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Sekigahara: One nation, one battlefield

Sekigahara: One nation, one battlefield

The town of Sekigahara (関ヶ原町 Sekigahara-chō) is not new to readers of Japanese history, much as it is to any Japanese you will encounter during your journey (they even made a movie of it back in 2017). Located in southern Gifu Prefecture (岐阜県 Gifu-ken), this quaint town was once the site of the greatest battle fought in Japanese history, symbolising the end, and a beginning of a new era of Japan. 


So let’s journey back in time, across a village that went on in history as the battlefield that united a nation.


Sekigahara: The story

(Image credit: John Ong)


Some context behind the battle: before the Battle of Sekigahara, Japan was a nation torn in two. The death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉) ensued a power struggle between those loyal to the deceased daimyo (大名 warlord), led by Ishida Mitsunari (石田三成) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康). 


The struggle reached a boiling point, and on 21 October 1600, both sides met on the fields of Sekigahara, with Ishida Mitsunari leading the Western Army (西軍 seigun), and Tokugawa Ieyasu leading the Eastern Army (東軍 tougun).


(Image credit: John Ong)


Fast forward to today, Sekigahara is located along the border between Gifu and Shiga Prefecture (滋賀県 Shiga-ken). To get there, I would recommend starting from Shiga’s Maibara Station (米原駅 Maibara-eki). Travelling by rail would be faster, but if you’re someone who prefers a more adventurous and scenic journey, I would suggest renting a bicycle from Maibara Station, which was exactly what I did. It takes about 2–2.5 hours to cycle from Maibara to Sekigahara, but I promise you, the view is worth the extra time.


A vestige of the past

(Image credit: John Ong)


Arriving in Sekigahara, you will find a town surrounded by some of the best scenic views you can find in Japan. Not shy from its historical past, exploring Sekigahara is not as challenging as one might think, with many banners and signages dotted around the town—even the more obscured, to aid in your exploration. Do visit the Sekigahara Station Tourism Information Centre (関ヶ原駅前観光交流館 Sekigahara ekimae kankō kōryū-kan) should you need assistance.


Sekigahara Station Tourism Information Centre (関ヶ原駅前観光交流館)
Address: 596 Sekigahara, Fuwa-gun, Gifu 503-1501
Nearest station: JR Sekigahara Station (JR関ヶ原駅) 
Opening hours: 09:00–17:00
Tel: +81-584-43-5559


To the East

Ii ne~ (Image credit: John Ong)


Landmarks are split between East and West and are mostly walking distance away from one another. You’re free to explore the landmarks however you like, but for myself, I covered mainly the Eastern landmarks first as my starting points, with the campgrounds (陣跡 jinseki) of Ii Naomasa (井伊直政) and Matsudaira Tadayoshi (松平忠義)—Tokugawa Ieyasu’s fourth son—being a few minutes walk away from the station.


Ii Naomasa went on to become the Lord of Hikone, too. (Image credit: John Ong)


Ii Naomasa was famous for being the daimyo who drew “first blood” on Ukita Hideie’s (宇喜多秀家) forces, officially commencing the Battle of Sekigahara. 


Just some heads up... (Image credit: John Ong)


Just beside Ii Naomasa’s campground, lies the Eastern Head Mount (東首塚 Higashi-Kubizuka). As the name suggests, this was where the heads of those killed from the Eastern Army were buried. 


(Image credit: John Ong)


Cycling along a banner-filled main road, across the street from Sekigahara Town Hall (関ヶ原市役所 Sekigahara chōyakuba) and the newly built Gifu Sekigahara Battlefield Memorial Museum (岐阜関ケ原古戦場記念館 Gifu Sekigahara Kosenjo Kinenkan), will be the final campground of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康最後陣跡 Tokugawa ieyasu saigo-jin ato). 


Gifu Sekigahara Battlefield Memorial Museum (岐阜関ケ原古戦場記念館)
Address: 894-55 Sekigahara, Fuwa-gun, Gifu 503-1501
Nearest station: JR Sekigahara Station (JR関ヶ原駅) 
Opening hours: 09:30-17:00
Admission fee: ¥500
Tel: +81-584-47-6070


Kinda homely, don’t you think? (Image credit: John Ong)


Situated beside a small park, take a break at the site where the legendary daimyo held his post-battle meeting with his allies and was presented with the decapitated heads of his enemies. 


(Image credit: John Ong)


Pass the main road, at an intersection that cuts through the middle of an unobstructed field, marks the Kessenchi (決戦地 Decisive Battleground)—the site where the decisive battle of Sekigahara was fought, and history was made. 


(Image credit: John Ong)


It’s no secret the Eastern Army won Sekigahara. By the time forces of both armies met for the final battle, many from Mitsunari’s forces had already fled or died. Still, those who stayed fought valiantly until the end. 


The Kessenchi separates the campgrounds of Ishida Mitsunari and Tokugawa Ieyasu, and it is from this site, where western landmarks await.


To the West

Daiichi Daiman Daikichi. (Image credit: John Ong)


The campground of Ishida Mitsunari (石田三成陣跡) is located on top of Mount Sasao (笹尾山 Sasao-yama), slightly north of the Kessenchi. 


I can see my house from here. (Image credit: John Ong)


Being situated at the top of a small mountain gave Mitsunari a good vantage point during the time of the battle, but now offers visitors one of the best views of the town. 


Ishida Mitsunari was once a senior retainer to Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the Lord of Sawayama Castle (佐和山城 Sawayama-jō). After his defeat at Sekigahara, Ii Naomasa would destroy Sawayama Castle, and used much of the former castle’s walls and building to build Hikone Castle (彦根城 Hikone-jō). 


(Image credit: John Ong)


Also at Mount Sasao, occupying the foot of the mountain, is the campground of one of Mitsunari’s most trusted generals—Shima Sakon (島左近陣跡).


(Image credit: John Ong)


Continuing southwards, passing through several residential streets, I arrived at the campgrounds of Shimazu Yoshihiro (島津義弘陣跡). The night before the battle, Shimazu Yoshihiro was known to have proposed the idea of a surprise night attack against the eastern army—to take the enemy by surprise. The idea ultimately did not pass, but it showed the unconventionality of Yoshihiro and his clan in general. 


Many centuries later, at the twilight of the Edo Era (江戸時代 Edo-jidai), descendants of the Shimazu clan overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate under the name of the Emperor, ushering the Meiji Era (明治時代 Meiji-jidai). 


There is a rustic shrine adjacent to the campgrounds called Shinmei Shrine (神明神社 Shinmei-jinja), which is dedicated to the sun god Amaterasu-okami (天照大御神). 


Shinmei Shrine (神明神社)
Address: 1871-1 Sekigahara, Fuwa-gun, Gifu 503-1501
Nearest station: JR Sekigahara Station (JR関ヶ原駅) 
Opening hours: 24 hours
Admission fee: Free


There’s a small baseball field nearby too. (Image credit: John Ong)


Finally, I ended my journey at the site where the first battle of Sekigahara began—Kaisenchi (開線地). Kaisenchi is located beside a car park further south of Shimazu Yoshihiro’s campground.


There’s a start to everything. (Image credit: John Ong)


The Kaisenchi marks the location where on the foggy morning of 21 October 1600, forces of Ii Naomasa, and Matsudaira Tadayoshi attacked Ukita Hideie’s forces, commencing the Battle of Sekigahara.


The aftermath

(Image credit: John Ong)


Sekigahara was one of, if not, the bloodiest and biggest battle of samurai history, seeing a death toll of as high as 30,000 samurai. 


Three years after Sekighara, Tokugawa Ieyasu took the title of Shogun (将軍), and like Oda Nobunaga (織田信長) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi before him, united Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate (徳川幕府 Tokugawa bakufu).


Daiichi Daiman Daikichi

(Image credit: John Ong)


As I only had a day to spare, I was unable to visit some of the more distant campgrounds of the western army like those of Ukita Hideie, Kobayakawa Hideaki (小早川秀秋), and Otani Yoshitsugu (大谷吉継)—daimyos legendary in their own right, to name a few. 


But perhaps one of you can explore those campgrounds in my place the next time you are in Sekigahara. Do drop me a buzz if you do. I would be so jealous. Oh, if you're there during October, do participate in the Battle of Sekigahara Festival (関ヶ原合戦祭り). You might get a chance to wear some Samurai outfits! 


And that concludes my journey back in time, across a small countryside town, where across its fields and forests, samurai—the symbol of a bygone era—fought for what they believed to be their vision of a united Japan.


Header image credit: John Ong


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