Sat, Mar 05, 2011 - Page 16 News List

Tall tales at Japan’s ninja festival

Though most attendees are pint-sized and the historical anecdotes a little embellished, there are lots of opportunities to practice the secret arts of the stealth soldier at Japan’s ninja festival

By Stephen Phelan  /  The Guardian, London

Illustration: Taipei Times

To arrive in Iga Ueno on the first Sunday in April is to feel like a stranger in ninjatown. This small city in the mountains, about two hours by train from Osaka, is supposedly the ancestral home of those fearsome feudal super-sneaks and master killers, whose name and reputation have spread across the world through movies, comic books and video games.

Here in Japan, ninjas are now something of a national myth, a slightly cartoonish composite of old folk tales and modern pop culture. This morning in Iga Ueno, however, it would be discourteous to dispute their existence. It’s the opening day of the annual ninja festival, and travel on public transport is free to anyone in costume. Connecting to the local loop line, I step on to a train brightly painted with ninja murals (designed by the famous Japanese manga artist Leiji Matsumoto), and find my carriage filled with muffled, hooded figures, all armed with swords and throwing stars.

Admittedly, their weapons appear to be made of soft foam or folded paper, and their outfits come in a range of colors — not just classic ninja black but purple, red, canary yellow, baby blue and a distinctly unthreatening shade of pink. Also, very few of these mysterious commuters stand much over 120cm tall.

Apparently, only children take this occasion seriously enough to dress for it. The center of town is overrun with excitable little death merchants, mostly around the 16th-century castle, where the moat and stone walls provide an ideal backdrop for springing mock assassinations on their parents.

This must be hot work in broad daylight: many of the young ninjas submit to having their masks pulled down and drinking straws thrust into their mouths. As it happens, this sunny weekend also marks the beginning of cherry blossom season, or sakura, and the castle grounds are shaded by trees, with families picnicking under the petals. Some have brought along their dogs, and these, too, are kitted out with hoods and swords.

Other festival activities include combat demonstrations at the Igaryu Ninja Museum (iganinja.jp/en). And life-size ninja mannequins have been positioned around town, staring blankly from the rooftops, peeking from behind telephone poles and lying under benches more like modern drunks than medieval spies.

I spent much of my own childhood dreaming of this, and resenting my parents for their failure to train me from birth in the lethal arts of the shadow warrior. They permitted me to rent such silly yet illicit videos as Pray for Death and Revenge of the Ninja, but drew the line at buying me the wicked-looking tools of the trade. “A ninja wouldn’t whine like that,” my father told me, twisting the knife. “The ninja is always adaptable.”

Eventually, I accepted that I would never be much more physically adroit than Winnie the Pooh, but I have never forgotten my early masters, and have traveled the length and breadth of Japan to honor them. En route, I have discovered that most ninja-related attractions in this country are based around their novelty appeal to kids and credulous Westerners.

Near Nagano, in the wooded alpine village of Togakushi, there is the Shinobi Karakuri Fushigi Yashiki (tinyurl.com/6hzamcf), or “ninja gimmickry wonder house.” A maze of false floors, secret chambers and hidden passageways, it seemed kitsch and juvenile to me until I got frantically lost inside for over two hours and had to be rescued by an elderly attendant.

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