We turned up at Kyoto station armed with the knowledge that we needed to take the Nara line to Kizu and then change to the Kansai line to Kamo, swap platforms, and ride a different part of the Kansai line to Iga Ueno. The man in the ticket office was very helpful, and the complete opposite of the type of ticket clerk you encounter in British railway stations. He checked the train times and connection times for us and told us that a better way to go was to take a train to Kusatsu, then change trains for one going to Tsuge, and at Tsuge to change for a train going to Iga Ueno. When he saw me begin to write the details down in my notebook, he told me to stop because he would print off the information for me. Not only did he do that, but he then proceeded to write onto the printout the platform number at Kyoto station, the type of train and its final destination and the name of each station in English next to the Kanji on the printout.
All of the trains were local services and, while they still travelled reasonably quickly, they didn’t rush through the countryside the way an express or shinkansen would. This meant that we got to see some of the Japanese countryside. When we were on honeymoon, we’d commented to each other that we ought to venture out from the bigger cities and tourist spots and try to experience some of the Japan that is usually only known to locals. This train journey felt like that. The countryside was lush, and some of the buildings in the farming hamlets looked like something out of the feudal era. It was easy to imagine the area still being populated by ninja!
For anyone visiting Iga Ueno, please don’t make the mistake that we did. I’d looked at the map on the Museum’s website and forgotten that the Japanese have a different approach to maps – they’re not always to scale, so things that look as though they’re a reasonable walk from each other often turn out to be a hike and a half apart. The Japan Guide information compounded my erroneous thinking that it wasn’t that much of a walk from Iga Ueno station to the Museum by saying that it was a 5-10 minute walk north from Ueno-shi station. I failed to spot that Iga Ueno station and Ueno-shi station were a good 50 minutes apart on foot. I didn’t click on the other orientation link on the site, or I would have found out that we could have taken a train from Iga Ueno to Ueno-shi that would have taken 7 minutes.
However, had we done that, we wouldn’t have seen the mad array of ninja related drain covers, cafés, bridge plaques and school murals on our walk into the town.
Eventually we found the park which houses Ueno Castle and the Ninja Museum. We had a picnic lunch of onigiri and CC Lemon in a wooden bandstand alongside a Japanese family who had brought home made bento, putting us to shame. Then we tried to follow the signs in the park to find the Museum.
As we wandered almost aimlessly, we chanced upon some ninja cut outs – the kind that invite you to poke your head through a hole in the board and have your picture taken as whatever the image painted on the board is representing.
We continued on our way and emerged up a tree lined slope into a gravelled open area. We started to walk towards another sign, which we hoped would give us directions, when a man approached and asked if he could help. We said we were looking for the Ninja Museum. He said he would tell us where it was if we would help him with his survey. He was from the local tourist board trying to find out why people came to Iga Ueno and what could be improved. We answered his questions, and he rewarded us with some chopsticks made from local cedar wood. Then he urged us to hurry so that we would be in time to see the ninja demonstration at the museum.
The demonstration was fantastic. There were three demonstrators who showed first the swords, by chopping through a very thick stump of wood very quickly and easily, then the throwing stars or shuriken, then the scythe that had a ball and chain attached and which the ninja used to pull an enemies legs from under him.
It was a brilliant demonstration, delivered entirely in Japanese, but still clear enough for us to understand the gist of it. If you’re going, you could take a Japanese speaker with you, but it isn’t really necessary. You will grasp what they are demonstrating.
After the show, we went into the museum, which centres around a genuine ninja house. Iga Ueno was a ninja training centre, for the Iga school. The house was discovered within the town and relocated to the park in order to form the basis for a museum explaining the ninja arts. A tour of the house is included in the entrance fee, and you see all the hiding places for people, weapons and, most importantly, the gunpowder that only the ninjas knew how to make.
In the museum itself, the exhibits include genuine shuriken and other weaponry, as well as a chain mail wasitcoat for visitors to try on. The museum guide persuaded me to try it on, repeatedly asking me if I was ready before dropping the waistcoat onto my shoulders. I’d thought I was ready but, to the delight of the guide, my shoulders sagged and I let out a small “Oof!” of surprise. He then showed me how to make the ninja sign with my fingers and encouraged R to take my picture.
From the exhibits, we learned that ninja dressed like farmers, in dark navy clothes, so that by day people would think they were ordinary farmers, and at night they would blend into the night time sky easily.
On our way back to station we had more help from the man who was carrying out the survey, who gave us precise directions to the electric railway that runs from Ueno-shi station to Iga Ueno station. At the station we were again flummoxed by the lack of English or even hiragana on the ticket machine, so the ticket clerk came out from his booth to show us how to use the ticket machine.
Aside from all the wandering around, being unable to read signs or work out where we were supposed to be going, our trip to Iga Ueno was one of the best days out of our holiday. If you’re interested in ninja and you’re in Japan, you should definitely go for the experience. You’ll need a full day, because there’s also the castle to see in the same park grounds as the museum, something that we didn’t leave ourselves enough time to do!