The Real Gyro-SecretMy parents are in Japan this week, all the way from the East Coast of the United States to meet their first grandchild. It's their second time in Japan, the first being my wedding in Kyoto almost two years ago. What to do with the parents during the day? I've elected to take several trips to key cultural spots in Akita Prefecture to give them a sense of the history, culture, and flavor of this Northern region of the country. What better way to do that than to take them deep into the heart of the Oga Peninsula to visit the Shinzan Shinto Shrine, home of the legend of Namahage?
Namahage is a Japanese bogeyman. He is an ogre who terrorizes the people of this small rural community, and has done so for hundreds of years....if not longer. I'll cut and paste some notes from the Shinzan Shrine's website to give you the background on this legendary fiend, before I tell you about his connection to the gyroball.
"Legend has it that the (Chinese)Han emperor brought five demonic ogres with him to Japan a little more than two millennia ago. These oni, as they are most commonly called in Japanese, stole crops and young women from Oga's villages. The villagers dicided to trick these ogres, promising to give up all their young women if the demons could build a stone staircase of one thousand stairs in a single night. If, on the other hand, the oni failed to reach the local temple to which the stairs were to be built, they would have to leave Oga never to return again. The ogres accepted, and had reached 999 stairs when a quick-witted villager imitated a cock crowing for the arrival of down. The surprised and dismayed oni fled, never to be seen again...."
On New Year’s Eve, pairs of Namahage return to the villages to cause havoc. They enter homes and demand to know if everyone has been working hard and caring for the elderly members of the family. The villagers try to appease the Namahage by offering sake and food, but eventually the ogres search the homes for signs of small children. They threaten to take the children with them to the mountain if they are not satisfied that everyone is putting in their best effort to tend to the crops and care for the elderly. Only when satisfied with a promise for the following year, and some material things, will the Namahage give their blessings for a good harvest and leave once again. This is repeated every New Year's Eve. (This is actually a real ritual where local people dresses as Namahage enter local homes and truly terrorize little kids. It's a bit painful to watch the film of this ritual, seeing the abject fear on the little boys and girls' faces, but it's a very very old custom. Go figure.)
My parents were highly entertained by the performance of the Namahage's story, and the museum in his honor. We climbed the steps to the Shrine and made a few prayers and an offering. It was only when we were leaving did the unthinkable happen. I needed to find a restroom before putting everyone in the car and shuttling the family back to civilization. I had the parents wait at the entrance to the shrine, while I headed around back to the toilet. It was a bit dark and nestled in the trees behind the building, so I had a bit of a creepy feeling as if I was being watched. Before I was able to enter the facility, I heard the crunching of leaves and felt the steamy breath of the Namahage on the back of my neck. I was frozen.
In his thunderous and ancient Japanese, he said, "You. You've been working hard, but you are no closer to what you wish to know, fool."
I was stunned and could only stand firm in one spot, anxiously awaiting his next pronouncement. "Do you know what I'm talking about? Do you?! Speak up!" he boomed.
"Uh...no. I guess you want my boy or something, right? Maybe I can buy you a sake, and we can talk it over", I replied.
Namahage wailed and thrust his giant butcher's knife at me. He reached into his straw robe and just as I thought I was finished he pulled out......a baseball. I was puzzled. First, why was the Namahage appearing to me here? What did he want from me? Second, what did he mean by "no closer to what I wish to know"?" Then there was the baseball. It was all too weird, and I shook my head trying to clear the cobwebs.
"The gyroball, Mike-san. The gyroball. That is what you seek, and only the Namahage has the answer", the gruesome thing bellowed. I bowed politely, reached into my pocket, and pulled out a 10,000 yen bill as an offering. He laughed.
"I have no need for money. I just want to set the record straight", he said. "I am the keeper of the gyroball. Stupid Matsuzaka. Why should he get all the publicity? I taught him everything he knows."
This was all too much. I had to ask him, "The gyroball isn't a magic pitch. It's just a really new way of throwing an old fashioned breaking pitch, right?"
"That's what Will Carroll wants you to think", he replied. "He also learned the pitch from me, but he never gives me an ounce of credit. Stupid Montefusco. Stupid Niezer. What about Namahage? All I want is for you to tell my story. Tell them that the ancient knowledge of the gyroball comes from an ancient line of Chinese ogres. Only then will they believe. If you do this for me, I will bless you with 1,000 bountiful harvests."
I had to tell him that I had no interest in harvests, but he simply took ten steps back, glared into my eyes, went into a windup, and threw the baseball straight at my head. I was terrified. The funny thing is, the rifle spin on the pitch gave it a kind of late breaking effect that sent the ball past me and into the darkness of the forest. When I looked back to watch it disappear, the Namahage laughed and ran off, never to be seen again. My parents don't believe me. Maybe you won't either. The thing is, I have a picture....sort of. Just tell me this isn't proof that his words aren't true. Judge for yourself.