A good number of visitors to Japan are very interested in ninja and may even hope to do some ninja related activities in Japan. However, there are no true ninja anymore and to make matters worse, ninja clan’s left behind very little if any information about themselves. Sadly this means that most ninja themed places in Japan are little more than tourist traps all except two: Koka and Iga Village. In particular, Koka is home to the only surviving historic ninja house! Built in the Edo Period, the Koka Ninja House [甲賀忍術屋敷] not only provides accurate information about ninja, but also lets visitors explore an actual ninja clan house, filled with traps, hidden passages and secret doors!
Who Were the Koka Ninja?
The origins of the Koka Ninja date back to samurai of the local ruling clan, the Rokkaku clan [六角氏]. When the shogun of the Muromachi government, Ashikaga Yoshihisa (son of Ashikaga Yoshimasa) tried to invade the Rokkaku’s land, the samurai in Koka rebelled against Yoshimasa using an array of unusual tricks. They successfully pushed back the invasion and even killed Yoshimasa (though some claim that Yoshimasa died from alcohol poisoning). Of those samurai, 53 clans became the Koka ninja.
Hiding in Plain Sight
During the Sengoku Period, these ninja essentially became super spies, working for hire to gather information for their patrons. The Koka ninja didn’t dress like what we imagine ninja today. Rather, they often looked more like regular people (it would be rather suspicious if some random person was skulking around after all). For example, they often dressed like medicine sellers. Disguising themselves as medicine sellers was in fact quite clever. Most medicine men of the time were from remote Toyama but traveled far and wide throughout the country, so meeting one you’d never met before was not strange.
Ninja: Reality vs Fantasy
The concept of what a ninja is has even changed a lot over time. Traditional theater, comics, movies, and TV shows have really done a lot to shape what Japanese as well as non-Japanese people think a ninja is. It should come as no surprise then, when we say that the ninja you see in movies and TV, are not very historically accurate. So, what were actual ninja like then? We’ve been able to dig up some actual information about ninja
1. First and foremost, ninja were spies. The main purpose of a ninja was not to fight and an assassination would be rare. Instead they obtained valuable information either through spying, stealth or coercion. For example, a ninja in disguise might sit down to a game of shogi with a person in order to trick them into revealing important information.
2. Ninja didn’t use shuriken; at least not how most people imagine. Ninja were not meant to engage in combat unless absolutely necessary. They used shuriken in close range encounters to stab an opponent, giving them enough time to escape. Not to mention shuriken can be pretty heavy, a serious dilemma for people serious about being light on their feet.
3.Ninja were experts on conversation and manipulation. These were very important skills because after all, a great spy can get someone to reveal crucial information, without them even realizing it. Above all, they were very clever.
4. There is no historic source that confirms the existence of female ninja, i.e. kunoichi, which is kinda sad.
5. It is rather dubious when or if at all ninja wore the black outfit most people think of today. Again, ninja aimed to disguise themselves in the crowd. It wouldn’t be very smart if James Bond wore his tuxedo everywhere he went right?
Getting to Koka Ninja House
The closest station to Kok Ninja House is Konan Station of JR Kusatsu Line. Do be careful to get off at Konan Station and not Koka Station. To get to Konan Station, take the Special Rapid Service from Osaka or Kyoto for Maibara or Nagahama and get off at Kusatsu. At Kusatsu, transfer to the JR Kusatsu Line* and ride the line for about 30 minutes till you reach Konan.
Though Ninja House is a very interesting destination, most people prefer to drive there instead of walk from the station. This means there are few signs/ markers for how to get there on foot. Koka Ninja House is located in the countryside area of Shiga Prefecture. All in all, it was very comfortable 20 minute walk from the station.
Koka Ninja House
This house was owned by the Mochizuki ninja clan, the head clan of all 53 Koka ninja clans. The Mochizuki built this current house in the late 17th century, which miraculously remains more or less completely unaltered! It is the only full-fledged ninja house that exist in Japan today.
The house gives you a complete free guide of the house once every hour for thirty minutes. Sadly, they don’t have any English guides… so practice your Japanese! Until the guide starts you can walk around the house, learn about ninja and discover some of the unusual features about this house.
Be sure to go up and check out the second floor too! The entrance to the second floor is behind a hidden wall, so you might have to feel around for it. The secret stairs will lead you to the second floor.
The second floor is quite narrow. Basically you cannot stand up, and that is the point. The reasoning here is that an intruder cannot use their sword because samurai typically use long, big swords, while ninja usually use much smaller ones.
It is noted here that the main purpose of the house is to befuddle and delay any intruders, so the ninja of the house can quickly escape. After all, a ninja’s main purpose was to kill someone (let alone in close combat) but to escape capture so they can deliver information successfully to their patrons.