I swear I didn’t decide to write The Peony Lantern, set in nineteenth-century Edo (as Tokyo used to be called), just so I could go to Japan,* but my research trip really brought the history, culture and landscape alive for me.
The main protagonist is Kasumi, an innkeeper’s daughter from the mountains who travels to Edo to work as a lady-in-waiting in a samurai mansion…
*Okay, maybe I did.
TURNING (19th-century) JAPANESE IN 8 CULTURAL HIGHLIGHTS
Along with her mistress Misaki, Kasumi learns the refined art of ikebana (flower arranging). I took a class at a famous Tokyo ikebana school; the flowers were lovely…my arrangements not so much. (Coincidentally, Kasumi isn’t any good at ikebana either.)
I struck out at ikebana, but eating raw fish is something I am extremely good at—and sushi was invented in Edo. An early-morning visit to the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo was compulsory.
I don’t care what anyone says: raw tuna, sea urchin and salmon roe is the breakfast of champions.
Kimonos are GORGEOUS. I was interested to learn that they have different patterns according to the season. In summer, for example, you would wear a cooling design (such as Misaki’s unlined blue silk kimono decorated with streams and grasses).
Japan is famous for its festivals, and there are several mentioned in The Peony Lantern. I travelled about 300 km from Tokyo to the famous spring festival in Takayama. At night, all the lanterns on the floats are lit and there’s a big parade around the streets of the town.
Kasumi went to one of the summer firework festivals that Edo was famous for—pictured here in an ukiyo-e, or woodblock print, by the artist Hiroshige. I absolutely love ukiyo-e and they are an important part of the plot of The Peony Lantern. I went to specialised museums and exhibitions to learn about how they were made and their role in Edo culture.
Through studying ukiyo-e I discovered a rich history of ghost stories. In the book, Kasumi and Misaki play a game that involves telling ghost stories. In fact ‘The Peony Lantern’ is also the name of a famous Japanese ghost story.
Cruising down the highway…
The Nakasendo was an ancient highway linking Edo, home to the shogun, with the emperor’s capital, Kyoto. Tsumago, where Kasumi was born, was a ‘station’ or stopping point along the highway. My sister and I spent a few days hiking along the Nakasendo, stopping overnight in inns just as travellers did for centuries.
This is the gate leading to the Shinto shrine in Tsumago. It’s at the top of these steps that Kasumi first sees Isamu. He’s a high-ranking samurai and she’s just an innkeeper’s daughter, so of course she shouldn’t go falling in love with him, but…Well you’ll have to read the book to see what happens!
The Peony Lantern is available now