Hostesses no threat at birthplace of the ninja

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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 guys.

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 warriors.

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 female.

The ninja house has revolving doors, underground passages and lookout spots that were used in case a residence came under surprise attack.

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 stars).

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.

Ninja weapons are demonstrated at the Igaryu Ninja Museum.Outside 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 parks.

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 mobility problems.

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
Web:www.gardenhotels.co.jp
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 advisable.
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 [email protected] .

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