Our group is let into the house by a smiley female ninja who bows “Irasshaimase!” in a near-ultrasonic voice and proceeds to demonstrate the house’s special features to us. Disguised as just another part of the wall, there is a revolving door. The girl touches it ever so lightly and disappears through it, stopping it from the other side. The wall has swallowed her. In the floor boards of the ground, there is a loose one to be opened by a skilled tap of the foot. A sword lies hidden underneath, the short, straight ninja-tō, to be thrust at the enemy, rather than cutting through him like the long, curved nihon- tō or katana. A rack on the wall is swiftly turned into a ladder that leads up to a flap in the upper part of the wall, through which the ninjas could escape via the roof.
When we have seen all the special features of this ancient ninja residence, we are invited by a real ninja to watch him and his fellow ninjas display some of their secret skills in a ninja action show. We don’t have to be told twice. To me, this sounds like the best part of the whole Ninja-mura experience. At 200 Yen each, we get some good seats in the middle of the front bench facing the sandy open air stage, and sit looking for the ninjas, carefully scanning the edges of walls for traces of shadows, and the suspicious stillness of the objects around the stage for movement.
Finally, a tall ninja with a samurai style pony tail appears from back stage and welcomes us to the show. Not much secrecy about his entrance. “Today, Ladies and Gentlemen, we will be handling real ninja weapons here on stage, a dangerous business, so please do not get up from your seats and approach the stage during the show. I would also like to ask you to set your mobile phones on manner mode. Our show contains some high intensity action, and sometimes children get scared and start crying. Should that happen, I would like to remind you that we explain everything we are doing here on stage, so in order to allow everybody in the audience to hear what is being said, please take crying children up the stairs or down the side aisles, away from the stage. We will refund your money. Finally, I know you are all here for sightseeing today, so some of you will have brought cameras to take pictures or videos. During our show, video recordings and picture taking is – absolutely fine! Please take pictures and videos at your heart’s content while we perform our cool ninja tricks. Thank you very much for your cooperation.”
The last remaining type of full time ninja, a striking oxymoron. A professional show biz ninja! After the young announcer, an older ninja enters the stage, striding forward with the stern look in his face and feel in his walk that marks a warrior about to risk his life in battle. On stage are three mounts, one on the left holding a large bamboo stalk, one on the right holding a rolled up bamboo mat mounted vertically and pointing to the sky at about half the height of the stalk. The third one, in front, holds four of the same rolled up bamboo mats as the one on the right. The ninja kneels down on a small bamboo mat in front of the four rolls and gloomily joins his hands, assembling them into different shapes, both index fingers pointing up, the rest of the fingers interlocked. The middle fingers wrap themselves around the index fingers. It goes back down as thumbs and little fingers join the index fingers pointing to the sky. Ring fingers are trapped and held down by middle fingers, the hands fold like in prayer, the fingers interlock with the fingertips invisible on the inside, the right hand slides on top holding the left hand’s index finger, hands slide apart forming a circle with the tips of the thumbs and the index fingers touching, and finally, the right hand forms a round pillow for the left to rest on, fingers joined. The Buddha gesture. Going through these shapes of his hands, he chants hoarse syllables to go with each one. Rin-pyo-to-sha-kai-jin-retsu-zai-zen. It is the kuji-no-in, the nine letter spell. An incantation the ninjas used to calm their minds and prepare themselves for their dangerous missions.
He puts both his hands in front of his face like a mirror and blows. Then, he makes a soundless clapping movement, then another, his hands going further apart this time before they touch in the middle, and a third, even bigger one. After a last moment of silent concentration, he takes the long, bent katana that is lying by his side, holds it up on his open palms and gives us a slight bow. He puts the sword through the opening by the side of his hakama, and solemnly rises. He walks to the middle of the three mounts, draws his sword and holds it up in the air for a moment. Then, with a guttural sound, and effortless, light movements, holding the sword with a single hand, he cuts through the giant bamboo stalk, then turns to cut through the bamboo mat, once, twice, three times. Slices of bamboo are scattered on the ground. He steps forward and faces the four-bamboo-mat arrangement. He holds the sword in both hands and pauses for the space of a breath. Then, with another kiai shout, the sword slices clean through the four rolled mats from right to left. He takes a small cloth from the natural pocket between the crossed front parts of his kimono upper body dress and the sash that holds it together, and wipes the katana with a single elegant sweep. He tilts the saya, or scabbard to the side and swiftly re-sheathes the long, heavy sword. He takes it out from his belt again, and presents it to us with the same bow as before. In the martial arts everything begins and ends with rei, respect, often expressed in this bow.
After holding our breaths for the duration of this intense performance, we are now reminded that we are here to witness a fun holiday action show and relax into applause.
“This,” says the ninja, “is a katana, a Japanese sword. What you’ve seen right now is called iaigiri. You’ve seen me cut through this bamboo stalk here. If you don’t cut these at exactly the right angle, they go flying off into the audience. You have to cut the stalk at a 45 degree angle, and luckily today it worked.” Relieved laughs get stuck in throats, swallowing hard at the thought of what would have happened otherwise. The ninja smiles. “These makiwara,” he points at the stumps of the bamboo mat rolls, “are tightly rolled up bamboo mats, fastened with rubber bands and soaked in water for a week. They offer about the same resistance to the sword as a human neck. So you could cut through four necks in one go. It is no problem at all.” Good to know.
“So, ladies and gentlemen, this was the katana, the Japanese sword. Next, we will present to you the ninja sword.”
He takes a shorter sword from one of the sword holders at the side of the stage and holds it up. “As you can see, this is shorter than the katana. But the main difference between the two is that as opposed to the curved katana, this sword is straight. In the warring states period, the samurai trained with katana, and were adept at the art of cutting things, and people, as I’ve shown you. But that was the only thing they knew. So the ninjas used a straight sword, made for thrusting, so they could defend themselves against the round cutting movements of the katana. Ideally, with this straight sword, they could just move straight forward and land their stab before they were cut by the samurai’s round movements. But the ninja sword has some other useful features. The tip of the scabbard, for example, is pointed.” He shows us the pointed end, shaped like a small pyramid. “This could be stuck into the ground. The ninjas could then put their feet on the tsuba, the ring that separates the hand grip from the blade, and use the sword to climb up walls. They would take this long string attached to the sword between their teeth, so that when they got to the top, they could just pull the sword back up towards themselves. But what am I talking about, we will show you how it works!”
He exits, and some action promising music storms in, pushing ahead through the speakers in clear, shiny brass; trumpets wearing winged combat boots. The two young ninjas, on the other hand, roll ahead quietly in their air-filled jika-tabi, boots cleft between big toe and the rest of the toes like Devil’s feet, making it easier to grip the ground and whatever materials need to be climbed, while proceeding quietly across complicated terrain without making a sound. The ninjas are back-flipping and rolling across the stage to the wall on the right, where they stick their ninja-swords in the ground, take the long, black strings between their teeth, and climb up, until they sit on top of the 10 ft wall and pull their swords up to join them. And in professional show-biz-ninja fashion, they give their performance a clean finish by simultaneously showing us the V for victory, or, more commonly, Sony digital memory. Picture taking is ok. The ninjas are used to more daunting tasks than performing in the presence of flashing cameras.
Next, we witness the throwing of the ninja star, or shuriken. One of the young ninjas comes out and shows us a little pile of 6 ninja stars. “These are real ninja starts from the warring states period You have probably seen ninjas in movies, with a pile of them in one hand, throwing them like Frisbees, one, two, three, four, five… . That is certainly cool. But ninjas didn’t actually do that. It’s impossible to throw them like that. And they’re really heavy. One of them weighs about 200 grams, so the ninjas maybe had one or two. And they only used them when they really thought they were beat, and there was no other way out. This was their last defence. They used poison and spread it across the points of the ninja stars. So they didn’t actually have to pierce through any vital organs or arteries. These stars simply had to scratch an enemy, and he would suffer paralysis or whatever it was that the particular poison resulted in. But I will show you. These,” he holds up a ninja star with four equally shaped points. “Are juji-shuriken. Cross-shaped ninja stars. Here we go.” He hurls the star at the wooden wall on the left side of the stage, and with a loud clunk, it gets stuck in the wood. There are some marvelling “Wow!”s and “Ho!”s. “This time,” says the ninja, “I will throw two of these at the same time.” Again, he swings his arm and hip like a baseball player, and clunk! Both ninja stars land in the wooden wall. Applause. “And finally,” says the ninja, “the most difficult technique. Three ninja starts at the same time. This time, I will use roppo-shuriken. Six-point-ninja stars.” He holds one up, and we can see the thinner points that make the ninja star look like an ice crystal or a flower. Zonk! All three ninja stars land in the wooden wall, and the crowd erupts into cheers. The ninja bows and exits. Enter the older ninja from the beginning.
“These clothes I’m wearing.” He points down his black ninja-costume, complete with a head dress that goes down the neck like that of a medieval knight, or a nun, studded with golden crosses in front. “Do you think the ninjas actually wore those? Ninjas were spies. It was their job to gather information. So if they had dressed like this, everybody would have known they were ninjas, wouldn’t they?” Surprised exclamations and muttering in the audience. “What I’m wearing here is for period dramas and ninja shows only!” Laughter. “Real ninjas took on whatever shape was most suitable for them in their current spy business. They could look like doctors or craftsmen. Here in Iga, a lot of ninjas dressed like farmers, because there were a lot of farmers here. And sometimes, they pretended to be street performers to perform lucky tricks and charm the gods into gracing people with their good favours. See for yourselves.”
He exits while some circus-like music floats from the speakers to introduce something like an acrobatic clown stunt, or a horse-number with a moustachioed horse whisperer with a whip. But it is Tomonosuke, the young ninja with the pony tail we have seen in the introductory part of the show, who comes a-running, stops in the middle of the stage and pulls a traditional umbrella with wooden spikes out of his belt from behind his back. He opens it dances with it for a few counts. Then he shouts: “Yo!”And balances the edge of it on his forehead, handle pointing towards us. We clap. But this is only the beginning. From his chest pocket, he takes a small wooden box. “And now, for everybody’s health, happiness and good fortune, I will make this box roll! Watch!” With another “Yo!” accompanied by the kind of outstretched body tension opening a gymnast’s competition routine, he throws the box onto the umbrella and makes it roll round and round it, as if it was nothing. Smiling brightly, he is moving across the stage, looking up at the box on top of the umbrella, watching it dance like somebody he has just fallen in love with. He moves to the left side of the stage, the box rolling and rolling and, with careful movements, turns the handle ever so slightly, watching the box dance.
“The people on this side are clapping very hard for me. I will give you some extra rounds of health and good fortune. May the gods bless you and your families!” He moves to the other side of the stage, and the box keeps rolling. Finally, he makes it fly off the umbrella and back into his hand, with a courteous finishing bow. The audience shows how impressed they are with a good round of applause. But still, Tomonosuke is not finished. “Do you know the famous ninja Somonosuke Sometaro? Actually, I know one of his tricks. What I will balance on my umbrella now…” he swaps his big umbrella for a smaller one. “is this.” He holds up a five hundred yen coin. “Money. So this offering to the gods will make everybody’s money roll in. Watch. Yo!” And he throws the five hundred yen coin onto the umbrella and makes it roll round and round and round the umbrella, smiling at his beloved dancing coin, which he seems even more fond of than his previous dancing partner. We watch in stunned silence as the spectacle unfolds with awe-inspiring ease. Again, he moves back and forth on stage, rewarding those parts of the audience who offer the loudest applause for his art. After a long fight with uncountable rounds disguised as a beautiful dance for us, Tomonosuke catches his coin and bows. “Thank you.” And we clap and clap and clap. He leaves us mouths agape, and in comes the katana ninja from the beginning. “This, ladies and gentlemen, was my son. I’m proud of him. If you don’t start learning this trick when you’re five years old, there is no hope.”
He then demonstrates on one of the ninjas we have seen up on the wall flashing victory, how the ninjas employed a rope with knots on both ends to apply joint and wrist locks, and inflict the same kind of damage on an opponent at a distance that is used for close-n fighting in many modern martial arts including judo, karate, and aikido. This weapon-less fighting art is called taijutsu or hobakujutsu. The other ninja evades a few of his attack, jumping over the rope or ducking away underneath it, but finally, the older ninja catches his leg, and next, wraps his rope around his sword and manages to take it away from him. They then keep fighting without weapons, and the old ninja throws his young foe onto the ground, turns him around, gives him a few good punches to the face, and finally stabs him in the stomach with a spear hand, a juicy enter-the-dagger sound effect slicing through the flesh-dense suspense in the air from the sound effect box. Another appropriate and well-timed sound accompanies the re-traction of his hand. But it is not over yet. While the soundtrack ends in a lamenting trumpet sigh, the old ninja props up the young one against his knee and makes a stern face at his own hand, the instrument of pending death. Which then reaches for the foe’s chin and turns his neck until it cracks with another effective sound. This is the end of the performance. We clap.
“Hey," Says the old ninja to the young one who is still sitting with the grimace of death on his face, his neck in an uncomfortably cracked looking position. “We’re finished. It’s over.” The young ninja wakes out of his nightmare and happily bounces back up on his feet.
They bow. “Today,” announces the older ninja, “You have seen many of the things we do in the ninja business. But this was only a fraction of what we CAN do. So if you would like to see any more fascinating ninja tricks,” The younger ninja has professionally disappeared for a moment and now re-enters the stage. “Buy the Ninja-village’s original DVD and watch us do a lot more than we did today!” The young ninja holds up a DVD for people to look at and start wanting.
“I hope you enjoyed the show. The exit is on the right side of the stage. Have a wonderful day in Iga. Thank you very much.” He bows and we clap and slowly rise from our seats.