Walking in silence between rows of 900-year-old cedars that line the path toward a mountainside shrine, you can’t help but sense the mysterious, spiritual atmosphere that lingers in this ancient forest.
Togakushi is the birthplace of Togakure Ryu Nippo, one of the top three ninjutsu schools in Japan. This ancient village in northern Nagano has produced some of Japan’s legendary ninja for more than 800 years.
Ninja have been popularized on big screens around the world for decades, and most people associate these stealth assassins with Japan. Yet how much do you really know about them?
In Togakushi, glimpse into the rare and authentic world of ninjutsu where you can meet real-life ninja, undergo ninjutsu training and find the truth about common misconceptions.
Museum of Togakure School of Ninpo
What’s most striking about this museum is how the mystical world of ninjutsu comes to life. In one of the buildings, visitors meet ninja masters who will walk you through the basics of physical training before showcasing their more impressive skills, such as splitting a rock in half with their bare fist and deflecting punches by flinging their opponent to the ground.
Perhaps it is apt that Togakushi was originally called Togakure, meaning “Hidden Door.” The museum features a Ninja Trick Mansion, a plain-looking building filled with trapdoors, hidden passages and contraptions. Visitors can also practice their shuriken (throwing stars) skills at the throwing range.
Relics of the past including actual weapons (shuriken, arrows, spiked climbing rings, nunchucks and katana swords) and valuable photographs of ninja in warfare and training by Masaaki Hatsumi, the 34th Togakure ninjutsu master. Next door, the Museum of Togakushi Folkore features cultural artifacts and every-day items from the Edo Period.
To schedule a ninjutsu training lesson with a ninja master, e-mail Akira Miyashita at 200111hayakigmail [dot] com (English-speaking services available). Most lessons are held at Yamanokami Ryokan near Zenkoji in central Nagano, but he is able to instruct at Togakushi if booked ahead of time.
Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Late April to Late November)
Togakushi Shrine is made up of a lower, middle and upper shrine. Okusha Shrine, the uppermost shrine in the village, is located across the street from the museum. The two-kilometer trail up to the shrine is lined with more than 300 massive Japanese cedar trees.
After several stone steps, the trail ends at the shrine’s main hall against the backdrop of Mt. Togakushi’s dramatic craggy peaks towering above. The Nature Reserve is located next to the shrine grounds.
If you’re lucky, a local guide or even the ninja master might walk you through the trail and point out historical items of interest and edible and medicinal plants along the way.
An alternative trail to the upper shrine goes past the pristine Kagami-ike, literally translated as “Mirror Pond.” Here, the waters offer a clear reflection of the surrounding mountains; it’s an excellent area for hiking during the green season.
Kids Ninja Village
If you have children, drop by the Kids Ninja Village, the only other location dedicated to the Togakure School of Ninjutsu. Kids (and parents) can rent a ninja costume and test themselves at athletic challenges including pulling a rope to cross a pond while standing on a raft, channeling their inner ninja at a demonstration and making their way through the ninja fun house.
Admission: ¥1,850 (¥1,630 for children)
Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Late April – Late November; Closed on Thursdays)
Yamaguchi-ya Soba Restaurant
After a full day of training, you’ll no doubt be hungry. Togakushi is famous throughout Japan for its soba (buckwheat noodles). While zaru soba is typically enjoyed with tsuyu, a simple dipping sauce, Yamaguchi-ya introduces a variety of dishes using buckwheat flour, including deep-fried soba rolls.
There are also allergy-friendly dishes available (reservation required). The restaurant is located down the road from the Museum of Togakure School of Ninpo and is in fact owned by one of the ninja. For serious foodies, you can make your own noodles at Togakushi Soba Museum under the guidance of a professional soba chef.
Tel: (026) 254-2351
Hours: 10:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
By Bus: Take the bus bound for Togakushi Camp Area or Togakushi Chusha-miyamae from Stop 7, the Kawanakajima Bus Station opposite Nagano Station. The journey takes 45-50 minutes and is ¥1,350 one way and ¥2,400 round trip.
By Car: From central Nagano, drive toward Zenkoji Temple and continue to Togakushi. It’s about a 30-45 minute drive from central Nagano.