WAKAYAMA - Need help climbing the steep slope to the Wakayama Castle tower? "Ninja" are there to give you a hand.
The ninja group at Wakayama Castle was launched in 2011, after the Wakayama municipal government entrusted the castle's operations to a citizens group as part of its omotenashi hospitality for visitors. Members use power-assisted wheelchairs and other equipment to help people including the elderly and disabled free of charge, and some have even obtained nursing-care licenses.
From around the Sengoku warring states period (late 15th century to late 16th century) to the Edo period (1603-1868), ninja served daimyo feudal lords or other ninja who had become independent. They used their skills for sabotage, spying and assassination, but many details about them remain unknown due to their position as secret agents.
Besides helping people up and down the slope, Wakayama Castle ninja greet visitors and tourists and use their "ninja hospitality skills" to provide services such as carrying baby buggies and taking photographs - services you wouldn't naturally expect from such warriors.
More than 50 ninja are registered with the organisation. Some work at the castle five days a week from Wednesday to Sunday, and on national holidays.
Construction of Wakayama Castle began in 1585. In the Edo period, it was the home of the Tokugawa family of the feudal Kishu domain.
The Kishu Tokugawa family, one of the top three branches of the Tokugawa house, produced eighth shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune and 14th shogun Tokugawa Iemochi. There may have been Kishu ninja in the period.
The castle tower was designated a national treasure but burned down in air raids on Wakayama in July 1945. It was reconstructed in 1958 as a local symbol.
"I was born and raised in the city. When my legs got bad, I thought I'd never be able to climb to Wakayama Castle," said Sakae Yoshino, 90, who was helped up to the castle. "It's like a dream climbing up there in this unexpected way thanks to the ninja."
A total of 91 people used the ninja's assistance to reach the tower by wheelchair in fiscal 2013, and 172 in fiscal 2014.
The number of visitors to the castle increased by 13,000 last fiscal year from the year before, topping 200,000 for the first time in 18 years. A growing number of foreign tourists have also visited.
A municipal government official attributed the dramatic increase to the ninja.