Dogs Breathing, Frogs Jumping

We discover a nearby temple and pray in front of it. A god responsible for people’s education and academic refinement resides at this address, and I decide to pray. Ishizuka shows me how to rinse my mouth and wash my hands with the wooden ladles by the well. A dragon resides over this purifying well. Then we walk across to the gate to the gods and pull the big knotted rope to call them. I get a few coins from my wallet and flip them towards the bars that separate them from their givers and declare them property of the god asked to render services in return. My coins jump across the bars and are rejected at first, but I insist that the gods take them and clap and pray for the good of my continuing education and intellectual development.

B-san swiftly turns himself into a ninja and poses invisible for a few good ninja pictures in a historical setting. He has some important messages tattooed onto his body that need to be transmitted by dusk or he will pay with more than just a few coins. His jumper turns into a ninja mask, and the pillar that supports the open mouthed lion dog into the perfect hiding place. “You look more like an Al Qaida fighter than a ninja,” muses Ishizuka, adding a more modern viewpoint to the topic of the day, while I shoot my furtive model repeatedly out of the shadows, flash!

We walk back through the eternal circle breathed across this space by the lion dog with the open mouth and the lion dog with the closed mouth, the shrine’s own guardians, breathing in and out, giving birth and killing, barking and biting, talking and shutting up, forever and ever, until, in no time at all, we get back to the car.

We decide to visit the birthplace of famous Haiku poet Matsuo Basho. You may remember his famous poem. A frog jumps into an old pond. Splash.

We drive for a few minutes, stopping by a street map that shows us the way. The entrance of the old Edo period house is so low, Ishizuka, who is unlikely to have suffered this kind of difficulty before, hits his head on the top beam of the door frame. This leaves the two foreign giants to get through the midget door. “Please be careful,” a woman calls from the darkness inside the house. Another ninja? A caring, considerate ninja at our service or here to kill us with the tempting trickery of kindness? “Don’t hit your heads. The entrance is very low.” B-san passes through the gate with an elegant Praying Mantis stance, and I duck through behind him. There is only half an hour left, but the house is not too big, so we decide to pay the 300 yen and have a look anyway. We pay the friendly woman in the ticket booth who apologises that she doesn’t speak any English, and walk through the old, well-maintained lower rank samurai house.

There is a fireplace inside a cupboard-like niche, a pan on top of it. A mill stone. The kitchen. A beautiful little garden, leading across to a tatami room with sliding paper doors and a small table as its only piece of furniture. The back of the house which stretches alongside a broad corridor, reveals some wooden doors leading to the bathrooms, remindful of the showers in the village marshal’s house Jacky Chan as the Young Master unknowingly visits to take a shower, because he has had a messy encounter with a swamp while eloping from the marshal’s custody. Marshal’s beautiful but deadly daughter lets him in, and he sings derogatory songs about the marshal while rinsing himself down with a wooden bucket behind the same type of wooden door we have here in front of us in Basho’s house.

There is a spacious loft at the very backside of the house which I would choose to sleep in if I were allowed to live in this beautiful, wabi-sabi Japanese minimalist old house. We walk across to the other side, where there is another, bigger garden. Here, we spot some tall, big-leafed banana plants. They were imported to Japan during the Edo period when Basho lived, and his disciples planted one of these trees for him when they gave him a hut. The name of the tree, Basho, consequently became his pen name. We stroll back towards the midget entrance and thank the woman in the ticket booth for her kindness and consideration. Everything is closed by now, and the day is coming to a close. So after a quick stop at a souvenir shop specialising in cookies with ninja pictures burned into their surface, various rubber ninja weapons, and pottery, we make our way back, with a different sound track for the way home, the green landscape around us getting greyer as dawn brings about the world of the shadows.

I have the ninja master’s contact details in my pocket. Hanzo Ukita, a real ninja name. Ishizuka and I talk, and enjoy this rare occasion that gives us time to do so, something we used to be able to enjoy much more often when studying at Bath together. Stretches of road call for peace and quiet. B-san in the back leaves for his own world of shadows for a while and re-joins us again when we are approaching Osaka.

We return him to his bicycle, say our farewells for the day, and make our way to Kobe Sannomya to return the little car. Then we embark on a few pints with Yuko and Takae, and their British boyfriends in an Irish Pub in Umeda. But today’s new career idea stays between Ishizuka and me for now. He thinks I can do it. I appreciate his faith in me, because I am not as sure of it as he is. All I am sure about by this time is that I will try. And try. And try again.

It is water and cranberry juice for me tonight. No need to blur the contents of my head, as they are blurred into an intoxicating maze between reality and possibility anyway. The world of shadows. And before I calm down into its subconscious abysses this night, a long while passes. A long while of unrest, of jumping shadows and climbing walls up swords, cutting rolled up bamboo mats, and catching deadly weapons with ropes. Until a coin jumps up on the roof and rolls round and round and, with me, finally, drops.

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