Japan Culture: Kyokusui no Utage 曲水の宴
Kyokusui no Utage: Elegantly Plastered in Ancient Japan
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 Kumamoto
First Saturday in May: Yotsugi-gu Shrine, Kita-ku, Kumamoto City
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.