Author and Journalist


The Once and Future City – A Visit to Edo, Modern-Day Tokyo

Thursday, 21 September, 2017· Last Updated on: Tuesday, 19 September, 2017

in Blog, The Shogun's Queen Blog Tour

To her Edo was a magical place, a city of dreams where brilliant men and beautiful women lived. She gazed transfixed at the map with the perfect cone of Mount Fuji, mystical and beautiful, etched above the network of streets. Together they traced the maze of canals that wound round and round like a snail’s shell, so convoluted that no enemy would ever be able to find their way to the centre.

The Shogun’s Queen

Map of Edo

Map of Edo
By Scanned University of Texas Libraries (UT Library Online) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tokyo is one of the most thrilling cities on earth. It’s like stepping out of a time machine into the future, all gleaming skyscrapers with not a single piece of rubbish or an unwashed car on view. You walk down broad streets humming with people, gazing up at the most extraordinary glass and steel creations. It’s a temple to modern architecture. Most of the world’s great architects have designed eye-popping buildings here.

Asakusa temple at the time of the shoguns, by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858)

Asakusa temple at the time of the shoguns, by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 – 1858)
[No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But then – if you know where to look – you turn a corner and find yourself on a narrow lane with a little shrine with two stone foxes outside or a huge temple where pilgrims crowd to ring the giant bell and waft incense smoke over themselves. Everywhere you go are traces of the city before it was Tokyo, when it was the shogun (military ruler)’s capital, Edo. And most beguiling of all is that there’s still enough left that with a little imagination you can spirit yourself back there.

At the time of The Shogun’s Queen, in the mid nineteenth century, Edo was the largest city on earth. It was a beautiful place, crisscrossed with streams and canals lined with willow trees, with boats and barges shuttling up and down. The few westerners who visited described it as ‘the Venice of the East’.

Right at the city’s heart, towering over streets crammed with small wooden houses, were the massive white battlements of Edo Castle with its moat winding round and round like a snail shell and the broad river Sumida running along one side. Deep inside was the Women’s Palace, a sort of harem where three thousand women lived and only one man could enter – the shogun. And that was where the heroine of my story, Princess Atsu, lived out her days.

At first sight the canals have disappeared. Where they once ran are now traffic-filled highways. But if you ramble around on foot or by bicycle, you’ll find the occasional mossy-banked canal, lined with ramshackle old houses overgrown with ivy.

In Japan the most precious things are hidden from view. You have to search to find them.

Away from the shops and crowds there are many other wonderful discoveries, quiet neighbourhoods where you can walk through geisha districts, past closed doors from behind which comes the faint strumming of shamisens (lutes) and sounds of singing. If you know what to look for you might even see a geisha, flitting by demurely on satin sandals.

Edo Castle (Imperial Palace Tokyo) today

Edo Castle (Imperial Palace Tokyo) today

Stone marking the site of the Women's Palace

Stone marking the site of the Women’s Palace

Asakusa temple now (with me and my friend Shichiko, a male geisha)

Asakusa temple now (with me and my friend Shichiko, a male geisha)

Edo Castle in 1856, by Utagawa Hiroshig

Edo Castle in 1856, by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 – 1858)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As for Edo Castle, it long since burnt down after a bitter civil war which is the background to my novel. Where the Women’s Palace once stood is now the Imperial Palace East Gardens, an endless expanse of smooth green lawn.

I crossed the moat, went through the Great Gate, then walked down Tide-Viewing Slope, past the Moat of Swans and the formidable fortifications to the House of a Hundred Guards. The place names themselves evoke what was once there.

As I paced out the area, marvelling at the size of the place, I tried to imagine the palace that had once filled the entire vast area with its white walls, dove grey roofs and delicate wooden walkways. I could almost smell the perfumes, hear the swish of kimonos, the soft voices and laughter. In my book I’ve tried to transport my readers back to that long lost never never land of passion and beauty, almost too delicate to have ever really existed.

When I first came across Princess Atsu’s story my heart was touched by her courage, her sadness, her determination to do the right thing even though it meant giving up the man she loved. She played a major part in the great events that were transforming Japan. But because she was a woman and lived out her days hidden away in the palace, few people ever heard anything of her or her story. I wanted to use all my knowledge and love of Japan to conjure her up, bring her back to life. And that’s what The Shogun’s Queen is all about.

A version of this article was first published in the wonderful Anne Williams’ much-loved blog,

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Edo Castle – Japan’s Versailles

Friday, 15 September, 2017· Last Updated on: Friday, 15 September, 2017

in Blog, The Shogun's Queen Blog Tour

She stopped to look out at the landscaped gardens, at the vistas of lakes and ponds and curving bridges stretching into the distance, laid out to make a succession of exquisite pictures. On the far side of the gardens was the wall that separated the men’s and women’s palaces and behind it the soaring roofs of the Middle Interior. Somewhere far beyond that was the Outer Palace where the clan lords came to pay homage and the shogun held court …
The Shogun’s Queen

The bridge and Great Gate of the Women’s Palace, photographed in the 1870s

The bridge and Great Gate of the Women’s Palace, photographed in the 1870s

The bridge and Great Gate today

The bridge and Great Gate today

Edo Castle was like Louis XIV’s Versailles, a place of fabulous riches, of unimaginable beauty and luxury. Its mammoth granite battlements and gleaming roofs towered above the great city of Edo, the largest city in the world – which we now call Tokyo.

An enormous complex of buildings a mile across and four miles in circumference, it was like Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament rolled into one. It was where the shogun – the military governor – lived and, with the help of an army of government officials, ruled the country.

Inside the mammoth walls were three palaces – the Outer Palace where the shogun gave audiences; the Middle Palace where he lived with his male attendants; and the vast Inner Palace, the Women’s Palace, cut off from the other buildings by a solid wall which sliced right through the complex. In this wall there was just one door which only one man could step through – the shogun.

Inside were rank upon rank of elegant white-walled buildings with dove grey roofs, linked by walkways with delicately fretted wooden railings. All around were landscaped gardens, large and small, with tinkling waterfalls and ponds full of leaping orange and gold carp.

Shogun being served by his ladies - tableau, Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Shogun being served by his ladies – tableau, Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Three thousand women lived here, sweeping through the corridors and across the great halls in elaborate kimonos, wafting perfume. Like all adult women in Japan at that time they painted their teeth black, shaved their eyebrows and smudged in feathery charcoal ‘moth wing’ eyebrows high on their foreheads. They powdered their faces stark white, painted their lips with red safflower paste and wore their hair in great oiled, coiled, perfumed loops.

Their days were spent in endless leisure. In summer they held tea ceremonies on the stages besides the lake, went boating in red-lacquered pleasure barges or had poetry-writing competitions in one of the moon-viewing pavilions. In winter they played the incense guessing game or the shell matching game or performed plays and masques. They feasted under the cherry blossoms in spring and performed graceful dances at the height of summer.

But life was not all pleasure. There was a serious purpose to the palace.

Life in the Women’s Palace as imagined by the artist Hashimoto Chikanobu

Life in the Women’s Palace as imagined by the artist Hashimoto Chikanobu
[CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Every day at ten in the morning, two in the afternoon and eight in the evening, the highest-ranking women swished through the halls to the long corridor which led to the double door that linked the men’s and women’s palaces. Shaven-headed nuns unfastened the lock, drew aside the golden bolt and slid open the door. Men waited on the other side, but only one stepped through: the shogun.

For him the Women’s Palace was his home. In the men’s palaces he was surrounded by plot and intrigue and rival courtiers jostling for position. In the Inner Palace, among his womenfolk, he could relax.

Nun with shogun (Life in the Women’s Palace at Edo Castle)

Nun with shogun (Life in the Women’s Palace at Edo Castle)

But life was not so relaxing for the women. As they knelt waiting to greet the shogun, the words that all the younger women hoped to hear were, ‘What is her name?’ This was the code that meant they had caught the shogun’s eye and he wished to spend the night with them.

For the real purpose of the palace was to make sure that the shogun had an heir and that any child born there was his son and no one else’s.

The women all wanted their child to become the next shogun and as a result there was endless backbiting, jealousy and sometimes murder. Some babies were smothered at birth to make sure they didn’t supplant another woman’s son.

This was the gilded cage that my heroine Princess Atsu found herself in when she arrived in the Women’s Palace. I tell her poignant and tragic story in The Shoguns’ Queen.

First published in the lovely Mairead Hearne’s wonderful blog,

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Review of The Shogun’s Queen by Mairead Hearne

“The Shogun’s Queen is a monumental novel about a time in history many of us have only scant knowledge of.

It is a wonderful work of historical fiction and to be honest I am not quite sure I have sufficient adjectives to describe it’s ability to transport the reader to a period of such fascinating beauty and a time of such a tumultuous history.

Every so often you pick up a book and savor every single word. The decision is made that you have in your hand a book that cannot be rushed. The Shogun’s Queen had all these qualities and more that I love in a book. I relished the five minutes I got to read a few pages and made sure not to miss a line. […]”

Read full review online


Concubines, Geisha and Me – Living as a Woman in Japan

8 September 2017
Concubines, Geisha and Me

Atsu smelt kyara and sandalwood, musk and ambergris mingled with camphor and a dank mustiness. Glistening heads with black hair coiled into glossy loops stretched into the gloom. There were several hundred women on their knees but the room was totally silent. The Shogun’s Queen In Japan until recently men and women led very separate […]

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A True Japanese Ghost Story

4 September 2017
Lantern ghost

When Atsu started to drift off she saw looming faces and felt cobwebby fingers brushing against her skin. She felt the wind of spirits rushing by and a roar like the crashing of waves on the beach. It was the cries and moans of all the babies who’d died here. The Shogun’s Queen The Women’s […]

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Tea the Japanese way

25 August 2017
Tea the Japanese way

Princess Konoe lifted the lid of the tiny porcelain tea jar and a fresh sweet scent wafted out. ‘Uji tea,’ she said brightly. ‘The finest in the land. Have you ever tried it?’ Atsu shook her head. ‘An urn of this same tea is sent up to the Great Ruler in Edo every year. All […]

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Lesley Downer speaking on Sadayakko at the Royal Opera House

24 March 2017
Thumbnail image for Lesley Downer speaking on Sadayakko at the Royal Opera House

Click below to watch Lesley speaking on Sadayakko at the Royal Opera House on Tuesday March 14th 2017

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The Japanese Art of Scent

11 September 2016
Heian nobles, noblewomen and a carriage

Fragrance of the orange Flowering at last in June Wafts through the summer night The memory of scented sleeves Of someone long ago Scent has an amazing power to evoke and transport, to bring back a sudden memory of somewhere or someone once loved and long forgotten. The Japanese have always celebrated scent but not […]

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Black Teeth (Ohaguro)

28 July 2016
Thumbnail image for Black Teeth (Ohaguro)

‘The tayu knelt next to me, adjusting her skirts. Underneath it all she had a cheeky, elfin face with a tiny nose and pointed chin. How long had she been a tayu, I asked, then gasped when she opened her small mouth to answer. In the chalky-white face with the blood-red lips, her teeth were […]

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Sharp-eyed Hambei the Fisherman and the Invading Aliens

22 July 2016
Thumbnail image for Sharp-eyed Hambei the Fisherman and the Invading Aliens

On a hot steamy summer’s day like the last few here in England, 163 years and 14 days ago, on July 8th 1853, something happened that would entirely change the course of Japanese – and world – history. Read my short story … Sharp-eyed Hambei the Fisherman and the Invading Aliens Sharp-Eyed Hambei is the […]

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Walking in the Japanese hills

13 June 2016
At Kumano Nachi Shrine

Here is a wonderful article with great photographs about walking in the Kumano region. The Kumano Shrines are among the most revered in Japan and for many years women were not allowed in these sacred mountains. Many many years ago I spent time in nearby Shingu and took the waters in the hotspring at Kii-Katsura […]

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