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Behind the Book: Eating Dinner With Ninjas

When I started writing Betrayal at Iga, I knew the story would take my protagonists, ninja detective Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo, away from their usual stomping grounds in 16th century Kyoto and into the mountainous province of Iga—historical home of the infamous Iga ninja ryu.

Although my protagonist, Hiro, is fictitious, the Iga ninja clan was very real. The ninjas of Iga were spies and assassins, trained not only in killing but in various methods of espionage. During the 16th century, the clan was run by Hattori Hanzō—also called “Devil Hanzō”—a brilliant (and ruthless) leader and one of Japan’s most famous historical figures. His network of spies included not only male ninjas but female kunoichi, a fact that features prominently in Betrayal at Iga.

While researching the novel, I traveled to Iga—not only to visit the Iga Ninja Museum and the “ninja house” (which features unique architectural elements found in many ninja homes) but also to learn the topography and to sample the local cuisine.

Japanese food is not only highly seasonal but changes, sometimes radically, from one location to the next, with heavy emphasis on local specialties. Since Betrayal at Iga opens with a welcome feast in the home of Hattori Hanzō, I wanted to ensure that the dishes represented Iga, and its history, as accurately as possible.

On the day I arrived in Iga, I discovered the local restaurants closed—unusual for a non-holiday weekday—but I quickly discovered, to my delight, that the shops were closed because of a food-based festival showcasing local specialties. Instead of having to choose, I was able to sample dishes from numerous restaurants, getting a literal taste of Iga’s current and historical cuisine. I wish I could claim I knew in advance, and planned to attend the festival, but the truth is sometimes things like this just happen when researching a novel—the stars align, the timing works, and thirty restaurants set up booths with offerings that inspire the taste buds and the page. Real ninjas couldn’t have planned a better, or a tastier, surprise.

Experiences like this one are a large part of the reason I research my novels not only in the historical records but in person, traveling to Japan and spending time in the places my characters visit. Japan has many well-preserved historical sites, and excellent museums, making research not only easy but far more fun than reading books alone. It’s easier to write the details accurately and persuasively, without overwriting or making mistakes, when you’ve seen the ninja’s weapons (like the shuriken in the photo), toured their houses, and eaten a meal or two in the historical home of the Iga ryu.

 

Susan Spann has a degree in Asian studies and a lifelong passion for Japanese history, language, and culture. Her first Hiro Hattori / Shinobi Mystery, Claws of the Cat, was a Library Journal mystery of the month and a Silver Falchion finalist for Best First Novel. She lives outside Sacramento, California with her husband, son, two cats, and an opinionated cockatiel. When not writing or traveling in Japan, she practices law, with a focus on publishing and business contracts. Her fifth Hiro Hattori novel, BETRAYAL AT IGA, is available now at IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and wherever books are sold.