Author and Journalist

The Courtesan and the Samurai

The Courtesan and the Samurai by Lesley DownerLiving only for the moment, giving all our time to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking sake, caressing each other, just drifting, drifting; never giving a care if we have no money, never sad in our hearts, only like a gourd bobbing up and down on the river’s current; that is what we call ukiyo – the Floating World.

(Tales of the Floating World, Asai Ryoi, 1661)

1868: In the Floating World of Japan’s exotic pleasure quarters, sex is for sale and the only forbidden fruit is love.

Hana is just seventeen when her husband leaves for war, leaving her alone and very vulnerable. When enemy soldiers attack her house she flees for her life across the shattered city of Tokyo and takes refuge in the Yoshiwara, its famous pleasure quarter. There she is forced to train as a courtesan.

Yozo, a traveller, adventurer and brilliant swordsman, returns to Japan after four years in the Victorian West to discover that the world he left behind him has been destroyed. He travels north to join his rebel comrades, but is captured during their final battle. Escaping, he makes his way south to the only place where a man is beyond the reach of the law – the Yoshiwara.

There in the Nightless City where three thousand courtesans mingle with geishas and jesters, the battered fugitive meets the beautiful courtesan. But each has a secret so terrible that, once revealed, it will threaten their very lives …

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Shimabara, the courtesans' district in Kyoto

Japanese courtesan

The Yoshiwara and the world of Japanese courtesans

‘The time to see the Yoshiwara to the best advantage is just after nightfall, when the lamps are lighted,’ wrote Algernon Mitford, grandfather of the famous Mitford sisters, in 1871. The Yoshiwara was the largest pleasure quarters the world has ever seen. At its height it housed 30,000 women, together with an enormous staff of jesters, entertainers, cooks, proprietors and proprietresses. It was the heart of an alluring alternative culture known as the ‘floating world’, depicted in thousands of woodblock prints. For the customers – who were men – it was an endless party; but for the women it was work. A select few, however, the most beautiful courtesans of all, raised their prices sky high by making themselves unavailable to all but the chosen few. A man could bankrupt himself wooing them to no avail …

The real ‘last samurai’: the story of a ship, some samurai, nine French officers and the battle for Hokkaido

In 1862, the first ever young Japanese went to Europe to study. They commissioned a state of the art sail and steam ship, the Kaiyo Maru, and sailed her back to Japan. But shortly after they arrived, their master the shogun was driven from power. The leader of the young men, by now commander-in-chief of the navy, was ordered to hand over all eight ships – including the flagship, the Kaiyo Maru – to the new government.

But he refused and instead the fleet sailed north. Together with the remnants of the shogun’s army, the Shinsengumi (the shogun’s feared special forces) and nine French officers who had deserted from the French army to fight alongside them, they sailed through the ferocious northern winter for the island of Hokkaido. The plan was to make a homeland for the shogun’s supporters there, hold elections and create Japan’s first republic. But the new government was already massing its forces …

Reviews

‘Downer shows us characters we come almost to love, while others are awful or ambiguous. … I believed in this engrossing story and felt my insides quake as Hana approached her inevitable fate.’ Jonathan Mirsky, The Spectator, 26th April, 2010

‘Exotic locations, lives torn apart by adversity…and heart-stopping romance.
Lesley Downer’s sumptuous novels are the stuff of dreams for girls who just want to curl up with a good book and escape!
Her much-acclaimed debut, The Last Concubine, was a hard act to follow but this fact-based story of two young people caught up in Japan’s bitter civil war of the 1860s is another seductive thriller.
Inspired by real historical events, The Courtesan and the Samurai features two star-crossed lovers whose lives converge against an epic backdrop of savage combat, lush sensuality and dangerous secrets. …
Downer’s love and knowledge of all things oriental gives her novels a classy edge…impressively descriptive, well researched and brimming with all the colour, culture and customs of a distant world, this is historical romance at its best.’ Pam Norfolk, Lancashire Evening Post, 29th April, 2010