What do you get when you add one part crazy to two parts boredom in a small town where the Iga Ninja were founded? An absolutely, hysterically-horrifying experience during which one isn’t sure if they are about to die from laughter or poisoning. Although we survived our surreal tea shop adventure, our experience still proves difficult to fathom.
Alas, I am jumping ahead of myself in retelling our adventure. The chronological order of events was visiting a haiku poetry shrine, ninja museum, Ueno-jo and then the town crawl. As the first two events are being covered by genkiduck, this blog will first talk about Ueno-jo and then detail our near death experience.
Although much smaller than Nagoya-jo, Iga Ueno-jo retains much of what Nagoya-jo has lost by pandering to tourism rather than preserving history. It’s tiny interior is crammed full of relics related to ninja and samurai warriors. A few displays detail Iga’s rich history of pottery and artistry. It has the highest castle walls in all of Japan, although I must confess, they looked rather easy to scale. The walls are slightly angled and there are plenty of cracks to use as footings. According to our Ninja Museum tour, a moat is also easily traversed by ninja due to their stylish ‘floating shoes.’ Having the highest walls only further accentuates the minute size of Ueno-jo. The castle is surrounded by scores of cherry trees. I really want to revisit it in spring!
Ueno-jo straddles the town, with elementary, junior high and high schools located at the base of its drive. Our friend attended one of these schools. I asked him if they were secretly Ninja Academies. He smirked and said, ‘no.’ I decided to ignore this reality, declaring that he had indeed attended a Ninja Academy! Works for me, any ways.
Attached to one of these schools is a historic school. At over 100 years old, it’s an amazing gem which still actively hosts various community events, from concerts to karaoke to fashion shows. Over half of the original school structure still stands, preserved in pristine condition. Every open area houses some semblance of a garden. Even the original kitchen and bath house are intact; although, the bath looks more like a vat for stomping on grapes to make wine than a tub. The school’s door frames are low, reflecting the average height of the Japanese sensei and students who frequented its halls. At a modest 5’10”, I had to duck in order to avoid receiving nine stitches accompanied by a borderline migraine.
Our Near Death Experience
After visiting the historic school, we set out on a quest for sweets and tea! Not only did we find both, we also discovered a profound, new appreciation for life. The tale has now come full circle and we find ourselves where this blog began: at the tea shop. The tea shop is home to a motley assortment of ninja related paraphernalia. The owners even decked out their cat in shinobi regalia to advertise their tea shop!
The shop is built in the shape of a U. We enter from the base. Wandering to the left leads us to a dead end, cluttered by visages of the past. The vast array of ‘stuff’ makes it difficult to walk, let alone take in all of the momento’s and artifiacts on display. Rounding out the centre is a till and an artifact restoration station. As we venture to the right, our visual and olfactory senses are bombarded like men in trenches. The landscape of the shop is like a battlefield laid to waste by a ceaseless barrage from a bank of howitzers. The shelves are in utter disarray as mementos lay strewn about like bodies in the mud.
Towards the end of the right side of the shop is an oddly placed garden. In the midst of this garden are several tables hewn from large fir trees. The seats are lacquered logs adorned with sparse cushions. There is a party of three women at the furthest end, smack in the middle of the garden. As we stumble through the shop, one of the two hosts heralds our arrival and set us a a table which straddles the shop and the garden.
Our hostess, a middle-aged, kindly woman provides us each a cup of refreshingly cool tea. A second host, a middle-aged man fond of foreigners and stories, appears in time to take our order. As soon as he sees us, he grabs a meter long, laminated world map and proceeds to ask several questions. The usual sort, such as, ‘who are you,’ ‘where are you from,’ ‘what are you doing here,’ ‘are your breasts protected by ninjutsu’ and ‘could you sign this, please.’ As I sign the map, he confesses to using an English cheat sheet for the first question. He had asked the rest in Japanese.
Our host abruptly launches into a tale about his grandfather. Bear in mind, most of my understanding of events comes from a rather limited understanding of Japanese and some quick translations from our friend. Apparently, our host’s grandfather was a ninja by profession. As our hostess sets our tea and sweets before us, he digs through the garden and snips some leaves off a plant. We listen with rapt attention as he gestures his way through a description of the plant.
From what I can gather, if you rub the plant around the rim of a tea cup, your enemy will die. In case we didn’t fully understand, he reiterates the toxicity of the plant by grabbing one of our teacups, pretending to rub the gooey leaf around the rim and then wildly licking the air around it, smacking his lips for dramatic effect. Just before putting the cup down and smiling, he lets us know the plant is tasteless. By now, everyone in the tea shop is starting to look very nervous. Okay, panicked might be a better word for it.
Our host attempts to relieve the tension by explaining ‘it’s okay, your tea has not been poisoned.’ As everyone loosens up, he begins his next story while frantically digging through mound after mound of artifacts. Eventually, he pulls out a necklace with a box-like pendant attached. He quickly shakes out six speckled black and gold orbs, roughly the size of BBs. As he walks around the room, he gives each of us one and gestures for us to put them in our mouths. No one follows his lead. It doesn’t help that he doesn’t put one in his own mouth. Eventually, with much nervous laughter and frantic eye contact, we all decide to give in and pop the mysterious pill in our mouths.
Not a single one of us swallows the orb. It’s a bitter, earthy tasting thing. Too natural for my liking. Is this pill the remedy for any toxins he put in our bodies? The expression on everyone’s faces tells me they are pondering the same question. Unfortunately, instead of melting in our mouths, the pills stay the same size while becoming increasingly bitter. After much consternation, each of us decids to swallow the pill.
Our host’s eyes glisten with pleasure as he observes our vexation. Turns out they were simply digestive aids. Greatly relieved, we burst into laughter. He immediately produces a long, rope-like pipe made entirely of brass. He gestures for me to hold the pipe. It’s extremely heavy. By the way he handles the pipe, I can tell it’s a precious artifact. He rambles on and on about the pipe in Japanese, none of which is translated for me as our friend has wandered off in search of a matcha brush. He then places a ceramic jar in front of me. The jar contains a grass-like herb. He asks me if I smoke.
Now this is an awkward situation to be in. As I have already observed, this pipe is precious and it reminds me of a Native American peace pipe. Through some frantic gesturing I gather that to smoke with it, you need to roll some of the herb into a tight ball and cram it in the tiny tip. You only drag the pipe twice. Once to light the cherry and a second time to pull in the vapours. Then you beat the ball out of the absurdly small hole and blow the smoke out through the pipe. The procedures took so long that by the time I blew the smoke out, I was extremely heady. I never did find out what the herb was, but by the taste, I would judge it to be a form of tobacco, a conclusion I find very relieving.
As I was placing the pipe on the table, a bell rings to announce the arrival of a very large group of fresh victims. Our host bounds off to greet them. This is our best chance to escape. We grab our stuff, pay for our tea and sweets and express our gratitude for his exuberant hospitality as we sprint headlong toward the door. Although genuinely disappointed to see us go, he thanks us for our patronage and bids us come again.