Japanese winter. Pagoda tiles dripping with ice. Sleeping cherry blossoms encapsulated under snowy blankets busting to flower. There’s nothing like the contrast. On the island of Hokkaido, in Northern Japan, there sits a beautiful little castle on the Matsumae peninsula. It’s quiet, a sentinel in a stark landscape where the wind blows across the stormy Tsuguru much of the year. This castle is nothing special compared to the grand dames Edo and Himeji. It might even disappoint.
Don’t be fooled. This castle began in a place a castle had no right to be. It’s the only one of it’s kind in Northern Japan and once functioned as the single way station into Edo from the North. The jo began life as Fukuyama castle in 1606 built by Matsumae Yoshihiro. The Matsumae as a clan were tough and pragmatic. They had to be. An offshoot of the mighty Takeda, they were given exclusive rule over the northern island across the Tsuguru Straits.
In exchange, they controlled and subjugated the native Ainu and kept Honshu safe as a bumper. This was unique. Not only did the Matsumae get a rare, free hand, they were not required as most daimyo to make the galling tribute every other year to Edo castle. This allowed the clan to grow wealthy and develop autonomy when most of the other clans were being absorbed.
The life was hard. No rice grew in a landscape that was white most of the year, so the Matsumae adapted. They traded with the Ainu and amassed a vast koku of herring and furs. They were isolated and had little interference from the shogun-until the Russians came down and changed everything. What they found was a clan unlike anything else in Japan. Fukuyama stood less than 100 feet in it’s heyday, with three turrets, and took the name of the clan who couldn’t be frozen out, burned out or defeated easily; Matsumae.
I was so taken with this setting, a castle in perpetual winter and the black diamond clan that I set the action at Matsumae castle in my novel, The Secret Life of Concubines.