Friday, 1 August 2008

伊賀上野 Iga-Ueno

From Beppu I turned eastwards, but the distance is far and the trains slow, so I decided to make another halt at Yamaguchi sleeping in Andreas' dormitory and spending another day in the city. Afterwards I caught an early train and succeeded in reaching Iga-Ueno before nightfall.

伊賀上野 Iga-Ueno

Iga-Ueno is actually two towns named Iga and Ueno which, to avoid confusion with the popular area in Tokyo and because of their close vicinity, were merged and renamed to Iga-Ueno. The town is close to Nara and can be reached from Nara by train in 30-40 minutes.

The town is very interesting for two reasons:
Hattori Hanzo and the Iga Ninja and
Matsuo Basho and Haiku.

Apart from that there is also a museum about a really cool and special festival called Danjiri Festival and Ueno Castle, from where Hattori Hanzo ruled the land.

Note! There are two special tickets for the two you should get:
Iga-Ueno Pass: Includes Ninja Museum, Iga-Ueno Castle and the Danjiri Festival museum
Matsuo Basho Pass: Includes Basho Museum, Basho Birthplace and Minomushian, one of his five hermitage residences, where he composed world famous Haiku.

If you pay for them one by one, it will get very expensive. However you don't need the day pass for the city train, because walking through the old town is nice in itself, and even if you take the train back once, it is still cheaper than a day ticket.

the city train is supposed to look like a Ninja...

伊賀上野森 Iga-Ueno Forest

Arriving late I needed a place to sleep. My first sight of Iga-Ueno made me feel spirited to easily find a nice place. Iga-Ueno is more village than town and there are many open spaces. After walking for a while I found a suitable meadow close to rice fields and shielded from the eyes of people by a little warf. However my spirits sank, when I set a foot on it and an alarm rang. *sigh* In Japan really every stupid little meadow is secured by alarm systems, it is really annoying.

Well despite my first intentions I had to recede to the forest again. My previous experience still in mind, I got the creeps, but had no choice. Even worse, because of my time wasted to look for a suitable meadow the sun was setting and it was getting dark. When I finally reached the first it was already pitch black. I found a suitable spot anyway, but it took me a lot of effort erecting the tent in darkness. Also at times I just had to use the flashlight, which attracted hundreds of insects biting and flying all over me.

The night was not better than the previous, and this time a large something even crawled below my bed waking me up in terror. But again at some point I fell asleep from exhaustion and could regenerate a little bit.

伊賀上野忍者 Iga-Ueno Ninja

The Ninja were my reason for coming here, I heard a lot about the Ninja of this place and knew Ninja from childhood on, now it was about time to find out if the real Ninja were really as awesome as I always imagined. To break the suspense, they were.

The Ninja lived a life of disguise not to be noticed by anyone. For that they had a cover job as farmers. Nobody suspects a farmer or looks closer at one, since they were at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. That is why no one ever noticed that the faces of the farmers actually changed from time to time, when they switched with other Ninja for secret training. The switching, training and meetings were also never seen, because they happened underground. Each farmer house was connected via underground tunnels, so they could meet and train unseen and move far paths underground, before emerging to the surface. If someone enters a farmhouse like this, he would see nothing special, just an ordinary house. If he enters the house with the intent to kill the ones inside, he would be surprised that the voices he just heard suddenly vanished and no one could be found inside. And suddenly he would be stabbed from somewhere... The Ninja's farm houses, while looking ordinary were full of secret passageways, secret cabins for hiding, secret weapons and traps, so that some Ninja inside could fend of a whole troop of men entering the house and escape when necessary.

looks like an ordinary farming village

with ordinary farmers inside

sometimes they also disguised as wandering monks of hermits

The first part of the Ninja Tour in Iga-Ueno leads you to such a Ninja Farmhouse and ridiculous but cute looking pink Ninja Girls will show you around all the traps and secrets, performing the vanishing with grace. The pink color is of course ridiculous, but female Ninja surely aren't. They were called Kunoichi and equal to men within the Ninja clan. In training they could cover as a farmer's wife making the family impression almost complete, but in action they were more valuable then men. This is for two reasons: first women were regarded as incompetent, incapable of fighting and simply lower than man. So they were underestimated and usually able to win fights quickly. Also nobody suspected women to be spies, which made them perfect for infiltrating castles and residences of feudal lords. Also in a case of an attack, the enemy suddenly found all their doors and gates unexpectedly open.

a hidden sword, that she could grab and draw in less than a second

more secret weapons

many hidden doors

unknowing you see an ordinary house

a skilled Ninja could disappear behind this door in less than a second
I guess our guide trained hard for it

a Ninja could hide in this mini second floor and shoot from their poison darts

a small emergency exit, that can only be opened by using a special technique (e.g. with paper)

the most common tricks in Ninja houses

After that we followed her downstairs, where instead of the former tunnels and hidden meeting halls now a museum took their place. In this museum you can learn everything about the Ninja there is to learn. Every legend will either be verified or clarified.

For example according to one legend, Ninja were able to walk over water. This legend is wrong, but not entirely, because they were able to walk over mud. Many castles had one side protected by a swamp and since an attack from this side is almost impossible, it is usually not guarded. So it is the perfect way for a Ninja to get into a castle for espionage or assassination. So how could they walk over a swamp? They used special shoes, who were formed like a large disc and trained themselves in a special balancing technique which allowed them to distribute their weight evenly across the disc shoes.

mud shoes

One of the most impressive part about Ninja is their tools. They used a lot of tools for a lot of purposes like lock picking, fighting, espionage climbing walls. However moving in disguise, they could carry nothing that would arose suspicion. Because of that they became master in multi functional tool crafting. Their tools would look like something a farmer might carry but all had hidden functions. For example two or three farmer sickles could be combined to a grappling hook.

Ninja could build ladders very quickly from their surroundings
as you can see the grappling hook consists out of four peasants sickles

If they carried weapons they really carried the much famed Shuriken (throwing stars) and as an addendum Kunai (throwing daggers) which could also used for infighting and climbing if necessary. When carrying weapons they carried a typical Ninja multi functional sword. The peak is sharp and together with a stable protection blade, the sword could be used for pole-jumping. A rope adjusted to the sword made sure they could retain their sword after using it to jump a wall. The sharp peak of the hilt could also be removed and the hilt be used as snorkel.

multi functional swords

you could always carry a sickle without arising suspicion

the Shuriken's shape depended on the Ninja Clan

claws are a good weapon against swords


lock picks

Kunai also had more purposes than fighting or throwing,
for example to dig into a wall

or to climb a wall

At most times however they could carry neither weapons nor many tools, to keep their cover. That is why they became masters of improvisation. They surpassed even Mac Gyver in being able to use their surroundings for their needs. To clarify another error, Ninja never wore black garments. Why? Because they needed to act in secrecy and wearing all black is very suspicious. Instead they wore navy blue garments, which looked exactly like the dresses of Iga-Ueno farmers and thus were very unsuspicious. Plus the color faded into the night just as well as black.

Did you know, that Ninja were great scientists? They were, especially in chemistry. For example they were masters in gunfighting, even before the first guns reached Japan from Portugal. So how is this possible? It has been kept secret until the mysteries have been explored only in this age. Before gun importing from Portugal, Ninja already developed their own kind of guns, used for assassinations from a distance. Not many people knew about this powerful weapon and those who knew gave their best keeping it secret. They also developed the famous smoke grenade, which allowed them to escape.

Another less known fact is that they mastered coding of messages. When written messages had to be exchanged they needed to ensure, nobody could read them in case of an interception. They basically used two coding systems. One involving different colors and another involving ropes with knots. The second one is especially interesting, because it was not really a coding system, but in fact Japan's old and own system of writing. Yes that is right, despite what we learned in school (Japan had no writing system and adopted Kanji from China), ancient Japan in fact had a writing system similar to those of the Aztecs in South America. However at some point people started to forget about it. When the Ninja rediscovered it and realized its usability for exchanging messages, they looked into it that every written record of it (in Kanji) was destroyed and it really was forgotten.

the ancient Japanese rope and knot characters where preserved by the Ninja

system of color coding

The training of the Ninja was very hard. Basically their whole life was training and learning. They had to become masters of memorizing, because the safest way to transmit a spied conversation is to remember it word by word, so no written record could get into anyone's hand or reveal the Ninja when under cover. But this is not easy and required daily memorizing training. Apart from that they needed very acrobatic bodies to be able to climb steep walls with few tools, run large distances, be always quicker than the enemy and become a master of fighting. Or rather killing, since Ninja rarely went into fighting, they rather sought for the quickest way of killing the opponent, even if it involved nasty techniques.

Also less knows is that Ninja occupied themselves with sorcery. What they considered sorcery involved both the summoning of demons and spirits, consulting powers,and future telling, as well as more practical magic like hypnosis. According to books they were able to put a hypnotic spell on someone binding him to their will.

Apart from that they were also master in weather forecasting and finding food and water in the wilderness. They often had to survive for days or weeks in the wilderness, were it was both important to foretell the weather as well as to find food, water and shelter. Despite this they found ways to keep themselves clean and keep body smells away, since they would quickly reveal themselves in hiding. Ninjas also developed a funny way of reading the time of from the eyes of a cat, called the cat clock.

According to written records, before the time of paved streets and railways, the Ninja had secret paths leading from important places to others. Using this well hidden paths, they could securely and quickly move through large distances. According to legend, the road connected all places containing the 賀 ga Kanji in the name.

According to the museum the origins of Ninjustsu date as far back as 2000 years B.D. in China and India, where first techniques for espionage were developed. These techniques reached Japan probably during the Asuka and Nara Periods (500 A.D.). The height of the Iga-Ninja reached until the Sengoku Period (1500 A.D.) where Oda Nobunaga lead an army against the Ninja Clan. Although the Ninja were 1 to 10 outnumbered, because of their complete intel on the enemy, superior skills and fighting tactics (avoid open confict, guerillia fighting, strike and run) and all the traps and secret passages and rooms on thei home turf, they were able to defeat this first army. However Oda Nobunaga was angered and attacked the village again and now the Ninja were almost outnumbered 1 to 100, plus the enemy had learned about their skills, technqiues and traps. Thus they were defeated, but not disposed of. Oda Nobunaga and his successors realized the Ninja's values and let them serve for themselves. Iga lying in Mikawa Province and belonging to Matsuradai Clan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, leader of the clan, set in a trusted vassal as the head of the Iga Ninja's: 服部 半蔵 Hattori Hanzo (on which the fictional Kill Bill character is based on). However loosing their independence, from this point on the power and fame of the Iga Ninja dwindled until it ended with the Meji Restauration in the end of the 19th century.

Finally leaving the underground museum you can watch a display of Ninjutsu:

Sword Pole Jumping

Midnight Fighting Action

Kendo Sword Fighting

Shuriken Throwing

伊賀上野城 Iga-Ueno Castle

As the Iga region was very important, because of its Ninja, it also has a castle for defense. From this castle Tokugawa's vassal Hattori Hanzo ruled over Iga secretly training the Ninja Clan he took over.

if you look around carefully, you can find Ninja spying on the place

The castle is not really special, but has a really nice collection of Samurai helmets inside for display.

this strange helmet was the castle's most valuable possesion

秘密な寺 Secret Temple

if you look around Iga-Ueno park more closely you can find an old path leading through the forest. It doesn't look like it's used anymore or that it leads anywhere. But...

if you follow it...

and don't even stop at this clearing,

but go further through the forest

you can find a secret Teddy Bear temple

だんじり祭り Danjiri Festival Museum

The Iga-Ueno Pass includes entrance to a third place. A museum about the local festival, I probably wouldn't have entered if it wasn't included, since I have seen such places before, but I did not regret it after all.

I didn't regret it because the festival is quite unique. It had big floats (Dashi or Danjiri in the local language) like other festivals, but it also has a parade of Zombies and Demons.

dashi (floats) for the festival

According to the brochure I got, a local Noh-Theater writer once wrote a piece including many demons. The performance became so popular that people started to perform it during the festival. A tradition was started to create more and more fearful scray demon masks and outfits. The demons were allowed to scare the people watching the parade and indeed they look terrifying ^_^

it most be really horrifying to see them march
it must feel like being in a Zombie movie

松尾芭蕉 Matsu Basho (1644 - 1694)

Matsuo Basho is Japan's most famous poet. In Europe he is often introduced as the inventor of Haiku, but that is not entirely true. Before Basho's time there were already short poems called Haikai which usually told a joke or some funny story.

Basho was born 1644 in Iga City and introduced to poetry in a young age, got an excellent education and eventually acted as teacher in Edo (former name of Tokyo) himself. Working both as teacher and poet in Edo during the Edo Period, where Edo was Japan's center, quickly made him famous throughout the country. However even after becoming famous, he avoided the circles of high society and despised the urban life.

Instead he sought for tranquility and contemplation in nature and started traveling around the country. Altogether he undertook four journeys which lead him through out Japan, in a time when traveling was still difficult and burdensome. His life can be seen as one long pilgrimage through nature.

On his journeys he realized that the Haikai poems, while funny have no depth. Also inspired by Buddhist ideas, he decided to reform Haikai, Japanese poetry and the entire thinking of the people to deal with more philosophical ideas. He found the Haikai or then Haiku the perfect carrier. With its limited structure, you can only write very few words. However even with very few words, you can say all there is to say and touch the essence of the world.


on a journey, ailing -
my dreams roam around
over a withered moor

With his ideas and ideals, although living on pilgrimages, he reached the thoughts of many Japanese people and many were inspired by his character and tried to follow his path. He succeeded in giving the people and life itself more meaning and depth, inspring people to think about life and marvel about the simple wonders of nature.

芭蕉翁記念館 Basho Memorial Museum

In Iga-Ueno park you can not only find the castle and the Ninja Museum, but also the Basho Memorial Museum. The place is small, but it introduces Basho to the visitors and displays many of his poems in original form.

A second section illustrates and talks about the four travels he has done.


another year is gone
a traveler's shade on my head,
straw sandals at my feet

俳聖殿 Basho Pavilion

To Basho's honor a pavilion has been erected shaped like the hat, he used to wear on his travels. It can be found in Iga-Ueno park close to the Memorial Museum.


now then, let's go out
to enjoy the snow... until
I slip and fall!

芭蕉翁生家 Basho's Birth House

Close to the Danjiri Museum you can find Basho's birth house. A very simple house with a tiny garden. You can go inside and look at the interior, some remaining pots and tools also remain, which might have served Basho once as child.

toilet ^^

上野天神宮 Iga-Ueno Heaven Shrine

This shrine was built honoring Basho's transformation of 俳諧 Haikai into 俳句 Haiku, when he was 29 years old and used the pseudonym 宗房 Sōbō (the On-Reading of his Samurai name Munefasa, written with the same Kanji). It lies on the way to the famous Minomushian House and you actually walk through the shrine on the way, so you can as well look at it ^_^

寺街 Temple Street

From Heaven Shrine onwards to the Minomushi Hermitage, you should choose to walk this road. It contains seven temples, which make walking down the road vert enjoyable.

蓑虫庵 Minomushi Hermitage

Minomushian was one of the five hermitages of Basho. He loved his quiet little hometown of Iga and spent a lot of his life in this hermitage. You can go inside to see how Basho the hermit and poet lived and how he found contemplation for his poems in the wonderful garden behind the house.

Minomushi refers to an insect with a very distinct noise. He said the harmonious noise of minomushi gave him calmness and contemplation. I found the insects less calming and more annoying, but the nice woman from the entrance came to my rescue and adjusted a kind of incense to my jeans, that held off the enemy.

In this garden he is also supposed to have written 奥の細道 The Narrow Road to the Deep North, one of his most famous Haiku:

An old pond!
A frog jumps in—
the sound of water.

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