Saturday, August 6, 2016

A Visit to the Iga Ryu (and a Ninja Lunch)

-- Susan, every other Sunday.

Last summer, I traveled to Japan to research the next three books in my mystery series. Since my detectives depart from Kyoto at the end of The Ninja's Daughter (which just released this week) I planned for them to spend two books' worth of time in Iga--my ninja detective's birthplace--and spent a delightful time in the home of one of Japan's most famous ninja clan(s), the Iga ryu.

Iga lies in the mountains, roughly east of Kyoto. It was difficult to get to in the 16th century--and not exactly easy, even now.

Iga from the train.

From Kyoto, you take an express train, followed by two local trains, and finally board a ninja train for the final trip to Iga-Ueno.

No, it really is a ninja train.

I kid you not when I say there were five people on the ninja train along with me -- one was my son, two more were Westerners on some kind of ninja-fueled pilgrimage, and the last was an elderly woman who looked confused and bemused by our presence in equal measure.

Upon arrival, we found the station opened into an empty square large enough to hold hundreds of people but filled with exactly five of us . . . the ones who just got off the train.

After a half-mile walk through the town, which remains fairly small and provincial despite its attempt to encourage "ninja visitor" tourism, we reached the hilly park where the town's primary attractions lie.

First, we visited the Iga Ninja Museum:

Iga Ninja Museum.

Learned about the secret passages often built into ninja architecture:

Even tiny ninja disappear in seconds!

And toured an astounding display of genuine ninja weapons:

Shuriken (aka ninja stars) actually came in many shapes.

And artifacts:

16th century lockpicks.

We strolled up the hill to Iga Castle--which didn't exist at the time of my novels, but which I decided to use as the location of another important building in my novels--the home of Hattori Hanzo, the historical head of the Iga ninja clans. (He's real, and since I couldn't figure out where his house was really built, why not use the best location in all of Iga?)

One wing of Iga castle

Unrelated historical note: Iga castle's mascot is a tiger. I have no idea why.

Iga castle tiger loves you.

The castle itself is another museum, filled with samurai artifacts. Many of these also date back to the 16th and 17th centuries, providing even more details for upcoming novels...

How could I not use this in a novel?

...  though some were too improbable even for fiction:

My son and I call this helmet the "puddle jumper." Someone actually wore it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the day, although it passed too quickly for my liking. After several hours of research, my son and I decided to stop for late lunch/early dinner . . . and discovered that we'd arrived on a day when almost everything in the town was closed. We couldn't find a single restaurant open.

Considering that the return trip to Kyoto would take almost 3 hours, and that we'd seen no sign of a restaurant on the way in that morning (almost the entire trip consisted of mountains, forest, and rice paddies...beautiful on a stomach full of breakfast, but far less so for a tired and hungry traveler) it wasn't the happiest moment of our trip.

We started back to the train station--trying to put a decent face on the prospect of a 3-hour journey back to Kyoto with empty bellies and tired feet--and discovered the formerly empty square was completely filled with people--and food stalls selling every conceivable local specialty. Somehow, we had stumbled onto a local food-based festival (perhaps the reason all the stores were closed).

I have no clue what happened to the other Western people who arrived on the train with us that morning, but my son and I were the only non-Japanese people at the party, and everyone else seemed both surprised and delighted to see us there. Many of the merchants brought us samples, and they took enormous, visible delight in watching us eat their food.

ALMOST as much delight as we had eating it.

The street fair ended about an hour after we arrived, and we hopped the last train back toward Kyoto with full bellies and happy hearts.

The view from Iga castle.

It didn't occur to me until much later that not only had we toured the Iga ninjas' ancestral home ... we ended up eating a "ninja lunch" as well. And it was awesome.


  1. Sheesh, Susan, you have ALL the fun!

    1. LOL Everett. I'll be happy if I can get at least my share. (But I"m not above taking any that someone else isn't using, either!)

  2. I'll leave EvKa's interblog pun resting in peace.

    What a wonderful serendipity of a trip, Susan and the helmets are hard to imagine as workable....but then again, the puddle jumper undoubtedly inspired Darth Vader's. Hmm, a time travel sequel perhaps?

    1. Japanese helmets crack me up. Granted, the puddle jumper was almost certainly ceremonial, rather than functional (most samurai had both) ... but I think my son's comment upon seeing it fits it best.

      NO WAY, Kid ... you'll put your eye out.

  3. I'm glad you had such a great experience in a small Japanese town. And congratulations on your book launch--yay!

    1. Thank you Sujata! (And I'm looking forward to many more experiences in small towns this October .. I can't wait for the next trip!)

  4. What a fantastic day! That museum looks envy-worthy, and that festival is a great finish. Thanks for sharing the story with us.

    1. Thanks Laura! I can't wait to see you in September!