A to Wa of Japan: Week 23

It’s time for A to Wa of Japan again! Last week’s post was about things beginning with な (na) and we looked at Naoshima (直島). This week we are looking at things beginning with に (ni). A big thank you to everyone who joined in with suggestions this week:

Zooming Japan suggested Niigata (a city (新潟市) and prefecture (新潟県) in Honshu) and Nikko (日光 / a city in Tochigi Prefecture); Jay Dee suggested Nissan (日産自動車株式会社 / Nissan Jidōsha Kabushiki-gaisha – a car company), Nissin (日清食品株式会社 / Nisshin Shokuhin Kabushiki-gaisha – a food company), Niihama (新居浜 / a city in Ehime Prefecture), nira (にら / a kind of chives), nikuman (肉まん / a meat bun), Niseko (ニセコ / a town in Hokkaido), ninja (忍者), and ninjutsu (忍術 / a kind of martial art or set of skills used by ninja); and Japan Australia also suggested Niseko and Nikko.

Great suggestions! I was tempted to do another travel post, but in the end I decided to write about something I don’t think I’ve ever covered on this blog…

Ninja (忍者)

‘Ninja’ is probably one of the first Japanese words I ever heard, although I might not have known it was Japanese at the time. I came across the word ‘ninja’ when I was a kid and I got interested in a cartoon called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which was popular in the late ’80s/early ’90s. Actually, in Europe ‘ninja’ was replaced with ‘hero’, but everyone knew they were ninjas in America where the TV series originated.


(Image source)

Although the cartoon had very little to do with actual ninja (or Japan – it was set in new York), it did feature some of the weapons ninja might have used, such as the five-pointed throwing star called a shuriken (手裏剣) and nunchaku (ヌンチャク) – often known as ‘nunchucks’.

‘Ninja’ is one of those Japanese words (like geisha and samurai) which has become part of the English language and has been popularised by cartoons, TV shows and movies. Most people have some idea of what a ninja is, and if you asked them to describe a ninja they would probably say something like “he wears black, sneaks around on the roof, and attacks people when they’re not expecting it”.


(Image source)

Having read around the subject a little, I don’t think that’s a bad description of a ninja. There are, however, debates about what ninja wore and how ‘sneaky’ they were. I remember watching an episode of BBC TV series QI and Stephen Fry saying that ninjas didn’t actually wear black at all, and were more likely to have worn blue or brown. However, I think it’s actually more true to say that ninjas didn’t only wear black (like in the cartoon above), and that actually they could have worn anything because they would have needed to blend in to whatever situation they were in. Ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Toyokuni (歌川豐國) (1769 – 1825) certainly seemed to think they wore black…

Ninja and koto player by Utagawa Toyokuni

Ninja and koto player by Utagawa Toyokuni

Here’s an idea of something a ninja might have worn, and some of the weapons they would probably have used:

Tools of a ninja

Tools of a ninja

(Image: BBC)

So who exactly were ninja? A ninja (忍者), also known as shinobi (忍び), was a kind of covert agent or spy. Sometimes their tasks involved assassination, but not always. According to the BBC, ninja were: “Hired by noble samurai warriors to spy, sabotage and kill, their dark outfits usually covered everything but their eyes, leaving them virtually invisible in shadow – until they struck.”, but I think this is a slightly Westernised perspective, especially as it implies that samurai were somehow too noble for these activities. In actual fact, it’s quite possible that some samurai were also ninja. There are very few early records of actual ninja or shinobi, but there are mentions of shinobi from the 14th century. It was not until the 15th century though that the term became more recognised, and it was during the Sengoku Period (mid-15th century – early 17th century) that shinobi were most active.

Due to the nature of ninja being so secretive, we don’t know huge amounts about who they were or what they did. I think it’s this that adds to the mystery, and allows us to believe in the ninja we see in movies and TV shows. Even in Japan ninja feature in folklore and legends, often using magical super powers (such as invisibility), and it’s quite hard to know what is real and what is pure fiction.

Drawing of the archetypical ninja, from a series of sketches by Hokusai

Drawing of the archetypical ninja, from a series of sketches by Hokusai

(Image source)

Last year the BBC ran an article called ‘Japan’s ninjas heading for extinction‘. I remember seeing this and being really surprised because in my mind ninja were already something of the past (if not something of fantasy!). Was the BBC saying that ninja actually still existed? The article began, “Japan’s era of shoguns and samurai is long over, but the country does have one, or maybe two, surviving ninjas. Experts in the dark arts of espionage and silent assassination, ninjas passed skills from father to son – but today’s say they will be the last.“. I admit I was sceptical. According to the article, Jinichi Kawakami is Japan’s last ninja grandmaster. He is the 21st head of the Ban family, one of 53 that made up the Koka ninja clan. He started learning ninjutsu (ninja techniques) when he was six, from his master, Masazo Ishida. I don’t doubt that this man has learnt the skills of a ninja, but surely if he was actually a ninja he wouldn’t be shouting about it, and he certainly wouldn’t be making videos demonstrating ninja techniques with the BBC.

So, roof-hopping, night-creeping ninja as we think we know them may be extinct, but they’re still a cool part of Japan’s culture and history, and make Japanese myths and legends even more exciting. If you’re in Japan and want to learn a bit more about ninja, you could visit the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum (伊賀流忍者博物館) in Mie Prefecture. It looks pretty touristy, but I imagine it would be a fun day out (and cheap at only ¥700 for an adult).

Iga-ryu Ninja Museum

Iga-ryu Ninja Museum, Mie

(Image source)

During April and May there is a five-week ninja festival in Iga known as the Iga Ueno Ninja Festa (伊賀上野 NINJA フェスタ). Judging by this write-up in the Guardian it sounds pretty awesome!

Iga Ueno NINJA Festa 2013

Iga Ueno NINJA Festa 2013

(Image source)

Another place worth visiting if you’re into ninja, is Myoryuji (妙立寺), a temple in Kanazawa which is also known as ‘Ninjadera‘ (Ninja Temple). The temple was not actually associated with ninja, but gained its name because of the deceptive defences used on the site, such as hidden tunnels, secret rooms and traps.

Ninjadera, Kanazawa

Ninjadera, Kanazawa

(Image source: Japan Guide)

For more information about finding ninja-related things in Japan, visit Japan Guide’s helpful page about ninja.


Next week we’ll start with ぬ (nu), so please leave a comment below suggesting a topic for things beginning with ぬ. Topics can be anything, as long as they are connected to Japan – food, places, people, characters, whatever you want to hear about! Just remember that the words you suggest must be Japanese words.

I look forward to hearing your suggestions!  (*^_^)v

9 thoughts on “A to Wa of Japan: Week 23

  1. Iga Ueno is brilliant! I went there in November 2011. There were very few western tourists and very little spoken English but the displays in the museum had English translations. The ninja house tour had a Japanese speaking guide and some English written signage. The ninja display was all in spoken Japanese but I didn’t particularly feel I missed out as there was plenty of leaping about. There is also a noodle place with some written English and a small castle where I dressed up as a samurai. Definitely one of the best day trips I’ve had in Japan. It’s a bit of a performance to get there on the train from Kyoto, as you have to change several times, which might put people off. I went armed with all the train times from the Hyperdia website and a little spoken Japanese and it went very smoothly. One of the trains went through a beautiful valley and I wished I’d been a bit sharper about taking photos.


  2. Great Post! My first encounter with Ninja was through the classic TV show Shintaro the Samurai. have you heard of that one? The Ninja Mura in Iga-Ueno is a lot of fun and I used to travel to the area for work regularly. I love the City Hall where all the staff are dressed in Ninja Costumes, A lot of fun! A few suggestions for next week are:

    Numazu-ko (a port in Shizuoka)
    Nuigurumi (stuffed toy)


    • Shintaro the Samurai? No, I haven’t heard of that at all. Will have to look it up on YouTube!

      The staff in Iga City Hall dress in ninja costumes?!

      Thanks for the suggestions for next week! 🙂


  3. Nu is difficult! I can think of Numazu. Nurarihyon no Mago (a manga series), and I have no idea what else. There are obscure names I’ve found by doing a google search, but it’s really hard to find anything.


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