Earlier this year, I competed on the TV show Japanese Ninja Warrior, also known as Sasuke (this year was Sasuke 32). Sasuke is a 4-stage, timed obstacle course in Japan.
This year, there were 89 men and 11 women (100 total). I was contestant number 58.
More like “why not??”
But let’s back up a bit, to the beginning. Sort of.
I remember watching Japanese ninja warrior during my early teens years with my cousin. My grandma lived out in rural Texas and once a month, the extended family gathered at her ranch for good food, board games, harassing the cows, and general family bonding.
My grandma had all those obscure TV channels my parents refused to pay for and one of those channels played Sasuke / Japanese ninja warrior, completed with horribly awkward English voice overs.
My cousin and I freaking loved that show.
Fast forward fifteen years and I’m married to my college sweetheart, Ryosuke, and living in Japan.
I come across the application for Sasuke 32 online and text it to my husband. We geek out over our shared childhood love of ninja warrior and decide to apply.
(Fun note, they’ve already posted the applications for the 2017 Japanese Ninja Warrior Sasuke 33 on their website, to check it out click here)
Trying out to be on ninja warrior though the “general application:”
The application is long. And completely in Japanese.
We are warned ahead of time (but Arsenette, who runs the Rambling Rican blog devoted to English coverage of Sasuke) to write at least a couple sentences, preferably paragraphs, per question to show how serious we are, so we do.
Time passes and we figure our application was buried in the couple thousand others.
Then Ryosuke gets a call inviting us both to the audition in Yokohama… in four days (later we learn this is common with Sasuke; ‘advanced warning’ is a joke).
We decide to wear our obnoxious matching shirts (pictured below), pack lunches, and bring my laptop, a deck of cards, and the first two seasons of How I Met Your Mother on DVD, in case the audition runs long.
The audition lasts 12 hours.
I’m not joking.
10 of which are spent sitting in a large room with at least hundred other applicants, waiting.
We make friends with a girl who works at a temple, a guy who works at a Japanese gym chain, a construction worker, a female stunt double, and a guy who really wants to impress his kids by appearing on Sasuke.
And we play a lot of card games.
We also meet the all-around amazing Jin and Reina, who pass the auditions and end up becoming our training buddies.
The first round of auditions is a 30 second self-introduction (in Japanese) and a physical test – 100 push-ups to the beat of a drum.
I do 30 push-ups and 70 semi-pathetic ones. My husband finishes the full 100 barely out of breath. They cut 80% of the applicants then and there and Ryosuke and I are thrilled to pass.
In between the first and second rounds of tryouts, we learn a bit more about how they pick the 100 contestants for Sasuke. Contestants are a mix of:
- Celebrities, who are contractually obligated to be shown.
- “All Stars,” who are regular competitors, famous for consistently passing the first stage. They don’t need to go through the tryouts, they are officially invited back each year by TBS.
- Repeat competitors who aren’t quite at the “all-stars” level yet but have passed the first stage or made a memorable enough attempt that they’re invited back they next year.
- Fluff competitors who get invited back every year and go for memorable (or silly) wipe-outs. They’re silly and fun and make for great TV. Some of these have been doing Sasuke for 5-10 years.
- Regular competitors, who try out through the general auditions. This is where Ryosuke and I were hoping to end up (although we learn that there’s only anywhere from 30 – 50 spots open every year).
The second round of auditions is a “group Q & A session” where they grill you about what is on your application, in groups of ten to fifteen.
They flat-out tell us they’re only accepting one person per job/profession or group, either Ryosuke or I (or both) will be cut, since we’re ‘related.’ There are four guys who work as gym trainers at the gym chain Rizap in our group, so they have even worse odds and we count ourselves lucky.
I had applied as an author/manga artist (so far we haven’t met any others with that job) and Ryosuke had applied as a YouTuber/translator (we saw one other YouTuber, a Japanese guy named PDS, and one other professional translator in a different room). His odds seem to be worse than mine. Still, we’re fortunate our jobs aren’t the same as any of the celebrities, all-stars, or repeat competitors.
When it’s our turn, I tell them to pick Ryouske because he actually has the physical strength and stamina to complete the course. And he’s hilarious.
Ryosuke tells them to pick me because I’m a feisty little thing who would complete the course if only to prove everyone else wrong. And if I get picked, I will probably draw a comic or blog about my experience.
We get out of the audition at 9:30pm and back to our apartment well after midnight.
On the ride home, it hit me. The tryouts didn’t have a skill test, like at all. They wanted to gauge how committed you were by how many push-ups you could do (the key, I heard, was to not give up. It doesn’t necessarily matter if you can complete the full 100 push-ups as long as you don’t give up)… but other than that everything was verbal.
By the time we arrive home, we realize the tryouts are probably for “filler spots.” They don’t test your running, jumping, or balance skills because they don’t actually expect you to do well on the course – they just want ‘regular folks’.
Ryouske gets a call a couple weeks later saying “Congratulations Mr. Mineta. Your wife will be on Sasuke 32. Here are the details. Oh yeah and sorry, you didn’t pass the auditions.”
My husband is a good sport about it, though, and still goes onto train with me.
Training for the competition:
Most of our training was daily cardio and muscle building (push-ups, sit-ups, running up and down the stairs carrying Ryosuke on my back, pushing Ryosuke up the hill in our little red wagon and riding down the hill together).
I develop abs.
We also train twice with Jin, Reina, and some of the other amazing folks training for Sasuke (both to compete and just for fun).
We’re invited to two courses built in people’s backyards and/or garages.
The training is amazing.
Perry, a contestant from the Netherlands, teaches me how to climb the warped wall (the trick is to count your steps and lean back). Jin teaches me how to trampoline jump onto a rope ladder (the trick is to bend your elbows) and how to trampoline jump onto the jumping spider (but in the end I’m too much of a chicken). Reina teaches me how to speed rope climb (as if I have a chance of making it to the fourth stage) and tips for leaping long distances.
I’m in the best shape of my life.
Finally, it’s time for the competition.
Ryosuke’s parents come to cheer me on (Japanese dad brings a huge bag of fresh veggies from his garden, of course, and Japanese mom packs me a lunch), as well as three of our friends. I wasn’t sure how many “guest passes” I was allowed to have and didn’t want to push it by inviting more than five people.
The day of Japanese Ninja Warrior:
We’re told to get to (Mt) Midoriyama at 7:00am.
The first couple hours are spent checking in and hanging out with the other contestants. After a while, they bring the contestants to look at this year’s stage.
The first stage is changed every year to prevent people from just learning specific skills (and to keep things interesting).
One of the trained staff members does a single run-through of the course, showing you the “recommended way of completing the obstacle.” They also let you know what moves are prohibited (for example, you can’t touch this wall and you can’t use this stepping block).
All of the instructions are in Japanese and once I realize they aren’t going to provide English translation, I start explaining some of the rules and restrictions to nearby non-Japanese speaking competitors.
And then ninja warrior starts.
I’m contestant number 58, so I have plenty of time before my run.
I also learn that your numerical order is important:
1 – 50: Most of the celebrities, recurrent contestants that fail on the first 1-2 obstacles every year, people through the general auditions, and 1-2 of the high ranking “all-star” contestants (who are supposed to either clear the course or get pretty far on it)
51 – 60: Women or contestants over 65 years old
61 – 100: The Sasuke “all-stars,” foreign competitors, or people they expect to clear the course/get pretty far
Nagano Makoto, a fisherman who has appeared on Sasuke 26 times, officially retired this year. He was contestant number 100 and they gave him a touching farewell.
My run is at around 3:30pm. It has been misty all day, so some of the obstacles were damp (and slippery!) and there is mud everywhere.
No one had passed the first stage yet – and I am a bundle of nerves.
The week before, Jin sent me a message recommending to bring a pair of shoes JUST for my run and changing shoes on the stage. Even a light layer of dirt can be the difference between clearing an obstacle and slipping during a jump, he says.
Finally it is my turn. I’m shaking as I tie my shoelaces on stage. But it’s okay because my husband is allowed up on stage with me.
They did a brief introduction (in Japanese) and then the buzzer sounded, starting my run.
My husband gives me a kiss for good luck (which I later learned from multiple people in the stands that our kiss had the stage manager diving with his clipboard outstretched to stop the children in the front row from seeing our scandalous PDA, sorry not sorry).
The first stage of Sasuke is 9 obstacles.
The first obstacle is the quad steps. It’s pretty self-explanatory: jump, jump, jump, jump.
The second obstacle is the rolling hill. You have to jump from the last quad step to a row of five, slanted cylinders.
This is where a lot of people wipe out – you have to time aim for your feet to hit just between two cylinders, otherwise your will face-plant the obstacle and slide down into the water. Once you make it to the top you have to do the same thing going down.
I choose to jump from the second cylinder since I can jump further distance-wise than height-wise. Miraculously, I make it!
The third obstacle is the Tie Fighter (somehow they actually got the license to call it that).
Although I never mastered the jumping spider, this one is okay because I didn’t have to trampoline into it. I could get into the post however you wanted… and once I am ‘locked into position’ the Tie Fighter launches down a set of three steps.
I have nightmares about this obstacle for several days after, about slipping out of the contraption and falling into the water.
In all honesty, I almost do.
I do fall out of the Tie Fighter… but I fall out on the final jolt when I am already over the mat. Phew.
Later, Perry breaks his foot during the dismount from this obstacle… and decided to ride the adrenaline and complete the course with a broken foot. Broken foot aside, he times out on the last obstacle and I can honestly say it is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.
The fourth obstacle is the Orugoru (or as I like to call it, the music box from hell).
I fall on the orugoru. I get one foot on the thing but don’t have enough upper body strength (or momentum) to keep me on the platform.
The water below is disgusting, of course. It smells like dead fish and is very muddy.
(10/10 recommend not falling into the water. Completing the entire course seems like a much better way to go.)
Once I pull myself onto the shore, someone is there with a microphone to interview me. I am running on adrenaline, so I don’t exactly remember what I say.
I later learned when she asked if I wanted to challenge the course again for Sasuke 33, I said “YES. Definitely. If I get invited back, I WILL DEFINITELY CLEAR THE FIRST STAGE.”
Or something like that.
I get a standing ovation (from at least the section with my family, friends, and new friends) as I walk back to the front of the stage and hug my husband (hey, if I was muddy and gross he deserved to be muddy and gross too).
Then I am loaded up in a bus with plastic covers over the seats and hauled to the showers across the TBS campus.
I return in time to watch the rest of my friend’s runs… but then I am told politely “if your run is over… there is no reason for you to stay here.” Apparently you’re supposed to leave once your run is finished. Later I find out if I had hidden with the international competitors and/or repeat competitors I would have been “safe” (I only got cornered because I was standing alone).
The airing of Sasuke 32 was… disappointing.
As a rule, they don’t tell competitors if their run will be included in the show. Japanese mom and dad tell all their friends and coworkers to watch their daughter compete on Sasuke.
My run is cut from the final broadcast.
Which makes it awkward fielding calls the day after, from friends and in-laws who are like “I watched the show but couldn’t find you!” Later, I am sent a DVD with my run, so the next time we visit Japanese mom and dad’s house, I give the DVD to Japanese dad.
Last I heard, he corners anyone who visits and makes them watch my run. He’s so proud.
But the broadcast…
Where do I start?
Of the 11 female competitors, only one is shown. She is from the girl group SKE48 (one of the celebrities) and falls on the transition between the first to second obstacle.
She was very nice and sweet and I have absolutely nothing against her. I’m more disappointed by the studio’s decision to craft a narrative of the competition that implies there are no impressive runs by female competitors.
Which is not true at all.
There is Reina, an 8th grade gymnast, who did amazingly well and falls on the fifth obstacle (Double Pendulum) or Kacy Catanzaro, the female American Ninja Warrior representative, who breezes through the course and times out on the last obstacle (Lumberjack Climb).
Maya Shiromuko also falls on the same obstacle as me, the fourth one (Orugoru). And both Mika Watanabe and Kaho Takada make it to the third obstacle, the Tie Fighter.
But none of us are shown.
It’s all about what makes “good TV,” I guess. And strong female competitors do not make good TV.
So that was disappointing.
On the bright side, Twitter lights up after the broadcast from people upset about the fact that they cut ten of the eleven female competitors (not even showing second-long clips of any of the women falling).
People definitely noticed.
I have my fingers crossed they will do a better job showing competitors next year – because seriously even the one second clips of people falling is better than nothing.
I had a great time training and competing on Sasuke 32 (aka “Japanese Ninja Warrior”).
It’s always a mixed bag when you get a chance to look behind the curtain. I learned a lot of things about the business and politics of the show, which I could have done without… but I also had the chance to meet some of the most interesting and inspirational competitors from all over the world.
I am still in the best shape of my life, which of course my husband has definitely noticed and definitely loves.
It would be amazing if I was able to compete next year… but since my run was cut completely from the show, I doubt I will be invited back.
Here’s for knocking another thing off my bucket list!