I talk a lot about Japanese folklore here on the blog, for obvious reasons, but I haven’t talked much about ninja. And ninja have certainly entered national pop culture and folklore, so they’re as valid a topic as any other.
Plus, I got to have dinner with some lately. I don’t mean I dined with students of Bujinkan Taijutsu or other martial arts heirs of ninjutsu skill, I mean the dressed-in-black, popping-out-of-ceilings legend of thousands of movies and cartoons and books. Those ninja.
But first, a bit on ninja. As Wikipedia says, “…their perception in western popular culture in the 20th century is often based more on such legend and folklore than on the historical spies of the Sengoku period.” True. And nobody says it better than Pops Racer:
“Oh my God, was that a ninja?”
“More like a non-ja. Terrible what passes for a ninja these days.”
The word is younger than the person it describes, a person trained to use stealth and subterfuge in the service of his — or her — lord, and more properly called shinobi. They were most active during the Japanese Warring States period, but the very nature of unknown agents means their origins are necessarily misty, and there are hints of their existence even centuries before. Therefore I don’t feel too guilty in placing Shishio Hitoshi and his fellows in the world of Kitsune-Tsuki and Kitsune-Mochi.
(Yes, I made it through 70,000 words without ever using the terms ninja or shinobi, but let’s be honest, that’s what they are. And now you know, and now Shishio or Gennosuke may have to kill you.)
A real ninja or shinobi would never be caught (ha!) in the iconic black uniform; far more often they’d look like anyone else you’d expect to meet, a merchant or a soldier or a maid. And then something would happen, and you’d never suspect the woodcutter, right?
But that’s no fun for modern ninja stories. And that’s where Ninja New York comes in.
Ninja New York is a theme restaurant in NYC. We were in the city for the weekend (Potted Potter, Matilda, Newsies, and Rock of Ages in 36 hours, because that’s how we roll) and some memory tripped in my head of a ninja-themed restaurant. Ah, internet.
You descend into the restaurant via elevator, and the entire interior is set as a Japanese village, with individual booths and lamps lighting the dark paths. Shamisen music is playing in the background, the menus are presented on scrolls, and everything is themed. It’s kind of like being at a kids’ birthday party of black death.
The cocktails are named for the kuji-in (the syllables you may have seen near the end of Kitsune-Tsuki). Our server Shige brought me a non-alcoholic Ninja Star Martini, which tasted of lychee, was tinted black, and came with a nifty rubber shuriken to take home.
One might think that with so much theme going around, the food would suffer as a secondary concern, but this is not the case; Ninja New York is fully fit for foodies as well. My sister’s Tasmanian trout appetizer was flamed at the table (with the requisite ninja fireball), my steak came with an herb and sea urchin butter which was delicious, and the fried-baked potatoes were wholly new to me and very, very tasty. The menu features Japanese and American options. If I didn’t live 700 miles away, I’d have a new favorite place.
I’ll leave you with this joke frequently told at our taijutsu lessons:
Can a ninja throw a star?
Sure he can!