For a small town, Iga-Ueno has something for everyone. Whether your tastes lean towards the confrontational and martial or the reflective and poetic, this is a trip worth making. Iga-Ueno is the birthplace of those two most quintessential images of Japan: ninjas and Basho.
Few people need to be introduced to the ninja: masked warriors who stalked Japan in feudal times and countless movies in the modern era. Ninjitsu – the art of the ninja – was developed in Iga-Ueno, Mie-ken and Koka, Shiga-ken. The life of a ninja, the world in which he moved and his legacy today are excitingly presented at the Iga-Ryu Ninja Museum, in Iga-Ueno Park.
In addition to the informative displays showcasing weapons, clothes and training regimes, the museum boasts three major attractions. The first, and the beginning of the tour, is the ninja house. Groups are led through a number of rooms by expert – and at times disconcertingly well-trained – guides and given demonstrations of the hidden doors, escape hatches and secret weapons stores built into what appears to be a simple traditional Japanese home. The explanations are entirely in Japanese, but little gloss is needed to explain a false floorboard sheltering swords or a shelf that drops to reveal a ladder to the roof.
Beyond the house and through the museum, the excitement is ratcheted up. Here, in the ‘Ninja Experience Plaza’, ninja techniques and weapons are demonstrated. The professionals who fight with swords, shuriken throwing stars and kusarigama sickles are both deadly with their tools and consummate showmen, blending slapstick humour with breath-taking martial feats.
Appetite whetted, the visitor can then try their own hand with the shuriken. 200 yen will buy you five throws at a dartboard, and if the previous show hasn’t hit home the lethal capabilities of the stars, the enormous chunks ripped out of the targets will. This is highly addictive fun, but hanging around while hyperactive high school boys show off their lack of aim is not for the faint-hearted.
I said at the beginning that there was something for everyone. Well, if ninjas don’t fire your imagination, then maybe haiku is more your thing. Legendary haiku master Basho began his life and career here, and there are a number of monuments to him.
Matsuo Basho lived from 1644 to 1694, first in Ueno, then in Edo. He was a famous poet and teacher, but he grew restless and took to wandering the roads of Japan. He first travelled from Edo to Kyoto and back, then through northern Honshu, down the Sea of Japan coast and inland to Ogaki, Gifu-ken. This second journey was recorded in his journal and posthumously published as The Narrow Road To The Interior. He made one final trip, this time to Osaka where he became sick and died.
Basho is without doubt the most famous and publicly celebrated haiku poet both inside and outside Japan, and he is commemorated in the town by a museum and a shrine. The shrine was built to resemble the poet on the road, from his big sedge hat to his walking cane. The museum’s lack of non-Japanese information limits its appeal to the kanji-literate, but his childhood home has been carefully restored and is fascinating to the general student of history as well as the haiku fan.
There is no evidence that the poet partook of his hometown’s other creation, though the idea of a ninja poet is an attractive one that historical-accuracy shunning film directors may wish to pick up on. His adventurous nature does however complement the spirit of Iga-Ueno.
The park is also home to a war memorial and a modern reconstruction of Ueno castle. The former is unfortunately a flame around which a large number of nationalist sound-trucks flutter while the latter is most rewarding as a platform from which to enjoy the Mie countryside than as a specific destination itself.
From Nagoya or Osaka, Iga-Ueno station is on the JR Kansai line. From there a regular bus runs to the park or you can transfer to the Kintetsu line, stopping at Uenoichi.