Japanese Castles; Concubines; Samurai
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.
As a fierce warlord and a ruler, the shogun ran feudal Japan with fear and respect. He was not a king, for Japan had an emperor who held separate court in Kyoto, the ancient religious capital. But the emperor had little power over day to day affairs, and lived a life cut off in genteel seclusion. After years of internal warfare, a leader emerged as the first shogun in 1600. The Tokugawa would go on to rule until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
But how did the first shogun tame the warring clans into the longest internal peace that would lead to the decline of the samurai? He did it with a road.
A daimyo was a lord. He served under the shogun and swore fealty in much the same way a knight swore obedience to his king. The daimyo, a samurai warlord in his own right, would be given a vast land grant, or han, in exchange for that loyalty to the shogun. Under him would be his personal armies, members of his clan, high-ranking samurai-all at his disposal. This could be worrisome to a shogun who wanted to keep his minions in check. He instituted an ingenious, exhausting system, ensuring the lords would be too busy to concoct sedition. All daimyo were required to travel along the great Tokaido Road in a monstrous procession with everything they owned, from their wives to the last pot and pan. This compulsory trip to Edo Castle took place every other year. All lords were expected to spend the year in service to the shogun at his court-in essence they submitted to becoming hostages.
It was a kind of forced-tribute. The cost to transport an entire household including armies was horrendous. Soon, the daimyo were hemorrhaging money. It took immense planning, many didn’t want to leave their han open to enemies. They resented the shogun’s intrusion and feared consolidation by Edo around the corner. The journey was slow. The main road leading to Edo, called the Tokaido was clogged on any given day with a stream of clan flags waving in the breeze. The servants who could not afford to ride in boxy palanquins walked on foot. No time to plan a war. No time to do anything but go back and forth to Edo, in a slow processional crawl.
It worked. Japan enjoyed peace and the daimyo had other things on their mind like courtesans and pleasure.
With no wars, and no fight, the samurai soon fell upon hard times. The daimyo fortune’s dried up with so many trips to Edo. But a few held out.
Tozama clans-considered outsiders rose up one last time to give the shogun a run for his money in what would become the Boshin war.
My heart belongs to Kyoto…..
I always get a little weepy at this time of the year. The cherry blossom is as important to Japan as the kimono once was. It’s an enduring, iconic symbol, delicate, long admired for a transient reminder that the beauty of life is all too fleeting.
During the feudal age of Japan, the samurai chose the cherry blossom as the flower of contemplation. They wrote haikus and death poems devoted to flower that fell in a gossamer stream for a few short days every spring.
The Way of the Warrior is death. The samurai knew life was brief. Because the samurai code-the Bushido, The Way-preached readiness for death, when they looked at the five-sided blossoms thin as paper or held one in their hand they felt deep affinity to the beauty and the shortness of life.
The sakura, or cherry blossom is the flower of the Geisha. When the young Maiko come out to showcase their spring matsuri dance, they are always waving the cherry blossom.
Cherry blossoms are so revered that they are floated in tea or served with dinner and desert.
The best kind of snow to fall in Northern Japan’s Hokkaido is perfumed snow.
Washington DC’s Cherry blossoms came from a gift in 1912 from Japan.
Cherry blossoms come in a range of colors from pinks, to deep magentas to whites and peaches.
The cherry blossom is hardy enough to bloom in the snow covered lands of Northern Japan.
Cherry blossom viewing parties are called Hanami and everyone get’s out to enjoy the scenery.
Cherry blossoms are edible.
Geisha as Courtesans
It was the 1990’s. Memoirs of a Geisha had just come out. The debate was raging. Everyone wanted to know. Are Geisha prostitutes? Are they simply artistic creatures? I admit, I was fascinated by this question and the radio silence imposed within the Geisha community seemed to fan the flames. Mineko Iwasaki, on whom the book is loosely based was ostracized for speaking out about this topic. I have my own opinions. I don’t think sex was a job requirement, yet I question the relationships that arose between the men who supported their geisha. The truth may never be known, and isn’t that part of the mystique?
It certainly wasn’t in the beginning.
The geisha quietly rose to prominence in feudal Japan somewhere at the end of the Eighteenth century as tea house entertainers. They often worked in teams, hired out for parties, they stayed in the background dancing and singing, while the courtesan held court over her suitor. A typical evening with a courtesan could break a man, and required a near bottomless income that only daimyo and the shogun’s could afford.
The courtesan was required to sleep with her patrons, like the geisha she was highly trained in the arts. The stars of the day, with endless subjects of woodblocks that were devoured by a public hungry for more. There was a glamor around the courtesan, with her bare feet and her high geta shoes, she walked in an air of untouchable glamor, yet like the geisha they were deeply in debt. The only escape was being married to a prominent daimyo who would then buy out their contract from the brothel. The geisha hoped to find a prominent patron, or danna who would support her, and enable to pay off her debts to the okiya, the house who sponsored and trained her.
For the courtesans, the cost of maintaining their precarious lifestyle, layer after layer of priceless kimono, ensured they were stuck in the life. Times changed. As prices for the most famous courtesan rose too high for even the daimyo to afford, their reign ended, and the reliable, quiet entertainer in the background proved she could take up the slack of the courtesan, for a whole lot less. But they were never supposed to be prostitutes. And there lies the question, did she open kimono or didn’t she?
A pleasure city rises in a city that was once a swamp
“Lust will not keep…Something must be done about it.”—so said doggerel scrawled at the entrance to Yoshiwara’s great gate.
The Yoshiwara was not Japan’s only Pleasure Quarter. There were several licensed areas where men came to carouse, entertain themselves and seek out the company of women. The Shimabara district in Kyoto, and just over the bridge leading out of Nagasaki are a few, but the Yoshiwara was arguably the most famous. With quintessential lantern-lined boulevards and wafting cherry blossoms, Edoites who wanted to get away from it all, daimyos, wealthy merchants with their wives, and gate-hopping monks, would wend their way toward the crowded entrance of the pleasure quarters.
For women living on the inside, enslaved to brothels who wiled away late nights in tea houses, the gate was a solemn reminder they were never allowed to leave.
A man ready for love would stop here, check his clothes and run his hands though the jungle in his kimono wad, just outside the Yoshiwara was known as Primping Hill.
His choices were limited to the amount of coins he possessed, unless he could afford to buy his evenings on credit. If he wasn’t lordly, he couldn’t arrange a meeting with the regal, high-ranking courtesan-Tayu-later Oiran, who walked with her own court in attendance. Every man dreamed of Tayu, but few could attain such moments of sublime for themselves.
Instead, he patrolled the avenues of the lower house courtesans, who showed off their wares behind latticed walls.
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