Jumping into the world of Ninja
Ninjas are those who endure and said to have lived in the shadows between Muromachi to Edo period, serving Japanese feudal lords (daimyo). There were more than 49 clans of ninjas throughout Japan, of those, two most well known are from Iga and Koka. But perhaps, most people are more familiar with them as those who wear black kimono kind of clothing engaging in combat with swords and shuriken (small star shaped edged weapon) in films or through cartoons/anime like Ninja Turtles and Naruto. With that being said, in this article we will introduce some of our favorite places where you can immerse yourself in the world of ninja
Iga （Mie prefecture）
Iga ninja, one of the two most famous ninja clans were based in Iga City and Nabari City located in the northwestern part of Mie Prefecture, just on the outskirts of Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya. The city has been commonly referred to as Iga Ueno to avoid confusion with other places named Ueno.
The origins of Iga ninja began with the Hattori clan during Edo period where the most famous ninja, Hanzo Hattori, served the Tokugawa shogunate family. The Iga ninja were extremely well trained in ninjutsu( independent art of warfare) and combat abilities and contributed in many battles. Unlike Koga ninja, the other most famous ninja clans in Japan, the Iga ninja worked under different masters and pledged no royalty to one master. Basically, they worked for anybody if they can get paid.
Iga Ueno Castle has a deep connection with the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu who is said to have hired many Iga ninjas
On the same premise as the Iga Ueno Castle which is roughly 10 minute walk from Uenoshi station on Iga line, there is a Ninja Museum of Igaryu which presents an exciting show using actual swords and shuriken by Ashura, group of Iga ninjas. The show runs once or twice a day so its best to check the schedule prior to your visit. Aside from the show, the museum exhibits intriguing ninja weapons including real shuriken (small star shaped edged weapon), blow darts, swords and more.
If you are into dressing up your fur babies into ninja, there is a ninja dog shop, Jackgain, where you can buy ninja costumes for dogs. On your way back from the park/museum, why not take a detour to stop by since it's only extra 5 minute walk from Uenoshi station.
Mogu, the ninja dog infront of Iga Ueno Castle
Mogu, the ninja dog on his secret mission
A bit far from the above two areas, but if you take additional one hour train ride from Uenoshi station to Akame station plus extra bus or taxi ride from there, visitors can physically challenge some outdoor activities to simulate actual ninja movements and training at Akame48 Fall
Koka (Shiga prefecture)
Rivaling the Iga ninja were the Koga clan in Shiga Prefecture whom they disguised themselves as farmers and itinerary traders. Since they pledged loyalty to one master, they wouldn’t work under many masters unlike Iga ninja. It is said that the oldest ninja, Hosonohito Otomo came from Koka and so did the Koga ninja originated from Otomo clan.
A bit confusing but Koka and Koga are written with same kanji however, the ninja tend to be rendered in English as Koga, while the region is Koka. The area of Koka was strategically important as it was on the Tokaido Road, the main route that connected Kyoto to Edo (modern-day Tokyo). The Koka area was said to have been filled with hidden ninja villages deep in the mountains.
Packed full of activities, Koka ninja village is a perfect place for those who wish to test their ninja skills. In some areas, there are staff to demonstrate tricks and give you advice on the training. You can even rent ninja costumes and learn how to climb rock wall and throw shuriken (small star shaped edged weapon) . Out of the many trainings, the foremost difficult but exciting one is the “Mizugumo-no-jutsu” which are wearing special shoes to cross swamps and marshland. Can you do it without falling over?
If you are planning to get trained, best to book a taxi or get someone who is familiar in Japanese and call the village so that upon arrival at Koka station, they can pick you up. Alternatively, walk 30minutes to the village. From Kyoto or Osaka,take the JR Biwako Line(Tokaido Line) to Kusatsu. Then change to JR Kusatsu to Koka station. In total, it's about an hour train ride.
Once you are back to Koka station after your training, get back on the JR Kusatsu line to Konan station which is 2 stops away. Once you get off at the station, take a taxi. Or walk 20 minutes to Koka Ninja House. This was the actual house of the head of Koka ninja, Mr. Mochizuki and the only existing ninja house well preserved up to this day. Visitors can see the tricks that deceived the enemy as well as different escape routes to learn about how the families of ninja lived. It’s interesting to see the design of the house with unique choices of furnitures, doors and even the hidden stairs customized especially for ninjas.
Togakushi (Nagano prefecture)
Based around Togakushi Mountain above Nagano City, Togakushi ninja clans are the only one who still pass down its original martial arts and keep its tradition alive. It is said that the origin of this clan began around 1161 by Daisuke Nishina who served the shogun, Yoshinaka Kiso. As of 2019, the Togakushi clan welcomed their 35th head.
Path to upper shrine lined by cryptomeria trees through the red gate
The best ninja trick house is located in the same premise as Togakushi Okusha Shrine in Nagano prefecture, and easily accessible via bus from JR Nagano station. There is only one bus per hour so don’t forget to check its timetable
It might be a better option to rent a car for families however, the parking at Togakushi Shrine is super crowded during holiday season.
Entrance to Togakushi Folk & Ninja Museum and Ninja Trick House
Ninja Trick House
Don’t be fooled by its exterior. This deceptively looking ordinally white house are a maze full of tricks. As the compound is prohibited from taking photos to avoid spoilers, it is hard to tell what makes this trick house so difficult to get out. Some even take more than an hour as you will be circling around the floor to find clues. Seemingly easy at first, but there is always a twist and if you don’t solve it well, you will be lost in there forever.
※Its closed during winter from mid November to late April.
※During winter, this area is famous for its snowshoe hike.
Another fun way to spend the day in your favorite ninja world is to take a visit to Togakushi Kids Ninja Village. As the name implies, this village is primarily for children and families, but there is plenty for adults to enjoy. It offers a variety of hands-on activities, but the most popular are the courses on climbing walls and shuriken throwing. As its located about 20 minute walk from Togakushi Chuusha, its fairly easily accessible via an hour bus ride from JR Nagano station.
※Its closed during winter from mid November to late April
Odawara City (Kanagawa Prefecture)
Even up to today, Fuma Kotaro, the name adopted by the leader of Fuma ninja clan is a popular character that has become the subject of many novels, comic/manga and games. According to the book, Hōjō Godaiki, it is written that Fuma ninja clan from Odawara was said to have served the Hojo clan who was one of the most powerful clans during the Warring States period. However, it is still a mystery whether Fuma Kotaro or even Fuma ninja actually existed or not.
5 different ninja training areas at Ninja Museum
Just opened in April 2019,the Rekishi Kenbun (Observation) Museum located at Odawara Castle Park, has been renovated as Ninja Museum, complete with 5 different ninja training areas. As it’s only 20 minutes away by train from Hakone station, maybe you could plan to take a trip to enjoy Hakone and add this museum in your itinerary.
Edo-era Japan theme parks
Edo period began to flourish after Ieyasu Tokugawa established the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603 in Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Being the center of politics and culture in Japan, by mid-eighteenth century, Edo grew into a huge city with a population of over a million. During this time, the emperor resided in Kyoto, which was the former capital of the nation. Lasting for nearly 260 years, Tokugawa Shogunate ended upon the Meiji Restoration in 1868 with imperial rule being restored. Edo was renamed Tokyo following the emperor's move from Kyoto. Hereinafter, Tokyo became the capital of Japan. To experience this unique period, there are few Edo themed cultural theme parks with live performances of ninja show, sword/archery/ art and craft workshops, shuriken throwing to many more exciting activities both educational and recreational for all ages.
If you like your history with a little extra fun, then be sure to book a trip to Nikko Edomura, otherwise known as Nikko Edo Wonderland in Tochigi prefecture. The park is divided into five areas: highways, post towns, commerce districts, samurai residences and ninja villages. It’s the perfect place to visit if you’re traveling with a family, or want to “time travel” to Edo to transform into a resident for the day.
To get here, take the direct train on the Tobu Kinugawa Line from Tobu Asakusa Station to Kinugawa-Onsen Station. From there, it's 10 to 15 minutes bus or taxi ride. In total from Asakusa, it's about 2 hours.
Nikko Edo Wonderland, people working there are dressed up in clothing from Edo period
Absorbing visit to the past in the town of Kyoto, Toei Uzumasa Eigamura, also known as Kyoto Studio Park or Movie Land will take the visitors to a small town from the Edo period which is still occasionally used as film set for historical movies and TVs. The park displays replica of old Nihonbashi Bridge, traditional court house, Meiji Period police box as well as super scary haunted house. Ghosts in the haunted house are played by the actual actors from Toei production making it even more realistic and fearful. It easily accessible by train, either from Uzumasa-Koryuji station on Keifuku Arashiyama Line or from JR Hanazono station.
If you want to go a little further back than the Edo period and time warp into the Azuchi-Momoyama period, then take a trip to Ninja Kingdom Ise. It recreates the small castle town at the foot of a replica of the Azuchi Castle with people dressed up and the park decorated from Azuchi-Momoyama period when the two of the country’s most powerful and feared leaders, Nobunaga Oda and Hideyoshi Toyotomi ruled. This theme park have ninja museum, maze, adventure playground, sword gallery, restaurants, live performances and even onsen (hot spring). Less than 2 hours away from Nagoya station, the closest station to Ninja Kingdom Ise is Iseshi station or Ujiyamada station. From there, take the CAN bus to Ise-Azuchi momoyama bunkamura stop. Keep in mind that there is only one bus per hour so make sure to check its timetable.
Whether ninja freak or not, unwrapping its mysterious history and following its traces are one unique way to enjoy Japan. The places listed in this article are just few of the many places where you can immerse yourself in the world of ninja. Have fun finding your best ninja place and your own "shinobi" tour!
※shinobi (忍び)is another way to say ninja (忍者)