To arrive in Iga-Ueno on the first Sunday in April is to feel like a stranger in ninjatown. This small city in the mountains, about two hours by train from Osaka, is supposedly the ancestral home of those fearsome feudal super-sneaks and master killers, whose name and reputation have spread across the world through movies, comic books and video games.
Here in Japan, ninjas are now something of a national myth, a slightly cartoonish composite of old folk tales and modern pop culture. This morning in Iga Ueno, however, it would be discourteous to dispute their existence. It’s the opening day of the annual ninja festival, and travel on public transport is free to anyone in costume. Connecting to the local loop line, I step on to a train brightly painted with ninja murals (designed by the famous Japanese manga artist Leiji Matsumoto), and find my carriage filled with muffled, hooded figures, all armed with swords and throwing stars.
Admittedly, their weapons appear to be made of soft foam or folded paper, and their outfits come in a range of colours – not just classic ninja black but purple, red, canary yellow, baby blue and a distinctly unthreatening shade of pink. Also, very few of these mysterious commuters stand much over four feet tall.
Read the rest of the story: Tall tales and tiny assassins at Japan’s ninja festival.