UENO, Japan -- A firsthand look at the source of Japan's ninja
culture reveals nothing like the Western interpretation (usually in
action films) of silent, masked assassins who are usually the bad
In fact, Japan reveres ninja warriors as superhuman heroes, pure
of heart and mind while serving their shogun masters unwaveringly
during the civil war era 400 years ago.
Ueno in central Japan is the birthplace of the ninja. Here, two
attractions stand out for those seeking to learn more about ninja
culture: Ueno Castle and the Igaryu Ninja Museum.
Ueno Castle, set on a hilltop, also is known as Hakuho (white
heron) Castle. Each of the castle's three floors contains exhibits
and displays of the shogun era, from uniforms and helmets to
artwork and drums. From the third-floor tower, the views of Ueno
and its environs are spectacular.
Minutes away in the foothills is the Igaryu Museum, where three
attractions -- a ninja house, a museum and a ninja experience
theater -- provide all you need to know about the mysterious
The first thing you notice as you assemble in the ninja house is
that the hosts are women. In fact, quite a few famous ninjas were
The ninja house has revolving doors, underground passages and
lookout spots that were used in case a residence came under
The hostesses also demonstrate how to hide swords and other
weapons in floorboards and walls.
The fascinating museum displays hundreds of ninja-related items,
such as shinobi-gatana (ninja swords) and shuriken (throwing
Also featured are long rolls of paper that held the secrets of
the ninjas' formulas for medicines and tonics, which enemies were
always trying to steal.
Most ninjas, we learned, were practicing Buddhists who
maintained a strict vegetarian diet. Perhaps these habits created a
lightness of spirit responsible for the legend that ninjas could
actually walk on water.
the museum is the open-air theater, where martial artists trained
in ninja techniques put on an exciting show with swords, chains and
sickles. Audience members are invited to participate by popping a
balloon with one of the weapons.
The Igaryu Museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission
is about $6.50 for adults and $3.75 for children under age 15. The
15-minute shows take place five times a day.
Ueno is set in the Iga area of the Mie prefecture, a district
containing abundant natural wonders such as mountains and national
A short drive into the mountains brings you to the village of
Nabari and the 48 Falls of Akame. The falls, which range from
trickles to cascades, are beautiful; the area is heavily wooded and
serene. Viewing all 48 falls takes about three hours.
There are plenty of rest stops provided, but the winding,
somewhat steep path will be a difficult walk for clients with
Day trips from Nara City or Kyoto to the Mie prefecture can
easily be done via train with a Japan Railways pass.
A word of advice: Language barriers and logistical problems for
North Americans are still prevalent in much of Japan outside the
major cities. Agents should arrange these types of excursions
through knowledgeable, U.S.-based tour operators.
For details, visit the Japan National Tourist Organization's Web
site at www.jnto.go.jp or the site focusing on the Mie
prefecture at www.kankomie.or.jp.
Room Key: Mitsui Garden Hotel
Address: 8-1 Sanjohommachi, Nara City, Japan
Phone: (011) 81-742 358-831
Fax: (011) 81-742 356-868
No. of Rooms: 330, including singles, doubles,
deluxe twins and suites.
Location: In the city center area, adjacent to the
Nara train station.
Rates: Excluding tax and depending on high season
(most of January, February, July, September and December) or low
season, nightly rates are around $86 for a single, $145 for a twin,
$318 for a deluxe twin and $818 for a suite.
Commission: None paid; a service fee is
Noteworthy: Comfortable, Western-style rooms with
attractive amenities and CNN. Also of note is a public bathhouse
overlooking the gardens and a relaxation lounge, along with some
karaoke rooms with high-tech features. The hotel is convenient for
a night's stay while touring the Kansai region by rail --
especially for clients with a Japan Railways pass.
Not worthy: Even though Garden Hotels is a
popular-size Japanese chain, with properties in Osaka, Kyoto and
Hiroshima, its Web site is in Japanese with no plans to add an
English version. The reservations folks at the hotel say the best
way for U.S. agents to book the property is by fax.
To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to
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