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Japanese Castles are not really castles. They are so much more.
Elegance in the Clouds
True, like their European counterparts, they were meant to impress and they were heavily fortified, set up high usually on a hill in a strategic location or a false facade of stone. They were just wood and stone which made them incredibly vulnerable to fire during attack. The tiniest spark and they went up in flames, in fact most of the buildings of the Edo period were built of wood. Don’t underestimate these tigers. From the outside, they look silent-simmering bastions, standing testament over the brutal history of samurai clans.
After years of warring, in 1603 the Tokagawa emerged as the first shogun to rule over the carpet that was Japan. He set up his capital in a little known swamp, and a great city rose up around Edo castle, in what we know today as Tokyo.
A small city, a Castle Town, soon sprung up like mushrooms around the fortification, which would house the shogunate’s retainers, his concubines, the samurai, or hatamoto who served him, and from there outward, merchants set up trade, vendor stalls were thrown up and Edo was born.
All of this was repeated by the lords or daimyo, who served the shogun. They had their households and retainers, concubines, family and samurai armies to house and feed.The castle town was a staple in feudal Japan. Though some were grander and larger in scale than others, they all had the basic components, some of which still stand today.
The Great Gate
One enters the castle bulwark first through an impressive central gate. The gate was to impress, to announce the might and great wealth to all who entered. A guard would be here and no one would get in, if he did his job right. Or he might have been bribed. Or he might be ninja.
The main tower or Donjon, is a five or six layer wooden straight structure with a beautiful tiled roof, shaped like the corners of a pie crust, often times adorned with koi fish and decorative tiles.
While the outside maybe imposing, soaring into the sky, with lovely understated gardens, the inside is deceiving. Barely no ornamentation graced the the walls, nothing but wood and narrow passages, this made for fast escape at night or when taken by surprise. It was much easier for startled feet to scurry along without thick rugs in the way.
In fact by European standards, it looks like a skeleton. No tufted furniture, no long lost ancestors hung on the wall, no priceless treasures to get in the way of an enemy assault. And while the accommodations were quite sumptuous, in comparison to how ordinary people lived, time and speed were necessary, for a lord and his samurai lived with only what was necessary to sustain life.
And More Wood
The rooms were sparse, simple and could be easily expended or slid for privacy.
Here the daimyo would kneel in front of his minions and hold court. No one would speak until spoken to, and no one dared raise their eyes lest they wanted immediate death.
The floors were the secret weapon. Outfitted with spikes hammered through the boards underneath, an ingenious method to warn intruders at night, they were a samurai’s best defense against the stealth of enemies or the dreaded ninja.
Check this out to hear the sound its amazing.
The existence of murder holes is something similar to European castles, slits in the wall where hot oil, arrows or water could be poured down on top of assaulting enemies.
The next important place is the daimyo’s armory. Samurai armor was complex and intricate and quite frightening to behold, as it was truly beautiful. This is the armor of the Matsumae, the ruling clan in my novel, The Secret Life of Concubines. They ruled over modern-day Hokkaido. Their kamon were four black diamonds encircled, in this way they show they were descended from the mighty Takeda clan.
The castle would have a shrine and temple where the daimyo family would pray and ask for victory before battle.
And that’s it, that’s the castle!
I owe so much to the Geisha. She’s such a powerful symbol, isn’t she, for something largely dying out; she’s still iconic; still alluring; unbelievably dedicated; enigmatic and somehow very very shrewd, I imagine. She enthralls us and has become part of our own pop culture. When I saw Katy Perry channeling her inner geisha at the AMA I had to smile. I’m also a really, really big fan of KP. But getting back to the Geisha….
I was searching for a project I would have passion for, something to sustain me over the long haul of writing and editing. I discovered the hidden, erotic world of the Japanese courtesan. They existed long before the Geisha, and are even more revered in Japan than the Geisha. I was smitten. But in doing my research for Concubine, I could never have gotten there without my love of the Geisha. The rustle of silk like water down her back, inches of bare flesh at a gaping neckline and that shy smile tucked behind a tilted sensu fan.
Going back fifteen or so years, too many to count, I became an ardent admirer and fascinated by this culture of Kyoto. This ancient, artistic and somewhat mysterious order of women who hand down the secrets of the tradition, and guard them well delighted me with a desire to know more. The glamor of these artistic creatures-for Geisha means just that-”artist” seemed to make my pulse beat a bit faster when I dreamed of beautiful silks rippling down backs, heard the tinkle-tinkle of teasing hair flutters and clip-clop of dainty little steps bustling on their way to tea houses.
I was hooked.
It also occurred to me that there are things I can borrow from this culture to make my life more magical, to feel more glamorous and to pamper myself just a little bit. In that way we best honor the Geisha. One day, I had to put this to the test. I decided to walk like a courtesan of Edo, doing four steps to the one to see if I could get my husband’s attention, it worked in the grocery store. I was doing an experiment for my book. I wanted to see how difficult this was to sustain on the foot and the body, in public, and to see how actively the conscious mind must engage oneself in order to adopt an extreme method of walking. I’m sure for the women of the Yoshiwara, it was like breathing, but it was not easy and my husband did notice. You don’t have to do that kind of experiment like I did to get something out of the Geisha or live like the courtesan. You can keep it soft and subtle, maybe only you know about it, maybe that’s part of the fun until someone else notices. Like my walk in the produce aisle. We all live these days life on a fast track and it can leave us feeling black and white, that we are living in a world devoid of color and mystery.
I have a collection of rich kimono and some of the best beauty products coming out of Japan that have made my skin feel amazing. Camellia oil of course is a must for making hands and feet feel like butter.
Men do look at our feet. In Asian cultures, the foot was intensely erotic, and courtesans in Japan walked barefoot-even in winter to show they were hearty and hale, and also to showcase their erotic appendages. Sometimes they painted a pale pink wash over their toes, like my character Miyako did when she rose as top courtesan at the House of Great Muirya. Next time you give yourself a pedicure rub your feet with Camellia oil and wrap them in a pair of cozy aloe socks. The next morning, they will be like meat falling off the bone and lets see who notices after a date.
Will you be bold enough to paint a pale pink wash?
About Me: JM Ledwell is the author of CONCUBINE, a duaology set in samurai Japan. Her second book, the sequel is A DUTCH COURTESAN TAKES EDO.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geisha If you’d like to read more.
“Your time will come, if you wait for it, if you wait for it. It’s hard, believe me, I’ve tried…”
– Imagine Dragons
Have you thought about your passion lately? I believe that fiction should embrace a higher purpose, at least the fiction I write. That doesn’t mean a quick beach read doesn’t have a place, if you look hard enough you can always find theme…even in the beach read. I’m pretty passionate about the South of France, and Santorini.
Not that one, the other, the less celebrated, but more important and she never wrote a novel.
I want to know more. I didn’t know what I was going to write about this morning, I just let it come to me. I’m pretty sure Harriet’s passion was freedom. You can see the defiance set in her bull-dog face if you google her images. Picture after picture tell a story of bald defiance. And passion. And freedom.
I was thinking about what I could write about.
It didn’t take me long. Harriet Tubman is today’s Google doodle. I love the civil war era. My first, adolescent scribblings were about a Northern girl in love with a Southern soldier. As I hit the link that took me to Wikipedia’s page on Harriet Tubman, I was already sucked in. Yet as I read more about Harriet “Minty” Tubman, my feelings quickly turned to sobering empathy.
Minty lived over a hundred years ago, something like 1820. Not even she knew the precise date of her own birth. Minty was extraordinary. Gifted. Maybe because, not many slaves achieved what she did. She must have been over the-bar high in intelligence, but she had awareness. Awareness that she was living in a state that was fundamentally wrong when so many accepted their lot. They took it. Not Minty. She once said, she freed over a thousand slaves, and she could have freed a thousand more, if only they knew they were slaves. Awareness. I got the impression she didn’t suffer fools gladly. I was struck by the torture Harriet must have experienced, knowing she or her children could be sold at any moment- what that must have done to her emotionally.
Yet, she didn’t fall down in a pile. The injustice she witnessed made her strong. She helped so many with the underground railroad, at great personal risk, even after she had achieved freedom for herself. She never forgot them. She took on a system that could only crushed her like a bug. I was struck too by the human spirit’s never-ending quest for freedom. I understood why so many great minds from lamented over the human condition and tried to fix it. It all came down to freedom.
I’m not trying to get political. My point is this.
Imagine: you get up at dawn, you go to work, you don’t get paid, nothing. Maybe its picking cotton until you drop in the heat, or maybe your trapping muskrats, like Minty in the marshes, you feel lousy, you get no breaks, and when you get home, your mother or father, or your spouse are gone. Sold. Forever. When Minty was a girl, her mother threatened to split her master’s skull as he tried to enter her cabin. He was going to sell her son. Guess what, it worked. And little Minty, the woman who would become Harriet Tubman, saw a world of possibility open. She saw what a rebellion could do.
Freedom. I think as writers we need to be focused on our causes and our motivations and be passionate and determined to go into the god-awful trenches every day, like Minty, get as muddy and bloody as we can, and then, then we emerge as Harriet, with lanterns held high, till we grab our own brand of freedom. Whatever that is.