Sunday, May 14, 2017

From Iga With Love

-- Susan, every other Sunday.

During my research trip to Iga (the setting of my upcoming mystery, Betrayal at Iga), I visited the Iga Ninja House & Museum:

Iga Ninja House & Museum Entrance

Although a single admission ticket covers both, the "ninja house" is a restored 16th century home containing many of the special architectural elements real ninjas (shinobi, in Japanese) designed into their homes as added protection against capture or attack.

Since I couldn't squeeze all of them into the novel, I thought I'd share a few of them here. If nothing else, they prove that in some cases, the truth really is more interesting than fiction.

The entrance to the ninja house is a standard ninja-era door that measures 4' high and about 24" wide. Even short adults must duck to enter, limiting the use of swords or other weapons by anyone attempting to force an entry:

Watch your head, and check your sword.
Inside the house, a number of secret panels lead to passages hidden inside the walls, as well as a number of secret rooms:

Light enough for tiny ninjas to operate.

Additional hidden spaces in the attic offer not only a secret refuge but a place to spy on (and, if necessary, ambush) unwitting visitors:

The symbol on the left is a variant on the Hattori crest - symbol of the long-time leaders of the Iga ninja clans.
Access to this overhead space was located in the closet, where a hidden panel slid away, exposing the space above the ceiling:

Nothing to see here but a harmless shelf and ... oh. Right.

Better still, that harmless-looking shelf just under the access hatch is actually a hidden ladder. It drops to the ground with a quick-release latch on the right-hand side, exposing the steps cut into the upper side of the "shelf" - along with a handle ninjas can use to pull the stairs back into place before concealing themselves in the roof:

That shelf isn't quite so harmless after all...

Bolt hole with quick-release latch ... for when you REALLY gotta go...
Every corner seems to have a hiding place, a secret storage rack, or a bolt-hole to the outside of the house -- the one above (the small, brown wooden square in the far corner) is spring-loaded, allowing a practiced ninja to exit the house completely without a sound in under three seconds.

(Note: the photo above is the one I tried to shoot as our tour guide exited the house through the hole. She told us to "get ready" - and was already gone by the time my shutter snapped. It really is that fast.)

Not every ninja home necessarily utilized all of these special features. People chose the ones they needed (or could afford the time and lumber to build) and omitted the ones they didn't think they needed. Eventually, some of these features even found their way into non-ninja homes and castles, generally where ninjas were hired to help protect the family from harm.

Many Americans think of ninjas as tricksy assassins in black pajamas, but real ninjas were actually highly trained spies as well as assassins, versed in escape and espionage. Their architecture reinforces this notion--as well as the intelligence and resourcefulness of ninja architects.

It's interesting to consider what life was like in a ninja village - and though I'm glad I live in the twenty-first century, part of me wishes I had a ninja bolt-hole available now and then, myself.


  1. Fascinating, Susan. Talk about locked room mysteries...

    1. Indeed! And I'm hoping to use at least a few more of these ideas in future books.

  2. Hmm, your devilishly interesting piece brings two thoughts to mind. One, if you live in a neighborhood requiring such ingenious architectural touches, why not seriously consider moving? And second, it got me to me wondering what the Japanese word is for paranoia.

    1. The Japanese word for paranoia is "paying proper attention to the fact that everyone is out to get you." That's a joke. (Maybe.)

      As far as moving...I'll admit the thought has occurred to me...

  3. Susan, so fascinating. The English and American cabinet makers of the 18th and 19th centuries got very clever designing secret compartments, but only to hide money--not whole people and not to save one's life, only one's cash. I like the Japanese way much better.

    1. The ninja house had hiding places for valuables, too, but not nearly as many. I confess, even knowing as much as I do about ninjas' skills at espionage and spying, I was impressed by the amount of design and effort that went into the various types of bolt-holes, hiding cubbies, and secret rooms. (The ninja house was designed to showcase more than a real house would have, of course - but even so, I was impressed.)