Monday, May 12, 2008

Japan Trip May 2006 - Part 3

The Koka (Koga) Ninja village we visited is nestled in a small valley all its own and was created by Shunichiro Yunoki. It is reported that he was the last surviving Koka practitioner and started the village so that everyone could experience the tradition that his ancestors kept alive. As you leave the parking lot and head to the entrance you get the sensation that you are traveling back to a different era. The 8' wall surrounding the village is made from bamboo and is decorated with various signs. The entrance fee is used to cover the upkeep and repair of the many displays and of the village itself.

After we ask to see Mr. Shunichiro, the person at the front gate leads us down a manicured trail, around a big pond with a rope stretching across, past numerous huts containing the many displays until, finally, we reach the central store area, which also houses a place to sit and eat. Yoshi Jim Haynes acts as translator as we get to sit and meet with Mr. Shunichiro. We explain how we represent Konigun Ryu and asked about Koga Ryu. Mr. Shunichiro tells us how they refer to it as Koka and that he constructed the village as a way to maintain the traditions he learned as a child. He tells us that many come each year to use the facilities of the village to train with each other. We explain how we are meeting with different leaders of the different Ninjutsu Ryu to pay our respects. When we ask about other Ninjutsu Ryu, he said there are no more Iga or Koka except for the ones that came each summer to train. When we ask about Bujinkan he just shakes his head and says that they are not Ninjutsu. At each place we stop, we try to discover other Ninjutsu Ryu that the locals might know of as well as to discover the origins of what is known over here in the states.

After our cup of tea, Mr. Shunichiro calls someone over to show us the village. This man leads us out of the restaurant/store to the authentic Ninja House containing a series of false walls and trap doors which allowed a quick escape. An example of one of trap doors requires a little more in-depth description of the construction of the traditional Japanese kitchen. It is a room located inside the house that centers on a lowered section in the middle of the room which contains the fire pit. They put the whole fire pit on a runner system so that it slides under the surrounding floor exposing the crawl space beneath the house. Japanese houses are built a couple of feet above the ground, leaving plenty of room to move about when needed. As we follow our guide down one hallway he turns a corner and is gone--we were at a dead end. Then another section of wall rotates and exposes his smiling face as he gestures us through a secret hallway that leads into almost every room.

After we leave the Ninja House, we stop at the well at the back of the house and he gets in and disappears from sight. When we investigate further we see a series of handholds that will take us into the bottom of the false well. Once we reach the end of our descent, we find ourselves at the beginning of a long tunnel which comes out across the village behind some bushes. I imagine that during the time of the warring states period of Japanese history such methods of escape were the only way many survived hostile attacks.

The big pond of water that we passed on the way down is used to train villagers and students the various aspects of water walking using the pond walker shoes, buckets, or even tires. Although not deep, you really have to have good balance to be able to stay out of the muddy water. We wind through the bushes, across ridges, and down paths until we come across a balance rope spanning a gully. Being the only path, it must be traversed if you are to head up to the small Buddhist shrine that sits in a peaceful corner. The shrine is obviously maintained with love. Our path leads to two buildings containing all the artifacts of the Koka ninja that have been collected. We saved all our pictures to document the many exhibits we found within the two buildings. Like the Iga Ryu museum, the Koka have collected an impressive array of ancient artifacts. We can see all the manuals and scrolls outlining their different techniques. The authentic weapons and tools that Koka ninja used to practice their trade are on display with explanatory cards written in Hiragana or Kanji. One display shows the shoes they used to walk across marshy areas; in another the picks they used to pick the door latches or crude locks that were used in those days. We can see collapsible grappling hooks, collapsible boats, swords, kubitan, shaken, and every other manner of throwing device imaginable. It is evident from the size of the armor and weapons that the samurai and ninja of yesteryear were much smaller than the current generation.

After our tour of the grounds and the museum we return to Mr. Shunichiro where we express our admiration for the wonderful job he did in creating the village and the museum and all of the hard work it must have taken. After seeing all the scrolls, Yoshi Jim asks about the Ban Sen Sukai and the Nin Pi Den scrolls that Bujinkan claim as their heritage. He explains that these were reprinted in the early '60's and were readily obtainable from any book seller. He even brings us the copy he used to have on sale in his curio store to demonstrate his claim. We thank him for his time and before we leave we discuss the possibility of training with the Koka when they gather in the summers. We leave the Koka having made new friends and continue our journey through southern Honshu in our search for more information on the various Ninjutsu Ryu and their interactions with Konigun.

I must take a moment to state that although 7-Elevens have all but disappeared here in the states because of all the new chains that have cut into their market share, the same cannot be said in Japan. I think that they must be the only American chain of convenience stores over there and are matched in popularity only by McDonald's. It became a game of who would spot it first as they appeared practically on every corner. Southern Honshu is an industrialized area and the road south went through the heart of it. Although we follow the coast road, it is a non-stop stream of buildings. Stores and businesses are only broken up by the occasional hotel. We reach the southern tip of Honshu at night and can see the lights of the bridge stretch south across the channel to the island of Kyushu. The bridge is so tall and high off the ground that I imagine any ship that crosses beneath has more than enough clearance. We follow the signs, get lost, follow some more signs, and finally make it over the bridge and continue on our journey to Fukuoka where we stay the night. We leave with dawn the next day and travel south along one of the super highways that the Japanese have crisscrossing the country. The roads are well maintained. We make good time and are in Kagoshima within a couple of hours. Yoshi Jim asks a curator at the Kagoshima museum about any displays featuring Konigun or Saija. The curator looks at Jim and asks, "Do you mean the ninja?" When Jim says yes, he told Jim of a museum in Satsuma Sendai. We were on our way!

Kyushu is a strange contrast to the main island of Honshu. Because Honshu is so developed, Kyushu feels undeveloped due to the zoning requirements that allow no permanent building along the side or tops of the mountains. Kyushu is mostly mountainous, so this leaves the numerous valleys and coastal regions to support all the population. The only exceptions to this rule go to the buildings created before the law came into effect. Also, you can build up on the mountainside, but the structure has to be torn down once a year and made anew.

We follow the directions of our ever faithful "Tom Tom" which takes us directly to the address of the museum, but we arrive just as it is closing. We head back to town but stop at a temple that we passed on our way out to the museum. Situated on the top of a hill, you get to it by climbing a thousand steps. We climb the steps and at different times get help from each other making it up the long staircase. They say that the stairs are there for you to show the spirits your desire for your prayers' outcomes. By making the long pilgrimage up every step, you are putting your heart and effort into your prayer.

We start early the next morning after having spent the night in a hotel. I never thought I would like seaweed for breakfast, but I started to look forward to it and to the rice that came with the morning meals. We get to the museum and begin our tour beside a shop where an employee is working on a helmet. From there, we follow the pathway to the first building which contains a mock up of a daimyo lord with his samurai retainers. After we leave that building we see a man working with some stone statues and Yoshi Jim explains how we were referred to the museum from Kagoshima and asks if he knows where the exhibits are. The man explains that he put together the museum as a hobby because of his interest in local history. He introduces himself as the owner, Mr. Tanewa Shinobu, and offers to give us a tour. We readily agree and follow our host. He takes us into the main display room explaining that the museum is dedicated to Saigo Takamori. We learn that Takamori was the basis for the movie, "The Last Samurai." It seems that unlike the movie, Takamori came to lead the rebellion more by default than by any direct action on his part. After leaving Honshu and direct government service he returned to southern Kyushu to hunt with his dogs and train various samurai that came to him for training. Some of these same students, in protest of the government's actions toward the samurai class, seized the local garrison's armory and began the tragic tale. The government, unable to fathom that Takamori's students acted without his knowledge and support, laid a raid at his doorstep. He felt that since he could not escape being linked to the rebellion, his only hope of survival depended on its success. We all know how the story ends, but Mr. Tanewa shows us the many artifacts that he has collected through the years documenting the rebellion. We take lots of pictures as we make our way through the museum, documenting the swords, rifles, even the ninja chain mail and shaken that are in the displays. The other rooms contain depictions of events from Saigo Takamori's life from the time when he was teaching to the actual battles of the rebellion. Mr. Tanewa is famous for the armor that he makes for movies and recreation events. He takes Yoshi Jim inside another display building where he dresses him as a samurai. As you can see from the pictures, Jim looks at home in the armor.

After a wonderful lunch of soba noodles in broth, Mr. Tanewa continues our tour by taking us to his armor-making facilities in town and shows us some of the many weapons that he supplies to the reenactments. We even receive the honor of being invited to have tea at his personal home. He is very efficient and conscientious about everything he produces and it shows in the many awards he has received over the years. We left the museum with more information and the beginning of yet another friendship.

We stay north of Satsuma Sendai to make it easier on Yoshi Jim and Bushi Jason as they are leaving to tour Shimbara Jo the following day while Shidoshi Dallas and I are off to pay our respects to Insei Saija. I drop Yoshi Jim and Bushi Jason off at the ferry terminal and return to Shidoshi Dallas for our trip to visit with his teacher.