Friday, September 21, 2007

I, Neenja

(Umeda OS Hotel, Osaka)

After a day spent exploring the cheesiest and funnest parts of Osaka, I did the exact opposite, and left the city entirely. It was no small feat, this. I was bound for Iga-Ueno, which was not easy to get to, and due to a lack of connecting trains I opted to actually use the departure times offered.

First, the JR line to Tsuruhashi. Straight forward enough.

Then change lines entirely for a private company that had lines like a pile of spaghetti all over the Kanto region. I bought a ticket, found what was hopefully the right platform, and waited.

The train arrived, and hello there! Reserved seating? What? I hurried to the platform booth to ask if my ticket was okay, and after confirming this, turned around to see the doors close and the train depart. Well, fuck.

With my schedule blown out the window, I just had to wing it. I knew what lines and what stations I needed, and after much studying of the rail maps plastered over the platform, got on the next train that appeared to go where I wanted it to. Unlike all my other train-hopping, this was not a stress free exercise. I wasn’t on my rail pass, so any mistakes I might make would cost me, and I’d probably have a devil of a time trying to explain to any station staff what my problem was. There wasn’t much I could do but wait and see.

The city quickly disappeared into rural Japan, which exists, tucked away in little valleys between the mountains, rice paddies everywhere. The stations we passed through grew smaller and smaller, until finally we were passing single platform stations, unmanned.

I was right, the train stopped at Iga-Kambe, and I was able to walk straight onto a connecting train bound for Ueno-shi. A little country train, it was only two carriages, and bright pink with the happiest chibi ninjas painted all over it. It was a single track only, rolling by more single platform stations and past long empty roads.

Ueno-shi was a very small country town, without any stores around the station, and wasn’t at all listed in my LP, so I was rather relying on their being a town map at the station to get where I was going. Thankfully, not even remote country towns are without these, and I was able to find Ueno Park (hello, familiar?) with ease.

And thus, my quest was achieved.

I went to the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum.

Haha! YES!

Even if you ignore my normal almighty OMGNINJA! tizz I get into over ninjas, this was incredibly cool. The Iga ninjas are one of the two leading schools of ninjitsu in Japan, the other being the Koga ninjas. If you’ve read much in the way of fiction set in period Japan, chances are you’ve bumped into both schools. They’re prominent in the Lone Wolf & Cub books, and play crutial roles in the old black & white TV series, The Samurai, with Tonbei the Mist (a Koga ninja), playing Shintaro’s side kick. To be in the home town of the Iga ninjas was just way cool.

The museum kicked far more arse than I could have hoped for.

To begin with, I was greeted by a couple of kunoichi (female ninja, in pink to be precise), who invited me to take off my shoes and gave me a thorough tour of a ninja house. There was no common language between us, but English explanations were posted, and the demonstrations of the various neat nifty sneaky ninja house tricks spoke for themselves. There were all sorts of ideas that I would love to build into a house of my own one day, not that I shall ever need to keep a hidden look out over my garden, or make a secret trap door escape from intruders. I was particularly fond of the wardrobe that contained a shelf which was actually a trick staircase into a secret compartment in the ceiling. The beauty of all these tricks was their simplicity. They were elegantly straight forward.

From there, I went down into an exhibition detailing the various props and techniques used by a ninja in the art of stealth. The ‘water spiders’, shoes devised to disperse a ninja’s weight and thus make it possible for them to walk across a mud moat to infiltrate a castle, were great clunky things that I just couldn’t see fitting in a pocket. A lot of emphasis was placed on the various disguises the ninja adopted to move about; being a ninja is a pretty versatile job. Most of the time they appeared to pose as farmers, as that allowed them to carry farming tools/weapons without arousing suspicion.

From there to another hall, which contained an exhibition of the traditions, history, and various communication forms of the ninja. There were all sorts of ciphers they used, from complex knots that formed sentences, to colored rice grains to mark the alphabet. Of particular interest was a board comparing the different tricks and traps of ninja and samurai houses. The traps of samurai houses appeared to revolve around trapping and maiming any potential intruders, whereas the ninja houses were built mostly with escape in mind.

What the museum emphasized was how little emphasis is placed on combat, which is what current pop culture highlights. A true ninja should pass detection entirely, and thus have no need to engage in any form of combat at all.

I made a point of calling Dad while there. He got a kick out of it too, heh.

Finally, there was a ninja demonstration, with real weapons, and real ninjas! Real! Ninjas! With the scars to prove it. Ahhhh! EEEEE!!!!!

The first ninja opened by making the hand signs before drawing his sword. I thought he was merely going to go through some practice sweeps, but no, he chopped some poles to pieces as though they were butter. Holy fuck, a real sword! To actually see someone do that, with my own eyes, was awe inspiring. So very different from TV, so very so.

He demonstrated shuriken throwing, and threw two and three at once. The sound of the shuriken hitting the wooden board was alarming, and there he was, standing in front of us with a whole pile in his hand, demonstration a sort of automatic-fire technique of throwing many in quick succession.

(Semi-automatic neenja, minus the real sword. He dies later. Several times.)

He was replaced by a second, younger ninja, who demonstrated the uses of the kama, weapons that were devised from farmer’s scythes. The way he swung them around made my hair stand on end, and I’m pretty sure he was holding his breath while he was doing it. He looked incredibly relieved to have finished his piece and not injured himself.

(I am Young! Cute! Neenja!)

(See Young! Cute! Neenja! throw kama with deadly precision!)

(See Young! Cute! Neenja! did not disembowel himself swinging the kama around! Clever neenja!)

A third ninja came out to demonstrate the uses of the kusari-gama, basically a kama with a chain and weight attached to the handle. Quite a complicated weapon, but he handled it with familiarity, and was more than skilled in his control over the chain. The first ninja returned, and they sparred, and I eeeeee!ed.

(Eh, killing the semi-automatic neenja is all part of a day's work. Beer would be nice about now...)

The best part was the cheesy arse spaghetti western Mexican stand off music they were playing in the background.

Truly, an fucking awesome brilliant and unexpectedly educational place to visit. I was very glad I’d gone out of my way.

Getting back to Osaka was another test of my “oh shit what if I end up in banjo-ville by accident” resilience, but I managed it without incident. The train from Kamo to Namba passed through Nara, which I think means I’ll have visited every capital Japan has had on this trip. I could be wrong though.

I killed some time in America-mura. Don’t ask. It’s some place where they’ve imported the big cool American life, or something supposed to be it. I was about 10 years too old and light years too untrendy to be in the area. It was tacky and flashy and hilarious as all hell. I did myself some damage in a CD store before having my fugu dinner, which has already been written about.

Today was another trip out of town, and another minor headache with transport. I reserved a seat on a shinkansen (bullet train) heading to Himeji, no problem. What I didn’t realise was that the shinkansen left from Shin-Osaka, not Osaka station, where I was. I thought I had heaps of time, and had a nice lazy breakfast in a cafĂ© before heading to the platform, realising no shinkansen were to be seen, and had myself an ‘oh shit’ moment. Thankfully, it was on my JR pass, and ticketing is pretty flexible for the JR trains. I made my way to Shin-Osaka, and had a moment of complete stuckness with the ticket attendant. He kept saying ‘announcement’, and I had no idea what context he meant. We kept going back and forth, “announcement,” “sumimasen, wakarimasen,” until he finally lost his patience and snapped, “smoking, non smoking, reserved, not reserved, announcement, no announcement.” Ah, ding! FYI, there are ‘silent’ cars on the shinkansen, where no loudspeaker announcements are made.

With that cleared up, I boarded the train with no further complications.

Shinkansen are alarming. They are exactly like sitting on a plane that is powering up the run way, just seconds away from leaving the ground behind. The roar and rumble of the wind and ground is everywhere, the engine pitch rises, the carriage develops that little shimmy as it almost travels too fast for itself…but the train doesn’t leave the ground. I was constantly bracing myself for takeoff, and forcing myself to relax again. The speed was amazing. Although the LP said it was an hour to Himeji, it only took half an hour, no small feat.

The goal of my quest in Himeji was Himeji-jo, another original castle, like Matsumoto-jo. Himeji-jo has the distinction of being a world heritage listed sight, and deserves it. Easy to see from the station, so I didn’t even have to look for a map. No getting lost for me.

(The crests of the various lords and clans that had a hand in the building, maintenance and ruling of Himeji. These crests appear everywhere, and by everywhere, I mean all over Honshu.)

(I figured this would be some interesting aside on the foundations of the castle, which it was. Stone coffins are built into the walls. Efficient use of space, but slightly creepy to consider.)

It isn’t just the main keep that has survived, but the castle grounds themselves. The side keep and bailies are still intact, and the walking tour winds throughout the entire complex. As with Matsumoto-jo, the wood and stones were worn smooth with the passage of so many feet. There were more floors, higher ceilings, and wider corriders in this castle. It was quite a sumptuous affair, with crests of the various lords in residence on every available surface. It was allegedly in this castle that Miyamoto Musashi was locked in a room and did nothing but read for a whole year, emerging an entirely changed person.

(The little platform is for samurai to peek out the windows. Really.)

(On the top floor of the castle, this samurai disguised as an ordinary tourist surveys the besieging army, which isn't there.)

The west bailey was largely the womens quarters, and the quarters of one Princess Sen. A series of rooms running along a very long corridor, it still smelt wonderfully of cedar.

(The reconstructed section.)

(The original.)

It amused me how many non-Japanese were present. So many that there were no English guides available when I rocked up.

From there, I visited the koko-kun gardens. They’re by no means old, having been constructed in 1992 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Himeji prefecture, but they’re quite lovely. I cooled off and rested my feet in the restaurant there, and was served conger eel on rice while looking over a lovely pond full of glowing orange koi.

No offence, koi are beautiful and all that, but they’re also dumb. What fish swims around with its upper dorsal fin OUT of the water? And what fish actually looks like it’s bad at swimming? Seriously, if it is possible for fish to waddle, these fish were doing it.

(They're like the bumper car version of fish; not all that keen on avoiding collision.)

After a stroll around the gardens, it was back to the station for me. Sort of. I was distracted by a second hand book shop that had a freaking ENORMOUS comics section. Oh, you have no idea how big it was. For 100 yen each! Damn you, language barrier! Or thank you, you kept me from spending too much money. Regardless, I had a lovely time browsing, flipping through random pick ups and marking myself gaijin every time I opened a book the wrong way.

There was a large older school kid who was muttering and giggling to himself in a mildly unhinged way. I didn’t pay him any mind till I noticed he was following me around the store. And masturbating. Normally, this wouldn’t bug me. Look, when you have the job that I do, public masturbation just isn’t worth getting that worked up about. But I was in a book shop, and he was dampening my I’m-surrounded-by-millions-of-beautiful-books happy fun time glow. I wanted to tell him to at least have the decency to go to a different aisle, but you don’t encourage these people by acknowledging their presence, and I had no idea how to say it anyway. Stupid masturbator boy.

I could be wrong. He might have been quite legitimately jerking off to the Pokemon book he was hiding behind.

Tonight was a shut in night, with laundry and packing. Tomorrow, I bid Osaka goodbye. Osaka feels much more casual that what I’ve seen of the rest of Japan. I’ll miss it.


  1. i did enjoy this post of ninja awesomeness.

  2. Anonymous7/11/07 13:46

    "legitimately jerking off to the Pokemon book"?


    Is it EVER legitimate to jerk off to Pokemon?

    Ta for the Ninja stuff. Very cool.