Imagine yourself in an old Japanese town in the day of the samurai. There are all types of people wandering around a busy market. There’s a man in bright colours spinning items around on an umbrella and clowning around. There’s a wandering Buddhist monk watching the scene quietly from under the brim of his large straw hat. There are samurai, merchants, and all other types of people. But where are the ninjas? You look in the shadows and are disappointed that you don’t see the stereotypical figure lurking there.
The Ninja tended to favour subtle disguises during the day, so they often disguised themselves as clowns, entertainers, or wandering monks. At the Ninja Museum of Igaryu, the guides and exhibits talk about the many disguises of the ninja and how resourceful they had to be. Ninjas were far more than just assassins. They were secret agents. They did the jobs that were deemed too dishonourable for samurai.
While assassination was certainly a job for a ninja, the movies don’t usually elaborate on the many other things they did. A good portion of their work was intelligence gathering, infiltration, and sabotage. They could also help change the course of a battle with guerrilla warfare.
Myths and Facts
Both folklore and cinema have credited ninjas with fantastic and magical abilities. These superpowers mostly stem from exaggerations of actual ninja abilities or techniques, such as walking on water or disappearing into thin air.
The Ninja Museum of Igaryu helps dispel many of the myths and rumours surrounding ninjas. The ability to walk on water is shown to be the clever use of round foot rafts, allowing the ninja to glide across the water. You can even try on a set of these strange foot rafts in the underground part of the museum.
The ability to disappear or become invisible may have stemmed from the ninja’s keen ability to find hiding places or disappear into a crowd with clever disguises. Ninjas often used misdirection to get away with various feats, much like a modern day magician. Exploding arrows and smoke bombs provided excellent distractions.
Fun for Everyone
Over the New Year’s holiday, my husband and I accompanied our friends and their children on a trip to the Ninja Museum. The museum had changed quite a bit since my last visit many years ago. There were far more multilingual signs and explanations and almost all the staff members were prepared to deal with foreign guests. In general, the entire experience was more foreigner friendly. Even the exhibits, which were all bilingual with English, had additional write-ups in other languages in little laminated booklets in front of the display cases.
Now you no longer need a firm grasp of Japanese to understand what is going on. There are pull-down screens used by the guide during the Ninja House tour that explain what he or she is saying. However, the screens are only in English, so while there are other languages supported by pamphlets, signage, and exhibit explanations, the house tour itself requires English or Japanese. This isn’t so much of a problem since the demonstrations of each part of the house are fairly self-explanatory.
The Ninja Show had slightly improved as well and was well worth the extra 300 yen. While the sound effects still sounded like they were taken from a really cheesy martial arts film, the talent of the martial artists shined through on several occasions. While I remembered seeing a fellow cut through tatami before, I did not remember them previously using an exploding arrow in their act. It was a pleasant surprise.
Everyone in our group left the museum quite happy, even those of us who had been there before. The only down side was the travel time. Iga, located in Mie, is not the easiest of places to get to. We were driving from our home in Mie, but due to the holiday traffic, our 30 minute drive took over an hour. If you are trying to get to the museum by train, be aware that the trains are not so frequent. Be sure to check traffic conditions or train schedules carefully prior to making the voyage to Iga.