Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ninja Camp

Somehow, somewhere, someone discovered this thing called ‘Ninja Camp’ in Nagano Prefecture’s Togakushi.  After hearing about such a place, who wouldn’t be immediately captivated?  And with that (and Colleen’s bright orange car), Jon, Colleen, and I were off on our first road trip in Japan.  Taking a bullet train would have probably gotten us there within a couple of hours but would have cost something like tens of thousands of yen.  Driving on the expressway would have got us there in something like three hours but with the ridiculously priced tolls, would have been thousands of yen.  As a result, it was executively decided to take route 7 to route 8 to route 16 and then back to route 8 and so on…which took something like 5 hours.  Luckily, Colleen had packed the soundtrack to ‘Mama Mia’ and Jon had a pillow. 

The only thing we had really planned on doing for the next two days was ‘Ninja Camp’ stuff.  Little did we know that Nagano and Tokakushi would be surrounded be the most gorgeous mountains with the most delicious soba (thin, handmade buckwheat noodles), and the most bizarrely friendly people!!  To start, we didn’t exactly have a place to stay on Saturday night when we left Niigata.  Instead, we had a couple of phone numbers to Inns in Togakushi.  Luckily, the first place we called (actually Jon called since he’s got his polite Japanese down), the ‘Pension Love Apple,’ was open and ready to accommodate and feed three foreigners.  Once we had a place to stay, we were able to hit up the Ninja Museum and Okusha-shrine, worry free.

The Ninja Museum was fully equip with old Ninja houses, Ninja weapons, Ninja outfits, and Ninja history that we couldn’t read or understand.  The ‘Ninja House’ can be compared to ‘fun houses’ at carnivals where you have to go through a maze of dead ends to get through.  The only difference was that this one had trick doors, hidden doors, and an angled room!!  After dead ends and feeling the wall for sliding and revolving doors, we entered the NINJA ROOM!!  Oh yes, the slippery tatami floor was angled somewhere between 25 and 40 degrees and was AWESOME!!  The second you look at it and step foot into the room, you center of gravity gets thrown off and you immediately get dizzy and disoriented.  Luckily Jon and I were wearing socks (like many of the places you enter in Japan, you must take your shoes off before going in), which made it all the more challenging.  When running up it, we had to not only fight gravity, but also the slipperiness of our feet.  We spent most of our time in this room, running up and sliding down.  It was GREAT FUN.

After the Ninja House, we found a couple more little obstacle courses.  There was the broken pseudo-traverse-rock-climbing-wall that took all our upper-body strength to conquer.  After that was the tightrope.  It took much concentration and perseverance to overcome the quivering of the jiggley wire.  At times it seemed impossible, but once Jon successfully crossed over it, Colleen and I knew that we couldn’t be shown up by a boy.  The final task was to throw shuriken (those metal pieces with sharpened edges) at the samurai enemy.  All three of us hit our targets at least 5 times out of 7, thus passing the final task and winning custom made fans. 

All of this Ninja-ing around helped build up an appetite, and we fully enjoyed our first of what would be many soba meals.  Following the meal, we went on hike through some majestic woods toward Okusha Shrine.  I know I haven’t been everywhere in the world, but I feel like I’ve been on enough hikes through quite a few woods to realize how unique each place is.  The mountains and the trees, and the whole set up are just different from anything I’ve ever seen before. 

During the hike, we decided that it would be more fun to drive to Nagano City and meet up with Mark and Brittany, instead of staying in Togakushi.  On our way out, we designated Jon to call and cancel our reservations at the ‘Love Apple.’  In his most polite Japanese, he told them that ‘it was too bad, and that we were very sorry, but we would not be able to stay there that night.’  Apparently the woman on the other line was shocked, and said that ‘this would be a huge problem as they had already pushed all of the beds into a room and prepared dinner.’  Hearing this, we immediately felt overly guilty and decided that it was best to change our minds again, and stay the night at the ‘Love Apple’ after all.  The only problem was that we didn’t know where it was, and the reception in the mountains was iffy.  Jon asked the woman how to get there from Tokamachi, to which she screeched ‘What?!?!  That’s two hours away!!’ and then phone signal was lost.  Jon wondered ‘how could we be two hours away when we’re in the same tiny town?  Oh no!!  I said Tokamachi instead of Togakushi!!’  When he called back, he explained that we were actually in Togakushi, in the Ninja area, which was actually only 5 minutes away.  For some reason, she kept on asking what color our car was, and the line kept on going out.  One of my favorite quotes was when Jon lost signal for the last time, got off the phone and exclaimed ‘Gosh darn Japanese people, always being way too nice and making me feel so guilty.  I wish they would just let us figure things out on our own.  I think they’re sending someone out to find us in a silver car!!’  And then all of a sudden, a man in a huge silver van labeled ‘Love Apple’ was waiving at us and telling us to follow him.  Before leading us to the ‘Love Apple’ he showed us to a huge beautiful soba field, or buckwheat field.  As it turns out, the ‘Love Apple’ was located off the road and down a tiny street, so we definitely needed his help in getting there. 

I’m so glad we decided to stay there, as they really did put a lot of work into preparing for us.  It was essentially a bed and breakfast; only a DELICIOUS six-course dinner and a four-course breakfast were included.  As we were hanging out in the lounge, we talked to and got to know quite a bit about the nice man/owner who had picked us up earlier.  It turns out that they hosted some participants of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympic Games.  Not too far from the location was where the bobsled events took place.  This man is actually a competitive skier himself, and won a couple Giant Slalom races.  When he was younger he got in a pretty bad wreck, which led to his leg needing to get 13 metal screws and a rod put it.  Months later, they were taken out, and he kept these pieces in a plastic bag, which he humbly showed to us.  They were HUGE!!  When asked if he had ever been out of the country, he told us that he had not, but that he would like to someday visit Finland.  Why?  Because he was told by a man who could see auras that in one of his past lives he was a happy Finnish woodsman who spent all of his days carving wood.  He considers himself lucky and fortunate because his ancestors are looking down on and protecting him during this life.  After hearing this, I decided to set out to find one of these people who could see spirits so that they could tell me about my past lives. 

After the hearty Japanese breakfast, we set out to the soba museum where we decided to bypass the paying of more money to make soba and instead hike through some woods and then slide down a huge slide.  After that, we hit up the Ninja Camp.  This ended up being a huge amusement park-type place for children with dangerous obstacle courses that you would never find in the U.S.  The fact that it was geared toward kids didn’t stop us from climbing over, through, and across a few of them.  It even had a Ninja House and a Shuriken-throw, similar to the one at the Ninja Museum!!  A parking lot attendant stopped us on our way out to the orange car.  We soon found out that he was a Ninja in disguise as he showed us (by using Jon as the victim) the ways of a true Ninja. 

Before heading back to Niigata, we met up with Mark and his friend Brittany for a final soba meal.  Since I already had quite a few soba meals, I decided to try something different: a giant ball of soba dough.  While the first couple of bites were quite tasty, it really was just a ball of dough, and left a funky feeling in my stomach.  In order to cure this feeling, we set out on a quest to find soba ice cream!!  It took a couple of places, but the wait and the search was worth it, as buckwheat is my new favorite ice cream flavor!!

Japan has many random holidays such as Monday’s ‘Respect for the Aged Day.’  These holidays are essentially paid vacation days, which is AWESOME!!  Since I was already in the city, I decided to hang out with my obaachan and actually celebrate the day with her.  I had almost forgotten about the Soh-odori festival going on that weekend and luckily bumped back into it near the station.  I think that Soh-odori (odori = dancing) is specific to Niigata.  It all started something like 300 years ago when people danced for 3 days straight, praying for health and luxuriance.  I read somewhere that it’s all about bringing vigor and power to people who lived in a gloomy snow country.  Anyways, these dances were brightly colored and wild, and I must find a way to get in on it!!

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