A taste of life in land of the ninjas

By Yoshitaka Tsujimoto Time of article published Feb 3, 2016

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Tokyo - On arriving, I was guided by a man dressed in black through a concealed door in the wall to a narrow path on the other side. After passing a “waterfall for training ninja” along the way, I stopped to put my hands together in a ninja pose. When I said, “Nin!” a drawbridge appeared, and I soon found myself in a space that appeared to be a legendary land hidden far from human eyes.

Welcome to Ninja Akasaka, a theme restaurant in the Akasaka district of Tokyo. Owing to the dramatic way that guests are received and the entertaining menu, the restaurant is popular among foreign visitors.

Ninja are known across the world as exotic Japanese heroes widely depicted in anime and films. Last year, nearly 20 million people from abroad visited Japan.

Many of them wanted to see ninja, and some Japanese businesses are catering to their desire. The Akasaka restaurant has 27 private rooms, each modelled after a stone house. The menu, in the form of a handscroll recording secret ninja techniques, includes such ninja-themed dishes as crackers in the shape of shuriken throwing stars and turban shells whose operculum, or lid, is blown away when a fuse is lit.

While eating, diners are entertained by a magic show performed by a magician dressed as a high-ranking ninja.

The restaurant was opened in 2001. As it has been introduced in many guidebooks and on TV programmes overseas, about 40 percent of its customers are foreign tourists, and more than 20 000 people come to the restaurant from across the world each year.

“I heard about this restaurant from a friend of my wife,” said a man in his late fifties who came from Switzerland with two family members. “My daughter is thrilled to be here because she likes ninja.”

Some foreign visitors want to buy ninja-related souvenirs while in the land of the ninja.

Shinobiya Asakusa Ekimise is one such store established to serve them. The store opened in 2012 in a building near Kaminarimon gate in Asakusa, Taito Ward, Tokyo. Shinobiya’s operator, who initially had stores only in the Kansai region, selected Asakusa as the site of a Tokyo store because the area is known as a magnet for foreigners.

The Asakusa store sells more than 3 000 items, such as shuriken and makibishi caltrops made from rubber or iron, model swords and ninja outfits. It also sells items ninja historically never used, such as sai and nunchaku, both of which are traditional weapons used in Okinawan martial arts.

According to the store manager, Toru Oyagi, sai and nunchaku are considered to be ninja weapons overseas because they are used in the US-animated series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

“They are here because people want them,” Oyagi said.

At the store, visitors are given a chance to throw an iron shuriken at a target two metres away.

One female Italian tourist had a hard time getting the shuriken to stick in the target after Oyagi instructed her on how to throw the weapon. “It’s difficult for me,” she said. In October, governors and mayors of prefectures and cities associated with ninja came together in Tokyo to inaugurate the Japan Ninja Council to look into tourism and regional vitalisation through ninja. The prefectures are Mie, Shiga, Kanagawa and Saga, which are associated with ninja schools such as Iga, Koka and Fuma.

The governors and mayors attended the inauguration in ninja outfits. “We’ll make ninja brands and promote the ninja boom,” said Mie governor Eikei Suzuki, the first chairman of the council.

The US-made anime RWBY, which was created with inspiration from ninja and Japanese martial arts, was screened at cinemas in Japan last year. The anime features a team of four beautiful girls who grow up to wage a battle of survival in a world filled with evil forces.

In the story, Ruby, one of the girls, wields a large scythe-like weapon, and Blake, another girl, wears a ninja-like black outfit.

“It’s a landmark ‘reverse invasion’ that has opened a new era for anime exchange between Japan and the US,” said Dan Kanemitsu, a translator of many Japanese anime and manga. RWBY has been viewed 70 million times since it began streaming on its official channel on YouTube in 2013. The anime was conceived and produced by Rooster Teeth Productions and directed by Monty Oum, who died in February last year at 33. Kanemitsu said when he saw the anime’s trailer in 2012 he felt Oum had a firm grasp of Japanese martial arts and ninja techniques. According to Kanemitsu, although Oum loved and was deeply involved with Japanese anime, he developed and depicted his own world in his work.

Japan has optimum conditions for anime production, such as freedom of expression, new styles emerging and a large number of fans. More foreign creators as talented as Oum will enter the Japanese anime industry from now on and contribute to enriching the world of anime, Kanemitsu said.

Colourful Ninja Iromaki is now being produced after being selected by Animetamago 2016, a project for training young talented animators sponsored by the Cultural Affairs Agency. In the story, Himeno, a third-grader, moves to the countryside, where she meets three ninja.

Each ninja has a special technique and a signature colour, and each has multiple-alter egos. Like colours of paint, when alter egos blend, new ninja emerge, producing different signature colours and techniques.

The ninja team up to save Himeno and her family from a crisis. “Mixing colours makes a different colour. The idea of the story was based on this phenomenon,” said the anime’s director, Kentaro Kobayashi.

The Japan News/Washington Post

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