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Ue-lcome to Ueda: A castle town rich in samurai history

Ue-lcome to Ueda: A castle town rich in samurai history

Where in Japan do you think of at the mention of “samurai town”? With its rich history, Japan is filled with many places that retain the atmosphere of castle towns of the past, and in this article we’ll be introducing Ueda (上田), a samurai town known for being the homeland of one of Japan’s most popular samurai clans, the Sanada Clan (真田家 Sanada-ke). If you’re a history fan, Ueda is definitely a place you should check out; it’s one of Nagano Prefecture’s hidden gems that offers rich history and culture, inspiring temples, relaxing hot springs, and a little bit of everything!

 

Ueda is a compact castle town steeped in samurai history, especially relating to the Sanada Clan, Nagano's most prominent samurai clan. One particular member of importance for Ueda is Sanada Yukimura (真田幸村)—birth name Sanada Nobushige (真田信繁)—a powerful samurai warrior during the Sengoku Period (戦国時代 Sengoku-jidai, Warring States Period). Most Japanese people have their own favourite samurai, and in nationwide rankings of popular Sengoku Period warlords (戦国武将 Sengoku Bushо̄), Sanada Yukimura often comes out on top, beating Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga, both of whom were prominent historical figures known as great unifiers of Japan.

 

Must-see spots around Ueda. (Image credit: photoAC (top) and Ueda City Multimedia Information Center (bottom))

 

In addition to its fascinating samurai history, Ueda also offers beautiful cherry blossoms in spring, a relaxing centuries-old onsen, well-preserved ancient temples, and so much more. Let’s check out some of the must-visit places around Ueda!

 

① Ueda Castle Park

Without a doubt, Ueda’s star attraction and must-visit spot is Ueda Castle Park (上田城跡公園 Ueda Jо̄seki Kо̄en), which houses Ueda Castle (上田城 Ueda-jо̄), one of Japan’s 100 Famous Castles. Built in the 16th century by Sanada Masayuki, the father of Sanada Yukimura, Ueda Castle is said to be impregnable, having repelled not one, but two attacks from the Tokugawa army.

 

Ueda Castle in spring. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)

 

Back then, Japan’s feudal warlords were split between the Western Army led by Ishida Mitsunari, and the Eastern Army led by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Both armies would eventually battle it out in Japan's most decisive battle (天下分け目の戦い Tenka Wakeme no Tatakai), the Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原の戦い Sekigahara no tatakai). Living in a tumultuous era fraught with war, in order to ensure the survival of future generations of the Sanada Clan, the family fought on different sides of the war. Sanada Yukimura and his father chose to stay in Ueda and fight against the Tokugawa troops, and despite the overwhelming difference in number of men, even at the end they did not surrender.

 

As history buffs might know, the Eastern Army was the eventual victor of the Battle of Sekigahara. Following their loss, Sanada Yukimura and his father were expelled from Ueda Castle. They should have been executed, but because of Sanada Nobuyuki’s participation in the Eastern Army, they were able to keep their lives, and were instead banished to Kudoyama in present-day Wakayama Prefecture.

 

The Sanada Clan was succeeded by Sanada Nobuyuki, who was later given the Matsushiro Domain to control. If you visit Matsushiro, be sure to check out Matsushiro Castle!

 

Ueda Castle Park in spring. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)

 

During the Meiji Era (1868­–1912), with the abolition of the feudal domain system, Ueda Castle was destroyed, leaving behind only some stones and one turret. The castle site was turned into a public park, and since then, the main gate and other turrets have been rebuilt.

 

Ueda Castle Park is especially stunning in spring, when you can enjoy views of the castle against a beautiful backdrop of delicate pink cherry blossoms (桜 sakura). In the evenings, cherry blossom trees are illuminated, creating a magical atmosphere. With around 1,000 cherry blossom trees of different varieties, a beautiful castle ruins backdrop, and rich history, Ueda Castle Park is one of the most well-loved cherry blossoms spots in eastern Nagano.

 

Four seasons at Ueda Castle. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)

 

Ueda Castle Park can be enjoyed all year round, with pretty pink cherry blossoms in spring, verdant greenery in summer, fiery autumn foliage in fall, and sparkling white snow in winter. No matter the season, it’s relaxing to wander around the spacious castle park and think about the exciting events in history that transpired on these grounds!

 

Autumn at Ueda Castle Park. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)

 

Ueda Castle Park (上田城跡公園)
Address: 6263-i Ninomaru, Ueda-shi, Nagano 386-0026
Access: 12-minute walk from JR Ueda Station (上田駅)
Opening hours: Always open
Admission: Free

 

② Places and events related to the Sanada Clan

Other than Ueda Castle Park, there are many sites of importance around Ueda that are related to the Sanada Clan, which are known as “Sanada Yukari-no-chi” (真田ゆかりの地). Some places are within walking distance of the castle, while others are over at Sanada Village, about 7km from Ueda’s city centre. Let’s check out some of these Yukari-no-chi:

 

Ueda City Centre

Statue of Sanada Yukimura on horseback

Statue of Sanada Yukimura in Ueda City. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)

 

Right in the city centre, in front of Ueda Station, you will find a statue of Sanada Yukimura, who is often called “the best warrior in Japan” (日本一の兵 Hinomoto Ichi no Tsuwamono). Despite being exiled to Kudoyama after the Battle of Sekigahara, he later managed to escape and rejoin the Western Army. During the Summer Siege of Osaka Castle (大坂夏の陣 О̄saka Natsu no Jin), his troops were the only ones from the Western Army to actively attack the headquarters of Tokugawa Ieyasu, and it is said that Sanada Yukimura was the warlord that Tokugawa Ieyasu feared the most.

 

Sanada Shrine

Sanada Shrine. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

For students looking to conquer their examinations, head on over to Sanada Shrine. Sanada Shrine (眞田神社 Sanada Jinja) can be found on the grounds of Ueda Castle Park, and worships the former lords of  Ueda Castle: the Sanada Clan, the Sengoku Clan, and the Matsudaira Clan.

 

Sanada Shrine. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Sanada Shrine is a popular shrine for school examination takers due to Ueda Castle not falling to the hands of the enemy despite two attacks by the Tokugawa army. In particular, during the Second Siege of Ueda (第二次上田合戦 Dainiji Ueda Gassen), despite numbering only 3,000 men, Sanada Yukimura’s troops were able to hold off Tokugawa Hidetada’s troops of 38,000. Tokugawa Hidetada (Tokugawa Ieyasu’s son) eventually gave up and made his way to the Battle of Sekigahara, but was late due to fighting Sanada’s troops at Ueda Castle, and as a result missed the important moment in history.

 

Drawing inspiration from this tale, many students visit Sanada Shrine to pray for luck and good results, in hopes that they can overcome their examinations and emerge victorious. At Sanada Shrine, you can also find a bright red helmet with deer antlers, which is said to have been worn by Sanada Yukimura.

 

Sanada Shrine (眞田神社)
Address: 1-12 Ninomaru, Ueda-shi, Nagano, 386-0026
Access: 17-minute walk from JR Ueda Station (上田駅)
Opening hours: 08:30–17:00 (Closed on Wednesdays except August–October, when it is open every day)
Admission: Free

 

Ikenami Shotaro Sanada Taiheiki-kan

Inside the Ikenami Shotaro Sanada Taiheiki-kan. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)

 

Other than being real historical figures, the Sanada Clan has been the subject of many historical novels, comics, and video games. In recent years, there was an NHK drama called Sanada Maru (真田丸) which aired in 2016, and as a result Ueda experienced a boom in tourism.

 

However, did you know that there was another NHK drama about the Sanada Clan that aired in the mid-1980s? Sanada Taiheiki (真田太平記) tells the story of the Sanada Clan during the late Sengoku Period, and the drama enjoyed immense popularity when it first aired.

 

Exterior of the Ikenami Shotaro Sanada Taiheiki-kan. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)

 

The drama is based on a historical novel of the same name written by Ikenami Shotaro, a Naoki Prize-winning author who wrote numerous historical novels, many of which have been adapted into drama series and films. In Ueda City, you can find the Ikenami Shotaro Sanada Taiheiki-kan (池波正太郎真田太平記館), a memorial museum dedicated to the author and the charms of his beloved novel, Sanada Taiheiki.

 

Ikenami Shotaro Sanada Taiheiki-kan (池波正太郎真田太平記館)
Address: 3-7-3 Chuo, Ueda-shi, Nagano 386-0012
Access: 10-minute walk from JR Ueda Station (上田駅)
Opening hours: 10:00–18:00 (Closed on Wednesdays and during the New Year Holidays)
Admission: ¥400/adult

 

Sanada Ten Braves Monuments

Monuments of the Sanada Ten Braves can be found around Ueda. (Image credit: JR East / Maruyama)

 

Aside from Sanada Taiheiki, another well-known work regarding Sanada Yukimura is the Sanada Sandaiki (真田三代記), which introduces the Sanada Ten Braves (真田十勇士 Sanada Jūyūshi), a group of 10 warriors who assisted Sanada Yukimura. Although these warriors are fictional, it is believed that they have been based on real historical figures. The 10 warriors are:

  • Sarutobi Sasuke (猿飛 佐助) 
  • Kirigakure Saizō (霧隠 才蔵)
  • Miyoshi Seikai (三好 清海) 
  • Miyoshi Isa (三好 伊三) 
  • Anayama Kosuke (穴山 小助)
  • Yuri Kamanosuke (由利 鎌之助)
  • Kakei Jūzō (筧 十蔵) 
  • Unno Rokurō (海野 六郎) 
  • Nezu Jinpachi (根津 甚八) 
  • Mochizuki Rokurō (望月 六郎

 

In Ueda City, you can find monuments of the Sanada Ten Braves scattered around the city, so why not take a walk to explore the city and search for the monuments? To start you off, one of the monuments is right outside the Ikenami Shotaro Sanada Taiheiki-kan. You can find the rest on the map below:

 

Map of the Sanada Ten Braves Monuments around Ueda City.

 

Sanada Village

About 7km northeast of Ueda City is Sanada Village (真田の郷), the site of the Sanada Clan’s former headquarters. Before Ueda Castle was constructed, the Sanada Clan's base was said to be located here.

 

Exterior of the Sanada Clan History Museum. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)

 

While most of the structures are in ruins, there is a museum dedicated to the history of the Sanada family, and the spacious grounds are great for walking, cycling, and enjoying views of nature.

 

Sanada Clan History Museum

Armour display at the Sanada Clan History Museum. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)

 

While in Sanada Village, the Sanada Clan History Museum is the place to visit if you would like to learn more about the Sanada Clan. The museum exhibits various materials about the Sanada Clan, including old documents, armour, portraits, and dioramas of important events in history. In particular, fans of the Sanada Clan will love the lineup of elaborately restored armour of father and sons: father Sanada Masayuki, eldest son Nobuyuki, and second son Yukimura.

 

Sanada Clan History Museum (真田家歴史館)
Address: 2984-1 Motohara, Sanadamachi, Ueda-shi, Nagano 386-2202
Access: From JR Ueda Station (上田駅), take the Sanada-Sugadaira line bus and get off at Yukimura no Sato Yume Kobo-mae Bus Stop (幸村の里夢工房前). Rent a bicycle from Yukimura Yume Kobo, and cycle for 15 minutes to reach the museum.
Opening hours: 09:00–16:00 (Closed on Tuesdays except during mid-July to end-August, when it is open every day)
Admission: ¥250/adult

 

Sanada Residence Remains

Sanada Residence Remains. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)

 

Right next to the Sanada Clan History Museum is the remains of the Sanada Residence (真田氏館跡 Sanada-shi yakata-ato). It is believed that this place used to serve as the residence and headquarters of the Sanada Clan, and was where Sanada Masayuki and his family lived before Ueda Castle was built. Currently, the area is maintained as a mansion park, and is a popular spot in spring for viewing the bright and colourful azaleas (ツツジ tsutsuji), which bloom around mid to late May.

 

Sanada Honjo Ruins

Sanada Honjo Ruins. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)

 

Sanada Honjo Ruins (真田氏本城跡 Sanada-shi Honjо̄ Ato) is the ruins of a mountain castle that was the home of the Sanada Clan for three generations, until Sanada Masayuki built Ueda Castle. It is said that Sanada Honjo was used as a command headquarters in many battles because it was a fortress that made use of the natural terrain. 

 

At an altitude of 890m, you can get a good look at Ueda City below, and maybe get a snippet of what Sanada Masayuki was feeling when he was planning for his battles centuries ago. Although most of the castle’s structures no longer exist, you can still see some dorui (土塁 walls made of earth to prevent invasion), stone foundations, and the empty moat.

 

Map of Sanada related places mentioned in this article.

 

Ueda Sanada Festival

Ueda Sanada Festival. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)

 

The Sanada Clan played an important part in Ueda’s history, and every year in late April, Ueda Castle Park hosts the annual Ueda Sanada Festival (上田真田まつり Ueda Sanada Matsuri) in honour of the Sanada Clan. Decked out in period costumes such as bright red armour and bearing flags with the Sanada Clan’s family crest, the Rokumonsen (六文銭), hundreds of participants join a procession that goes around Ueda Castle Park and the main shopping street of Ueda City.

 

Rifle-firing demonstration. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)

 

The festival also features a large taiko drum performance with 100 drummers, but perhaps one of the most exciting segments of the festival is the rifle-firing demonstration by the artillery squad. The rifle-firing takes place Ueda Castle, and the artillery squad, donning red battle armour and flanked with red flags bearing the Rokumonsen crest, fire feudal-era style rifles to the delight of the crowd. If you plan to visit Ueda in late April, don’t miss this festival!

 

③ Bessho Onsen

Ueda is the perfect weekend getaway, as most of the sights are located near each other or are easy to access. If you enjoy historic temples and soaking in hot springs, be sure to fit Bessho Onsen (別所温泉) into your itinerary.

 

Uedadentetsu train departing Ueda Station. (Image credit: JR East / Maruyama)

 

Just a 30-minute ride on the Uedadentetsu Bessho Line (上田電鉄別所線 Uedadentetsu Bessho-sen) from Ueda, Bessho Onsen has a history of over 1,400 years, and is the oldest hot spring village in Nagano. During the Kamakura Period (1192–1333), it served as the headquarters for the government of Shinshu, Nagano’s old name, and is thus sometimes referred to as the Kamakura of Shinshu (信州の鎌倉 Shinshū no Kamakura). Bessho Onsen is a compact area, and other than hot springs, it is also home to many majestic temples built centuries ago.

 

Hot springs

Clockwise from left: Ishiyu, Aisome no Yu, Daishiyu. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)

 

Even if you do not stay overnight, Bessho Onsen has four public baths for daytime visitors to enjoy. Keep a lookout for Ishiyu (石湯), which as its name suggests features a hot spring set in natural stones.

 

It is said that the warlords of the Sanada Clan came to Bessho Onsen to heal their battle wounds, and Bessho Onsen is also featured heavily in the novel Sanada Taiheiki. Did you know? The stone monument outside Ishiyu that says “真田幸村公隠しの湯” (Sanada Yukimura’s hidden hot spring) was written by Ikenami Shotaro himself, the author of Sanada Taiheki.

 

Nanakuri Footbath at Bessho Onsen. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)

 

If you just want a quick dip to recharge before or after walking around Bessho Onsen, there are also two public footbaths for visitors to use: Nanakuri (ななくり) and О̄yu Yakushi-no-Yu (大湯薬師の湯). The Nanakuri Footbath is made of wood and has a unique octagonal shape, which pays tribute to Anrakuji, a special temple that we’ll be introducing next.

 

Anrakuji

Anrakuj’s wooden octagonal pagodai. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Anrakuji (安楽寺) is the oldest Zen temple in Nagano, and is famed for its wooden octagonal three-storey pagoda (八角三重塔 Hakkaku Sanjū-no-Tо̄), the only octagonal pagoda left in Japan. Anrakuji is estimated to have been built during the Kamakura Period, when it served as a centre of culture and education.

 

The pagoda is located on a hillside behind Anrakuji’s main hall, amongst the lush greenery of pine trees. Due to its importance, Anrakuji’s octagonal three-storey pagoda has been designated as a National Treasure of Japan.

 

Anrakuji (安楽寺)
Address: 2361 Bessho Onsen, Ueda-shi, Nagano 386-1431
Access: 15-minute walk from Bessho Onsen Station (別所温泉駅) on the Uedadentetsu Bessho Line.
Opening hours: 08:00–17:00 (March to October) / 08:00–16:00 (November to February)
Admission: ¥300/adult for the pagoda

 

Jorakuji

Jorakuji has a thatched roof. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Also within walking distance from Bessho Onsen Station is Jorakuji (常楽寺 Jо̄rakuji), a temple with a special feature. What’s unique about Jorakuji is that it has a thatched roof, which it unusual for temples. Behind the temple are stone pagodas believed to have been built in 1262, which have been designated as Important Cultural Properties. The temple grounds also house a small art museum which has various items on display, such as ema (絵馬 wooden wishing boards) painted by famed ukiyoe artist Hokusai.

 

Jorakuji (常楽寺)
Address: 2347 Bessho Onsen, Ueda-shi, Nagano 386-1431
Access: 10-minute walk from Bessho Onsen Station (別所温泉駅) on the Uedadentetsu Bessho Line.
Opening hours:
     Temple: 06:30–17:00 (April to October) / 07:00–16:00 (November to March)
     Art museum: 09:00–17:00 (Closed from 26 December to 25 January)
Admission: ¥100/adult for the temple, ¥500/adult for the art museum

 

Kitamuki Kannon

Kitamuki Kannon. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Rounding up our recommended temples in Bessho Onsen is Kitamuki Kannon (北向観音), which is known to be a power spot for love and relationship luck. The name “kitamuki” means “north-facing”, and Kannon is the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Most temples face the south, but Kitamuki Kannon faces the north, in the direction of Zenkoji Temple (善光寺 Zenkо̄ji) in Nagano City, hence its name.

 

While Zenkoji is said to fulfil wishes for the next life, Kitamuki Kannon is said to grant wishes for the current life. Thus, people believe that visiting both temples will give the best luck. If you’ve been to Zenkoji, don’t forget to drop by Kitamuki Kannon one day!

 

Kitamuki Kannon (北向観音)
Address: 1666 Bessho Onsen, Ueda-shi, Nagano 386-1431
Access: 10-minute walk from Bessho Onsen Station (別所温泉駅) on the Uedadentetsu Bessho Line.
Opening hours: Always open
Admission: Free

 

Map of places in Bessho Onsen mentioned in this article.

 

④ Food

No trip is complete without good food, and Ueda has some delicious eats that you have to try while you’re there. Shinshu has plenty of tasty local food that arose due to its mountainous terrain, and Ueda is no exception. I’d like to introduce Ueda's soul food: ankake yakisoba, as well as two slightly more decadent dishes in Ueda: oidare yakitori and matsutake mushrooms.

 

Ankake yakisoba

Ankake yakisoba, Ueda's soul food. (Image credit: JR East / Maruyama)

 

Every region has its own soul foods: comforting and beloved dishes that everyone eats from time to time. In Ueda, their soul food is ankake yakisoba (あんかけ焼きそば), stir-fried noodles covered with a thick and savoury sauce, which is usually a dashi broth thickened with starch. The noodles are usually topped with pork, seafood, and a hearty helping of vegetables. To people outside Ueda, the dish is sometimes referred to as "Ueda yakisoba" (上田焼きそば).

 

Oidare yakitori

Oidare yakitori. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)

 

When visiting Ueda, the one dish you must try is oidare yakitori (美味だれ焼き鳥). Yakitori (焼き鳥 grilled chicken skewers) can be found almost everywhere in Japan, but what makes Ueda’s oidare yakitori special is its scrumptious sauce. The slightly spicy sauce uses a base of grated garlic and soy sauce, which perfectly complement the chicken and bring out the flavours. Isn’t it fitting that “oidare” means “delicious sauce”?

 

The sauce is meant to be slathered onto the yakitori right before you eat it, so you can control how much or how little sauce to use. Oidare Yakitori has been a beloved local dish for over half a century, and you can find it in many yakitori shops and izakaya around Ueda.

 

Matsutake mushrooms

Matsutake cuisine. (Image credit: JR East / Kobori)

 

The next food, matsutake (松茸), is seasonal, so keep a lookout for it if you visit Ueda during autumn. Matsutake is Japan’s most expensive mushroom, and cannot be cultivated. Matsutake can only be foraged from the wild, and guess what? Nagano is the top producer of matsutake mushrooms in Japan. In particular, the area around Ueda and Bessho Onsen produces a lot of matsutake, so every autumn, when matsutake are in season, you can find many matsutake specialty restaurants there.

 

These high-end, specialty restaurants even offer matsutake set courses, serving up a number of dishes with matsutake as the star ingredient. Matsutake mushrooms have a unique, spicy flavour and deep aroma, and can be enjoyed in many ways. However, to really bring out its flavour, grilling is recommended!

 

Getting there

Exterior of Ueda Station with its three station masters. (Image credit: JR East / Maruyama)

 

Ueda is a compact and beautiful castle town rich in samurai history, with plenty of nature and hot spring getaways just a short ride away. It’s perfect for a day trip or short getaway, especially if you are coming from Tokyo or Nagano, so be sure to check it out!

 

JR Ueda Station is a 90-minute ride on the Hokuriku Shinakansen from JR Tokyo Station (東京駅), or a 10-minute ride on the Hokuriku Shinkansen from JR Nagano Station (長野駅).

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are thinking of visiting Ueda and Nagano, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥18,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Narita Airport and Ueda (~¥19,900). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here

 

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

Header image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center

 

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