Snowshoeing and ninja secrets in an atmospheric mountain village
A torii at the entrance of the Okusha shrine precinct
Located northwest of central Nagano City, Togakushi is today a quiet mountain village known for winter sports, its beautiful forest surroundings and as one of the birthplaces of Japan's legendary shadow warriors, the ninja.
Run by a local priest and his wife, the ryokan is a rare example of a monastic lodging that is Shinto rather than Buddhist, offering spare but cozy guestrooms and shared soaking baths.
The Miyazawa Ryokan in Togakushi
Known as experts in espionage and guerilla warfare, ninja played an active role in the wars that engulfed Japan for much of its history. Living outside the country's rigid feudal system, they hired themselves out to warring feudal lords, acting as spies, assassins and occasionally even as irregular troops on the battlefield. Often penetrating deep into enemy territory, they would strive to accomplish a given task before melting away unseen, but when threatened could rely on lethal self-defense skills.
"In ninjutsu, techniques are always to defend, never attack", Matsuhashi-san explained. "The goal is always to end the fight as quickly as possible, sometimes even killing the opponent with a single blow."
Founded by the 12th century warrior Nishina Daisuke, the local school of Ninjutsu, called Togakure Ryu, adapted and grew over centuries of conflict to become the country's third most prominent, after the more famous bands from Iga and Koga. At its peak in the Warring States Period, the Togakure Ryu became highly sought after and was said to have served both Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin - two of the region's most powerful warlords, and lifelong enemies.
After marking the beginning of the lesson with a ritual bow, hand clap and nine-syllable Buddhist chant, Matsuhashi-san and his two companions began by showing us some of the basic postures and movements, beginning with a side-facing stance called ichimonji no kamae.
Marking the start of the ninja lesson
Matsuhashi-san and his two companions demonstrate ichimonji no kamae
Matsuhashi-san traps Yamaguchi-san in a wrist and shoulder lock
A closer look at the technique
Drawing the sword from different positions
Last of all, we had the chance to learn about shuriken - the iconic ninja throwing weapon seen in countless films and anime shows. Matsuhashi-san began by showing us three types - the bo shuriken, resembling a heavy dart and thrown in a straight line, the classic four-pointed throwing star, and lastly a heavier, roughly square shaped plate called a teppan. Unique to the Togakure Ryu, this began as a carpentry tool to extract nails and could be spun through the air at a target or concealed in the hand to use up close.
Matsuhashi-san demonstrates how to hold the teppan
It took me a few tries to hit the target!
A dish of steamed vegetables at the Miyazawa Ryokan
The lady of the house with Tara the Shiba Ken
At one point, he asked us to bow our heads as he shook an onusa - a ritual object resembling a wand decorated with zigzagging paper streamers. While hard to describe, the ceremony conveyed a strong sense of dignity and purpose, and left us feeling strangely invigorated.
Miyazawa-san at the altar
The snow had continued to fall and deepen overnight, and conditions looked perfect as we made our way to the start of our trail - the famous avenue of cedars leading to Togakushi's Okusha or inner shrine.
Saying goodbye to the owners
The conch, he explained, had a special significance to mountain ascetics called shugenja, whose history was intertwined with that of the ninja and had for centuries used this area for spiritual training.
The group sets off into the snow
Yamaguchi-san blowing the conch shell
Yoshii-san taking the lead
Inoue-san relates the story behind the stone tablet
The gate itself, like the inner shrine, began life as Buddhist architecture at a time when Buddhism and Shinto intermingled freely. In the Meiji era, however, the pursuit of national unity led to a policy of enforced separation known as shinbutsu bunri. This would leave an indelible mark on Togakushi, as locals converted to the native Shinto religion and the shrine was stripped of its Buddhist iconography. Inside the gate, two imposing statues of Buddhist gods were replaced with Shinto ones, the originals now standing at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano.
One of two lion statues guarding the gate
The Zuishinmon Gate
The view from the gate
A group photo on the avenue of cedars
A view of Mount Togakushi through snow and mist
Playing in the snow
As a place that has lingered on my travel wishlist for too long, it was a genuine delight to finally visit Togakushi at such a spectacular time of year and with so many friendly and knowledgeable guides to enrich the experience. It's a place I would heartily recommend to anyone with an interest in Japan's mountain landscapes, wildlife, or some of the most mysterious aspects of its folk history.
To book your own introductory ninja lesson or snowshoeing tour, please contact the local tourist association or enquire with any local accommodation when making a booking. Snowshoes can be rented from the tourist association and from the Yamaguchi-ya.
The "ninja special" at the Yamaguchi-ya