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.

Sake breweries everywhere

There's another reason why I came here. This region, particularly the cities of Iga and Nabari, boasts more than 10 sake breweries.

Moriki Sake Brewery, located in Iga's suburbs, is famous for "Rumiko's sake." The label on its bottle bears an illustration by mangaka Akira Oze.

According to Rumiko Moriki, 53, the model for the design, she read Oze's popular manga about a female sake brewer, "Natsuko no Sake," at a time when her own brewery was on the verge of closing down in 1991. Moriki was moved by the manga and sent the author a letter seven pages long. That initial contact eventually led to his designing a label for her.

I was allowed to see the inside of the brewery where old tools are still kept, and then tasted Moriki's junmaishu (sake in which the only ingredient are rice and yeast) brand "Hanabusa" at a soba restaurant near the brewery. The rich, slightly acidic flavor is well-balanced, and I could drink endlessly.

"This area produces rice and has good water as it's close to the headwaters of a river. On top of that, there is a wide temperature variation here. The factors to produce good sake are all here," Moriki said.

As the sun went down, I got on the ninja train again and departed from Uenoshi Station. I felt a pleasant fatigue, and I closed my eyes for a while. When I opened my eyes, I could not see the castle, but only fields of rice rippling in the wind. My mind was literally vanishing.

Travel tip

It takes 100 minutes from Tokyo to Nagoya stations on Tokaido Shinkansen. From Nagoya, it takes about 80 minutes to Iga-Kambe Station on a Kintetsu express train. From Iga-Kambe, it's about 25 minutes to Uenoshi Station on the Iga Railway.

For more information, call Igaueno Tourist Associtation at (0595) 26-7788. For details on the Ninja Museum of Igaryu visit www.iganinja.jp/en/index.html