TOKYO -- Cheers from foreign tourists broke the mid-morning silence here in early January, as they took in a "ninja experience" on the fourth floor of a building in the Kabukicho entertainment district of the capital's Shinjuku Ward.
At night, Kabukicho is a seedy, neon-lit patch bustling with often tipsy visitors. But the mornings at this time of year are very peaceful.
"Samurai swords are curved for the martial arts aesthetic, while ninja swords are straight and can be thrust swiftly to ensure a kill," explained Tomoyuki Yumoto, head of Tokyo's Ninja Trick House. The 44-year-old, dressed in a ninja outfit, added, "They do not hesitate to flee, because a ninja works behind the scenes."
Yumoto described the ninja world in simple English to foreign families that applied to the program. The hands-on facility, launched in 2016, was built in a space of about 100 square meters that once housed restaurants.
In a program that lasts around 40 minutes, participants learn about the meaning and role of a ninja, draw samurai sword and ninja sword replicas, and throw ninja stars, called "shuriken" in Japanese. "I focused on the ninja concept in such a way that children and adults can enjoy the experience together," says Yumoto. He went on, "I wanted to make a place in Tokyo where families could feel excited and thrilled."
Pang Waipong, 35, of Chinese descent and his 10 family members were the first group that signed up for a program that day. His two brothers and a sister plus a cousin who live in Honk Kong and the U.S. came to Japan together with their children. They had stayed in Japan for nine days and spent the New Year at a hot spring resort with a beautiful view of Mount Fuji.
Pang, who runs a trading business, immediately applied for the program when he learned online about a ninja experience that could be enjoyed right in the middle of Tokyo. He praised the concept, as ninjas are also famous in Honk Kong through movies and anime, and because the program could be enjoyed by children.
Yumoto chose to open the facility in the Kabukicho district because he originally planned to target foreigners as his main customers. Foreign tourists "don't have a bad image of Kabukicho," said Yumoto. "I assumed foreigners would come to visit the area in the time they have between shopping or dining because it's near the station and has lots of hotels and stores."
Contrary to his expectations, the Ninja Trick House first became popular among Japanese families. "The news spread online that a ninja experience can be enjoyed at the reasonable cost of 1,100 yen, so our customers are about half Japanese and half foreigners now," explained the 44-year-old. He laughed and added, "I feel kind of guilty showing Kabukicho to Japanese kids, but it's important for the service to be properly evaluated by Japanese customers before marketing to foreigners."
Carolyn Cheong, 43, a doctor who came with her family from Sydney, Australia, was next at the Ninja Trick House, along with a Japanese family. Explanations were provided in both Japanese and English, but each group enjoyed the program. When one of the children successfully threw a ninja star, both families cheered. There was no language barrier among the participants.
The Cheong family had enjoyed a week of skiing in the vast wildernesses of Iwate Prefecture, in northeastern Japan, and spent the New Year in Tokyo. They had also tried pounding steamed rice to make rice cake. The woman, who had visited numerous times, smiled and described Japan as a very mysterious country -- the city is hushed but Meiji Shrine is crammed with people, and tourists can participate in a ninja experience program in Shinjuku from the morning.
(Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, Opinion Group)