Japan has presented us with a stream of challenges to keep us on our toes. Among them, linguistic ineptitude, cultural interpretation, stormy weather, shrimp-flavored ice cream, maps and bus schedules with only Japanese characters, rampant Japanimation, unidentified packaged foods, and busy harbors with intimidating concrete walls for docks. Most formidable among these challenges are ninjas.
We first became aware of the presence of these stealth assassins on a walk to the grocery store in Kagoshima, when we were nearly taken unawares by a bike ninja. The black shadow was so well disguised in the fading light that he was nearly past us before we realized the danger. Fortunately, this stealth artist had other business for the night.
Since that evening, we have had many more dramatic encounters. From Kagoshima, we sailed to Yakushima, an island with a World Heritage Area designated in recognition of its botanical diversity. At sea level, warmed by the not-all-that-warm Kurushio Current, palms and a few banyans grow. The sides of the extinct volcanoes shine with spring blossoms and green shoots, while the top, over 6,000 feet high, is covered mostly in dark cedars and leafy shrubs. We planned a hike, to admire the trees and search for monkeys, over the top of Miyanoura Dake, Yakushima’s tallest peak and the home of Ippon Hoju Daigongen, the most prominent local Shinto kami (deity).
Rob scurried ahead, as usual, and as we neared the top of the fog-shrouded peak, I heard the faint sounds of a scuffle. Rob had topped out at the summit, preparing to offer his thanks to Ippon, when a pair of ninjas summersaulted out of the mist, hurling throwing stars and twirling daggers in a surprise attack. Rob, fortunately, once held a black belt in karate, and was well prepared. He summoned his skills and karate chopped, made funny noises, karate kid kicked, and vanquished the pair.
By the time I reached the top, there was nothing left to do but bow low before the shrine, clap twice, and offer a sincere “Domo arrigato gozaimasu” to Ippon. An extremely responsive deity, she immediately swept aside the clouds and presented us with a glorious view of eerie rocks shrouded in clouds, and vibrant spring foliage.
I had my own encounter a few days later, back on Kyushu. After we’d sailed over night, beating into rather miserable weather, battered by waves kicked up by the current, dodging giant cargo ships in the dark, and flattened by the rain, we spent a few days taking in some of the sights in the Miyazaki region. One rainy afternoon, I left Rob on the boat and went wandering through town in search of the elusive internet. Not yet an expert at navigating in Japanese, I took maybe a wrong turn or two on the way home and returned just after dark. Shortly before I reached the boat, I caught a glimpse of motion and the steel glint of a katana blade in a dark corner to my right. I had just enough time to process the image before a flight of ninjas ambushed me, on a lonely street with no help in screaming distance. Luckily, because of my younger brother’s long-lasting obsession with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I am an expert at the Bo-staff. I dropped my bag, broke a branch from a nearby tree and systematically vanquished the ninjas.
Perhaps it is because of all this vanquishing that we have been the grateful recipients of so many gifts—instant noodles, nautical charts, fireman stickers, special onsen towels, beer, tomatoes, citrus, fancy cheese, strange seafood that Rob’s thoroughly vegetarian stomach can’t handle, dozens of cups of coffee that I can’t handle but can’t figure out how to politely decline in Japanese, and Elvis serenades on the ukulele. It must be an expression of gratitude to us for ridding Japan of this terrific scourge.