As the summer deepens, so does my resentment to work for GEOS. “Wouldn’t it be great if you ha d a job here in Iga, so you could come here more easily?” says Kashira, and I have to agree.
So one hot day in July, we take our mission to Miyazakiya-san. “Is this a shop or a person?” I whisper in U-san’s ear, as the Japanese language is ambivalent about this. I learn that Miyazakiya-san is both a person and a shop. Miyazakiya-san is becoming a more and more mysterious and powerful existence. But quite apart from being mysterious, powerful, and obviously well connected, what Kashira seems to be looking forward to most is Miyazakiya-san’s soy sauce ice cream. All day, as I sweep my way across the stage and tidy my way through ninja-tō and nihon-tō swords, fukiya wooden flutes designed to blow horse dung- poisoned darts through them, kunai dagger-shaped all-purpose tools, and sickles of all sizes, I am fidgety with a growing feeling of curiosity at being introduced to the mysterious Miyazakiya-san.
After Kashira and I have changed back from the ninja garb into our casual clothes, we take the big black van with his ninja-picture holding two cross-shaped ninja stars in a thicket of light green trees, and drive down the road into the little shop-lined streets of Iga, until he pulls up in front of Miyazakiya-san, the shop.
Miyazakiya-san, the shop is a spacious one floor shop advertised by inconspicuously charming wooden boards bearing big black brush strokes of Japanese writing, one of the many shops in tourism-friendly Iga that sell traditional Iga goods.
There are ceramics in various shades of earthy browns and greens: Iga-yaki, a famous style of ceramics that originated around the 8th century in the Iga region and uses Iga clay, burned at high temperatures to acquire a reddish hue with brown-green marks caused by log ashes.
There are kata-yaki, the famous hard, sweet biscuits they sell in all the tourist shops, with pictures of various famous ninjas on their adventurous missions burned in dark brown lines onto their surface. Rumour has it that the ninjas used this type of food as long-lasting emergency calorie supplies when they had to go on long missions, although to me the articulate crunch at biting into kata-yaki makes me doubt their suitability to the stealth business. Be that as it may, to the present day ninja, who typically makes his living in the world of show business and entertainment, far from stealth and secrecy, the stylishly illustrated kata-yaki are a welcome tool to disseminate his glory. Beautiful, plentiful, and loud.
The main product of Miyazakiya-san, the shop, however are tsukemono: pickles. One type of pickles using ginger as one of the main components, is particularly famous in Iga. It is sold in flat plastic bags, through which it has a dark-brown pasty appearance, and is recommended expressly for use in making ochazuke, a dish in which rice is topped with one’s personal favourite mixture of flavourful ingredients (such as umeboshi salted plums, nori roasted seaweed or flakes of salmon), and turned into a kind of soup by pouring green tea over the mixture. I buy a pack of this so-called Yōkanzuki and take it home to eat it on toast with cream cheese, for breakfast. Delicious. Blessed be the flavourful cooperation between East and West.
When we enter the shop, it is apparent that Kashira is well known and respected here, and we are immediately given a little tour of the products by a gentle little woman in her forties who welcomes us standing behind the round counter in the middle of the shop. She then leads us to the right corner, where we are told to sit down at a table and served tea. In a small, fish-shaped bowl, we are then presented with the shop’s highlight: a perfect little scoop of soy sauce ice cream. It sits there posing, ninja-like, as vanilla ice cream, but exuding a certain presence that makes me feel thrilled.
Enter Miyazakiya-san, the man himself. He is slim and bald, wearing round little glasses with no frames, and a cardigan. His fine features in combination with his clothing style make him look like a Meiji period aristocrat who has naturally and enthusiastically absorbed the tastes of the West. Everything about his efficient and inconspicuous movements appears experienced and refined. He sits down and watches Kashira and me eating his ice cream, smiling.
The slight flavour of soy sauce adds a refinement to the cream that lets the beauty of burned caramel strings melt into tongue and palate without needing its stickiness and boldness. The slight idea of salt makes the tongue appreciate the sweetness and creaminess of the composition. It is an altogether stunning invention.
I compliment Miyazakiya-san on his ice cream. “Yes,” he says, and his eyes start sparkling a pleasant, quiet enthusiasm when he rolls out his words, all carefully articulated as if his mouth was a printing press. “Actually, soy sauce and cream are a marvellous combination!” And while his creation melts into my tongue, I am blessed with the chance to flavour, at the same time, the deep happiness sparkling in the eyes of the inventor, a genius living his genius dreams, creating beauty in the world.
Kashira finishes his ice cream and articulates our cause.
“This girl here is very intelligent.”
“Obviously,” states Miyazakiya-san matter-of-factly.
“Her Japanese is…well, I want to say she even has a Japanese accent…well, you know what I mean. Yes?”
“She even writes books and the like…” (I have told Kashria about my plans to write a book about my experience with the ninjas).
“She is working in Osaka as an English teacher, but we would like to find work for her here in Iga.” Miyazakiya-san nods, takes a sip of green tea, and speaks.
“Where are you from, Anna?” he asks me kindly.
“Germany.” “Ah, Dort bin ich gewesen.” He replies in carefully articulated, almost perfect German. More and more, I get the impression that this Miyazakiya-san is a true ninja.
“So,” he concludes. “You can speak English, German, and Japanese.”
“I can,” I reply.
“She’s also interested in studying ninja history, learning about Japanese culture, you know. Isn’t there something like that she can do in Iga?”
Then Kashira tells us about how his wife, who is also very intelligent, and runs the Ashura ninja group’s business, changed his plans. When Kashira met me, he was prepared to take me on as a full time apprentice.
“But O!” He winces at the thought of it, and then laughs his infectious laugh.
“She got so angry with me! You can’t take that girl’s life away from her like that, she says to me. She needs to make a living. You know how hard it is to earn enough money as a ninja! It took you 20 years! Don’t take the ground away from under her feet! Let her come on weekends, while she works. She needs to have enough money to live, independent of whatever she achieves as an apprentice kunoichi.” Kashira takes another sip of tea.
“It’s true, isn’t it.” Kashira is a man of instinct. He has learned who to trust and rely on in his long experience as a ninja. “Isn’t there something for her?”
Miyazakiya-san quotes some of his local connections including a tourist magazine he publishes himself, and the Local Foreign Exchange Association among the most surprising revelations, coming from a pickles shop owener.
“So,” he smiles at Kashira, “Next time we meet, let us invite I-san. He is head of the Foreign Exchange Association here in Iga. I’m sure he will have some ideas.”
And with our ice cream bowls eompty, and the next step planned, we feel like today’s mission is accomplished.
I bow repeatedly to Miyazakiya-san, the man, and thank him for his kind efforts. Kashira says his more casual farewell. Then we leave Miyazakiya-san, the shop, and return to the black ninja van.
I am thrilled about meeting I-san next time, and have a feeling that with every step I advance further into the complicated, interwoven world of Iga-ryu ninjutsu, it appears more sparkling and complex, with every day, new paths open up throughout the maze, and its invisible core increases its power of attraction, although what exactly it is I am advancing towards is still unknown to me. And while the many paths inside the maze branch out and multiply, as I get physically closer to the attraction of its core, Kashira takes me to the bus stop, and I thank him for his kindness, and ask for more of his mysterious, yet undoubtedly trustworthy guidance in this dark, attractive, invisible future I sense through my taste buds in the lingering flavour of Miyazakiya-san’s soy sauce ice cream.