I’m 28 years old and the concept of ninjas still gets my blood pumping.
We’d been in Kyoto a couple of days and, serene as it was, it was time to explore the violent past of feudal Japan. Kanazawa had the ninja-dera, but this had nothing to do with ninja. Some in-depth research helped me discover the small castle town of Iga Ueno and off on the bullet train we went.
Eyes and Ears in the Shadows, A Quick Guide to Ninja
Ninja were (or technically are) the spies, assassins and sabotage artists of feudal Japan. Popularised in the media as black-robed, flying shadow warriors, this portrayal has some grounds based on their ninjitsu skill. During the Sengoku era (15th – 17th century), ninja were called upon by feudal lords to steal enemy information, confuse armies or kill rivals through the art of deception. Whilst the black-robe aesthetic adds to their mystery, the reality was that they often wore farmer’s clothing and other attire to disguise their identities.
One hour outside of Kyoto, Iga Ueno is one of two surviving ninja-heritage towns, the other being Koka. It was our first true taste of inaka (Japanese countryside), with lush green rice fields stretching out on the horizon. Interestingly, it was at the train station that we first encountered women-only train carriages. Their purpose isn’t for chauvinistic gender segregation, but to protect females from the unwanted touch of perverts during rush hour – a problem in Japan.
We pulled into a very quiet train station. One of those stations that feels as if time stands still, the sun beating down and crickets shrieking in the distance. We then had to catch a bus to the centre of town and I quickly realised foreign people rarely visited here. That didn’t stop a kindly man helping with the obtuse bus ticket system who upon being shown gratitude, simply thanked us for visiting Japan.
Quick tip! Buses in Japan
The system can vary from city to city, but often the bus fare is determined by a screen that shows various prices next to the driver. What makes it confusing is that if you haven’t kept track of the number of stops, it’s hard to correlate what the price is as they move with the journey. You can avoid this by keeping an eye out for a ticket box that numbers the stop of which you got on the bus. I didn’t encounter ‘return tickets’ or two-way journeys, but you can buy day passes in certain cities. When riding the bus, marvel at how your driver notifies passengers every single time the bus is coming to a stop or moving on: “Torimasu… Ikimasu…”
I knew we were in the right place when I saw two children in ninja costume being pursued by their father who was also in full ninja attire. It only made sense to follow them and we were led to the Iga Ninja Museum, just in time for their last show of the day. Worried it was going to be a dumbed down, illusory affair, I was left in awe of what I’d just seen. I witnessed a man: slice bamboo three inches thick using a dagger from just a foot away; throw three shuriken which simultaneously hit their target in perfect alignment; and use a bow to fire an explosive firework. Among the acrobatics, I’m confident that I was more excited than the hundred-odd kids were.
Coincidentally, I asked a long-haired man, his two little girls on both knees, if I was allowed to take photos of the performance. It turned out he was a sixth-generation ninja himself who runs a business teaching the very skills I watched, in central Kyoto. Considering that this iconic form of Japanese history had faded just as the ninja themselves would into darkness, I was heartened to find people keeping the essence of their heritage alive. I wasn’t able to join him for a lesson but if you’re interested, classes start at around 10,000 yen per hour, have great reviews and his website is here.
After the show we took a tour of the small but informative museum which contains tools, weapons and clothing and educates and debunks myths around the ninja way of life. This was followed by a visit to a ‘ninja house’ where we were shown the various traps and tricks the clans would employ if they ever came under attack. A simple example was how low the ceilings were, a deliberate design to prevent the use of long weapons which samurai and the like would have employed. I won’t spoil the details for fear others will see it for themselves, but the highlight of the tour was when our guide disappeared before our eyes using nothing but sound and agility.
Not to the detriment of the museum at all, but purely because of the impatience of my inner-child, I wanted less showing and more doing. Luckily, the museum offers a throwing range where for 200 yen, one gets the chance to throw metallic blades, the aforementioned shuriken. I missed every single time but it was easy to understand their lethal potential from the weight and thud at which they’d penetrate the wood, let alone when laced with poison.
The excitement made me hyper, and so I roamed the rest of the grounds in a stance I’d imagined ninja to use, much to the disdain of my girlfriend. This warranted a condescending applause from some nearby visitors.
Hovering above the surrounding forest, I’d noticed the white sloped roof of the nearby Iga castle, and thus we had to see it in its entirety, me leading Elise beyond the castle walls in a stealthy, crouched posture. It was a fine example of Japanese castle architecture, with ornate sloping multi-layered roofs, and provided a marvellous view of the surrounding area’s villages, farmland and forest.
We headed home under violet skies and a humungous moon. They call Japan the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. That night, it was the ‘Land of the Expanding Moon’. But I wanted to highlight a touching transaction so that I never forget it.
One of the recurring themes in our Japanese voyage was an insatiable appetite for snacks; the gastronomy being that special, I guess. By the train station was what I’d assumed to be a convenience store, which was that and so much more. I headed inside and entered some sort of Wild Western-themed Hollywood emporium. Sinatra blared from the speakers surrounded by posters of Steve McQueen and piles of miscellaneous toys.
We picked our blend of American and Japanese snacks and found an elderly lady sat hunched behind her messy counter. She was delighted that two strange gaijin had decided to visit her store and asked us to sign a logbook that kept a record of the areas, in our case countries, that her customers visited from. We obliged immediately, overcome by the sweetness of the moment.
This elderly lady of Iga Ueno may not have the energy or dexterity to navigate her frail body around the world, but still she managed to do so in her own creative way.
With such a resourceful mind, maybe she was a ninja…