The Ninjas are long regarded as one of Japan’s most iconic stealthy secret agents. In Japan’s feudal times, young men were engaged by feudal lords or samurai to spy and kill their enemies.
It is believed that the birthplace of Ninjas is Iga City, in Central Japan.
During the early Muromachi period, the people from Iga became independent from their feudal lords and established a small republic in the region called Iga Sokoku Ikki (伊賀惣国一揆; the Iga Republic).
There amongst the local mountains and forests, they would train in their ninjitsu (the art of stealth) and eventually become the favourites of Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Iga-ryu Ninja Museum (伊賀流忍者博物館)
This comprehensive ninja experience consists of a ninja residence, two exhibition halls and a stage for ninja shows. On the outside, the ninja residence is unremarkable but within you will find tricky revolving walls, trap doors, and hidden compartments.
Here you can learn about secret codes, hidden ninja arts, and ancient ninja writings. You can enjoy a guided tour of the house or explore it on your own as the exhibits have signs in both Japanese and English.
MURAI BANKOEN (むらい萬香園)
This historic café is own by a ninja enthusiast who studied the Iga ninja and even opened his own ninja school. Famous for his friendly nature, he often holds small talks about ninja at the café which serves a wide array of ninja-themed desserts – such as a Ninja Parfait that uses Vanilla-Matcha Hokkaido soft cream – and Iga tea that is clear with a sweet, crisp flavour.
The café also has a small corner that is filled with ninja memorabilia such as traditional ninja tools and weapons, and even has its very own cat mascot that occasionally dons a ninja costume!
Akame 48 Waterfalls
The Akame 48 Waterfalls is the collective name for a string of waterfalls that flow through the district. This deep ravine is said to have been chosen by the Iga ninja as a training ground due to its large terrain, strategic location, and natural training environment.
Set amongst lush greenery surrounded by majestic mountains and crystal clear streams, this hiking route is the perfect place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and experience what life must have been like for ninjas in the Sengoku Period.
The falls are also home to peaceful giant salamanders which are a protected species and registered as Natural Monuments of Japan.
Iga Ueno Castle (伊賀上野城)
The famous Hakuhō-jō (白鳳城, White Phoenix Castle) stands tall next to the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum. Built in the latter half of the 16th Century by Tsutsui Sadatsugu, the castle served as the seat of local lords during the Edo Period and was partially destroyed in a storm some 50 years later.
Unlike many other Japanese castles which were reconstructed with concrete in the 20th century, Ueno Castle was rebuilt using only wood – retaining its original look and atmosphere both inside and out. The castle also has the tallest stone walls in Japan. Located on the western side, they tower overhead at an impressive 30 metres. There is also museum inside the castle which has detailed exhibits on the castle’s history.
Tofu Dengaku (豆腐田楽)
Dengaku refers to food that has been miso glazed and grilled. But for this local favourite, it is also inspired by the Dengaku dance that was performed during the Heian and Muromachi Period by Dengaku priests as the miso tofu on their sticks resembled the priests dancing on their stilts.
This seasonal treat used to be eaten during the New Year and spring season when homemade miso balls were hung up for ageing and then glazed on tofu which was then grilled on a stick over a charcoal fire. The miso gives the firm tofu a rich, umami flavour that fills your mouth with every heartwarming bite.
Iga Gyū (伊賀牛)
These cattle have been raised in Iga since the early Showa Period. Considered to be of the same quality as Matsusaka, Kobe or Yonezawa beef – which are considered Japan’s top ranking wagyu – and it is consumed mostly in Iga, making it hard to find elsewhere.
Iga ninjas were said to have eaten dried beef as part of their non-perishable rations during the Sengoku Period. Using only Tajima decedent Kuroge Washu (黒毛和,種Japanese Black), the meat is best known for its well-marbled, tender texture, melt-in-your-mouth fat and meaty aroma.
This feature was adapted from WAttention Singapore magazine, Jan/Feb 2017 Vol. 36)