Kyokusui no Utage: Elegantly Plastered in Ancient Japan

Japan Culture: Kyokusui no Utage 曲水の宴

Kyokusui no Utage: Elegantly Plastered in Ancient Japan

You can't go far in Japan without encountering pubs and karaoke. Throughout history the Japanese haved love their sake as much as they love to sing.

One very elegant expression of this "wine and song" is the ancient tradition of kyokusui (or gokusui) no utage.

Kyokusui (or gokusui) no utage is an aristocratic tradition combining drinking sake with writing and reciting poetry. It takes place outdoors, beside a stream, where participants write waka poetry. Shallow lacquerware sake cups, known as sakazuki in Japanese, are filled with sake and (very carefully) floated on the stream.

Once one of the sakazuki arrives at where a participant is sitting, he or she stops writing poetry, takes the sakazuki from the water, drinks the sake and gets back to being lyrically inspired.

The composed waka poems (31 syllables) are later read at a recital meeting held indoors (for those not yet too far gone to take meaningful part).

The Kyokusui-no-utage tradition is originally from China, and took place on March 3. However, it has a long history in Japan, too, starting here in about the 5th century A.D.

Its popularity peaked in the Imperial Court of the late Nara era (8th century A.D.). There is evidence that it had also caught on as a private pastime, outside of the courtly setting. By about the 10th century, the practice seemed to have died out.

There was something of a kyokusui-no-utage revival in the early 1960s, and today it is re-enacted in several locations throughout Japan, mainly in spring, but also in autumn.

The following is a list of some spots throughout Japan where you can see the kyokusui no utage tradition reenacted.

Kyokusui no Utage in Hiraizumi, Japan.
Kyokusui no Utage re-enacted in Motsuji Temple in Hiraizumi
Kyokusui no Utage in Hiraizumi, Japan.
Kyokusui no Utage stream in Motsuji Temple in Hiraizumi

Kyokusui-no-utage in Fukuoka
First Sunday in March: Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Dazaifu, a shrine dedicated to the poet and deified man of learning, Sugawara no Michizane.

Kyokusui-no-utage in Hokkaido
Early April: Otokoyama Park in Asahikawa City, Hokkaido - Asahikawa being known for sake-brewing. Near the Otokoyama Museum of Sake Brewing.

Kyokusui-no-utage in Iwate
Last Sunday in May: Motsuji Temple in Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Kyokusui-no-utage in Kagoshima
First Sunday in April every second year: Sengan'en Garden in Kagoshima City.

Kyokusui-no-utage in Kumamoto
First Saturday in May: Yotsugi-gu Shrine, Kita-ku, Kumamoto City

Kyokusui-no-utage in Kyoto
Early April: Kamigamo Shrine
29 April & 3 November: Jonangu Shrine in Fushimi ward, Kyoto.

Senganen Gardens, Kagoshima, Kyushu, Japan.
Kyokusui Garden, Senganen Gardens, Kagoshima, Kyushu

Kyokusui-no-utage in Saitama
Early June: Yojuin Temple in Kawagoe City, Saitama.

Kyokusui-no-utage in Shizuoka
Third Sunday in October: as part of the Hamakita Manyo Festival, a cultural event reenacting Japanese culture around the time the mid-eighth-century poetry anthology, the Manyo-shu, was written. In Manyo-no-Mori Park, Hamakita.

Kyokusui-no-utage in Toyama
Third Sunday in April: Kakuganji Temple in Fuchu Furusato Shizen Koen Park, just south of the Kureha Country Club and north of Kikotoyama Hospital.

Kyokusui-no-utage in Yamaguchi
First Sunday in March: Akama Shrine in Shimonoseki, a shrine dedicated to the child Emperor Antoku, a Japanese emperor who was killed in the historically decisive Battle of Dan-no-Ura.

Read more about Japanese festivals.

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