Meet Norfolk’s very own ninja

Masked, stealthy, silent and strong, he stalks the night honing his ninja skills. Rowan Mantell meets the ninja of Norfolk and North Suffolk

Martin Faulks always wanted to be a superhero. As a child he dressed in batman costumes and won martial arts competitions. Now he is a ninja.

By day 33-year-old Martin, of Bungay, works in publishing. But at night the family man (he has a wife and a teenage daughter) dons a black mask and goes out. His walks take him deep into the heart of nature and now he can stalk so stealthily that he can get close enough to touch a deer. He used to creep up on foxes too – until one whipped round and bit him.

His six year quest to become a ninja has included tests of courage and endurance. He has honed his physical fighting skills and sharpened his mental agility and alertness through years of incessant practice and gruelling drills. He has stood beneath an icy waterfall in Wales for half an hour, facing down the pain, fear and an almost overwhelming urge to escape. He has travelled to America to meet the ninja who has been bodyguard to the Dalai Lama, and learnt from the last living ninja grand master in Japan.

However, he is banned from using his ninja skills at home. 'My wife doesn't really appreciate me creeping in and materialising beside her when she hasn't heard the door unlock or the stairs creak or anyone in the room!' admitted Martin.

He has used those ninja skills on the street though. Once to fight off would-be muggers in London and once, earlier this year, in Norwich, when he saw a man attacking a woman; Martin restrained him until the police arrived.

'I was always inspired by superhero stories,' admitted Martin. 'Actually I still am!'

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'For me, martial arts is about being the person who can help others. I think every martial artist has a duty to protect those around them. We are the bodyguards of the world.'

For a ninja, Martin had a surprisingly unexceptional educational background. Born in Norwich he went to West Earlham First School, Colman Middle and then the Hewett School.

But he began martial arts classes at just five-years-old. He quickly discovered it was somewhere he could shine. He began winning medals, rose to become a black belt and eventually a national teenage champion. He was also a regional fencing champion.

'I didn't do very well at my formal education, but I did learn some amazing things,' said Martin.

'There was a PE teacher who let me use the hall to practice every lunchtime. And I learnt that through sheer hard work and force of will I could achieve amazing results.'

He left school at 16 to work in a book distribution company and, despite reinventions taking him from martial arts to magic (he is a member of the magic circle), escapology, freemasonry and ninjutsu, he has never given up that day job in the book trade.

He took up tai chi, wrote his own books on martial arts and grew more and more fascinated by ninjas.

'I think it was a mid-life thing!' said Martin. 'I realised that if I was going to do these things it had to be now. With a lot of martial arts, you will get worse as you get older. I had to find something that would enable me to outwit my opposition, rather than simply relying on physical ability.'

He decided he would seek out and learn the ancient arts of the ninja – and persuaded his publisher employers to give him an advance payment for a book charting his quest.

He expected to have to travel the world, but found he could begin at home, if only he could track down two seemingly legendary local ninja.

'It took me a long time to find them and even now I'm still very respectful of them, for their skills,' Martin said.

The two Norfolk ninjas would arrive at his house in the early hours and, disorientated by fatigue, fear and darkness, Martin began his ninja training. They left him waiting in fields until his mind was alive with phantoms, they taught him to fight and hide, to see in the dark and listen to silence.

He practises in a patch of woodland near Swainsthorpe, given to him by his father – a scientist, who works at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich. 'My dad invented a model gut, so eccentricity runs in the family!' said Martin.

The wood enables Martin to practise his tree-climbing and throwing skills in private, and try out riskier moves without fear of alarming passers-by.

Eventually his quest took him further afield.

He studied with Tibetan monks and Japanese Zen Buddhists. He meditated in the Sahara desert.

But it was long trips to America and Japan he found unexpectedly difficult – even ninjas, it seems, are not immune to culture shock.

In America, he said his excitable, boastful nature was greeted with suspicion. Then in Japan other students feared he was a gangster because of his tattoo.

'And it was so cold and I couldn't understand the language and I was eating fermented squid gut for breakfast and I hadn't seen my wife or home for a month. It almost broke me,' said Martin. But it was in Japan that he won his black belt and could finally call himself a ninja.

Now, back in Bungay, he still trains every day, and goes out at night at least once a week. He has also been hired by a detective agency in London. 'Whenever there is anything really stealthy they need doing, I do it,' said Martin.

He starts the day with 30 minutes of meditation and goes to the gym at lunch time. Once a week he practices fighting skills, once a week he works on stealth training. He is currently also honing his throwing skills.

'But you shouldn't really publicise your routine. It's very un-ninja!' said Martin.

When most people get home on a dark evening they turn the lights on; Martin turns the lights off. He sees more in the dark, inside and out.

'When you are out you see that everyone is just indoors watching TV. You never see anyone doing anything else in the evening but watching TV. So, as a result of that, you start to feel more at one with the animals. You learn to be quiet enough to sneak up on them. I can walk up and touch a deer, but I've stopped doing that to foxes because one bit me!'

Martin said a lot of people are interested in the fighting aspect of ninjutsu, but not so many see it as a journey of self-discovery. His travels deep into the secrets of the silent assassins of ancient Japan took him through challenges ranging from walking through flames to conquering deadly mountain drops.

He learnt to wait with almost infinite patience and to react in an instant.

He said the most infamous ninja challenge is the waterfall training, where he taught himself to remain calm as icy water beat down on him.

In another test, he visited a jaguar enclosure in a Devon zoo. First the animal was filmed, and then Martin. He was as stealthy and silent as the big cat.

'I am as silent as a jaguar. Obviously the jaguar is quicker than me!' said Martin.

But there are other tests of nerve and stamina and reactions which Martin accepts he may never be ready to take.

'I am really still just a beginner,' he said. 'And you are not invulnerable. There are some very nasty people out there. If someone threatens you it's safer to back down, appease, run away, because ninjutsu is about getting the result you want.

'If the aim is to show that you are not scared, then fight back.

'If the aim is to get rid of him then maybe give him what he wants.

'The first step of self-preservation is to not go to places where people are there to fight. The real ninjutsu is about avoiding conflict rather than encouraging it. Norwich can be a dangerous place at night. If I was in Prince of Wales Road and something kicked off, I would run away!

The ninja of Japanese legend were said to be able to disappear. Sometimes that means walking away from trouble.

'But there are lots of different ways of disappearing,' said Martin. 'One way is to step into the light.

'If I stand so the sun is over my shoulder, someone looking at me won't be able to see me properly.'

It is a metaphor too – Martin talks about what he does, seeks publicity, is open and extrovert. The glare from all that information could be obscuring the mystery. 'One way of disappearing is to project an image that isn't you,' said Martin, ambiguously.

He said that he uses his ninja skills all the time – not necessarily in an overt way, but when walking and talking, even to gain a pay rise – or to get me to write a positive feature.

'I want you to write an article that makes me seem impressive and serious,' said Norfolk and North Suffolk's real-life ninja.

Becoming a Ninja Warrior – a quest to recover the legacy of Japan's most secret warriors, by Martin Faulks, is published by Ian Allan Publishing. It charts Martin's six year journey, from East Anglia to the Far East, to discover the secrets of the ninja. It is a ninja manual too – covering everything from mind control to combat, disguise to sensing danger and evasion to invisibility.