Time Travel

Posted on Monday, May 07, 2018, under , , , ,

Many of us have dreamed of being transported in time to a world entirely at odds with the one we live in. Suppose a time machine were invented and is now at hand. A question then: if you had a choice, which era / place would you want to end up in? Me, I always head a weak spot for the ancient Athens: it would be lovely to wash vegetables together with Diogenes or play poker with Socrates.

Well, last Sunday April 29th, at Jōnangū shrine in south Kyoto I did experience time-travel of sorts. Twice a year – in spring and autumn – the shrine hosts a re-enactment of an ancient poem-composing ritual, called Kyokusui no Utage曲水の宴 (Wandering Stream Banquet). It is a ceremony going back to the late Nara period (8th C.). The practice slowly died out as the samurai gained political power, until a revival in the mid 20th century.  

© DiscoverKyoto
Seven waka masters (5 men, 2 ladies) dressed in rich silk robes gracefully proceed onto a moss-carpeted garden and, after receiving the season's theme from the shrine priests, seat themselves along a garden stream, and write their poems on strips of paper to the tune of a koto melody wafting through the air. As the small cups of sake are sent sailing down the stream on bird-shaped boats, the poets occasionally lift the cup and take a sip. Once the waka have been composed, the strips of paper are collected and what follows is the highlight: the poems are finally read, or rather chanted out by a mini-choir of Shinto priests: a powerful, expressive harmony of complementary voices.

‘This was life!’ I said to myself, gradually drawn into this world of elegance, ritual and beauty. In fact I don’t recall ever being so at one with the environs so peculiar. I would like to reconsider my first choice for the time-travel.

Click below to watch videos.

Gagaku music with Shirabyoshi dance

Composing cum sake drinking

Priests intoning one of the 7 poems

Finale: Poets tottering back to their seats (that sake must've been rich!)

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