My research trip to the Iga Ninja Museum involved a tour of the “ninja house,” a recreation which features some of the secret panels and hiding places common in medieval shinobi (ninja) homes.
Some of these secret passages were integrated into samurai homes as well, particularly in the castles or mansions of daimyo (Japanese feudal lords) who employed shinobi as spies or bodyguards.
Japanese homes made heavy use of sliding doors and panels to separate rooms. Less frequently seen, but sometimes used, were rotating panels (similar to the ones the kids kept falling through in Scooby Doo episodes…) used to enter or leave a room in an instant.
(The “headless woman” is our guide, who asked the little ninja to demonstrate the panel–to his delight, and his pink-ninja sister’s obvious envy.)
These rotating panels added to the shinobi’s mystique, and fueled the legends that said a master ninja could “turn to smoke” or “vanish” at will. The ninjas really did disappear in an instant…but through a rotating panel or trapdoor, not by turning into smoke. (Would have gotten away with it, too, if not for you pesky kids…)
Shinobi also utilized secret lofts above the ceiling, particularly once Japanese architecture implemented widespread use of ceiling beams. Many small homes, or those belonging to poorer people, had open rafters, but where ceilings existed, spy-lofts made a convenient place to eavesdrop on meetings…and prepare an ambush.
In the picture, the narrow panels above the signs are actually sliding panels that open into a space just large enough for a person to hide (lying flat). While I don’t envy anyone the process of getting into the little space, and wouldn’t recommend it for the claustrophobic, it’s definitely an effective (and unexpected) place for an ambush. Standing in the room, the panels look like standard transoms, and there’s no sign of the hidden space behind them.
Some of these secret lofts had hidden staircases for access, too, like this one, hidden above a closet (note the opening at the top left side of the photo, above the shelf):
Surprise! That shelf in the closet detaches, folding downward to become a staircase.
Once in place, the shinobi could pull the shelf back into place, concealing all evidence of the access point for the loft.
Many people know about the hidden passages and secret rooms in European castles, but in Japan, secret hiding places and tricksy architectural components weren’t confined to the upper class alone. Shinobi were spies, as well as assassins, and employed a wide range of techniques–both architectural and combat-based–to achieve their clients’ goals. As interesting as Hollywood ninjas seem, in their dark pajamas, the truth is even more interesting–and complex–than many people realize.
The ninja house is one example. Look for more in the weeks to come…