Iga Ueno Ninja

In Japan, nothing represents the mythical supernatural image of the martial arts like the ninja. While the Ninja Yashiki of the Iga Sect in Ueno City (Mie Prefecture) entertains some of them to draw you in, it also attempts to explain or debunk the myths disbursed by popular entertainment. The displays and demonstrations, including a live show and a ninja residence full of hidden tricks, are still enough to fascinate and impress with the skill and ingenuity of this ancient art.

The site is divided into four sections – the Ninja Residence, House of the Ninja’s Art, the Demonstration Zone, and the House of the Ninja Tradition. The sinister elements that accompany the ninja tradition are oddly mixed throughout the site with the usual Japanese tourism style of ‘kawaii’ touches such as tour guides in ninja costumes, including pink ones for the women and various cartoon images, such as the one of the woman ninja at the park entrance, in a purple costume, who looks like she is there to greet you to a department store instead of a preserve of a deadly art.

The art of stealth practiced by the ninja is believed to originated in China over 4,000 years ago. It is believed that a prince was the first in Japan to employ a spy during the 6th century. Among the numerous ninja schools in Japan, the Iga-ryu (style) in Ueno and Koga-ryu in Shiga Prefecture are claimed to be the most predominant in the country. The Iga sect school was completed in the 12th century.

The True Tools of the Trade

The museum portrayed the ninja as less an assassin and more to being in the business of espionage. Their discipline, called Ninjutsu, taught combat techniques but also stealth. Wearing disguises and planting spies were just as important to be able to sneak into a castle to steal an important message.

Many of the tools and equipment of the ninja are on display or shown by trained demonstrators who are often referred to as ‘real ninjas’ in the promotional material. Ninjas did use shuriken, small star-shaped metal darts, but, as explained by a performer in the Demonstration Zone, they did not carry too many of them, simply because of weight, nor could they fire them in rapid succession in mid-air. They did use poison, though, tipping the spikes with it on occasion so that merely scratching a target with the shuriken would be enough to do the job.

However, the weapons used by the ninja were versatile. Throwing daggers could also be used as a hand or foot-hold for climbing when driven into a stone wall. Utilizing sickles as weapons were practical because they blended in with a farmer’s disguise but they were also usable as an anchor when four were tied together. From saws for drilling holes in walls for spying, to lock picks, many of the displays demonstrated that there were more tools carried, rather than weapons, that were used to sneak around and gather information.

Undoubtedly, ninjas never wore pink costumes but they never wore black ones either. The displays in the House of the Ninja’s Art explained that contrary to perception, black costumes actually stood out too much. Navy blue ones were used partly because they could be used also to pass as farmer’s clothing. There were seven classes of disguises the ninja used to blend in with the surroundings, rather than hide. These included clothing that allowed them to pass off as farmers, vendors, acrobats, and monks.

The ninja could not really disappear into the scenery nor could he walk on water. In fact, water moats, in which you could walk or swim, presented less of a problem than those of mud. The House of the Ninja’s Art displays and explains that ninjas used broad wooden shoes called ‘mizu-gumo’ which spread the body weight in much the same way snowshoes do. Ropes and ladders were sometimes used to climb walls but the ninja also trained to strengthen their fingers and toes for such purposes.

The ninja, though, had much more than tools and weapons in their arsenal. They also employed a wealth of wisdom and skills through disciplines such as psychology, pharmacy, medicine, astronomy, sorcery and divination. A ninja could create a compass using a needle or a thin metal strip or tell time by reading the sky. They also knew several ways to find water while out in the field on a mission. It is through the ninja’s resourcefulness and strategic and tactical thinking that the museum attempts to teach visitors survival skills that apply even in the modern world.

Preserved Ninja residence

There is nothing that demonstrates the ninja’s art of deception as well as the Ninja Residence. This authentic house was once inhabited by a ninja named Taroujirou. It was moved to its present location in 1964 from its original site in the Takayama area of Ueno City.

The residence’s appearance was designed to look like a normal farmhouse for camouflage purposes, but the setting allowed for the growing of herbs needed to produce items such as drugs. The house appears to have one story when in fact, it had three. Amongst the many hidden rooms was a laboratory for producing gunpowder whose recipes were tightly guarded secrets for the ninja.

In a set presentation, guides demonstrate and explain the house’s many trick doors, revolving walls, hidden passages, hiding places, and safe compartments, often inviting audience members to participate. Here, spatial design and the use of darkness are key to create an observation position above a closet or a weapon storage compartment under the floorboards which are locked under a window shoji screen.

House of the Ninja’s Art

From the residence, a fairly deep staircase leads you underground to the House of the Ninja’s Art. There, about four hundred pieces of ninja gear are on display and explained from costumes (including disguises and armour), tools (such as rope ladders, mizu-gumo, and mortars for making things such as gunpowder), and weapons (like the shuriken and swords). There are a few video displays including an interesting portrayal of a castle infiltration on a large screen that does play a bit like a B-grade movie.

The pamphlets say to take 20 minutes to tour this section but another 10 minutes may be needed for a thorough reading and examination of the displays.

Demonstration Zone

Here, a ninja skills show is performed live demonstrating the use of weapons as well as some mock combat. The circus-like atmosphere, highlighted by the use of showbiz music, sound effects and the hawking of souvenirs, can be distracting, especially in the opening where a ‘Blues Brothers’ theme was used. Nevertheless, the skill and power of the weapons are impressive to see in actual use and the narrative provided by the performers was also informative. The show employed at least one performer who practices ninjutsu full-time and also works in movies and television, either as an actor or as a technical advisor.

It is certainly worth the 200 yen extra you must pay to see the 15 minute show if there is any hint of curiosity to see how deadly the weapons just seen in the House of the Ninja’s Art can possibly be. There is also an opportunity after the show, for another 200 yen, to learn and try throwing shuriken knives. Note that the shows are performed weekends and holidays only.

House of the Ninja Tradition

The final stage of the tour houses displays explaining the history and lifestyle of the ninja. A fairly large model shows the layout of the Iga-ryu Ninga sect village including tunnels that linked residences to the central training ground. Other displays discuss other facets of ninja life such as the importance of diet and cleanliness, not only for health but also to prevent odor that can lead to detection. Another shows a coded communication system that uses colored grains of rice. There is also one that explains how an understanding of astronomy provides the ninja the means to tell time and predict the weather.

There are a few video presentations as well as a couple of interactive ones. Reading all the displays and seeing the presentations may take a few more minutes than the 15 prescribed in the pamphlet. The ‘Ninja Hut’ shop towards the exit offers many types of souvenirs, including ninja clothing for kids for about 10,000 yen and shuriken key-chains. Unfortunately, there is little in books or information available in this shop. A better place to look for such material is the Danjiri Museum just outside the park.

How to get to the Ninja Yashiki

Ueno City is about 95 kilometers west of Nagoya and eighty kilometres east of Osaka. From the JR Nagoya or Osaka Station, take the JR Kansai Main Line to Iga Ueno Station and transfer to Kintetsu Iga Line to Uenoichi Station. It takes 1 hour and 40 minutes or 2 hours depending on timing and route.

Admission fee into the site is 700 yen for adults but does not include admission to the Demonstration Zone. A combined admission ticket is available for Ueno Castle, Danjiri Museum, and the Ninja Yashiki, all within walking distance.

Opening hours for the Ninja Yashiki are between 09:00 and 17:00 daily but is closed a few days around New Year’s and there may be some extra closures due to display rearrangement. It will be worth phoning the Ninja Yashiki at 0595-23-0311 (in Japanese) to confirm the opening hours.

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