Fall of a Great Samurai


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Asia » Japan » Nagano » Ueda
October 14th 2017
Published: November 29th 2017
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Hello my fellow travellers!

Me and Tran left together this morning and took the local train to Nagano where we switched to the shinkansen (bullet train) bound for Tokyo. He was going to Tokyo to write an exam, while I would jump of in Karuizawa where I would visit the Shiraito Falls. The Shiraito Falls is the kind of waterfall that is fairly wide and where the water resemble hanging threads of silk which is how it get's it name. Last year I visited another waterfall with the same name in Fujinomiya at the foot of Mt. Fuji. The Shiraito Falls in Fujinomiya was truly breathtaking and I were hoping that this waterfall would also be beautiful in a similar fashion.

Just as with the last two days in Nagano it was raining quite heavily today. Unfortunately I could no longer borrow Tran's umbrella and I also had to bring my backpack along with me, but I figured it should be alright any way as I didn't really plan to walk around very much today.

When the train rolled into Karuizawa I said my goodbyes to Tran for this year and then left the train. I had already checked up on busses out to the Shiraito Falls, and from what I had read it would take about thirty minutes from the train station. I asked one of the station employees though, just in case, but he said there were no busses running there at the moment. I decided to take a chance any way and walked out to the bus stop only to find a bus standing there waiting very nicely for me. I'm guessing that perhaps the station employee either misunderstood me or didn't know but didn't want to appear rude.

From the outlook it seemed pretty gloomy though, it was really pouring down and it was actually getting quite cold, but I figured I'd need something to do with my day since my flight doesn't leave until tonight. I just wished that I had an umbrella and I was starting to contemplate investing in a new backpack with mesh nets on the sides so that I could carry a small umbrella with me for situations like this.

As the bus reached stopped at the stop for the waterfall I jumped off in a hurry and quickly ran into shelter under a roof. There a gentleman was barbecuing some fresh fish that smelled absolutely delicious and really made my mouth water. If I hadn't stuffed myself this morning before I left I would have been all over that fish before going to the waterfall. I asked the gentleman if he might have an umbrella to lend me and he went looking through his things and soon came back with an umbrella that he handed to me. I was really grateful to him and with the umbrella as protection against the weather I took the short stroll up to the the Shiraito Falls.

It's really beautiful, albeit not as large or impressive as the one in Fujinomiya. It's fairly wide but it's only like a metre or so in height, it does however create a really picturesque setting and it was a perfect place to take some beautiful photographs. I was a bit surprised to find so many tourists huddled together here though, there were quite literally busload after busload being poured into this small area. I assume that this is part of an established tour route. I got to talking to some of them and they all came from Taiwan and they took some pictures of us together. They were all really friendly and they actually kept the talking at a pretty decent level so it was quite possible to enjoy the scenic picture despite the number of people, I shudder at thought of what it would have been like with the same amount of people from mainland China.

The bus tourists didn't really stay very long though in general, so I actually had quite a few opportunities when there were no other people around. People mostly just went up, shot a few pictures and then left again for their tour busses that would drive them to their next destinations. I still have to wait for quite some time before my next bus back to Karuizawa Station so I had ample opportunity to enjoy myself, especially since I had an umbrella to shield myself from the elements, thanks to the nice gentleman.

As the time came for when the bus back to Karuizawa was set to arrive I went back to the nice gentleman and returned his umbrella and then I waited under his roof until the bus came. I quickly jumped on it, so to not stay in the rain to long, and when I came to the station I took the next shinkansen to Ueda to visit the Ueda Castle. I was satisfied with my brief visit to Karuizawa even though there seems to be quite some other interesting sights to see here.

As I stepped of the train in Ueda and left the station the first thing that I noticed was the very familiar rokumonsen which was the crest of the Sanada clan. It was one of the most famous clans of the Sengoku period (1467–1568), popularly known as the "Age of Warring States". To be honest I had no idea that Ueda was the old hometown of such an illustrious clan so I was instantly excited that I came here. I just wish that I had more time available to be able to explore as much as possible of their great legacy. I walked across from the station to a proud equestrian statue of one of the most famous of the members of the clan, Sanada Yukimura (1567–1615)), who was considered by many to be the greatest samurai of the Sengoku period and who was known as the "Crimson Demon of War".

The Sanada clan was originally vassals to the Takeda clan and they used to make up a large part of their highly effective war machine. However, after the death of Takeda Shingen (1521–1573) the control of the clan fell on his son Takeda Katsuyori (1546–1582) who was unfortunately less capable than his famous father. He led his forces into the fateful Battle of Nagashino in 1575 where the famous Takeda cavalry was decimated by the firearms of Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) who had constructed strong wooden stockades for them to take cover behind, shielding them from any effective cavalry charge while they laid down salvo after salvo on the storming Takeda cavalry.

This was such a devastating blow to the Takeda clan that they never really recovered from it. The Sanada clan fought with the Takeda clan in the battle and two of Sanada Yukimura's older brothers died on the battlefield. With the Takeda clan declining and several members of the clan dead the Sanada clan surrendered to Oda Nobunaga and eventually became his vassals instead.

However, in 1582 Oda Nobunaga was betrayed by one of his generals, Akechi Mitsuhide (1528–1582), who attacked him with his retinue while he was resting at the temple of Honnō-ji. Mitsuhide burned down the temple with Nobunaga still inside it. Legend says that Nobunaga committed seppuku (ritual suicide), however his body was never recovered and some claim that he managed to escape the fire. Afterwards Mitsuhide attacked the oldest son of Nobunaga who then committed suicide as his father had. This treacherous attack on Nobunaga became known as the Honnō-ji incident.

After the death of Oda Nobunaga, the Sanada clan instead became vassals to his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598), who would continue the work of Nobunaga and go on to unify Japan under his rule. Hideyoshi began by avenging the death of Nobunaga by defeating Akechi Mitsuhide in the Battle of Yamazaki in 1582. After that he the managed to submit his only real rival, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616), to his will after a series of inconclusive battles.

As the fighting between the various clans of Japan ended and all of Japan became unified under his rule, Toyotomi Hideyoshi launched a series of invasions into Korea which Sanada Yukimura took part in. However, the invasions came to an end when Hideyoshi died from an illness in 1598. His death rekindled the old power struggle because his heir, Toyotomi Hideyori (1593–1615), still hadn't come of age.

The renewed power struggle came to a head in 1600 as one of the most famous battles in Japanese history, the Battle of Sekigahara, stood between Tokugawa Ieyasu and Ishida Mitsunari (1559–1600). The Sanada clan decided to split their forces between the two sides in order to ensure the survival of the clan regardless of the outcome. Sanada Yukimura and his father Sanada Masayuki (1547–1611) joined Mitsunari while his older brother Sanada Nobuyuki (1566–1656) was sent to join Ieyasu.

Sanada Masayuki took control of Ueda Castle where he managed to use his own 2,000 men to delay an opposing force of almost 40,000 men from joining the main battle. Ultimately it would prove to be futile though as Tokugawa Ieyasu crushed his opposition in the battle and Ishida Mitsunari ended up beheaded.

After the battle Sanada Yukimura and his father was exiled to Mount Kōya, one of the holiest mountains in Japan. Meanwhile Sanada Nobuyuki was given control of the clan as well as control of Ueda Castle. Nobuyuki was ordered to dismantle the castle to ensure that it couldn't be used against Tokugawa Ieyasu again. Yukimura didn't remain in exile though but returned to the fray as he joined an uprising led by Toyotomi Hideyori in 1614. The uprising ended in the Siege of Osaka, in reality two separate sieges, one in the winter of 1614 and one in the summer of 1615. By that time his father had already died though while still in exile.

During the final stage of the siege Sanada Yukimura was in charge of the right wing of the defending army and they fought in the Battle of Dōmyō-ji to prevent the enemy from taking up positions. However, when the commander of the army, Gotō Mototsugu (1565–1615), was shot down the army began to lose ground. After two of his best commanders had fallen Yukimura made the decision to withdraw from the battle and return to fortify the castle.

On his way back though he found himself facing the main enemy army of a 150,000 men and engaged them in the Battle of Tennō-ji, the final battle of the siege. During the battle he saw an opportunity to break through the enemy centre and sent a dispatch to Toyotomi Hideyoshi to sally forth from the castle and attack. Unfortunately Hideyoshi didn't arrive it in time and eventually Sanada Yukimura, having a substantially smaller force, found himself completely surrounded and exhausted from battle.

When he was recognised by his enemies he knew that his time had come to an end and he accepted his fate with grace. He removed his helmet and confirmed is identity to his enemies around him, then he sat himself down on a camp-stool and allowed his head to be taken without further resistance. In such an epic manner the life of one of the greatest samurai of Japanese history came to an end.

Ueda Castle, or rather what remains of it, is only about a 15 minute walk from the station. Most of it was dismantled after the Battle of Sekigahara but it has been rebuilt in parts over the years and there are some parts of it that are still original, more specifically the north, south and west towers. The main gate of the castle is Yaguramon Gate although the current one is a reconstruction. On the grounds of the castle there is also the small but beautiful Sanada Shrine, which was originally founded as the Matsudaira Shrine in 1879 but then changed it's name in 1963. Some of Sanada Nobushige's armour are housed in the shrine today.

While the shrine was nice, it didn't stand out that much on it's own. However, the fact that it stood on this site combined with the historical background of the previous owners of the castle made me purchase an ema (lit. "picture-horse") which is a small wooden plaque that represents the horses that were previously used to carry the messages to the kami (deity). Because horses are expensive ema are now used instead to present your wish or prayer to the kami. This one had a beautiful motif with the iconic helm of Sanada Yukimura. Usually you will write your wish or prayer on the ema and then hang it up at the shrine but it's not required so I will bring mine home to keep in my kamidana (god-shelf) I also bought an omamori (protective charm) for good fortune which I will also keep in my kamidana at home.

Just as with Matsumoto Castle this castle had entertainers dressed up as it's former famous inhabitants such as Sanada Yukimura. I believe the others were meant to represent the Sanada Ten Braves, a most likely fictional group of ninja (though possibly based on real-life persons) that is said to have aided Sanada Yukimura during the Sengoku period. They were mentioned in the novel Sanada Sandaiki which was written and published during the Edo period (1603–1868).

While I was there they put on a performance about the history of Sanada Yukimura and the Sanada Ten Braves but unfortunately they held it a little bit away from the castle in front of a more modern building. It didn't serve as a good background which was a shame but I still stayed and watched it for a while as the actors were talented and entertaining to watch.

Afterwards I made my way over to the Naganoken Ueda High School, the reason for that was because one of the school entrances is actually the former entrance to the residence that Sanada Nobuyuki built for himself when he was required to dismantle Ueda Castle. Only the gate, a bit of the facade and parts of the moat still remains but they do make for a striking entrance to the school grounds.

I debated with myself for a while if I should continue to explore Ueda and the remnants of the Sanada clan or if I should return to Nagano and visit the Zenkō-ji Temple. I finally decided to go back to Nagano as I figured I wouldn't have enough time to really do what I wanted in Ueda anyway since most of the sights are spread out over a quite large area. I decided to return here another time instead and really immerse myself in the lore of the Sanada clan at that time.

When I came back to Nagano I decided to walk up to Zenkō-ji Temple and then take the bus back as I still had the bus ticket left from yesterday that was valid for one trip between Zenkō-ji Temple and Nagano Station. Outside of the station was a big music performance held by a high school and I hoped that they would still be there when I returned from Zenkō-ji Temple so that I could enjoy the music for a while before leaving Nagano. The road up to Zenkō-ji Temple was really beautiful with several old building lining the street and I felt that it was the right decision to walk there.

As I got closer to the temple though I could see more and more people piling up and I knew that this would be a crowded affair, I was just hoping that there wouldn't be too many loud tourists. I first passed through the Niōmon Gate, as always guarded by the two muscular and wrathful Niō, Misshaku Kongō and Naraen Kongō who are said to have guarded Buddha himself on his journey. They now guard Buddhist temples against the enemies of Buddhism. Hanging beneath them there were a lot of waraji (straw sandals), this is an old tradition where people offer up waraji here in the hope of having healthy feet or to receive protection while travelling. While I didn't have any waraji to offer up myself I still hope that the Niō will keep me safe on my travels.

Once I passed through the Niōmon Gate I came upon a path lined with shops and stores, similar to what I experienced at Sensō-ji Temple in Tokyo last year. I believe that this is fairly common at larger temples and it's probably a good source of income for the temples but I can't deny that it annoys me just a little bit.

As I followed the path towards the main part of the complex I passed the statues of the Rokujizō which are the six Bodhisattvas that gave up their own Buddhist enlightenment in order to help others achieve salvation. They are also able to communicate with all six realms of rebirth and existence, the gods' realm, the demon realm, the human realm, the animal realm, the hungry ghost realm and the hell realm. In front of the statues there was also a nice performance being held with drums and dancing which created a nice atmosphere to walk around in.

After passing through all the shops I entered the temple grounds through the Sanmon Gate which is the most important gate of the temple complex in Zen Buddhism and an important gate in Jōdo Buddhism. Zenkō-ji Temple is actually old enough that it precedes the time when Buddhism was split into several different schools in Japan. Because of this it's actually run by two different schools of Buddhism, the Tendai and the Jōdo. I must admit that I still need to study the different schools of Japanese Buddhism as I don't really know what separates them. The Sanmon Gate is considered an Important Cultural Property and it contains five statues of Buddha that are hidden from public viewing as well as a plaque with calligraphy written by an imperial prince.

Finally I came before the massive hondō (main hall) of the temple. The hondō is listed as a National Treasure and it's easy to see why as it's quite breathtaking. Zenkō-ji Temple is one of the most important temples in Japan as it's the guardian of the first ever statue of Buddha to come to Japan. The original statue is never shown to the public though, it's actually even prohibited for the head priest to view it, such is the nature of it's secrecy. It's called a hibutsu (hidden Buddha) but a replica of it called Maedachi Honzon was made in the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and it's displayed once every seven years in a festival called Gokaichō Festival (lit. "Opening the Curtain Festival").

Before I approached the hondō to offer up my prayer I first went to the temizuya (water purification pavilion) to perform the temizu (purification ritual) and then to the kōro (incense burner) where I covered myself with the smoke of the incense so that I would approach Buddha with a pure body and mind.

I must admit though that for today it was a bit difficult to get fully immersed and enjoy the experience due to the massive crowd that was gathered in front of the hondō. I've never been one for large crowds and I rather prefer when there's not to many people around. Especially when it comes to religious rituals and sites. Even though there were a lot of people here most of them was fortunately Japanese even though there were a fair amount of foreign tourists as well. The aura was still on a whole quite respectful and once I got away from the area immediately in front of the hondō the crowds immediately thinned out considerably.

Walking around the hondō, seeing it from all angles, I managed to get a quite unobstructed view since all the people were either at the front of it or inside it. As I was on the backside of it I hailed a nice gentleman who was kind enough to take my picture in front of the hondō despite him being in a bit of a hurry.

As I kept walking around I came before the kyōzō (sutra repository) which was constructed in 1759 and is marked as an Important Cultural Property. I hope to one day be able to turn the rinzō (revolving repository) inside one of these as it's said to grant religious edification equal to that of reading all the sutra contained within.

Next I came to the daikanjin (residency of the high priest of the Tendai sect), where there were hardly any people around so it was quite possible to seek a bit of refuge and quiet contemplation here rather than at the hondō. While walking around I also managed to find a beautiful omamori granting good fortune in matchmaking. I hope this one will give me a good result as I've, lately, started to think that perhaps it's time now to put my single lifestyle behind me and start a family.

After I left the area of the daikanjin I came to talking with a nice gentlemen while we were waiting for a beautiful photo spot to open up. To be honest I'd say that the conversation with him was probably the most pleasant part about my visit to Zenkō-ji Temple. After that lovely conversation I decided to call it a day though and I returned to the station where I managed to catch the last part of the high school music performance. Afterwards I went to eat a final bowl of delicious noodles, it was the last proper bowl of noodles I'll be able to enjoy in a long time so I savoured it accordingly.

Finally I said my goodbyes to Nagano and took the shinkansen back to Tokyo where I switched for the express train to Narita International Airport. Then followed the flight, with overlay in Doha, back home. I Arrived back at my house after a solid 40 hours awake where I, in a jet lagged and sleep deprived state, somehow managed to end this trip by booking a flight to Gdańsk in Poland next month. So I guess my next trip will be to Poland and I have no idea what I'm going to do there but I'm sure it will be nice.

Until next time I wish you all peace and happy travels!


Additional photos below
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29th November 2017

Endings and beginnings
Thanks for taking us along on your adventures around Japan, and a special thanks for the rich cultural details you shared. Being awake for 40 hours is brutal, and I think you'll have to elaborate on 'I somehow managed to end this trip by booking a flight to Gdansk in Poland next month'! :) I look forward to your adventures in Poland in the heart of winter :)
30th November 2017

Endings and beginnings
Thank you! I'm really happy that you've enjoyed reading about the trip. I had been thinking about going to Gdansk for a while because I've heard it's really beautiful and Ryanair fly there from my local airport and I found a return flight for 20 euro so I didn't think twice but just booked it and when I woke up in the morning after I found the confirmation in the mail. :-P
29th November 2017

What a great trip!!!
Thanks for sharing. I'm looking forward to Poland. Both countries are on my must see list.
30th November 2017

What a great trip!!!
Thank you! I had a really good time as always. Poland is really nice, I was there a few years ago as well and I had a great time this time also, I will probably start posting up from the Poland trip this weekend. :)
1st December 2017
Statue of Sanada Yukimura

Sanada Yukimura
Thank you for the story of this greatest samurai Per-Olof. Sounds like a rather full-on way to end your Japanese foray. Until next time did you say?
1st December 2017
Statue of Sanada Yukimura

Sanada Yukimura
Thank you yourself my dancing friend, I'm really happy that you liked it. :) I did have a full day to end my time in Japan this time. Next time I go back to Japan I'm planning to walk the pilgrimage Kumano Kodo.
2nd December 2017

Great Journey!
Thank you for a wonderful insight into your amazing travels around Japan, and Qatar. Your attention to detail is palpable, and I've really learned lots about the culture, history and religion of Japan. You certainly pack lots into your travelling! Thank you for giving me a taster for my planned trip next year to Japan. And exciting to read that you've already planned your next trip to Gdansk! I look forward to reading about it :)
2nd December 2017

Great Journey!
Thank you my friend! I had a really great time on this trip and I hope that it will give your inspiration for your own upcoming trip. Hopefully I'll be able to write about my first trip to Japan as well before you go. :)
7th December 2017
Shiraito Falls

That's nice
We are thinking about maybe going to Japan next year. We might go to this place then. /Ake
8th December 2017
Shiraito Falls

That's nice
It is, although I'd say the one near Fuji is nicer. ^_^

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