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ninja tea
By Dennis Batchelder 17 February 2001

hi guys:

kyoto really is a pretty cool place - it's one of the old capitals of japan, so it has a palace, a few castles, and a bunch of shrines. the city is in a vally surrounded by mountains, and the scenery is just gorgeous. we got to see quite a bit of kyoto in the three days we spent there. i attached some cool pictures of some of the sites:

1) the golden temple, known as kinkaku (golden pavilion), or properly rokuon-ji temple. the top two floors are overlaid in gold leaf. looks warm, but it's cold. it was built in 1397 by yoshimitsu, the 3rd shogun of ashikaga. the gold leaf was reapplied in 1997.

2) a picture of one of the shrines we visited, complete with an idol wearing a hat. this was my first trip to japan in the winter, and it was cool to see how idols are dressed during the chilly season.

3) mount fuji, which was pretty cool to look at. we saw it on the fast train (shinkansen) on the trip from tokyo to kyoto. the japanese call the mountain fuji-san, which is "mr. fuji". you here people saying stuff like "we saw mr. fuji from the shinkansen", and "doesn't mr. fuji look good in the winter"

4) 15 rocks of contemplation in a rock garden. somebody set these up a couple of hundred years ago, and people from all over come to admire the genius of their placement, and try to guess at the meaning behind how they're laid out. i think it's like reading shakespeare, and guessing at the multiple levels of meaning that the english teachers insist that he meant: the rocks were dropped there, and people were left to guess at why.

5) ninjas. we stopped at a real honest to goodness ninja house, and this is a picture of a real honest to goodness ninja, posing with marina and take. the ninja house was cool - they showed all the special places that ninja use to hide: under the floor, behind the wall, over the rooms. special ninja shoes for walking through mud, and special ninja ways of determining the weather (if it's cloudy, it may rain). wow.

the japanese seem kind of superstitious - if you go to the shrines, you don't go for services, but you go for a bit of prayer, and then a bunch of good luck acts. like drinking from a special stream is supposed to grant you good luck. and rubbing the head of some statue brings you good fortune. and successfully navigating with your eyes closed a path between two rocks is supposed to bring you love. plus many more: ringing a bell, thumping a piece of wood, walking backwards, sneezing without needing a tissue, hopping on one foot with your eyes closed - you get the idea.

then there are the capitalistic good luck items: you can buy talismans, key chains, worry beads, worry stones, figurines, birthstones, rings, necklaces, and refrigerator magnets, all proclaiming some benefit or other: safe driving, long life, safe sex, long body parts. it seems that just by spending a bit of money, you can achieve a safer, more satisfying life. pretty cool.

last of all, you can buy your own fortune. the japanese do this differently - they have a double blind method. first you select a random stick of wood from something that looks like a large toothpick dispenser. the stick has a number on it. you give the stick to the storekeeper, and he goes to a set of bins, which get filled randomly every day with different fortunes. he hands you a fortune from the one corresponding to your number, and voila - now you know exactly what's going to happen to you over the next week. how's that for convenient?

we must not have had a good fortune for finding things. before i got there, irina was travelling around, and found a vending machine serving hot apple tea. she had one, and really enjoyed it. well, she must have enjoyed it, because she would stop and check every vending machine over the next week to find another one. but alas, no hot apple tea. there was cold apple tea and hot green tea and plum tea and black tea, but no hot apple tea. we stopped all the time checking out the machines: irina became a bit obsessed.

there are drink machines everywhere in japan. they're in all subway and train stations, and on every street corner. i guess it's like the coke machines in the states. but these were different: each machine had hot and cold cans inside. cold coke, tea, ice coffee, and power drinks, and hot tea, coffee, chocolate, and soup. but no hot apple tea. i started telling irina that she must have drunk special ninja hot apple tea, and that it had special ninja tricks for hiding in the machine. maybe if we took apart the machine, we'd find the secret ninja hiding places. but she didn't appreciate my humor. instead we had to keep looking in each and every vending machine.

so i eventually decided to help. but it didn't matter, because there was no hot apple tea to be found anywhere. every day, every place, every where. supposedly it came in a red can, but irina wasn't really sure. we got pretty good at recognizing the machines and drinks: we figured out that there were three major vendors with their own brands. but none of these guys had hot apple tea, so we couldn't really eliminate looking at any one vendor's machines.

i thought that since we couldn't read the japanese labels, maybe we were seeing it, but not realizing it. so i bought one of each of the other teas. one by one, we tried them. let me tell you, there were some pretty nasty teas in those machines. i don't know how anybody drinks them. they must have been full of vitamins.

just for inspiration, we went back to the train station where irina got the hot apple tea the first time. but even there, we couldn't find it. so finally, reluctantly, irina gave up. which didn't really mean much, because then she started telling me how sorry she was that i'd never get to taste it. its flavor grew to mythical proportions: it was the ambrosia of the gods; the primordial soup from whence sprang all life; the dom perignon of teas in japan.

on our last day, we were walking from marina's place to the train station. just out of habit, we checked the vending machine right at the end of the driveway. and it must have been our lucky day. or maybe the ninja tea ran out of hiding places. or maybe it was the good fortune talisman we bought to help us find things. or the double blind fortune opened its eyes. whatever the reason, the hot apple tea was right there, in front of our noses, in front of the house. and we bought two cans as we walked to the train station for the trip to the airport.

was it good? oh yeah! after such a search, it was like drinking gold.

ninja tea - japan