Me: “That’s it, you people have stood in my way long enough. I’m going to ninja college!”
Haruo: “I don’t think any of us expected him to say that.”
Okay, okay the conversation didn’t happen exactly like that. My imaginative recall owes more to the Simpsons (I’m going to clown college) than to the actual conversation I had with Sachiko’s father, which went more like this:
Me: “We’re thinking of visiting Togakushi tomorrow and going to the ninja museum and ninja house.”
Haruo: “Ha! That place is for kids!”
Okay, okay, I didn’t leave this time either. But the gist of the conversation is Sachiko and I are going to Togakushi, location of a former ninja training school, and Haruo is not going to let go an opportunity to poke fun at my enthusiasm for ninjas. For an older Japanese man like Haruo, ninjas are a minor and slightly comic historical footnote; for a westerner like me, raised on such video games as Shinobi and Tenchu, I’m giddy with excitement about visiting what was once a real ninja training school, albeit one that has been closed for a long time.
In fairness to Haruo, he does give us a lift to the local train station, Murayama.
From Murayama, we catch a local train to Nagano City, where we wait for the bus to Togakushi village, which is 20 km from Nagano City and high up in the mountains that surround the city. Waiting for the bus isn’t too bad, I get to do some people watching, one of the delights of travelling in Japan.
The bus pulls away from Nagano central station, chugs up the hill towards Zenkoji temple, turns, and slowly passes out through the suburbs of Nagano city. The road starts to ascend and the bus steadily climbs up into the foothills of the surrounding mountains.
The road to Togakushi affords some lofty views of Nagano city and the valley we leave behind. However, the road itself is distracting me from the view, it’s the most over-engineered structures I’ve ever travelled on. The road twists, loops and turns back on itself with a concrete grandiosity out of all proportion to the surroundings and level of traffic. Ian Buruma’s description of Japan’s epic construction boom which created a country “full of unnecessary tunnels, roads that go nowhere, bridges that nobody crosses … and theme parks that few care to visit” seems apt. This road is to normal roads, what spaghetti junction is to normal junctions.
After a while, the road relaxes back from being a snakes and ladders loop-the-loop super structure, and becomes just an unassuming byway. The bus trundles on and we pass some quaint thatched dwellings. My father worked as a thatcher for 15 years and even after he retired, he always kept a keen interest in every thatched dwelling he came across. While travelling abroad, it’s become a habit of mine to always photograph any thatched buildings I encounter. When I return to Ireland, I then show the pictures to my Dad, who’s always interested in the local customs, what materials are used and the craftmanship of the individual thatcher. I wonder what he’ll think of the Japanese style.
The bus climbs further, and as an indication of the altitude we’ve ascended, we see a ski-slope which is missing one crucial ingredient: snow. The bus-driver is doing a great job calling out the name of each stop:
When he calls:
“We get off here, come on lets go!”
Out we hop, and marvel at an enormous torii gate. It marks the beginning of the pilgrim’s ascent up to the Tokagushi shrine further up in the mountain.
There’s a real chill in the air. We’ve risen a considerable altitude from Nagano city and even though it’s May, there are still some chunks of slowly melting winter snow on the ground. Our plan is to first visit the ninja museum and ninja house, and then continue onto the Tokagushi shrine. And if we have the time, we’ve brought our towels in case we come upon a nice onsen (a very Japanese precaution). The walk from the bus stop to the ninja museum is the same route as the pilgrim’s route to the shinto shrine. The path is marked with numerous little plaques, signs and posts and we stop regularly to read each one we pass.
Sachiko is doing a lot of translation. One of the stops, Okusha, has a large stone for which there’s curious and sad explanation:
“There used to be Okusha chapel here, and until Meiji era, women were not allowed to enter from this point as it was a spiritual training place. A nun who broke the rule and tried to enter the point was turned into a stone, and the stone is here nearby. After Meiji the rule has vanished and the chapel was removed.”
A little distance further on the path, we find the stone that the nun was allegedly turned into. The translation adds that the stone now blocks any cold wind from blowing.
Further on, there’s another sign telling a story:
“There used to be a couple who had an adopted child. One day, when the wife was away a letter came. The husband who couldn’t read was suspicious and asked the child to read for him. The child guessed what was happening and he said different contents to his father, then his mother. The couple avoided trouble and were not on the rocks. Later, when the child died, the people built a memorial for his wiseness.”
Amidst all the encounters with mythical nuns and tragically wise children, we have an encounter with some real people. We pass a bench where a Japanese couple are sitting down; when the girl sees us, she smiles, bows and greets us. I’m not sure if she knows us, or is just being friendly. We return the polite greeting, and continue walking.
Once we’re out of earshot, Sachiko becomes ecstatic.
“That was the dead-skin-eating-fish-couple we met yesterday at the onsen!”
Then I remember that, yes, while Sachiko and I were having our feet nibbled clean at the fish spa yesterday, the couple we just passed were also partaking of that curious custom. It’s just a coincidence that we’ve met them today, and for someone like me, who comes from a small country where such coincidences happen all the time, it’s nothing special.
But Sachiko is adament that coincidences like this never happen in Japan.
I remain less than impressed. On this occasion, I fail to understand the Other.
We reach the ninja park. The huge welcome sign seems to bear out Haruo’s comment that this place is “just for kids”.
We pay the entrance fee and enter the ninja museum first. It has two flours and is made up entirely of ninja photos and ninja weapons. The photos are fantastic, even though I presume they’re all staged. The weapons though look very authentic. I’m very excited and I take a lot of pictures. Once again, if it weren’t for Sachiko’s translations, I wouldn’t understand a lot of the exhibition, despite my extensive experience of ninja video games.
I try and take a picture of every weapon, they’re so gruesome looking. Even when I can guess what a particular weapon or prop is for, I always ask what the Japanese name is.
“What’s this one?”
“Tekagi sokkou, it is used to climb a tree, also to beat the enemies”
“Nekode, as well as tekagi, it is used as a climbing device, also as a weapon”
“Sokkou, same as the last two”
“Tekken, means iron fist”
“Kakushi, put it on as a ring and sting into the enemy’s flesh”
“Tessen, Iron Fan”
“Doku ire, poison containers and blow guns”
“Kakushi tenouchi, I think they are usually hidden in the sleeves”
” Touki, climbing device”
“Shikoro, a kind of saw”
“Makibishi, iron caltrops to penetrate the thin soles of the waraji sandals, which used to be worn alot at the time”
“Shuriken, ninja throwing star”
“Nunchaku, probably you know what it is?”
“Metsubushi, blinding powder. One says with walnuts, another says with eggs in it”
“Shinobi Kayaku and uchitake to do nohi, gun powder in a bamboo tree”
I’m very entertained by everything in the ninja museum, however my enthusiasm isn’t shared by Sachiko. Her reaction is quite, “Meh”, so it seems we’ve balanced our books in terms of mutual misunderstanding for the day.
After we exit the ninja museum, it’s time to enter the ninja house which my Rough Guide describes as, “great fun, with a maze of hidden doors and staircases that is fiendishly difficult to find you way out of”.
What’s not to get excited about?!
We have to leave our shoes at the lobby and we’re told, “No Pictures”. I guess they don’t want us exposing any of their secrets to the outside world. There’s no sign stating you must be under 12 years old to enter, so I eagerly push through the entrance.
The first room resembles a large open plan office, but with above head-height black partitions. We’re completely boxed in, with no clue about how to advance. We quickly figure out how to slide one of the partitions aside, and we progress to the next little box, where we’re confronted with another apparent dead-end. There’s a succession of these little compartments, and no order to which direction we proceed, or whether it’s a sliding, hinging, lifting, or pushing partition. Our progress is slow and plodding, trial and error.
We advance into a large room with a few minimal props (fireplace, a wall hanging, a standing mirror). Again, it’s not clear what to do, but eventually we figure it out, suffice to say we press, poke and pull at every prop and wall panel until we find the exit from the room. Each subsequent room has a similar puzzle before the exit, which could be left, right, up or down, can be found. Thankfully we don’t encounter any shuriken throwing enemy ninjas or a big formidable boss, with whom we must do battle.
A fun highlight is after we’ve advanced along a passage at the far end of the house, and entering a room at the corner, find that the room has a steeply sloping floor to the exit at the opposite corner. The floor of tatami mats is very slippy (we’re in our socks) and the orientation of the room makes everyone surprisingly nauseous. It’s very surprising that a mere slanting floor, which is at odds with its surroundings, is enough to make us feel ill.
“Kimochi warui” (unwell), chant all the Japanese.
We scramble, claw, grapple and eventually successfully scale the mats.
Outside, there are a few props we play around in.
Okay, okay, only I play around….
Finally, we pose as ninjas.
Then we break for some lunch, before starting the route up to Tokagushi shrine.