Mystery, Magic and Adventure with the Scent of Medieval Japan

Station of the Tokaido by Hiroshige
Sword Fighting Skills, Samurai, Spirits and Ninja

The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn     The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn / Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler
On the way to Edo on business, Seikei, the son of a tea merchant, admires a group of splendidly attired horsemen prancing by. He wishes he could be a samurai. Wearing swords and loyally serving a lord seems like a much more exciting life than the one destiny has assigned him. By chance he and his father stop at the same inn, and something unexpected happens; a precious ruby is stolen from the samurai in the middle of the night. Everyone in the inn is suspect, and soon the famous samurai Judge Ōoka comes to investigate. When questioned, Seikei admits that he saw the thief escaping with the ruby in the middle of the night: But it was a large soul-eating ghost with horns coming out of its head!

The judge wants to see where all this happened, so Seikei leads him to the scene of the crime. There the judge discovers a secret tunnel hidden under a floor mat. It’s a small dark, muddy tunnel, and Ōoka orders Seikei to hop in and crawl along to the other end. It’s a nasty scary job, but Seikei does it. When he finally gets to the other end and cautiously peeks above ground he sees the judge standing there. They’re both in the Kabuki theater next to the Inn. Ōoka complements him on the good job he’s done and then asks his father to borrow him to help investigate the crime.

Blue Fingers: a Ninja's Tale     Blue Fingers: a Ninja's Tale / by Cheryl Aylward Whitesel
Koji and his brother Taro are identical twins. This is disastrously inauspicious for their poor farmer parents. In fourteenth-century Japan twins were thought to bring only the worst kind of misfortunes on a family. Nevertheless, Taro’s bravery in rescuing Lord Udo’s master dye maker from drowning is rewarded. He offer the boy an apprenticeship, a chance for a far more lucrative and prestigious place in the community than being a farmer. But the boys are shocked when their parents insist that Koji, and not Taro, go to the dye maker.

Once he arrives, however, Koji is consumed with homesickness, pays little attention to his chores, absentmindedly pulling the peonies up with the weeds, and runs off and hides when his foster grandmother calls him. Finally the dye maker has had enough of this undependable apprentice, and sends him home to his family. But fearful of the disgrace he will bring home with him, Koji runs away up into the bamboo groves on the mountainside, a place he has been warned never to go. This is where the tengu live, the winged mountain demons with hideously long noses and nails. So when he falls asleep and is captured by a dark shape, he has reason to fear the worst. But the worst isn’t a demon; a new and far more strenuous apprenticeship is about to begin.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit     Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit / by Nahoko Uehashi; translated by Cathy Hirano; illustrated by Yuko Shimizu.—
Balsa, an itinerant bodyguard, is surprised. She’s been invited to Ninomiya Palace, the home of the Second Queen. It’s true that she had saved the Second Prince by plunging into the roiling Aoymi River and pulling him out. But, “as a foreigner she was a person of even lower rank than a commoner: The most she had expected was a sum of money.” It is an even greater shock when she’s paid a secret nighttime visit by the Second Queen and her son, Second Prince Chagum. The Second Queen believes that the boy’s father, the Mikado, is secretly trying to have him assassinated.  The Mikado believes his son to be possessed by a Spirit from the invisible world of Nayugu. His mother, the Second Queen, wants Balsa to protect Chagum and take him into hiding immediately. Balsa is furious. If she refuses the queen she may be killed on the spot. If she accepts the Queen’s commission, she will be hunted down by the Mikado and be killed for kidnapping his son. Either way, Balsa ends up dead. Nevertheless, she accepts the mission. 

This first volume of the series is a fast paced action fantasy adventure in a world that, as the author puts it, “carries the scent of [medieval] Japan.” It’s smoothly translated, and delightfully illustrated in blue and white.