Thought to be the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu is a complex, dramatic story of love and Japanese upper-class life written in the 11th century.
The last ten chapters of the novel are set in the small town of Uji in Kyoto, and the city has a small yet delightful museum dedicated to it. The Tale of Genji Museum first opened in 1998, but it’s been upgraded in recent years with some fun interactive and digital elements. If you’re a fan of the novel, or want to escape the tourist crowds in Kyoto, it’s well worth a look.
If you’re already visiting Uji Shrine, the museum is practically next door. Take a five-minute stroll down a quiet leafy path beside the shrine, and you’ll find the pretty picture glass-fronted museum, surrounded by a traditional landscaped Japanese garden.
The museum building and garden. Credit: 663highland [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5 ], from Wikimedia CommonsYou can borrow a free audio guide as you enter, which is an iPad loaded with audio and text for all the exhibitions in English, Chinese, or Korean. The Tale Learning Room is a good place to start for an overview of what the story is about. Interactive screens invite you to pose and wave at them in order to unlock information about the story.
Interactive screens invite you to play and learn. Credit: Donna Sheffield
The iPad guide is packed with translations. Credit: Donna SheffieldThe Tale of Genji is set in the Heian period, which lasted from 794 to 1185. Don’t know much about the Heian period? Head for the Heian Room. Here you can learn more about what life was like for the Japanese nobility. What’s the story behind the elaborate 12-layered kimono they wore? How did they travel? What did they do with their free time? A life-size model of the Genji characters in costume brings one of the story’s scene to life, and touch screens, display cases, and videos around the room invite you to learn more about this fascinating era.
The Heian Room features a scene from the novel. Credit: Ctny [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons
A life-sized ox-drawn carriage is part of the Heian Room displays. Credit: 663highland [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5 ], from Wikimedia CommonsTo go into the next room, visitors cross a pretty glass bridge modeled in the Heian style. The Uji Room awaits on the other side. As the last ten chapters of the story are set in Uji, the life-size models, videos and illustrations in this room recreate scenes from these dramatic chapters.
The glass bridge connects the two main exhibition rooms. Credit: By Ctny [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia CommonsA movie room is also connected to the Uji Room. The audience sits on tiered wooden benches illuminated by electric candlelight, to watch one of two short NHK movies about the Uji chapters. There’s no subtitles on screen, but the iPad offers audio translation right into your ear. A new animated movie, The Cat who Fell in Love with Hikaru Genji, will join the movie selection here in April 2019.
In addition to these permanent rooms, there’s a Special Exhibition Room. There’s no additional charge to go in here, although no photographs are allowed, unlike in the rest of the museum. The special exhibit changes regularly, but features Genji-inspired artworks, and other artifacts related to the story.
There’s a small cafe and museum shop on site, offering unique Genji-themed crafts, goodies, snacks, and books. Two other rooms are the Lecture Room and the Library Room. These rooms are open to the public to study The Tale of Genji further, and enjoy special themed events.
The library room is a great place for literary fans to linger. Credit: 663highland [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5 ], from Wikimedia CommonsIt really doesn’t take long to explore the whole museum, an hour and a half at the most, but you may wish to linger, as the lack of bustling crowds make this a pleasant, peaceful journey into Japan’s literary and historical past.
The Tale of Genji Museum
Open: Tuesday to Sunday, 9am to 5pm. (Closed on Mondays)
Adults ¥500, Children ¥250 (Groups of 30 people and over receive a small discount)
Address: 45-26 Higashiuchi, Uji-shi, Kyoto, 611-0021