Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

May 28, 2012

Autumn Brocade of Sugawara no Michizane (Walking Waka Tracks)

Sugawara no Michizane (845-903) was famous scholar and statesman. He served Emperor Uda who promoted him to the highest offices in the country in order to act as a foil to the Fujiwara clan, whose hegemony in affairs of state the emperor was contesting. The Fujiwara clan, however, proved too strong for them and Michizane was removed from central politics by being made Governor of Dazaifu in Kyushu - a virtual banishment. (Heian politics were relatively peaceful, in later times political enemies would be more cruelly dealt with). Michizane died in exile, and then another story begins. The imperial house and capital are beset by various disasters, which are all ascribed to the angry spirit of Michizane. Imperial princes die suddenly at young age, and lightning strikes the palace. Michizane is posthumously pardoned and promoted, and when that does not help, deified as Kitano Tenjin. As such, his angry nature is pacifed and he changes into the benevolent god of learning he has been to this day.

Waka by Michizane on the Odoi next to Kitano Tenmangu
[Poem stone on the Odoi next to Kitano Tenmangu]


this time on my journey
unable to bring sacred streamers
to Offering Hill
deities please accept instead
this brocade of crimson leaves

kono tabi wa | nusa mo toriaezu | Tamukeyama | momiji no nishiki | kami no manimani


The above poem was composed in 898 when the retired Emperor Uda went on an elaborate twelve day excursion to Nara and Sumiyoshi (Osaka). It was written at Mount Tamuke ("Offering Hill"), a pass on the road between Kyoto and Nara at which usually gifts were presented to the God of the Road.

The comparison of autumn leaves with brocade is a conventional metaphor. Michizane takes this one step further by suggesting that, as this was a public visit, he could take no private offerings (in the form of gohei) for the deities of Mt Tamuke, but that the natural beauty of the crimson leaves may make an excellent substitute. 

This poem has been included as no. 24 in the Hyakunin isshu anthology of Fujiwara Teika.

Kitano Tenmangu: City Bus (50) or (101) from JR Kyoto Station; or (203) form Demachiyanagi Station, to Kitano Tenmangu-mae. 5 min walk from Hakubaicho St. on the Keifuku line.
The poem stone stands in a small park on the Odoi next to the shrine (west exit in front of the Main Hall).