Iga (40 kilometers east of Nara) has three claims to fame: It is the birthplace of Matsuo Basho, Japan's most beloved poet, the home of Ueno castle, the setting for the Kurosawa film “Kagemusha”, and one of the training grounds for ninjas. Ninjas and Iga Ueno in fact are so closely linked that Iga Ueno's manhole covers have Ninjas pictured on them, some houses are built to resemble ninja residences and sometimes city hall officials walk around in ninja costumes — mostly black for men and red for women. Many descendants of ninjas still live in the town. Sights in Iga include Ueno Castle; Haiseiden, a building dedicated to the great haiku poet Matsuo Basho; Akame 48 Waterfalls; and the Enjuin temple.

The Iga Ueno area is pleasant enough. There are lots of wooden houses with gray tile roofs. The main tourist sights include the Basho Memorial Museum (Basho was born in Ueno in 1644), the interesting Danjiri Kaikan museum, celebrating the towns main festival and Ueno Castle, a most but impressive fortification built on the 17th century and rebuilt in 1935. The castle have an impressive sword collection and the highest outer walls in Japan (70 meters), which is why Kurosawa chose it as a film location. Getting There: It takes 100 minutes from Tokyo to Nagoya stations on Tokaido Shinkansen. From Nagoya, it takes about 80 minutes to Iga-Kambe Station on a Kintetsu express train. From Iga-Kambe, it’s about 25 minutes to Uenoshi Station on the Iga Railway. For more information, call Igaueno Tourist Association at (0595) 26-7788. Websites: Japan Guide japan-guide.com

48 Falls of Akame Ninja Valley is a training ground for Iga ninja clan in the 15th and 16th centuries that has been reborn as a place where visitors can become a ninja for a day. Wearing authentic clothing, you’ll get the lowdown on time-honored techniques of concentration, climbing, and infiltration. Dodge throwing stars and defend yourself in a VR-assisted shuriken throwing star simulation. The 90-minute tour takes in ancient forests and rushing rapids along the way on a course sure to delight the whole family — nature lovers and aspiring ninja alike. Children under seven must be accompanied by an adult. Location: 671-1 Nagasaka, Akame-cho, Nabari-shi, Mie Getting There: Akame is 2.5 hours by train or car from Chubu Centrair International Airport. Website: ; ninja-valley.com/

Visiting Iga

Norifumi Kawamura wrote in in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Having taken the Kintetsu Line to Iga-Kambe Station, I switched to the Iga Railway’s "ninja train." The entire train is painted pink, and the front of it is adorned with the face of a female ninja whose sharply watching eyes are even bigger than the train’s headlights. She was designed by legendary mangaka Leiji Matsumoto. Aboard the train, I began to feel a ninja high as I drew closer to my destination. I got off the train at Uenoshi Station and took a walk. Streets laid out like the grid of a go board made a beautiful townscape. Old houses, perhaps belonging to tradesmen in prosperous days, are dotted along the streets. [Source: Norifumi Kawamura, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 27, 2013]

“Later, I went up to Iga Ueno Castle, also in the park. High-ranking samurai Todo Takatora (1556-1630), who served such lords as Azai Nagamasa and Hashiba Hidenaga, built the castle in 1611. The castle keep was destroyed by a storm the very next year. The current castle was completed in 1935. A major feature of the castle is its stone walls, which are about 30 meters tall. The castle must have been a formidable stronghold when used as a base in times of conflict with the Toyotomi family in Osaka.

“Under the Tokugawa shogunate, Takatora became a tozama daimyo (an "outside" lord not related to the Tokugawa family), but he enjoyed the confidence of the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu. "When he was young, Takatora fought as a spearman. He built the castle in his prime and then became a political adviser in late life. He was a powerful man at every stage," said Kenji Fukui of the Iga cultural and industrial association, which manages the castle. Anticipating a long period of peace, Takatora set up the current townscape below the castle in a way that would commercially justify its existence. I was amazed by Takatora’s foresight.

“There’s another reason why I came here. This region, particularly the cities of Iga and Nabari, boasts more than 10 sake breweries. Moriki Sake Brewery, located in Iga’s suburbs, is famous for "Rumiko’s sake." The label on its bottle bears an illustration by mangaka Akira Oze. According to Rumiko Moriki, 53, the model for the design, she read Oze’s popular manga about a female sake brewer, "Natsuko no Sake," at a time when her own brewery was on the verge of closing down in 1991. Moriki was moved by the manga and sent the author a letter seven pages long. That initial contact eventually led to his designing a label for her.

“I was allowed to see the inside of the brewery where old tools are still kept, and then tasted Moriki’s junmaishu (sake in which the only ingredient are rice and yeast) brand "Hanabusa" at a soba restaurant near the brewery. The rich, slightly acidic flavor is well-balanced, and I could drink endlessly. "This area produces rice and has good water as it’s close to the headwaters of a river. On top of that, there is a wide temperature variation here. The factors to produce good sake are all here," Moriki said.

Ninja Museum of Igaryu

Iga-ryu Ninja Museum (in Iga’s Ueno Park, near Iga Ueno castle) receives a lot of foreign tourists and if you want you or your kids can dress up like Ninjas before entering the park for a fee. Ninja were secret agents hired by warring factions dating back to medieval Japan in Iga and other places. The museum is broken into the three parts. Visitors first enter a small thatched cottage once owned by a ninja. Women dressed in bright pink ninja outfits welcome visitors and give them a quick tour, disappearing behind revolving doors at the end of their stint. Also See NINJAS IN JAPAN AND THEIR HISTORY factsanddetails.com ; NINJA STEALTH, LIFESTYLE, WEAPONS AND TRAINING factsanddetails.com

In another room a man in an ordinary suit shows visitors a floorboard that can quickly be flipped up with a karate chop to reveal a hiding place for a sword. The ingenious house also contain trapdoors and secret escape routes. The purpose of these were foil attacks by other ninjas.

Another part of the museum is devoted to the history of ninjas, their knowledge of herbal remedies, their use of secret codes, their training methods and weapons and technology. There are displays of ninja weapons and tools. Each are labelled with explanations in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean. Descendants of ninjas give demonstrations and visitors can try throwing “shuriken” (throwing knives). Location: Iga-ryu Ninja Museum 117-13-1 Ueno Marunouchi, Iga-shi, Mie-ken, Tel: 0595 (23) 0311, Fax: 0595 (23) 0314, E-mail: ninpaku@ict.ne.jp ; Hours Open: 9:00am- 5:00pm (last entry 4:30pm), Open Everyday; Days Closed December 29 - January 1; Admission: Adult (Over 16) : 800 yen; Child (4-15) : 500 yen; Other Fees: Ninja Show 500 yen/person (Closed some days; please confirm beforehand); Shuriken Throwing Experience 300 yen. Getting There: About 10 minutes to walk from Uenoshi Station of Iga Railway Website: Iga-ryu Ninja Museum site iganinja.jp

Ninja Show at the Museum of Igaryu

The ninja show — shown every hour or so when the village is busy, but less or not all when there are few visitors — is very good. Norifumi Kawamura wrote in in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “ A ninja group called Ashura was giving a show next to the museum. At first, I thought the show was aimed at kids, but it turned out to be a rather serious performance. Ninja demonstrated fast-paced tate, or theatrical combat, using such traditional weapons as swords and kumihimo braided cords. Ashura leader Hanzo Ukita, 53, said the performers are all athletes. Some are even gymnasts who graduated from sports colleges. They exercise every day for the show. "Ninja is a word known around the world. We should offer realistic shows," Ukita said. [Source: Norifumi Kawamura, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 27, 2013]

On the video shown there, Soichiro Nakamura wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “‘Do ninja really exist? ... I can assure you real ninja exist right here in Iga, Mie Prefecture.” So begins a video made by the local committee promoting the history and tradition of Iga ninja. The video also introduces what a ninja is and does, with English narration posted on YouTube for overseas viewers. The video, which lasts for about eight minutes, is titled “The Root of Ninja” in English. Members of Ashura the Iga Ninja Group present agile fight scenes using actual weapons and showing some of the skills ninja possess. [Source: Soichiro Nakamura, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 24, 2015]

“The ninja troupe regularly presents ninja shows at the Ninja Museum of Igaryu in Iga and has performed overseas. The committee comprises the municipal governments of Iga and Nabari, the Mie prefectural government and local tourism associations. It will show the video during tourism campaigns and various events, including Expo 2015 Milano in Milan in June.

“Featured in the film are Hanzo Ukita, who heads the troupe, and “ninja” known as Masanosuke, Tomonosuke and Mio, as well as members of the troupe’s Tokyo branch. Tak Sakaguchi, an award-winning former action star, served as executive producer and director of the film. Ashura members fight enemies with shuriken throwing stars, Japanese swords, chains and sickles. The Iga Ueno Ninja Festa organizing committee plans to make a 30-minute video version and put it on sale this spring. “We wanted to show what real ninja are like by using actual weapons and showing their skills to people overseas who are looking for real touches,” Ukita said. “I hope viewers will understand a bit about the ninja spirit after seeing the video.” He added, “If you want to see ninja, come to Iga.”“

Wakayama: Beaches and Tourist Areas

Wakayama Prefecture covers 4,725 square kilometers (1,824 square miles), is home to about 964,000 people and has a population density of 204 people per square kilometer. Wakayama is the capital and largest city, with about 364,000 people. It is in the Kansai area near Osaka and Kyoto on the central part of Honshu island and has six districts and 30 municipalities. Tourist Information Office JR Shingu Station, 2-1-1 Jofuku, Shingu City, Wakayama Pref., Tel. 0735-22-2840. Hours: 9:00am-6:30pm Website: Shingu Tourist Information Center; kumano-shingu.com

Shirahama (2¼ hours by train from Osaka) is a developed hot spring, beach resort on the west coast of Wakayama and the Kii Peninsula. The white sand beach, with sand brought in from Australia, draws huge crowds in the summer. The other main attraction is Sakino-yu hot springs, with baths built in some rocks on a point, offering great views of the sea. Websites:JNTO file Japan.travel ; Wikitravel Wikitravel Map: shirahama-ryokan.jp/en/access Hotel Web Sites: Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Shirahama is accessible by train from Wakayama, Osaka , Kobe, Kyoto and Nara. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Adventure World is a safari park with lions, tigers, and other animals, an amusement park with rollercoasters and a Ferris wheel, golf courses, cabarets and an oceanside park with views of crashing surf and rocks. Tsubaki Monkey Park is home to about 250 monkeys who live in forests near seaside cliffs. Nearby there is a one miles hiking trail with 33 thousand-year-old Buddha statues.

Wakayama Diving and Whaling Towns

Taiji (near Shingu) is a former whaling town with a Whale Museum, Whale Museum, Whalers Museum, Marine Aquarium and Tropical Botanical Garden. The town is infamous for its bloody dolphin round ups that were the subject of the film "The Cove." See Separate Article DOLPHIN HUNTING IN JAPAN: TAIJI, THE COVE, DOLPHIN ACTIVISTSfactsanddetails.com
and Wikipedia Wikipedia

Kushimoto Marine Park (4 hours from Tennoji, Osaka by the Limited Express Kuroshio) contains 120 species of coral and a great variety of fish normally associated with more southern seas. These can be observed with scuba diving gear in the marine park or through a window of an observation area 6.3 meters below the surface and a 140 meters out at sea. Waters in Kushimoto, right at the bottom of Wakayama prefecture, the southernmost point of Japan’s main island, Honshu, never goes below 15 degrees Celsius. The abundant marine life varies from tiny inland sea species to the larger migratory fish in the open ocean. PADI-affiliated Kushimoto Dive Station caters to all skill levels and is a stone’s throw from Kushimoto Station. . Kushimoto Dive Station: Address: 642-1 Kushimoto-cho, Kushimoto, Higashimuro-gun, Wakayama kushimoto.com

Sabiura (near the southern point of Wakayama Prefecture) is the home of the northernmost colony of table coral. It is nourished by warm waters carried north from the Kurshiro Current. Tanabe attracts scuba divers seeking fluorescent seas anemone in water 40 meter below the surface that at their most intense when waters are fairly clear in the winter time. The sea anemones belong to a species discovered in 2004.

Coastal Area of Yoshino-Kumano National Park

The Coastal Area of Yoshino-Kumano National Park is characterized more by cliffs and rocks than beaches. Having fewer flat ridges, the steep mountains in the mature stage are right at the water, creating a place where sea cliffs are well developed due to strong waves of the Kumano-nada Sea along the coast. Due to repeated patterns of sedimentation and prominence, the coastal line became complicated and varied, exhibiting diverse coastal topographies of submerged beaches, shingle beaches, and coastal terraces.

The coastal line from the periphery of Katsuura to the Uragami Peninsura forms a complex coastline showing complicated landscapes with numerous indentations.The areas from Owase to Onigajo form a typical complex coastline extending from the Shima Peninsula, and there are small to large indents throughout. By contrast, Shichiri-mihama Beach and Oujigahama Beach extending from Onigajo to Shingu City form a straight-line raised beach which is a shingle beach where flat land spreads along the ocean.

Stone corals and tropical fish are found along the coast of the Kii Peninsula due to the effects of the warm Kuroshio current. Diving and snorkeling in these regions allow enjoyment of the beautiful underwater scenery. Beautiful Senri hama Beach near Minabe Town is the largest egg-laying site in Honshu for loggerhead turtles (to ensure that this beautiful beach, much-loved by locals, remains pristine for the future, town permission is required for viewing).

The coastal area is home to numerous seabirds, especially the islands and capes along the Kumano and Owase beaches where there are breeding grounds of Ardea cinerea, Egretta sacra, and Apus pacificus. Additionally,as the area is close to the Japan Current, Scleractinia and schools of tropical fish make their abode creating unique underwater landscapes especially around Cape Shionomisaki and Nigishima Island.

Places in the Coastal Area of Yoshino-Kumano National Park

Cape Shionomisaki is a land-tied island situated in the southernmost of the mainland where a flat sea plateau spreads to exhibit coastal terraces. The Oshima Island floating on the east also has coastal terrace. Along with the Cape Shionomisaki , the south of the coastal line has varied indentations and well developed sea cliffs.

Shichiri-mihama Beach extends from Onigajo, famous for its sea cliffs in Kumano City, to the mouth of the Kumano River and consists of a straight-line coastal area that is rare for the Kii Peninsula, which is primarily bordered by a complex coastline. Against the backdrop of a forest of black pines and other seacoast species of trees, the broad cobble beach draws a gentle arc and beautifully showcases the white waves of the Pacific Ocean.

Sandanbeki Cliff reach a maximum height of 50 meters. It is one of the Geo Sites of the Nanki Kumano Geopark. Cape Tenjin (near the center of Tanabe City) provides the best and safest way for children to enjoy coming into contact with the forest and the sea, and to learn about the connection between the two. Kinki Nature Trail (Nagaizaka) offers views of the Karekinada-Sea, centered on Okino-Kuroshima Island and Rikuno-Kuroshima Island, from the 4.5 kilometers Ohechi Road over the mountain pass. Karekinada embraces mountains coastal scenery and changing topology along the coast from Susami Town to Kushimoto Town.

Ugui Visitor Center is a facility that offers an introduction to the natural environment, culture and history of the Ugui Peninsula and the Yoshino-Kumano National Park. It provides nature information through a range of exhibits, and organizes events such as nature observation events, lectures and photograph exhibitions. Location: Ugui 830, Nachikatsuura Town, Higashimuro County, Wakayama Prefecture, Tel: 0735-54-2510; Hours Open: 9:00am-5:00pm, Closed Wednesdays (excluding national holidays), end and beginning of year (December 29-January 3)

Honshu-Sainantan Shiokaze-no-Kyukeijo (Rest House at the Southernmost Point of Japan's Main Island is a rest area in Cape Shionomisaki that also doubles as a lookout spot. In addition to an observation terrace that looks out over the majestic Pacific Ocean, the rest area features natural sites characteristic ofthe Cape Shionomisaki area, and presents the history of certain regions in Australia (Thursday Island, Arafura Sea) that attracted Japanese workers in search of white pearls. Location: Shionomisaki 2865, Kushimoto Town, Higashimuro County, Wakayama Prefecture, Tel: 0735-62-5750; Hours Open: 9:00am-5:00pm, Closed Open daily throughout the year


Tomogashima Islands

Tomogashima Island (near Wakayama City in the Kitan Strait, between the Kii Peninsula and Awajishima island) contains unique landscapes of sea cliffs and wave-cut platforms created by the raised and sloped alternate layers of the Izumi Group. Kada Observatory affords a panoramic view of the islands. The Tomogashima Islands consists of a cluster of four uninhabited islets — Okinoshima, Torajima, Kamishima and Jinoshima. The main attraction are abandoned military installations and places associated with shugendo (mountain asceticism). Ordinary people were not allowed to approach the area until the end of World War II. According to regional folklore, Ennogyoja, the founder of shugendo, underwent training on the steep cliffs of Tomogashima in the seventh to eighth centuries. People are allowed to enter part of the remains of the third battery facility on Okinoshima. Because no lighting is installed, the facility is completely dark, even during the day, so visitors must carry a flashlight.

Shingo Masuda wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Tomogashima stands at the entrance of Osaka Bay and was used as a fortress by the Kishu domain (present Wakayama Prefecture) during the Edo period (1603-1867).. The military set up batteries on the island in the Meiji era (1868-1912) to prepare for attacks by foreign warships. In the end, no battles were fought on Tomogashima. The island still contains many remnants left by the former Imperial Japanese Army,” said Sanae Sugimoto, 64, a tourist guide. [Source: Shingo Masuda, Yomiuri Shimbun, July 14, 2013]

“From Kada Port in Wakayama, I took a ferry to Okinoshima. The ride lasted about 20 minutes and travels the only route connecting the port to the island. After landing, I visited the military remains, including those of battery pedestals and officers’ quarters. The path forged by the military by chopping through laurel forests has since become a good hiking trail. The leafy shade of the dense and dark forests left me with a pleasant feeling. The remains of the third battery facility, which are one of the island’s main attractions, are surrounded by brick buildings that conjure an air of unexpected nostalgia and elegance.

“The remains of the battery facility are some of the largest on the island and the best preserved. The site’s a popular photo spot,” Sugimoto said. While exploring the facility, I encountered a group of elderly tourists toting single-lens reflex cameras. Recently, more young tourists have been visiting the island, wearing military uniforms or anime cosplay outfits. Some are stimulated by the military environment, while others, perhaps older, nostalgically reflect on their youth. As it was a weekday, once the last ferry of daytrippers departed, the island sank into silence. A herd of deer appeared from somewhere and began to graze. There are no year-round residents on Okinoshima, but three Japanese-style inns are open mainly during the tourist season as the island has good fishing spots and a lighthouse. About 20,000 people visit each year.

“As Tomogashima has no public water supply, visitors are required to conserve water. Using conservation as an excuse, I opted for sake whenever possible in place of water. At one of the island’s inns, I drank a copious amount of sake with a side of fresh sea cucumber and octopus. The mood was further enhanced by the star-studded night sky and the sound of the surf lapping in the distance.

“The next day, I moved from Okinoshima to Torajima, where traces of shugendo training sites abound. A dike built by the Imperial Japanese Army is damaged, allowing the tidal flat to surface at low tide. “It’s best to check the patterns of the tides when traveling to Torajima because you want to avoid a situation in which you can’t return to the shore by high tide,” said Kojiro Matsuura, 48, who acted as my guide on the day. When I jumped on a rock that emerged with the low tide, dozens of roach-like sea slaters suddenly scattered.

While touring a cave and reading passages from sutras inscribed on a monument along a cliff near the cave, I broke out in a heavy sweat. How hard shugendo training is! The standard training course includes climbing a steep slope, descending from a high point using a rope and other challenging activities. I recommend visitors study the content carefully before attempting it.

“I traveled on a ferry back to Kada Port and headed to the former Mukai House, which provided accommodation to ascetics en route to Tomogashima for training. Yoshiko Mukai, 74, welcomed me. Mukai’s actions belied her age as she nimbly trotted up a hill that is home to a hall in which shugendo founder Ennogyoja is enshrined. “Compared with the training required to continue trekking deep into the mountains, the Tomogashima course is a picnic,” Mukai said.

Image Sources: 1) 2) 3) Wikipedia 4) 6) 7) Asuka tourism site 5) Onmark productions 8) Asuka Museum 9) Iga Minja Museum 10) iFrance.com

Text Sources: JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organization), Japan.org, Japan News, Japan Times, Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan Ministry of the Environment, UNESCO, Japan Guide website, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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