The Origins of Ninja

For the many wonderful things about the previously-mentioned seishun 18-kippu train ticket, one slightly less wonderful thing about it is that it only comes in sets of 5. We only needed 4 for our December trip to Takarazuka, which left 1 trip expiring on 10 January. I used this for a little daytrip to the town of Iga in neighbouring Mie Prefecture.

Iga sits on a plain that is completely surrounded by mountains. This makes it relatively inaccessible despite being only 100km from Nagoya. The JR Kansai line servicing this area starts in Nagoya as a dual track electrified line with express trains and regular services, but as you get out into the countryside it turns into a single track unelectrified line with single railcar trains running only once an hour. This slows things down considerably and is compounded by the poor timing of connections at some stations.

Rural Mie
The JR Kansai Line running through the Iga Plains of rural Mie Prefecture

My prior knowledge of Ninja was gleaned entirely from a childhood watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so the trip to Iga was quite an education. (Who’d have thought that ninjas’ staple wasn’t actually pizza?)

During Japan’s feudal period factional war was rife. Ninja were principally agents of espionage and stealth warfare, available for hire. They spied, collected intelligence, instigated subversion and undertook assassinations.  As the Mie Tourism Website helpfully explains, “they had a reasonable way of thinking”.

I visited the Iga Ninja Museum which I thoroughly recommend to anyone planning to visit the area. The first part of the museum is set in an old Ninja house complete with revolving doors, secret hideouts and staircases, a hidden compartment for storing weaponry and an escape tunnel. A female city council employee dressed as a ninja demonstrates how each of these features could be used to avoid capture in the case of the house being invaded by an enemy, or for those features without any exits, to hide and quietly soil oneself before being found and killed. (She didn’t demonstrate that last part.) Given that the other major employer in Iga is a factory that makes toilets, I consider her to have a pretty good job.

Hidden Katana

The second part of the museum was more like a regular museum, with glass cabinets showcasing tools of the trade. These included floating shoes for walking across boggy castle moats, nail-like steel pegs for scaling stone walls, rope ladders, camouflage clothing and an assortment of weaponry including some very funky ninja stars. The museum also shed light on the survival and espionage skills ninja possessed such as the ability to tell the time by looking at the shape of the eyes of a cat (a fundamental flaw being that you had to have direct access to a cat whenever you wanted to know the time), communicating using a defunct Japanese script to ensure secrecy, and finding water using a variety of techniques like putting an ear to the ground to hear the sound of an underground stream. All in all I came away with the impression that Ninjas did indeed have “a reasonable way of thinking”.

In common with many Japanese towns, Iga features a reconstructed castle, however what blew me away about this one was the height of the huge original stone walls surrounding it, reputedly some of the tallest in the country. When viewed close up they are indeed impressive.

Iga Castle Walls
Iga Castle Walls

I had Curry Rice for lunch at a local eatery. It was very local – I don’t think tourists are supposed to be able to find it but somehow I did. The next-youngest customer after me was 70, and I must’ve forgotten to take off my gross space alien mask given the hush that fell over the room (and accompanying stares) as soon as I entered. Other highlights from the day included travelling on a train that was actually running late and helping an old woman off the road where she had been sitting after being knocked down by a car. Fortunately she was OK.

9 thoughts on “The Origins of Ninja

  1. Jonathan Fry

    I’m enjoying following your family adventures in Japan. I was very interested about your Iga Ninja visit because I was a fan of “Shintaro” – the Samurai, which was a very popular Japanese TV show (dubbed in English) in Australia in the 70s. I think it was produced in Japan in the 60s. I was able to get some dvds of the show a couple of years ago so will be happy to lend them to you on your return. But I digress, what I was going to say was that the different sorts of ninjas, including the iga ninjas, featured heavily in the show.

    1. Interesting. I hadn’t heard of Shintaro. I asked nicewife’s mum about it and she seemed to vaguely remember it. I think it’s incredible that this was apparently so popular in Australia at a time when memories of the war were still quite fresh.

      1. Jonathan Fry

        You’re right, it was in fact something of a breakthrough in Aus Japan relations post WWII. There is a recent documentary about it by SBS. Apparently Shintaro actor Koiche Ose came to Australia in the 60s and got a bigger crowd at Melbourne airport than the Beatles. It would have been around 1970 that I was watching it on TV, and remember playing at being a ninja with throwing stars etc. His sidekick was called ‘Tombei the mist’ and he was an Iga Ninja!

  2. That train track looks like the one at Himaji that Amy used to catch from her home to the town each day and single or double rail car.
    Himaji castle also has a false entrance with a dead end where boiling oil was poured on the invaders who thought they had gotten in ‘fOILED again’!!
    I read somewhere in Japan that there are like 42 castles, very impressive.
    Glad you were able to use your ticket and have a very interesting day out.

  3. John Schneider

    Enjoying your adventures but missing you all back here.
    Did you take the dimensions of the Iga castle fan walls? Then you could re-model your retaining wall using the more attractive Japanese style, and as a bonus your dear nicewife will be very pleased…

  4. Monica Wangmann

    We are travelling to Japan and Iga in 2015, to see the museum and town. I have been searching for any museum or memorabilia for Shintaro (actor Koiche Ose) and his side kick “Tombei the mist”. Do you know who I could ask if there are any places to see Shintaro memorabilia?

    1. I’m afraid I have no idea Monica. I don’t think there’s anything in Iga specifically relating to this show, but maybe it is worth contacting Senkosha Productions who originally produced it.

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