Enter The Shadow Warriors

Posted by on Oct 30, 2011 in Mie, Travel Volunteer Journey | 3 Comments
Enter The Shadow Warriors

There’s a legend based in my part of Scotland. It tells the story of Sawney Bean, a cave-dwelling cannibal who, along with his incestuous brood, would rob and eat unfortunate travellers. The Beans, of whom there were said to be several dozen, would overwhelm the innocent passers-by before dragging them off to their dark lair. For a number of years, this was apparently quite a successful way for them to live, but eventually one too many people went missing and King James himself led a posse to the bone-laden cave to capture the big, weird family.
Needless to say, the king was not merciful. The men had various vital bits cut off and were left to bleed to death; the women were burned alive (making them baked Beans?).

But what truth is there in any of it? Well caves exist, as did cannibals; it would explain some of the idiosyncrasies of people from South Ayrshrie, too. But dullard historians would insist: not much. The only real documentation of it all comes from rumour magazines that were popular hundreds of years ago. There is no reliable source, and any reasonable person would assume that if the king had led a posse to such heroic deeds, someone, somewhere, would have chronicled it in detail.

So Sawney Bean probably never existed, a fact which is only usually conceded once he ceases to be a useful parenting tool: “Do your homework or Sawney Bean will eat you!” Finally, though, people accept that he’s a legend, like King Arthur, Robin Hood or death-dealing, indestructible ninjas.

But ninjas aren’t a legend, at least not entirely. A friend of mine lived in Japan for a number of years researching the truth about the shadow warriors. It was a tough job: for obvious reasons, secret agents weren’t really in the habit of keeping diaries, nor were the people hiring them fastidious book-keepers. Even the word “ninja” only came into being in the mid 19th century – several hundred years after their supposed golden era.

Picking facts from the tall tales that have come to be called history is virtually impossible. However, once you strip away all conjecture, you are left with one central truth: secret agents whose job it was to go undetected existed in Japan. So for argument’s sake, let’s call them ninjas.

Still, there wasn’t really very much of this, nor this, and definitely none of this. Hollywood ninjas are an even poorer representation of the real world than James Bond is of an average MI6 agent. Their primary role was actually information gathering, subterfuge and spying. Yes there would have been an occasional assassination, but generally open combat would have been avoided.

With so much of their history clouded by rumour and speculation – not to mention by the ludicrous fantasies of the film industry – it’s understandable that most people have built up a wholly inaccurate image of ninjas as lethal demi-ghosts, capable of assassinating an entire battalion before breakfast.

Yet, whatever the hard, boring truth, today Igu-Ueno – the self-titled home of the ninja – is a fun place to visit, especially as its primary target audience are under-10s – and one very conspicuous 20-something travel volunteer. The fact that the majority of the little visitors opt to dress up as ninjas themselves – pink, red, blue or black – makes it very difficult to stand around bleating about true history.

Alongside a museum filled with ninja paraphernalia and no end of facts (they slept with their hearts to the ground to avoid fatal attack; they wore blue, rather than black, to ward off vipers) there’s a reconstruction of a real “ninja” house, with bolt holes, secret exits and false floors. Watching the staff dart through behind a revolving door, or snatch a concealed katana from a loose floor board with lightening-fast reflexes, it’s just about possible to see how people would have conferred supernatural abilities on a well-trained ninja.

Better than the house, though, is the live performance where a small troupe of deadly assassins demonstrate that it’s perfectly possible to smite your enemies and still get a few laughs along the way. Following their skilled display, you can have a go at throwing the legendary ninja-weapon-of-choice, the shuriken. Though, if it were up to me, there’d be a stewards enquiry into the flight of those things…

In the end, it doesn’t seem terribly important where the legend ends and the truth begins: the kids are happy, the weapons look cool, and Katy got to dress as a ninja.


Our time in Mie prefecture was made possible by:

Our guide in Ise, Sayuri Takao, who may have taken more wrong turns than Bugs Bunny, but who was endlessly helpful and full of information. She gave us far more source material than we could possibly use in one post, so the next time we’re rained-in, expect to hear more about Mie prefecture.

Ashura, the Iga Museum of Ninjutsu, who hosted us in the morning and kindly leant Katy her outfit one day before Halloween. When it comes to dealing with a subject with an uncertain past, they offer more information than anywhere.

And our guide in Iga, Hideki Nomura, who helped us fulfil long-held dreams to throw the fabled death stars. For that alone, we owe him a huge debt, not to mention the coffees he bought us, or the brilliant Iga beef restaurant he took us to.

















  1. Julie morrison
    October 30, 2011

    Ha ha, knew that was you coo as I don’t think Ninja wore D C’ s :)

  2. cdb
    October 30, 2011

    This is too funny! But I totally wanna go now.

  3. Noboru
    January 26, 2012

    wrong translation
    × 「それは秘密部隊は日本には存在しなかったということ。」

    ○ 「日本には、隠密裏に仕事をする秘密諜報員は存在した。この際、それを忍者と呼ぶことにする」