Ninja! Black-garbed fighters stealing through the darkness to engage in acts of espionage and subterfuge, combined with acrobatic fighting. Like many stereotypical images, this is an over-generalization that misses many of subtle aspects of these “warriors in the shadows”.
Nonetheless, Ninja are somewhat romantic figures and it’s fun to search out traces of these Edo-period characters even in modern-day Japan.
The center of the Ninja world is said to be in the area historically known as Iga Province, southeast of Kyoto. The espionage and secrecy that are trademarks of Ninja were said to develop here when the province defiantly held out against takeover by Tokugawa Ieyasu at the end of the Warring States Period in the late 16th century and then went on to play an important role in Tokugawa’s information network.
The largest city of the area, now Mie Prefecture, is today known as Iga-Ueno and it trades heavily on its Ninja roots. I can’t imagine seeing a Ninja figure clinging to the top of a Ninja-motif mini-van anywhere else in Japan.
There is a Ninja Museum located on the grounds of Ueno Castle, just a short walk from Ueno-shi station on the Iga Railway Line. A visit to the museum begins with a guided tour through a preserved Ninja house, complete with spinning walls, secret doors, hidden staircases and passages, and other “stealth” features that are all explained and demonstrated to the delight of visitors.
Visitors then move into the main part of the museum, which contains various displays on the tools of the trade (including both disguises and weapons), as well as explanations of the history of Ninja and the importance of health and lifestyle to success as a Ninja.
Finally there is Ninja show, demonstrating such Ninja tools as shuriken, as well as Ninjutsu moves. Photography is not permitted during the show, so I have only these before and after photos to share.
Ninja have also infiltrated nearby Ueno Castle, so be sure to drop in there, too.
And if you take a stroll in the neighborhood below the castle, in addition to quaint period shopfronts and other buildings, you’ll also find more Ninja!
Remnants of the Ninja world can be found in other areas of Japan as well. For instance, at Edo Wonderland near Nikko, one can pose with Ninjas for photos, attempt to get through the Karakuri Ninja Maze, and experience the Kai Kai Ninja House (I say “attempt” because both are fiendishly difficult and provide “surrender” exits, just in case you can’t get through). There are also two different Ninja shows to enjoy, demonstrating the acrobatic nature of “the art of stealth”.
For more on Edo Wonderland, check out my Japan Today article here.
True afficionados of Ninja may be interested in acquiring some of those wicked Ninja moves for themselves. It can be done.
Masaaki Hatsumi has been teaching Ninjutsu, often referred to as “the art of stealth”, through the Bujinkan Dojo in Chiba since the 1970s. The focus is primarily on deflecting blows and disabling the opponent. His school has taught around 40,000 students across the globe, including police and military personnel. They recently demonstrated at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan.
But if you’re like me, more interested in the image than the actual practice, perhaps the Ninja Beer of Virgo, a Tokyo-based microbrewery, is all you really need. A smooth dark beer which, if consumed in large enough quantities, would probably sneak up on you!