Chasing Down the Shogun

Writing historical mystery requires working within two sets of rules, the ones that govern mysteries and the ones for historical novels, and although those rules can be broken, I prefer to “play fair” with the reader when I can.

Blade of the Samurai cover (FB)

Much of the action in my upcoming Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, takes place on the grounds of the shogunate–the compound where the shogun lived, which also housed the government offices. (The Japanese word for the shogunate government is bakufu, though I substituted “shogunate” in the novel to make it easier on native English speakers.)

When writing the novel, I researched medieval Kyoto to determine the proper location and layout of the shogun’s palace and the surrounding compound. Unfortunately, my research revealed not one, but multiple shogunate compounds built (and burned, and rebuilt) during the sixteenth century. Only one existed at any given time, but I wanted to make sure I had the right one for my novel — the one that existed in 1565.

Ultimately, I had to consult an expert in Japan, who helped me find the right location (at Bueijincho Kamigyo-ku in Kyoto).

Unfortunately, if you visit Kyoto today, this isn’t the site you’ll see. The compound in my novel was replaced by Nijo Castle–which still exists, and is open to tours, today.


But that one’s not the original Nijo Castle, either.

The first Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, ordered the construction of Nijo Castle in 1601, and the palace was completed in 1626. That castle was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1750, and the rest of the compound perished by fire in 1788. The castle and grounds were subsequently reconstructed.

In 1867, when the last of the Tokugawa shoguns surrendered power back to the Japanese emperor, Nijo Castle became the home of Japan’s Imperial Cabinet. The building and grounds became a public property in 1939, and have been open to the public since 1940.

The shogunate compound appearing in BLADE OF THE SAMURAI uses the proper historical location but borrows much of its map from Nijo Castle. My reasons for changing the architecture were twofold:

Despite my best efforts, I was unable to locate an accurate map of the shogunate compound as it existed in 1565. We know it had certain features — for example, a detached residence for the shogun, and a separate building for bakufu offices. The exact floor plan, however, is lost to time (or at least beyond the scope of reasonable research).

The second reason has more to do with an author’s license to bring historical fact to life through fiction. Many of the historical sites I reference in the Shinobi Mysteries still exist, and where they do I reproduce them with careful detail. A reader who goes to Kyoto and visits Tofuku-ji can walk the path that Hiro walks with Kazu in CLAWS OF THE CAT. If you search the commercial ward, you’ll find a sake bar (or a dozen) roughly similar to Ginjiro’s.

I wanted to create that verisimilitude in BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, too. Readers who go to Kyoto can tour Nijo Castle and see the way the shogun and his samurai lived. By blending that floor plan with older ones, I breathed a life into the compound that readers can actually see in Kyoto today. My compound differs from Nijo Castle, due to the needs of the story, certain historical facts, and because the shogunate compound was not the same in 1565 as it was after the Tokugawa assumed control of Japan.

Still, if you go to Kyoto and see the site, I hope the echoes of Hiro’s adventure will resonate there too.

Have you visited a medieval castle? Which one is your favorite, either in images or to visit?