Thrilled by a ninja battle in the home of ninja! – ASHURA – the Iga Ninja Clan
A one-on-one battle between a “kunoichi (female ninja)” and a ninja has begun. The ninja, girded with a ninjato, a short-bladed sword, quickly slashes at the kunoichi, squared up with a special weapon known as a kusarigama (chained-sickle). However, she quickly dodges the attack, and the ninja is defeated. The audience applauds. Next, there is cutting test using a real Japanese sword, which is said to be the sharpest knife in the world, and demonstrations of projectiles including ninja stars and blow darts. “Ahs” emerge from the audience. This is one scene from the ninja show performed by the Ashura Ninja Clan at the Ninja Museum of Igaryu in Iga City, Mie Prefecture. Watching their show, as they dazzle the audience with their agile moves that reveal a considerable amount of training, we begin to understand why some foreigners visit Japan with the desire to become ninjas; while a person can never become Superman or 007, it feels like it might be possible to become a ninja with enough training.
With the excitement of the show still lingering, we visit nearby Iga Ueno Castle. The area surrounding the castle is a park, and the atmosphere is relaxing. A cute but strange group of people is walking toward us. We ask who they are, and the answer is, “we rented these ninja costumes for parents and children, and are in the middle of sightseeing. It’s fun!” In Iga City, there are seven ninja costume rental locations, where you can rent a ninja costume for 1000 yen per costume, as well as other ninja-related facilities. It is truly a “ninja village”. In Iga City, free guided tours are offered in English by Iga SGG Club, a volunteer guide group, so you can contact them before you visit.
The Iga Ninja Clan ASHURA is a representative group that performs at ninja shows. It transmits ninja culture through overseas performances or TV appearances.
A sacred ground for ninjas that is full of surprises – the Ninja Museum of Igaryu
The Ninja Museum of Igaryu is a sanctuary for ninjas, equipped with a variety of facilities including the marvel-packed “Iga-ryu Ninja House”, the “Ninja Tradition Hall”, which stores material concerning ninjas, and the “Ninja Experience Hall”, where you can throw ninja stars for 200 yen for five. In the “Ninja Experience Plaza”, where ninjas demonstrate their skills, the Ninja Show by Ashura, introduced at the beginning, is held. The museum shop, “Ninjabo”, sells various ninja goods, including ninja stars that look authentic.
In the “Iga-ryu Ninja House”, hidden traps are set up in preparation for enemy attacks. Such traps include ordinary-looking walls that revolve and which can be hid behind, places to hide weapons, and hidden escape routes that lead outside. Honestly, we did not notice these traps at all until they were explained after entering each room.
The “Ninja Tradition Hall” is a place where you can look at interesting material introducing techniques used by ninjas. In the ninja village, the Iga, Koka and other clans were divided into dozens of families, in which they honed their unique skills. Such skills reportedly included transformation skills, psychology, pharmacology and various other techniques, as well as martial arts. In the “Ninja Tradition Hall”, various tools are displayed, including weapons, code books, gunpowder, and medicines.
Ninja Museum of Igaryu
Address: 117-13-1 Ueno Marunouchi, Iga-shi, Mie-ken
This is fun! A ninja experience in Koka Ninja Village
After enjoying ninja culture in Iga, we visited the Koka Ninja Village in Koka City, Shiga Prefecture, which is about 30 minutes away by car. This is a theme park where you can actually experience ninja training. Participants wear ninja costumes and an instructor in ninja attire instructs them on ten ninja arts, including ninja rock-climbing, water walking, and throwing “shuriken (ninja stars)”, a ninja projectile weapon. These were actually quite difficult. When throwing shuriken, we could not even hit the target, let alone penetrate it. However, it was quite fun! After two or three hours of practice, we received a scroll of the book containing the secrets of Koka-ryu ninjutsu. The book of secrets is a license received from the instructor only by those who have completed the strict training process and climbed to the top. We won’t divulge its contents here. Why don’t you participate in the training at Koka and obtain the book of secrets!
Koka Ninja Village
Address:394 Oki Koka-cho, Koka-shi, Shiga
*A free shuttle bus is available by the Koka Station North Exit stairs. Reservations must be made in advance (TEL: 0748-88-5000).
What is a ninja? – The real appeal of ninjas
It is said that the roots of ninjas spring from “Shugendo”, a unique religion from the mountains of Japan. Shugendo is a mixture of the Japanese traditional belief in gods, Chinese Taoism, which teaches about the world of sages, and Buddhism. It aimed at achieving special abilities through severe training in the mountains and had various impacts on Japanese culture. The ability of ninjas to put their hands together while reciting a chant in order to disappear is a magic act of Tantric Buddhism introduced from India through China. Ninjutsu consists of various techniques developed in the mountain world that have turned into practical martial arts.
Ninjas were most active in the 16th century, known as the Sengoku era. Having bases in Iga and Koka, just south of Lake Biwa and located almost in the center of Japan, feuding military commanders hired them as spies to gather information regarding enemies. Lake Biwa was the largest key location for commerce and transportation, and it was also close to Kyoto, the capital of Japan at the time. It was said that whoever took hold of this area could rule the country; for this reason, ninjas played an active role behind the scenes, obtaining key information for military affairs or logistics.
Although ninjas no longer exist in modern Japan, the traditions of ninjas have remained. Most ninja techniques were used to hide their existence. They could slip into enemy territories to obtain secret information by hiding their identities and becoming another person, leaving no evidence even if they died. They exerted extraordinary abilities by hiding in the shadows. This paradoxical ability exemplifies the deeper parts of Japanese culture. For example, consider “Karesansui (dry landscapes)”, a famous style of Japanese garden, such as the one found in Ryoanji Temple. Karesansui represents the Japanese aesthetic of abstracting the image of water by eliminating bodies of water, such as ponds, that would be found in a garden, to stimulate in observers a consciousness of the grandness of nature. To understand ninjas is to understand Japanese culture. This fact brings a great deal of romance to those living in the modern world.
EDO WONDERLAND NIKKO EDOMURA, where you can have a ninja experience
Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura is a recommended destination when making a trip from Tokyo to visit the world heritage site, Nikko Toshogu Shrine, or the Kinugawa hot spring resort. It is a theme park that replicates Japan during the Edo era (1603-1868). In the “Grand Ninja Theater”, you can see a full-scale ninja show, featuring actors who had roles in the movie “The Last Samurai”. In addition, at the “Experience Edo: Work Experience” event, children can have a ninja experience. In the “Edo-Style Kimono and Costumes” corner, you can slip back into the Edo era and enjoy the town of Edo while wearing a ninja, samurai or a princess costume.
EDO WONDERLAND NIKKO EDOMURA
Address:470-2 Karakura, Nikko, Tochigi
Access: From Tobu Asakusa Station, take the Tobu Kinugawa Line to Kinugawa-onsen Station, then take a local bus for about 15 minutes.
From JR Shinjuku or Ikebukuro Station, take the limited express train “Kinugawa” or “Spacia Kinugawa” to Kinugawa-Onsen Station, then take a local bus for about 15 minutes.