Black pyjamas not included

Ninja Town, Iga Ueno, Mie

Iga Ueno in Mie Prefecture is the place to go for all things ninja. If you fancy dressing up as a ninja, want to see a live ninja show, are keen to explore a ninja house or simply tremble with excitement at the thought of purchasing a Hello Kitty ninja doll then you should hop aboard the ninja train and stealthily make your way to Iga Ueno.

Although there are disputes about the origin of ninja and they role they played in history, it's generally believed that ninjutsu originated in Iga in Mie Prefecture and Koga in Shiga Prefecture. Ninja were influenced by ideas from Sun Tzu's The Art of War and trained in the art of stealth.

The first recorded mention of the Iga ninja dates from 1487 when they helped defeat the shogun's invading army. When Tokugawa Ieyasu later became shogun and moved Japan's capital to Edo (Tokyo) he hired a force of ninja to guard his headquarters and serve as spies.

Iga (which merged with the city of Ueno to become Iga Ueno) is about two hours from Osaka by train and every year in April, the city holds a ninja festival. On weekends and holidays during the festival, many children visiting the city dress up in ninja costumes and visitors have the chance to try on ninja clothes. The highlight of a visit to Iga Ueno is the ninja house and museum (which are open all year).

The ninja house features secret doors, hidden passages and revolving walls as well as places to hide weapons. Visitors are shown around the house by female staff dressed as ninja (in pink costumes). Female ninja are known as kunoichi, the origin of this word is thought to be from the strokes that make up the kanji for woman - ku, no, ichi.

The ninja museum explains the history of ninja (with explanations in English) and claims "Ninjutsu is not a martial art. Ninjutsu is an independent art of warfare." The museum houses the world's largest collection of ninja artefacts, and includes a variety of ninja weapons, along with various tools the ninja used to climb castle walls and blend into their environment. Contrary to what you see in the movies, ninja didn't usually run around in black pyjamas - if you were trying to pose as a spy in a rural village, this would be something of a giveaway. They usually wore the clothes or uniforms of the group they were trying to infiltrate. The ninja also developed a secret code using grains of rice dyed different colours to represent different sounds in the Japanese language.

The museum also has live ninja shows where a few modern ninja put on a display of acrobatics and swordsmanship. For 200 you can get the chance to throw a few shuriken (ninja stars) and the museum's gift shop sells a variety of ninja-themed merchandise.

Ueno Castle is a short walk from the ninja museum and is also worth visiting. Unlike other Japanese castles, it was reconstructed using only wood, not concrete. The ninja theme is one of Mie's main tourist attractions and in an effort to promote tourism the trains running on the Iga Tetsudo train line were decorated in a ninja theme.

If you don't have the opportunity to visit Iga Ueno in person then you can log into the Second Life virtual world, where the museum's owners have built a virtual recreation of the ninja town.

Text & photos: Aidan Doyle

Originally published in Kansai Scene, April 2008