THE NINJA HEARTLANDS: VISITING KOGA AND IGA
Iga and Koga. The names have a shadowy, almost mystical connotation as the twin heartlands of the ninja. Supposedly, as the stories go, the remoteness and inaccessibility of these mist-cloaked, mountain-ringed domains provided the perfect seclusion for specialized groups of spies, scouts and assassins—for ninja—to emerge and flourish among the rural villages of feudal Japan. Folklore and tradition even tell of specialized schools of ninja who passed down their hidden arts from one generation to the next, blooming in secret like deadly flowers amid the foggy vales and selling their fearsome skills as mercenaries to the various warlords who once battled for control of Japan.
Those are the legends, anyway. Hard, historical facts about ninja are frustratingly hard to pin down. Like phantoms winking in and out of dim lighting, they appear briefly here and there among the historical record only to vanish again, and they have largely become so enwrapped in legend and romanticism that it is difficult to tell where myth ends and reality begins. Those seeking to delve into the history of ninja will find themselves grasping smoke far more often than actual substance—yet to me that seems fitting. Elusive and vexing, yet somehow… satisfyingly so. When dealing with such enigmatic figures as ninja, why should it be otherwise?
(Before I go on: Some basic background on ninja, for those of my readers treading this ground for the first time. Readers already familiar with the topic, feel invited to skip this bolded section.
- Ninja served as spies, informants, assassins, arsonists, and saboteurs during Japan’s feudal era—a time when the country was divided between dozens of warring samurai clans.
- A common myth holds that samurai and ninja were fundamentally opposed, with samurai being “noble and honorable” and ninja being the knife in the dark hired by warlords to carry out tasks too “dishonorable” for samurai. This is a romantic fiction. While ninja could certainly originate among peasants and the lower classes, many—perhaps even most—came from the samurai class. A samurai was perfectly capable of also being a ninja, if his lord required him to train and serve as such.
- The black, masked jumpsuit associated with ninja is also legendary. Actual ninja would wear whatever outfit best let them blend in and carry out their missions unnoticed, from innocent farmers’ clothes to the robes of traveling priests, to the gear of enemy soldiers. Besides, when sneaking around at night, midnight blue clothes would probably have been preferred over pitch black anyway, as black tends to stand out in all but the very darkest of shadows.
- So where did the image of the familliar black outfit come from? A prominent theory suggests it originated from traditional kabuki and bunraku theater. Stagehands and technicians who performed special effects typically wore black, masked, and hooded uniforms as a way to signal to the audience that they weren’t part of the stage drama, that they “weren’t really there.” The audience, duly, pretended not to see them. Artistic depictions of ninja in the 1800’s drew from this concept of “black uniform = invisibility” and portrayed ninja dressed in all black like theater stagehands in order to convey the impression of stealth and secrecy. Thus ninja acquired, from Japanese theater, the black uniforms so ubiquitous in ninja portrayals today.
- Also, just to get this out of the way: Nunchuks are an Okinawan weapon. Medieval ninja would not have used them.)
Regardless of the legends or reality surrounding the ninja, I have long been a fan, and have been curious to see Iga and Koga for myself. In high school, I encountered an English translation of Yamada Futaro’s famous 1959 novel The Koga Ninja Scrolls (most definitely a work of fantasy)*, then subsequently bought up the associated movie, manga, and anime adaptions (I still have not, however, played the pachinko game). The story enthralled me: the mysterious and poetic Koga Gennosuke, the innocent yet powerful ninja princess Oboro, the bloodthirsty manipulator Yakushiji Tenzen—while such characters of course never actually existed, I followed them across multiple mediums and experienced their lives, tragedies, and deaths as if they were people I intimately knew. So upon coming to Japan, I realized it would be treachery to the dreams of my youth if I did not visit the famed ninja heartland at least once.
I first had the chance to visit Koga (also known as Koka) six years ago, as a college student. More accurately, I biked through it on my way to Kyoto. But I remember it well, because that day was heavy with brooding, lowering clouds and fog that wreathed the mountains, giving the region a sense of real mystery and menace. The air chilled me, and I still recall how I shivered. Not just from the cold, but from delight—delight that this was exactly the sort of forbidding, atmospheric country where ninja legends ought to spring up. I could easily imagine small, secluded villages in the valleys, far removed from the main roads and priorities of local warlords, conducting their affairs in secret and producing traditions of specialized fighters and spies.
Traveling in Japan’s Kansai region once again this spring, I decided to spend the first night of my trip in Iga. The multi-week Ninja Festival was ongoing, which features local performers dressed as ninja, weapons demonstrations, historical tours, and costume contests, among other attractions — but I arrived too late in the afternoon to see any of the day’s events. Still, it amused me to see ninja imagery stamped all over Iga-Ueno City, from street signs to store windows to rural train stations. Iga is understandably proud of its heritage, yet the ninja references are so blatant that you can barely look anywhere without seeing one. Good for tourism, probably, but it also kind of defeats the whole point of ninja. Indeed, Iga’s ninja seem to do everything except hide.
Regardless, I did enjoy Iga-Ueno—just being there, just wandering around and exploring the city, particularly the castle grounds. Iga-Ueno Castle, though far more humble than other castles I’ve been to, provided a breathtaking sunset view of the city and surrounding mountains—those protective, mist-cloaked mountains so famous in ninja tales, that turned the whole region of Iga into a naturally defensible stronghold in times of war. Iga’s people were eventually conquered by the powerful Oda samurai clan in 1581, but only after thwarting their ambitions twice before with surprise attacks, guerrilla tactics, and cunning use of the terrain.
When night fell, I hiked up into the mountains north of Iga-Ueno to find a place to lie down for the night. The narrow mountain road ascended into dark wilderness, with trees crowding on either side and the lights of town vanishing far behind me. The temperature began to drop, so I put on an extra layer of clothes and kept walking. The mountains were dead silent, except for the sound of my footsteps. I met a car, just once.
Inevitably, alone in the mountains at night, the imagination starts to play tricks. I’ve experienced it before and knew it was bound to happen, but that didn’t stop me from half-expecting to hear other footsteps, or to see a dark-silhouetted stalker when I looked over my shoulder (though it did amuse me to imagine a sudden shuriken whizzing past my ear). Or to run suddenly into a wild boar, which has happened to me before. The mountains of Iga at night were as quiet as any I’d ever walked in; as it was not yet summer, there weren’t even insects singing. I found myself wondering if this was one of the same mountain paths the Oda samurai took when they invaded Iga centuries ago. Probably, I decided.
I discovered a place to rest a little ways off the road, in a bower by a running stream. I chose the spot for the noise as much as anything—after the lonely, eerie silence of the hike, the sound of rushing water in the dark was comforting.
The next morning I had to decide if I would linger long enough to check out the ninja festival. A part of me felt it would be wasteful not to see it, as it’s one of Iga’s biggest modern-day attractions, and I was, after all, right there. Still, I had a lot of ground to cover that day, and needed to be on the road if I was going to reach Nara on schedule. In the end, I didn’t see everything in Iga that I could or should have, but I certainly enjoyed my night there. Just seeing a place I’d read so much about—wandering its roads, viewing its scenery, taking in its atmosphere, and shooting some photos—was more than enough to leave me happy with my visit. I was content to come, go, and leave no trace.
In proper ninja fashion, as it were.
*Yamada Futaro was a 20th Century Japanese author whose sensational Ninja Scrolls fantasy series ignited a postwar ninja-boom in pop culture. His books went on to inspire various movies, anime, comics, and video games, and were massively influential on virtually all ninja fiction that came afterward. The Koga Ninja Scrolls (1959), the first book in this series, told a Romeo-and Juliet-style love story between ninja from the rival Koga and Iga Clans. The 2006 film Shinobi: Heart Under Blade and the 2005 manga/anime Basilisk are both modern adaptions of this novel. I greatly enjoyed both, though Basilisk is closer to the original story.
Shinobi: Heart Under Blade Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VEHvaRMS3Ok
Basilisk Trailer: https://www.imdb.com/videoplayer/vi1052311833