Japan City Guides: Iga-Ueno, Mie Prefecture
Iga-Ueno located in the Kii Peninsula in Mie prefecture is a long, slow train journey from either Nagoya or Osaka but is well worth the journey to experience the mysterious and secretive world of ninjutsu (the art of stealth).
Iga ninjutsu along with Koga ninjutsu in nearby Shiga Prefecture were Japan's two foremost schools of ninja during the almost constant warfare of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603).
Forerunners of today's special forces such as the SAS, Spetznaz and Green Berets, the ninja were farmer/warrior clans who dealt mostly in assassination, espionage and intelligence gathering.
Ninjutsu (the art of stealth) included knowledge of medicinal herbs and poisons, psychology, trickery and disguise as well as advanced techniques of murder, surveillance and combat.
A testament to the ninja's awesome combat power came in 1580 when a samurai army of 10,000 men under the command of warlord Oda Nobunaga's son, Nobukatsu, was decimated by a few hundred highly-skilled ninja warriors.
Ninja Show, Ueno Castle Park, Iga Ueno
The outstanding Iga-ryu Ninja Museum (Tel: 0595 23 0311) a short walk from Iga-shi Station on the Kintetsu Iga Line has an original ninja residence complete with trapdoors, concealed weapons, secret passageways and revolving walls. A pink- or camouflage-clad female ninja talks visitors through the house's many surprising secrets.
The museum has two further exhibition halls. The first uses audio-visual displays to demonstrate ninja techniques as well as displays of ninja weaponry (including shuriken - projectiles such as throwing stars and knives), armor and espionage tools.
The second hall displays objects from the ninja's lifestyle and culture including implements and techniques used in encryption, concealment and disguise. Ninja, for example, always slept with their left side to the ground to avoid being stabbed in the heart during a surprise attack at night and spoke in a special argot to keep their comminications secret.
Listen to the sounds of the Ninja Demonstration
The highlight of the tour is the hourly ninja demonstration where present-day inheritors of the ninja tradition show off their fearsome skills in an action-packed and entertaining display of combat using real weapons: straight ninja swords, shuriken and sickles. These guys are for real and it shows, though the preformance also includes a fair amount of Japanese variety entertainment as well as martial arts.
Visitors like to dress their kids up as ninja for the day and costumes can be hired at the Danjiri Museum, Iga Ninja Store, Murai Bankoen Ninja Cafe, the Iga Aoyama Garden Hotel, Palm de Yume and Costume Rental Mitashin.
At the Shinobi-no-Yakata (House of Stealth), the old building has been converted in a ninja games room aimed at children with shuriken throwing and ninja video games.
Just west of Ueno Park is Kagiya no Tsuji Park, the site of the Iga Vendatta where in 1634 Watanabe Kazuma revenged the death of his brother in Okayama on his murderer Kawai Matagoro. The Igagoe Museum has samurai-related artifacts on show and tells the story of this epic revenge story. The reconstructed Kazuma Teahouse is where the assassins, Watanabe and master swordsman Araki Mataemon lay in wait for Matagoro. Both a bunraku and kabuki play are based on this story as well as a number of much later samurai movies.
Ninja Demonstration, Ueno Castle Park, Iga Ueno
Ueno Park is also the site of the impressive, moated Ueno Castle which was reconstructed in 1953 as an exact replica of the 1611 original using wood rather than concrete. Inside the castle are displays of armor, dolls, lacquerware and ceramics relating to the history of the castle. There are views over the city from the top floor.
Ueno Park also includes a museum, the Matsuo Basho Memorial Museum, in honor of Iga's most famous son, the haiku poet Basho. There are scrolls and original manuscripts from the Edo Period of Basho's work and an electronic board showing the poet's wanderings in Japan. Some of the titles of Basho's anthologies are delightful: Records of a Weather Exposed Skeleton and the Records of a Travel Worn Satchel are favorites.
The Haiseiden Poet's Memorial Hall, a two-tiered wooden pavilion close to the Iga Ninja Museum also celebrates the life and work of Japan's most famous poet and was constructed in 1942 commemorating the 300th anniversary of the poet's birth. The shape of the pavilion mirrors the traveling poet's outfit, particularly the cypress bark roof, which captures his hat. Inside is a ceramic statue of the great man, which can be seen only during the annual Basho Festival.
Just outside the castle park is the modern Danjiri Museum (Tel: 0595 24 4400) which displays the huge, richly decorated danjiri floats used in the Tenjin Festival. The Tenjin Festival, held in October, is also recreated on three large screens.
Just east of the park is Basho's ancestral home, where he lived until he was 29 years of age. The interior has been restored and stocked with Edo Period artfacts which give some idea how the poet spent the early part of his life in Iga-Ueno.
A twenty minute walk south of the station is Minomushian (Bagworm Hermitage) - the only one of the poet's five retreats still in existence today. A Basho Festival is held annually in the town on October 12th. There is speculation that Basho himself was a ninja and a spy for the Tokugawa. Some people has surmised his long, wandering poetic journeys were a cover for intelligence gathering for the regime.
Haiseiden, Ueno Castle Park, Iga Ueno
Ueno Castle (White Phoenix Castle)
Two historic schools have been preserved as museums in Iga: the Old Ota Elementary School, the oldest existing elementary school in Mie prefecture dating from 1881 and the Former Sukudo, a school for local samurai, which opened in 1821. So within the space of sixty years education was open not just to the offspring of the elite but to all.
The Teramachi area south of Hirokoji Station has seven temples located close to each other including Jyogoji Temple, Myoshoji and Daichoji.
As for local food delicacies and crafts, Iga-Ueno is known for its rice, ceramics, tender beef, fine sake and kumihimo (silk-braiding), which you can try for yourself at the Iga Ueno Braiding Center (Kumi-no-Sato), not too far from Kuwamachi Station.
Iga-Ueno has a number of interesting festivals and events: of course a Ninja Festival is held in April, in September and October there are performances of Noh in Ueno Castle's grounds, October 12th sees the staging of a Basho Festival but the town's main festival is the Tenjin Matsuri held from October 23rd-25th and featuring a parade of locals dressed as ogres and another procession of decorated, wheeled floats known as Danjiri.
Tourist Information Office
Iga-Ueno Tourist Information Office (Tel: 0595 26 7788) is just outside the station on your right inside the Haitopia Iga Building and has good information available in brochures in Japanese and English.
Chubu International Airport and Kansai International Airport are the nearest international airports to Iga-Ueno. There are direct connecting trains on the Meitetsu Centrair service to Nagoya Station. From Kansai International Airport there are connecting trains to Tennoji Station with onward Kintetsu connections to Iga-Ueno.
The nearest station to Ueno Park and the Ninja Museum is Kintetsu Ueno-shi Station. As befits a center of espionage and secrecy, Iga-Ueno is a long journey from the nearest urban centers and can be visited only after a fairly lengthy trek by JR and Kintetsu Railways.
From Nagoya there are two routes to Ueno-shi Station both taking over two hours. Travel by JR Kansai Line and change at Kameyama to Iga-Ueno Station and then Kintetsu Iga Line to Ueno-shi Station.
From Osaka the journey is around 90 minutes. From Tsuruhashi Kintetsu Station take an Express train to Iga Kanbe, then transfer to the Kintetsu Iga Line and on to Ueno-shi Station.
Alternatively from Osaka JR Station take a train to Nara and then transfer to a Kansai Main Line train to Iga-Ueno Station and then Kintetsu Iga Line to Ueno-shi Station.
From Kyoto take the JR Nara Line to Kizu, then the JR Kansai Line from Kizu to Kamo then local train from Kamo to Iga-Ueno, then transfer to the Kintetsu Iga Line and on to Ueno-shi Station. Journey time is over two hours.
Ninja-style train, Iga Ueno, Mie
There are long distance bus services from Osaka (90 minutes), Nagoya (90 minutes), and Tokyo (8 hours).
Iga-Ueno is easily explored on foot or by bicycle. There is cycle rental in the main square where the station is located.
Shuriken Contest, Iga Ueno
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