Samurai Battle Experience in Historic Kawanakajima, Japan

Kawanakajima Samurai Battle -- Photo by George Popescu
The battle of Kawanakajima, fought in the mid-16th century, was the fiercest of a series of five clashes between two famous warlords, Kenshin Uesugi and Shingen Takeda. I recently joined hundreds of participants for the annual reenactment of this historic battle.
Kawanakajima battle, fought by the Fuefuki river in Yamanashi, northeast of Tokyo, was one of the most famous battles of days past. Two warlords vying for more territory clashed repeatedly. As they were each skilled generals with many soldiers under their command, their struggles became an important part of Japanese history. Every year in Yamanashi prefecture a mock battle is staged reenacting this key encounter, and this year I became one of the soldiers!
Samurai Battle of Kawanakajima, Yamanashi
The event is attended by hundreds of people, each playing a specific role in the reenactment. Participants, both Japanese and foreigners, are excited to experience such a large scale event. We began by exchanging our everyday clothes for traditional attire, including a type of armor, special shoes, and a katana, or Japanese sword, as a weapon. The clothes are very well made and authentic, as is the light armor. The katana are also made of metal and are quite heavy; however, they are not sharpened, so we did not have to worry about getting carried away and injuring someone during the reenactment!

Colorful armor at the Kawanakajima Samurai Battle -- Photo by George Popescu
We all got changed together, helped by qualified staff who showed us the traditional ways of wearing and tying the clothes. Being authentic, of course we had no buttons or belts, so the staff had their work cut out to get us all ready in time! Still, when we were dressed in blue or red shirts, according to the army we belonged to, we looked like proper soldiers, ready to parade through the small town to the battlefield.

Some samurai armor was very elaborate -- Photo by George Popescu
Before the battle itself, it was time to rehearse. We split into two groups and watched a short demonstration of how to draw a katana, as well as how to attack and parry. Next, it was our turn to practice in pairs with a member of the opposing army. We all really enjoyed learning how to use a katana: rushing the enemy, getting up close and personal in a clinch, pushing each other back and then rushing again and trying to give the decisive blow. Once we had tried this a couple of times, they showed us how to finish off the opponent with a deadly stroke, as well as how to fall down and die in style! We practiced these newfound techniques and also learned what not to do, such as holding the katana out to the side or running forward with the katana swinging back and forth in one hand.

Foreigners are also welcome to join the Kawanakajima Samurai Battle -- Photo by George Popescu
After all this exertion, we had a break for lunch, which was a delicious bento and refreshing green tea. The food was very traditional: rice and egg, as well as some fried meat. Since we were out on the battlefield, we ate lunch sitting on the grass in the midst of nature. It all contributed to the overall experience of being a native of a particular era, preparing for an oncoming battle.

Lunch at the Kawanakajima Samurai Battle -- Photo by George Popescu
Once lunch was over it was finally time for the big event itself. First, the various warlords and generals crossed the bridge to the main area where the audience was waiting. After they were settled on chairs upon a small dais at the front of the battlefield and had introduced themselves it was our turn. Each unit of soldiers from the two armies crossed the bridge and we took our places on either the left or the right of the field. When all the soldiers had arrived, the news of the battle was delivered to each warlord, who decided how to deal with it and what orders to give.
Everyone was ready for battle, but first, some experienced gunmen shot their ancient muskets at one another across the battlefield. These were so loud that they sounded like canons, not just guns! After the deafening sound died down, the battle began in earnest. Each side rushed at each other with expressions of malice and disdain etched upon our faces, clashing in the middle with a great roar. We were all trying to practice what we had learned earlier in the morning and have as much fun as possible at the same time, facing down our opponents and trying to gauge the best angle to strike. Even after defeating a foe, the fight was not over; we immediately searched for another and continued the struggle.

Kawanakajima Samurai Battle -- Photo by George Popescu
After the initial skirmish, the horns were sounded and we retreated back to our sides for a brief respite before the next clash. Meanwhile, some large bales of hay had been set on fire on the nearby river bank and the sounds of horses were heard. A few horsemen appeared and fought fiercely while the story of the battle was recited. Then it was our turn to square off against each other one last time, although many of my fellow soldiers seemed tired already... Nevertheless, we gave it our all in one final skirmish, leaving a few of the soldiers on the ground in the throes of death, or mock death as it were. The triumphant army and the defeated army both retreated a final time, leaving behind those too tired or too injured to rush back at their normal pace. A group of taiko drummers played a final song and the main figures of the era gave their parting speeches from the dais.
All the soldiers crossed the bridge back to the viewing area in an orderly fashion, many with large smiles on our faces from all the fun we’d had, as well as relief at the successful completion of our roles in such an important event. Some of us were the worse for wear, sporting mock injuries and scratches, and all of us were certainly dusty and dirty from fighting in the field, as well as from pretending to die.

Both men and women took part in the Kawanakajima Samurai Battle -- Photo by George Popescu
Once on the other side and away from the dusty field, we took the chance to take some last photos in our traditional soldiers’ outfits, as well as practicing more attacks. All too soon, though, it was time to march through the town to the changing rooms and return to our mundane, everyday clothes. The traditional clothes were surprisingly comfortable, especially in the hot weather that we had during the event. They were also quite easy to move in, which explains why some people wear similar outfits even today.
This event, which takes place yearly, is definitely a sight to be seen or, even better, to be enjoyed in person as part of one of the armies. Aside from the obvious lack of the smell of blood and cries of pain, the event is extremely accurate and tries very hard to give participants the best possible experience, without taking itself too seriously. Some of the participants are experienced, having taken part several times already, and they do their best to teach the newcomers. At the end of the day, all the participants get a great sense of satisfaction from having taken part together in a reenactment of one of the greatest battles in Japan’s history. I will certainly never forget my experience as a soldier!

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George Popescu