Ninja lessons in Kyoto, Japan: The subtle art of killing people quietly

Just a few minutes into my first ninja lesson I'm reminded of the dancing hippo scene in Fantasia, Walt Disney's classic animation. Surely the instructors are thinking the same?

For while they're moving with all the silky smoothness of James Bond through a cocktail list I'm galumphing about with the grace of Israel Folau at Mardi Gras.

We are in the Ninja Dojo and Store in Kyoto for an hour-long insight into the skills that go towards making a ninja. These include sneaking through doorways, disarming opponents, metal star (shuriken) throwing and blow dart, er, puffing.

But first we have to don the correct garb. It is, as you might expect, black and for some reason what comes to mind is Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam: "This says it all to me. It's kind of like a Hefner thing. They're dressed in pyjamas, it's casual, it says 'I can fight or I can just lay around'."

Sadly, with my black headband and baggy trousers that recall the 1990s and MC Hammer I'm not so much Hugh Hefner as a member of a once-great boy band on their 40th anniversary tour.

During the next hour we learn that just drawing your sword is fraught with danger (watch the roof), that samurais work outside while ninjas work inside and are great exponents of hiding and killing people with shuriken and, oddly, barbecue skewers. It's when we move on to chopsticks that it all goes a bit wonky.

We start the lesson by learning how to walk and place our feet without making a noise, how to enter, emerge from and re-enter a secret hidey-hole, and also how to use our sword sheath to locate an enemy in a darkened room. After half an hour or so with two of the ninja master's acolytes teaching us the basics of silent assassination I realise that these two women are (a) made of rubber, and (b) my knees are shot.

We then head upstairs where, for the next 30 minutes, ninja master Izo Ichikawa – a tall, thin good-looking man with a wispy beard and an air of eerie calm about him – is waiting to induct us further into the subtle art of killing people quietly.

He shows us how to draw our sword and wield it without getting it stuck in the roof, and how to re-sheath it after gutting some hapless victim. There is also a terribly swashbuckling flick that you do just to get the blood off the blade. Nothing about how to step on fresh intestines without them squeaking though, which strikes me as an oversight.

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Ichikawa's dojo has been open since 2015 and apart from teaching ninja techniques, it also deals in "sword, knife, iron nail and fan, hand claw, sickle with chain, weight with chain, caltrap (a sort of evil spiked knucklebone), short metal truncheon, sai (a three-pronged short sword), antique goods, costume, T-shirts and books".

According to Ichikawa, ninjas are mostly known these days for martial arts and assassinations but they were originally all about information gathering. By spying instead of killing, he says, the ninja were able to bring warring factions to the peace table and avoid war.

In the three years since he opened, he says, 99 per cent of the customers have come from Europe, US and Australia, with a few more now coming from the Middle East and Asia. They get 4000 visitors in a year, ranging in age from five to 70 and pretty much 50-50 male and female.

Which is all very well but where are the things for killing people? We start with the shuriken, the slim and sharp pointed throwing stars so beloved of martial arts movies and gradually work our way up (or down) the killing objects list. The shuriken are pretty easy to use and for beginners our success rate is pretty good until we move on to barbecue skewers and chopsticks, two objects not exactly designed with murderous intent.

Finally we come to the blow darts. The secret here is to release the breath in one quick, plosive puff – and it turns out I am a natural, hitting the target pretty much every time. As a result I am forced further and further down the hall until I am hitting the target from somewhere on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Yes, as ninjas go, I am a big bag of wind.

TRIP NOTES

Keith Austin was a guest of Inside Japan Tours and Qantas.

MORE

traveller.com.au/kyoto

jnto.org.au

ninjadojoandstore.com

FLY

Qantas flies direct from Sydney to Osaka's Kansai airport three times a week. Flights from Melbourne and Brisbane go via Singapore or Tokyo. See qantas.com

STAY

Inside Japan Tours chooses hotels based on the individual traveller's needs and budget. In Kyoto we stayed at the Hyatt Regency, a luxury hotel in the leafy Higashiyama Shichijo district. See hyatt.com

TOUR

Inside Japan Tours offers small group tours, tailored self-guided adventures and cultural experiences in Japan. See insidejapantours.com

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