Festival of Ninjas

iga ueno

Stephan Phelan describes his ninja experiences in Iga Ueno, Mie prefecture.

To arrive in Iga-Ueno on the first Saturday in April is to feel like a stranger in ninja town. This small city in the mountains, about two hours by train 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.

Today is the opening day of the annual ninja festival, but only children seem to take this event seriously enough to dress for it. The centre of town has been overrun by excitable little death merchants in ninja costumes ranging from classic black to canary yellow to a distinctly unthreatening shade of pink. Most of this activity is 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.

The park is also home to the Iga-Ryu Ninja Museum, where Kanako Murata and her fellow guides are working through their busiest weekend 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 “warring states” period between the 15th and 17th centuries, when the rough terrain around Iga was rife with bandits, mystics and rogue samurai, who all made their own contributions to local ninja legend. Evidence from that period is now fragmentary, but Murata and her colleagues insist that the real ninjas were not magical assassins who could run across moonbeams on their tippy toes.

“Their chief role was to gather information,” says Murata. “In movies, ninjas are always killing people, and many viewers have come to believe these violent images. Our mission is to tell them that this is not the truth.” If anyone is disappointed to hear it, they are soon distracted by the museum’s hourly show of ninja tactics, a combination of martial arts, acrobatics, special effects, and slapstick, with audience members invited to try their hands at the famous “shuriken” throwing stars.

Elsewhere, 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, and peeking from behind the telephone poles.

And local businesses are offering sustenance for shadow warriors, from “ninja noodles” at the Aikan-Tei udon restaurant, to “ninja preserves” at the Miyazaki pickle shop. Motoharu Murai, owner of the Muraibankoen Ninja Café, claims direct descent from a genuine ninja bloodline. His grandfather was a ninja, he says, and proceeds to serve us brown tea and black soy ice-cream, emerging from the kitchen in various disguises, and wielding different weapons – 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.