Ninjas, cats and pearls: Japan's Kansai is unique in winter

Ninjas, cats and pearls: Japan's Kansai is unique in winter
The waterfall is 133m high and 13m wide, and has a water flow of one tonne per second.

Ninjas, cats and pearls make an unusual combination, but add on lacquer painting, tea and fish, and you get one thrilling winter experience in Kansai, Japan.

It's hard enough for the uninitiated to throw a dart, what more a shuriken (four-pronged metal star), at a dartboard. And sure enough, the journalist along with me on this media familiarisation trip not only missed the target, but the entire board it was on, with three throws. Our translator fared better, hitting the target at least once.

Ninjas and shurikens... a lethal combination. It was always obvious that Japan has a firm grip on popular culture, but the Land of the Rising Sun also marvellous sights, associated with the country's rich history.

The trip for us really began in the Wakayama prefecture of the Kansai region, south of Honshu island, a couple of days before when, on a cold winter morning, we were whisked to the Wakayama castle, a majestic structure that was decimated by American bombers on July 9, 1945, and rebuilt in 1958.

It was here in the castle's surroundings - framed by the beautiful Momijidani Teien Garden - that we got our first real "taste" of Japan, courtesy of the 64-year-old tea lady at the Koshoan Teahouse, a master brewer who concocted and presented a rich serving of green tea.

The tea serving is a process ritualistic in nature that is not merely about downing the freshly brewed warm green liquid. It is also about appreciating the intricate designs of the bowls it's served in.

For those of a fishy persuasion, the Wakayama Marina City is a worthy pitstop. The daily highlight here is the tuna filleting show. When we hit the Kuroshio Ichiba market area, a 60kg-odd tuna was expertly carved open before our eyes by the fish butcher. And as special guests, we were treated to the prime cut - the fish's cheek in a mouth-watering serving of sashimi.

The market isn't large but has variety on tap with the jewel in this market's crown its restaurant, where one can tank up on all the desired sashimi (and more).

Part of the tour of Wakayama also included some hands-on fun, like lacquer painting at Kishu Lacquerware in Kainan, a short drive from Wakayama Marina City. There are plenty of ready-made items for purchase, like tea caddies, wooden stationery boxes, trays and even cabinets, but the big thrill here is to paint your own tray, which can be done for a negligible fee.

It was with much curiosity that we headed to Idakiso train station of the Wakayama Electric Railway Kishigawa Line to pay homage to the biggest celebrity there - Nitama (ni - second, tama - cat in Japanese) the cat, the Super station master.

With Hello Kitty inextricably etched into popular culture, it's no surprise that the Japanese love their cats. But Nitama isn't the only celebrity feline on the Kishigawa Line. Over at the Kishi station, which is serviced by the three themed trains - Omocha (toy), Ichigo (strawberry) and Tama, one can find Ultra stationmaster Tama, who has served as a symbol of the revitalisation of the Kishigawa Line and appointed Deputy President at the company. She is also a Calico cat and Nitama's boss.

The Kishi station celebrates all things feline, and one can not only pose for pictures with Tama, but chill out at the cat-themed cafe, too.

Why the strawberry themed train? Well, because close to the coastline, in the Kinki district, lie strawberry plantations; it is a fruit Japan is well known for.

Granted, viewing the ocean or a coastline in winter isn't ideal, but the view of the Sandanbeki rock cliff and cave, Senjojiki rock plateau and Engetsu-to island of Shirahama, is simply breathtaking. Apparently, Kumano pirates once hid their boats in the Sandanbeki cave.

The Japanese believe that anything that possesses superhuman powers is divine, hence why mountains, waterfalls and trees are all appreciated and respected. It's this premise that inspires the worship of the Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine, Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple and the glorious Nachi Waterfall, all of which begin from the Daimon-zaka slope flanked by cedar trees hundreds of years old.

The Mie prefecture served up a different range of interests, and the shining star there is surely the Mikimoto Pearl Island in Toba City.

The island is the legacy of Kokichi Mikimoto, who developed a method to culture pearls in 1893, a tradition which continues to this day and has earned Mikimoto pearls global renown. We were even treated to a show where Ama, shellfish divers, re-enacted their traditional methods of diving for pearls.

They wore white traditional outfits with head scarfs, and apparently the chosen colour of their outfit is to ward off dolphins and sharks. It was a staggering sight, what with the women braving the winter cold and spending that kind of time in the water. Apparently women were traditionally chosen for the task because they have a thicker layer of fat than men, which insulates them from the frigid waters.

The museum treated us to a cornucopia of visual delights, including a gold-plated globe adorned with pearls, a Marilyn Monroe pearl necklace and the most expensive pearl on the planet.

My favourite place of interest, however, was the Ninja Museum of Igaryu in Iga, the birthplace of the art of ninja, ninjitsu. Corny American movies have not only misinformed the world of the ninja's role, but trivialised it as well.

Contrary to popular belief, they were not all action warriors waiting to accost victims and riddle them with shurikens. Far from it. In fact, ninjas were mercenaries (most likely regular farmers in the day) who carried out intelligence work, and were well-versed in medicine, botany and gunpowder.

We reached Osaka on our second last night and were treated to the visual spectacle of the 3D Projection Mapping show at the Osaka castle amid a kaleidoscope of lights. If i-City looks grand to Malaysians, then the sound and light show, framed against the castle, was simply mind-blowing.

Our final day was spent at Universal Studios, the pride of which is currently the Harry Potter showpiece. This is one not to be missed by Potterheads.

Japan is a nation very much rooted in history, but it is also steeped in myths and legends, weaving a rich heritage of culture and arts into the fabric of its society.

The people are the most civic-conscious you could meet and the food a gastronomic delight.

And how did my shuriken exploits fare? Two out of three hit the target, if only its fringes. Am I a worthy ninja? No, thanks, I'll just go back to darts.

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