Japan Today

Iga-Ueno: Birthplace of ninjas and Basho

By Iain Maloney

For a small town, Iga-Ueno has something for everyone. Whether your tastes lean toward the confrontational and martial or the reflective and poetic, this is a trip worth making. Iga-Ueno is the birthplace of those two most quintessential images of Japan: ninjas and Basho.

Few people need to be introduced to the ninja: masked warriors who stalked Japan in feudal times and countless movies in the modern era. Ninjitsu – the art of the ninja – was developed in Iga-Ueno, Mie-ken and Koka, Shiga-ken. The life of a ninja, the world in which he moved and his legacy today are excitingly presented at the Iga-Ryu Ninja Museum, in Iga-Ueno Park.

In addition to the informative displays showcasing weapons, clothes and training regimes, the museum boasts three major attractions. The first, and the beginning of the tour, is the ninja house. Groups are led through a number of rooms by expert – and at times disconcertingly well-trained – guides and given demonstrations of the hidden doors, escape hatches and secret weapons stores built into what appears to be a simple traditional Japanese home. The explanations are entirely in Japanese, but little gloss is needed to explain a false floorboard sheltering swords or a shelf that drops to reveal a ladder to the roof.

Beyond the house and through the museum, the excitement is ratcheted up. Here, in the Ninja Experience Plaza, ninja techniques and weapons are demonstrated. The professionals who fight with swords, "shuriken" throwing stars and "kusarigama" sickles are both deadly with their tools and consummate showmen, blending slapstick humor with breath-taking martial feats.

Appetite whetted, the visitor can then try their own hand with the "shuriken." 200 yen will buy you five throws at a dartboard, and if the previous show hasn’t hit home the lethal capabilities of the stars, the enormous chunks ripped out of the targets will. This is highly addictive fun, but hanging around while hyperactive high school boys show off their lack of aim is not for the faint-hearted.

I said at the beginning that there was something for everyone. Well, if ninjas don’t fire your imagination, then maybe haiku is more your thing. Legendary haiku master Basho began his life and career here, and there are a number of monuments to him.

Matsuo Basho lived from 1644 to 1694, first in Ueno, then in Edo. He was a famous poet and teacher, but he grew restless and took to wandering the roads of Japan. He first traveled from Edo to Kyoto and back, then through northern Honshu, down the Sea of Japan coast and inland to Ogaki, Gifu-ken. This second journey was recorded in his journal and posthumously published as "The Narrow Road To The Interior." He made one final trip, this time to Osaka where he became sick and died.

Basho is without doubt the most famous and publicly celebrated haiku poet both inside and outside Japan, and he is commemorated in the town by a museum and a shrine. The shrine was built to resemble the poet on the road, from his big sedge hat to his walking cane. The museum’s lack of non-Japanese information limits its appeal to the kanji-literate, but his childhood home has been carefully restored and is fascinating to the general student of history as well as the haiku fan.

There is no evidence that the poet partook of his hometown’s other creation, though the idea of a ninja poet is an attractive one that historical-accuracy shunning film directors may wish to pick up on. His adventurous nature does however complement the spirit of Iga-Ueno.

The park is also home to a war memorial and a modern reconstruction of Ueno castle. The former is unfortunately a flame around which a large number of nationalist sound-trucks flutter while the latter is most rewarding as a platform from which to enjoy the Mie countryside than as a specific destination itself.

From Nagoya or Osaka, Iga-Ueno station is on the JR Kansai line. From there, a regular bus runs to the park or you can transfer to the Kintetsu line, stopping at Uenoichi.

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The "martial arts" that is pracitced by so-called ninjas are not real in any regard. It is Martial LARP (Live action role playing). The Bujinkan and similar groups are full of delusional people ineffectively practicing infective techniques under the guise of it having a long history.

The truth is, ninjutsu is just a marketing ploy by charlatans such as Hatsumi to sell fake martial arts to lazy people looking for an easy way to bolster their ego.

On the bright side, it's not as uselessly horrible as Aikido.

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Yes, well you sure know what youre talking about. Ninjutsu dates back at least 4 centuries BEFORE Masaaki Hatsumi, and was mostly practiced by peasants and farmers as a means of standing up to the haughty and oppressive Samurai beurocracy.

For the charlatans and marketing whores, look no further than Hollywood for twisting the Ninja image.

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im a fan of kung-fu myself..and thats REAL!!

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This place is well worth a visit if you're a fan of ninja movies like I was. It's a quiet little town, so it's a nice change pace compared to Osaka.

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As I understood the Japanese speaking museum guide, the many haiku on display under glass was written by the master poet, Basho, himself. That's akin to seeing a Shakespeare first folio written in the Bard's own hand. Both = national treasures. Iga-Ueno is a lovely castle town and well worth the visit. By car less than an hour east of Nara - another Japanese gem.

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Sounds like your Bujinkan Sensei realized you are not worthy to train in the style and booted you from the school. I would ask you what you train in now, but I really don't care.

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Sounds like a fun tourist attraction for anyone who doesn't know / care about actual ninjutsu. I wonder if the ninja-theme-park will take off at all, or once the novelty wears off (within a year maybe) it will just fade away?

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I've been to Iga-Ueno and it's a fun little place. The ninja houses with all the secret passages and hidden doors were pretty cool. I tried my hand at shiruken lol.

My favorite part of visiting Iga-Ueno was the danjiri museum. They had beautiful danjiri on display. The ninja train is cute too ^_^

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Prideinjapanese, you need to study more, a lot: essentially ninjas were not the Hollywood-ninjas you have on your mind. They were experts on spying, silently, and most of the times, disguised as geixas, farmers, instead of the black outfit. And they had only one epic battle a la Hollywood in Japanese hisotory, placed in Osaka. The rest of their "fights" would be one samurai vs one ninja, a shuriken thrown and he disappearing in the woods.

Well, those visiting the museum, just be careful with the sharpless shuriken sold there: I had once to explain to US airport people why I was not trying to put the plane down with a shuriken inside my suit.

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@amannin1 -I first visited the ninja museum in Iga-Ueno over 30 years ago, so I'd say it's a "keeper." I bought a pretty cool ear wax scraping tool disguised as a mini ninja sword in the gift shop on my most recent visit last spring. Sure impressed and intrigued my friends back in the States!

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sctaber56 - wow, 30 years eh, then I guess it has more than transcended the novelty phase.

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@ LostInNagoya

I think PrideinJapanese is referring to modern-day "ninja".

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