Let’s get one thing straight. I absolutely loathe ninja, at least so much as they are portrayed in popular culture. While I won’t bore you with the details of how these stealthy warriors (who also go by the moniker of “shinobi”) managed to seep into Hollywood over the years. For the most part, whatever you see on the silver screen is flat out incorrect. Alas, while I do have a strong disdain for the commonly held image of the ninja, the historical counterpart to the misconception has long held my fascination. You see, while pop culture ninja are often shown to be masters of combat the real McCoys were much more akin to spies.
When it comes to learning about authentic ninja techniques (which are known in Japanese as “ninjutsu”), we are sadly lacking many of the details. As you might imagine, the historical ninja were quite cautious when it came to documenting anything on paper. After all, the entire allure of these crafty corps to the various warlords of days gone by was their secrecy. Today, much of what we do know about the ninja has been inferred by taking the kernels of truth found in common tropes and cross referencing them with scanty threads of archival narrative.
If you want to learn more about the historical ninja, Mie Prefecture’s area of Iga-Ueno and neighboring Shiga Prefecture’s city of Koka are must visits. Here, you’ll learn all about what we have been able to chronicle about the real ninja. Seeing I have previously detailed Koka in this article on Shiga Prefecture’s more rural regions, let’s focus solely on Iga-Ueno in Mie Prefecture for the remainder of this piece. Though a royal pain in the behind to reach, this rarely visited slice of Japan is able to deliver in spades when it comes to cultural authenticity.
How to Get There
For most overseas visitors to Japan, Mie Prefecture is already a little bit off of the beaten path as is. While conveniently located between Tokyo and Kyoto, the majority of tourists simply make a beeline for Japan’s former capital. Given that Mie Prefecture is seriously the trip of a lifetime, this is a doggone shame. From the venerable Ise Jingu, a shrine that quite literally predates written history itself, to the ama freedivers of Toba, there is just so much to see and do in Mie. Next time you’re in Japan, do yourself a favor and budget some time for this easily accessible prefecture.
Despite Mie Prefecture’s convenience, travel becomes somewhat of a logistical challenge when it comes to reaching to Iga-Ueno. Assuming that you’re coming from Tokyo, you’ll need to make multiple connections. As always, just let a service like Joduran do all of the heavy lifting for you. Your final destination will be Uenoshi Station. All in all, the entire adventure should clock in at a little over four hours from Tokyo. Keep in mind that the leg of the journey from Nagoya will not be covered by JR rail passes as you’ll need to make use of the Kintetsu Lines.
When making your expedition en route to Iga-Ueno, it becomes increasingly apparent why this mountainous location could give rise to some of Japan’s top ninjas. Largely left unruffled despite the ongoing worries of the Warring States period (1457–1615), practitioners of ninjutsu could hone their skills in this secluded backwater. Along with Shiga Prefecture’s Koka just to the north, Iga-Ueno’s elevated environment provided the perfect setting for those in dire need of the utmost secrecy. Even today with the assist of trains and other modern means of transportation, reaching this rural region is quite the feat.
Anyway, once you’re at Uenoshi, much of the action in town can be located a mere short walk from the station. In fact, many of the attractions in Iga-Ueno can be found clustered around Iga-Ueno Park. Largely composed of the former grounds of Iga-Ueno Castle, this section of the city is easy enough to stumble upon. Just exit from Uenoshi Station and make a one-eighty. From there, you should be able to see the reconstructed keep of Iga-Ueno Castle.
What to See in Iga-Ueno
Of the many areas I have traversed across Japan, I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced an area that boasts the same density of attractions as Iga-Ueno. Within a few minutes stroll, you have enough content to keep you entertained for an entire day. Given the difficulty in getting to Iga-Ueno though, the appeal is very much welcomed. As amazing as the ninja facilities are, Iga-Ueno is just too far removed from normal tourist circuits to warrant a visit alone (at least for all but the most diehard of ninjutsu fans). Below, I’ll document the spots that I think are must visits in Iga-Ueno…
- Iga-ryu Ninja Museum
In most cases, this facility will be THE reason that you come to Iga-Ueno and I don’t want to spoil too much of it for you. Basically, the museum carefully chronicles what is known about the ninja who called this region home. Upon entering, the first thing that visitors will encounter is a historically authentic ninja domicile that is complete with all sorts of concealed compartments. Thereafter, you’ll get the chance to learn about ninja equipment and tactics as well as the functions these covert agents fulfilled. Finally, for the mere price of an additional 500 yen, you’ll also get to enjoy a presentation that is sponsored by a troupe looking to preserve the historical ninjutsu arts.
- Iga-Ueno Castle
Alluded to before, this medieval fortress is the centriole of all of the action in the area. Originally erected in the latter half of the 16th century, Iga-Ueno Castle was the seat of power for the local lords. Unfortunately, the castle was ravaged by a storm and not rebuilt until the 1900’s. Should you make a visit, be sure to check out the 30 meter-tall stone walls on the western side. They are the highest such barrier in the nation and evidence a real feat of medieval engineering. Additionally, if you opt to venture inside the reconstructed keep, you’ll also be able to check out an impressive array of arms and armor. This exhibit alone is definitely worth the price of entry.
- Danjiri Museum
Adjacent to the castle’s location in Iga-Ueno Park, this institution details one of Iga-Ueno’s annual happenings. Known as the Ueno Tenjin Festival, this event takes place in late October. During this yearly celebration, the locals don a guise depicting demons and form a procession known as an Oni-gyoretsu. Visitors to the Danjiri Museum can see this scene faithfully recreated on the first floor so be sure to check out the incredibly detailed masks. Additionally, note that guests to the Danjiri Museum can also rent ninja costumes which lend an enchanting way to explore the city.
- Basho Memorial Museum
While Iga-Ueno is well-known as one of the premier cradles of ninjutsu techniques, the area is also the birthplace of Matsuo Basho. Should this name not immediately resonate with you, just know that this figure is regularly hailed as one of Japan’s most celebrated poets of all time. Throughout Iga-Ueno, you’ll find homages to Matsuo Basho and chief among them is the Basho Memorial Museum. While language may pose a bit of an issue, fans of poetry are highly encouraged to give the many Matsuo Basho attractions a look.
All in all, visiting the entire catalog of allures listed above should take you no more than half a day. When accounting for transportation, this means that Iga-Ueno essentially is a day-trip destination for those staying in Central Japan. While I’d encourage you to overnight in Mie and explore more of what the prefecture has to offer, you can also elect to stay in Nagoya as it is more logistically convenient for those heading west to Kyoto and Osaka.
Other Nearby Attractions
Craving a bit more ninja content? By all means head on up to Koka in Shiga Prefecture. After all, the odds of your finding yourself in this extremely rural neck of the woods again are quite low. Why not go for broke and give Koka a go as well too? As thoroughly detailed in this lengthy exposé, here you’ll find the amazing Ninja Village (which is a cross between a theme park and a museum) as well as several additional points of interest. Nestled deep within the foothills of Koka, the Ninja Village is actually built on the grounds of a former ninja collective. In addition to many ninja residences, you’ll also get the chance to try your hand at a number of ninjutsu techniques.
Got your fix on ninja content already? Why not check out what else Mie Prefecture has to offer? Running a whopping 170 kilometers from north to south, Mie Prefecture has one of the widest selections of things to check out that I’ve ever come across. In fact, there’s so much content in this neck of the woods that my guide to the area is a mind boggling 20 minute-long read. Is it any surprise the prefecture hails itself as a once-in-a-lifetime trip?
Alternatively, Iga-Ueno is also on the border of Nara. As such, it’s relatively easy to hop over to the mainstream attractions in the prefecture like Nara Park. That said, if you’re in Iga-Ueno and hankering for another hidden gem, I suggest that you check out Yagyu Village and its Itto-seki. In addition to being the birthplace of one of Japan’s top schools of swordsmanship, Yagyu Village is also home to the Itto-seki. This sundered rock is the source of inspiration for that oh-so-iconic scene in the hit anime series Kimetsu-no-Yaiba. If you’re a fan, you definitely should check it out!
Until next time travelers…