Secrets of the Ninja

Joohee Cho

Iga, Japan - Hollywood has often portrayed ninjas as evil assassins like the characters in the film G.I. Joe: Retaliation. But for Motoharu Murai, they remain as heroes – professionals trained in skills of ninja, or ninjutsu. “It’s a misunderstanding,” he points out who has run a small ninja souvenir shop for 40 years in Iga city, a two-hour drive north of Osaka, Japan. “They were pure in spirit, devoted in loyalty, and masters of discipline.”

In fact, his late-grandfather was a real ninja who could stick fingers in a boiling pot of oil and not feel the heat just by concentrating in a meditating state of mind. “You know, he always slept sitting down,” the 61 year-old says in pride showing an old black-and-white photo of a man in a ninja suit making a peculiar finger sign. “If you sleep lying down, my grandfather used to say your energy will disperse.”

The Iga clan is from where the ninjas originated in the 1750s. This small town of just 100,000 people pride themselves as descendants of the mysterious ninjas. About 300,000 visitors – many dressed in ninja outfits - flock to the small city during the annual Ninja Festival held from April 1 to May 6.

But the legend has it that the ninjas never revealed themselves even to their families. They disguised themselves in daily lives as mercenaries, farmers, and traveling musicians.

The history of what’s known of the ninjas is well preserved in Iga’s Ninja village. The place has a museum displaying various weapons used in the past and performs daily shows for visitors. An ancient ninja house preserved for hundreds of years had been relocated to the village, complete with secret hiding
places, and hidden walls and revolving doors leading to passages in case of a need to run away when enemies infiltrate.

The most popular program is when ninja-lovers, including children, get to throw ‘shuriken,’ a star or cross-shaped flat metal weapon with spikes. Shurikens have become ninjas’ symbolic weapon in modern movies; but in fact, real ninjas did not carry more than one or two because they were too heavy. It was brushed in poison and saved deep in the pockets as the last resort, meant to kill.