Sunday, October 02, 2005

Too Bad We Weren't Ninjas

How many hours of sleep did I start the day with? Not all that many. Friday was a national holidy, the kind of day on which in Canada one normally sleeps late, but since I have come to Japan, the holidays have rarely been like that. On this fine holiday morning I was rousing myself from my short short slumber before O-Hi-Sama (Mr. Sun) had managed to scale Kamikatsu's mountains. Five thirty. At least the hour was beyond that sacred 30 minute period of four to four-thirty when anyone who plans to sleep should be asleep. But it wasn't so bad. I had friends awaiting my appearance in Tokushima and Naruto, and that is always motivation enough to get up and out.

I had made the normal hour drive into Tokushima in about 50 minutes, picked up Jenna on time at six and we made it to Brian and Christine's (hereafter B&C or Brian and Xine) 20 minutes later, I parked in Brian's spot while he was out picking up Julie and we were on our way in B&C's car by eight. And I was navigator. Mixed feelings about that. On the one hand I was sad because it meant I would get no sleep before we reached our destination eight hours later, but on the other hand I got to look at maps, read kanji, and best of all, play with electronic gadgets like ipods and sattelite navigation systems. Wheee! Of course in my playing I managed to delete our plotted trip and we missed a cruicial turn before I re-entered our destination and the trip plotted again, but it just found a new route that was a kilometer or so longer (and in the end possibly faster because we went around Osaka rather than through it as planned).

Having closely examined the route the sattelite was giving us, we were sure there was a faster way, so we stopped in Shizuoka city to go to a tourist office for some roadmaps to enable the choosing of a shorter and cheaper route (you have to pay heavy road tolls for expressways here, hence why we were five in the car). Searching for dinner we followed Jenna's inspiration and sought out a tonkatsu restaurant on the sixth floor of the station.

The tonkatsu so hit the spot: all carbs and protein, exactly what we would be needing. We hit up a Lawson's or four and a supermarket to load up on our 2 litres each of water and sport drinks and onigiri, chocolate, calorie-mate blocks and whatever else we might need for our ordeal. Oh yeah and another dinner. (The tonkatsu could be considered a late lunch.) Then it was off to our challenge for the evening.

It took us a while before we could see it rising above the city, solitary, graceful, and imposing, a common symbol of the nation in which we are living, recognisable the world over. Fuji.

By the time we had driven from the town of Fuji to the fifth station on Fuji-san itself O-Hi-Sama had finished his daily ascent and descent of the heavens. We parked the car at 2400 meters, the fifth station began to get ready. It became official, I was by far the least well prepared. I had my essentials: flashlight, shoes that can get destroyed, raincoat/shell, longsleeved shirt and tee shrit, food and liquid. But I still may win an award for least well prepared, or thought I might when I stepped out and felt how cold it was. Really, it was okay, but that was like seven in the evening and the air would cool a lot more and the wind get stronger as the night drew on and we got to the top. But thankfully everyone else over-prepared, and I was able to borrow a sweater from Brian to wear at the top. I was a bit concerned, but it was okay in the end.

So I had been up since 5:30 and the sun was to rise at 5:00 and that's when we wanted to be at the top of the mountain. Julie had looked up altitude sickness on the internet the week before and had been spewing forth various facts about what can happen to you, the signs of altitude sickness, how gross sputum is, et cetera and so forth, and it had gotten to me enough to make me concerned about my body's ability to adapt after all that lack of sleep. One of our friends, Ellie (her link is in the column on the right) hadn't made it up on her attempt because she got too ill. You can get altitude sickness once you are beyond 2500 meters. We were starting at 2400.

Before we had begun the hike, my friend Derek had emailed me saying "Dont talk too much or youll fall over!" And he wasn't the first to say that either. Hmmm...

It was a five hour hike, but as a result of getting there mega-early we left mega-early. The positive side of this was that the sixth station was open when we got there, and we were able to buy some cloth gloves (imagine gardening gloves) and kill some time. They gave us warnings about how cold it would be and worried for us, and offered to make us tea when we came back down. Love the Asian hospitality.

The hike up was absolutely beautiful. The moon was bright enough to cast our shadows onto the rocks, and eventually we stopped using flashlights and just walked in the light of la lune. The moon itself, though only just over half full, was also quite astonishing. For much of our walk it was surrounded with a glowing corona (aka aureole). At times, looking down onto the town and the clouds and feeling the crunch of volcanic rock underfoot as we scrabbled up the mountainside, it felt like we were climbing Mt Doom– if you could imagine Mt Doom ever being beautiful in a severe sort of way.

We took as much time as we could and took many many breaks, but we could only sit for so about fifteen minutes before we needed to get moving and warm up again. Also, the clouds sometimes rose, and we would keep going to stay above them. At times they overtook us, and at times they seemed to blow away from the mountain altogether. Mist and stone natural elegance.

At some point it became apparrent to us that we were not going any slower than the expected pace, which meant that we were slated to arrive at the summit a full two hours before sunrise. We were warned that the summit would be below zero degrees (like my apartment in winter) and very windy. The last three stations before the top, eight, eight b, and nine, each had only 30 minute hikes that followed them. When we got to eight b and saw that it had a nice sheltering wall (all the stations were closed but for six because it was past the climbing season). We decided to try to snuggle up into a corner or two and see if we couldn't catch some z's and stay warm.

I figured that if I put on the sweater and raincoat that would be enough to keep me warm. Not so. Having us all cuddled together like that was definitely one of the warmest things we could do, but none of us managed to fall asleep at all. Warmest is not necessarily the same as warm, nor does most comfortable mean the same as comfortable. I suspect it may be some unconscious or biological reaction that keeps you awake when you are in danger of freezing to death should you fall asleep. Not that we were in that danger at all, but... well let me describe it like this: The feeling was not unlike when you have all your snowgear on and you throw yourself into a snowbank, to get some rest, but tired as you are you can only lightly doze or stare at the falling snow as you relax, but sleep evades and the slope beckons. Surely I am not the only one with that experience? After maybe as much as an hour (but probably less) we could take the sitting no longer and roused our selves and got ready to continue. At this point a lot of the climbing had become more like climbing, and less like walking. Well, maybe more like crawling uphill. Or scrabbling. We need a new word.

Up to that point we had all experienced dizzy spells and/or minor headaches (warning signs of altitude sickness), and the sitting for an hour or so made a world of difference in that regard. We had acclimatized a little bit more. And we were that much better rested, if still sleep deprived.

I was the first to make it to the ninth station and when I got there I thought loudly "Hey, some people left all their luggage right here! I guess they didn't want to carry it all the way up..." I walked up close to examine and jumped back. There was a tangled mass of human bodies there! Obviously someone had an easier time getting some shuteye. When the others made it up and there was still loads of time before dawn, we decided to try the huddle-cuddling again, this time in a place better sheltered than the last. Julie went back to go look at the sleeping people and when she came back referred to them as kittens. We killed a bunch of time there and the clouds caught up with us good and proper. We were in the thick of them. We got underway agian behind the kittens and their friends who had come up to meet them, and they were all really slow, slower than we were, and we had been shuffling along with baby steps like Bill Murray in What About Bob. The sky started to lighten so I kicked open the reserve energy, ignored my pulsating pounding brain and practically ran the rest of the way up so as to not miss the sunrise. The others must have sped up quite a bit too because they got there before most of the kitten group, too. We found our way to the edge of the crater and looked out towards the east to watch the sun rise.

Everyone talks about the sunrise on Fuji as being one of the best things, one of the most beautiful experiences they have seen and had in Japan. With that in mind, what I saw was totally beyond all I had expected.

I saw cloud.

Or nothing if you prefer. We looked into the mist. We could barely see down the slope and the sun was doing nothing to break through the barrier of gray. Somewhere way up above the clouds we could vaguely see some blue, but this is going to have to be slated down as a general disappointment. There was nothing we could do, really. The clouds has gotten thicker and the the drops of mist were starting to feel more like a light spraying rain masquerading as fog. Xine had been feeling woozy and as we got to the top was downright sick. We took our photos and began our descent O-Hi-Sama couldn't see that we this time setting while he was rising.

As we climbed/slid/walked/rolled/ran/slipped/eased our way down the side of Fuji the mist and fog became proper rain, so that by the time we got back to the seventh station we were soaked as well as sore. As I waited at the seventh station for the others, I chatted with a couple of other foreigners who had made their way down before my friends. They had arrived just before midnight and had climbed the whole mountain without a break. And they were just other JETs too. They were hurrying down because "Now we just want to get off of this [accursed] mountain."
The word 'accursed' was implied by tone. We had few words of praise left to offer Mt Fuji either. Disappointing, but we did it. Cross that one off the list.

About halfway to the sixth station we finally came out from the midst of the clouds. We were given the promised tea at the sixth station and it was a local special mushroom tea that was almost like a soup broth. Ahhhh. After the last stretch back to the parking lot at the fifth station the girls went behind some building to change and I changed in the parking lot behind a van. Then it was off to an onsen to feed and soak our weary remains. The place we went to was kinda expensive, and not all that amazing, just close to Fuji, but they did have a room where Christine slept off her altitude sickness while the rest of us bathed and sat in massage chairs.

On our way away we stopped at a waterfall. It was quite a nice waterfall at that. But for some reason at the gift shop near the base of the waterfall they were selling lollipops shaped like male and female genitals. Figure that one out.

Then we tried to check out this lake where you can see Mt. Fuji's reflection, but as it was yet shrouded in cloud, that was a wash. We called Shizuoka city and secured ourselves some rooms at the Hotel Mustache. Italian dinner, puri-kura, a few rounds of the taiko game, watching a high school kid show off at the taiko game, a few rounds of UNO while watching bizarre evening TV, and bed.

When I woke up and pulled open my curtains I was staring at Fuji, who was still surrounded by his own scattered curtains of cloud.

The big agenda item for Sunday was the Iga-Ryu Ninja Yashiki in Ueno city in Mie prefecture. Yes you did see the word ninja in there. The Ninja Residence. The ninja residence was nothing if not astoundingly cool and superlatively interesting. I haven't stopped talking about it since we went.

Ninja have a lot of mystique about them, and there is certainly a lot of myth and misunderstanding. So while I had been looking forward to the ninja house, I was expecting it to be the kind of trip where a whole lot of my own misconceptions get shattered. And I guess a bunch did. But it wasn't so much "shattered misconceptions," as it was "corrected perceptions."

The house itself was pretty cool, with several trick walls and escape hatches, which all the tour guide girls in their pink ninja costumes were trained in how to use. At first it was just like, "Oh yeah, here is this wall panel that spins around in case they need to hide, here you can see it moves," and then the tour guide had disappeared in a blur behind the panel leaving it looking like a regular wall again. We were free to try, but I opted out due to hight. It looked like it took some fancy footwork and a lot of practice to disappear in a flash like that. Our guide continued to impress as she would slowly show the mechanism and describe why it was there and when it was meant to be used, and then blow us away with sudden swift graceful disappearances. In the case of the floorboard with the sword underneath, she thumped on it with her hand to show that it would not normally stand out and would just be a normal floor piece until she was brandishing a sword in one hand, scabbard in the other, and her foot was on the corner of the board by the wall. So cool. There were also a couple shuriken in the area where the sword had been.

The next area was all about the weapons, disguises, techniques, and methods of the ninja in the Iga-ryu. It was all about shinobi, which is a hard word to wrap my brain around. 忍び (shinobi) could be translated as anything from "stealth" to "suffering." The kanji appears in words like endurance as well. The word 忍者 (ninja) is efffectively "shinobi-person." The stealth element of shinobi was the focus of the first museum area. The regular looking farmer garments with all the hidden pockets, the various tools of the trade for boring holes in walls or breaking jail, shuriken ("underhanded sword" aka throwing stars and knives), staves containing swords or weighted chains, tools for crossing swampy moats, videos showing various techniques in action, the various uses of canons, rocket arrows, and other unusual weapons. In the end, the sickle seems to have been the most versatile weapon. First off they could be in farmer disguise and nobody would think anything of them carrying one or two around. They could block swords and kill with them. They could bind four together with rope and use them for scaling walls. They could throw them like axes. At least one ninja liked his so much that he made what I could only describe as a battle-sickle, complete with hand-guard, weighted chain, and extra blade. Crazy. (The correct term is "kusari-gama" or "chainsickle". Sweet) And ninja didn't wear black like they do in the movies for two reasons: a) black stands out in the darkness, dark blue does not; b) regular people like farmers wore dark blue, but black was unusual. Also, warfare seems to have been only half or less of their work. They were the spies and spymasters. They had a variety of disguises (entertainers, buddhist priests, itinerant priests, merchants, aristocrats, and of course farmers and soldiers), and would employ a variety of spies or contacts in castles. A good deal of their castle infiltration was done not for assassination but for the transportation and communication of secret messages. Even back then the brush was mightier than the katana.

Then we went into a demonstration zone where several guys dressed as ninja did demonstrations of the basic weaponry: katana, straight katana, shuriken, kama (sickles), and entertainer/busker tricks from back in the day. Oh yeah, a lot of it was done to the music and sound effects from the currenly mega-popular ninja anime 'Naruto.' And I swear one of the guys talked exactly like Rock Lee.

The first thing they showed off was the regular katana. There were these two standing rolls of what looked like the top sheets of tatami, and the demonstrator cut through them like butter chopping them down piece by piece effortlessly. Then he said that they were made of the grass tops of tatami wrapped and bound together when soaking wet, so that when dry very closely approximated the average human neck. The sword cuts through effortlessly because the slight curve of the blade concentrates all the force in a slash to the single point of contact.

They did more with an unusual straight katana. The samurai often wore armour, and the slash of a sword was pretty ineffective. The only chinks in the armour were, well, its chinks. The straight sword was for thrusting into the neck or other small opening.

But it had other uses, too. Note the metal cap on the end of the scabbard, and the unusually long tether. This was so the sword could be pushed into the dirt and used to easily get up a wall. With the long tether held in his teeth, a ninja could retrieve his sword at the top and leave no real trace of his passing.

Given the need to work at night and in patrolled or guarded territory, the tethered scabbard also became a feeler. Holding the sword at arms length, drawing the scabbard out to the tip of the sword but holding it in place with tether in teeth, the ninja could feel his way through the darkness. Should he bump an enemy, he would have the tactical advantage of knowing where his enemy is but being initially well out of striking distance.

They demonstrated the throwing of shuriken and kama as well, but emphasized that shuriken were a last-ditch emergency weapon. They were not great for stealth because they could flash in any light, and have none of the distance of an arrow. And they are heavy. In movies and anime like Naruto, you see ninja carrying around bags filled with shuriken and kunai, and then firing them off one after another in quick succession. Untrue. In reality, we were told, the average ninja might carry one, perhaps two. Unusually three. He demonstrated throwing various forms of shuriken, ending with a pair of six-pointed ones thrown as one, and then three six-pointed shuriken thrown as one. And because they only carry one or two, if you miss its all for naught. So poison the tips and a scratch can be enough!

Afterwards we got to try for ourselves. Neither Brian nor I got any on target in our first rounds of five. I had trouble just getting them to stick into the wood behind. Jenna, who had done some kind of mixed martial arts in past got all five on target and won a prize.

The last area was all about the endurance meaning of the word shinobi, and detailed the ninja's lifestyle and beliefs. There was a model of the typical ninja village farming community, built of houses like the one we toured through and beneath the roads between homesteads would be tunnels for quick escape or discreet message transfer. They would also make gunpowder in those tunnels. Perhaps one reason for the ninja being in that part of Japan was the easy accessibility of the all necessary ingredients for gunpowder.

Their methods of leaving secret messages out in the open using tied ropes or coloured grains of rice, the ways they searched for water on a long trek through the mountains, and the ways they forecasted weather were displayed. Among them we encountered this:

"Too bad we weren't ninjas."

I wished I had more time because there was a computer kiosk that had all sorts of info about the ninja diet, medicines, physical training, and more. Don't like tofu? (as if such a thing were possible) Well, it was a mainstay of the ninja diet. Your kid won't eat his umeboshi? Ninja food. Brown rice instead of white? The ninjas knew and ate it. Konnyaku potato? Ninja food. I would love to alter my diet to all ninja food for a few months. How cool would that be? But then, I would already have failed, because they were way shorter than your average Japanese person today, and they kept their body weight to under 60 kilograms. Why 60? It was the maximum weight that would still allow them hold their body from the ceiling using only the thumb and forefinger. They slept on their left sides so that in case of sudden attack their heart would be protected. They could tell the time of day or night by the dilation of a cat's eyes. Their lives were training. Japan's greatest ninja, Hattori Hanzo from the Edo period, came out of one of the clans in Iga.

I wish they were still around, because I would love to do a homestay at a ninja homestead.


At 8:40 p.m. PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 8:41 p.m. PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 9:09 p.m. PDT, Blogger Fletcher said...

HOLY CRAP! Why is my site so targeted by these stupid comment-bots?! If I make it so that only blogger people can comment then I may never get another comment ever again, but if I don't then all my comments will just be advertisements. It is SO FRUSTRATING to be like "oh wow, I just posted that like 30 minutes ago and already my friends have commented! Oh, no wait it's just a computer program that was lying in wait. BOO-URNS.

At 10:00 p.m. PDT, Blogger Fletcher said...

There, now I have a word confirmation thingy. Perhaps this will solve the problem.

At 11:06 p.m. PDT, Blogger Tom said...

Good plan buddy, I was gonna suggest turning that on.

It was weird and awesome to look at your pictures and realize I recognized all those folks, and remember you guys talking about the plans for your trip.

Nobody would recognize me anymore though, as I have removed most of the hair from my head.


At 11:48 p.m. PDT, Blogger Fletcher said...

It had never occurred to me that it was an option that I could switch on or off. I felt very sheepish when I found it.

You could send a photo an I could post it, and then people could look at it and be like "REALLY?"

At 10:59 a.m. PDT, Blogger Tom said...

Hmm, that would be easy if I had access to any kind of digital imaging equipment. I'll see what I can do, though.

At 11:00 a.m. PDT, Blogger Tom said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 8:35 p.m. PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Matthew - that sounds like an amazing visit.How long were you at the Ninja training center? Dad

At 8:37 p.m. PDT, Blogger N.J. said...

Pretty neat. Thanks for stopping by.


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