I was thinking about this after reading a passage in Burton Watson's translation of The Tales of the Heike, which describes the exile of three conspirators to the remote island of Kikai-ga-shimam off the southern coast of Satsuma. Two of them, Naritsune and Yasuyori had been devotees of the Kumano Shrine and to make their exile bearable they went looking round the island to find a landscape that resembled the Kumano area. 'They found a wonderful spot of woodland and water, festooned here and there with tree leaves the colour of crimson brocade or embroidery; of splendid cloud-topped peaks, seeming as though draped in various shades of blue green gauze; with the mountain scenery, the stands of trees far surpassed anything found elsewhere. Gazing south one could see a vast expanse of ocean, its waves deeply shrouded in clouds and mist, while to the north, from the soaring mountain crags, a hundred-foot waterfall came cascading down. The awesome thundering of its waters and the pine winds imparting an aura of holiness made it seem like the waterfall of Nachi, the seat of one of the Kumano deities. They decided to call this place the mountain shrine of Nachi.'
The Waterfall of Nachi
Source: Wikimedia Commons
And so they continue, labeling one of the peaks Shingū and another Hongū, and naming various other spots after subsidiary shrines in the Kumano area. Then each day the two exiles 'would carry out their "pilgrimage to Kumano", praying for a return to the capital.' The prayers work - they are pardoned and leave the island (although their companion, Shunkan, who would not take part in their religious activities, is left behind and dies there). The Kumano shrine area is now a World Heritage Site, but the location of Kikai-ga-shimam is not clear, so it's hard to know how much poetic license was taken in this re-imagining of a religious landscape. Three islands boast graves of Shunkan: two called Iōjima, in Kagoshima and Nagasaki, one called Kikai in Kagoshima. I should add that the actions of Naritsune and Yasuyori in establishing a version of the Kumano site for themselves can be seen in the context of the process of propagation called bunrei which has led to the establishment of over 3000 Kumano shrines throughout Japan.
The Tales of the Heike exists as a text in various versions; the one translated by Burton Watson is the famous Kakuichi text, set down by a biwa hōshi (lute playing minstrel-priest) called Kakuichi in 1371. It describes the defeat of the Heike (also called the Taira Clan) by the Minamoto (or Genji) during the Genpei wars of 1180-85. Many subsequent stories, plays and films have been based on it, including my favourite Kenji Mizoguchi film, Tales of the Taira Clan (1955). Although it focuses on power struggles and has some great battle scenes, The Tales of the Heike includes many quieter episodes, like the visit of the retired emperor GoShirakawa to the retreat of Kenreimon'in, daughter of the Taira ruler Kiyomori but now reduced to living in a remote Buddhist retreat. GoShirakawa looks at the little hall, the Cloister of Tranquil Light, with its garden overflowing with flowers, and composes a poem: 'Cherries on the bank have strewn the pond with petals - / wave-borne blossoms now are in their glory.'
It is not surprising that some of the warlike historical characters in The Tales of the Heike composed poetry. At this same time the king of England, Richard the Lion Heart, was writing songs and poems (the legend of his rescue by the minstrel Blondel could easily be re-imagined as an episode from the Japanese epic). One episode in The Tales relates the story of deputy commander in chief Taira Tadanori risking his life by traveling to the capital to try to convince the poet Fujiwara Shunzei, then engaged in compiling the poetry anthology Senzaishū, to include one of his poems. This was politically difficult for Shunzei, but he did publish one of Tadanori's poems anonymously. I think it captures the longing for nature's timeless beauty in this warlike period - Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite translated it in their Penguin Book of Japanese Verse thus: 'The capital at Shiga / Shiga of the rippling waves, / Lies now in ruins: / The mountain cherries / Stay as before.' Tadanori died in 1184, fighting in the Battle of Ichi-no-tani. After he had been killed one final poem was found lodged in his quiver, entitled 'On a Journey, Lodging Beneath the Blossoms'.