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On the trail of the Ninjas of Iga Ueno


On the trail of the Ninjas of Iga Ueno

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It was a grey Sunday. The clouds had enveloped Nara and everything appeared gloomy. We had plans for Kyoto but seeing the weather we decided to visit the Ninja town of Iga Ueno instead.

Iga Ueno is a small town located in mountains of western Mie. It is famous as the birthplace of the Iga Ninja spies & Ninjutsu .

The origins of the Ninja is shrouded in secrecy. The art was practiced by the Shinobi or Ninja that rose to prominence during Japan’s Sengoku period in the 14th-century, but then some records show them to be around in as early as the Heian (794 to 1185) Era. Ninjutsu is a systemized art of warfare used by the Ninjas, for the specific purpose of espionage. Ninjutsu developed mainly in the regions of Iga in Mie Prefecture, and Koka in Shiga Prefecture in Japan. In the village of Iga, Ninjas honed their unique skills using psychology and pharmacology combined with martial arts. The Ninjas would infiltrate into the enemy’s ranks, undetected usimg these special skills with the objectives of scouting, and obtaining valuable information.  Interestingly, Ninjas were actually known by different names during different periods of Japanese history. We today know them as Ninjas, because that name stuck and became popular in the Western world.

To go to Iga Ueno, one has to catch a train from JR Nara Station to Kamo Station and then switch to a local train to Iga-Ueno Station. We walked down to the JR Nara Station. The ticket cost us 670 Yen each. The platforms have information boards in English as well so, it was not difficult to follow. The ride to Kamo was uneventful. The lush paddy fields looked lifeless in the constant drizzle.

At Kamo Station, a two coach train was waiting for us. This connecting train would take us to Iga. The rain had relented by then. A large group of kids dressed in scout uniforms were also going the same way. After Kamo, the train tracks run parallel to the Yasu River. The sparkling greenish river reminded me of the drive along the Teesta river while on our journey to Gangtok in India. The train ride through this part of Mie Prefecture is very-picturesque. It felt like going into a mystical land. We chugged across several bamboo forests and then into the mountains engulfed by a thick mist. The group of kids got down at Kasagi Station. They were most probably heading for the Kasagi Camping Grounds by the Yasu River. Quite a few tents could be seen right from the train on a flat area beside the river bed.

We reached Iga Station by noon. The skies had cleared up a bit. The outside of the station was desolate with not a person in sight. There is a bike rental just beside the station. The staff at the station was very helpful. He provided us a map with directions towards the Ueno Castle. The castle is about 3 km away from the station. It was going to be a long walk, but it was fun walking in the cool breeze, chatting with Mani. It was a bit weird seeing absolutely no people around. Even the petrol pump was unmanned. Time and again a car would pass us by, that was it.

A few minutes into the walk a car stopped and an elderly lady walked out towards us. She offered us a ride to our destination, but Mani politely declined. She was the only person I would see for the rest of the walk.

On the way we passed the Hattori river. Hattori Hanzo is one of the most famous Ninja Grandmaster from Iga. The river is probably named after him.

Ueno Castle

We reached the Ueno Castle in about 40 minutes. The area surrounding the castle is a park, and the atmosphere is very relaxing. Tall trees decorate the path all the way up to the Castle. The sidewalks were full of acorns. I picked up some for the Shika deer in Nara Park. With no one to point us in the right direction, we just kept following the map. After a minute or two of walking along the park, we found ourselves in front of the Ueno Castle.

Construction on Iga Ueno Castle began in 1585 on the command of Takigawa Katsutoshi. His successor Todo Takatora renovated the Honmaru, increasing the walls height to 30-meters, which to this day remains the tallest among all castles in Japan. Surrounded by a wide moat, this beautiful architecture is also known as “Hakuho” or “White Phoenix Castle.”

We sat on a bench in front of the Castle for some time. The ticket booth in inside the castle on the first floor. Tickets cost us ¥500 each.

Iga Ueno Castle was designated as a national treasure in 1967. The Castle has three floors, with historical artifacts on display on each floor. One has to leave their shoes at the entrance to the Hall. The first floor exhibits various armor and weapons used in battle. Visitors can see the intricate details of traditional body armor and battle helmets up close as they walk through the castle. Thankfully photography is allowed inside. An extremely narrow wooden staircase leads up to the second floor. The second floor displays utensils from the Edo Period (1603-1868). The walls contain pictures of some of the most important castles in Japan. Mani was checking out the artifacts while I was taking mental notes of the castles I must visit. After spending some time here taking pictures, we went up the stairs to the third floor. From the observatory on the third floor, visitors can look upon the whole town.

Iga-ryu Ninja House

After coming out of the Castle, we walked around on the grounds. We came across a souvenir shop. It was a bit crowded, so we decided to come back to it later. A few meters beyond the shop we reached the Ninja House. Tickets to the Ninja House costs ‎¥700 each. One can also watch a Ninja martial art demonstration.

The Iga-ryu Ninja House is maintained by actual descendants of Ninjas. The Ninja House is full of smart contraptions, such as trick doors (Shikakedo), secret passages (Nukemichi) and even false floors to hide weapons. A lady guide, dressed as Kunoichi (female ninja), demonstrated to us how these were used by the Ninjas to avoid conflict or overpower stronger foes. Room by room, the lady showed us how the Ninjas set up hidden traps in preparation for enemy attacks. Ordinary-looking walls that revolve so Ninjas could hide behind to attack unsuspecting enemies. Hidden escape routes that secretly lead outside of the house. It was fun!

The annual “Iga Ueno Ninja Festa” is held from 1st April to 4th May. During that time the city comes to life with many exhibits, competitions and the opportunity for the visitors to practice their Ninja skills.

Iga-ryu Ninja Museum

After the marvelous show at Ninja House, we walked towards the Ninja Tradition Hall. The Ninja Tradition Hall is a place where visitors can learn about the history of Ninja and look at documents and other materials. In the hall, various tools are displayed, including weapons, code books and gunpowder. Various Ninja tools including the Mizugumo (devices worn on the feet to walk on water), Makibishi (small spiked objects that are scattered on the ground to obstruct an enemy’s movement), and the most popular, Shuriken (throwing blades) are on display here.

Towards the end of the hall is the museum shop, Ninjabo. They sell various ninja goods, including ninja stars. We bought some souvenirs from here.

On our way back we stopped at a Ramen shop for lunch.

After lunch we walked across to the souvenir shop and bought a few gifts. We wandered around the grounds for a bit and then started on the long walk back to the Iga Ueno Station. On the way we stopped for a bit at a Mall along the road. I bought some Meiji chocolates for gifting friends in India.

As we went past the Hattori river, it was looking lovely in the dying sunlight.

The clouds had gathered again. The sun was fighting with the thick clouds to take a peep at the Earth by the time we reached the station.

The local trains are scheduled every hour, so we had to wait for a while before the train came along.

From the train, I took some beautiful dusk shots as we headed back to Nara.

Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my story as I visit the home of Buddha – Todai-ji.

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