Explore Japan's Ninja training village

Photos by Hazel Gray
Photos by Hazel Gray

Explore Japan's Ninja training village

by Hazel Gray
Stripes Okinawa

After two hours of driving down beautiful, winding mountain roads, we made it to our destination. The gravel crunched beneath our feet as we clambered out into the cold November sunshine. We hurriedly donned our hats, coats and gloves, preparing for the hike ahead. We had discovered Akame (ah-KA-may) 48 Falls, an ancient ninja training site featuring five epic waterfalls, with many smaller ones in between. The seven-mile hike traces a river up to the final falls of the training grounds. There is a small 400-yen fee to enter (about $4) for adults and 150 yen for children. We had until 4 p.m. to hike around and explore before the trail closed for the day.

As we paid the parking fee (700 yen), an elderly Japanese employee walked up and excitedly started speaking with us in near-perfect English. He lived in the U.S. a long time ago and did not often meet Americans in the mountains of northwest Mie (MEE-ay) Prefecture. He told us that he was a direct descendant of a very powerful and famous ninja, who was a friend of Hattori Hanzo — who was considered to be the greatest ninja of all time! We listened to his family history, mesmerized by the richness and depth of Japan’s ninja culture.

After our conversation, we walked up a street lined with quiet gift shops and restaurants to get from the parking lot to the trailhead. The shopkeepers were very happy to see us go by. We saw one lady selling Japanese sweet potatoes, called satsuma imo, at a reasonable price, and decided to purchase some. We would bake them later to replicate a delicious traditional Japanese treat: homemade yaki imo. The thought made us hungry, so we ate a picnic lunch that we had packed that morning. With full tummies and eager anticipation, we approached the gate that would lead us into the ninja park.

We paid the entry fee for our family and prepared ourselves for whatever lay ahead. The route to the trailhead took us through a small building. We walked through it and saw, of all things, a miniature zoo housing a few giant salamanders, one of which was over 80 years old and still going strong! These salamanders are indigenous to the region and it is possible to come across a few while hiking in the summer, but not in the cold of November.

Upon entry into the falls, we gazed about at the lovely spectacle that presented itself before us: the water, crystal clear, shimmering and sparkling as it flowed gently downstream; large, jagged boulders carpeted in moss looming ahead; a vividly-colored canopy reflecting the rays of the sun; a rich forest of tall thin pines, stout maples, and golden ginkgo trees surrounded us creating the boundaries of a wonderland. We felt the presence of echoes from the past. The spirit of the ninjas lingered still after all these centuries.

Ninjas are commonly associated with ornate costumes, stunning swords, precision, and stealth, but few people are familiar with the origins of these ancient icons. Real Japanese ninjas usually had all the characteristics listed above, but only after years of vigorous and challenging work. They underwent intense training in austere circumstances in order to become the true masters we admire today. The ancient ninjas almost certainly trained on this river, climbing waterfalls, scrambling from rock to rock, creeping silently along narrow ledges, all several hundreds of years ago. Walking the trail beside the river is like walking through ancient cultural history.

As we arrived at each featured waterfall, we peered over the edge of the path at the glistening torrent that fell down from the cliff tops. The mist that sprayed up from the falls created a thin film that shimmered with the rays of the sun. My favorite part about the falls was that each one was magnificent but entirely different from the others.

The trail is relatively flat and easy, with a few narrow sections and steep climbs, though not altogether stroller or wheelchair friendly. The first small section is extremely well maintained with smooth wide paths and incredible views. No matter the season, Akame 48 Falls overflows with rich natural beauty.

Akame 48 Falls also offers a ninja training program for ages four and up. We did not take part in the program, but from the pictures and videos we saw, it looked like a neat and fun experience. Prices range from 2200 yen for children under six years of age to 3000 yen for adults. The fee covers the training experience, a rental ninja costume, and entry to the falls. The training is open year-round except for the New Year’s holiday which runs from December 28 to Jan. 2. There are also other attractions here that only open in summer months. Visit the website for hours of operation.

The best part of the whole day was when the twilight set in, shrouding the trail in a curtain of darkness. If you visit the falls between select dates in October and January, there is an option to pay a little extra (100 yen for adults, 50 yen for children) for evening tickets allowing access to the park until 8 p.m. Though most of the trail is closed in the evening, night ticketholders are treated to an elaborate display of illuminations along the river trail. The lights were soft and warm, almost glowing, and the handcrafted bamboo frames were so intricate and fragile-looking it was overwhelming! We all pulled out our cameras and attempted to capture the sweet moment of bliss. The resulting pictures hardly do the views any credit. It was absolutely gorgeous.

An icy wind brought us back to ourselves, reminding us of the chilly night and the reality of the world around us. It was cold and getting very late. We remembered we had a long drive before us, so we reluctantly took a last sweeping glance at the illuminated wonderland around us, taking in all of it that we could. Then we made our departure, the afterglow of the night still lingering in our eyes. We spent the car drive home reflecting on the beauty we had seen that day and clutching the memories tight so they would not leave us. Today I close my eyes and remember everything. I will never forget the day that we spent in the miniature paradise of Akame 48 Falls.


Visiting Akame 48 Falls

Address: Nagasaka-861-1 Akamecho, Nabari, Mie 518-0469, Japan

Hours: Open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Check site for holiday closures



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