The Origins of Ninja

For the many wonderful things about the previously-mentioned seishun 18-kippu train ticket, one slightly less wonderful thing about it is that it only comes in sets of 5. We only needed 4 for our December trip to Takarazuka, which left 1 trip expiring on 10 January. I used this for a little daytrip to the town of Iga in neighbouring Mie Prefecture.

Iga sits on a plain that is completely surrounded by mountains. This makes it relatively inaccessible despite being only 100km from Nagoya. The JR Kansai line servicing this area starts in Nagoya as a dual track electrified line with express trains and regular services, but as you get out into the countryside it turns into a single track unelectrified line with single railcar trains running only once an hour. This slows things down considerably and is compounded by the poor timing of connections at some stations.

Rural Mie
The JR Kansai Line running through the Iga Plains of rural Mie Prefecture

My prior knowledge of Ninja was gleaned entirely from a childhood watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so the trip to Iga was quite an education. (Who’d have thought that ninjas’ staple wasn’t actually pizza?)

During Japan’s feudal period factional war was rife. Ninja were principally agents of espionage and stealth warfare, available for hire. They spied, collected intelligence, instigated subversion and undertook assassinations.  As the Mie Tourism Website helpfully explains, “they had a reasonable way of thinking”.

I visited the Iga Ninja Museum which I thoroughly recommend to anyone planning to visit the area. The first part of the museum is set in an old Ninja house complete with revolving doors, secret hideouts and staircases, a hidden compartment for storing weaponry and an escape tunnel. A female city council employee dressed as a ninja demonstrates how each of these features could be used to avoid capture in the case of the house being invaded by an enemy, or for those features without any exits, to hide and quietly soil oneself before being found and killed. (She didn’t demonstrate that last part.) Given that the other major employer in Iga is a factory that makes toilets, I consider her to have a pretty good job.

Hidden Katana

The second part of the museum was more like a regular museum, with glass cabinets showcasing tools of the trade. These included floating shoes for walking across boggy castle moats, nail-like steel pegs for scaling stone walls, rope ladders, camouflage clothing and an assortment of weaponry including some very funky ninja stars. The museum also shed light on the survival and espionage skills ninja possessed such as the ability to tell the time by looking at the shape of the eyes of a cat (a fundamental flaw being that you had to have direct access to a cat whenever you wanted to know the time), communicating using a defunct Japanese script to ensure secrecy, and finding water using a variety of techniques like putting an ear to the ground to hear the sound of an underground stream. All in all I came away with the impression that Ninjas did indeed have “a reasonable way of thinking”.

In common with many Japanese towns, Iga features a reconstructed castle, however what blew me away about this one was the height of the huge original stone walls surrounding it, reputedly some of the tallest in the country. When viewed close up they are indeed impressive.

Iga Castle Walls
Iga Castle Walls

I had Curry Rice for lunch at a local eatery. It was very local – I don’t think tourists are supposed to be able to find it but somehow I did. The next-youngest customer after me was 70, and I must’ve forgotten to take off my gross space alien mask given the hush that fell over the room (and accompanying stares) as soon as I entered. Other highlights from the day included travelling on a train that was actually running late and helping an old woman off the road where she had been sitting after being knocked down by a car. Fortunately she was OK.

And this was given as a sign….

It didn’t take long for the regular roadsigns to lose their lustre for our three year old son, ID. Having thoroughly exhausted the numerous options available under the Japanese Highway Code, he has commissioned his own additions as specified in the technical design drawing below.

The new signs are all of the cautionary rather than regulatory category. If you are absurdly bored or very easily entertained perhaps you can try matching the signs to their official names:

  • Rubbish on Road
  • Eyeglasses ahead
  • Toilet in road
  • Donuts may be present ahead
  • Cereal and Milk on Road
  • …. and my personal favourite, Caution – darkness!

New Roadsigns

Japanese New Year

Along with Obon and Golden Week, New Year is one of the three most important Japanese holiday periods in the year. The way it is celebrated in family life is in some ways similar to how Christmas is spent in the West. The house is decked out with New Year decorations such as the kadomatsu. New Year postcards (called Nengajyo) are sent. Saké is drunk. Specially prepared boxed food (called Osechi) is eaten. Prayers are said at the local shrine for good fortune for the year ahead. Children are given presents in the form of cash from parents and relatives.

As is typical for most Japanese families, we spent the period from 1st to 4th of January visiting relatives on both Nicewife’s mum’s and dad’s side of the family. This mostly involved talking a lot and eating heaps of delicious food! One new year speciality is a pounded rice-cake called  Mochi which we made at home from rice we harvested in November. Mochi is responsible for a number of deaths each year as old people in particular can easily choke on the glutenous rice ball. We’ll find out this year’s mochi death toll in a few weeks’ time. Nicewife’s dad reckons they must be taking surveys and making calculations right now!

There are many traditions associated with New Year in Japan, but the actual date of New Year apparently isn’t one of them. Up until 1873 Japan celebrated New Year according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Given the cultural and religious significance of New Year in Japan, switching to the Gregorian calendar must have been quite an upheaval.

Grandma Cooking Mochi Rice in an Outside Steamer (Well, she's not really doing the cooking - just keeping warm!)