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When I was a boy, my best mate was obsessed with ninjas. He would play ninja computer games, watch ninja movies and, most enthusiastically of all, dress up in a black gown and face mask, and pretend to be one of those ancient Japanese stealth warriors. His favourite move was to leap out from behind sofas and cupboards and assail me with a frenzy of kicks and punches.

These childhood memories come flooding back as Kanako, a petite Japanese woman clad in black robes, appears from behind a hedge, bows and welcomes me to the Ninja Museum, a family-friendly attraction that vows to shed light on the shadowy secret agents of Japan's feudal age.

A 90-minute train ride from Osaka, and just a little further from Kyoto, the museum is the highlight of Iga, a town nestled in the mountainous Mie Prefecture - the true heartland of the ninja, it's believed.

Ninjas thrived at a time when civil war was rife and warring factions were desperate to gain a foothold and consolidate power. Also known as shinobi, they were ostensibly mercenaries employed to carry out daring missions ranging from spying and sabotage to arson attacks and assassinations - and were schooled in ninjutsu, a martial art that originated on the Indian subcontinent as far back as 4000BC and travelled to Japan via China and the Korean peninsula. Practitioners were taught that stealth, intellect and secrecy were just as important as brazen force and violence.

The museum's opening room typifies this mind-set. From the outside, this single-storey, thatched-roof building looks rather like a humble farmhouse.

It's actually a replica of a typical ninja residence and is riddled with revolving walls, trick doors, moveable floorboards and secluded underground passages. Such mechanisms were designed to fool would-be invaders and provide means of escape (and attack) for the ninjas. Kanako, the guide, reveals these devices to me, one by one, with incredible nimbleness and razor-sharp reactions.

When I attempt to copy her - for example, when I try to vanish in silence behind the revolving wall - I clumsily clatter into it like a drunk stumbling through a set of bar saloon doors. Then I bash my head against the low-lying ceiling.

Stifling a laugh, Kanako swoops down and opens a trick door by sliding two pieces of paper into a crevice. Then, with blurring speed, she snatches a knife from a hitherto hidden passage.

As with those other famous mediaeval Japanese warriors, the samurai, the best ninjas were born into the profession and trained from childhood, learning traditions and skills passed down through the family. Their modus operandi, however, differed; samurai were largely aristocratic and had strict rules about honour and combat; ninjas were often from the peasantry and prided themselves on their covert, cunning, sometimes cut-throat operations, although they were occasionally required to launch full-scale army-type assaults on enemy targets, often duelling against rival ninjas and samurai. The mysterious lifestyle of the ninja is explored further in the museum's second section, which has hundreds of exhibits, including a bevy of awesome accessories and weapons: grappling hooks (for scaling buildings, usually at night), huge katana swords, terrifyingly sharp ninja stars (which would often be laced with poison), smoke explosives (which were said to have been imported from Mongol-ruled China in the 13th century) and hordes of guns (ninjas' methods of battle evolved as the years passed).

Because of their extraordinary skills, myths and legends surrounded ninjas. Japanese folklore had it that they'd descended from a demon - half-man and half-crow; others claimed they possessed supernatural powers and could walk on water.

Technically they could, but only purportedly with the assistance of large wooden waders called mizugumo - dubbed "water spiders" - which they attached to their feet so they could scamper across marshes and castle moats.

A common misconception is that ninjas always wore black. To remain undetected from rival clans, however, they had to be masters of disguise, donning the clothes of priests, fortune tellers, farmers, merchants and monks.

Ninjas also had to watch their diet and hygiene. Not only was it imperative to be fit, mobile and muscular (and not too bulky), they needed to remain as odour-free as possible, so they could go undetected. Meat was shunned and vegetarian food, especially rice and tofu, were especially popular. The advance of modern technology and decreasing internal warfare may have signalled the death knell of the traditional ninja, yet their legacy lives on.

Historians have pointed out that many of their methods have been modified and used by Japan's intelligence agencies, while TV shows, films and video games continue to glorify the ninja.

My ninja museum experience concludes with a demonstration from two ninjutsu experts.

Packed with hand-to-hand combat, sword fighting, knife juggling and ninja star throwing, it's an enthralling spectacle. You can even have a go at throwing them yourself.

My only regret is that my old mate isn't here with me today. He'd have loved this - although I'm not sure he'd have been so keen to jump these guys.

  • fact file *

· Iga-ryu Ninja Museum is open daily from 9am-5pm. Admission for adults/children is 700/400 yen ($5-$8.60); iganinja.jp.

· Iga is a 90-minute train ride from central Osaka railway station. Take the JR line to Iga-Ueno, then change to the Iga line and go two stops on the "Ninja Train" to Uenoshi. For rail times see hyperdia.com/en.

· The museum is just one of the attractions in Iga's Ueno Park, a leafy expanse containing a pretty 17th century castle and a memorial to the late great Iga-born poet, Matsuo Basho.

· Japan tourism: jnto.org.au.