Welcome to Be Our Guest Fridays!
Be Our Guest Fridays is a weekly feature where I feature guest posts by my favorite bloggers and authors. I started this feature as a fun way to give back to the blogging community. I am excited to share with you these creative, inspiring and knowledgeable bloggers and authors.
Today I’m bringing you a guest post from author Susan Spann who writes the Shinobi Mysteries series. Set in the samurai era in Japan, these novels are perfect to learn about Japan’s history and culture for my Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge goals. I’m so glad Susan was able to share with us how she found inspiration for this book and an inside peek into her research trip. Thanks for being my guest today Susan!
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Finding Inspiration in Japan’s Exotic Past
By Author Susan Spann
The inspiration for the Shinobi mystery series came to me one morning in 2011. While getting ready for work, I had the thought: Most ninjas commit murders, but Hiro Hattori solves them. I knew at once that this was a book—and a series—I had to write.
I wanted to set each novel in a different part of medieval Japanese culture, because the segmented nature of Japan in the medieval period (the “samurai era”) meant that people of different classes, and even professions, lived according to strikingly different social rules and conventions.
Shifting the scenery also means sending my ninja detective, Hiro Hattori, and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo, into a variety of socially complex (and often dangerous) situations, which adds to the fun of writing—and reading—a novel.
The most recent installment, Flask of the Drunken Master, plunges Hiro and Father Mateo into the heart of Kyoto’s brewers and moneylenders’ guilds.
In medieval Japan, samurai stipends were often paid in rice and distributed through merchants, many of whom became even wealthier than the samurai nobles who sat above them on the social ladder. Over time, rice merchants also began to act as moneylenders, taking samurai treasures as collateral for loans.
Tensions between the samurai were high in the wake of the shogun’s mysterious death in June of 1565, and problems were starting to arise between the ruling warriors and the wealthy merchant class as well. The samurai wanted the merchants to “remember their place” in the social order, and violence often erupted when a merchant flaunted wealth in offensive ways.
That’s the backdrop I chose for Flask, which involves the murder of a brewer outside a sake shop belonging to Hiro’s friend Ginjiro—a shop that Hiro also uses (without Ginjiro’s knowledge) to receive secret messages from his shinobi (ninja) clan.
During my recent research trip to Japan, I spent a lot of time in the parts of Kyoto where the brewers and moneylenders set up shop in the medieval age, as well as the parts of the city the samurai called home. Many of the historical sites in Kyoto date to the medieval period, and remain in well-preserved condition, allowing visitors to experience the same Japan that Hiro and Father Mateo would have known. For example, this shop on the corner of Sanjo Road, which has been selling traditional senbei (rice cracker) sweets since the early 1700s. Even the recipes haven’t changed:
Some of the scenes in Flask take place in the entertainment district known as Pontocho, home to a variety of teahouses, sake shops, and entertainers (including both geishas and prostitutes). During my trip, I spent an evening in Gion—the best-preserved of these entertainment districts.
The roads have been paved since Hiro’s day, but otherwise this narrow street looks very much like the ones that Hiro and Father Mateo would have walked down in both Claws of the Cat (the first Shinobi mystery, which involves the untimely death of a samurai general in a teahouse) and Flask of the Drunken Master:
Even now, the geisha houses have wooden nameplates outside the entrance advertising the names of the geishas who live there:
Many Western people are confused about the “geisha.” In Japan, geishas are highly skilled entertainers, most of whom specialize in singing, dancing, or playing a musical instrument (they learn all three). Most begin their training at the age of three or four years old, and make their first formal appearances as maiko (essentially, apprentices) at the age of 15 or 16.
Our evening in Gion included a performance by a maiko, who demonstrated traditional forms of dancing that Kyoto’s geisha apprentices have learned for almost a thousand years:
Traditionally, geishas danced, sang, and served private meals in teahouses, for the enjoyment of all-male groups who paid for the privilege of the geisha’s company. Unlike prostitutes, the geisha’s duties ended at singing, dancing, and conversation—the entertainer’s role made her an object of desire…but not its fulfillment.
Geisha, merchants, and samurai lived very different lives, despite the fact that all of them shared the same few miles of narrow earthen streets. The beauty—and danger—of medieval Kyoto remains apparent in the well-preserved historical districts scattered around the city. I loved taking walks in the streets where samurai and geishas walked, almost as much as I enjoy channeling that inspiration into my Shinobi mystery series.
I hope you’ll join me in the pages and enjoy an adventure in samurai Japan!
[Text and Photographs © 2015 Susan Spann]
About Susan Spann
Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her third Shinobi novel, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER* (affiliate link), released on July 14, 2015, and she was recently named Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2015 Writer of the Year. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at http://www.SusanSpann.com, on Twitter (@SusanSpann), and on Facebook (SusanSpannAuthor), where she regularly blogs about Japan, publishing law, and seahorses.
What a fascinating culture and trip Susan had! I have really enjoyed being immersed in the Japanese samurai culture and history while reading Flask of the Drunken Master (my review is coming next month). It’s a unique story and setting and if you like traveling the world in books like I do, this is a book you are sure to enjoy! Thanks Susan for sharing your amazing trip and pictures with us at Mom’s Small Victories!
Be sure to stop by the other stops on the TLC Book Tour for reviews on Flask of the Drunken Master and her other Shinobi Mysteries books:
Have you read books set in Japan? Which are your favorites? Leave a comment for Susan and keep the conversation going about this exotic country.