Second Draft

Six-Guns and Swords

Posted in Research by Michael Skeet on Friday, February 26, 2010
Katana blade in National Museum, Tokyo

Blade of a katana, photographed in the National Museum, Tokyo, 2007.

One of things I’ve always enjoyed about Japanese chanbara movies is the direct link with Hollywood westerns. A circular link in the case of Seven Samurai, because Kurosawa always spoke of his admiration for John Ford’s westerns, and Shichin no samurai was itself the inspiration for The Magnificent Seven. Which you already knew, of course.

At any rate, I’ve discovered a significant (to Demon Gate, anyway) commonality between chanbara and western cinema: both of them provide a misleading sense of what fighting was actually like during the period in which they are set. Think about all of those westerns in which the characters blaze away at each other, using revolvers, at distances ranging from dozens to improbable hundreds of yards. Now think about the image of the samurai that pops into your head. You’re seeing a guy with a sword, aren’t you? In the same way that when you think of the Old West what pops into your head is a guy with a six-gun.

The popular image of the samurai is something heavily burnished by the Art of the Samurai exhibit I wrote about the other day. There were dozens of weapons shown in this exhibit—and all but three of them, I think, were swords or daggers.

My problem with this? Most samurai didn’t actually use their swords in combat. This obsessive identification of the samurai with his swords, and the fetishism about swords in general, is yet another artifact of the long Tokugawa period—a period, I hasten to add, in which samurai hardly fought at all except in the occasional equivalent of a gang-fight in the streets.

The difference between the perception and the reality really hit home to me when I got to the final section of The Art of the Samurai. Included in this section was large, six-panel screen dating from the 17th century. On the panels were paintings showing a panoramic view of the Battle of Kawanakajima (1561). This screen is an amazing piece of work, and I regret that I’ve been unable to find any representations of it to which I could link (the original is in the Wakayama Prefecture Museum).

I can, however, make the point that hit home so thoroughly by using this detail from a wood-block print of the Battle of Kawanakajima. This print (by Utagawa Yoshikazu) dates from 1853 (a good 200 years after the screen was painted) and is in the collection of the U.S. Library of Congress. Take a look at the mounted samurai fighting in this image. See how many of them are using swords?

And this image doesn’t represent the situation with nearly the effect of that six-panel screen. In that set of paintings, hardly anyone is fighting with a sword—and most of the samurai shown in the screen are fighting on foot, when presumably it would be easier to wield a sword than it would while fighting from horseback.

The truth of the situation is that, from all the reading I’ve done while researching this novel, samurai in the sengoku jidai fought with their swords only as a last resort. The preferred weapon of the samurai during this period was the yari, or lance (the word is usually translated as “spear,” but this implies that the yari could be thrown, and this was almost never the case; some yari were as big as pikes); before that, the preferred weapon was (as this image implies) the bow.

This is not to complain about the exhibit, understand. The Met is a museum of art, after all, and most practical military weapons are not what you could call attractive; they are intended to be functional. This is what really makes Japanese swords exceptional, in my view: they’re both beautiful and functional. Very functional, if you believe some of the stories.

At any rate, most chanbara movies are as useful for understanding samurai fighting as most westerns are for understanding US Cavalry tactics on the frontier. That’s not their primary goal. But it’s important for us to remember that the popular image of the samurai wading into battle with his sword drawn is at the least misleading.

Oh, and the non-sword weapons in the exhibit? One was a matchlock musket (teppo); one was the blade of a naginata, and only one was a yari blade. And the latter was only in the exhibit because it had been preserved on account of its being more than twice the size of a normal military lance-head.


Coming Up…

Posted in Uncategorized by Jill Snider Lum on Thursday, February 25, 2010

…an informative post about Japanese weaponry. Michael’s been having extra-large helpings of Work, and I’m occupied helping my Kid through Norwalk, but tomorrow (or maybe even later today) there’ll be interesting stuff to read about Ancient Hardware of Doom. See you then!

More Snow

Posted in Research,WorldBuilding by Michael Skeet on Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I should mention (as we await the prospect of yet more furry precipitation) that Jill’s comment yesterday, concerning the relative lack of snowfall in Japan, applies to places like Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo). There are places in Japan that get plenty of snow: Hokkaido, obviously, but also long stretches of the mountains on the northern side of Honshu (the side facing the Sea of Japan). The air coming across the sea is quite moist, and as it rises up to cross over the mountains it dumps that moisture; in the winter this often comes down as snow.

I was particularly pleased to learn about the Snow Monkeys.


Posted in Research by Jill Snider Lum on Monday, February 22, 2010

We Torontonians are sitting in grim trepidation just now, awaiting what is supposed to be the first bad snowstorm of the season.  In a regular year our upcoming 10cm would be just another snowfall, but we haven’t had much snow this winter (and I’m not complaining).  It’s been more like a Tokyo or Kyoto winter than a Toronto one.

A Japanese friend of ours tells us that when they get a zero-degree day in Tokyo they feel very hard-done-by, and go about muttering how cold it is.  To us Canadians this sounds pretty strange… but keep in mind that Tokyo is so hot for most of the year that they don’t bother with things like cental heating.  If you live there you don’t heat your whole house in winter; you have a gas- or electric-powered heater that you move from room to room as you need it.  That means  you can store your beer in the bathroom to keep it nice and cold, and if you’re taking a hot bath in there you can move it to the bedroom temporarily to keep it chilled.  It’s no wonder residents of Tokyo and Kyoto complain when the thermometer hits the freezing mark!

In the Sengoku period, you’d have had braziers and a stove to heat your rooms, and you’d put hot coals in them and huddle around them.  There were little hand-warmers, too, that you could put a coal in and hold on to.  Padded kimono would help keep you warm, as would lots of blankets on your futon at night.  And the cultural tradition of drinking hot green tea all day would be a blessing!

As for snow, you wouldn’t see very much, as a general rule.  Just ice in the streets from time to time, and the occasional, quiet dusting of white flakes on the ground, which might last for a day.

Our Japanese friend experienced a 10cm snowfall in Tokyo a few years ago, and got himself a backache shoveling out the intersection by his house.  I told him that if he had to do it three more times that winter, we’d make him an honourary Canadian.  He was not at all enthusiastic.

The first flakes are falling outside my window.  Yuck.

It’s the weekend…

Posted in Uncategorized by Jill Snider Lum on Saturday, February 20, 2010

… and we’re taking a couple of days off blogging. Have a good time, and see you on Monday!

Sengoku Jidai Munchies

Posted in Food,Research by Jill Snider Lum on Friday, February 19, 2010

I like writing about food, historical food included.  It’s not been easy, getting a lot of details about what people ate in the Sengoku period during which Demon Gate is set.  When you think of Japanese food, what do you think of?  Sushi?  It dates back to the Edo period; too late.  Tempura?  Also later than our story — the practice of deep-frying food in batter was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese.  Even rice wasn’t commonly eaten by ordinary people during our time period.  It was reserved for the higher classes, while the workers and peasants and shopkeepers ate millet.  If you were a peasant growing rice, most of it went for taxes.

But we know that people ate a lot of seafood, fish, and vegetables.  Lots of vegetables.  Cabbages, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, eggplants, mushrooms, daikon radishes, snow peas, and all sorts of things without English equivalents, fresh and pickled.  Buddhists weren’t people to eat meat, so things like beef and pork weren’t on the menu.  But Japanese udon noodles date back to the 13th century, well before our story begins, and certainly everyone ate fruit — grapes, oranges, plums, pears, even the occasional watermelon.

Visiting Japan we discovered one reason why obesity isn’t common in that part of the world:  it’s hot.  September in Kyoto is hotter, and much more humid, than July and August are in Toronto, which takes some doing.  In the morning we’d have a light breakfast and some green tea, then spend the day exploring, sometimes stopping for a small lunch — lunch was almost unknown in the Sengoku Jidai, unless you were a soldier.  By four o’clock we’d be so hot and exhausted that the idea of eating an actual dinner didn’t appeal to any of us.  So we’d stop at a convenience store and get a few snacks, and some beer, and bring them home to our guest house to nibble away at during an evening of writing and chat.

Convenience store supper. The basil potato chips were addictive.

It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if our Samurai characters found themselves doing the 1506 equivalent, noshing on a small bowl of udon and a few pickles in the evening, rather than a full spread of broiled fish and boiled millet and stir-fried sweet potatoes with mushrooms and onions.  It’s too bad they didn’t have ice cream in those days; it would have made life a lot easier.

The big one was called "Sumo Special".

A Youkai for Everything

Posted in Research by Jill Snider Lum on Thursday, February 18, 2010

One of the most fun things about writing Demon Gate has been learning about youkai.

Youkai are supernatural creatures in Japanese folklore.  In English they are sometimes referred to as spirits, ghosts, demons, or monsters, but none of those words seems to completely encompass what they are.  They are not human, though they sometimes look like humans, or were humans once, or can change into the form of humans.  Sometimes they even start out as objects made by humans — umbrellas, paper lanterns, straw sandals.  Then… something happens to them.  They turn one hundred years old, or they go through some other out-of-the-ordinary experience, and the event transforms them, distorts them… gives them motivations of their own.

It’s amazing fun to be a Western fantasy writer with these resources at one’s disposal.  In Japanese folklore there seem to be supernatural creatures for every situation imaginable.  Perusing the Wikipedia list of Legendary Japanese Creatures , I’m like a kid in a candy-store of ideas.  Some of these are from specific folktales, and some are just youkai you might encounter anywhere, down the street, beside the river, going for a walk in the hills… or in your own house.   How to chose just a few for the story, from this embarrassment of riches?

There’s abumi-guchi, the fallen commander’s stirrup that’s been transformed into a little furry monster, waiting in the grass for its owner to return.  There’s basan, the giant fire-breathing chicken-monster; ikuchi, the sea serpent that travels over boats and drips oil on them; jatai, the old sash turned into a snake; jubokko, the vampire tree.  And kagge-onna, a very specific sort of creature — the shadow of a woman, cast on the paper shoji doors of a haunted house.

Then there’s the trio of weasels that haunts the mountains and attacks passers-by; we’re using them in Demon Gate, because they’re the weirdest tag-team we’ve ever heard of.  There’s the creature made of hair, the pillow-moving spirit, the ghost fire that follows people, the bean-grinding hag who eats people, and the giant catfish that causes earthquakes.   And more:  the hair-cutting spirit, the upside-down haunted pillar, the reanimated lump of decaying human flesh, the horse’s leg that hangs out of trees and kicks people as they go by, and of course the unharvested persimmon that turns into a monster.  (How do you keep house without an unharvested-persimmon monster?  I have three in my fridge.)

There are so many more than I won’t begin to mention them, and I’ve decided I like them all.  But I admit that most of them are personalities I wouldn’t want to encounter in real life.  Except perhaps the akaname — the spirit that licks the bathroom clean.  It sounds like it might be a useful youkai to have around, at least on house-cleaning day.

But then I suppose I’d have to clean the bathroom all over again afterwards, to remove the akaname spit.  There’s always a catch.

Now This is Research!

Posted in Drink,Research by Michael Skeet on Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sometimes I have more fun than others when researching the background of Demon Gate.

When Lorna, Jill and I visited Japan in 2007 we were amazed at the selection of shochu/shoju available in the liquor shop down the road from our guest house in Kyoto. At the time it was difficult to find any shochu in Canada, much less a selection (shochu is distilled from an impressive variety of starches). I had liked the shochu I’d had up until then; after trying buckwheat and sweet potato shochu I was pretty much hooked.

So it came as a pleasant surprise to discover that, contrary to my guesses, distillation was not introduced to Japan by the Portuguese. None of the sources I’ve been able to check has been in agreement on precisely where the art of alcohol distillation came from (one source claims Thailand by way of Okinawa, another says China, and Wikipedia opts for Korea as the conduit through which distillation techniques came to Japan), but that doesn’t matter so much to me.

What matters is that most of the sources agree that shochu was being made in Japan by the end of the fifteenth century, though the first recorded reference to the drink was in 1549. That puts shochu into the realm of possible drinks for our characters to consume, with the proviso that the only shochu being distilled in the early sixteenth century was rice-based.

This was good news for us, because we had had our characters in “Beneath the Skin” merrily quaffing shochu—without our ever having gone to the trouble of checking to see whether or not we were being anachronistic. I hate being anachronistic in my fiction.

I will celebrate this discovery in a couple of days, when our annual winter cocktail party will feature at least one shochu-based cocktail. (Normally I drink mine straight, the way it was intended to be, but the shochu-based cocktails served at Momofuku Noodle Bar inspired me.)

As for anachronism, there is still the matter of futon and tatami to be dealt with…

It’s Art, but is it Research?

Posted in Research by Michael Skeet on Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Last month I made a flying (literally) trip to New York to catch the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit, Art of the Samurai. It was well worth the effort necessary to get there (and worth enduring the bitterly cold wind, as well) but while the exhibit was beautiful and I was more than happy to buy the catalogue, I was a bit unsatisfied with it. From a professional perspective, that is.

The problem is with that word Art. The items on display were, to a one, gorgeous. But as useful examples of the sorts of gear a samurai would carry during the period in which Demon Gate is set, they were a let-down. Same applies even in the more general sense of giving you an idea of what samurai life was like, whether or not you’re trying to write about it. I’ll elaborate on this in a subsequent post, or even posts, but I did want to draw your attention to the exhibit pages, which are still on the Met’s website. Follow the link to the selected images from the exhibit, and see if you don’t agree that they’re worth the viewing…

…Even if they might be just a little bit misleading.

Guinea Fowl Weather

Posted in Food by Jill Snider Lum on Monday, February 15, 2010

It’s grey outside today. It’s been grey outside for the last few weeks.  We don’t really have any snow just now; only cold, dampish greyness.  My brain is in a kind of damp grey paralysis as a result.  I don’t feel like writing fiction, or even thinking about writing fiction.  I don’t feel like doing much of anything.  Except maybe eating.

Well, at least this is great weather for eating guinea fowl.

I first tasted guinea fowl at the River Cafe in Calgary.  They served it roasted and sliced into juicy morsels, with a cranberry reduction and wild rice.  It tasted like childhood Christmas, like turkey ought to be but isn’t, like chicken wishes it could be but can’t.  If you’ve never tried it, you ought to.  Here is a good way to cook one, developed from two other recipes that I merged together.  It’s not quite as good as the River Cafe’s version, but I think I’d need sous-chefs for that.  Don’t omit the wine, or the double layer of tinfoil; they keep the bird moist while it’s roasting.

Guinea Fowl with Garlic, Lemon and Rosemary


1 guinea fowl

10 cloves garlic, or more if desired, unpeeled (approx. 1 head or more)

1 clove peeled garlic

1 Tablespoon butter

3 Tablespoons olive oil

4 sprigs fresh rosemary

1 Tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves

1 lemon, cut in half

10 oz white wine

Salt to taste


Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees F.

Wash and dry the guinea fowl.  In a casserole large enough to hold all the ingredients, melt the oil and butter on the stove.  Brown the guinea fowl on all sides in oil and butter.  Remove it from the casserole.  Toss the unpeeled garlic and 3 of the rosemary sprigs into the casserole and stir-fry briefly.  Replace the guinea fowl.   Put the fourth rosemary sprig and the clove of peeled garlic inside the bird.  Squeeze one lemon half over guinea fowl, then place inside the bird; the un-squeezed half may be put in also if desired.  Sprinkle the chopped rosemary over the guinea fowl.  Pour the wine into the casserole and bring to a simmer.

Place a double layer of foil over the casserole and put the lid on top.  Bake the guinea fowl for 1 hour.  Remove the lid and tinfoil.  Bake 10 more minutes to re-brown.  Remove the bird to a platter and let it stand ten minutes before carving.

Strain remaining wine and juices from casserole and make  gravy (cornstarch gravy goes well here).  Discard rosemary sprigs.  Serve the garlic cloves with the guinea fowl.  Goes well with green beans and mixed rice.

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