Ninjas seem to be everywhere these days. They pop up frequently in all levels of pop culture as stealthy. magical, weapon wielding assassins and the thugs for low grade super villains.
I, love ninjas.
And something that I just recently grasped for the first time is that ninjas are actually real.
I mean they really did exist.
It’s hard for that to sink in. With all the comics, movies and computer games about ninjas, all the super-powers they seem to have and the sheer other worldliness of them ninjas seem more like a recurring fictional archetype than an actual historical occupation. But they were real, they really did exist. And what’s more they existed in the country I live in.
Why have I suddenly had this revelation? Well it came to me courtesy of a recent trip to the Ninja Museum in Iga Ueno.
I know, an actual honest to god ninja museum. I love this country.
Iga is one of the two villages in Kansai that styled themselves as the largest and most influential of the ninja clans in Japan. The other was Koga, also in Kansai and both within a day’s travel from Kobe. Ninja clans were generally based around villages which, appeared to be a normal farming village but in actuality were training camps for clans of ninja. There were hundreds of these villages scattered around Japan, each practicing a subtly different version of ninjitsu but Iga and Koga were easily the most powerful.
Although only being a day trip away Iga is remarkably difficult to get to requiring that I ride 5 different trains and travel for about 3 hours top get there. Including a journey on one two car train that appeared to have been built before the invention of suspension. It was a horrible ride but it did at least have curtains, always a sign of modernity and safety. Also it boasted jaw dropping mountain views. Still, suspension wouldn’t go amiss.
Not that I minded too much because the last of these five trains was the “ninja train!” Basically a train, painted to look like a ninja. Yeah. As you can tell on the subject of ninjas I am kind of easily pleased and I was excited beyond all reason to be riding the ninja train.
The ninja train approach to improving mundane items spread to the rest of the town of Iga too. Everything here is geared towards ninja and covering every available surface in them. Right down to the little pink kunoichi (a female ninja) on the manhole covers and this toilet sign. Being at heart an 8 year old boy this pleased me enormously.
The main draw of the town is the park in the centre which has 4 ninja themed attractions and a few minor additional ones.
The first of the ninja themed attractions was a restored ninja house. The ninja villages I mentioned before generally looked like ordinary villages and so the buildings just looked like ordinary Japanese farmhouses.
From the outside.
From the inside what appeared to be a one story building in fact had three as it contained both a cellar (with tunnels that led to underground passages linking the entire village) and a hidden attic from which the ninja could spy on intruders. Inside, the house was filled with various trapdoors, hidden doors, hidden rooms, hidden weapons (under floor planks and secret holes) and a twisty turny structure that allowed someone who knew the layout to observe nearly all of the house from one room. I particularly liked the secret door that could only be unlocked by sliding two pieces of paper under it allowing a quick escape in case of attack.
A guide followed you into every room demonstrating all the secret features but in some rooms a woman playing a kunoichi (in bright pink) would also come into the room and demonstrate the features herself. It is one thing to be told there is a secret door, it is quite another to see a woman clad head to toe in neon pink disappear into the wall and leave no obvious clue as to how she did it. It’s rather spooky and hammers home more effectively than anything else that ninja actually were real.
The second attraction was an excellent museum explaining all about the skills, tools and devices used by the ninja. This was hands down one of the most entertaining and informative museums I have visited so far in Japan and it was a real eye opener with regards to myth busting. Did you know, for example, that ninja almost never wore black? Apparently black shows up very clearly in shadow as a silhouette. Instead most ninja wore dark blue which faded much better and had the benefit of being able to be reversed and worn as peasants clothing during the day.
In fact disguise was used much more commonly than stealth. Much like the ninja house ninjitsu focused on using objects that appeared to be normal but were in fact deadly weapons. The various scythes (gama) and knives (kunai) which appeared to be ordinary farmer’s tools (in fact often were farmer’s tools) all had a dual, deadly purpose. Ninja attire was also focused on disguise. Ninja would dress as many of the traditional wandering tradesman of Japan such a Buddhist monks or merchants. This way nobody would ask too many questions of the strangers in town and they could move around unquestioned.
As well as this I didn’t know that ninja were so intrinsically linked to gunpowder. Ninja were one of the few groups in Japan with the knowledge of how to make gunpowder, a secret they jealously guarded from other clans and from the rival military power of the samurai. Many of the conflicts ninja engaged in were to defend their own secrets or secure them from an enemy.
Ninja were masters at using gunpowder too, making elaborate weapons out of it including a primitive landmine and this, my favourite thing in the whole museum, an arrow with a stick of dynamite attached. This is so green arrow-esque and super heroey that I couldn’t believe it was actually real. Ninja were so skilled with gunpowder that during the do period many of the clans were reformed into an artillery corps, accounting for the dying out of the more elaborate stealth and disguise techniques.
The museum also did a very good job of explaining the basis behind many of the supposed “supernatural” ninja powers. In particular their ability to “walk on water” which stems from exaggerated accounts of ninja using mud spiders; basically large wooden shoe/floatation devices that spread their weight on boggy or swampy areas of moats that couldn’t be swum through.
Finally there was an excellent video showing the proper use of various ninja weapons and how someone armed with only a rope and a scythe could easily overpower a fully armed samurai with a sword.
The next area was another museum purporting to demonstrate “how the ninja lived” but in fact making really rather wild and I daresay outright false claims about ninja. Some examples of the claims in this museum are that ninja could hang from the ceiling using only the strength in their fingers (I’ll believe it when I see it) and that the main difference between the Iga and Koga clans was that the Iga clan was superior in “sorcery”. Complete bunkum I fear but the museum still had some interesting exhibits about the various codes ninja would use.
You might find it strange that I just openly disbelieve a museum but frankly there is a surprising amount of lying in Japan and I’m used to it by now. Japan is not a country that has ever placed the same value upon truth that we do in the west. In Japan appearance is the crucial thing and so long as everyone appears to have gone away from an encounter happy the truth is irrelevant. I am certainly used to encountering this in social situations but I was shocked the first time I realized how often it is done by authority or advertisers. I know that advertisers bend the truth back home but they don’t come anywhere near the wild claims that Japanese adverts make. In the west a coca cola advert might implicitly suggest that it makes you cooler and have a fun time. In Japan “you will be cool and have great time super long life health benefit to enjoy total happy” or something similar will actually be written on the bottle and nobody glances twice.
The last attraction a ninja show was possibly the best of all for sheer entertainment value. Several martial artists came onto a stage and showed off some tricks and the use of real weapons. And they were really real weapons as they demonstrated by lovingly eviscerating some bamboo. Some of the skills on display were extraordinarily impressive, such as the man who threw 3 shuriken (throwing stars) at once with complete accuracy. Some of the demonstrations incorporated staged fight scenes, again, with real weapons that were very exciting and really well done. However they were also cheesy as hell, courtesy of the “acting” on display and a backing track that features both early 70’s sonny chiba-esque kung fu music and loud sound effects whenever someone hit someone else or did a kick. Hilarious though these were the show clearly knew it was a bit cheesy and anyway we weren’t there to see fine acting but rather to be impressed that a guy knew how to use sai. Which he did, and very impressive it was too.
Afterwards there was a chance to have a go at throwing shuriken at a target. My friends and I all had a pop but due to an arm injury I had picked up earlier I only hit the target with 1 star. This was worse than my last attempt at using shuriken and so I sadly could not pretend to be a ninja in my heart.
After these four main attractions my companions and I hit up the rest that Iga had to offer. This consisted of a, um, thing.
Yup, no idea.
Obviously it’s something to do with religion or memorials of some kind. There is a statue of a man inside and the architecture suggests a Buddhist temple. But it doesn’t look like any temple I have ever seen. There were no signs about to inform us what it may be and even if there were odds are we couldn’t read them.
Still, it was interesting in a mysterious sort of way.
Iga also hosts a reconstructed castle, which in true ninja style was difficult to spot and hard to find. There was nothing particularly extraordinary about it, except for the ninja dummies dotted along it’s insides, but it did offer some wonderful views of the town and the park.
And that’s it from me today. Thursday should see another post and with any luck I can get back into a routine. Just in time for Christmas when it’ll all end again.