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Visit The Sites of Japan’s Historic Battles

Visit the decisive battles of the Warring States Period at the sites of its major battles.

By 5 min read

The Sengoku (Warring States) period (1467–1600) defined the land of the rising sun. Everything associated with classic Japan—legendary samurai, heroes, ninja assassins and epic battles—happened during this time.

Because so much history and stories from that era occurred in modern-day prefectures of Aichi, Kyoto and Nagoya, visiting is an excellent opportunity to visualize the great battles that took place there and follow in the footsteps of men who shaped the future of Japan.

Let’s explore some of those locations and what they look like today.

Battle of Okehazama (1560)

Photo:
The defeat of Imagawa Yoshimoto is reenacted at the Okehazama Historical Battlefield Festival.

Yoshimoto considered it such an easy win that he and his troops became arrogant. Taking advantage of their complacency, Nobunaga crept through the woods towards them. He finally saw his chance when a massive rainstorm hit, obscuring visibility. Oda’s smaller army ambushed their enemy, killing Yoshimoto in a frenzy and throwing his army into disarray.

Where Did It Happen?

The battle occurred near Okehazama Village, now a ward within Aichi Prefecture. The site where Nobunaga lay in wait has since been incorporated into Ohkagakuen University Nagoya College. However, it is difficult to visit without permission.

The site where the “coup de grace” was delivered to Yoshimoto is found in Okehazama Kosenjo Park. Here, there are armor-clad statues of the victor and the loser and a stone marking where the unfortunate Yoshimoto was supposedly laid to rest.

The Okehazama Historical Battlefield Festival is held yearly to commemorate the battle and features a popular parade of local people dressed in samurai armor.

Battle of Nagashino (1575)

Takeda Katsuyori was considered virtually unstoppable thanks to his cavalry strength when he marched on Nagashino Castle. As he led his army to Kyoto, they had to cross Tokugawa territory. Recognizing the threat, Tokugawa Ieyasu turned to his neighbor, Oda Nobunaga, whose lands were also threatened by the advance of the Takeda clan.

Tokugawa Ieyasu recognized that the Takeda clan relied on cavalry charges. The two warlords constructed a series of wooden fences and trenches at Nagashino, with rows of musket-bearing riflemen behind the fortifications. The defenses were designed to slow Takeda’s cavalry charge. This unique combination of tactics threw the fearsome cavalry off balance, ultimately causing them to rout.

Where Did It Happen?

The battle occurred near Nagashino Castle in present-day Aichi Prefecture at Shitaragahara Battle Field. Now, it is mostly a natural area marked by a stone and with some wooden slates to mark the location of the stockades. Every year, the flags of the fallen are raised in a solemn ceremony at Nagashino Castle called The Nagashino Battle Flag Festival. For fans of period costumes, this is a great chance to see authentic samurai clothing and watch people firing muskets.

The area is mostly a sleepy village, with the natural setting and surrounding mountains the main draws. However, every summer, an annual festival is held near Shinshiro Shitaragahara Historical Museum, where the Preservation Council invites local schools to participate in a recreation of the climax of the battle in the Shitaragahara Battlefield Festival.

The Honno-ji Incident (1582)

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Nobunaga’s shrine at Honnoji in Kyoto

In Japan, it is often said that even monkeys fall from trees, or even the best make mistakes. So it was during the “Honno-ji Incident” that master tactician Oda Nobunaga was caught off guard by his general, Akechi Mitsuhide, in a surprise betrayal. Mitsuhide secretly gathered a sizable force and planned a surprise attack on his former leader, who was staying at Honno-ji Temple in Kyoto. Quickly surrounding the temple, their forces caught the usually cautious Nobunaga completely off guard. Nobunaga soon realized that all was lost and chose to commit seppuku (honorable suicide by ritual disemboweling with a sword) rather than be captured alive.

With the victory, Akechi became an important figure in the period. Unfortunately for him, this put a big target on his head that proved irresistible to other warriors trying to make their name. Eventually, it would be Hideyoshi Toyotomi, one of Nobunaga’s most trusted generals, who would avenge his master’s death shortly afterward at the Battle of Yamazaki.

Where Did It Happen?

Honno-ji still exists and can be visited to see where the great samurai committed ritual suicide. The Battle of Yamazaki occurred southwest of Kyoto City, mostly in the hilly and forested terrain around Mount Tenno. A commemorative marker was installed to recognize the battle.

Battle of Sekigahara (1600)

Photo:
The marker at Sekigahara Battlefield in Gifu.

A list of battle sites isn’t complete without the decisive battle of Sekigahara, which is mostly remembered as the setting of Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Kugemusha. Ieyasu Tokugawa’s forces took over in the power vacuum that opened after old rival Hideyoshi Toyotomi died, resulting in a final fight against Hideyoshi’s presumed successor, Mitsunari Ishida. The battle marked the culmination of everything that went before, as Japan’s major samurai families fought for control of Japan.

Tokugawa would emerge victorious, and the unfortunate Ishida would be captured, put on trial, and beheaded, solidifying the Tokugawa clan’s rule over Japan and marking the end of the Warring States period.

Where Did It Happen?

The event occurred in sleepy Gifu Prefecture. The Site of Sekigahara Battleground, where the two great armies met, is marked with a stone and the armies’ flags. The scene is reenacted every October during the Battle of Sekigahara Festival. Despite the raging war reenactment, peaceful attractions exist, such as art installations and sunflower fields.

Ishida’s body was taken to Daitoku-ji in Kyoto for interment. A small area in the temple remains to recognize the man who almost conquered Japan.

What battles fascinate you from Japan’s History? What does the location look like today? Let us know in the comments!

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