Have a kid (or spouse) who can’t get enough of Japan’s shadowy warriors? Then make tracks to Iga City, the ancestral home of one of the country’s prominent ninja clans.
Iga City isn’t on the beaten tourist trail – it’s a good two hour journey from either Kyoto or Nagoya. But the Iga Ninja experience is well worth the effort it takes to get here. The full experience starts at the Kintestsu Iga Kanbe station, where a train emblazoned with a pink or blue ninja – designed by manga artist Reiji Matsumoto – along the local Iga rail line to your destination.
Once in Iga Ueno (a neighborhood of Iga City), it’s a short walk from the station to Ueno Park where the Iga Ninja Museum lies partially concealed in the forest. The front section of the museum looks like a normal Japanese farmhouse (and heads up, you WILL have to take off your shoes), only it was modified by members of the Iga Ninja sect. Keep a sharp eye on your museum guide as she slips in and out of secret doors, illuminates hidden chambers and reveals a weapons cache under a floorboard. Don’t worry about the language barrier – all of the house’s “secrets” are translated on English panels that can’t be missed.
The tour leads next to the farmhouse basement, where a hands-on exhibit details the life and times of the Iga ninja. Check out the deadly display of shuriken (throwing stars), test your balance on the mizugumo (shoes that allowed ninja to ‘walk’ on water) and read up on a ninja’s daily diet (garlic’s a no-no!)
There’s a second part to the exhibit in a low building out back, but the pictureless info panels will probably only interest adults. However, don’t miss the hourly ninja show in the theater next door – of course it’s cheesy but the skills demonstrated are pretty impressive nonetheless and younger travelers will eat it up. After the show, wait down on the stage and the staff will allow you to try out the throwing stars for a small fee.
Nearby, Ueno Castle has a great park in which to stretch your legs, though watch out for littler ones along the perimeter. These are allegedly the highest castle walls in Japan and the drop is considerable – the natural boulder barrier doesn’t offer much to deter a rambuctious youngster.
There are a few cafes and restaurants scattered around the trains station; grab the English map at the station to find places in town that let you rent a ninja costume for a few hours. Guaranteed this is one outing the kids will be talking about for days to come!
Hours: Open daily from 9am-5pm, closed Dec 29th – Jan 1st
Cost: ¥700 for adults, ¥400 for elementary school students
The museum’s excellent English website has comprehensive transportation details and a host of other information.