TO arrive in Iga-Ueno on the first Saturday in April is to feel like a stranger in ninjatown. This small city in the mountains, about two hours by rail from Kyoto, is supposedly the ancestral home of those fearsome feudal super-sneaks and master-killers, whose name and reputation have long since spread across the world through martial arts movies, comic books, and video games. Here in Japan, ninjas are now something of a national myth, a slightly cartoonish composite of old folk tales and modern pop culture. This morning in Iga-Ueno, however, it would be discourteous to dispute their existence.
It’s the opening day of the annual ninja festival, and travel on public transport is free to anyone in costume. Connecting to the local loop line, I step onto a train brightly painted with ninja murals (designed by the famous Japanese manga artist Leiji Matsumoto), and find my carriage filled with muffled, hooded figures, all armed with swords and throwing stars. Admittedly, their weapons appear to be made of soft foam or folded paper, and their outfits come in a range of colours – not just classic ninja black but also purple, red, baby blue, canary yellow, and a distinctly unthreatening shade of pink. Also, very few of these mysterious commuters seem to stand much over four feet tall. Apparently, only children take this occasion seriously enough to dress for it. The centre of town is overrun with excitable little death merchants, most of them concentrated around the 16th century castle in Ueno Park, where the moat and stone walls provide an ideal backdrop for springing mock assassinations on their parents. This must be hot and thirsty work in broad daylight, as many young ninjas then submit to having their masks pulled down and drinking straws stuck into their mouths. As it happens, this sunny weekend also marks the beginning of cherry blossom season, and the castle grounds are shaded by sakura trees, with families picnicking under the petals. Some have brought along their dogs, and those pets, too, have been kitted out with hoods and swords.
I spent much of my own childhood dreaming of a scene like this, and resenting my parents for their failure to train me from birth in the lethal and esoteric arts of the shadow warrior. They permitted me to rent such silly yet illicit videos as Pray For Death and Revenge Of The Ninja, but drew the line at buying me the wicked-looking tools of the trade. “A ninja wouldn’t whine like that,” my father told me, twisting the knife. “The ninja is always adaptable.” Eventually, I came to accept that I would never be much stealthier or more physically adroit than Winnie The Pooh, but I have never forgotten my early masters, and I have travelled the length and breadth of Japan to honour them. En route, I have discovered that most ninja-related attractions in this country are based around their novelty appeal to kids and credulous Westerners. Near Nagano, in the wooded alpine village of Togakushi, there is the Shinobi Karakuni Fushigi Yashiki, or “ninja gimmickry wonder house”.
A maze of false floors, secret chambers and hidden passageways, it seemed kitsch and juvenile to me until I got frantically lost inside for over two hours, and had to be rescued by an elderly attendant. To the north, in Kanazawa, there is the so-called Ninja-Dera, a historical house and shrine that once belonged to the powerful local Maeda clan, who were not actually ninjas at all, but devised such crafty and deadly defenses that their home was recently renamed. The word alone – “ninja” – has been proven to bring in the tourists. Today, I am told by scholars that this word is relatively new, “a product of the modern age, and the entertainment industry”.
Kanako Murata, a guide at the Iga-Ryu Ninja Museum, explains that the original clandestine operatives of this region went by many different names and performed any number of functions. “But their chief role was to gather information,” says Murata. “Never to assassinate. In movies they are always killing people, and many viewers have come to believe these violent images. Our mission here is to tell them that this is not the truth.”
For Murata and her colleagues, this is the busiest time of the year, with long lines of visitors filing past their displays of old scrolls and sharp, rusty artefacts. The bulk of this material dates from the Sengoku or “warring states” period between the 15th and 17th centuries, when the rough terrain around Iga was particularly lawless – rife with bandits, dissidents, ascetic mystics and rogue samurai, who all made their own contributions to local ninja legend. The evidence from that era is now fragmentary, but these exhibits make the case that the real shadow warriors were highly-trained intelligence agents in the employ of rival warlords, as opposed to kung-fu wizards who could vanish into mirrors and run across moonbeams on tippy-toes. If anyone is disappointed to hear this, they are soon distracted by the museum’s hourly demonstration of combat and tactics, performed by a troupe called The Ashuka. I have already suffered a giggle-fit from reading this group’s promotional poster, which proclaims in unfortunate English that their ninja forbears developed these skills while “living hidden on the backside of history”. The show itself is a combination of martial arts, acrobatics, special effects and slapstick, with audience members invited to try their hands at throwing stars. My first shuriken goes into the dust, my second into the protective netting at the back of the stage. The third strikes the edge of the target – not a killing blow, perhaps, but a nasty enough wound to delight my childhood self, and satisfy my inner ninja.
Both, to be fair, are quite easily pleased, and enjoy the tackier fringes of this festival at least as much as its elusive core of historical substance. The streets of Iga-Ueno are literally paved with ninjas, recast as friendly-faced mascots and imprinted on the manhole covers, bridges, buses, and even the fire engines. Life-sized ninja mannequins have been positioned around town, staring blankly from the rooftops, peeking from behind telephone poles, lying under benches more like modern drunks than medieval spies. And local businesses are fairly upfront about the true fiscal purpose of the festival, having capitalised on this event since it started in 1964. The Aikan-Tei noodle restaurant offers “ninja” udon and soba, while providing a ninja costume rental service on the side. The Miyazaki pickle shop sells “ninja” preserves. I have no great hopes for the authenticity of the Muraibankoen Ninja Café, but the owner, Mr Muraimoto, claims direct descent from a bona fide bloodline.
His grandfather was a ninja, he says, serving me brown tea and black soy ice-cream in his courtyard garden. Then he disappears into a back room, only to burst back out wearing a wig and firing a cap gun. My shriek of fright is certainly un-ninjalike, and Muraimoto-San smiles to show that he has taught me a valuable lesson. Further surprises follow, as he repeatedly emerges in a different disguise with another antique weapon from his arsenal – a pistol, a pike, a heavy iron rifle with ornate carvings in the barrel. At last, out comes his grandfather’s old katana. “Dangerous,” he warns, letting me heft the sword and telling me that it has killed three people. As with most ninja stories, this is probably not true. But the blade feels very real.