Meeting the Historical Ninja

Meeting the Historical Ninja
Ninja! The name conjures up black-clad figures armed with exotic tools stealing into a well-guarded castle or modern industrial complex to assassinate someone, steal a secret paper or device, and otherwise wreak havoc. That image is as accurate as thinking Pagans all wear robes, worship Satan, and are always cursing people or summoning entities to do their bidding. Both groups are surrounded by much myth and misinformation from deliberate stories to dramatic representation in plays, films (movies) and television and it can take a lot of time and research to separate fact from fiction.

I pondered this as I walked towards the Ninja house through the cold November afternoon. As a practitioner of magick since 1976, and training in Ninpo- the modern incarnation of Ninjitsu- since 1984. I was now in Japan in 1989 planning to train at classes run by the Grandmaster of the system and visit areas of Japan associated with the Ninja to gain an insight into the area and culture in which the art developed. I was currently at the Nina Museum in the town of Ueno Marunochi, Mie Prefecture as it seemed a good place to start my journey. I had already spent the morning in the main body of the museum looking at the tools the historical Ninja may have used and the science behind some of the illusions and stage magic they used to create the impression of shapeshifting into animals.

The museum was a little reserved in its presentation of some of the more esoteric branches of Ninjitsu practice that involved real magick. Even in the short time I had been in Japan I had realised that it was literally one of the most magickal countries I had been in, almost on a par with Mexico. However, unlike Mexico where there were many styles of magick and there was more emphasis on techniques rather than principles, Japanese magick and spirituality appeared to emphasise the same basic principles expressed in slightly different ways according to the religion or spiritual path followed. In the case of the examples of magick used by the Ninja you could clearly discern the Taoist, Indian, and other Asian roots combined with the indigenous Japanese Mountain Shinto and Sangaku-shinkō. The museum had concentrated on the more bizarre aspects of magical expression as exemplified by a spell written in the Ninja’s own blood to enable its author to see better in the dark, and an illustration of some of the Kuji Kiri mystical hand signs which had their roots in Indian magick. I suspected it was to emphasise the difference between the magick being practiced in present day mainstream Japan and the “Magick of the historical Ninja”. Mind you this was over twenty years ago and the museum has probably changed and updated its exhibits since then.

Much of the traditional Ninja magick was based on manipulation of perceptions as exemplified by the apparently ordinary farmhouse I was approaching. From the outside it looked like the single storied home of a successful merchant/farmer, and when I first entered it this appearance extended to the inside too. I had arrived on a slow day out of the tourist season and was unsurprised to find the custodian/guide dozing over his hibachi stove as I was probably the only tourist in the last hour or so, if not all day. It was only when I made a slight noise changing my shoes for Uwabaki (indoor slippers) that he woke up and realised he had a visitor. To his credit once he was awake he was a very good guide despite not speaking much English, and me not speaking much Japanese.

Having realised pretty quickly that he had an enthusiast who wasn’t going to let a little thing like a language barrier get in the way of communication he was soon showing me the hidden secrets of the house. According to the information I had seen at the museum the house was an original home from Takayama in Ueno City, which was moved to the museum in 1964 and it looked like some of the traditional ones I had seen in Kyoto they day before. This impression lasted up to the point when my guide opened one of the sets of sliding doors (Shoji) knelt, and lifted up the vacated wooden track to reveal a hiding place that, in this case, held a couple of swords but was certainly big enough to take the size of person Ninja would have been at the time the house was built.

That was just the first of many different hiding places, escape routes, and other protective precautions I was shown. I wondered that if European Pagans had adopted similar methods more practitioners and material might have survived into the modern era. Some of the techniques were more subtle than others as not only had the Ninja to defend against armed attack, but other Ninja clans sneaking in for various nefarious reasons. The tatami mats on the floor made with a rice straw centre with a covering of woven soft rush which gave it a ‘grain’ much like wood. In a traditional house such as the one I was in these covered all the floors which was why visitors and residents changed into Uwabaki, or wore socks, to keep them clean. I noticed that even though I was wearing the right footwear and moving in a balanced manner I was making far more noise than when I visited the traditional house in Kyoto the day before. I lifted up each foot in turn to check if there was something on the sole of my Uwabaki that was catching on the tatami.

The guide noticed this and knelt again, motioning me to do the same, we were kneeling on separate mats and he rubbed his palm across the one he was sitting on, then the one I was on. While his mat made no sound mine did. He motioned me to look more closely at the mats and I realised that the mats were arranged so that their ‘grain’ cris-crossed the room. When you walked with the grain no sound was made, but when you walked across the grain then some noise was produced unless one of the stealth walks (Shinobi-iri) of the Ninja were used. But the extra time taken to use Shinobi-iri could result in other ways for the intruder to be discovered.

In the next article we will continue to look at the Ninja House, and the practical and mystical ways the Ninja used Saiminjutsu- the art of managing the mind of self and others- in their surroundings for self protection.

You Should Also Read:
Ninja Travels in Japan
Ninja Travels in Japan- Spirits and Monks
The Art of Caching

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