Broomsmanship and Zokinjutsu

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?”

I reply.

“Would it be ok if I left the house around seven?”

Her reply:

“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 midnight, 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 Japan, “ says U-san, “We say if you can’t greet people properly, you can’t do anything.” Shihan’s words echo in my mind. “The first interaction with your partner is your greeting. Give everybody your best possible greeting. At all times.” But here, at the Ninja village, it is not a big chore to greet people who greet you with a smile and a slight, polite bow. It is the most tiring thing to do at GEOS, the office I am stuck in doing something I don’t want to do for ten hours a day. But here, in the Ninja-village, where people in Ninja costumes with cleft shoes move between old Japanese farm houses, equipped with revolving doors, secret exits to be opened with bits of paper, and invisible flap doors used to disappear up the roof; in the shadow of big, old trees and walls made of old, moist rocks, the friendly greeting routine is in fact, rather infectious.

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 Germany,” he tells Oji-san. “Don’t you Anna? In Germany, people live quite a good life.” Finally, he returns the broom to me. In front of oji-san’s bench, I hold the orange dust pan with my left hand and try to sweep up the pile onto its safe orange landing with the broom in my right. “No,” says Kashira. Let Papa here show you how to do it properly. Oji-san laughs. “Not like this!” He holds the broom like me. “Like this!” He grabs the broom with his right hand, like a sword, his palm facing the way he is sweeping, and, with ease, sweeps the whole pile onto the dust pan. I nod and take notes in my mind. Chapter 1: How to Handle a Broom. “The Japanese soul,” says Kashira, “lies in the broom. I bet you thought it was in the katana, didn’t you.” He laughs, chuckling away greatly amused at the extent of my ignorance.

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 “mushin” on it. “The Ninja Stage original towel.” It reads.”Please ask ninja about this towel.” No. Let’s have this instead. “Ninja-headband ‘MU-SHIN’.Empty your mind and fill it with the world. Interested? Ask a Ninja!”

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 eleven o’clock, 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 Japan, combined with the appropriate bows and gestures to usher people around or give money back to them. Humble guiding gestures, accepting business cards with both hands, giving back paper money change first, counting the notes for the customer to check, lightly supporting customers’ hands with the left hand when the right hand deposits the coin part of the change in their palm. And a zillion other subtleties that have escaped my coarse, unpolished gaijin observation skills so far and that I might have the honour to be taught at some point in the distant future, once I have mastered broomsmanship and zōkinjutsu.

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.” Japan’s strict garbage separation laws are as true in Ninja-vilage as everywhere else. Then put the bamboo rolls in here, and the bamboo stalks there.” I follow her instructions and, on my way out, meet Kashira on the stage. He tells me if I’m interested in budo and zen, I should learn sword fighting, not karate. He fetches a sword from back stage and slices through the air with a swishing sound that doesn’t need electronic support. He hands me the sword. It is surprisingly light. “It’s a women’s sword,” he explains. “For practice.” I try to imitate his cut, but there is no sound. “You can do it, too.” He shows me again, and I try again. But there is no sound when I do it. He laughs and shows me again. When I try to imitate his upward swing before the actual cut, I puncture the tarpaulin behind me that has big red “nin” kanji on it and provides the backdrop to the ninja show.” I almost drop the sword in shock and dissolve into an avalanche of bows and apologies. Kashira laughs and takes the sword back. “That, I can definitely teach you if you start training with us.” He deposits the sword backstage.

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 Osaka. I like the city, but seeing some green now and then is refreshing. I have the prospect of absorbing some real Japanese traditions. If I get a visa, I can spend time here. Enough time for in depth learning. I will do anything for it. But in the middle of this hope and will, I sorely miss the green, rolling hills of England, Ireland, Scotland. The quaint pubs, the people who never bow to you but look you straight in the eyes, and smile if they feel like it, and call you darling and sweetheart and serve you golden pints and greasy pies. The herds of sheep, the smell of green. Blue and red TESCO signboards next to a centuries old bridge. Toast for breakfast. Hill races and beer festivals in the summer. Jokes, pub crawls, and pub quizzes. This is the first fit of homesickness I have felt since I’ve come to Japan this time. But it is sweet. Sorely sweet, and whatever I love I can treasure. And whatever I treasure is sweeter the further away it goes. Preparing perfectly any future reunion.

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 half past eight 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.

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