Ask The Local Experts
Perhaps the word “ninja” brings images like these to mind? Actually, real ninjas were different from what most people think.
Ninjas had their heyday in what is called the Sengoku Period (15th to 16th century), or the age of warring provinces. In the peaceful times that followed that period, however, the ninja’s art, called ninjutsu, lost its usefulness, and so was transformed into popular performing arts like kabuki theater and street entertainment. In other words, ninjutsu evolved from being an art of war feared by everyone to something that now captivates the world. The depiction of ninjas that emerged through that transformation seems to explain the style of ninja that we so commonly see today.
So what were ninjas actually like?
In 1487, the shogunate army led by Ashikaga Yoshihisa set up camp at Magari in Ritto (Eishoji Temple) to oust Rokkaku Takayori, then lord of Omi province. Takayori teamed up with the warriors of Koka, who infiltrated the shogun’s base at night, enabling a surprise attack that later led to the defeat of the shogunate army. The group of Koga-ryu ninjas who resisted Ashikaga Yoshihisa’s army quickly became known throughout Japan as the 53 families of Koka (more commonly the Koka ninjas), and became the object of fear to many feudal lords.
The homes of the 53 families of Koka were located throughout old Koka county (currently Koka and Konan cities). Together they formed an organization called Koka-gun Chuso, a self-governing municipality founded on close cooperation and its own rules and systems.
The 53 families formed a clan in which all families, united through blood, took the same surname, regardless of whether the head of each household was a first-born son or not. The clan assembled to make various decisions on a periodic basis, a process that, according to surviving documents of the clan’s rules, was carried out according to the principle of majority rule, in which the majority decided policy and the minority complied. In other words, the Koka clan, coexisting within a larger feudal society, preceded all other governments around the world in implementing a republican system—centuries before even the French revolution.
Ueno Domyochu was a family that wielded exceptional power within the clan. One of the places they held meetings was Aburahi Shrine, located in today’s Koka-cho. Here you’ll find one of the most unusual family crests (kamon) in all of Japan.
The crest depicts the mokkomon-style family crest (a flower embedded within the cross-section of a gourd) underscored by two horizontal lines. These two lines are believed to derive from the Ashikaga family crest and stand for service in keeping the Ashikaga family alive. Unique, but common to all families in the Koka Ban clan, the crest can reasonably be taken as the sign of ninjas.
In Japan, Kazuma Ohara is famous for his efforts to revive ninja skills, which were starting to disappear in the early Edo period (1600-1867). The Kazuma estate in Tadono, Koka-cho, structurally resembles a typical ninja estate. Surrounded on four sides by a berm and moat, at first glance it looks on the outside like an ordinary hill or wooded area. Kazuma is also credited with collecting the Bansenshukai and other ninja writings and donating them to the shogunate in 1789.
The Bansenshukai is a collection of ninjutsu knowledge believed to have been written by Fujibayashi Yasutake in 1676. Both the Koka and Iga lineages passed down these writings to their descendants, with the head of the family transcribing them once every 50 years and endowing them to only one of his sons.
The Koka Ninja Village and Museum in Koka, Shiga prefecture, displays copies of the Bansenshukai owned by the Ohara family. It is also where you can try out many of the ninja techniques documented in the Bansenshukai. The Karakuri estate, relocated here for conservation purposes, was owned by the Fujibayashi family. Here you will see a number of contraptions designed to fool enemies, including false walls and trapdoors. So what were ninjas really like? Come visit us at Koka Ninja Village to find out for yourself!
Spots around Town
・Koka Ninja Village
Get a hands-on ninja experience in the Ninjutsu Museum, Karakuri estate, throwing star training room, and others.
Located at the birthplace of the Koka school of ninjutsu. Play the role of a ninja in the great outdoors.
Exhibits a valuable collection of ninja-related artifacts.
・ All-Japan Ninja Competition
Held every year in early October. Contestants pit their skills against each other in a battle to decide the best ninja in Japan.