Blog 51 - Searching For Genji



I did say last week that I had a surprise for you, and me, this week. When I bought this scarf, I had no idea where it would take me. What an interesting journey I have had. No, the magic carpet took no part but I did involve other friends and neighbours. I would not be writing this now without their help.


As you can see from my photo, I have it draped over two old Japanese paintings. I was not sure to begin with if it was Chinese or Japanese, so that was the first piece of detective work. It appealed to me whenever I saw it and I am wearing it for the first time today. It is two lengths of satin silk sewn together, with long silk fringe, cream background and inscribed with artistic free flowing Japanese characters in black with red name seals. I did not understand the characters so I then had to enlist the help of Japanese friends. At the beginning, I thought it had something to do with Murasaki’s book The Tale of Genji, so my next search was to find an English translation of this ancient writing, thought to be the world’s first novel…..move over Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf and J.K.Rowling….Lady Murasaki Shikibu wrote this in the eleventh century as a Lady-in-Waiting at the Imperial Court. I could have found it on the internet, but I like to set myself the harder task of tracking down a copy in one of my local second hand shops. Along the way, I found an even earlier writing maybe a century before by another lady at the Imperial Court, The Pillow Book, by Sei Shonagon which I am currently reading. It has a racy title, but her title refers to the wooden bed with pillow, which had a drawer in which she kept her writing. I am now fascinated by this period of highly refined ancient Heian culture. I believe Murasaki was critical of the other’s writing, so it will be interesting to compare the two.


My search for the Tale of Genji continues, having been advised which translation is the easiest for me. Another visit to a charity shop and my unusual request and explanation about my scarf blogs. No book, but I am directed by the staff to a basket containing scarves. I find a beautiful gossamer silk scarf, so fine it screws up inside the palm of my hand. I buy it. I dismiss a smaller folded cotton kerchief. The shop manager thinks I should look at it and I unfold it. My hair stood on end! The label was Japanese characters but the Western name GENJI was clearly written. By now, the whole shop is aware of my writing and I was asked for the name of my site….which of course you all know is Busybeehazell. Now it is the turn of the Chinese manager of the shop raising funds for the homeless, to get excited. Busy Bee was the trade name of her knitting and handicraft business. Talk about coincidence! I buy the square.



And so, we have another cotton kerchief to investigate which proves as interesting as the writing on my silk scarf…..and there is even a connection between the two. Thanks to the diligent research of my Japanese friends, I now know my silk scarf shows parts of poems by four ancient lady poets, including Lady Murasaki and Lady Ise, and the red seals are their ‘nom de plume’, pen names or nicknames. As for the small cotton square, that has proved to be even more interesting. It is a furoshiki. These were used originally as a ‘bath spread’, a wrapping cloth to hold one’s possessions at the bath house in these ancient imperial times. Over the years it was commonly used as a wrapping for gifts and could be re-used. How sensible in these throw away modern times! Look out family…next birthday presents will be wrapped in cloth! The trade label translates as Imperial patched paper, another conundrum which lead into more research. How interesting that this was an art form in these Heian times when the Court ladies would tear scraps of paper and create a pattern, then further adorn the work with fine tracery in silver or gold. This is called tsugigami. My little square must be a modern adaptation of this skill showing a patchwork of four colours with an overlay of gold. I even have a Japanese paper fan printed in the same colours. Apparently, there has been a renewed interest in tsugigami and in Japan one can take courses. Don’t know if these are available in the West. There was an exhibition of this art form in 2009 and the exhibiting lady artist went to the same Japanese University as my friend. Another coincidence. Maybe my little furoshiki was a souvenir from that exhibition? My friend is a botanical artist and I have suggested she explores this other skill. We have all enjoyed this research together and I am indebted for their input. Maybe it has also rekindled their interest in their own ancient culture.


Now, what shall I do next, give up my Italian language studies, try to learn a little basic Japanese, study The Tale of Genji and the exploits of this nobleman and family over generations or tear up paper when I feel frustrated and layer the pieces and challenge today’s artists into believing I am describing the seasons or a beautiful birdsong? Maybe I should clean my house first and be a little more practical!


It has been a surprising journey this week. My only first hand experience of Japan is a few hours in an airport there, changing planes. Who knows? Next year’s cherry blossom? Yes, please.


Busy Bee, Scarf Face!

Series 2, Blog 51.

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