Town of ninja is famous for sake

Town of ninja is famous for sake

Iga, Mie-Doron! I decided to vanish for a while. "Doron" is an onomatopoeic word to describe disappearing into thin air. It's often used when a ninja does a disappearing act.

My trip to Iga, known as a village of ninja in Mie Prefecture, was difficult to squeeze into my work schedule. I thought of the word as I felt like vanishing from my hectic working life. "Doron" itself, however, has nearly vanished from the language these days.

Having taken the Kintetsu Line to Iga-Kambe Station, I switched to the Iga Railway's "ninja train." The entire train is painted pink, and the front of it is adorned with the face of a female ninja whose sharply watching eyes are even bigger than the train's headlights. She was designed by legendary mangaka Leiji Matsumoto. Aboard the train, I began to feel a ninja high as I drew closer to my destination.

I got off the train at Uenoshi Station and took a walk. Streets laid out like the grid of a go board made a beautiful townscape. Old houses, perhaps belonging to tradesmen in prosperous days, are dotted along the streets.

After a while, I arrived at the Ninja Museum of Igaryu in the town's Ueno Park. I saw a lot of tourists from overseas. Weapons, tools and other exhibited items were each labelled with explanations in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean. The museum staff said they are also preparing German and French versions.

A ninja group called Ashura was giving a show next to the museum. At first, I thought the show was aimed at kids, but it turned out to be a rather serious performance. Ninja demonstrated fast-paced tate, or theatrical combat, using such traditional weapons as swords and kumihimo braided cords.

Ashura leader Hanzo Ukita, 53, said the performers are all athletes. Some are even gymnasts who graduated from sports colleges. They exercise every day for the show.

"Ninja is a word known around the world. We should offer realistic shows," Ukita said.

Later, I went up to Iga Ueno Castle, also in the park. High-ranking samurai Todo Takatora (1556-1630), who served such lords as Azai Nagamasa and Hashiba Hidenaga, built the castle in 1611. The castle keep was destroyed by a storm the very next year. The current castle was completed in 1935. A major feature of the castle is its stone walls, which are about 30 meters tall. The castle must have been a formidable stronghold when used as a base in times of conflict with the Toyotomi family in Osaka.

Under the Tokugawa shogunate, Takatora became a tozama daimyo (an "outside" lord not related to the Tokugawa family), but he enjoyed the confidence of the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu.

"When he was young, Takatora fought as a spearman. He built the castle in his prime and then became a political adviser in late life. He was a powerful man at every stage," said Kenji Fukui of the Iga cultural and industrial association, which manages the castle.

Anticipating a long period of peace, Takatora set up the current townscape below the castle in a way that would commercially justify its existence. I was amazed by Takatora's foresight.

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