Like geisha, samurai, and sumo wrestlers, ninjas are iconic figures universally associated with Japan. However, ninjas have been greatly mythologized over centuries, largely due to the inherent secrecy of their trade. Records of their identities and exploits are rare, and practices were often passed orally from master to apprentice.
Take a moment in between donning the costume and throwing ninja stars to learn the history of these mysterious figures.
In central Japan, neighboring cities Iga in Mie Prefecture and Koka in Shiga Prefecture are known as the heartland of ninjutsu. Both cities were historically hubs for the ninja arts during the Sengoku Period (1467-1568) and are packed with attractions that shine a light into this shadowy world of subterfuge.
Even the name “ninja” is a relatively modern term that spread in Japan via popular novels from the 1950s. Actual ninjas in their time were called shinobi, but a major shift began about 70 years ago with the emergence of authentic writings. The ninja narrative has evolved ever since.
Virtually every historical document unearthed claims the best ninjas came from Iga and Koka. In their heyday, they were hired by warlords across Japan for missions in espionage, arson, ambush, and assassination. Look beyond the silly depictions and skateboarding Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with these five spots to learn real ninja history in the homeland of the masters.
1. Koka Ninja Village
This theme park offers plenty of interactive immersion into ninja lore. You can rent costumes, climb walls, throw shuriken (star-shaped blades), and walk on water using special footwear.
The Ninjutsu Museum displays manuals from the Bansenshukai (The Book of Ninja), which was compiled in 1676. Learn how ninja guerilla warfare developed in the region’s rugged landscape while culture and technology flowed in from nearby Kyoto.
The area’s dense forests were the ideal hidden training ground. Local clans once fought over scarce resources in this harsh terrain. At times, it was ninja against ninja. You can enter a former hideaway rigged with traps and concealed compartments if you visit.
2. Iga Ueno Castle
First built in 1585, lords once commanded their ninjas from this hilltop fortress. The hike up is steep, but it’s all worth it once you see it. This stunning white citadel is absolutely beautiful, especially in spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
From the top, panoramic views evoke bygone battlefields. Hundreds of preserved castle ruins, clay walls, and wooden buildings lie below, surrounded by untouched forests and mountains.
Ueno Castle’s 30-meter stone walls are amongst the tallest in Japan—not surprising, considering it was surrounded by so many nimble ninjas! Iga and Koka ninjas were renowned for their abilities to break into castles, so warlords wanting to avoid costly sieges often employed them for their stealth. These jobs dwindled when Western cannons were introduced to Japan, and many ninjas turned to guarding castles instead.
In the late 1500s, the soon-to-be shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, recruited a force of Iga and Koka ninjas. They were led by the Iga-born legendary samurai, Hattori Hanzo (who is referenced in Quentin Tarantino’s film Kill Bill). The shogunate retained Iga and Koka ninjas as personal guards until around the end of the Edo period in the mid-1800s.
During the annual five-week-long Iga Ueno Ninja Festival from April to May, visitors can stroll through the castle town in ninja apparel and enjoy family-friendly demonstrations. You can even rent a costume for your dog (which has no historic value whatsoever but is undeniably cute).
3. Tejikara Shrine and Fireworks
This 13th-century shrine honors the guardian deity of the Fujibayashi family of Iga—one of the most powerful ninja clans. During the 16th century, they prayed before battles and performed fire rituals here. The shrine features magnificent ceremonial bell cords believed to be the heaviest in Japan.
Every year, fireworks are launched here for the Reitaisai festival on October 17. Mikoshi (portable shrines) hoisted on the shoulders of bare-chested townsmen are set alight, erupting in flames and hot ash.
4. Ninja Museum of Igaryu
This museum is actually a former ninja farmhouse. When they weren’t busy honing their skills, ninja lived inconspicuous lives, blending into the community as farmers or running family businesses. They would double as woodcutters, merchants, entertainers, traveling monks, or even samurai.
Discover the multi-faceted life of a ninja and their penchant for guises in this maze-like system. The building contains clever contraptions such as revolving panels, trick staircases with an underground passage, and doors designed to be unlocked with a leaf. It’s quite impressive.
5. Aburahi Shrine
It’s easy to see why numerous movies and TV programs have been filmed at this mysterious shrine in Koka. Eerie energy hangs in the air of its hallowed grounds. This is where Koka ninjas gathered to worship war gods and strengthen their bonds through celebration. Although believed to have been founded more than 1,300 years ago, much of its current architecture was built between the 14th and 16th centuries.
…delving into the ninja’s arcane past is even more fascinating than the myths and fantasies.
It’s a new era for ninjas. In 2017, Iga and Koka officially gained the “Japan Heritage” status from the Japanese government. Take a moment in between donning the costume and throwing ninja stars to learn the history of these mysterious figures. With tourist-friendly initiatives and emerging research combining to revitalize Iga and Koka, delving into the ninja’s arcane past is even more fascinating than the myths and fantasies.
This article was sponsored by the Japan Agency for Cultural Affairs.
Have you ever been to any of these historical spots? How was it? Let us know in the comments!