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Touchdown Japan: Museum endeavors to show 'true ninja' to inbound tourists

Nathan Write throws a "shuriken" throwing star at the Ninja Museum of Igaryu in the Ueno district of Iga, Mie Prefecture, on Jan. 12, 2019. (Mainichi)

IGA, Mie -- Ninja originated in Iga in the central Japan prefecture of Mie. For those captivated by the image of the spies, the Ninja Museum of Igaryu in the city's Ueno district is holy ground.

The museum's history dates back to 1964, when a "ninja house" previously situated in the Iga suburb of Takayama was shifted to Ueno. The structure was upgraded to the current museum in 1998.

"We not only demonstrate the ninja arts, but also explain why ninja were active behind the scenes in this area while showing historical documents," said Chikako Nakano, deputy director of the museum.

It is a historical fact that Iga and the Koka district of Shiga Prefecture, also in western Japan, had produced many ninja since the Warring States period from the late 15th to the beginning of the 17th century.

Many inbound tourists ask the museum why there were so many ninja active in Iga. The museum explains, "Iga is situated along the upper reaches of a river near the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara as well as Osaka in western Japan. It was relatively easy to gather information, and that information hardly ever leaked outside because Iga is in a mountainous area."

The number of foreign tourists visiting Iga has been rising in recent years, especially those from Thailand. "We've heard that the color of ninja costumes in the anime, 'Ninja Hattori-kun,' suits the preferences of Thai people, who typically change the colors of their clothes depending on the day of week," a museum official said.

At the facility, a team of ninja called "Ashura" puts on a full-scale demonstration of their skills. The members use genuine swords and "shuriken" throwing stars made from the same materials as the genuine articles used by ninja in centuries past. Gunpowder is also used to create explosion sounds.

Hanzo Ukita, Ashura's 59-year-old leader, says he thinks ninja got a global popularity boost when the group participated in a cherry blossom festival in Washington in 2012. "We went there as members of the Mie Prefecture delegation, and the whole delegation was surprised at how popular we were," he said.

The number of visitors to Iga, which had declined following the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, has recovered to pre-disaster levels thanks to foreign tourists.

Last year, Ashura gave performances in the United States, Britain, Thailand and Canada. "We sent a message to the audience: 'Please come to Iga, where ninja originated. Inbound tourists visit our museum in groups on weekdays, helping us financially," a museum official said. The team gives a total of some 1,000 performances a year in Japan and overseas.

Australian David Write, 46, and his family recently visited the museum for the first time in eight years on their third visit to Japan. Write's 14-year-old son Nathan said he wanted to come again because he remembered it being exciting. He appeared to be enjoying hurling shuriken.

His 46-year-old mother Kim, who tried blow darts, said she needed to increase her lung capacity.

Regarding the roles of ninja, Nathan said he has learned that though they are just like spies, their real role is to maintain peace in society by gathering information, rather than fighting, like in Hollywood movies.

Ukita said that as "professional ninja," Ashura has a duty to "accurately convey the history and tradition of ninja."

(Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, Opinion Group)

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