Ninja Architecture, Part 2: Secret Exits


During my research trip to Japan last summer, I spent some time at the Iga Ninja House & Museum in Iga-Ueno.

16A18 Ninja House

Iga remains a small town, surrounded by mountains and reachable only after several changes of train (including a tiny, slow-moving local train that meanders through the mountains at a pace even I could outrun on a bicycle, but I digress).

The ninja house is a reconstruction, but contains a number of unique architectural elements found in actual shinobi (the Japanese word for ninja) homes during the medieval era.

Last week, I shared some photos of secret caches for hiding weapons, money, and even people. Today, it’s time to look at doors.

Unlike many Japanese homes of the medieval era, which featured full-sized entry doors, some shinobi homes–generally the ones of shinobi who weren’t pretending to be something else at the time–had low, narrow doors, requiring guests to stoop or crouch before entering.

16A19 Ninja House Entry

This doorway made it difficult for anyone to enter the house at a run, or with a weapon drawn. Also, people had to enter one at a time, making the entrance easier to defend. While attackers would normally assault a house from multiple directions simultaneously, the low, narrow doorway helped protect the house’s inhabitants from a secret or surprise attack at the entrance.

Many shinobi houses also featured a “bolt hole”–normally on the side of the house, away from either the front or rear exits–disguised to blend into the wall or paneling and hide its location.

The door operated by means of a hidden slide or switch in the paneling, and was often hinged to shut automatically after use.

A shinobi (or kunoichi–the term for a female ninja) could disappear through the door in a matter of seconds. At the ninja house, our guide disappeared so fast I didn’t even have time to shoot a photo. One minute, she was there:

16A19 Ninja Bolt Hole

and then she was gone…

16A19 Bolt Hole 2

(In case you have trouble seeing it, the secret door is the small, square panel beneath the tan-colored wall, near the center of the photo.)

Shinobi homes featured a variety of hidden doorways, secret passages, and caches designed to store everything from silver to weapons. Although not every home had every feature, a number of them–like secret caches in the floor and bolt-hole exits in unexpected places–were fairly standard.

Sometimes, samurai hired shinobi to help architects include a few of these features in samurai homes as well. Many samurai considered ninjas less honorable (because they fought with stealth, instead of openly), but during the medieval era, the shinobi assassin’s skills were recognized throughout Japan, and at least some samurai must have recognized the benefits of being able to disappear at a moment’s notice.

Would you put a trap-door or secret exit in your house, if you had the chance?