A Tour of Iga: The Ninja Capital of Japan

Every country you travel to has secrets. Whether those secrets are as light as a hidden restaurant that serves the best sushi in the world, or as dark as tales of ruthless assassinations, you can bet that there is always something new to discover about your travel destination. When it comes to Japan, the quaint city of Iga tells a bit of a different story compared to its neighboring cities. There’s only one way to have an in-depth experience of a country’s hidden historical gems, and that is to visit it yourself.

The Early History of Iga in Japan

Before visiting Iga and learning more about it, it’s smart to brush up on its history. Iga was once known as a province – an ancient one at that - located in the southwestern district of Japan called “Tōkaidō.”. It belongs to the Mie Prefecture. At that time, Iga was called “Iga no Kuni”. It was once a part of Ise province, until 680 AD. It was then found right beside the provinces named Yamashiro, Omi, Ise, and Yamato.

At that time, Iga was considered a lower-ranking site or city; called “gekoku”. Since it was also considered rural, it was also called “kingoku”, meaning near the country. These were all classifications from a book that was called the “Engishiki”, which held all the Japanese customs and rules during the Engi era (901-923 A.D.). Although many parts of Japan were ruled by Japanese feudal warlords (daimyo), Iga proved to be an exception to this rule, forming their own model of an independent government system.

Many other warlords wanted to take over Iga by force, though Iga was known to many as the home of the art of ninjutsu. Ninjutsu is a martial art that exemplifies and practices the ideals of camouflage, quietness, quickness, and stealth to deal the most amount of damage to the enemy. You could call it a form of guerrilla warfare. This art was passed down to many generations of powerful, political clans who ruled the republic of Iga.

The Tensho Iga War and The Sabotage of the Ninja Clan

In the Sengoku period, Iga province was invaded twice – both by the Oda clan. Militants from Iga had to fight back. The militants from Iga had to devise ways for survival, and thus the development of ninjutsu is said to stem from this. Oda Nobunaga was later successful in his invasion. Despite the stealth of the clan that was currently ruling Iga, 1581 was the year that did it for them; Nobunaga’s strategy using around 60,000 men to attack from six different points overwhelmed the defense of Iga.

Iga During The Dawn of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Followed By The Meiji Era

After nineteen years of ruling by the Oda clan, the Tokugawa Shogunate was established, removing this clan from control and Iga between the powers of different rulers and daimyos. It ended up in the hands the Tsu Domain feudal warlord; Tōdō Takatora. Iga was under the Tsu Domain up until the Meiji Restoration, when the han system was abolished and turned domains into Prefectures. Tsu Prefecture later merged with Mie Prefecture, with Mie Prefecture retaining its name. The imperial government took over since then.

Fast Facts About Iga: Its Population, Geography, Culture, Etc.

Iga city (Iga-shi) is an area that is surrounded by an incredibly mountainous area, making it quite difficult to get to. It measures 558.15 square kilometers in total. It constitutes only a part of the old province of Iga. It’s also found in the middle of Kii Peninsula, in the Kansai Region. It didn’t act as a transportation hub or post town (“Shukuba”) for travelers, so it was quite independent of the rest Edo long ago. It is now very much a part of Japan now, though it is still often considered a remote area.

Iga city itself is relatively new; it used to be called the city of Ueno. Ueno city was established on September 10, 1941. It was known as Ueno city until a little over a decade ago when it merged with two old towns; Ayama, Aoyama, and Iga, as well as the Oyamada and Shimagahara villages on November 14, 2004.

The last recorded data for Iga’s city statistics was in September 2012. At that time, Iga had 95,137 citizens. In the Mie prefecture, it has three neighboring municipalities; Nabari, Tsu, and Kameyama. Its current mayor is Sakaeo Okamoto. It has three city symbols; a bird (Green pheasant), a tree (the Japanese red pine) and a Flower (a “Sasayuri”) – a Japanese lily.

Iga is considered home to a famous ninja named Hattori Hanzō, and an extremely famous Japanese poet named Matsuo Bashō. Hattori was a son of a minor samurai; born around 1542, raised still in Iga, and died in 1596. He is known for saving Tokugawa Ieyasu's life before he came to rule Japan. As for Matsuo, he is the indirect creator of the world-renowned poetry style “haiku”. His works were translated by Masaoka Shiki, who revealed Basho’s syllabic poetry style.

A Traveler’s Guide to Japan: Before Visiting Iga Ueno

Although it is officially called Iga-shi or Iga city, take note that it is also sometimes called Iga Ueno just to honor the fact that it used to be known as Ueno City until only very recently. To avoid confusion, it’s best you refer to it as Iga City, but sometimes, a few locals call it Iga Ueno because they’re more familiar with that. To get here, you’ll have to travel between Nagoya and Osaka. One way to get here is through the Iga-Ueno station; simply take the JR Kansai Main Line.

What is Iga City known for then? Well, ninjutsu is sometimes mistakenly associated with a nationwide trend – when in truth, its historical origins are limited to only some parts of Japan. Iga city, being a part of the ancient Iga town, is known as one of the two places (the other being Koka) in Japan where Ninjutsu came from. Remembering these tidbits is helpful for tourists, as it gives the location so much more magic and depth, as well as a background for you to ponder on when you visit other interesting sites around the city.

Attractions Found in Iga-Shi

The top attractions in Iga city include Danjiri Museum, Ueno Castle, Sukodo Former School, and the Ninja Museum just to name a few.

Next, the Danijiri Museum is a museum that holds items, mascots, and floats used during the Ueno Tenjin Festival. Besides talking mainly about the festival, this museum also exhibits other cultural aspects (more ninjutsu stories and other historical tidbits) of Iga Ueno. There are areas of the museum that show how the festival is played out on October 23-25. Also, if you’re bold enough, you can borrow ninja suit here for a price, and walk around the nearby areas in it. This costume service is open from 10 AM to 4 PM. To get here, take a line that leads to Uenoshi station, and make your way northeast. The fee to enter costs about 500 yen.

The Ueno Castle is the next hotspot for visitors to go to for visitors. Ordered by Takigawa Katsutoshi to be built in 1585, feudal warlords would later take residence in these castles during the Edo period. The stone walls stand 30 meters tall; its tallest part found on the west side. Sadly, a storm came around 1916 and ruined the Uedo Castle, and was only reconstructed in 1935 after a citizen volunteered to pay for fixing it. Only wood was used in its reconstruction. Other artifacts adorn this castle, available for viewing to those who are willing to pay 500 yen to enter. The castle is open from 9 AM to 5 PM. Take any line that leads to Uenoshi Station. Keep going north, and you’ll find it.

This national historical site was made to school the children of samurai who lived in Iga and its nearby provinces. Sukodo Former School was established as early as 1821. Later, however, a big earthquake struck Iga, and the building collapsed. It was rebuilt around the 1860’s and used mostly for a public library. Presently, visitors may come and see this preserved piece of history, and marvel at the traditional building design exclusive to the Edo Period. Again, this landmark is near Uenoshi station – but this time, walk northwest of the station. It’s open from 9 AM to 4:30 PM, closed on Tuesdays and takes 200 yen to enter.

Visit the Ninja Museum in Iga, Japan

The Igaryu Ninja Museum is a favorite among travelers. It may not be as large as other museums are, but it’s excellently executed. The museum not only has different artifacts that actual ninjas used to use hundreds of years ago (weapons, apparel, other tools) but because the museum itself is a ninja residence, it also has trap doors, concealed sections, and even walls that revolve. The museum hosts demonstrations every few hours which cost 400 yen to watch. It shows different techniques the ninjas used, one of them being throwing ninja stars. This museum is found in Ueno Park. Take any line that leads you to Uenoshi Station. They’re open from 9 AM to 5 PM, and it costs 756 yen to enter.