For many visiting Japan, seeing a ninja or experiencing the ninja lifestyle is a significant part of their Japan travel itinerary. However, not many know about the history of ninjas and their role in ancient Japan.
There are actually many schools of ninjutsu (the practices of ninjas). In fact, there is said to be about 71 different schools. Two of the most well known are the Iga-ryu style from Mie prefecture, and the Koka-ryu style from Shiga prefecture.
What are the differences of those two ninjutsu styles? Aren’t they all just ninjas? In this article, we will introduce you the history and basics of ninjas and ninjutsu and the differences between the Iga-ryu and Koka-ryu styles.
What are ninjas?
Ninjas (忍者) played a spy-like role in Japan from around the Kamakura period (1185 - 1333) to the Edo period (1603 – 1867). They carried out secret mission of espionage, infiltration and sometimes even assassination.
They used special ways and tactics, collectively called ninjutsu (忍術), to carry out their secret missions. Ninjas were said to have played a crucial roles in many fights and battles.
When did ninjas exist?
Ninjas were mostly active in the underground society. Prince Shotoku (574 – 622), is said to be one of the first people to use ninjas. It is said that Prince Shotoku used ninjas to keep an eye on the imperial court.
Ninjas were referred to as “shinobi (志能便)”. Otomo-no-Hosohito, Prince Shotoku’s ninja, is said to be the first “shinobi” in Japan.
The term “ninja” only became familiarized during the Taisho period (1912 - 1926). Until then, the word to describe ninjas varied throughout the different regions in Japan.
During the Asuka period (552 - 645), the term “shinobi” was commonly used. Entering the Warring period (1467 - 1590), it was “kanja 間者”, and in the Edo period (1603 – 1867), they were called “onmitsu 隠密”.
In regions like Kyoto and Nara, ninjas were called “suppa 水破”, and in Fukui they were called “shinobi隠忍術”, but the word used different characters.
Do ninjas still exist?
This is the question that we’ve all been wanting to ask. Do ninjas still exist? Or have they gone extinct?
Entering the Meiji period (1868 - 1912), police units and military forces were established in Japan. This forced ninjas out of business, and today, it is said that there are very few real ninjas remaining.
However, the whole point of a ninja is go unnoticed at all times. Considering that, they might still be roaming the streets of Japan.
The many styles of ninjutsu
Ninjas usually operated in groups. The many different groups existed throughout Japan, and there is said to be 71 different groups and styles of ninjutsu.
Two of the most famous ninjutsu styles are Iga-ryu from Mie prefecture and Koka-ryu from Shiga prefecture. Otomo-no-Hosohito, the first ninja in Japan, is said to have practiced Koka-ryu ninjutstu.
The Iga-ryu style of ninjutsu originated in Mie prefecture, where the current cities of Iga and Nabari locate. The area was a significant transportation hub, and that is said to be the reason why ninjas flourished in the region.
The origin of the Iga-ryu ninja style is said to be the Hattori clan, a powerful samurai clan under the Tokugawa family. The Hattori used ninjas to serve the Tokugawas.
Some characteristics of the Iga-ryu style include the high-level combat techniques and overall strength in ninjutsu skills. The Iga-ryu ninjas were paid by their employers to perform tasks, and only engaged in exchanges that were purely related to their missions.
Experience Iga-ryu Ninjutsu!
In Iga and Nabari cities in Mie prefecture, there are many ninja-related spots. There are even some places where you can experience the ninja lifestyle!
Ninja MUSEUM of Igaryu
Ninja MUSEUM of Igaryu
The Ninja MUSEUM of Igaryu in Iga is the place to go to learn all about the Iga-ryu style.
Inside the museum is the Igaryu Ninja House, where you can see a demonstration of all of the traps and gimmicks set in the room and in the hallways.
At the Ninja Experience Hall, you can watch videos that demonstrate how ninjas would stealthily make their way through the buildings. Over 400 items used by ninjas are exhibited here, too.
When here, you can’t miss the ninja show, where trained staff exhibit ninjutsu techniques with real items and weapons used throughout history. At the Museum Shop, you can purchase ninja goods only available here.
Ninja no mori
Ninja no mori (Ninja Forest) lies in the forests of Nabari city. Here, you can experience traditional Iga-ryu training by the Akame 48 Falls. The founder of the Iga-ryu style, Momochi Tanba, is said to have trained here as well.
Once you arrive, you can change into the provided ninja outfit. Then, you recite and practice “kuji”, which are the ninja’s hand signals that allow them to concentrate and channel peace.
After the mental preparation, you can now test your ninja skills. You will be taught how ninjas walk, climb, intrude and more. The training is about an hour an a half.
Once you complete all of the techniques, you will receive a completion certificate. Visit Ninja no mori and become a ninja for a day!
The Koka-ryu style of ninjutsu originates from the city of Koka in Shiga prefecture. This is where Otomo-no-Hosohito, Japan’s first ninja, was based. Koka-ryu ninjas were farmers and traders by day, and worked as ninjas when assigned missions.
Herbs were grown in the Koka region, and the ninjas of the area would collect information while they were selling herbs throughout the area. The Koka ninjas worked for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a feudal warrior who was in power before Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Experience the Koka-ryu Ninjutsu!
Here are some spots where you can experience Koka-ryu ninjutsu techniques.
Koka Ninja House
Koka Ninja House
The Koka Ninja House was built about 300 years ago by the Mochizuki clan as the residence of the Koka ninja clan. This is the only ninja house in Japan that was actually used by a real ninja clan.
In the house, you can see the gimmicks of the house that were used to hide the members of the Mochizuki clan. Hidden doors, pitfall traps, and more can be found throughout the house.
Koka Ninja Village
Koka Ninja Museum
Koka Ninja Village opened in 1983 as a Koka-ryu ninja theme park. Within the theme park, there are many ninja related facilities.
The Koka Ninja Museum, located in the theme park, has the “Mansen-Shukai”, a rare ninjutsu scripture. Inside the museum are also shuriken (throwing stars) and explosives used by ninjas.
The Karakuri Ninja House in the village is a house that once belonged to a family that was the descendant of some Koka ninjas. The house is set with many traps and gimmicks.
The most popular facility inside the village is the Ninjutsu Dojo. At the dojo, you can experience 9 different types of ninja training. If you complete all nine, you can receive a scroll certificate of completion. You can carry out the training in ninja gear, which you can rent out at the facility.
Experience both ninjutsu styles!
Iga and Koka are located fairly close to each other. They are about a 30-minute car ride apart, so you can go to both and compare the different ninjutsu styles!