Tokyo's really, really real ninja hideouts
Fact or fiction? Tokyo wouldn't exist without the efforts of real-life ninja.
Fact -- 100 percent fact. And they’re still here today, in a manner of speaking.
Don't get us wrong. There aren't any secret training grounds or black-clad assassins leaping from rooftop to rooftop (if only). The signs are subtler than that, but they're definitely there, hiding in plain sight.
So forget the silly Ninja Akasaka restaurant, the sillier Nikko Edo-Mura ninja shows, the foam-rubber shuriken throwing stars on sale in Asakusa’s Nakamise souvenir stands. This is your chance to tread in the two-toed footprints of Japan's masters of darkness, right through the heart of the city.
On second thoughts, maybe picking up some of those throwing stars wouldn't be a bad idea.
Let’s turn the clock back a few years to 1597. That’s when soon-to-be Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu moved to the city, bringing a brigade of ninja bodyguards along with him. The place these fearsome fighters were quartered just so happens to correspond to Tokyo’s poshest, most-fashionable address today.
Over the years, they fortified the area into a maze of tiny, tough-to-invade streets now known as Ura-Harajuku, where assassins and spies have given way to shoppers and Gothic Lolitas.
Make your way past them and you’ll find Onden Jinja (The Shrine of the Hidden Field), where the ninja once carried out their religious duties. It’s still standing proud, more than four centuries later.
Onden Jinja, 5-26-6 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku. Google Maps.
2. The Hanzomon subway line
A ninja runs through Tokyo. His name is Hattori Hanzo, aka Hanzo the Demon. He was a master ninja who served as Tokugawa Ieaysu’s right-hand spymaster. You may be familiar with the name: Quentin Tarantino resurrected it in his movie “Kill Bill.”
Hanzo proved so handy that Tokugawa gave him VIP access to the castle via a special back entrance.
Known as Hanzomon (Hanzo’s Gate), it’s part of the Imperial Palace today -- and gave one of the city’s most-traveled subway lines its name.
Hanzomon Station. Google Maps.
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The neighborhood right outside Hanzo’s Gate is known as Wakaba today, but prior to 1943 it had a different name: Iga-cho (Iga Town), named after the ninja village from which Hattori Hanzo hailed.
Wakaba may have lost its ninja name, but it hasn’t lost its ninja spirit. Sainenji Temple is home not only to Hanzo’s grave but also his favorite spear.
Sainenji Temple, 2 Wakaba, Shinjuku-ku. Website.
4. Shin-Okubo's Hyakunin-Cho
It’s known as Little Korea today, but this section of town just so happens to be where Shogun Tokugawa garrisoned a legendary team of ninja snipers -- the elongated shapes of the city blocks here outline their old practice grounds.
They were known as the Hyakunin Gumi (Battalion of Hundreds), and a wall mural portraying them in action is visible right outside Shin-Okubo Station. Every fall, the Edo Bakufu Teppo Gumi Hyakunin Tai (say that five times fast) reenacts their firefights in full costume.
Hyakunin-Cho, 1-10-15 Hyakunin-cho, Shinkuku-ku. Google Maps.
5. Hyakunin Bansho Guardhouse
The ninja who defended Edo lived in places like Harajuku, Shin-Okubo and Yotsuya, but this is where they worked. And the best part is, it’s still there today.
Located in the Imperial Palace grounds, the Hyakunin Bansho Guardhouse represents the administrative wing of the ninja forces stationed around old Edo.
Over the centuries, ninja duties shifted from being soldiers to forming the city’s main police force -- still, we suspect they preferred rice and miso to donuts and coffee.
Hyakunin Bansho Guardhouse, 1-1 Choyoda, Chiyoda-ku. Google Maps.
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