt bronze fittings; on his back, there rode a quiver containing arrows fledged with black-banded white eagle feathers.  He grasped a rattan-wrapped bow and bestrode a white-dappled reddish horse with a gold-edged saddle.  When his mount had swum out about a hundred and fifty or two hundred feet, Naozane beckoned him with his fan.

"I see that you are a Commander-in-Chief.  It is dishonorable to show your back to an enemy.  Return!"

The warrior came back.  As he was leaving the water, Naozane rode up alongside him, gripped him with all his strength, crashed with him to the ground, held him motionless, and pushed aside his helmet to cut off his head.  He was sixteen or seventeen years old, with a lightly powdered face and blackened teeth. a boy just the age of Naozane's own son Kojiro Naoie, and so handsome that Naozane could not find a place to strike.

"Who are you?  Announce your name.  I will spare you," Naozane said.

Naozane and Atsumori

"Who are you?" the youth asked.

"Nobody of any importance: Kumagae no Jiro Naozane, a resident of Musashi Province."

"Then it is unnecessary to give you my name.  I am a desirable opponent for you.  Ask about me after you take my head.  Someone will recognize me, even if I don't tell you."

"Indeed, he must be a Commander-in-Chief," Naozane thought.   "Killing this one person will not change defeat into victory, nor will sparing him change victory into defeat.  When I think of how I grieved when Kojiro suffered a minor wound, it is easy to imagine the sorrow of this young lord's father if he were to hear that the boy had been slain.  Ah, I would like to spare him!"  Casting a swift glance to the rear, he discovered Sanehira and Kagetoki coming along behind him with fifty riders.

"I would like to spare you," he said, restraining his tears, "but there are Genji warriors everywhere.  You cannot possibly escape.  It will be better if I kill you than if someone else does it, because I will offer prayers on your behalf."

"Just take my head and be quick about it."

Overwhelmed by compassion, Naozane could not find a place to strike.   His senses reeled, his wits forsook him, and he was scarcely conscious of his surroundings.  But matters could not go on like that forever: in tears, he took the head.

"Alas!  No lot is as hard as a warrior's.  I would never have suffered such a dreadful experience if I had not been born into a military house.   How cruel I was to kill him!"  He pressed his sleeve to his face and shed floods of tears.

Presently, since matters could not go on like that forever, he started to remove the youth's armor hitatare so that he might wrap it around the head.   A brocade bag containing a flute was tucked in at the waist.  "

Ah, how pitiful!  He must have been one of the people I heard making music inside the stronghold just before dawn.  There are tens of thousands of riders in our eastern armies, but I am sure none of them has brought a flute to the battlefield.  Those court nobles are refined men!"

When Naozane's trophies were presented for Yoshitsune's inspection, they drew tears from the eyes of all the beholders.  It was learned later that the slain youth was Tayu Atsumori, aged seventeen, a son of Tsunemori, the Master of the Palace Repairs Office.

After that, Naozane thought increasingly of becoming a monk.

The flute in question is said to have been given by Retired Emperor Toba to Atsumori's grandfather Tadamori, who was a skilled musician.  I believe I have heard that Tsunemori, who inherited it, turned it over to Atsumori because of his son's proficiency as a flutist.  Saeda [Little Branch] was its name.  It is deeply moving that music, a profane entertainment, should have led a warrior to the religious life.

If you have more interest, here is a famous story written by Lafcadio Hearn about 100 years ago.
It is about the biwa chanter Hoichi the Earless, in the book "Kwaidan".

Thank you for reading this article, and I wish you a fantastic spring night dream!

Thank you very much for visiting this page.
I hope you will return next month.
Yours, Harumi Okochi

Proprietress of Ryokan Yoyokaku

  Mail to Harumi Okochi