Monday, March 21, 2016

Random Shots: The Locations of Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon for the Nintendo 64. To summarise it, while it had its flaws, it was still creative and engaging enough to be memorable for the lucky few who got to play it, myself included.  It's the sort of thing I would love to play again as some sort of updated HD remake, although its publisher, Konami, seems to have no idea what the [verb] they're doing these days.  But it was after I posted that review that I learned something about the game, after all those years of it living in my memories.  I was looking at a map of Japan's old provinces -- the regions that existed before the 1868 Meiji Restoration replaced them with the prefectures in use today -- when I recognised one of the province names as a location from the game.  Then another... and another... until I realised this wasn't a coincidence.  Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon doesn't take place in some fake, fictionalised, fantasy version of Japan.  It's set in the real fictionalised, fantasy version of Japan!  So allow me to be your tour guide in a journey through the game, as we attempt to link its whacked-out take on the Land of the Rising Sun to its real-world counterpart.

The game starts at Goemon and Ebisumaru's home in Oedo Town.  Okay, this is obviously Tokyo, or Edo as it used to be known.  (The 'O' at the beginning of the word is a prefix denoting honour.)  Whilst wandering about Oedo Town, you may notice a few landmarks.  For instance, you know that big red gate blocked by a big red lantern?  That would be the Kaminari-mon, or Thunder Gate.  The real Kaminari-mon is located in the Asakusa district, on the approach to the temple Senso-ji.  And if you happen to cross a curved wooden bridge, you would be walking on the Nihonbashi, the "mile zero" from which all roads across old Japan were measured.  Alas, the real Nihonbashi was replaced with a new concrete bridge in 1911, but you can try out a replica of the original at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.  Anyway, after taking a trip out to Mount Fuji (yes, that Mount Fuji) and picking up a new weapon for Goemon, you'll head back and take on the first castle level, Oedo Castle.  There was indeed a real Edo Castle built in 1457, but over the centuries parts of it burned down; what's left currently serves as the Tokyo Imperial Palace.

With Oedo Town wrapped up for now, your journey will take you to Zazen Town.  Now, "zazen" refers not to any specific place, but to the meditation performed as part of Zen Buddhism.  But there are a few obvious clues which relate Zazen Town to the city of Kyoto.  The Golden Temple, where Ebisumaru will eventually learn his shrinking power, is a scaled-down version of Kinkaku-ji, a.k.a. the Golden Pavillion, one of Kyoto's most famous landmarks.  Then there's a section called Mt. Nyoigatake.  To get there, first you go up a staircase covered by a row of bright orange torii gates, just like the approach to the Fushimi Inari shrine, another iconic Kyoto destination.  Once through that, you'll end up facing a mountain with a kanji character written in flames on its side.  There are several of these mountains in Kyoto, commonly named the Daimonji-yama, and they are lit up in such a manner at the end of the O-bon festival in August.

Next door to Zazen Town is a place called Yamato.  The province it was named after is now Nara prefecture.  Yamato and Nara also share another connection besides their name -- it has to do with the centrepiece of Yamato, a giant pagoda-like building.  Nara is home to Todai-ji, a Buddhist temple boasting what was, at the time the game was made, the world's largest all-wooden structure.  The main hall at Todai-ji houses a giant bronze statue of the Buddha, itself the largest statue of its kind.  The similar building in Yamato is indeed equally big, and whilst this digital re-interpretation does not contain a similar statue, it is worth unlocking and checking out for an extra life and a Fortune Doll life upgrade.  Not far from Yamato is Kii-Awaji Island, from where you can warp to the Husband and Wife Rocks, a pair of islets tethered together by a giant rope.  The real Wedded Rocks, known as the Meoto-Iwa, are located off the eastern coast of the Kii peninsula, near Ise in Mie prefecture.

After a brief mini-boss atop a dragon, you'll land on Shikoku, another of Japan's four main islands1.  Your landing spot is Kompira Mountain, and directly from there lies Folkypoke Village.  "Kompira" likely refers to Kotohira Shrine in Kagawa prefecture, which sits atop Mount Zozu, and is also called Konpira Shrine.  As for Folypoke Village... offhand, I have no idea.  The biggest city in that prefecture, would be Takamatsu, so that's the best guess I've got.  Anyway, across Shikoku lies the second castle level, but immediately beforehand are the Dogo Hot Springs.  There is indeed a Dogo Onsen in the city of Matsuyama, and whilst the main building of the complex today was not constructed until 1894, the waters of this hot spring resort have been mentioned in the Man'yoshu, a work of literature which dates back to AD 759 at the latest, so it certainly could have existed in Goemon's world in some form.

With the second castle down, the road to Chugoku opens, and with it some of, I think, the game's most interesting locations.  Bizen and Kurashiki are quasi-urban areas lined by white-and-black warehouses, examples of which can be seen in cities like Kurashiki, in Okayama prefecture.  Aki-Nagato is a coastal area with a giant red torii gate in the middle of thewater, modeled after the one off of Itsukushima (a.k.a. Miyajima), an island not far from Hiroshima.  Inaba is a vast, hilly desert, to which you may be thinking, "A desert?  In Japan?  Seriously?"  It's more likely than you think -- there actually is a plot of sand dunes in Tottori Prefecture named, obviously, the Tottori Sand Dunes.  Finally, there's a vast, hilly plains area with little rock plilars strewn about, named Akiyoshidai.  A mouthful, sure, but I didn't even have to break out the list of old provinces to locate that -- the real Akiyoshidai is a park in Yamaguchi Prefecture, near the western tip of Honshu. 

With the third castle down, you'll get cut off from your destination of Kyushu due to... I won't spoil it, but suffice to say, it couldn't have happened in a game less light-hearted in tone as this.  So instead, you'll be going north from Oedo Town into northern Honshu, current known as the Tohoku region.  Much of Tohoku, both in-game, and in historical Japan, is taken up by a snowy area called Mutsu; the real Mutsu province corresponds with four modern-day prefectures: Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, and Aomori.  The big city around the Mutsu region is... Festival Village.  Again, that gives me little to go by.  There are lots of notable festivals in Tohoku's cities, such as the Nebuta Festival in Aomori, and the Kanto Festival in Akita.  But there is a cluehidden in the town's restaurant.  One of the HP-giving dishes on offer is kiritanpo, a dish of rice patties pounded into a cylindrical shape, served in miso soup.  And it originates from... Akita prefecture.  Well, that's good enough for me!

Behind Festival Village, you will find Mt. Fear, named after Osore-zan (literally, "fear mountain") in Aomori prefecture.  The real Osore-zan is known, among other things, for a festival (kuchiyose) in which blind mediums (itako) channel and contact spirits of the dead.  And indeed, you do this in-game.  Alternately, you can head back and take a fork southwards to the Waterfall of Kegon, where Yae can learn her mermaid power.  The real Kegon Falls is located near Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture.

With the fourth castle down, it's time to wrap things up in Kyushu.  Again, I shan't spoil how you get there, but much of it takes place in yet another castle level.  But it is briefly bisected by one last town area, Sogen Town of Bizen.  Alas, I drew a blank at the name alone; there isn't even a historical province in Kyushu named Bizen (that could be a mistranslation of either the Buzen or Hizen provinces).  So once again, I was forced to turn to the local cuisine for clues on its real-life counterpart.  One such offerring was sponge cake, described as a culinary import from the Dutch.  That clearly tipped me off to the city of Nagasaki.  See, for much of Japan's history until the Meiji period, the country managed to protect itself from colonial influences simply by shutting themselves off from all foreign trade -- with a few exceptions.  One of them was in Nagasaki, where the Dutch and Chinese were allowed to set up shop.  Although, sponge cake in Japan, where it is known as "castella", actually came from the Portugese beforehand so, close but no cigar.

Lack of cigar aside, this has been a delightfully informative journey, both for me as I wrote this article, and I hope for you, the reader, as well.  It may even get you to look at Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon in a new way.  Who knows, maybe you'll even visit Japan yourself and see the real-life inspirations behind the game's locales!  Special thanks to Zeality of GameFAQs.com for recording and posting the game's script (http://www.gamefaqs.com/n64/198022-mystical-ninja-starring-goemon/faqs/45558).

1The four main islands of Japan refer to Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu.  However, Hokkaido, was never part of the Japanese state until the Meiji period, which explains why it is never visited in the game.

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