The ninja, known for their roles in the Warring States Period (Sengoku Jidai)'s underground operations, are a famous part of Japanese culture and history. While the ninja has grown into a worldwide icon, thanks to the influence of anime and movies, few people know about the different historical schools of ninja arts ("ninjutsu"). Groups of ninja are said to have existed all over Japan, studying in as many as 71 distinct schools of ninja arts (the exact number is debated). Among them, Mie Prefecture's Iga-ryu ninja and Shiga Prefecture's Koka-ryu ninja are especially famous. This article will introduce and detail, and dissect for the reader, what exactly it is that sets apart these two styles of ninja arts.
Who were the Ninjas?
Mostly between the Kamakura and Edo periods, the ninja served the samurai class in covert operations such as intelligence and espionage.
They are said to have used a unique set of techniques referred to as “ninjutsu” - ninja arts - to support the war efforts from the shadows.
When did Ninjas exist?
Since ancient times in Japanese history, the ninja have continued to serve from the shadows. The first person said to have commanded ninjas as we know them now, is Prince Shotoku (574-622) of the Asuka Period. He is thought to have monitored the internal movements of the imperial court, using his covert operatives.
At the time, ninjas were referred to as "shinobi", and the one that served Prince Shotoku is said to have been named Otomo-no-Hosohito.
A long time after being referred to as "shinobi" in the Asuka period, the term "ninja" was actually only popularized recently in the Taisho period (1912 - 1926). Until then, a great deal of regional and temporal variation existed in how these covert agents were referred to.
Speaking in terms of eras, the ninja were called "kanja" in the Warring States Period, and "onmitsu" in the Edo period. Looking by the region, they were also called "suppa" in Kyoto and Nara Prefectures, and "shinobi" in Fukui Prefecture (pronounced the same as the Asuka period's "shinobi", but written in different characters).
Do Ninjas Still Exist?
Many people are likely eager to ask this question: do real ninjas still exist in Japan?
It was in the Meiji period that Japan properly established a national police force and army, and that ninjas thus lost their practical function. In the period following that, the number of real ninjas gradually decreased.
That being said, the ninja's inherent purpose is to not be seen. They may be continuing their shadowy works to this day, in places that we can hardly see or imagine.
There were many Schools of Ninja Arts
Ninjas often lived in groups all over Japan, all teaching different styles of ninja arts. Their true number is debated, but it is said that 71 distinct schools of ninja arts existed nationwide, and each had characteristics depending on their regional traditions and ruling lords.
Among them, the Iga-ryu school of Mie prefecture and the Koka-ryu school of Shiga prefecture are especially famous lineages of ninja arts. The aforementioned Otomo-no-Hosohito, Japan's oldest known ninja who served Prince Shotoku, was a ninja of the Koka-ryu school.
The Iga-ryu Ninja
The Iga-ryu school of ninjutsu originated in Mie prefecture, where the current cities of Iga and Nabari locate. The development of a ninja community in this region is thought to result from two major factors: its mountain-locked geography, and location in a major hub of transportation.
The Iga-ryu school of ninjutsu holds its roots in the Hattori clan. The Hattori clan served the powerful Tokugawa Ieyasu in the Warring States Period, starting from its second clan head, Hattori Hanzo.
Ninja of the Iga-ryu school were characterized by high levels of proficiency in combat and ninja arts, and used their strengths to contribute to a great number of battles. Their connection to their lords was purely based on monetary contract, and they were known to not form any deeper relationships than that.
Places to Experience Iga-ryu Ninja Arts (Ninjutsu)
In the cities of Iga and Nabari in Mie prefecture, there are many ninja-related landmarks. There are even some places where you can experience what it was like to be a ninja!
Iga-ryu Ninja Museum
Iga-ryu Ninja Museum
If the goal is to learn about the ninjas of the Iga-ryu school, the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum in Iga City is the place to go.
The Iga-ryu Ninja Museum shows us the world of Iga's ninjas from a variety of perspectives. The Iga-ryu Ninja House built inside the museum has a variety of traps and mechanisms on display. In the Ninjutsu Experience Hall, videos of how the ninjas snuck into castles, and exhibits of over 400 ninja tools show off how the ninjas operated. The Ninjutsu Teaching Hall educates visitors on ninja arts like code decryption and physiognomy, that can also come in handy in our everyday lives.
The Ninja shows that use real tools from the time also should not be missed, alongside the shop "Ninja-bo" that sells ninja merchandise that can't be found anywhere else. It's a venue that can be enjoyed by both adults and children!
Ninja no mori
At the foot of the Akame 48 Waterfalls in the mountains of Nabari City, is "Ninja no Mori" (The forest of ninja). This place is known to be the training grounds of a historical leader of the Iga-ryu ninja school, Momochi Tamba, and you can experience the training of the Iga-ryu school here too.
Change into a ninja outfit of your choice, and your training will begin with the chanting of the "Nine Hand Seals", a nine-syllable set of mantras used by the ninja as a form of meditation. Over the next 1 hour and 30 minutes, you will then train in a variety of ninja skills. To raise a few, you will train in the climbing arts, infiltration arts, escape arts, and shuriken (throwing star) skills.
Completing your fierce training will grant you a certificate of initiation into the Iga Akame-school of ninja arts. Try it for yourself, and become a member of the Iga-ryu school ninjas!
About Koka-ryu Ninjutsu
The Koka-ryu school of ninjas was based in current Koka City of Shiga Prefecture, and was founded by the Otomo clan, led by Japan's first-known ninja, Otomo-no-Hosohito. The Koka-ryu school ninjas were active farmers and merchants, until they were given orders to mobilize.
Koka was also a hotspot of endemic medicinal herbs, so the ninjas of the region often disguised themselves as medicine merchants to gather intelligence. Whereas the Iga-ryu school served the Tokugawa clan, the Koka-ryu school bore the task of monitoring the Tokugawa clan, under orders from Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Experience the Koka-ryu Ninja Arts!
Koka City, where Koka-ryu Ninjas were based, also has a variety of ninja-related experiences for you to visit.
Koka-ryu Ninjutsu House
Koka-ryu Ninjutsu House
The Koka-ryu Ninjutsu House was built approximately 300 years ago as the residence of Mochizuki-izumo-no-kami, a leading figure of Koka's 53 clans, and active Koka-ryu school ninja.
The Koka-ryu Ninja House is riddled with traps and mechanisms placed by Mochizuki to protect himself from attackers. In the house, trap doors are placed as quick escapes, while trap holes have replaced several floorboards. There is also a rope ladder that allows one to move quickly between the first and third floor, and all of these can be seen up close.
Koka Ninja Village
Koka Ninja Museum
Koka Ninja Village opened in 1983 as a Koka-ryu ninja theme park. This place is said to be the founding grounds of the Koka-ryu ninja school, and has many ninja-related venues for visitors to see.
The Koka Ninjutsu Museum located in the theme park, has the highest volume of ninja-related documentation in the world, and this includes the “Mansen-Shukai”, one of the three great ninja art documents. Displayed inside the museum are also shuriken (throwing stars) and explosives used by ninjas.
The "Karakuri Ninja House" in the theme park previously belonged to the Fujibayashi clan, a formerly existing descendant family of a Koka-ryu ninja. It was relocated from its original location, and retains the many traps and gimmicks built into its walls and floors.
The most popular facility inside the village is the Ninjutsu Dojo. At the dojo, you can experience 9 different types of ninja training including stone wall-climbing and tight-rope walking. If you complete all nine, you can receive a scroll certificate of completion. Full ninja gear which is rented out for free, so step into the shoes of a real Koka-ryu ninja and join the training!
The Iga-ryu Ninja and Koka-ryu Ninja Schools: Visit Both and Experience their Differences!
The cities of Iga and Koka are nearby with only a mountain and a 30-minute drive in between. Try visiting both to experience the world of Japan's real ninjas, and understand their distinct characteristics!