Learning the Ninja Way in Japan

Today, KGU (the host University of USAC students in Japan) took us on a Ninja field trip!

Iga Ueno Castle

First was Iga Ueno Castle. Iga Ueno is a famous ninja village of Japan where many families focused on ninjutsu. The castle itself was constructed in 1585 with three levels. In 1602, it was expanded; however, before the expansion was completed, a rainstorm destroyed everything. Nothing happened for about 300 years, but in 1935 a local resident decided to use his own money to help rebuild this historic building. Though it is often called Ueno Castle (Ueno-jou) it is also called “hakuhou” or “White Phoenix Castle.”

We were able to explore three of the five levels, set up museum-style. We had to remove our shoes before entering and carry them in a plastic bag. We got to see ninja and samurai outfits, helmets, and weapons as well as royal objects, paintings, and diagrams. We also were able to see fans and taiko drums!

Visiting the ninja museum

However, before moving onto the next site, I wanted to talk a bit about the staircases in the castle. For those who don’t know, staircases in Japanese castles are straight, narrow, and steep – extremely so. It makes traversing them difficult – but that’s the point. Similar to how many European-style castles had curved, narrow staircases that wouldn’t allow right-handed invaders to attack while going up the stairs, the Japanese steep staircases make it very difficult for invaders to fight on the stairs or to rush up them.

Ninja castle staircase

After exploring the small but interesting castle, we ate a traditional Japanese-style lunch with rice, tofu dishes, type of seaweed, udon, sweet rolled omelette, sweet red bean paste, sashimi, and (the only thing I truly haven’t liked so far) a custard-type, slimy gelatin-like dessert. It reminded me of flan and Chinese almond jello/custard (both of which, I do not like). But it was nice to try.

Ninja Museum

Next, we went to the Ninja Museum, with four activities! Throughout the first activity, photography was prohibited – to protect the secrets of the ninja. But we got to go into a traditional ninja house, of course taking off our shoes and carrying them in plastic bags. What made it a ninja house, other than the fact that it was in Iga Ueno, was the multitude of trap doors, passageways, storage spaces, and hiding spaces. The instructor was quite comical and instructional and would sometimes move so quick, it was shocking. Apparently, much of the staff at the museum are descendants of actual ninja from Iga Ueno and have been taught familial traditions from a young age (though probably not as diligently as in ages past). At one point, he showed us where the treasure was hidden and the treasure was a fake gold piece, real Edo period coins, and the ninjutsu scroll. As he pulled it out and explained how the person who got all the ninjutsu scrolls together would become king of Japan, I totally felt like I was in the anime Nabari-no-ou (which has a story-line surrounding that concept).

Two cute advantages of Iga-ryu were as follows. First, there were little children in ninja costumes everywhere. It was adorable. We kept saying “chibi ninja!” when we saw two feet and under children completed clad in either bright, cotton-candy pink, crayon red, or power-ranger blue costume rentals – complete with tiny swords. We even saw one “sneakily” “climbing” the back of a small structure. Second, there were signs with this adorable anime mascot everywhere! I love her so much, even though I don’t think she has a name. I wanted to get something with her on it, but there was nothing! I did end up getting some shuriken keychains (three for about $5 – great deal, I thought). There were nothing with this character on it, yet look how adorable!

Iga Ryu anime

The second activity was SHURIKEN THROWING. YES, I THREW SHURIKEN AND IT WAS AWESOME. I know I really shouldn’t use all caps, but it was just so exciting! Everyone got to throw three. Some people actually hit the target section of the board and stuck there. My first shuriken went was too high and got stuck in the safety net. The next one hit the board really hard but didn’t stick. Although it didn’t stick, the impact dislodged all the previous shuriken from it. My third one actually stuck in the target area! I guess you could say my experience was a bit more comical than the others, but it was a lot of fun. I noticed some people were not really throwing that hard, so I tried to throw as hard as I could. This probably decreased my accuracy, but I felt like a ninja (and I was wearing my buff as a bandana, later as a mask, so I came prepared). Speaking of being prepared, I wore my D20 necklace and made a few “Stealth Check” and “Roll for Shuriken Damage” jokes.

Thirdly, we actually got to look through exhibits and learn a lot of ninja facts:

  • Some ninja learned how to tell time by the dilation of a cat’s pupils (which apparently have unique dilation amounts for the different times of day).
  • Ninja would associate things they had to remember with body parts so, when they couldn’t remember something, they would injure or prick that part of the body in order to remember.
  • Ninja would sleep with their heart-side of their body facing towards the ground, to be safe in a night attack
  • They learned to tell when it would rain by looking to see if the stars are twinkling strongly, the mountains look very close, or there is a moon-bow/ring around the moon.
  • The character “賀” (“ga”) is often used in ninja hometowns and it is said that you can trace ninja trails and secret connections by looking for cities with “ga” in the name (I am pretty sure my host mother has that character in her name AND she has been to Iga Ueno…is she a ninja?)
  • Ketsujo or Yuinawa was the tying of rope to act as secret signals, left outside doors and such.
  • Ninja were actually experts in gunpowder as well as prophecy, herbal medicine, weaponry, psychology, and stealth.
  • Gunpowder would be mixed with dried wolf dung for signals – the wolf dung made the smoke go straight.
  • Ninja would take care of their body both by exercise and by diet, eating to keep their body weight low.
  • Ninja were also very clean, making sure to have no scent on them.

Ninja book

Finally, we got to watch a performance put on by the museum (no photography allowed). We got to see how the professionals throw shuriken – one at a time, two at a time, and even three at a time, each throw sticking. Also poisoned dart guns (apparently they were primarily used by female ninja back in the day), sickles with arm ropes to make sure they will not fall out of reach, scabbards with ropes on them (the ropes used for climbing and the scabbard used to help ninja find enemies in the dark – extending off the blade), and a belt that is actually also a rope weapon. Of course, kitana (curved for cutting and straight for stabbing) were also demonstrated. The rope was especially interesting. While they fought, the rope user wrapped the rope around the opponent, took control of the sword with the rope, controlled the sword so that it was against the opponents neck as well as creating a knot that choked the opponent, and then doing whatever they wanted to finish the battle.

A traditional Ramen dinner

After driving back through the Japanese country, which is incredibly green, some fellow students and I decided to go out for ramen. We went to a small shop by a train station called “yume ramen” or “dream ramen” and it was really good. I really wanted ramen tonight, so I wore my ramen knee-high socks (which the Japanese people and non-Japanese study abroad students were all excited to see). Today I had nonko ramen which has a super thick sauce. It was, of course, delicious! Then we all walked back to school.

Traditional ramen dinner in Japan

Alexandra Newsom is currently studying abroad in Osaka/Kobe, Japan. To follow more of Alexandra’s journey in Japan, follow her blog, A Wanderer’s Yarns

Learn more about studying abroad in Osaka/Kobe