ONE morning last January, the fishermen of Taiji were surprised to find a large, living whale in their communal net. It seemed to have swum out of the past. For thousands of years, many and varied marine mammals have steered close to the Kumano coast on their long undersea circuits between breeding and feeding grounds. Where Japanese whaling began with a passive acceptance of beached creatures as gifts from the gods, it first became an active, organised hunt here in Taiji circa 1606, which was then known as “kujira to tomo ni ikiru machi”, or “the town that lives with the whales”. The town is now dying, along with its only industry.
TO arrive in Iga-Ueno on the first Saturday in April is to feel like a stranger in ninjatown. This small city in the mountains, about two hours by rail from Kyoto, is supposedly the ancestral home of those fearsome feudal super-sneaks and master-killers, whose name and reputation have long since spread across the world through martial arts movies, comic books, and video games. Here in Japan, ninjas are now something of a national myth, a slightly cartoonish composite of old folk tales and modern pop culture. This morning in Iga-Ueno, however, it would be discourteous to dispute their existence.
ON my first morning, I am issued with work gloves and boots, a hardhat, a dust mask, and a red and yellow boiler suit. My team leader Dave Ludvik, being Australian, calls this garment a “onesie”. I already love my onesie, and I will later wear it to jobs that don’t really call for it. Today, Dave says it’s essential, as the two of us will be driving to the “gomi-yama”, or “mountain of rubbish” down at Ishinomaki port, where assorted debris from the great tsunami is still piling up, more than two years after the event.
George Orwell did not believe in ghosts. Any reader who respects his work could not possibly think that Orwell’s shade now haunts the remote farmhouse on the Isle of Jura where he wrote his final novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and spent his last days of relative health and happiness. (He died of tuberculosis in 1950, and was buried elsewhere, in an English churchyard, under his real name, Eric Blair.) Even so, I’m jittery.
MOST writers spend the better part of their days sitting alone in chairs, slouched over desks, occasionally staring out of windows. In his lifetime, even a beloved crowd-pleaser like Charles Dickens would probably have bored his fans to fits of Victorian weeping if they had to watch him work for more than five minutes. But after a great author dies, his or her property begins to take on a kind of mystic fascination. Over decades, or centuries, their chairs become artefacts, their rooms become museums, and their houses become holy to those readers and travellers who consider themselves “literary pilgrims”.
WE crossed from Argentina into Chile over the Andes. The bus was angled upward like a plane taking off, the narrow road rising to an altitude of almost 12,000 feet at the border checkpoint, in a high pass called Los Libertadores. The peaks loomed above us on all sides, with Acongagua in the distance – the tallest mountain outside of Asia, a factory for generating clouds. It was literally dizzying. My nose bled, and my girlfriend fainted in the long queue at the immigration desk.
THERE is no place on Earth where a person can say with absolute certainty that they are not being stalked by ninjas. Common sense suggests this is unlikely, but pure logic dictates that you cannot prove a negative, and the art of the ninja is to go unperceived. I have been around the world to look for them, to shadow them in reverse, and whenever I find a possible candidate, he or she tends to deny it. “No no no,” said Mats Hjelm, a web-designer from Stockholm, during a short break from his ninjutsu class in Tokyo. “I don’t like to call it by that name, although I know that some other people do. And I definitely don’t call myself a ninja.” This was, of course, exactly what a ninja would say.
It’s a bright cold day in the austral midwinter. The low sun is dropping into the lake, drawing long shadows from the dead trees, broken streetlights, and bent telephone poles that stick out of the water as if planted there. Three flamingos are floating down the Avenida De Mayo, past the half-sunken ruins of the Azul Hotel. Their pinkness almost glows against the dry white crust that covers every exposed surface. It looks like ash, or frost, but is actually salt. There is 10 times more salt in this water, per cubic centimetre, than in any of the world’s oceans. The lake was named “Epecuen” by the Mapuche tribes who once populated the surrounding lowlands of central Argentina – it was their word for the itch caused by the salt drying on their skin, though they also found that it had health-giving properties.