Just like the samurai, much of the true history of the ninja is shrouded in mystery. With both legendary groups, much of the literature and mythologizing comes from the twilight years, when old traditions were being preserved and sanitised.
This is compounded by the very nature of the ninja, or shinobi. They were masters of stealth, clandestine assassinations and spying. If their appearance, names and deeds were being recorded, they were failing! Similarly, their work was considered dirty and dishonourable. Samurai warlords would sooner record a version of history where they were victorious without such tactics.
Nonetheless, records and common wisdom all point back to the historical provinces of Iga and Koga being the heartland of the very best Ninja. Located near Kyoto, and thus at the very heart of huge swathes of Japanese history, the young men of these prefectures held a long tradition of going out and plying a trade as spies.
A combination of wisdom and techniques passed down through generations, and spiritual and physical fortitude from training in the mountains surrounding the two villages meant these sons of farmers were highly sought after by warlords up and down the country.
Today, Iga and Koga are well regarded names in Japanese history and folklore. As I mentioned before, seeing the name Koga on a map (and misconstruing it) lead to my decision to stay in Fukuoka. Figuring out the truth informed my choice to come back to Kyoto.
Despite the ninjas’ international notoriety, Iga and Koga have not become tourist hotspots in the same way as so many other places in Japan. Travelling to them involved taking obscure, irregular trains to unpopular stations.
It was a nice change, weaving through the mountains on trains that had plenty of space to sit down, instead of being packed onto a sardine tin and dropped off at the start of a predetermined tourist route. I stood in quiet train stations and looked out at genuine countryside, enjoying the cool, fresh breezes under the harsh sun.
Eventually, both on my trip to Iga and my trip to Koga, I boarded my final train and it became clear that I was heading to the right place. The Ninja Train, which runs to Iga, has a pair of eyes peering out from a Ninja’s mask while the Shinobi train to Koga is awash with artwork, inside and out.
(As a side note, the words Shinobi and Ninja both mean the same thing. I think it comes from the peculiarity of the Japanese language mostly developing without a written component, then developing writing based on the Chinese Kanji which each have both inherent meanings and pronunciations. It gets weird.)