Even if you’re not interested in ninja, I still highly recommend checking out Iga Ueno.
It’s a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka and there’s more to explore than just the ninja secrets.
I was quite impressed and learned so much during my short stay! Ninja are truly impressive.
In Japan there are two very famous ninja villages, both of them located in Kansai. One of them is Koga (Shiga Prefecture), the other one is Iga, located in Mie Prefecture (map). It can easily be reached by train from Osaka or Kyoto.
Just keep in mind that Kansai is the place to be if you’re interested in the secrets of shinobi (* another way to say ninja).
Ninja Museum of Iga-ryu
If you came for the ninja, then your first destination should be the Ninja Museum of Igaryu. It can be reached by a short walk from Iga-Ueno Sta. The museum offers a pretty cool ninja show, a ninja house and lots of interesting information about ninja weapons and tricks.
Iga-Ryu Ninja Show
This very impressive “Ninja Show” takes place roughly 3-4 times per day. Make sure to check out the schedule before you go, so you won’t miss the show.
After the show, you’ll be a master of ninjutsu! Just kidding. ;)
They’ll show and explain various ninja weapons and techniques.
They do not only explain it, but also show how the weapons and techniques were used in real fights.
Here’s a short video, so you’ll get the basic idea. The show is all in Japanese (not sure if that has changed since 2010), but with all the demonstrations, you’ll understand the usage of the weapons nevertheless. Here’s one more video.
Once the show is over, you can actually have a go and try some of the weapons yourself.
For a little bit of extra cash (200 yen), you can throw shuriken.
With my talent for throwing things, I decided to just take photos of other people doing it. ;)
You can clearly see the difference between visitors (left) and pros (right).
Iga-Ryu Ninja House
The next stop after the show was the “Ninja House”.
A female ninja, called “kunoichi” (くノ一) will expose the traps, hidden doors and fake hallways that were set up in the house.
Needless to say, the traps were all set up in case an enemy attacks.
Most of the time people tried to attack because they wanted to steal the ninja’s explosives manufacturing technology.
Iga-Ryu Ninja Tradition and Experience Halls
The actual museum was by far my favorite part. You’ll learn about the secrets of the Iga ninja.
And this part really surprised me. It was full of impressive information. While I always thought ninja were kind of cool, this museum taught me so much about them, so now I really admire them.
For me it was one of the most informative Japanese museums I’ve been to so far.
You can tell how much love they put into each detail. All the information was provided in English as well.
In this graphic you see the “ninja godou” (忍者五道) – the 5 fives each and every shinobi needs to master before they can complete their missions effortlessly:
Shoku (食): Diet – a ninja’s diet was centered around vegetables, tofu and miscellaneous grains to maintain their light weight. They also had to be careful about eating certain foods with a strong smell. Obviously they couldn’t hide well, when they ate something that made them smell.
Kou (香): Smell – a ninja always had to keep himself clean. This is quite similar to the previously mentioned reason. A ninja should have no body odor at all or else he could be spotted more easily.
Yaku (薬): Medicine – a ninja had to master the knowledge of healing herbs so they could heal themselves in case they were injured.
Ki (気): Mind – a ninja needs a strong mind so that he’ll never be discouraged during a long mission and carries it out until he accomplishes it.
Tai (体): Body – ninja trained their physical strength so that they wouldn’t lose their stamina during missions that took a long period of time.
Shinobi shozoku (忍び装束) – the traditional ninja outfit:
As ninja only operated at night-time, they needed clothes that helped them blend in.
Black wasn’t a good idea as the outline becomes apparent on nights with moonlight. So, they used navy blue.
The most common and unsuspicious one to wear was farmer`s work clothes.
A ninja could thus naturally carry a sickle or other farm implements that could be used as a weapon.
The museum also houses a huge collection of original ninja weapons with detailed explanations on how they were used.
In the photo above you see various types of shuriken and how they were used.
They also list the tricks of a “typical ninja house” here.
The museum was full of information like that. I won’t expose all of it here and spoil you. You really should go and see it for yourself!
Ok, how awesome is that?
A ninja also was able to forecast the weather using the knowledge above.
For confidential information trading, ninja used ciphering techniques including the arrangement of pebbles, broken twigs and color combinations of scattered rice grains as well as knotted ropes.
A short history lesson:
Tokugawa Ieyasu was on his way home when he learned his predecessor Nobunaga committed suicide because of a rebellion.
Ieyasu said “I shall kill the rebel, but our group is too small to fight against the rebel force. It may be better for me to remain in dignity by committing harakiri.”
One of his followers suggested that they should return home and raise forces. They had to cross Iga in order to do so, which was really difficult.
They eventually made it with the aid of several local lords. After they entered Iga, local warriors of Koka (Koga) and Iga guided them home to Ise. After that, Ieyasu hired 200 Koga and Iga ninja and appointed Hattori Hanzo as the head of the group.
This was the beginning of the Iga section of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Media presence of the Iga ninja of today.
There’s more to see in Iga-Ueno than just the ninja museum – although that alone would be reason enough to visit.
There’s also a matsuri float museum and Iga Ueno Castle. You can receive a set ticket for all three of them which will be cheaper than buying all tickets individually.
Most of the sights are located within “Ueno Park”, so it’s worth just strolling around in the park.
Basho Matsuo Memorials
With all the fascinating ninja facts, one shouldn’t forget that Iga is also the birthplace of Basho Matsuo, one of Japan’s greatest poets during the early Edo Period. If you’re interested, you can visit several memorial spots.
In the photo above you see “Haiseiden Hall” which commemorates the 300th anniversary of Basho’s birth.
It’s also the location of the annual Basho Festival in October.
Additionally there’s also the Basho Memorial Museum and Basho’s Birth House.
A little bit further away (about 20 mins on foot) is Minomushi-an, one retreat that Basho frequented.
This is a little museum informing about the Ueno Tenjin Festival, which is held every year from October 23 to 25.
You’ll get to see the impressive matsuri floats and learn about the festival in detail.
The museum is open from 9:00 to 17:00 (entrance fee: 500 yen).
Note that it’s closed during the festival!
As you can see most attractions are located in Ueno Park (*not to confuse this with the famous Ueno Park in Tokyo!).
Everything is easily accessible from the train station.
My personal highlight as a castle hunter was Iga Ueno Castle, of course. I’ll feature this in a separate blog post.
It’s clear that Iga is very proud of its ninja history.
So, don’t be surprised if you run into ninja-themed things everywhere.
Even the train station was full of ninja. ;)
Needless to say that the trains are also ninja-themed.
I think there are more than enough reasons to visit Iga Ueno!
And as it’s so close to Osaka and Kyoto, you really don’t have an excuse for not visiting.