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The Tale of the Heike

“The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things;
the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. 
The proud do not endure, 
they are like a dream on a spring night;
the mighty fall at last, 
they are as dust before the wind.”





Taira no Kiyomori


         This is the opening passage of "The Tale of the Heike" a 13th-century Japanese novel. The novel mainly tells the story of the once-glorious Taira family, from their dominance in the court to their defeat and eventual destruction by the Minamoto family. In an era lacking precise historical records, this novel spread the story of the Taira family and the Genpei War widely. Its themes of "the impermanence of all things" and "the decline of the prosperous" have become models for reflection and learning for future generations.

japan-look-Battle scenes from the Tale of Heike, early 17th century.jpg

          In the 12th century, at the end of Japan's Heian period, the status of the samurai was rising, gradually surpassing the court nobles who originally controlled the government. The Taira family repeatedly achieved military successes in suppressing pirates and, in subsequent royal conflicts, defeated another samurai family, the Minamoto, stabilizing the internal strife and installing Go-Shirakawa-Emperor on the throne. From then on, the Taira family rose rapidly in the court, obtaining high-ranking positions and vast tracts of fertile land as their fiefdoms.

japan-look-Detail of a screen painting depicting scenes from The Tales of Heik.jpg

        The head of the Taira family, Taira no Kiyomori, was both brave and resourceful, earning the emperor's trust and rising swiftly in the court, eventually becoming Kanpaku (equivalent to today's Prime Minister). His brothers and nephews also held important roles within the court, controlling the government. In 1171, through Kiyomori's arrangements, his daughter Tokuko married Emperor Takakura, becoming the empress. At a family banquet, a member of the Taira family arrogantly declared, "Anyone who is not part of the Taira family is not even human." Seven years later, Tokuko gave birth to a prince who would later ascend to the throne. The Taira family's status reached its peak.


         However, the saying "what goes up must come down" proved true. As the Taira family's power expanded, it severely threatened the imperial family. Prince Mochihito, the emperor's brother, allied with scattered Minamoto warriors and warrior monks from temples to launch a campaign against the Taira family. Taira no Kiyomori led troops to fight everywhere, but as more and more forces opposed the Taira family, he eventually could not withstand the strain, fell ill from overwork, and died.


          After Kiyomori's death, his successors lacked his abilities and suffered continuous defeats on various fronts. In battles against renowned military commanders like Kiso Yoshinaka and Minamoto no Yoshitsune, they repeatedly lost, eventually losing control of Kyoto. Tokuko, by then the mother of the emperor, fled westward with the young emperor, only eight years old. In 1185, the final battle between the Minamoto and Taira family took place—the Battle of Dan-no-ura. Attempting to leverage their naval prowess, the Taira family hoped to defeat the Minamoto forces, but their leader Minamoto no Yoshitsune was a military genius, and the Taira family had no chance. Tokuko's mother, Kiyomori's wife, ordered Tokuko to be sent away in the final moments, and she herself jumped into the sea with the young emperor. The Taira family's sons and nephews either died in battle or committed suicide, leading to the family's complete destruction. The Minamoto family then became the de facto rulers of Japan.

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         Located in central Kyoto, Rokuharamitsu-ji is a Buddhist temple dedicated to the Eleven-Faced Kannon and has a history spanning over 1,000 years. Taira no Kiyomori's father began using this temple as a military base and built the Taira family mansion nearby. During Kiyomori's era, the temple was expanded and used as a place to handle government affairs. The surrounding Taira residences grew to over 5,200 buildings. At that time, Rokuharamitsu-ji had surpassed the imperial palace in prominence, becoming synonymous with the political center. However, after the Taira family's defeat and withdrawal from Kyoto, the temple was destroyed by fire. Over the centuries, various rulers rebuilt the temple, but it never regained its former glory.

          In the late 1960s, during temple repairs, many artifacts were unearthed, bringing Rokuharamitsu-ji back into the public eye. Now, its advantageous location and numerous national treasures attract many visitors seeking historical connections.


           Located in central Kyoto, Sanjusangendo is a famous Buddhist temple registered as a World Cultural Heritage site, officially named Renkao-in. According to legend, it was built by Go-Shirakawa-Emperor to pray to Kannon for relief from chronic headaches. The temple's construction was overseen and funded by Taira no Kiyomori. Inside the temple are 1,001 statues of the Thousand-Armed, Eleven-Faced Kannon, each unique. In addition to the Kannon statues, there are numerous statues of deities from the Buddhist world, all over 800 years old and considered national treasures of Japan.

            In recent years, Sanjusangendo has gained increasing fame overseas, becoming a must-see attraction for international visitors to Kyoto.

Gioji Temple

          Located in the Arashiyama area of Kyoto, Gioji Temple is a small nunnery originally named Ojoji, with an unknown construction date. Gio was a Shirabyoshi (a type of female entertainer who performed dressed as a man), chosen by Taira no Kiyomori during a performance to become his favorite concubine. However, her fate was unfortunate, as she was soon replaced by a younger woman and lost Kiyomori's favor. Heartbroken, Gio followed her mother and sister to become a nun at Ojoji, which was then renamed Gioji.

         This temple is known for its moss and autumn leaves. Though small in size, it is very peaceful, contrasting sharply with the bustling main streets of Arashiyama. It is an ideal spot for a secret autumn foliage tour.

Jakko-in Temple

         Located in the Ohara area north of Kyoto, Jakko-in is said to have a history of over 1,500 years and was once the family temple of Prince Shotoku's father. In 1185, after the Battle of Dan-no-ura, the Taira family was defeated and destroyed. Tokuko, Taira no Kiyomori's daughter, who was then the emperor's mother, was sent back to Kyoto. To pray for her deceased relatives, Tokuko became a nun at Jakko-in. A year later, the retired Go-Shirakawa-Emperor visited Jakko-in and was moved by the sight of Tokuko, who had been an empress a year earlier but was now a nun, lamenting the impermanence of worldly affairs.

         In 2000, an arson attack completely destroyed the main hall and statues of Jakko-in, turning many national treasures into ashes, further underscoring the impermanence of life. Over the next two decades, through the efforts of craftsmen and the Kyoto government, Jakko-in has been completely rebuilt, with the statues repainted, gradually restoring its historical appearance. The temple grounds are renowned for their autumn leaves, and the serene environment has begun attracting foreign tourists for visits.