Matsue Castle: Still original, now a treasure

Katherine M. Lawrence:

The magic of the seasons translates into the magic of the castle in all the times of the year. Truly a treasure.

Originally posted on San'in Monogatari:

On May 15, 2015, Matsue Castle was deemed a National Treasure!

It was already Important Cultural Property and one of the twelve remaining original castles of Japan, noted especially for the atmosphere within from its wooden floors, pillars, and stairs, steep and uneven with the same character they had when the castle was completed back in 1611. It is now the fifth castle around Japan to enjoy this status, one that a dedicated citizens’ group had long been working to achieve. Matsue Castle has a history of relying on its citizens, as it was only due to the citizens’ insistence and fundraising to purchase it from the government that it was saved from being burned down during the Meiji Period, when many castles were deemed unnecessary by the Westernizing government and subsequently torn down (only to be rebuilt in concrete years later). The black castle, affectionately nicknamed Chidori-jo (Plover Castle)…

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Will a Long Sword Best a Shorter Sword? The “Nodachi” double-length sword.

Cover of Seven Samurai DVD

Toshiro Mifune carries a “Nodachi” long sword slung over his shoulder in the Japanese film “Seven Samurai.”

In Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai, Toshiro Mifune plays the character Kikuchiyo, the seventh (and odd-ball member) of the seven samurai. For those not familiar with the film, the concept is that seven unemployed samurai (sometimes called ronin, literally “man of the wave”) are hired by a group of hapless farmers to protect the farmers’ village against a relentless band of marauders. Mifune’s character is shown hefting a sword so long that it has to be carried over the shoulder like a lance. See graphic, to the right. In more recent times, Japanese swords have classifications according to length, and the longest of samurai swords are called “nodachi.” Many would rightly say that the sword pictured qualifies as a nodachi.

There is a reasonable belief that a long sword is hard, if not impossible, to defeat owing to its reach. But sword lengths are relative. In the film Twilight Samurai and also in Seppuku (also known as “Hara-kiri”), much is made of a sword being too long to be used inside a dwelling–hence the personal sword, a shorter blade often called a wakizashi works better. In close confines a regular tachi or katana type sword risks colliding with a ceiling or walls. A shorter sword is the better bet in a fight. I qualify my words about the names of sword lengths because these conventions are more recent. When the real-life Yamabuki lived–in the 12th century right after the era of the Tale of Genji and during the Genpei Wars–the names for Japanese sword types based on sword lengths, was much less standardized. In Cold Blood Yamabuki faces a sword master (a teacher of samurai) named Sa-me Shima, who boasts his name means “Shark Island” and who carries a sword at least as long as that carried by the Toshiro Mifune character in “Seven Samurai.”

In the case of Yamabuki, the grizzled sword master, Shima, counts on his physical size, strength, and his sword’s length to defeat Yamabuki.

Shima is a massive man. He has to be to wield a nodachi.

“Duel at Ganryu Isalnd” where Miyamoto Musashi fights Kojiro Sasaki, who wields a longer blade.

Contemporary literature says that nodachi were “field swords” and were so heavy that it took two men, grabbing the hilt together, to effectively swing a double-length blade. It was used against mounted samurai–the idea being the long sword with its generous reach could bring down a horse and rider. What has excited the imagination is there are legends of those who were strong enough and talented enough to master one-man-nodachi-style. We see a hint of this in Samurai Trilogy where Miyamoto Musashi, again played by Toshiro Mifune, squares off against Kojiro Sasaki.

Does the man with the longer blade always win?

Does the man with the longer blade always win?

Sasaki carries an extra long blade he has nicknamed, “clothes hanger.” He has also perfected the “swallow turn” maneuver which is almost impossible to defend against when combined with the long blade. Again, sword length plays into the mythos.

And yet in a parallel from Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is able to defeat the Death Star, the ultimate power in the universe say the generals. The Imperial forces, however, are not ready for her own version of a close-in attack, which Yamabuki has learned from her fencing master, Lord Nakagawa. But this requires a great deal of courage and timing.

But it is not the final blow she delivers that brings the first installment of the Sword of the Taka Samurai series to its denouement, but in what I hope is a faithful ending, what must it have been like for her to kill. How she reacts after the duel is over.

Agility and tenacity count just as much as blade length along with a lot of luck, especially when you know you only have one chance to make your move, or die.

Seventh Book, COLD RAIN, 冷雨, Added to the Yamabuki Series


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I am bringing out a new Yamabuki book in the next few weeks called Cold Rain, or Reiu 冷雨in Japanese, but you don’t have read or understand Japanese to enjoy this book. This book was created when the original Book 2 Cold Heart became too large to comfortably fit into the series, so the 6 book series is now 7. Cold Heart will still appear and pretty much on the heels of Cold Rain.

Cold Rain brings other major characters of Yamabuki’s life onto the stage as she heads toward Heain-kyo. These actors include Yamabuki’s parents, daimyo Taka and Lady Taka, herself an accomplished swordswoman; Yamabuki’s beloved handmaids Tomo-ko and Hana-ye; Yamabuki’s teacher of languages, science of the day, and martial arts, Lord Nakagawa; and Yamabuki’s “Javert,” the fallen priest turned assassin, Saburo, who has sworn to kill Yamabuki now that he learns that she has killed his mentor and master.

The boat began to broach. Saburo’s curdled stomach turned. Icy salt spray flew over the side of hull, drenching him, though he shivered more from nausea than from cold.

Tetsu battled the storm for control of his boat from the sternpost tiller. He cried orders to his crew of three: the sailman, the ropeman, and the deckman. The men sprang into action and the haul-boat slowly but steadily came about until it headed directly into the rollers that scuttled down through the Barrier Strait. As the crew moved about, Saburo lay against the hull, gripping the rail as the boat rode on into The Neck, a channel that boatmen referred to as The Dragon’s Throat: a narrow ocean slot that separated two of the Empire’s immense volcanic Isles.

Each swell gently lifted the kobune’s hull high and then slammed it down hard against the bottom of each trough, only to lift it up yet again, over and over, until Saburo’s head spun and his gorge rose. Gagging on his own spew, he got to his feet and staggered toward the bow where he bent his head over the side and unceremoniously retched into the waves. The spindrift spit into his face, stung his one exposed eye, and filled his half-open mouth with saltwater.

Saburo spat back and cursed. Yamabuki, the woman Saburo sought and was sworn to kill, had slipped past him that very morning and there was little doubt in his mind that she had made it to the opposite shore.

Tetsu barked, “Everyone! Tie in!” His words were still hanging in the air as the crew nimbly strung and secured a heavy rope-line stem to stern, and then proceeded to tie cinch-ropes around their own waists, after which they hitched the free ends via slipknots to the trunk line. The crew exchanged looks when their sole passenger, supposedly a crab fisherman, failed to likewise tie in. The captain grew wroth, shook his finger at Saburo, and bellowed, “Him too!”

The deckman immediately made his way forward. Taken by surprise, Saburo struggled. He wanted no part of any rope. Resist as he might the deckman handily pulled the cinch-rope around the flaying crabber whose footing gave way when an especially heavy wave hit. Saburo tumbled, but now cinched, the security rope smartly snapped taught. He only fell against the hull instead of toppling over the side. Managing to get to his knees, again hugging the rail, Saburo choked, “You’re not sailing to where I told you to.”

The deckman growled, “Thank the Gods that the boat’s still riding. Thank them you aren’t with some second-rate shout-men.”

The deckman turned his back, leaving the crabber to his hopeless gagging. It was best to look away. Seasickness was an infection spread as much by sight and idea as by any roll or pitch of waves.

Saburo went back to heaving his gorge over the side, but by now there was none left in him. He gasped as his gut muscles cramped themselves into knots.

The view over the side had only made his seasickness worse. One moment the waters swelled into towering mounds; the next they fell away so that he found himself peering into an ocean gulley. The only thing that did not undulate was the kobune’s wooden hull. Everything else constantly shifted shape, for such is the way of water; a changeling—no matter whether a man looks out with two good eyes, or wears an eyepatch over one.

He closed his uncovered eye to blank out the picture, yet his senses still reached out into the boat so that he felt each rhythmic lurch. Still at one with the boat, in his mind he pictured how it bobbed and yawed with every roller.

My eye is closed, but I still “see.”

He knew he needed to think on something other than the waves, otherwise the nausea would not stop.

A master assassin, Saburo succeeded in his shadowy enterprises because he was almost always was at one with his surroundings. However, now was not the time to reach outside with his senses. It was time to mute them.

He gritted his teeth.

I am here by choice.

He could not let his anger with the sea and the state of his stomach determine what was in his head.

I must master my mind.

And now began an epic battle—between himself and “the monkey.”

Film Score Composer John Horner Killed in Plane Crash


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James-horner It is very sad to hear that composer John Horner was killed when his light plane crashed yesterday, June 22, 2015. Many remember his scores for Avatar and Titanic, but over the last several weeks, with my headphones on, I had listened to his score for The Hunger Games and A Beautiful Mind as I worked on my latest novel. I was inspired by Horner’s music in writing many of the passages in my story. To wake up this morning to the news, it somehow became more personal than I ever thought.

As I go back to writing this morning, I will be playing his music and remembering his triumph and not the tragedy that took him from us too soon. Although I never met him. and he never met me, but I shall miss him just the same.

A Woman Samurai in the Era of Genji


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800px-Tomita_Nobutaka_and_his_wifeThe Yamabuki series traces the adventures of a young samurai set shortly after the time of The Tale of Genji. It is in large part a homage to Genji’s author, Lady Murasaki, while never forgetting it is a head-on story of a warrior in the tradition of Japanese chambara (crashing swords) and jidaigeki (historical (i.e. costume) drama).

It is an immersion in 12th century Japan and an entertaining look at what life might have been like when the world was still flat and oceans were thought to pour over its edges.

An oft used trope in Japanese tales is to utilize a priest, a missionary, or other non-Japanese person to act as an interpreter for the author in communicating with the reader. Another trope is when a person in the modern age is thrown through a time warp into old-time Japan. The Yamabuki story, however, sidesteps this and seeks to entice the reader with total immersion in a strange world that at the same is both very old historically and very new to someone seeing it for the first time.

And this is not all that different from how Yamabuki feels about it.

Yamabuki comes out of the royal court of her warlord father and journeys into an exotic world. Although she is educated in languages and the science of the day and well-trained in weapons and fighting, yet the world outside the rarefied palace is as strange to her as it is to us.

Writing in a Japanese historic voice was an exciting challenge.

In BBC series I, Claudius, the writers were faced with presenting speakers of Latin to modern viewers and the simple choice for the broadcasters was for the characters simply to speak BBC English. This does not at all work in a jidaigeki. It would be odd indeed if Lord Ichimonji Hidetora in Kurosawa’s Ran starts sounding like Lawrence Olivier doing King Lear.

The action in the Yamabuki series takes place when people in England were more or less speaking Beowulf English. In the case of Yamabuki, this led to a careful choice of vocabulary to hopefully pull off an “vernacular” of sorts on the written page. The Oxford English Dictionary, the OED, became a key tool in this. Commoners in the Yamabuki series use Anglo-Saxon root words. The upper classes, like Yamabuki, use the occasion French or Latin root words, but none use any word that was current after the 1700s, and most have earlier roots. The same can be said of idioms, many of which are Japanese, but accessible to the modern reader.

The reader will find Japanese words sprinkled into the text and this is for clarity and not confusion. You say you don’t speak Japanese? Don’t worry. An example from Yamabuki is using the word “naginata” for a polearm instead of “halberd” or “glaive” which is the translation, but which only adds to confusion for the translations evoke a picture of European heraldry.

Bottom line. Yamabuki is an adventure. It is set in a strange world, with realistic people, and surprises at every turn.

Lastly, many modern readers who are familiar with samurai and the Japanese culture will look with puzzlement at a world where there is a woman samurai. But the lense where women are relegated to the shadows is not the world of Yamabuki, an actual historic person. There were a number of women warriors in the 12th century, most of which appear in the Yamabuki series, along with a woman “shogun” who lived at the time.

I look forward to bringing Yamabuki and her world to life and hope to entertain the reader and, borrowing from another fantasy:

to explore a strange new world and boldly go where the reader has not gone before.

Announcing: Release Date of Cold Trail and new date for Cold Heart

39447g1The third book of the Sword of the Taka Samurai series is Cold Trail and is expected to be released by the end of July, 2015. Originally the six books of the series were all expect to be straightforward reads of 20,000 to 40,000 words, each.

As the draft for the “uhr” Cold Heart rose to 70,000 words and was increasing, and the release date started moving out, my editor and I saw that even if a seventh book was needed to tell the full story, we would do it. The solution, break the existing book in half into two smaller pieces to come out a month or two apart.

If all goes according to plan Cold Heart will be released in June-July and Cold Trail will come out in July-August. Hopefully readers will agree that it is worth waiting for as (because of “popular” demand) there is a thirst for an expanded Yamabuki backstory.

Readers wanted to know how and why would Yamabuki became a warrior? Who influenced her? What factors led to her decision to leave her life of relative ease as a warlord’s daughter? How is it that a woman of this era could get access to scholars to teacher to speak, read, and write Chinese? And yet she writes and translates Chinese poems into Japanese cursive, in the kana, so everyone can read them. She records her journey in “pillow books” called makura, or “diaries.”

To do justice to these stories and to introduce them now instead of in later books, it has taken some editing to put them into a form that readers can easily absorb.

As with earlier Yamabuki stories, the reader is immersed in a strange world with unknown customs and traditions. Sometimes they are as strange to Yamabuki as they are to the reader.

If there are reviewers out there who would be interested in a draft copy of these books prior to release, please let me at the Kate Lore email address so we can arrange for that.

Forced Affection -Rape as the First Act of Romance in Heian Japan (an essay)

Katherine M. Lawrence:

As a fan of Anthony Bryant, I have been influenced by his insights. This essay is rich in detail and texture.

Originally posted on Rekishi Nippon:

While readers of Japanese literature from the Heian and Kamakura periods often find it difficult to determine when a sexual encounter has actually taken place, there are certain textual indicators that writers can use to make it plain that something carnal has, in fact, occurred. Writers may speak of the night as “dreamlike,” or describe the woman as “pliant” or “vulnerable,” and the use of these latter two terms hints at the fact that the encounter may have been more coercive than consensual. Some encounters are written to indicate so much forcefulness that they seem to the Western reader to be nothing less than rape. It is these forced encounters that I propose to examine in this paper.

Sexual relationships in Heian and Kamakura court literature (most notably in Monogatari) may often begin with a contact that can only be compared to rape, but the strictures of the court society…

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Yamabuki’s Sword — historic blade from her era and her swordmaker


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Old swords are rare, even in a country as obsessed with them as Japan. Giving Up the Gun, Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879, traces the significance of the sword in Japanese society.


Many of us picture Japan as a country of swords-only, but that was not always so. Films such as Ran show samurai and other warriors using matchlocks that were introduced through the Portuguese in around 1550.


Many author attribute the success of Toragawa Ieyasu’s success in winning the civil war in 1603 and becoming the Shogun to his adroit use of firearms.


Perrin writes,

By 1575. guns had replaced swords in the ranks of all but the most stubborn samurai. But after 1637, the Japanese stopped using guns for over 200 years.

Swords were melted down to make guns and later guns were melted to make swords.

Old swords were modernized and altered or melted down for the metal and then reforged. Still other blades were altered and shortened for other purposes, not mention that blades that were simply lost or were demanded beyond repair.

Few swords survive from the period in and around the Gempei War and Yamabuki’s era. However, while research I came across a blade that was not only of that era, but made by the sword master who crafted Yamabuki’s blade, (below).


We have the length and curvature and also the details.

We read in Cold Heart, the upcoming novel, when she is just twelve years old she has a coming of age ceremony–unusually young for a girl,

. . . the one special gift from her father. He had commissioned Yukiyasu, purported to be the empire’s greatest sword smith, to craft a tachi-style sword for her . . . if anyone ever before doubted that General Moroto’s eldest child was her parents’ favorite, such doubts were forever dispelled as Yamabuki pulled the magnificent glimmering steel from its cobalt blue lacquered-scabbard that bore the Taka crossed-fathers crest. She immediately named the blade Tiger Claw.

Quantity, not Quality, Time with the Muse



Katherine M. Lawrence:

There is something to be said for just being there.

Originally posted on Laura Hile:

Photo Credit: Mararie (Creative Commons) An Astronomical Clock // Photo Credit: Mararie (Creative Commons) When my sons were little, the debate over Quality Time versus Quantity Time was in full swing. The idea was this: if a parent spends meaningful time with a child, then that cancels out the need to spend large amounts of time together, right? Umm…

Having worked in daycare, I already knew the answer: Quantity Time wins. It does. Always. And this doesn’t only apply to very young children.

Fast forward to Mom’s Weekend at Oregon State. I would show up Friday night with my sleeping bag, ready for their sofa. Since each son also worked, he would put in his shift and return to their apartment. We watched movies (ha, of my choosing!) and talked and took walks by the river. I treated them to dinner at a local Chinese dive. And bought pizza and snacks and sodas and coffee.

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The World of Taira no Kiyomori


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As a big fan of Japanese television, I have watched more than a historic drama or two. It is a rather Japanese style to introduce historic dramas by showing the films of historic places as they look today along with artifacts and scrolls. Think Ken Burns and The Civil War, if you are American.

The other day I presented a map of the Isle of Unknown Fire, which today is called Kyushu and it the southern-most of Japan’s four main isles.

The Yamabuki series, which will take the main character into the Gempei War (1180-1185), takes her into encounters with Kiyomori. I came across this 3 minute video about him along with some scenes of Japan. In a style I have grown fond of, the narrator explains the setting and why this is such an important event.

Many of the places are the same as Yamabuki would have visit. For those interested in the actual places, film and narrative might be of interest.


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