If you were told that there was an annual, family-oriented festival celebrating some of the most feared mercenary assassins and terrorists that the world has ever seen, you’d probably think it was an idea in quite poor taste. However, the Iga-Uena Ninja Fest is endearingly popular, and quite a lot of fun.
As far back as the Muromachi Period (approximately 1336 to 1573), Iga Province, in modern day Mie Prefecture, was known to be a center for the training of ninjitsu, the strategy of espionage and guerrilla warfare practiced by ninja (also known as shinobi, more on which later).
Today this is celebrated every year with a month long festival dedicated to all things ninja. Predominantly focused towards children, there are all manner of ninja-related events and activities to enjoy.
Firstly, you’ll want to look the part, and all over the town there are shops from which you can rent (for as little as 1,000 JPY) multi-colored ninja outfits in which you can prowl the town. There are outfits for all ages, from adults, down to the smallest of children (adorable!), and even cats and dogs (ridiculous!).
Children of most ages can learn some of the ninjutsu skills for which the ninja were famed. Near Uenoshi Station kids can learn how to throw shuriken (ninja stars), and near Nishi-Ote Station blow fukiya (blowpipe darts) .
Over at Hirokoji Station, things get a little tougher, where climbing skills are put to the test as the little ninja must climb across a suspended horizontal bamboo bar.
Elsewhere around the town there are ninjitsu demonstrations by trained ninja, and various competitions, with some days hosting festival parades. While there are events taking place throughout the month, public holidays will be the time to catch the best shows, so this Golden Week is a great time to check it out.
Throughout history, much has been written on the famed ninja. Unfortunately, most of it is at best dramatized, and at worst fabricated, to such an extent that it was believed that they could literally vanish and even walk on water. In fact, very little is truly known about the ninja, which makes sense, really; if you are a highly secretive group of terrorists for hire, it doesn’t really do to write down your exploits or advertise your existence.
Though some evidence of mercenary espionage agents exists going back to the 12th century, it was during the civil unrest of the feuding warring periods that what we in the west now call ‘ninja’, specially trained covert agents, appeared.
Though they went by many names, it was under the moniker of ‘shinobi’, meaning “to steal away; to hide”, that they crept into folklore, with the name ‘ninja’ coming from the Chinese reading of the same kanji, and rarely used in Japan, if at all.
Of the most famed – and feared – shinobi were those of the mountainous regions Iga Province and Koka, the latter in modern day Shiga Prefecture, around which specialist training camps sprung up to develop masters in the dark arts of warfare.
Although the practices of espionage and subterfuge were outwardly frowned upon during warfare, with samurai supposedly above such tactics, during the warring Sengoku period, as samurai chiefs fought for supremacy, they would often turn to these highly skilled professional mercenaries to perform tasks too dangerous, difficult and downright crafty for regular soldiers.
While these tasks included the breaching of castle walls when siege activity was unsuccessful, causing commotion behind enemy lines, and assassinations, it was in espionage that they were most utilized. Masters of disguise (that ninja outfit that you see in movies and manga isn’t actually so useful, as covert operatives tend not to be too successful if they are wearing uniforms that scream ‘Look at me, I’m a covert operative!’) they found their ways into enemy encampments where they gathered information on enemy terrain and building specifications, as well as obtaining passwords and communiques.
The Shinobi were so feared that the all-powerful warlord Oda Nobunaga – who is said to have survived multiple shinobi attempts on his life – all but decimated the Iga and Koga clans in the mid-16th century. However, some survived the onslaught, with many fleeing to the mountains, while others approached Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Tokugawa, a man himself not adverse to less-than gentlemanly conduct in wartime, looked favorably upon these highly-skilled covert operatives and recruited many of the shinobi as personal bodyguards and agents of espionage, including the legendary Hattori ‘The Demon’ Hanzo. It is believed that Tokugawa frequently used this covert force as he made his move to take the shogunate, particularly in the Battle of Sekigahara and later the Siege of Osaka.
It is said that in later years the shinobi of the Koga clan who had been taken under the protectorate of the Tokugawa clan turned their unique skills to becoming the basis of Japan’s first secret police, the Oniwaban. Though it has to be said that there is no written direct link to the original shinobi, there is enough circumstantial evidence that strong connections have long been drawn.
If you want to know more about the shinobi, check out this pretty good four part documentary.
Also, this episode of the History of Japan Podcast is highly recommended, as is the entire podcast series, if you are interested in Japanese history.