Imposing figures in black, hiding in the shadows, and moving about with almost superhuman agility seem like nothing but cool stories told to tourists and movie-goers nowadays, but were once a very real part of feudal Japan. Japanese folklore states that the Ninja descended from a demon that was half man and half crow. Logic would dictate, however, that it seems more likely that the ninja slowly came about as an opposing force to their upper-class contemporaries, the Samurai, in early feudal Japan.

A dimly lit ninja in fog

A bit of history:
The true origins of Ninja is unclear. It is believed that the first ancient Ninja may have been yamabushi (“mountain priests”) who adapted the Sonshi, a Chinese martial arts manual, to their own purposes. There are references to ninja-like Shinobi in the Asuka Period (592-710) who were used to infiltrate enemy territory and described as “experts in the field of information gathering” and “masters of stealth and disguise.”

Ninpo, often used interchangeably with Ninjutsu, is the name of the martial art practiced by the Ninja. It is still practiced today, actually. Genbukan Dojo, founded by a descendant of the founder of one of the two main Ninja schools, is a training facility that teaches Ninpo in 25 countries and has even provided instruction to White House security and SWAT teams in the United States.

AS most people already know, Ninja(s) have played important roles in Japanese history. Their heyday was between the 12th and 16th centuries, when there were many local wars and the ability to spy, infiltrate and assassinate was highly valued.

Iga (one of the most famous Shinobi spots in Japan) Ninja helped Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) escape safely from Osaka in the turmoil that preceded the beginning of the Edo period. Ieyasu showed his gratitude by giving the Ninja leader, Hattori Hanzo, a residence in the Imperial Palace, in Edo (what is now Tokyo).

As oftentimes happens throughout the pages of history, the tales of the Ninja became more mysterious, and now they are arguably one of, if not THE most recognisable cultural export from Japan. The black clad warriors, also known as Shinobi (忍び), and their actual story, is as interesting as their mythology. Having transitioned from the pages of history to what amounts to nothing less than an immortal archetype synonymous with “cool”, they are as revered as they are mysterious; as dangerous as they are imposing. How much of their extraordinary lore is based in reality, however? Could they really call upon supernatural powers to breathe utter fear into the hearts of their targets and enemies?

Ninjas hiding on rooftops in a village

Without any further ado, here are 7 things you didn’t know about the Ninja:

  1. Everyone knows the Ninja were assassins of the highest order. Picture a Ninja in your mind right now. I’m sure the first image you had was of a black-clad male assassin. You wouldn’t be alone to think that, but you would be only half right in your assumption. While certainly predominantly male, what most people don’t know, is that there were quite a few female Ninja(s) as well. Having certain feminine charms and powers of persuasion, in addition to appearing less imposing, lends itself quite well to stealthy infiltration and assassination missions, which is why female assassins were used quite a bit in Feudal Japan to either obtain important information, or to stealthily eradicate their targets.
    As Ninja, you had to be able to turn anything into a weapon – so it should come as no surprise that female Ninja had special metal fingernails called Neko-te (猫手) or Cat’s Hand (claw), which they used as devastating weapons against their targets.
  2. Neko-te ninja weapon

  3. They always carried eggs. Nope, they didn’t do their shopping before an important mission, but rather used the eggshells to carry blinding or irritation powder, which they’d use on their targets. They poked a small hole in the egg shell, drained the contents (probably used it as a quick protein shake during training), and carefully filed the egg with various powder-based weapons, to distract their targets.
  4. Although a highly debatable topic, it is commonly believed that the Ninja were more morally ambiguous than the Samurai. They often worked for whoever paid the most for their stealthy services. While the Samurai were generally quite loyal to only one ruler, the Ninja were more opportunistic in their loyalties. They accepted any mission, ranging from simple information gathering, to assassinations (mostly political) from anyone who paid the right price.
  5. When thinking of the Ninja, almost everyone pictures the black-clad stealthy warriors we know so well from countless movies. However, they didn’t actually wear their “Traditional” outfits a lot. Those were reserved only for night missions. Think about it: They would’ve certainly stood out in feudal Japan wearing the black garbs we now associate almost exclusively with the Ninja. Walking through town wearing that would be the complete opposite of stealth, right?  
In reality, they looked like ordinary people, farmers, peasants, soldiers, even monks; basically like everyone and no one, to blend in and stealthily obtain information, or perform an assassination. You never knew who to trust in feudal times.
  6. They carried a small box that “generated” a sound. Nope, it certainly wasn’t a feudal Walkman, or iPod. It was a small, wooden box with a Cicada/Cricket inside. If you’ve ever made it through a Japanese summer, you know the ear-splitting sound they can make, so the Ninja – being crafty spy’s – used that sound to mask their footsteps, and various other sounds they may make while doing their Ninja stuff. Of course, it goes without saying, that this only worked in the summer months.
  7. The Ninja had a lot in common with the cookie monster.  
Now before you accuse me of having had too much sugar, let me explain… A successful infiltration is very slow and methodic, so what do Ninja do when they get hungry? Well, they eat Cookies, of course! Ninjas and Cookies are usually not something you’d put in the same sentence, but to keep up their energy levels, the Ninja ate a special cookie-like food called katayaki (Kanji), which acted kind of like a modern PowerBar, and was probably much better for your health than the modern equivalent.
  8. The answer is written in the rice. The nondescript dinner staple is ubiquitous with Japan, and is part of every meal in the land of the rising sun. Naturally, it was used as a way of passing secret messages back and forth. Called Goshiki-Mai (五色米), the simple rice-corn was painted in one of five colours, namely red, blue, yellow, black, or purple, to send codes. Ninjas would drop the rice by the side of the road or other inconspicuous places. Their enemies and other regular people wouldn’t notice the rice, but Ninjas from the same clan would be on the lookout for such things. Based on the combination of colors they dropped, or the number of grains, the Ninja could make over 100 different codes.

Having appeared in movies ranging from Batman to The Hunted; tv shows, games, and even music, one could argue that the Ninja have successfully infiltrated popular culture all over the world. Their history is as varied and mysterious as they are themselves, and is now often used to add that extra “cool” factor in stories.

Japanese male Ninja

Now, before we let the Ninja disappear back into the shadows, there is one last caveat… sorry to disappoint you guys… even after doing extensive research… in the passages of history, there was absolutely no mention of any amphibious, pizza-loving reptiles having Ninja skills. 🙁

Should you want to acquire some Ninja skills of your own, however, make sure to include the Iga Ninja Castle and Museum on your itinerary for Japan.  Here, you can dress up as a Ninja for the day, and take several classes on the intricacies of being a Ninja.
If you’re in Tokyo, on the other hand, a short trip to Akasaka will assure you’ll have an unforgettable dining experience at the aptly named NINJA AKASAKA.  Tokyo is not the only place with Ninja fare, however, as you should also check out NINJA KYOTO.  After a long day of temple-hopping and sightseeing, this will be the perfect place to relax and enjoy a great meal in a ninja-inspired atmosphere.