Book Review – The Shogun’s Queen by Lesley Downer

Japan has always intrigued me. Their outlook on life seems different to ours and their artworks aren’t heavy painting but beautiful scrolls and screens. It is a country that until the 1850s managed to develop their civilisation without any Western influence. Its society was strong on hierarchy and protocol, with different religious beliefs and diet. They even looked different; fine-boned, slimmer, shorter (an average Samaria warrior around 5ft 4in). The clothing of its peasants loose and course whilst their nobles wore lavish silks beautifully embroidered with cranes or flowers.
In this historic novel we are inside a young Japanese girl viewing the arrival of men from the West and the impact their coming has on Japan Society. We also learn how a young lowly born girl can legitimately rise through society, by a process of adoption, to be an acceptable bride (consort) to the highest Shogun in the land (not Emperor who was outside the political governing of the country). Viewing from her perspective Westerns become the aliens, powerful bullies threatening their country’s stability.
The story Lesley weaves is based on fact but, although the women she writes about were powerful, they existed outside the recorded accounts of history. Lesley has researched the period and adapted the story of Atsu ‘for our entertainment’ (as they now announce on television drama supporting to depict real life events).
The novel is an intriguing look at Japanese history from the inside and an enjoyable read.
I visited Japan earlier this year and walked through Nijo Castle which inspired Lesley. It is impressive in a different way to castles at home. We did take our shoes off to walk on the tatami flooring.

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Kyoto – The Golden Pavilion and Nijo Castle

The Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) is probably one of the most photographed buildings in Kyoto. It was officially named Rokuon-ji, the Deer Garden Temple and is part of the estate, built around 1397, by the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, for his retirement. After his death, it was converted into a Zen Temple. The original buildings were burnt to the ground during the Onin War (1467-1477) but were rebuilt. In 1950 a young, disturbed monk set fire to The Golden Pavilion destroying it and the original statue of Ashikaga, the pavilion was rebuilt in 1955. It’s top two story rooves are actually gold-leaf. This is to purify the thoughts of the monks inside from dwelling on death. Symbolically the roof is topped with a golden phoenix.

 

 

Tourists and parties of school children are directed along its pathways, being Japan this is conducted in a quiet, orderly manner. The only bit of hassle was the hogging of the best position by groups being photographed with the Golden Pavilion in the background.  Whilst going along the pathway I stopped to video the carps circling their feeding spot, by the time I moved on others were stopping to take photos in the same spot. Unfortunately, you can’t enter the building itself and view the large Buddha statue on its second floor. Given the number of visitors, it would be a safety hazard and would lead to serious wear’n’tear problems of this UNESCO site. The gardens were lovely though.

On our way to The Golden Pavilion, we passed Nijo Castle and it looked impressive; high walls and a moat. On the way back, we hopped off our crowded bus. As the bus had filled up the driver had seemed reluctant to leave anyone behind urging passengers to ‘move up’. As I brought tickets for the castle primary school children, chaperoned by a teacher, politely approached my husband to practise their English by conducting a short survey. Afterwards, they presented him with a tiny origami crane with their thanks for his time.

The castle was originally built in the early seventeenth century as the Kyoto residence for Tokugawa shoguns. Inside the palace gates, you pass through are adorned with beautiful birds, animals and mystical creatures in their rafters. At the palace, you remove your shoes and place them on shelves. Japanese crime rate is very low, besides the area is manned and you have to retrieve your shoes at the end of the tour.

Photography is not allowed inside the rooms. As the screens lining the rooms are reproductions of the originals I doubt if fear of damage is the reason, more that photography would slow visitors progress, it is a popular site.

As we approached the rooms where the shogun would meet his visitors and hold counsel we walked along the nightingale floor, specially designed to create the sound of the bird’s song. As charming as this sounds its purpose was one of security, anyone with malicious intent walking along those corridors would be heard.

One room’s screen depicted leopards and tigers, neither animal lives in Japan and were only known to Japanese artists by the pelts brought here by traders. It was also believed that every third tiger cub was a leopard and in paintings, two tiger cubs are usually followed by a leopard cub. Probable reasons may be a ratio of pelt skins or the fact that leopards are smaller than tigers.

In a separate building, the original screens can be seen. Not all are on view but a selection of screens are rotated throughout the year.

The gardens are also beautiful here and we entered a tea house for a beverage. It was busy and we couldn’t sit inside (on the floor) but were allowed to use the exterior bench that surrounded the property. I ordered the Japanese tea, it contained three pretty sweets which were similar to marzipan but not as sweet. Believing the others would have similar at the Tea ceremony we were due to attend I didn’t share. Unfortunately, I never came across any as nice as these again.

 

Kyoto – (Former) Capital of Japan

One question many people have asked us is; what’s the bullet train like?

After leaving Hakone we took the local train down to Odawara. As trains run on rails normally stations are on one level (two if there is an underground), hence when looking for our train to Kyoto we were surprised to be told it was upstairs. I haven’t completely understood the logistics of why, except Japanese railways are run by different companies.

Entering the train its seats are arranged like an airplane; all front-facing with four seats on left of aisle and two on right. Seats are larger with more legroom than UK trains. Just like driving a comfortable high-performance car (BMW series 4 coupe for example!) you aren’t aware of the speed which I have been informed average 170mph (although it can reach nearly 200mph). A bit faster than my BMW.

Taking the taxi to our hotel we noticed a big difference from Tokyo. Overhead cables carrying we assume electricity criss-crossed the streets. There were also a lot of older buildings. Researching beforehand I came across the reason that Kyoto wasn’t bombed during WWII like other Japanese cities. The US Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson had honeymooned here before the world and had it removed from the list, it was replaced with Nagasaki.

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Although we were pleased to see a metro station opposite our hotel we soon discovered that getting around the city by metro was difficult. The lines are owned by different companies and only go short distances, rarely linking to other lines. It was far easier to use the buses. We obtained a brilliant map with key-sites and attractions shown, with bus numbers alongside, and brought 3-day passes.

On our first evening, we walked through Gion to visit the Chionin Temple and its gardens. Gion on the opposite side of the river, it was originally the ‘pleasure area of the city. It is here you’ll see maikoes (trainee geishas) and geishas walking about. A Geisha was traditionally a trained entertainer who learnt the arts of; the tea ceremony, dancing, playing a musical instrument, singing and entertaining men, in a non-prostitute way. In the past geishas would have been courted by wealthy men and would have taken lovers. Today they perform the tea ceremony for tourists and attend the parties of wealthy clients.

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Gion’s pavements were more chaotic than Tokyo and contained more tourists. The area still houses the theatres, it’s main one was under renovation when we visited. Walking up the steps into the temple grounds I was surprised to find food vendors, as we were there late some were packing up. There was a small shrine with a statue of a child and a rabbit, it was popular with women wishing to conceive.

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Nearby was a shrine with a large bell that had to be tolled by a rope. Unfortunately I shot a video of Kieran pulling the rope which I can’t display here. This is the stage where musicians perform.

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Temple Gardens.

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Near the river is a statue of Okuni, she is attributed as being the originator of the kabuki theatre. Born in 1572 when dancers were men. As a teenager, she began performing on the dry riverbeds, singing, dancing and acting. She died in 1613. I didn’t see many statues in Japan and it’s interesting a woman is one of the few I came across.

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We selected a restaurant by the river, but all outside tables were taken. We had to rely on plastic food to select our meal but whatever we ordered was delicious.

Hakone Traditional Japanese experience

Leaving the hotel for the metro we hit rush-hour. At the end of our road there were office blocks. Suddenly, a horde of workers appeared from the metro station. Men and women dressed in similar navy suits with white shirts. They were very orderly, and quiet, as they waited for the lights and crossed, allowing us to easily cross in the other direction. Downstairs, we encountered more commuters, dressed in the same manner, purposely and decorously marching through the station without making contact with others. It was a surreal experience. Totally unchoreographed but somehow unified.

The train journey from Tokyo to Hakone meant a change of train. Standing on the platform we tried to make sense of the sign. There were several staff station around, but they were either getting a train ready to leave or dealing with other passengers. It wasn’t until the train on our left moved we saw the other train lines at the back of the terminus with our train already there. An enquiry to other passengers confirmed we were on the correct train.

The journey gave us a chance to see the countryside and some small towns. We were going uphill so no rice fields but cars, houses and factories. We also had a group of elderly, spritely ladies join us in the carriage. It’s was hard to gauge their age, but I would say 70s. All quite slim, apparently very healthy and smartly dressed.

In Hakone we ate at the self-service railway café. A mix of sandwiches, croissants, salads and microwavable fast food was available. Refreshed we looked for the bus stop to get to our hotel.  There were three bus routes, ours was the only one with an hour’s lunch break! We got a taxi. The town was small but there were lots of eateries.

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Our hotel was just out of town. If you’ve ever seen the film ‘Seven Samurai’ you would probably recognise its sixteenth-century style. We walked in and lots of slippers had been placed by the step into the room. There were lockers for our outdoor shoes. After signing in we went upstairs (no lifts) to our ‘room’. It consisted of a little hallway with a cupboard for bedding, then the main room with a low table and chairs without legs. A paper-screen wall separated it from another room with windows and a normal small table and normal chairs. A door led to the wash basin, another door into a modern Japanese loo (phew!) and opposite a door onto a balcony where the stone bath was filled with hot spring water. In a cupboard in the main room were kimonos and short jackets (winter wear) along with toiletries.

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I’d read about a walk to temples and asked at reception. They were very friendly and helpful, but after showing me directions on a pre-drawn A4 map he went to put it away. I asked if I could have a copy and he said yes of course and gave it to me. We walked down the road and up into the hill. We passed a few shrines and vending machines. It seemed odd, even if useful, to come across these machines by the pathway. We passed a small railway station. We came across a largish shrine and statues. We also came across the biggest ants I’ve ever seen that close! Signs told us we were in a nature reserve and these ants were a protected species, Kieran was impressed. After an hour I was defeated, I wasn’t going to be able to continue to the temples due to breathing problems; the warm humid air just didn’t suit me. I said they could go on but they were happy to come back with me.

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IMG_3158Walking back, I was intrigued by the decorated street metal covers.

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At our hotel, I rested my limbs in the hot spa bath on our balcony. It was big enough for two. There was a sheet which explained the Japanese bathing ritual where you sit on a small stool and wash yourself before entering the water. In a communal situation, it would be deemed very rude not to follow this protocol.

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The authentic Japanese meal was part of the booking. The dining room was on the second floor. Some guests wore their kimonos to the meal and one couple wore the short jackets.  Our servers were wearing authentic Japanese outfits. There were no options for the meal. Plate after plate seemed to be delivered to our table and a hot burner to make the ‘soup’. The food was beautifully presented and delicious. As I was not drinking we ordered some sake. It was requested not to bring mobile phones to dinner, so I don’t have any photos of this meal, just the memory of a wonderful evening.

 

We placed our futons on the floor with a duvet on top. Luckily, we were given western pillows and not a block of wood. Even so sleeping wasn’t easy and the roar of the water outside awoke me. At fiveish I gave up. I sat next door and read my kindle as the light brightened outside and my husband snored serenely inside.

Breakfast was served in the dining room again an authentic Japanese meal with no options. Drinks were self-service with orange juice and various teas and coffees being available. I recall eating an usual traditional fish dish, eggs, rice and tofu which was styled more like a crème caramel texture, although my husband wasn’t keen. It was a very filling meal to start the day with.

 

Tokyo Experience

I am not a regular eater and can sometimes go most of the day without eating. However, my husband becomes grumpy and irritable if not fed regularly.

We headed for Akihabara, aka Electric Town due to the numerous large electronic outlets centred here. Prior to entering Yodabasha’s nine floors of electronic gadgets from washing machines to computer games, we looked around the eateries. It was busy and the anime restaurant I tried was full. Weirdly we found a French boulangerie with baguettes and coffee. Meanwhile, Kieran found a café with a colonial American interior and steak and chips on the menu.

The store had a supermarket approach to selling as it was Saturday it was busy. On the top floor were the eateries we needed on arrival. Plastic displays showed the available menu. Before leaving the boys posed at a Spiderman display!

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IMG_3102I’d booked to attend a ‘Robot Show’ before leaving the UK. Finding the venue we asked several people for directions. They were very willing to help us but their English was limited. Shinjuku is a bit like Soho in London. On encountering the large-busted robot outside the entrance I wondered what I had booked! We were early so we went for a drink in a tiny, shady-looking bar where we were made very welcome.

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You have to arrive an hour before the performance. The waiting area’s décor was slightly tacky Las Vegas meets Versailles, a white piano was being played and expensive cocktails were available.  Seating for the show was 4-tiered row around the edge of a black, basketball-sized arena. I sat next to a French girl in her thirties who was holidaying alone, the show had been recommended to her by her friends. For people who watched Digimon and Pokémon as children, this was their Disneyland. Large ‘robots’ ridden by, mainly, women battled with samurai-type warriors, mixing modern perceptions of Japan with traditional arts. Various set-pieces were punctuated with opportunities to buy food and merchandise. We were very close to the performers and at one stage a chain net dropped to protect us from swords. Performances were very good and effects were impressive.  The experience was more akin to viewing a circus performance than a theatrical one.

Afterwards, we went for a meal in an authentic restaurant where ‘dry cleaning’ hung around as. No plastic food here and we ordered as best we could. The ‘dry cleaning’ was actually customers’ jackets which had been bagged to prevent them from absorbing the cooking smells. We had burners to cook the meat and vegetables they gave us, along with noodles. I have no idea what we ate but it was delicious.

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Next morning our luggage had arrived overnight. At last a change of clothes!

Rain was forecast but it was a lovely morning. We visited the Emperor’s palace, only its gardens are open to the public, although there are outbuildings with displays in them. Inside the grounds were also the massive castle walls and buildings for soldiers. The garden lacked the floral displays we are used to here. Its water feature had irises surrounding it and was lovely. An area of a variety of native trees had been recently planted. In the main area was a massive area of grass which families played on. Using a toilet block I discovered on one side the traditional ‘hole in ground’ style and on other the modern Japanese toilets.

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We left out of the back entry and ended up walking past the Japanese Museum for Modern Art. There was an exhibition of work by Yokoyama Taiken, although I’d not heard of him we decided to view. Japanese art is usually produced on scrolls or screens. On the practical side, Japanese houses’ walls wouldn’t permit the hanging of canvases we are used to seeing. The artists also work in inks rather than oil paint. During his life Taiken visited India and Europe the influence of Indian, in particular, can be seen in his room.

As we came out the heavens opened. There was a van in the grounds selling Benito boxes and some rolls. Chris brought a selection of rolls and one of their last remaining boxes. We sat under the eaves of the building eating. But the rain wasn’t stopping. We brought umbrellas at the gift shop.

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The Samurai Museum was an indoor experience, unfortunately, we arrived after the last performance, but we enjoyed the tour. Our guide checked, and his audience consisted of English speakers although our origins varied. Samurai means to be of service, whether to the local leader or to Japan. Due to their diet, they were short (5ft 2ish), hence their helmets have wooden attachments to make them appear taller. Their armour is very light and mainly made of twisted cotton, they were primary swordsmen and needed to be agile. We were taken through Japanese history up to the last Shogun, who resided in Kyoto, handing power over to the Emperor in the nineteenth as great contact with Europeans mean Japan had to adapt to a new business world.

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The rain had stopped when we came out and returned to the station. Tube stations contain a lot of retail outlets. Emerging from one you need to be aware of which gate you want as you can be quite a way from where you think you are. We were to discover this later on returning to hotel!

My final photo for today was taken in the underground walkway to a tube where we enjoyed an English snack; tea and cake.

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Japan Arrival

Japan was my dream destination. Last year I saw an offer and I booked to go. We booked for three locations over 10 days. In hindsight, I should have looked around for a 14 days offer, but I thought this offer was good value. I also thought cherry blossom would still be around in May, unfortunately, this year it was all gone before the end April.

I would have liked both my sons to have come with us. Declan was touring Europe and didn’t want to accept a loan. The downside of this was Kieran had to pay for single room supplements, but the thrill of going to Japan elevated any monetary concerns.

I selected Emirates airlines. As having flown to Hong Kong in 80s the reference to Dubai didn’t worry me till I went to book seats. I discovered we had not two flights but four; as we were changing planes at Dubai. This made the upgrade I planned twice the price, I decided not to bother. I was able to order meals for me (fruit) and Kieran (gluten-free).

Flight from Heathrow to Dubai was five hours with no problems. At Dubai, we had half-an-hour to change planes. The single one-storey I recalled has been replaced with a cathedral to aviation!  We walked through it anxiously trying to find our connection. We had to pass through security, although we’d hadn’t left the airport. We stood in front of a huge board which changed information in a blink of an eye still trying to find our gate. At last, we spotted it. We made it to the empty gate as they were announcing it was closing, then had to take a lift to plane level. Luckily, we boarded! Half-way through the flight, we were told unfortunately our luggage hadn’t.

Flight to Tokyo was seventeen hours. I did try to get some to sleep. We arrived at midnight and were immediately met by a young, smiling Japanese girl who again apologized for our luggage mishap. She sat with us to fill in the necessary forms and aided us through passport control. Our transport was ‘shared’ so we didn’t fill in extra forms. A chauffeur met us, his English was limited but he was very polite and friendly. We were his only passengers in the large car and we sped along the motorway into Tokyo enjoying our first views of Japan.

At the hotel, the airline had already informed staff our luggage was delayed. The smiling receptionists, who spoke reasonable English, produced a basket of wrapped toilettes for us to select from. The room was compact. One side of the bed was against the wall. There were kimonos and slippers on the bed. The bathroom had a deep-sided bath which was about three-quarters of the length of a normal bath. There was also a Japanese toilet, a cleansing experience which really leaves you feeling clean and makes all other loos antiqued.

Breakfast was self-service in the reception area. It consisted of a mixture of European and Japanese food items. Juice, tea, coffee, soup, cereals, fruits, croissants, scrambled eggs, rice, tofu and other items I wasn’t sure about first thing in the morning.

The travel company had supplied a mobile wi-fi device, but Kieran’s i-pad was in his suit-case so we had to rely on guides I brought. The hotel was near the metro and we brought a book of tickets and I got my first stamp. I had brought a book for these. Stamps are available in various tourist attractions and some stores. Weather was a lovely spring day and we decided to go to Tokyo Tower.

Everywhere in Japan is very clean and the subway train was the cleanest I’ve ever sat in. It was also wider than ours. And quiet! Most people were staring at their phone screens. Stations were announced in English and Japanese and the overhead map was also labelled in both languages. Leaving the train is very orderly. There is no pushing or shouting.  People do wear face masks. There is a smog problem although traffic didn’t appear heavy. Walking to tower I had to use inhaler. We walked through a small park where we stopped for a moment. A woman was exercising her dog, a fluffy Pomeranian which we duly admired, and Chris petted. She was really pleased we liked her dog.

IMG_3091              Tokyo Tower is a smaller replica of Paris’ Eiffel Tower built for communications purposes. Whilst waiting for the lift the mascot came along to greet visitors and adults, as well as children, had photos with it.  For our visit, we were supplied with audio guides. On exiting the lift we were taken to an office on the wall where two portraits of the men who built the tower. After an introduction from our guide, these portraits came to life and spoke to each other. Their dialogue emphasised the tower’s benefit to the future economy of Japan, I was a bit surprised that it’s similarity to the design of the Eiffel Tower wasn’t mentioned. But that may have detracted from the modernity being emphasised by the surreal speakers.

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Tokyo’s views are appreciated in a mirrored room where the enthusiastically positive commentary links Japan with every major city of the world. We couldn’t see Mount Fuji as the view was restricted either by clouds or smog. We could see towards the airport and sea. Various corporations’ buildings were pointed out by photos and commentary.  An area of small shrines intrigued us, it was confirmed as a cemetery. The upper open-air platform was closed on our visit. Going down we were greeted at the life by a robot which reminded me of Tweekie from Buck Rogers in the 21st century.  The room below had an area of glass flooring which you could stand on although looking down was optional!

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Down in the café and shop area was a shrine which is popular with students taking exams ‘aiming for high marks’. A card instructed you to bow twice, then ring clap, then bow three times. Little boards were hung on a frame with believers’ requests written on.

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Film Review for Hostile

Please note, this review is for the independent, French film (dialogue is in English) Hostile starring Brittany Ashworth and Gregory Fittoussi.

I admit that this film’s horror/sci-fi genre is not one that interests me these days and the only reason I watched this movie was because Gregory Fittoussi was in it. (He won an award for this role). Living in the UK this did not come to local cinemas so I had to wait till released in streaming media. Genre has more appeal to my husband so we watched together.

Juliette is trying to find food for a group of survivals in post-apocalyptic American. The landscape she is driving through is arid and deserted. Due to the presence of mutant humanoids, she has to return to base before dusk. A photo of her with a man is stuck to the visor in her vehicle. The film oscillates between Juliette’s present dilemma of returning to base and her pre-apocalyptic, past relationship with Jack, a rich French art gallery owner living in New York. They meet in his gallery which is holding an exhibition of Francis Bacon’s work.

Normally watching films at home I’m doing something else but watching this I became involved with Juliette’s dilemma; jumping at surprise attacks and shouting ‘get that gun’ at the screen. I was also drawn into her relationship with Jack, who looked passed Juliette’s ugliness to see the beauty within her. Without spoiling it, I just want to say the ending haunted me long after the credits had rolled. My husband also enjoyed this movie terming it ‘different’ which in his case means ‘not formulaic.’

I know it was justly nominated for several awards and it seems a pity that it never received the cinema release it deserved. Hopefully, now it is available through various streaming media it will find the audience it deserves.