If sushi, sakura cherry blossoms and Mt. Fuji are representative icons of Japan, ninja should probably be in the same category, as movies and anime inspired by the athletically gifted Japanese spies have garnered quite a bit of popularity around the world, serving as the basis for such characters as Naruto and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Iga, in western Mie Prefecture, is the birthplace of the Igaryu (Iga clan) Ninja, one of the two main ninja clans; the other being the Kogaryu from Shiga Prefecture.

The image that comes into most people’s minds when thinking of ninja is often inaccurate. In movies and anime, ninja are portrayed as flying through the sky, or camouflaging themselves as trees to escape their many enemies. Often, they are shown sneaking behind enemy lines to assassinate senior military leaders. However, these portrayals are far from the reality.

The roles of ninja were divided into the two main areas of performing espionage and strategy under a methodology known as ninjutsu.

When engaging in espionage, ninja carefully gathered intelligence about their enemies and analyzed their military strengths.

Strategic activities are those that reduced the enemy’s military power. Ninja did not fight strong enemies directly at their strongest, but waited to battle them after reducing their military power.

The ninjutsu of Igaryu and Kogaryu stem from the same source, and are said to be the highest level of the ninja art.

The exact origins of ninja are unclear. In one theory, a man named Otomono Sahito, who served ruler Shotoku Taishi (574 to 622), is said to be the father of ninja, but a lack of concrete evidence makes the theory nothing more than a folktale.

In Iga, the origins of ninja are said to date to the Kamakura Period (1185 to 1333) when area residents fought against land-owning aristocrats. The residents learned shugendo, a practice involving mountain training and adapting to extremely hilly, difficult-to-maneuver-in terrain. Their fighting methods later evolved to ninjutsu. Ninja were deployed in many wars as spies and warriors especially in the Sengoku (Warring States) Period, from the late 15th to the late 16th century.

Igaryu Ninja are known for their skills in gathering information and the use of fire.

They also used smoke bombs, flaming arrows, signal fires and guns. It is fortunate that the area had an abundance of the ingredients needed to make gunpowder, as well as many people who were familiar with it. The art of mixing explosives was the most closely guarded secrets held by ninja.

Visitors to Iga are able to experience life as ninja themselves. For example, at the Igaryu Ninja Museum kunoichi (fem ale ninja) and ninja guide visitors through the Ninja House, showing and demonstrating tricks, including trapdoors and places for hiding swords. In thrilling performances, ninja demonstrate their skills with various weapons such as Japanese swords, shuriken throwing stars and kusarigama (chain-sickles.)

The museum also has various exhibits showing ninja tools and weapons, old documents on ninja, photos and books and manga featuring ninja.

Ninja no Mori, or ninja forest, is an athletic field where visitors can try on ninja attire and have a firsthand chance to use some ninja tools and train in ninja skills such as climbing, jumping, hiding and walking on water. Visitors can also earn certificates of full ninja mastership.

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