Reliving the Most Decisive Battle in Japanese History

The Battle of Sekigahara Festival is just around the corner, which inspired me to take the time to reflect on my memories of when I visited the festival last year. I have a cursory knowledge of Japanese history—I’m certainly no expert, as almost everything I hear tends to be news to me—but I did go to the festival last year, so I probably know all I need to in order to get you up to speed It’ll be good to have some background knowledge if you plan to check out the festival yourself someday

This column greeted me as I showed up for the fun—“The Battle of Sekigahara Festival 2014!”

This column greeted me as I showed up for the fun—“The Battle of Sekigahara Festival 2014!”

For a quick history lesson, Japan spent much of the 16th century in what is now referred to as the “Warring States” period of its history. It came to a close in the year 1600, when the Eastern Army, led by Tokugawa Ieyasu, defeated the Western Army, led by the Ishida Mitsunari, in the Battle of Sekigahara. Following its conclusion, Tokugawa established the “Edo” period of Japan, during which peace prevailed for over 250 years. For this reason, the Battle of Sekigahara is often thought to be the most decisive battle in Japanese history.

Which is exactly why it’s so big amongst Japanese history fans—there are monuments and replica battlements set up around the area, with little explanations of what events occurred there to be found as you explore the area. There’s a museum that features an overview of the battle using a large-scale wall-mounted diorama with flashing lights and narration (available in Japanese, Korean, and English) as well, if you’re looking to do a bit more studying before you take a look around.

No festival is complete without a parade! Here we have last year’s Tokugawa Ieyasu riding his trusty steed.

No festival is complete without a parade! Here we have last year’s Tokugawa Ieyasu riding his trusty steed.

The largest event in Sekigahara is the Battle of Sekigahara Festival, which is held annually on a weekend in mid-October. It takes place over two days, with a variety of events being held over both. There are marketplaces, concerts, lectures, activities, and all sorts of other events to enjoy, but the main draw is the reenactment of the Battle of Sekigahara that takes place on the second day of the festival (the Sunday).

Typically preceded by live firings of matchlock rifles and cannons (using blanks, of course; but they’re deafening all the same), this play has hundreds of local volunteers come together to put on a show that usually lasts a good 45-60 minutes. Each year focuses on a different general, showing a dramatized version of their role in the battle, occasionally cutting away to show the stories of other warriors who were part of their story. The music played is usually very epic (almost comically so), and seeing dozens of volunteers spill into the battlefield to fight for their lords is a spectacle that’s just plain fun to watch. The performers are typically quite expressive, which makes following the plot easy enough even if you don’t understand Japanese.

A live firing of matchlocks rifles—the bullets may be empty, but the smoke and the noise are the real thing. Also, check the dude with the conch on the right-hand side. I’ve always wanted a conch of my own.

A live firing of matchlocks rifles—the bullets may be empty, but the smoke and the noise are the real thing. Also, check the dude with the conch on the right-hand side. I’ve always wanted a conch of my own.

The festivities are centralized right around the Sekigahara Fureai Center, which is a short walk (5-10 minutes) from JR Sekigahara Station. You can grab some food from the marketplace or pick up neat Sekigahara souvenirs to remember your time by, or you stray a bit from the festivities and get a closer look at some of the spots where history was made. Head to the spot where Ieyasu Tokugawa made camp for the final time, or climb up Mt. Sasao, which the doomed Western Army had used as their main base of operations.

There has been a lot of activity in Sekigahara lately, as they’re trying to make the area more accessible for tourists from overseas! A brand new visitor’s center has been built right in front of JR Sekigahara Station, and there are apparently plans to get a whole lot more done over the next few years.

Here’s a melee that took place during the reenactment. You can tell what side they’re on from the color of their outfits and the crests on their flags.

Here’s a melee that took place during the reenactment. You can tell what side they’re on from the color of their outfits and the crests on their flags.

Anyway, Sekigahara’s also pretty easy to get to, which helps. It’s on the JR Tokaido Line, and you can get to it from places like Nagoya or Gifu City. Not all trains run all the way to Sekigahara, so it may be necessary to transfer to one that does at JR Ogaki Station, but from there it’s just 15 minutes.

For more information about the Battle of Sekigahara Festival and the area where it takes place, check out the links below!

Sekigahara Tourism: http://www.kanko-sekigahara.jp/en/index.html
Battle of Sekigahara Festival: http://travel.kankou-gifu.jp/en/see-and-do/92/
Sekigahara Town History & Folklore Museum: http://travel.kankou-gifu.jp/en/see-and-do/87/
Historic Sekigahara Battlegrounds: http://travel.kankou-gifu.jp/en/see-and-do/97/
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