“You know the kanji for woman?” says Ishizuka while we’re slobbering our Ninja Udon in Iga. “Take the left part, and it becomes a hiragana ‘ku’. Take the right part, and it becomes a katakana ‘no’. Take the straight line on top, and it becomes the kanji for ‘ichi’, number one. So a female ninja is called a ‘kunoichi’.”
On the second day of Golden Week, I have fallen for the idea of becoming a kunoichi. It keeps somersaulting through my head, triggering domino collapses of sensible thought, turning everything into a landscape of chaotically pulsing rivers flooding arable fields with imagination, triggering the uncontrollable growth of irrational hope, and lifting the underside of my stomach like a speedy elevator. I grind my teeth and try to put my feet on the wobbly grounds of ‘it won’t work anyway, but I will try whatever I can, and if it happens after all, what a nice surprise it could be’ and take up my phone. The ninja is busy. I leave him a message, using my best keigo. I try again. And then, finding nothing better to do, again. Then I send him an e-mail to his mobile, asking him in another seven line tirade of linguistic humility whether he could contact me should his busy schedule open up. Then I call the number entitled ‘office’ from his card. A woman with his surname answers. Something tells me I have to be especially polite here, and again, I search the recesses of my brain for appropriately humble words to address the Ninja’s wife with proper etiquette. “This week, he is so busy he is staying in Ryokan Hotel near the ninja stage all week, so he won’t be back till Monday.” Ms Ukita tells me. “But if you’ve left him a message, I think he will contact you.” I thank her and embark on a day floating down flooded rivers, and crashing down raging waterfalls, being tossed here and there by the electrical currents of my nerves, crashing on rocks, and being crushed by falling dominoes. Then, near evening, I get a phone call from the ninja.
“Good evening,” I greet him. “I’ve thought about this for a night, and I would like to try for an audition if it is at all possible.”
“So you want to become a kunoichi.”
“You’ve seen us do lots of cool things on stage yesterday, but there is a lot of hard and boring training involved before you get there. We usually never accept foreigners. There are special schools that will teach foreigners ninja skills, but they take lots of money. What we do has nothing to do with that. I’m interested in you because you speak Japanese and English. That could be very useful.”
I throw in a lot of aizuchi, sounds of enthusiastic agreement and encouragement for himto continue talking.
“The kind of training you would be doing with us is completely different from what you do in the dojo. In the dojo, you pay a monthly fee. If we train you, we take no money. In the beginning just keep working your current job, and come only when you’re free. We will see what happens and if you do well, you can start training properly. Becoming a ninja takes about three years. Then you’re ready for being a professional show ninja. You would be popular with TV and movie producers. Foreign ninjas are rare.” I laugh at the hilarity of the thought. Whatever. Nothing can go wrong with this. I want to experience as much of it as I possibly can. If it fails, if I fail, there will still be books to be written, and there will be enough time to re-think and tidy up the chaos that is currently wreaking havoc in my heart and mind. I have never yet failed at the tidying up job, and it was not for lack of chaos.
“But the training is hard.” He says. “In the beginning, you have to do basic things. Then, once you can clean, and tidy, and sell tickets, you might get a chance to train martial arts. And I’m not very nice. In the beginning, I will not give you any false encouragement. I will be strict, and nothing else.”
“I understand.” I assure him. Somehow, although he has been nothing but pleasant so far, I have got that impression from our first encounter. He is an honest, strict, no-nonsense teacher.
“I will try my very best.”
“I will be here all week. You are welcome to come for an audition any day you like. The world karate champion will be here, too. She used to work for us and is coming to help us during Golden Week. I’ll introduce you to her.”
“That would be fabulous.” I don’t know who the world karate champion is, and I’m not one to die for mixing and mingling with celebrities, but the drift of our conversation together with the bizarre idea of conversing with a ninja via mobile phone in the first place make me wonder whether I have floated down one of my raging mental currents too far, got sucked down a freak cortex and am caught in a bright pink daydream somewhere beneath the rough surface of my storm-ridden cerebral sea, never to emerge again. But so be it, it is a world to live in, and I don’t discriminate. After all, until just a minute ago, I was living in
“I will go to Iga on Friday if it is all right with you,” I offer.
“Sure. I will see you on Friday then. Thank you for your call.”
“No, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to contact me!” I launch a humble protest. “I will do my best. Please favour me with your continued guidance and benevolence in the future.”
Thus ends my telephone conversation with the Ninja. Friday is three days away, but really, I am away to Iga already, running along invisible paths with stealthy footsteps, attacked by a ridiculous passion to become a kunoichi.