Audition Day

On May 4th, I check my e-mails again for Ishizuka’s detailed and concise description of how to get to Iga, and cycle to Sone Station. On the way I realise that I’ve left my mobile phone at home. Not a good idea. I might get lost, arrive late, or the ninja might change his mind or want to contact me about something on the way. I-san is in Nara, and we have to get in touch about a possible visit on my way back the next day. I turn around and go back to get my phone. On the way back to the station, I stop at the Japanese sweets shop with the woman who has the 1000 wrinke smile and the Oji-san with the friendly face and the round, bald head. Today they are both there and repeatedly express their admiration of my Japanese skills. But the real compliment is that the more I say, the more the two of them laugh. The absurdity of it. A gaijin that really does speak Japanese. Oji-san even voices it: “Well, if you’re that good, it’s fun, isn’t it?” All I’m doing is everyday conversation, but it is definitely more fun being able to communicate than to being stuck behind the language barrier, and watching the world through the bars of that cruel prison.

I want to bring the ninjas something famous from Osaka, as is customary in Japan: you bring a present that is famous where you come from, but here, they only have more local Toyonaka specialities, and it is a hot day, so I settle for a box full of small tubs of fruit jelly at 1600 Yen. I want to spend more money to show proportionally more appreciation for the ninja’s kindness. Alas, this Friday is Golden Week holiday, and the post office-ATM included-is shut. SO I have to be careful with my cash as I have to pay for the train journey from Sone to Ueno-shi in Iga, and back.

Oji-san wraps the box in the shop’s own wrapping paper and puts it in a matching paper-bag for me, while Oba-san takes my cash and gives me the change. Then they perform their final obligatory good bye bows and tell me to come again. Oba-san’s 1000 wrinke smile escorts me out into the hot May day, where the sun looks faint in comparison.

Finally, I board the Hankyu train to Umeda. On my way to the big pedestrian’s bridge that leads across to JR Osaka Station I run into Itamal, the new aikidoka at Shosenji from Israel. He is waiting for B-san and Herrn T to attend the opening ceremony of a new dojo to be opened today in Umeda. We exchange a short greeting. “Are you coming, too?” he asks. “I’d love to, I have a job interview today, so I can’t go.” He wishes me luck, and I get on the Osaka loop line, direction Tennoji, to Tsuruhashi. The train is packed, and I can hardly squeeze in. Then it goes on to the Osaka Subway, which is not a Subway at all but a rather nice two double-decker train complete with real big green plants in the spaces between the coaches and nice toilets with separate mirror and sink arrangements in the corridor. This comfortable train takes me to Iga Kanbe. I have to buy another ticket for 1040 Yen at Tsuruhashi before I can pass through the gate to change trains. On the train, I have to pay another 850 Yen to the ticket man. The system is not altogether clear to me, but I am moving towards my destination, which is what matters.

When I arrive, I get onto another Subway train, which is not really a subway either but a very plain countryside train with two benches facing each other along the length of the train. I try to ask an oba-san whether this is the right train, but she waves her hands at me before I manage to say a word. “I don’t understand,” she says. I don’t want to upset her any further and ask the lady beside her who looks Philippino and has an un-Japanese kind of accent I can’t identify. It does seem to be the right train.

Ueno-shi is a small, inconspicuous station. Iga is a town that doesn’t seem to have much, and what it does have is hidden, in every otherwise unused nook and cranny of the city, on every shop and restaurant signboard, and on just about every product sold in this town: ninjas. Scary ninjas, cute ninjas, big ninjas, small ninjas, plastic ninjas, wooden ninjas, ninja dogs, ninja children, ninja men, and ninja women clomping about in high heels. The city is rife with ninja commerce. Ninja udon, ninja rice crackers, ninja wristbands, ninja mobile phone pendants, ninja weapons made of rubber, ninja suits, ninja everything.

Once upon a time, they used to be so well hidden, people didn’t know where and who they were, never mind what business they were in. This was their very business, stealth. But their excellence in mastering it in combination with a multitude of sophisticated espionage and martial tricks and techniques, has made them so famous that they have lasted through Japan’s warring states period from ca 1478 to 1605, when their skills were widely coveted by daimyos and other powerful people. They are still alive, and they still use the same techniques, skills, incantations, and weapons. But their business has changed. They now perform stealth for show. Iga is the last real ninja stronghold in the world, where the arts of the ninja, now called ninjutsu, are preserved and trained to be presented to enthusiastic international audiences. The ninja stage at Ninja-village is the main tourist venue for this, with shows every hour; every half hour during tourist season, including Golden Week. But occasionally, the ninjas leave their hometown to open up their skills to wider audiences and perform in movies and TV shows, including box office hits such as The Last Samurai.

I walk into the small tourist information box next to the station to get a map and ask where to go, but since everybody seems to be going the same way, there is no real need to adhere to the map. Down the stairs, and up the road to where it gets greener, big, leafy trees lining the broad path leading up to Ninja-village, a world in the shadow. When I arrive around two a’clock, hoards of people are queuing to get into the ninja museum, followed most likely by the ninja show. The person I am here to meet is probably entertaining the previous batch of people right now, sternly chanting mysterious ninja incantations, swiftly cutting through rows of makiwara, mats of bamboo, rolled up tight and soaked in water for hours, to offer the same resistance as human necks, swinging about his heavy Japanese katana with the ease and elegance of a monkey swinging from tree to tree. I join the shorter queue leading up to the ticket booth and announce my arrival. “My name is Anna, and I’m here to see Ukita Hanzo Sensei.”

The woman at the counter calls over another woman, young looking middle-aged, sparkly-eyed, in a purple ninja suit. “Ah, Anna-san!” she greets me, and gestures for me to walk to the exit of the ticket booth and follow her. She leads me down the path and turns at an almost invisible corner. From here, a small dirt track leads down to a little shelter. The “tent”. In front of it, is a fishing chair, surrounded by bins and other types of random objects resembling those found in a camping ground, or a film shooting camp. A tarpaulin roof covers the entrance area, big dusty foot mats pave the way to the door. The woman knocks and opens the door for me. “Anna-san is here!” In the tent, Ukita-Sensei and one of the other ninjas I saw in the show last time are preparing for the next show. But Ukita-Sensei seems calm. He has time. “Ah, Anan,” he says. “Hello. If you wear those flat soled jika-tabi all day, you get really tired. I’ll give you some with air cushioned soles, they’ll be easier to walk in. Don’t be nervous today. Just watch things and take it easy.” He gives me a box with size 25 jika-tabi. So this is what the shoe size question was about. I thank him humbly, trying to show even the smallest piece of my appreciation for his kindness, and change into my new tabi. “They fit perfectly, don’t they?” Ukita-Sensei smiles. They do. He then gives me a T-shirt and explains that the two kanji written on it mean “Ninja Soul”. A short explanation follows in English. “I think you understand this part.” He says.

Japanese Ninja Soul

The ninja’s original use of guerrilla tactics against better armed enemy samurai and their eventual use as hired spies does not mean that they were limited to espionage and undercover work, this is simply where their actions most drastically differed from the more accepted tactics of the samurai. Their weapons and tactics were partially derived from the need to conceal or defend themselves quickly from Samurai, which can be seen from the similarities between many of their weapons and various sickles and threshing tools used at the time.

To top it off, he gives me some red wristbands that bear the kanji for “nin”, or “shinobu”, hide. “Do you want to get changed?” asks Sensei. He and the other ninja politely leave the tent, and I change into my ninja soul. We then proceed to the ninja stage around the corner. He greets the diligent woman shouting out the show on offer and selling tickets to long queues of visitors, and takes me to the stage. The previous show is over, and the two entrances are closed, so no visitors are in the stage area at the moment. He introduces me to U-san, a very friendly woman with a pony tail wearing a short, kimono-like top with the kuji-no-in, the nine-letter incantation the ninja used in combination with hand gestures to prepare themselves for their missions. She is another diligent helper who shows visitors to the correct exits, and sits in the little box at the rear end of the rows of spectator seats, providing the music and sound effects for the show. She is always doing something, mysteriously making this a good environment for people to sit and enjoy the ninja show to the fullest.

I am reminded repeatedly by the ninja boss to just watch and take it easy. “And by the way, S-san, the woman you just saw selling tickets over there is the world karate champion.” He chuckles silently, walking on ahead of me, knowing without looking that my jaw has dropped and I have trouble regaining control over it. “If you start working for us,” says Sensei, “this is what you have to learn first. Sell tickets, help visitors, clean, remember how to do everything around the ninja stage. Help us.”

So it is this mysterious, constant diligence in the name of visitor satisfaction that I have to try and copy. I try to take in U-san’s every step and word. What is the secret? How do you get good at this? The first thing is probably to actually have your visitors’ satisfaction at heart. And what a truly splendid cause it is to entertain people. To give them some happiness and diversion in a world that is usually crammed with drab duties. Other than that, I do as I’m told, sitting in the middle of the front row, enjoying the ninja show. There are several different programs, but even if it was the same one every time, I would never get bored of the swishy flying around, the somersaults, ninja stars being hurled into a wooden wall, and the sword art. “Anna,” I get called by U-san in between shows. “Go down to the queue and interpret!” I run and find the boss next to a small group of foreigners. “I think they want to ask me something,” he says. I interpret for them. Their English sounds Dutch. “Yes, we were just wondering how long we have to wait to get in.” I interpret, and the boss tells them: “Sorry, this show is full now. The next show starts at half four, but if you want good seats, you should try to get here for quarter past.” I pass on his words, they thank me, and I tell them to enjoy their day at the Ninja-mura. “Very good!” says the boss in English and smiles. “This is great. It’s just what we were looking for, somebody who speaks English and can help us with all the foreign visitors.” I humbly deny any trace of expertise or skill and assure him I will always be at his service.

I run back inside and help the next bunch of foreigners, Americans this time. One of them has a camera and wants to know where he can go to get the best view of the show. I tell him to try standing behind the kids sitting on the mat in front, and enjoy the show from there. U-san witnesses our communication, makes round eyes and claps. “Sugoi!” she says. “Wow!” It is unbelievable how as easy an effort as speaking a few lines of everyday English can impress somebody who, day in, day out, watches people fly about in somersaults, run up walls, make six ninja starts land simultaneously in a wooden wall 15 feet away, and have a coin wander around an umbrella for minutes at a time.

After this, I spend a few shows sitting in the sound effect box with U-san, trying to remember what button makes which sound – control panel on the left. 1: flying about stealthily, a sound like wind. 6: ninja star gets stuck in the wall. Clonk. Control panel on the right: 1 - knife goes into the neck, 2 - knife gets pulled out, 3 – the rope is retrieved. A separate button on the bottom is turned right and back quickly when the katana cuts through the bamboo mats to create a cutting thump. I can’t remember everything, there are too many sounds and buttons, and it is difficult to watch the show and the buttons at the same time. But U-san seems to, whisperingly, give the boss a good reference about my observation skills. “Yes,” says the boss, “She’ll probably remember it in no time.” I don’t know where he takes his faith in me from.

After the last show is over, the men are busy putting a big tarpaulin above the stage to prevent it from getting wet or dirty during the night. This is their job, so the boss tells S-san, U-san and me to sit down and relax. We sit watching the work. The boss walks past us and says to S-san: “I’d like you to check whether this child is flexible. Whenever you have time.” S-san seems exhausted. She is married with children now, and doesn’t really want to come work all day during Golden Week, but she is a faithful group member even now. She has tended to long queues of visitors all day long in the scorching May sun. “O well, “ she says, “let’s do it now!” She gets one of the thin plastic sheets used when the spectator seats get so packed that extra seating eneds to be provided on the floor, and puts it into the stage. Then she sits down n the front bench. “Ok, Anna.” She says. “Side splits.” I stand on the mat and slide down into as wide a stance as I can manage, then I sit down. It is not a perfect 180 degrees, and I have probably failed the audition already. “OK. Now turn left.” She is still going. Is that a good sign? Front splits are easy, so left is no problem. Neither is right, although my pulled hamstring injury is still making this side much elss flexible than the other, but it is enough for front splits. “OK, and back to the middle.” I get back to the middle. “Can you bend your upper body forward? How far down can you get?” I lean forward and put my upper body on the ground. Today it hurts quite bad. Some days it hurts more, some less, but it’s always possible. “Yawarakai!” sounds the judge’s decision. Relief. She actually thinks I’m flexible. She has me do a few kicks. Kicks are my weak point. Ask T-Sensei. She corrects my round-house back kick, and I try to follow her instructions. This is the world karate champion, if nothing else, I will take her advice home with me. “Ok, ok, she says.” “So?” says the boss when he comes back. “Yes. She’s flexible. She won’t injure herself. If she trains, she’ll be able to do it in no time.” Somehow, everybody’s optimism about my learning capacities makes me more and more nervous. Some training this must be.

Apparently, my audition is over. S-san tells me what boxes to carry from backstage to the car. We carry the boxes to the car and deposit them in the back, together with the nunchakus and katanas. Then I sit in the car with U-san, waiting for Tomonosuke, the umbrella man to come and drive us to the ryokan (Japanese style hotel), Hotel Neo Furuton, where the boss has told me he will put me up tonight, the same ryokan they are staying in for the duration of Golden Week, when things are so busy at the Ninja village that they don’t have time to go home for the night.

In the car, talk to U-san. She does a “normal” job during the week and usually only comes here to help the ninjas on Sundays. She has been doing this for years, but she never tires of seeing the show. I tell her this world seems familiar to me. There are no ninjas in my family, my mum was an actress until she was about 37, when she decided to go back to school and become a children’s psychologist. So when I was little, I spent a lot of time playing with all the bizarre objects that, in the backstage shadows, mingle to create strange little worlds of their own, the darkness beneath the spectacle that most people never get to see. U-san is thoroughly impressed that my mum went back to school to become a psychologist. “She must be really clever!” “She is. I’m proud of her.”

Finally, Tomonosuke and his father, the boss, come walking up the road. Tomonosuke’s ninja pony tail has dissolved into a hairstyle that is clearly intended to be turned into a ponytail, with a fringe in front that goes a little further around the sides than a usual fringe, and longer hair in the back. He is wearing jeans and a denim jacket. Sensei is wearing a T-Shirt with “Bruce Lee” written across it. Then Masanosuke, the other ninja son appears, together with the third ninja, who is not a family member by blood, merely by profession. The boss has his own car and takes Masanosuke along. The third ninja jumps in with us, and we drive to the ryokan. It is a ten minute drive, and when we stop, there is nothing there but the hotel and a big parking lot. Life in the shadows of the motorway.

We enter the hotel and take off our shoes to deposit them in the shoe shelf and change into hotel slippers. U-san hands me my key, number 403, next to the ninja brothers who live in 404. She buys some mobile phone straps for 800 Yen a piece. They are shaped like the ropes the ninjas use to apply arm and wristlocks and other deadly techniques to people from a distance in a set of techniques called Hobakujutsu. “My mother really wants one,” she explains. “She got angry with me that I hadn’t brought her one before. “

Then she tells me to go to my room and relax, and come back down at 7.30 for dinner in the dining room on the first floor. “Over there.” She points at the dining room, and I thank her for all her help and instructions and take the elevator upstairs, together with Masanosuke.

My room is a tidy Japanese tatami room, complete with a futon, a TV, the usual toiletries, a kettle, green tea bags, and a folded up Yukata in a niche in the wall. I try to tidy up my thoughts, and take out my notebook for support, but there is not enough time until half seven, when I have a dinner appointment with the ninjas.

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