Author and Journalist

Journalism

I write book reviews for the Literary Review and the Times Literary Supplement and the occasional travel article and articles on Japan for the Independent and the Telegraph. I was a frequent contributor to the arts and leisure page of the Wall Street Journal and the Wall Street Journal Europe, covering arts, leisure and fashion, from 1991 to 2001. I have also written for the Sunday Times, the Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, Fortune Magazine, Prospect, Harpers Bazaar and other publications.

Inside the secret world of the geisha with novelist Lesley Downer

First published in The Express on 1 December, 2016

From my balcony I’d see maiko – trainee geisha – clopping by, chattering and laughing, their white-painted faces glowing in the darkness. Sometimes I’d see them in daytime in their gorgeously coloured kimonos with long swinging sleeves, their lips painted brilliant red but it seemed impossible to meet them.

I had been fascinated by geisha ever since I first went to Japan in 1978. Until very recently men and women lived fairly separate lives. I was amazed to discover that until the mid-19th century the shogun (military ruler) had a harem of 3,000 women so secret that almost nothing was known about it. That inspired me to imagine what life there might have been like. This was the inspiration for my new novel, The Shogun’s Queen. […]

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Author Lesley Downer on the Choshu Five who settled in Chalk Farm

First published in Ham & High on 8 November, 2016

On one of my first days in Japan, I was asleep on the seventh floor of the Nagaragawa Hotel in Gifu when my bed started rocking alarmingly. It was my first earthquake, though I soon became blasé about such minor tremors.

I was there to teach English at a women’s university. I stood out so much in this nondescript city of half a million people that when someone I’d met turned up at Gifu Station and asked for “the foreign woman teaching English”, they sent him straight to my university.

It was lonely at first but as I absorbed myself in Japanese culture I began to fall in love with the place. I bore in mind the tale of the Choshu Five. They’d smuggled themselves to London when leaving Japan was punishable by death and must have suffered far greater culture shock than I ever did. […]

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Desert Island Books: Lesley Downer

First published in Historia on 8 November, 2016

If I were stranded on a desert island I’d want to have five enormously long books, all worth reading, so gripping that I’d stop worrying about whether I’d be rescued, books that would cheer me up if I felt depressed about being stranded and that I’d want to read again and again.

I’ve often thought that when I had lots of leisure time I would read Proust, but on a desert island I don’t think I’d want to read about a man lying in bed eating madeleines, so – perhaps mistakenly – I’d leave that one behind. […]

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Top 10 unexpected things I discovered in Japan

First published in Female First on 2 November, 2016

Japan is a great place to be a woman. It’s one of the safest places on earth. I was once walking down a dark alley in Tokyo well after midnight and decided to test out this theory. There was a gang of menacing-looking Japanese bikers blocking my path. Instead of crossing the road I took a deep breath and cut straight through the middle of them. To my relief and joy they paid me not the slightest attention. […]

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How Jordan is trying to reassure tourists

First published in The Independent on 4 September, 2015

“We are in the eye of the storm,” says Sami, the moustachioed owner of a tiny café perched on the edge of a precipitous canyon. “Israel, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia – they’re all around us. But here is calm.” He gestures around the spectacular ravine in front of us. We’ve spent all day zig-zagging down one side and up the other. “Is Jordan not calm and peaceful?” I have to agree. “But tourists no longer come,” he adds gloomily. “They’re afraid. Tourist industry is in trouble. We can’t make ends meet.” […]

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Cruising the waves of Japan’s culture

First published in The Japan Times on 16 May, 2015

As the great ship surges into Tokyo Bay I’m on the prow, hair streaming in the wind, like Kate Winslet in “Titanic.” Wooded crags come into view, dotted with buildings and the odd factory chimney. The buildings are modern, not wooden houses, but the crags are still much the same as Commodore Matthew Perry must have seen when he sailed with his “Black Ships” toward what was then Edo Bay in 1853.

Three hours later I’m sailing under Rainbow Bridge and glimpsing the high rises of Tokyo. As the ship sweeps in to dock at Harumi Pier, sirens blast and a brass band on the quay strikes up a melody to greet us.

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Crossing the Himalayas through memory to Ladakh

First published in The Japan Times in September 2013

I’m in a small van careering along a rough and narrow road beside a rushing river with brightly painted temples along its banks and craggy peaks towering overhead. We’re traveling in the prescribed Indian fashion — drive as fast as you can and hope for the best or, better still, pray.

One of our group jokes that the driver risks developing RSI (repetitive strain injury) from pressing his horn. Swerving around a hairpin bend directly above a ravine, we overtake at high speed, the wheels skidding along the fatal edge. Rain slicks the road and cloud hangs low in the valleys. I shut my eyes. It’s better not to look.

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Mountains of Magic in Ladakh

First published in The Independent on 3 May, 2014

Crossing the Himalayas from the Indian plains to the mountain region of Ladakh is a bone-shaking 22-hour minibus ride, through snow and blizzards, over four of the world’s highest passes. The last and highest, Taglang la, is a breathtaking 5,328m above sea level and the second-highest pass in the world that you can drive over (after Khardung la, 5,602m, in northern Ladakh). From there, I hope to see Ladakh’s other-worldly pink deserts. But when we get there there’s dense cloud and freezing winds and it’s all I can do to hop out, shivering, and take a couple of photos of the cairns, prayer flags and Buddhist stupas marking the top. […]

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Shunga: more sex please, we’re Japanese

First published in The Telegraph on 21 September, 2013

The Japanese erotic art called shunga is so explicit that the British Museum, where the pictures are on show from October 3, has imposed an age limit of 16 on viewers. Shunga means “spring pictures”, “spring” being a Japanese euphemism for sex, and these woodblock prints, created using the same techniques as in Hokusai’s Great Wave and other leading woodblock artworks, depict every possible combination of carnal couplings, featuring unfeasibly large sexual organs in impossible-looking positions. Occasionally, onlookers are involved, and there’s an encounter with an octopus. Sometimes humorous and leaving nothing to the imagination, they are a Japanese Kama Sutra. […]

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Delving into Ethiopia’s ancient past and present

First published in The Japan Times on 30 June, 2013

I’m edging my way through a long tunnel in pitch darkness, feeling for the roof so I don’t hit my head, waving my trusty flashlight around to scan the walls and sandy floor and check for any unwelcome wildlife. I feel like Indiana Jones but a lot less brave.

Then, after rounding a bend, I see a dot of light and emerge into a small cave. Through two large holes in the wall, I glimpse a splendidly carved building — one of the famous rock-hewn Lalibela churches. But when I peek through the holes, I see that they are halfway up a cliff face with no visible way down — no steps, no handholds … and it’s way too far to jump. So, behind me is the pitch-black tunnel I’ve just come out of; ahead a vertiginous drop.

Just for a moment I find myself wondering what on Earth I’m doing here. The answer is simple: I’ve been intrigued by Ethiopia ever since I heard stories about the Ark of the Covenant — a chest said to hold the biblical Ten Commandments inscribed on stone tablets — being here. […]

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A world of flowers and willows in Kyoto’s geisha districts

First published in The Japan Times on 9 June, 2013

I arrive at the inn where I am to stay in Kyoto and lug my bag up the steep stairs to my room. The inn was once a geisha house and the room is barely furnished, though it does have a tiny lacquered dressing table with a long narrow mirror. A balcony offers a view over the street, and the houses on the other side are nearly close enough to reach out and touch. The ghostly notes of a shamisen float up from nearby. Someone is practicing.

I’m in the Sawai ryōkan (traditional inn) in Miyagawa-cho, a backstreet in the maze of lanes behind the Minami-za kabuki theater, in the shadow of the Higashiyama hills. I lived in this very room for six months in 1999 when I was researching a book I wrote on geisha.

It’s thrilling to be back. I walk down the road, swept up once again in the magic of the place. It really is still old Japan — the dark wooden houses, none more than two stories high, with bamboo blinds shading the upper floors, round red lanterns outside each door and tiny lanes beetling off around dark corners. […]

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Winter Journey to Aizu

First published in The Japan Times on 17 February, 2013

My journey to Aizu Wakamatsu, the tragic city at the heart of Across a Bridge of Dreams.

It starts to snow soon after the train leaves Koriyama, and further inland at Aizu Wakamatsu the snow is knee deep. My hosts, Nobuyuki and Mikiko, are waiting at the station. I’m relieved to see they’ve brought boots for me.

Aizu has been part of my life for years. A good part of my new novel, “Across a Bridge of Dreams,” is set there. I’ve read everything I can find about it: Shiba Goro’s moving memoir, “Remembering Aizu”; “Okei,” Saotome Mitsugu’s novel based around the city’s calamitous fall; and academic papers about the domain and its warriors. I’ve studied pictures, too, and have imagined myself walking the streets of samurai houses beneath the towering white walls of Tsuruga-jo — Crane Castle — with the River Yukawa running alongside, lined with willows.

But I’ve never actually been there. […]

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National Geographic Traveller – Author Series: Lesley Downer

First published in National Geographic Traveller (UK) in Jan/Feb 2013

I arrive at the inn where I always stay in Miyagawa-cho, one of Kyoto’s five geisha districts, around midday. My hosts, Mr and Mrs Sawai, both in their nineties, are here to greet me. I take my luggage upstairs to the small room with its balcony and tatami mats and view over the street, then set out to see what’s changed.

Every time I arrive I’m enchanted all over again, by the narrow streets lined with dark wooden houses, their bamboo blinds hanging outside the upper floors and red lanterns glowing in front. It’s been a year since I was here last and new houses have sprung up. There’s a scent of fresh wood and bamboo. Business is good.

Kyoto is utterly magical, full of hidden places and chance discoveries. When I was first in Japan, more than 30 years ago, I lived not far from Kyoto and used to stay with friends here most weekends. They had a small house in the lee of the hills, close to Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple, immortalised in Yukio Mishima’s novel of the same name. We’d take bicycles and go to the fragile pavilion with its golden phoenix perched on the crest of the roof, its reflection shimmering in the waters of the lake it’s perched upon. […]

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In search of the last samurai

First published in The Japan Times on 11 November, 2012

To Kagoshima in search of a great samurai unbowed

Flying into Kagoshima from Tokyo across the volcanic landscape of Kirishima and Ebino Kogen, I feel as if I’m arriving in another country. The air is moist and warm, the light sharper, the sky bluer and the foliage intensely green, sprawling exuberantly over the rugged hills.

Less than 150 years ago, this really was another country — Satsuma, the domain of some of the fiercest warriors in the land.

I’m here in search of the last samurai, Saigo Takamori, whose statue, with swirling robe, sword and faithful little dog, stands at the entrance to Ueno Park in central Tokyo. […]

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