As the summer deepens, so does my resentment to work for GEOS. “Wouldn’t it be great if you ha d a job here in Iga, so you could come here more easily?” says Kashira, and I have to agree.
So one hot day in July, we take our mission to Miyazakiya-san. “Is this a shop or a person?” I whisper in U-san’s ear, as the Japanese language is ambivalent about this. I learn that Miyazakiya-san is both a person and a shop. Miyazakiya-san is becoming a more and more mysterious and powerful existence. But quite apart from being mysterious, powerful, and obviously well connected, what Kashira seems to be looking forward to most is Miyazakiya-san’s soy sauce ice cream. All day, as I sweep my way across the stage and tidy my way through ninja-tō and nihon-tō swords, fukiya wooden flutes designed to blow horse dung- poisoned darts through them, kunai dagger-shaped all-purpose tools, and sickles of all sizes, I am fidgety with a growing feeling of curiosity at being introduced to the mysterious Miyazakiya-san.
After Kashira and I have changed back from the ninja garb into our casual clothes, we take the big black van with his ninja-picture holding two cross-shaped ninja stars in a thicket of light green trees, and drive down the road into the little shop-lined streets of Iga, until he pulls up in front of Miyazakiya-san, the shop.
Miyazakiya-san, the shop is a spacious one floor shop advertised by inconspicuously charming wooden boards bearing big black brush strokes of Japanese writing, one of the many shops in tourism-friendly Iga that sell traditional Iga goods.
There are ceramics in various shades of earthy browns and greens: Iga-yaki, a famous style of ceramics that originated around the 8th century in the Iga region and uses Iga clay, burned at high temperatures to acquire a reddish hue with brown-green marks caused by log ashes.
There are kata-yaki, the famous hard, sweet biscuits they sell in all the tourist shops, with pictures of various famous ninjas on their adventurous missions burned in dark brown lines onto their surface. Rumour has it that the ninjas used this type of food as long-lasting emergency calorie supplies when they had to go on long missions, although to me the articulate crunch at biting into kata-yaki makes me doubt their suitability to the stealth business. Be that as it may, to the present day ninja, who typically makes his living in the world of show business and entertainment, far from stealth and secrecy, the stylishly illustrated kata-yaki are a welcome tool to disseminate his glory. Beautiful, plentiful, and loud.
The main product of Miyazakiya-san, the shop, however are tsukemono: pickles. One type of pickles using ginger as one of the main components, is particularly famous in Iga. It is sold in flat plastic bags, through which it has a dark-brown pasty appearance, and is recommended expressly for use in making ochazuke, a dish in which rice is topped with one’s personal favourite mixture of flavourful ingredients (such as umeboshi salted plums, nori roasted seaweed or flakes of salmon), and turned into a kind of soup by pouring green tea over the mixture. I buy a pack of this so-called Yōkanzuki and take it home to eat it on toast with cream cheese, for breakfast. Delicious. Blessed be the flavourful cooperation between East and West.
When we enter the shop, it is apparent that Kashira is well known and respected here, and we are immediately given a little tour of the products by a gentle little woman in her forties who welcomes us standing behind the round counter in the middle of the shop. She then leads us to the right corner, where we are told to sit down at a table and served tea. In a small, fish-shaped bowl, we are then presented with the shop’s highlight: a perfect little scoop of soy sauce ice cream. It sits there posing, ninja-like, as vanilla ice cream, but exuding a certain presence that makes me feel thrilled.
Enter Miyazakiya-san, the man himself. He is slim and bald, wearing round little glasses with no frames, and a cardigan. His fine features in combination with his clothing style make him look like a Meiji period aristocrat who has naturally and enthusiastically absorbed the tastes of the West. Everything about his efficient and inconspicuous movements appears experienced and refined. He sits down and watches Kashira and me eating his ice cream, smiling.
The slight flavour of soy sauce adds a refinement to the cream that lets the beauty of burned caramel strings melt into tongue and palate without needing its stickiness and boldness. The slight idea of salt makes the tongue appreciate the sweetness and creaminess of the composition. It is an altogether stunning invention.
I compliment Miyazakiya-san on his ice cream. “Yes,” he says, and his eyes start sparkling a pleasant, quiet enthusiasm when he rolls out his words, all carefully articulated as if his mouth was a printing press. “Actually, soy sauce and cream are a marvellous combination!” And while his creation melts into my tongue, I am blessed with the chance to flavour, at the same time, the deep happiness sparkling in the eyes of the inventor, a genius living his genius dreams, creating beauty in the world.
Kashira finishes his ice cream and articulates our cause.
“This girl here is very intelligent.”
“Obviously,” states Miyazakiya-san matter-of-factly.
“Her Japanese is…well, I want to say she even has a Japanese accent…well, you know what I mean. Yes?”
“She even writes books and the like…” (I have told Kashria about my plans to write a book about my experience with the ninjas).
“She is working in Osaka as an English teacher, but we would like to find work for her here in Iga.” Miyazakiya-san nods, takes a sip of green tea, and speaks.
“Where are you from, Anna?” he asks me kindly.
“Germany.” “Ah, Dort bin ich gewesen.” He replies in carefully articulated, almost perfect German. More and more, I get the impression that this Miyazakiya-san is a true ninja.
“So,” he concludes. “You can speak English, German, and Japanese.”
“I can,” I reply.
“She’s also interested in studying ninja history, learning about Japanese culture, you know. Isn’t there something like that she can do in Iga?”
Then Kashira tells us about how his wife, who is also very intelligent, and runs the Ashura ninja group’s business, changed his plans. When Kashira met me, he was prepared to take me on as a full time apprentice.
“But O!” He winces at the thought of it, and then laughs his infectious laugh.
“She got so angry with me! You can’t take that girl’s life away from her like that, she says to me. She needs to make a living. You know how hard it is to earn enough money as a ninja! It took you 20 years! Don’t take the ground away from under her feet! Let her come on weekends, while she works. She needs to have enough money to live, independent of whatever she achieves as an apprentice kunoichi.” Kashira takes another sip of tea.
“It’s true, isn’t it.” Kashira is a man of instinct. He has learned who to trust and rely on in his long experience as a ninja. “Isn’t there something for her?”
Miyazakiya-san quotes some of his local connections including a tourist magazine he publishes himself, and the Local Foreign Exchange Association among the most surprising revelations, coming from a pickles shop owener.
“So,” he smiles at Kashira, “Next time we meet, let us invite I-san. He is head of the Foreign Exchange Association here in Iga. I’m sure he will have some ideas.”
And with our ice cream bowls eompty, and the next step planned, we feel like today’s mission is accomplished.
I bow repeatedly to Miyazakiya-san, the man, and thank him for his kind efforts. Kashira says his more casual farewell. Then we leave Miyazakiya-san, the shop, and return to the black ninja van.
I am thrilled about meeting I-san next time, and have a feeling that with every step I advance further into the complicated, interwoven world of Iga-ryu ninjutsu, it appears more sparkling and complex, with every day, new paths open up throughout the maze, and its invisible core increases its power of attraction, although what exactly it is I am advancing towards is still unknown to me. And while the many paths inside the maze branch out and multiply, as I get physically closer to the attraction of its core, Kashira takes me to the bus stop, and I thank him for his kindness, and ask for more of his mysterious, yet undoubtedly trustworthy guidance in this dark, attractive, invisible future I sense through my taste buds in the lingering flavour of Miyazakiya-san’s soy sauce ice cream.
Kashira is swinging his arms around on stage to warm up and says: “So, Anna, today, lets practise doing the introductory speech to the show.” “Okay.” I say, light-heartedly, but then U-san warns me that that usually means he will suddenly tell me to get on stage and do it, without prior warning. So panic stricken, I look for Kashira who has disappeared. Working with professional ninjas can be a challenge. I run to the tent and, luckily, find him there. I tell him I can’t do the speech yet but will learn it for next week. He chuckles. “Its ok if you remember it come summer.” “No,” I say, “If you tell me to remember it, I will remember it for next week.”
Again, I get to wear my bright blue ninja suit. Kashira gives me a new hachimaki to go with it. The same blue, with white wax patterns randomly pervading the cloth.
Being the gaijin ninja, I get to take care of all the foreign visitors. Today, there are a lot of them. First, an Indian looking young Canadian couple. I chat to them. They have found themselves some standing up spots with a good view near the back entrance that becomes the exit after the show, and are shooting away with their cameras as the show starts. We chat a little bit before things get serious with Kashira’s katana routine. They are just in
When I accompany Tomonosuke to the front entrance to let in the visitors and lighten their burden by 200 Yen each, he tells me that he and his mother have been looking for cool English phrases they can entertain the audience with. “I say Iga, you say Nin!” Is one of them, “Watch out! Hard contents!” is another. “Why do foreigners find that so funny?” he asks me. But then he walks away before I can answer the question, to announce the show again and see whether any more visitors will file in from the ninja museum. Then he comes back halfway, keeping his back turned towards me. He concentrates, then practises a pretty looking three-plus-one-is-four gesture with his fingers coming up and going back down and his hands sliding together and apart again. It is one of his intro-speech jokes. “When I tell you to give me a cheer, say nin!” he says. “Give me a cheer!” “Nin!” They say. Tomonosuke repeats the procedure a couple times. “Nin!” they say, and “Nin!” again. Then he asks them “What is three plus one?” Which, in Japanese, is “Yon!” But they are all fixated on the “Nin!” and he has to tell them every time that three plus one is yon, not nin. So the ninja is practising his three plus four hand gestures. A real show biz pro. A word Kashira likes to use. Pro. Pro no sekai. The world of professionals. A tough world. Where everything needs to be practised every free minute. There is too much competition not to.
I am happy I can help with my own maths skills later on when Masanosuke, who is doing everything at the same time, as usual, silently and efficiently, without a single complaint, miscalculates at one point, telling somebody who wants to pay for 16 people that it costs 2,200 yen, while really it costs 3,200. So I correct him, and he smiles and takes the 3,200 Yen.
The next group of foreigners comes in. This is a rather large group of young people with mixed nationalities who are in
In the next show, there is an American couple with four sons between 6 and 12. I make a special announcement for them, too, and during the show, translate for the sons in the back row. All of them, without exception are real ninja enthusiasts and watch the show with big, round eyes ready to pop out when Masanosuke comes out with the ninja stars. “WOW!” they shout, and “That is SO COOL!” Still shouting in their feverish ninja excitement, they fire questions at me. “Wow, are those REAL ninja stars? Could he kill somebody with them?” “Is that a real sword? O my god, has he actually just cut his balls off with that ninja sword?” “Has he actually hurt him?” I try to keep them enthusiastic while making them pipe down a little bit. People are turning around to look at our excited little group. The big American parents also turn around from their third row seats. Mom with a finger at her mouth, cautions them to be quiet. There is no stopping them. But their loud enthusiasm does not do much harm. On the contrary, after the show, a Japanese woman smiles at us heartily and says “They really love ninjas, don’t they! They are SO CUTE!”
The four boys love ninjas indeed, and as I am their own personal link to the ninja world, they love me, too. They all try out the ninja stars and want to take a picture with me. I pose with them for a few pictures, teaching them how to do a proper “Nin!” with your hands, and their big parents shoot away with their big cameras. Then they thank me and wander off with their hyper little crew of four.
Another request to pose for a picture comes from a group of Japanese teenage boys. While they are queuing up to throw some ninja stars, I hear one of them voice concern about losing face in the impending ninja star throwing. “What if it doesn’t get stuck in the wall. That would be so embarrassing!” So I take it upon myself and try to calm them down. I tell them if they hold and throw them like this, they will be grand. I do my usual imitation of the ninjas’ star throwing posture that I see ten times a day, and although I have never really done any serious practice with this popular weapon myself, amazingly, my instructions usually help people. After all they don’t know I’m just an apprentice ninja doing shugyo. I know what I am, but to them I am a gaijin ninja in a bright blue ninja suit. “Pose with us!” they beg me after they have completed their star throwing without any major embarrassments, and I pose again, taking on low stances, hands in blocking and striking postures better for pictures than for any real fighting purposes, but this is business, and I am an apprentice show ninja. I need to find out what kind of “me” people like to see. That’s all that matters. There are many kinds, so I am still looking. The kids love me, too, especially the girls. Japanese girls need strong ideals to aspire to, as they do not have many in read life, sad mothers and housewives all around, quitting their jobs to be at home. I am happy to provide something to aspire to for the little girls, something strong, fun, and free. They watch me with big eyes filled with awe and whisper breathlessly, “Wow, a kunoichi!” I take special care when instructing the girls on how to throw things. It is more difficult for them. I know all about it. But they should learn earlier than me that anything is possible.
I am advancing my own throwing skills practising darts, using every opportunity in my kids’ classes to throw things, aim at targets. I am trying to engrain the throwing action into my muscles, eyes, and brain. At this point, I do not have much skill myself in this field, but everybody trusts me blindly. Seeingly. Sometimes, eyes make people blind to the truth, create illusions. I am a ninja illusion. Their trust in me is based on my ninja outfit, skilfully crafted by the multi-talented, respected, and revered S-san. She has never studied making ninja outfits. She just has a talent, U-san tells me when she helps me put on my ninja hakama. No doubt S-san has talent. Not only for making ninja costumes. She has so much talent, U-san tells me, when she was a ninja, she hid behind a black face mask so people wouldn’t recognise her as a woman. She was pure skill. Other kunoichi usually just exploit the fact that audiences love them simply for being women. I admire S-san’s skill and integrity in awe-struck silence. She provides a kunoichi ideal to aspire to. But I have a feeling Kashira wants to sell me as a kunoichi that looks like one, too. A ninja in short dresses. Whatever works. I will make an effort. If this opportunity stretches out into the future, and my capacities allow it, I will work, and sell.
The day is very busy and hot, but time flies, as I get to interact with lots of enthusiastic visitors. “Eigo ga jouzu desu ne,” (“Wow, your English is really good!”) jokes a tall American who has seen the same show as the Japanese language scholarship group. For people who have never tried their Japanese in
The hot topic of the day during our little breaks are centipedes. There was one discovered near the ninja tent yesterday. Apparently they sting you and you have to go to hospital if they do you because they are so poisonous. So the centipedes are the real ninjas here, scaring even the ninjas. I learn the word for centipede. Mugade. It makes me remember the Jet Lee film in which he sees a chicken eat a worm, and adapts the chicken’s movements to be used in a spectacular fight against a giant human centipede that operates in a similar fashion to Chinese festival lions. Apparently here in Iga, too, somebody strong and brave managed to kill the centipede. Hero.
On our way back, U-san and I eat in the little restaurant attached to the place where she usually stops on our way back to buy big boxes of tomatoes for her mother, and other cheap fresh fruit and vegetables. U-san recommends oyakodon. Parent and child at their tastiest together, laden on top of a bowlful of sticky rice. Runny egg, and good, juicy chicken, soy flavoured, slightly sweet. Perfect!
The little combini-vegetable market-restaurant oasis along the motorway is right next to the river, and you can look down on it from the side of the parking lot. While U-san goes to the bathroom, I watch the river flow, a natural river, no concrete. A miracle in
“Please bring a pair of short leggings next week,” U-san writes. I buy one with Its-san on one of our long gym training days and wear them under my trousers the following Sunday.
Again, I meet U-san in her little car, and we drive off to Iga. On the way, as we pass green hills and forests, she tells me to observe every little thing. To make sure I use the time I have now to learn everything. The order of the weapons backstage. The way everybody moves, and the time they move. One day, Kashira will suddenly tell me to tidy up backstage, and I wont have the slightest inkling what goes where if I don’t open my eyes and learn things now. U-san always has things to tell me. If she isn’t giving me tons of useful advice of how to become a successful apprentice kunoichi, she teaches me new words, and new little details about people in
Then, the emergency text message, telling me not to quit my job, because we will run into lots of visa problems if I do. I assure them I will not quit my job if I am not absolutely sure of how to make a living afterwards. Kashira has done a lot of talking with his wife. “Being a ninja is not easy,” he sends me another text message. “In martial arts dojos, the teachers just want your money. You can buy everything, even your dan grades. Here, it is different. A true warrior has no thoughts, and no desire. I will teach you from the bottom up.” “So desu ne,” I agree with him, the universal agreement. This is not the place to tell him the various stories of my wonderful dojo acquaintances including teachers with firm ideals, and free of greed. Gambarimasu. I assure him.
This time, Kashira wants me to look like a real ninja. That’s why he makes me wear leggings. To be able to get changed in the same room as the men without stripping down to my knickers. The T-Shirt stays on anyway. I get given a bright blue ninja outfit with light blue ninja stars sewn onto the chest, and red borders. There are lots of ribbons to tie, and it is complicated to put on the trousers. First the short kimono, and an obi around it near the hip bones. Then the trousers. When you hold up the front part, the rest of them hangs down. You wrap the long belt around your waist twice and tie it in the back. Kashira is in the tent with me and helps me with my first ninja dressing routine. “Ah, it’s difficult,” he says. “If you’re doing it on somebody else, you don’t know how to hold the strings and where to tie them.” So he changes positions and stands behind me and pretends to be me when he wraps the belt around my waist and ties it together, squeezing my organs into my lungs. “This has to be quite tight, because it will become loose,” he explains as I struggle for air. It does loosen immediately. “You are all muscles,” says Kashira as he ties a bow in the back. “What a waste for you to be a school teacher!” Then, a plastic tongue sewn to the back of the trousers is stuck into the tied belt, and another belt tied in front above the first one, this time like a karate belt. Then its long ends are tied together in the back and hidden away, tucked up somewhere beneath the whole belt arrangement. Finally, the shin parts have to be tied. First, jika-tabi, ninja shoes. The shin parts of the trousers are split in two at the back of the lower legs. In front, two ribbons come out of the middle seam. The two sides are wrapped around the shin tight, inside to the inside of the leg, outside on top, then the ribbons are tied in front, loose ends tucked away just like those of the belt. Finished. Kashira hands me a hachimaki headband with a metal plate and a Naruto symbol on it. I have never read or seen Naruto, the famous ninja comic, and anime, but I know that it is famous and popular not only in
“This is really expensive, even in Japan.” Says Kashira. “When you go back to
But it is fun. Kashira tells me he wants me to talk to people, get sued to dealing with visitors. And this part, I have less trouble with than the complicated cleaning techniques I was taught on my first day. As I brush the dust out of all the eyes watching me from the spectator seats during the break, another eye catches me, and Kashira says: “You’ve become quite good at cleaning.” I bow and smile at the wooden eyes in front of me. The day passes quickly as I try to absorb the ticket selling routines. I assemble the thick, wooden tickets in the basket once the visitors are all seated. And watch the ninjas collect money in their black leather bags, saying Irasshaimase and Konnichiha degozaru. And dozo. I thank everybody who comes in and guide them inside with me dozo, this way please gestures. Smile and bow. Interpret during the show for an Indian Canadian young couple enthusiastic about ninjas. And pose for pictures. Next time, says Kashira, we will practise posing for pictures. In no time, the last show is over, and we scatter into the tent, where I empty the hot water dispenser and de-dust the foot mats in front of the door.
This time, I have brought some Ferrero Kuesschen chocolates from
A message from U-san.
“Let’s check how long it takes for you to get here next Sunday. When would you like to be in Iga?”
“Would it be ok if I left the house around seven?”
“You are new to the job. So you should be there before everybody else and clean and prepare the place. Can you be here at the train station near my house at seven?”
This is followed by a detailed description of how to get to Furukawabashi. I have to take the Hankyu line to Umeda, then change to the Midosuji Subway, and then, one stop later at Yodoyabashi, hop onto the Keihan line and go to Furukawabashi.
On Saturday night, I make a big sacrifice for the ninja boss’s wife and skip karate training. She wants a Japanese CV from me, and I need Excel to update my old one. And to use Excel, I have to go to Its-san’s house. After work, however, Manager gives Chi-san, one of the three students in my last Saturday night class, a sales pitch, which is disguised as a long, animated conversation involving Chi-san’s new work schedule and triathlon training. She is a lovely woman, but I want to leave as soon as possible so I don’t have to bother Its-san and little R-chan until late and can secure some sleep before tomorrow’s early start. But there is no way out. I have to stand and smile and nod, and contribute my own half marathon times, and throw in some admiring English aizuchi, little meaningless comments to encourage people to keep talking. I have to be smiley and patient, and look like I’m thoroughly enjoying a little chat with my favourite people in my favourite place. Difficult.
My colleague M-san appears from our messy store room that remains invisible to our students in casual clothes and murmurs a half-hearted apology. Chi-san, bless her, tells me to please go home, too. She works in a gym, and knows, no doubt, what a chore customer service can be. But I pretend I was not even thinking of exiting such a wonderfully stimulating conversation. Why? Adaptation must have snuck up on me when I didn’t notice, like a cunning ninja.
We finally see her off at ten to nine and Manager takes the elevator down with her to retrieve the pink GEOS flags from outside. M-san and I simultaneously start moving at tenfold speed and erupt into individual fits of swearing that meet harmoniously here and there, in chords of dischord, mixing English, Japanese, and here and there, M-san’s freshly learned German swearing styles. Manager comes back, we log out, and say farewell to her for another weekend.
Then I try to find Its-san’s house and fail miserably a few times. I am exhausted. And cycling around in the dark, somewhere near my house, failing to find a way I have been shown over and over again makes me feel stupid and annoyed with myself. Finally, I manage to find the path Its-san keeps telling me to go straight down all the way, the blessed path that leads me right up to her house. She is waiting outside for me in a sweat suit. We enter the house, where R-chan, wearing manga rabbit pyjamas, is lounging about on the sofa watching a morbid comedy program on TV. “R-chan, aisatsu!” Its-san tells her to greet me properly. “Hello” says R-chan. Its-san switches on the computer for me and serves some white drinking yoghurt in a small glass bottle, and a juicy orange cut up on a leaf-shaped plate. I thank her and start working on my CV. The only difficult part is the free writing part where I have to detail my hopes for this job. I have never written a CV for a ninja job before, but try my best to use formal CV language to let the ninjas know I am prepared to do as much cleaning, carrying boxes, lining up tickets in baskets, and assembling ninja stars into badges of five to be test-thrown for 200 Yen each, as it takes. I will in fact do all this just for its own sake, and for the honour of being able to help the ninjas. And if, at any stage, I could start training ninjutsu and maybe even start a career as a ninja, I would be infinitely grateful and forever in their debt. I have Its-san read it over, and she makes a few nice changes, including the order and the polishing of some expressions for which I hadn’t been aware of more formal versions. We spend some time fiddling with the strange format and print out my form. Then Its-san makes some Korean nut tea, and R-chan, Its-san and I sit watching R-chan’s strange show together, drinking our sweet, nutty tea. I give R-chan some chocolate. “Do you want some chocolate?” “Hm. Ok. But I also want something salty.” “Sorry, I don’t have anything salty.” I apologize. Its-san gets out some big, salty o-Senbe rice crackers. I get out my kinoko mochi sweet chewy rice balls. I have three. Its-san is keeping toher diet. I eat one and R-chan eats one. I haven’t had dinner. I grab the second one. R-chan lets out a screech like an old car breaking suddenly on a rain-wet road, and says: “Choudai.” meaning “Give me it!” I let her grab one side of it and pull it into a long sticky string to share it. She grunts and sqeals, not happy with only half. “R-chan!” Its-san growls Marge Simpson style. “You eat too much!”
Finally, I thank Its-san and say good bye. It is , and I cycle home, where I have to try out several long pairs of trousers to see which ones go best with my ninja soul. I assemble everything I need when I depart for my first proper shugyo training in Iga in a few hours. Notebook, book, camera, wallet, some food and drink in my rucksack, clothes to be worn on the table. Then I try to sleep, but it is difficult, especially knowing that I only have a few hours to do so. When I finally fall into a dream, in which I have to be really careful about the corridor that leads towards the light, because somebody is coming from there, and something suspicious and frightful is happening between me and the light, I get thrown right out of it again by my alarm clock.
On Sunday 12 May at 4.44, mothers’ day, I force myself out of bed and put on my ninja soul. I have two slices of buttered toast and a cup of coffee and cycle towards Sone station. The only hiccup is missing a semi-express at Yodoyabashi that I could have taken, but I arrive on time, and U-san is waiting for me in her little car, complete with sun screens suction-cupped to the windows, and a little lamb-shaped tissue box in front. After some efficient early morning greetings, we drive out onto the motorway towards Iga, our surroundings getting greener and greener. “Today,” says U-san, “Tomo-chan and Hentai (the weirdo) are at a wedding, so Kashira (the boss) and Ma-chan are on their own, and they definitely need me to help. When it’s not so busy, and there’s four of them there, they can do everything on their own, but today they need me. Tomo-chan’s umbrella trick is lucky. It is like an offering to the gods, so people love it for weddings.” I am impressed by the sphere of tasks carried out by the modern Ninja. What a truly adaptable creature.
It is a cloudy day. When we’re almost there, we stop at a combini and get a second breakfast. Later, there might not be time for much of a break. Only a short lunchbreak. Maybe 15 minutes. We sit slurping coffee, U-san eats an egg sandwich, I have some salmon onigiri to re-fill energy reserves.
When we get to the Ninja-village, some people are already in the parking space. It is half eight. We go to the tent and U-san shows me how to clean the hot water dispenser and where to plug it in, in case anybody wants coffee or cup-ramen. Another piece of the big jigsaw puzzle of daily routines at the Ninja-village I am trying to put together in my head, as a map to be followed with my body. I am not here for money. Or amusement. Or martial arts training. I am here for Shūgyō, training mind and body, demonstrating dedication.
We accommodate our things on the raised section inside the tent, resembling a tatami room, but not treated like one. Shoes are worn everywhere in the tent, it is a work place like that for actors backstage, where they have their makeup and costumes, snacks and drinks, where they get changed and fight their nerves between costumes and different entertainment routines. The two men who work at the village are already there. I’m not sure what their jobs are, but they are always there, helping in one way or another, or being there in case help is needed. Smiling. Greeting everybody with a friendly face. Friendly greetings all around. “In
We walk up the short path to the Ninja stage, and I get the big straw broom and the orange dust pan from the small space backstage behind the straw wall that shows marks of being battered with small sickles turned ninja stars. This is a small episode in one of the show routines in which Kashira explains that especially here in Iga, a lot of Ninjas used to be farmers, or at least lived and dressed like farmers most of the time, so they pretended to cut grass with their little sickles, and when enemies appeared, they hurled their sickles at them and punctured their unassuming hearts. Sickle ninja stars.
Like last time, I start sweeping between the benches and gather the dirt that accumulates in the orange dust pan. Ma-kun appears out of nowhere and smiles. Then Kashira appears, sees me and smiles very broadly. I’m not sure whether that is a good sign. Somehow it makes me nervous. We exchange greetings, and I arrive at the front row and start sweeping the stage and the space in front of it. Kashira comes and takes the broom off me. “Anna. Look.” One of the oji-sans who are always around to help is sitting in the front row, watching us at work. “Foreigners are not used to using a broom.” Kashira tells him. He takes the broom in both hands and in a few, elegant strokes, without the slightest effort, gathers all the leaves on the left side of the stage into a neat pile. There are no superfluous movements. His soji, cleaning, is precise, elegant, efficient, and effortless. “You have to treat the broom like a sword.” Unfortunately I have no experience with swords. I try my best to imitate Kashira’s style of soji. He walks around doing things here and there, and then takes the broom off me again. “Anna. Look.” He gathers all the leaves on the other side of the stage with the same beautiful movements. This time, I notice his big, long strokes rather than trying to analyse the position of his arms and hands. “The way you do it, Anna, a 10 minute job takes half an hour! If you don’t get used to using a broom properly, you can’t proceed to the next step. Foreigners are not used to using a broom.” He tells oji-san again. Oji-san laughs. “You use a hoover don’t you?” Kashira asks me. “We use hoovers, yes.” I admit and try to take the broom off him. But he handles it at his own pace. I want to learn. “She comes from a well-to-do family in
I sweep the path that leads the visitor queues up to the stage to free the rubble of fallen leaves. While trying to implement Kashira’s and papa’s broom teachings, I notice that sweeping leaves out of rubble requires a very light, long touch, because too heavy strokes clear both the rubble and the leaves. The long bristles of the broom have to dance lightly across the chunky path, to work like a sieve that separates the leaves from the rubble.
When I finish, I run to dump the dirt on the big leafy pile hidden behind the photo gallery to the right of the stage that shows Kashira with Takeshi Kitano, his friends at the film set of “Last Samurai”, Tomonosuke and Masanosuke when they were kids, smiling in front of a warrior with a white beard and a dirty face who seems to have come from a long gone age, and various Kunoichi in short ninja dresses that have left Kashira’s house to become famous actresses. Once back, I ask U-san whether anything else has to be cleaned, but she tells me to do the seats next, so I deposit broom and dust pan backstage and grab the short broom from the side of the sound effects box, reserved for cleaning the benches. In short strokes, shaking my wrist, I brush the dust off the benches front to back. Kashira is next to the sound effects box, drilling a big hole into a stump to be used for mounting the rolls of soaked bamboo he will cut with his katana in the show later on. The makiwara that offer the same resistance to the sword as a human neck.
“Anna,” he interrupts his wood drilling to drill me. “Do you know what this is?” He points at the bench. I wonder what kind of answer he is looking for. “It’s wood.” I see. “And these,” he gestures along the lines in the wood, “are lines in the wood. And these are the eyes.” He shows me the places where the twigs used to grow, leaving round, dark dents. “You have to clean the benches along these lines.” He takes the broom off me and, in long sweeps, brushes the dust sideways along the benches until it flies off in a little cloud at the end. “Wakarimashita,” I say. Understood. And smile. I take the broom and try to sweep like Kashira, who goes back to drilling the wood. He has turned his back to me. But the eyes in the wood are watching me, wherever I go, and they will cry to Kashira about the dust I have left in them if I don’t brush them
properly. “The stage,” says Kashira, “and its whole environment have to be kept neat and clean. The Kami-sama live there, the gods. If you make an effort, the gods come out to help you.”
U-san has already watered the sand between the rows of seats, to avoid flying dust and enhance the cleaning prowess of the broom. I spot a bit of insect protection that has leaked onto the front bench and ask U-san whether I should clean this with the zōkin, the cloth in the bucket behind the sound effects box. “Yes.” Kashira appears. “Does Anna know how to use a zōkin yet?” I remember U-san showing me how to fold the zōkin twice and wring it last week, but after my first lesson in broomsmanship this morning, I don’t dare being so bold as to claim I know how to use a zōkin. “The monks at the Shaolin temple practised this every day. They practised with the broom, and they practised with the zōkin. So did the samurai and the ninjas. In handling a zōkin correctly, you develop the muscles in your forearms, and you tighten the grip on your sword. He folds the zōkin twice, like I was shown last week, and grabs it like the handle of a katana. His forearms bulge as he wrings the water from it to the last drop. He hands me the zōkin and wanders off with the amused chuckle I am getting used to. U-san shows me how to clean the bucket with the hose by the stage that is used for watering the sandy stage and spaces between the benches before and in between shows, and I spend some time practising Kashira’s wringing sword grip on the zōkin. Chapter 2: First Steps in Zōkinjutsu.
After I have cleaned the insect protection off the front bench, and under U-san’s instruction, wiped the splutters of mud off the photo galleries and poster walls around the stage, Kashira tells us to take a break. We still have more than half an hour before the first show. I feel lazy sitting down, but U-san gives me a short lesson on how important it is to work when you are told to work and rest when you are told to rest. I get my notebook and copy down the English text on the posters around the stage. Maybe, I think, I can improve on that a little bit if they want me to at some stage. “Best selling item in house of Ninja Tradition!” “Where light is, shadow exists. The Ninja, living on the backside of history. With strength, mental power, and the sword’s power. Iga Ninja have existed for centuries. Now, again!”
I look at the Japanese versions and try to produce some more appealing English blurbs. After all, the Ninjas were known for their excellent spying skills. They used secret codes and a writing system nobody else knew. And don’t we all know from authentic spy movie experience that spies are known to be great linguists?
Brooding over my English ninja ads, U-san who has finished testing the mic and audio equipment, sits down next to me and asks me what I’m doing. She listens and sounds very impressed, as she would never notice such a thing. I diplomatically tell her, the English is not really wrong, it just might not appeal to English visitors in this form because they have a different way of responding to advertisements. She sounds even more impressed and turns around to tell Kashira. “O, really?” he says. “Please fix it for us!” Happy to have found a purposeful way of sitting on the clean wooden benches, I keep brooding over the most enjoyable and attractive text possible to be put on posters and signs. One of them is aimed at selling the big hachimaki headband with the kanji for “
Masanosuke, otherwise knows as Ma-chan, comes back with his eyebrows emphasised in dark, black strokes of make-up and a dark ninja tan. He takes his baseball and catching glove and starts throwing the ball at the straw wall. “Want to play?” he asks me. Throwing things is not my strong point. But I’ve always wanted to play with a Ninja. “Sure.” I smile and get up from the bench. “Are you right or left handed?” he says. “Right.” “OK. He hands me a glove.” Put this on your left hand. He walks across the stage and throws the ball at me. But it bounces off the glove again and again, and I don’t manage to catch many balls. Ma-chan smiles and says “Kashira will be back soon. We’ll show you how to do it.” Kashira comes back, wearing a catching glove on his right hand, and the two of them start throwing the ball back and forth, catching it with the leather gloves, holding them up high and snapping the ball out of the air. “This,” says Kashira,” loosens up your muscles before the ninja star routine.” “Yeah,” says Ma-chan, “He is really used to it, but I’m not, so it’s difficult. My hands get sweaty.” The ball from Kashira’s side flies at three times the speed as Ma-chan’s. U-san has told me about this. She has to adjust the timing of the sound effects to the people doing the routine. Kashira’s ninja-stars land so fast, she can hardly push the button home in time with her finger tip lying in wait right on top of it. “We came second at the Kōshien baseball championships when I was in highschool.” Says Kashira when I admire his throwing skills. “So I practised a lot.” The skills and achievements of the modern ninja are baffling indeed.
Finally, ten minutes before the first show at , U-san puts on her walkie talkie headphones so she can communicate with the other actors in this routine, and I accompany her to the back entrance, to be opened slightly after the people who have queued by the front entrance have been let in. I switch on my MP3 voice recorder, newly acquired for this purpose, and hide it under my red ninja wristband, on the inside of my forearm. This will be my study material for keigo, respect language to be employed when talking to visitors.
Keigo are used in every shop and tako-yaki stall in the street. In every restaurant. At GEOS. At the tourist information centre. In every customer service environment in
All this reflects the Japanese saying “The customer is to be treated like a god.” After the madness of Golden Week, this is an exceedingly quiet day, and there seems to be little effort in smiling and making the few groups of visitors stop when they come past from the ninja house, inviting them into the show for 200 Yen each. Families. Kids pay the same price from 4 years of age. Old women. Old men. A young couple, he is wearing a big, purple felt hat and a T-shirt that reads “Be Peace!” sporting a hemp leaf and a peace sign. The Ninja’s popularity stretches across all boundaries, impressing even the true Japanese Hippie pacifist with his martial prowess and stealthy skill.
U-san tells Ma-chan through the walkie talkie that we are about to close the back entrance, and walks up to the sound effect box while I fasten the metal hooks to the metal rings around the entrance and close the tarpaulin door. I stay on the left side of the stage, and only make my way around to the other side when I notice that a few people are sitting on the plastic sheet near the stage, the spot that becomes dangerous during the ninja star routine, so when Ma-chan walks onto the stage with his juji, cross-shaped, and roppo, six-point ninja stars, I tell them quietly that this part of the show will be dangerous, so could they please stand back just for the ninja star routine? I apologise and bow and usher them up the first two stairs. After that, I walk back to the left side, where I watch as amazed as the audience, as the two ninjas demonstrate their skill in the use of different sized sickles, including one attached to a long chain with an iron ball at its end, the kusarigama, and hobakujutsu, the art of inflicting damage on an opponent from a distance without weapons, using nothing but a rope with a knot at each end. Also called taijutsu and employed, without the rope, in various modern budo including aikido, judo, and karate. Finally, after Kashira has cut off his son’s balls with a sickle, caught his foot with a chain, stuck his hand through his skin up his stomach, and broken his neck with a frightful crunching sound, resulting in a pained grimace on Ma-chan’s face, he walks a few steps away from his most recent victim and looks at the audience. Then back at Ma-chan. Pats him on the back. “Hey, it’s over!!” People laugh. Ma-chan wakes from his painful death, bows and scrambles off stage. Kashira thanks the audience for their visit and attention, and tells them what they have seen today are not the only tricks the ninjas knew. While Ma-chan comes out to present the Ninja group’s original DVD to people, drawing another laugh, I unhook the tarpaulin door and stand by the exit, raising my hand when Kashira tells people “The exit is on the left.”
Outside tourist season, such as Golden Week and the summer holidays, shows are only on every hour, and the stage is turned into a ninja star throwing dojo in between shows. People get to throw five stars for 200 Yen. Unlike the walls used by the ninjas in the show, the special walls put up for this purpose have a shooting target on them to give a goal and enhance the thrill of playing, and are not made of wood but of Styrofoam. Kids on the right, with U-san and Ma-chan. Adults on the left with Kashira. Each team has one bucket for cash and one for Ninja stars.
I stand by the exit and bow to people, one group after another, smiling “Arigatou gozaimashita!” as they leave.
When most people have cleared the exit, Kashira waves me over with the strange Japanese hand gesture that is used to signal “Come here!” but always looks like “Go away, filthy vermin.” Feeling appropriately addressed by this, I disobey my lowly gaijin impulses and approach him. “Here. It’s five stars for 200 Yen.” He hands me a pile of five ninja stars and takes the next person’s 200 Yen. Startled into my sudden promotion to advanced customer service personnel, I bow as I hand the man his five ninja stars and say: “Five stars, good luck.” “Where’s your voice?” says Kashira. “Speak louder. Do you find it embarrassing to talk to visitors?” He hands me the next five ninja stars and I don’t get a chance to answer his question. “I want you to talk to visitors as much as possible. You have to get used to it.” I talk to the visitors as much as possible, digging out scraps of keigo from the periphery of my cerebrum, dusting them as I go along listening to Kashira, trying to extend my audio-absorption sphere to take it Ma-chan’s and U-san’s words as well. Red line for the men, yellow line for the women. It gets easier. In the end, when most people have left, Kashira hands me five ninja stars. “Here. Try. It’s difficult.” My first star barely clings on to the wall. It doesn’t have any force in it. I try to remember the body postures I have seen Kashira and Ma-chan use. Arm back, elbow in. Hip swing when hurling the star forward. My next attempt is stronger. And my last star lands near the centre of the shooting target. Maybe throwing things can be learned after all.
In between shows, I talk to U-san and work on more English for the posters. In the second show, I am to help Ma-chan clear away the fallen pieces of bamboo that Kashira slices off the bamboo stalks and rolled up mats in the first part of today’s show. I stand on the left side of the stage. U-san has told me to go gather the bamboo once Kashira finishes his routine and starts his explanations. But I don’t dare shooting out without a further signal. Sure enough, shortly after Kashiras explanations have begun, Ma-chan’s face appears from backstage, and he nods as he runs onto the stage and carries the heavy mounts with the stumps of bamboo stalks and rolls to the back of the stage. I run with him and gather the fallen pieces of bamboo into the straw mat, the mushiro, as U-san tells me, at the front of the stage, roll it into a bag, and run to the audio box at the back of the audience, where I deposit everything at the foot of the round, wooden steps leading up to the box. After doing this once, it repeats itself every show. You do not get told things twice. You get told once and are expected to do them from then on.
Three foreigners come to the next show, an English teacher with his two parents on visit is my guess. I sit next to them and interpret the explanations. Especially the dad is very happy about it and acknowledges the information I give him with amazes nods and gasps of admiration for the skills and knowledge of the Ninjas.
I can’t believe half the day has passed already when U-san tells me that the two of us are going for lunch now. We walk down to the tent, where some big o-bento lunch boxes are waiting for us, containing a mountain of rice, fried meat, a pink and white fish paste flower, cooked beans, little tofu balls, deep fried fish and soy sauce. While we eat, she says, today is a very easy day, and there aren’t many visitors. Sometimes there is not much time for lunch, but today things are easy, and we have 20 minutes to eat and drink some barley tea from the fridge. “When you leave for lunch, you say O-saki desu. Because you are going for lunch before they are.” This is what we are told to do, but it still has to be regarded as something that should not be done and therefore has to be mentioned as a kind of apology. Kashira says: “U-san and Anna. Go for lunch.” And we say “Osaki-desu.” That’s all the etiquette we have time for, emphasises U-san. There is no time for polite hesitation. When you get back, you say “Osaki deshita.” I went for lunch before you did. And they will go after the next show. I take a note in the Ninja Japanese section of my brain. Then we go back to the stage, and enjoy another three shows. During the second to last show, my tiredness hits me so bad, I forget to warn the three people in the dangerous place and watch Ma-chan throw his ninja-stars in horror, breaking into a cold sweat myself as his words from earlier on are on repeat in my spinning head “I’m not really used to this yet. My hands get sweaty.” I have also missed to gather the mat with the bamboo from next to the audio box and carry it backstage. U-san has told me what Ma-chan does with it, and I have not interpreted this as an instruction to do it myself in the future. The subtleties of Japanese teaching methods are plenty. After everybody leaves the next ninja star throwing session, I carry the mat backstage and look for the black bin bag Ma-chan has mentioned to me, to be used for the bamboo mats. U-san hurries to help. “Take off the rubber bands,” she says, “and put them in the bowl there. They are a different type of rubbish.”
Before the last show, Kashira joins U-san and me by the back entrance. “You are not good at sales.” He says, but there is no blame in his voice. “No, sorry.” I say. “I hate sales, too,” he says. I tell him I don’t mind selling things if people want them. I just don’t like having to force things on people. “Are you nervous about talking to visitors?” he asks. “Not in general.” I answer truthfully. “I’m just worried about using the appropriate keigo.” “But you speak hyoujungo (Standard Japanese). That’s better Japanese than we speak.” U-san looks flustered and Kashira laughs. They are good friends. “This one here,” says Kashira, is a real Kansai woman. For women it’s especially dirty to use Osaka-ben.” He laughs, and U-san gives up her mock indignation and bursts out laughing, too, releasing an unintelligible stream of Osaka-ben swearing in Kashira’s direction. “Don’t worry, Anna. Your Japanese is pretty. How are we going to solve your visa problems.” “I wish I knew. I didn’t think it would be this complicated.” “Neither did I. But my wife is checking everything she can. As long as we don’t do anything illegal.” “Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu.”
After the last show at four a clock, U-san tells me to go and tidy up the tent, pour out the water in the hot water dispenser, dust the floor mats by the entrance, and relax. Cleaning is mostly done in the morning. During the night, leaves will fall, so there is no point. I do as I’m told. Ma-chan and Kashira come back to the tent. I have made some cake for them, and Kashira looks happy when I put the tray full of green tea and chocolate cake in front of them. They thank me, and U-san and I thank them. For the day. Their work. Their attention. Their honourable presence. “We will be in touch before next week,” says Kashira, and I bow “Shitsurei shimasu!” again before I exit the tent and walk to the car with U-san.
On the way back, she tells me I have to become a ninja in the ninja world. Somebody who lives in the shadows of the shadows, assuring the shadow’s existence. It is like a Japanese saying. You have to become like a pillar that is dug up in the ground to support a house. Nobody can see you, yet without you, the house would crumble. But even to become that, it takes a long time. She lives with her mother, and works Monday to Saturday in a car export and import company. So she can only go on Sundays, and it took her about three years to remember the routines. We stop by a combini-cum-vegetable market, use the toilet, buy some cheap fruit, and continue our journey back through the green winding roads of Iga to the big ugly monstrosity that is
For now, I am on the dusty path of shugyo. I am training to be without desire. Without thought. Stealthy, quiet, living a life in the shadows. Don’t leave me, sun. I need you, for without you, I cannot be the shadow I aspire to be.
I arrive at home at and take a shower. Then, I suddenly notice I need sleep and fall into a world of shadows that is too dark to see a single thing. Sleep.
The next morning, we meet for breakfast at 7.30 and leave for the ninja village. It is Golden Week, so visitors are already streaming into the ninja fortress at this early hour when we arrive.
We deposit our things in the tent. I am wearing my ninja soul, and my wrist bands, and get given a “
But today, the boss is easy on me. I am to watch S-san managing floods of visitors, dividing the long queue into two parts with ropes, to create a passage way that lets people into the museum, or House of Ninja Traditions. She is very professional, polite at the exactly appropriate level that makes visitors feel special, e with due humility and respect, but she does not create too big a distance between her and them, so they feel treated warmly, and truly welcome, at the same time. Yet another art I still have to master. She hands out little wooden tickets from a basket and gives change from a black leather bag. She sends me to get her 100 Yen coin change from Tomonosuke and new Iga brochures to hand out to people, to let them know what delicacies and other attractions can be enjoyed in the city at this high time of Japanese tourism. On a normal Sunday, there are six ninja shows a day, one every hour, followed by ninja star throwing for the audience. During Golden week, there are about ten shows, one every half hour, and the ninja star throwing is only for kids, and not carried out on stage, which in this case, needs to be prepared for the next show, but in the House of Ninja Traditions. And in this strange Golden Week world, the ninjas have the hardest time of the year, while everybody else takes time out. The joys of the entertainment business.
I get used to saying “Irasshaimase” (the obligatory welcome greeting used by people in any shop or other customer orientated establishment, accompanied by a bow), “Arigato gozaimasu” (thank you), and “dozo” (go ahead). I bow and hail my humble greetings on people who are passing me by, hardly noticing me, and that’s not because I’m such a good ninja. I am a shadow, watching the light to become part of it at some point, maybe.
For the rest of the time, once the people are inside, I get to watch the show. “Just enjoy yourself!” says the boss. There are a few foreign visitors, and I interpret for them before and during the show.
Finally, at around , the boss tells me I have seen enough for today, and can go home. I bow to him and thank him for everything. “So I will see you next Sunday then,” he says. “Yes.” I thank him again, and ask for more continued kindness, benevolence and teaching. I say a brief thank you and farewell to the busy S-san who is managing another hoard of holidaying Japanese buffaloes, and follow U-san, who
shows me how to ready the tent for the next day: sweep it, clean it, throw away the water in the kettle, tidy it up.
Once we are finished, I say good bye to her and, still in an incredulous daze, walk back to the station and make my way back to
When I’m half way through my rice and just picking up a slice of radish, the boss appears, Bruce Lee written across his chest, looking like a good-natured old boy who likes his beer and his baseball. He walks up to the counter to fetch a tray full of food and comes to our table taking S-san’s place.
“So, Anna, he says, “How do you want to go about things?”
“I don’t know. I can stay longer if you want. I have a friend in
“Cause us trouble?” he finishes chewing his beef and washes it down with a sip of miso soup, screwing his face slightly. “Stop thinking along those lines right now,” he waves me off. “That’s not the spirit of our group. We provide all you need, food, shelter, insurance. Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it.” He looks me in the eyes to make a point. “You pay with effort.”
“Insurance?” I say.
“Yes,” says the boss. “If you are a ninja in training, you will get injured.” A u-tube “Ask a Ninja” quote pops up in my mind. “Nobody has ever survived a ninternship,” and I swallow my last bite of rice.
“No Japanese insurance company will insure a ninja. The job is too dangerous. We need to get a foreign insurance to cover our needs. Anyway. No worries. We make the environment for you to train in, you make your body. Turn it into a ninja’s body with a ninja’s skills.
You do the small jobs first. Clean, give out tickets, handle the money, do the sound effects, interpret for foreign visitors. Just like a part time job. What you get paid depends on how much effort you make. If you’re lazy you don’t get paid. If you work hard, you could get a better life out of this than have now.”
Money or no money, I’m sure I will get a better life out of this than I have now. At least concerning job satisfaction. My present job satisfaction goes as far as taking home a paycheque at the end of the month. I’m not using my head or my skills, I’m working 20 hours of unpaid overtime, and I am expected to be a sales shark. Luckily, my students are nice people, and the time I get to spend with them brings the odd highlight into my days down under, toiling at the GEOS mines.
“But,” says the boss, “I meant, when do you want to start?”
I have a quick think. “Maybe I could quit GEOS by the end of June.” Starting training near my birthday seems like a nice and motivating birthday present to myself. Also, becoming a ninja usually takes about three years. And I like the thought of setting myself that all-important goal people set themselves. That all-important goal you need to have reached by the time you’re thirty, or else, you’re past it, and it’ll never happen. So what’s your goal, Anna Sanner? House? Husband? Kids? Ph.D.? Stable job? No. By the time I’m thirty I want to be a ninja. That sounds like something to look forward to. I smile to myself.
“OK,” says the boss. Then I remember my summer plans. “O, but my friend is getting married in August. And my dad is planning to come over to visit me in
“On the twentieth of every month we decide the next month’s schedule, so if you tell us by 20th July when you will be in
“You have to know, we are a good group! Our line of work is full of Yakuza. We have nothing to do with them. We are a good group, and there are no strange people in our group. Apart from him.” He points across the table to the third ninja, the young stuntman with the golden teeth who is silently eating his dinner next to Tomonosuke. “What?” He makes a shocked face. “This here,” says the boss, “is Hentai (=Weirdo).” “What kind of impression is she going to get of me?!” Hentai’s somewhat handsome face takes on a deeply disturbed expression. U-san and the sons laugh silently. “Yes, he stutters,” says the boss. “And sometimes he mumbles away and says things to himself that nobody else understands.” Hentai turns red. “And today, he’s especially shy because we have a beautiful woman at our table.” “What kind of impression are you giving her?!” Hentai repeats looking helpless. “Don’t worry,” I reassure him, “It’s quite an impression, I won’t forget about you too soon.”
Besides Hentai, the boss’s two sons and wife, there is also a three-year-old ninja in the family. He is just starting his katana training, and I’m looking forward to meeting him next time. The boss’s wife used to be a school teacher and is good at English.
“But I want you to teach my Tomo English conversation. If you teach him, it’ll take care of your rent. There’s a little apartment in our house, but you have to tell us in advance so we can get it ready.” “Teaching him English takes care of my rent?” I ask, shocked. “Sure,” says the boss and keeps eating.
“We’ve just lost a kunoichi. She lost her will to be a ninja. I could see it in her eyes. I have taught so many people. I know. The fact that you came in right now is fate..”
U-san tells the boss about my mum’s late career change. “Wow,” says the boss. “So her mum is clever. This child is clever, too. It’s worth gold that you speak Japanese and English, that’s exactly what we were looking for.”
Somehow, a big bottle of Asahi beer makes it to our table. I feel no need or urge to drink. The boss himself says he can only have one glass, everything else is too much for him. Hentai and the sons are drinking. The boss urges me to have one glass. Luckily the glass is small, and I keep nursing it to prevent being offered more. As promised, after one beer, the boss turns red and cannot drink another. The sons and Hentai keep refilling their glasses, and while I am not keen about beer tonight, I am enjoying the idea of having a beer with the ninjas.
“Ninjas,” says the boss, “are specialists. If there is something you are bad at, leave it. If there’s something you are good at, polish it, and make it perfect. If you have one or two things you’re really good at, it’s enough to be able to do all the other ninja things just well enough. My Tomo over there, he will have enough to eat for the rest of his days because he can make a coin roll on top of an umbrella.”
I have no doubt about that. It is one of the most impressive stunts I have seen, and the boss claims, nobody else in the world can do it.
“So you have to find out what you’re good at. The only thing I insist on is sword fighting. If you make it until we start proper training, I will teach you how to use a sword. But first, you will have to do the little things. I’m good at training people. Trust me. I know what I’m doing.” He chuckles over a sip of tea. He has cleared his tray. And an additional bowl of yaki-soba fried noodles. I’m impressed at the amount he has managed to eat while telling me so many things. “We have to eat a lot,” he says. “During Golden Week, we use a lot of energy.”
And at that, he silently hits the table with the palms of his hands and gets up from the table. “Time to go to bed. We need enough rest, as well. Never forget that. Enough rest is just as important as enough effort. Good night.”
And another one disappears. Just as professionally.
At 7.30, I make my way down to the dining room where I find S-san and U-san sitting at one of the clean, plain white, cloth-less cafeteria style tables with trays full of Japanese food. There is a big bowl of rice, a smaller one with miso soup, a tiny plate with yellow slices of pickled yellow daikon radish, a plate full of a beef and vegetable casserole with sticky sauce. The casserole does not look especially Japanese, it could be served anywhere in the world, but everybody, including the oji-san at the neighbouring table, is worried whether I can eat it. I assure them I have no problem eating whatever it is, and sighs of relief fill the dining room.
I go to the window to the kitchen where the trays of food are filled and handed out and get a load of food and a glass of green tea. Then I join S-san and U-san at the table and sit down opposite S-san who has come to eat early because she wants to do her washing after dinner and is planning to leave us soon tonight. S-san has finished eating and launches into a speech. A very long, very useful speech. She speaks very fast, with an accent I’m not used to, so I have to concentrate hard to catch what she is saying to me, but what I am hoping to do soon, she has already done, so I need her words. Every single one of them might be a paving stone on my way to becoming a kunoichi. The boss has expressed his admiration for her skills today. “This one has mastered it all. She’s a martial arts ace, and she’s an ace at doing every other kind of job in this place. Watch her sell tickets today, and learn how it’s done!”
So I sit and listen to S-san, who reminds me of a fairy with her round short hair, pretty protruding upper lip and wide open eyes. A somewhat strict, awe-inspiring fairy, but a pretty one, and lucky, methinks. I hardly manage to swallow in between because I’m so intent on listening to her.
“First of all, never think you’re too good for any job. You have to do them all, and you have to get good at them all, whether that is throwing a ninja star or sweeping the passenger seats. Never be lazy, and never be proud. Be humble and work hard. First, you’ll have to do a lot of annoying, lowly work. The martial arts training starts after that. And while you’re training, you’ll still have to do the lowly jobs. Everybody does everything here. We have a saying in Japanese that goes, if you don’t get the first thing right, you will never reach step number ten. Do you see what I mean? Get the first step right.
The most important thing to become a quick learner is to be able to read the boss’s mind. Once you realise what he wants, once you can read him, you will learn how to do things much more easily, so try to get to know him. He is very strict. He’s told me I was just a stupid woman several times during sword practice, when I couldn’t get the technique right. I spent lots of training sessions crying over my sword, unable to see the blade. It happens. In karate, everything ends at the length of a punch. With weapons, it’s different. You have to get used to the different distances between you and your partner. That all depends on the range of the weapon. It’ll take you about a year to get used to it. You have to understand that people come to see our show because we’re doing something dangerous. If it wasn’t dangerous, nobody would come to see us. So you have to be careful. And you have to train hard. But if you train, you can learn it. Watch things. And notice things.”
At this moment I notice that Tomonosuke has come down to join us. The umbrella man is wearing orange pyjamas and looks very young. It is difficult to make a connection between this pyjama-clad youth and the person that was rolling a coin round an umbrella and somersaulting across a sandy stage defeating his tough, stick twirling foe with a ninja sword just a few hours ago.
Shortly after, we are also joined by Masanosuke, and the third young ninja whose name I haven’t heard yet. They get their trays and sit down at the adjoining table to our left. S-san’s speech ends, she gives me a short smile, and excuses herself. She needs to do her washing. Good night S-san. Thank you! I will not forget. I’m writing it all down in my head as I eat. Each grain of rice I eat forms a letter inside my body. The ninjas knew many ways to encrypt and decode messages. One of them involved different coloured grains of rice. These grains of rice are all white when I eat them, but I assign them different colours in my head. And write S-sans words with them as she disappears. Professionally.