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Ninja Travels in Japan- Spirits and Monks
The recent snowfall had added to the covering that was already there and enveloped the forest in a deep soft cold cloak. As I walked, and sometimes waded, through it I felt the historical connection with the Ninja that had lived in the Iga region and were a part of its folklore. I had been training in Ninpo, the 20th Century derivation of Ninjutsu, since 1984 and in 1989 had travelled to Japan to study in classes run by Grandmaster Maasaki Hatsumi and visit the parts of Japan where the art developed. So far my journey had been very interesting, including being mistaken for a mountain spirit, and nearly ending up with hypothermia due to a poor choice of outfit for the winter weather in the Japanese Alps.
That had happened a week or so ago, not that far from where I was walking now. Having learned from my experience I was now appropriately dressed and even had a modern counterpart of the Ninja’s ‘Kairo’- a heater holding hot coals that could also be used to light fires, candles, and other, more nefarious, uses. In this case it was just for keeping me warm and to use for living with the land if I became lost in the woods. It was a remote possibility but after my near hypothermia experience I wasn’t taking any chances. The trail I was travelling on appeared to be little used only being noticeable because it was a winding gap between the trees. The only tracks near it were from birds rather than the deer and other animals that could be found if you moved off the trail 25 yards or so. I did this occasionally to either stand and meditate, or attempt to contact the local Kami (spirits) through a variety of methods drawn from several traditions.
It was during one of these breaks that I became aware that my face was starting to go numb so, reaching up I unrolled my ski mask, which, until that point, I had been wearing partially rolled up as a hat. As I carried on walking my face thawed out and I was comfortable again. I was pleased to find that my combination of coating my boots with beeswax and spraying my trousers and top with silicone spray was also keeping the water out while allowing the moisture from my body to wick away from my body. So far I had not needed the thickly padded Chinese coat in the swag resting on my back, which was handy as I would have had to unroll it on the snow. As I walked I dipped into my dilly bag and munched on some of the pemmican* I had made at home in Tokyo before setting out on my journey.
My reason for using the traditional Australian system of carrying my equipment and food in this way was that it was probably the closest way to the way Ninja might have carried their gear in the eras when they were active in this area. The swag on my back was made from an old tarpaulin 4 ft x 4ft, waterproofed by rubbing it with a beeswax bar, then heating the rubbed tarpaulin with a hair dryer until the wax melted and coated the cloth, making it water resistant in the same way as my boots. This was laid out on the ground, a blanket or sack folded slightly smaller, then other items put into it and folded around the other contents. The outer waterproof cloth was wrapped around this and rolled into a water resistant cylinder secured with a series of lashings. For this I had found some local purple rope and used some sacred Japanese knotwork combined with practical seafarer’s knots. One of these also secured one corner of the dilly bag to the swag, this bag was made out of a medium sized Japanese tool bag and carried my food and a few other offerings for wayside shrines and temples along the way.
Having wrapped the swag and tied the dilly bag to it a long broad strap is secured to the top and base of the swag and the swag itself is swung across the back with the top at, or slightly above, the right shoulder. The dilly bag counterbalances it by going over the left shoulder and hanging in front. Carried like this the weight of the swag moulds to the body, making it easy to carry and, in this weather, kept me warm too.
I came to a stream and stopped to offer some of my pemmican to a crow. Its cawing summoned two others who also received a piece of pemmican each. Crows in Japan are associated with the Tengu, mountain Kami (spirits) associated with martial arts, magick and, in the area I was travelling , the Ninja. I thought this a fortuitous phenomenon and was just trying to summon up some appropriate words of Japanese when I heard a faint sound coming from ahead of me on the trail.
Rather than fly off and possibly forego any further pemmican the crows hopped over to the other side of the trail from me and sat in neat little line on a log. Then they looked in the direction as well. The noise gradually resolved itself into a regular "Ching!, Ching!, Ching!," sound and around a bend in the path came a group of five robed monks. The one leading them was carrying a staff with one palm sized metal ring at the top with several other smaller ones linked through it. This was what was making the noise. When he saw me the staff bearing monk stopped so suddenly that the others almost ran into him. Then they all saw me and collectively froze, their eyes travelling from me to the crows and back again.
It was a moment that really needed some sort of tense background music. The monks looked at me, then the crows, then at each other. Then they seemed to come to a silent agreement and, as one, bowed deeply to me. Politely I bowed in the same manner and the monks moved swiftly between me and the crows and around the next bend only just keeping below the sort of speed that could be described as a scurry. I exchanged my own looks with the crows, threw them each a bit more pemmican and continued on my way metaphorically scratching my head. It was only later when I literally went to scratch my head that I realised I was still wearing my ski mask pulled down
When I told this story to one of my fellow trainees while changing for a Ninpo class a few days later he laughed so hard he nearly fell off the bench. As did the people he translated the story to. "They probably thought you were a Kappa!" He exclaimed when he had enough breath and composure to speak. He went on to explain that the Kappa was a Water Kami that had supernatural strength and other abilities due to a pool of magick water stored in a depression on its head. However, being a Japanese spirit if you bowed to it- as the monks had to me-it would bow back and this would cause the water to spill meaning you could escape safely. So, not for the first time, I had been mistaken for a nature spirit.
*See forum for recipe.
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