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, beinganne.com.

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