Sekigahara: A Battlefield Guide. History, sites and getting around

Fair warning, this is a post all about history! The Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 was a big battle that decided Tokugawa's soon-to-be position as the shogun of Japan after his victory with the Eastern forces. It still took three years for his shogunate to officially begin, but Sekigahara is often considered the unofficial start. If you want to visit the place where this important battle took place, here's your guide and what you need to know about it!


Long story very short, Toyotomi Hideyoshi became very influential, unified Japan and eventually died. However, before he died he had a son: Toyotomi Hideyori. Hideyoshi wanted his son to succeed him, unfortunately he wasn’t next in line because he had a nephew (Hidetsugu) who would go first, followed by Hideyasu (a son adopted from Tokugawa Ieyasu). Hideyoshi took care of this by ordering his nephew to commit seppuku and Hideyasu was adopted by a different clan of lesser importance.

Toyotomi Hideyori was still a small boy when Hideyoshi died (5 years old) and not yet able to take on his father’s role, so Hideyoshi had left five regents (go-tairo, in Japanese) in charge until he became of age. Maeda Toshiie, one of the regents, died shortly after and Tokugawa Ieyasu, another of teh regents, saw this as his chance to take control of the country.
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We can partially blame Uesugi Kagekatsu for the start of the battle of Sekigahara. Hideyoshi had moved Uesugi to Aizu domain in the north right before his death, it’s thought that this was to spread out his influences so, in case Tokugawa decided to betray his wishes, it would make it harder for him to take control (Uesugi was on good terms with Hideyoshi and wouldn't betray him). As a newly appointed lord of the lands, Uesugi decided to build a castle. He did so without telling Tokugawa about it first and this angered Tokugawa enough for him to want to head north from Edo (today Tokyo) with an army to see what Uesugi had in mind. Many of Tokugawa’s men further south also accompanied him, hence vacating the Osaka area.
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Meanwhile, Ishida Mitsunari in his home Sawayama Castle (Hikone), met with Ōtani Yoshitsugu, Mashita Nagamori, and Ankokuji Ekei. They knew Tokugawa would go against Hideyoshi's wishes and so forged an alliance to avoid him taking control of the country, inviting Mōri Terumoto to be its head. Mori seized Osaka Castle for their base of operations since there were now fewer of Tokugawa’s forces in Osaka, making it an easy target.
Mitsunari also wanted to control the traditional capital city of Kyoto so he could properly challenge Tokugawa’s power. So Mitsunari’s forces headed for Gifu Castle (controlled by his ally Oda Hidenobu) in order to use it as a staging area to move on Kyoto.

Ieyasu received news of the situation in the Kansai region and, instead of going for Uesugi, he decided to march down to Osaka instead with some 30,000 men (his subordinates led another 40,000 men). Splitting up his troops, he followed the Tokaido road along the coast, while his son took the rest through the Nakasendo route.
Who was on each side of the battle.
Mitsunari, by the way, was having trouble taking over Fushimi Castle (halfway between Osaka and Kyoto) which was controlled by Tokugawa ally Torii Mototada. He took ten days to win and by this time Tokugawa forces had taken over Gifu Castle in the fierce Battle of Gifu Castle, obligating Ishida to retreat west from Gifu.
Ishida and his forces stopped at Sekigahara for a rest and deployed into a defensive position. At dawn of Oct.21, Tokugawa's advanced guard stumbled into Ishida's army. Neither side saw each other due to the dense fog and both sides panicked and withdrew. This resulted in both being aware of their adversary's presence. Ishida held his current defensive position and Tokugawa deployed his own forces. Around 8am wind blew away the fog, both sides noticed their respective adversary's positions and the battle began.
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Sekigahara is right next to the border between Gifu and Shiga Prefectures, in the past it was where this great battle took place but today is a small quiet town dotted with memorials and landmarks.

From Nagoya
Take the JR Tokaido Line Special Rapid (direction Maibara) and get off at Sekigahara Station. Another option is to use the JR Tokaido Shinkansen  (direction Osaka) and get off at Maibara, then hop onto the JR Tokaido Line (direction Ogaki, Gifu) and get off at Sekigahara. However, the first option is generally faster.

From Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka
Take the JR Tokaido Shinkansen to Maibara, then hop onto the JR Tokaido Line (direction Gifu) until Sekigahara Station.

They rent bikes near the station, but you can also opt to walk between the sites instead.
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 Sekigahara is visited by many Japanese tourists and so the routes are well-signed, I'd even say it's the best-signed place I've ever visited in Japan. Even when going out to the further spots on the mountains or hidden in the forest, it would be quite difficult to get lost. They've put great efforts into making it accessible for English visitors too and so all the signs and sights' information boards have English.

This is the route I did, I spent the morning in Hikone and came to Sekigahara later in the day, leaving when it was already dark. While I spent the last hours looking at fireflies and trains, overall I did take 5h to do the whole walk, including a bento lunch break at one of the camps. If you go in winter, it will get dark much sooner, so I'd recommend this as a full day for this itinerary if you wake up late or a long half-day if you start early. If you have less time, simply cut out a few of the further away sites. From here on, I'll put the history in images over black so you can save them and take them with you to the sights!

1- Sekigahara Station Tourist Information Center!
Right in front of the only exit of the station is the Information Centre, where you can buy numerous souvenirs, food and drinks with the faces of famous warlords. They have curious lockers and useful maps in English that you'll likely want to pick up. Remember that they close at 5pm if you have to pick up your bag or want to buy something before leaving.
Tourist Information Centre and banner road next to the station.
2- Ii Naomasa Campground
From the station it’s just a minute walk uphill, passing by many banners with each warlord’s crest, and over the bridge to the first real site. This is where famous Ii Naomasa had set up his camp.
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3- Eastern Burial Mound
Right next to Ii Naomasa's camp is a big tree. It marks the spot where the heads of those killed from the Eastern Army were burried. There is also a well that was used to clean the heads before inspection.
Excerpt from a book on Japanese warfare etiquete, talking about head inspections.

4- Camp of Tanaka Yoshimasa & Tokugawa Ieyasu's campground
And just another minute down the road are the next sites, they are all very close by in this area, the camps of Tanaka Yoshimasa and, a few steps further down, where Tokugawa Ieyasu held a council meeting after the battle was over and was presented with the decapitated heads of the enemy’s leaders.
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5- Sekigahara Local Museum
It's best to visit this site early on in the day because they have diagrams and a video explaining the battle (in English and Japanese), armours and weapons used. Good for an introduction before visiting the rest of the sites.

6- Tadaoki Hosokawa's Camp
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7- Nagamasa Kuroda and Shigekado Takenaka’s camp
This was one of my favourite sites because the road turns to trail and winds up through a bamboo forest. Signs warned of bears so I took out my bells and pretended I wasn’t paranoid. I don’t mind wild pigs, I live in the forest in Spain so I come across them every other week, but I would be quite terrified if I ever saw a bear… Either way, the bells were annoyingly effective and jingled at the slightest move. At the end of the small forest are some nice views over the town.
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8- Location of the Final Battle
I followed the signs around a couple of other lakes and down onto the road again, which led to the final battlesite. I recommend taking the lake trail instead of going through the town if you want to see more bamboo!  Many forces had already ran away by this point in the battle but the solitary and helpless forces of Ishida fought valiantly until the end at this spot.
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9- Ishida Mitsunari's camp
If you only visit one campsite, it should probably be this one, Ishida Mitsunari was head of the western alliance and they’ve set up a wooden fence to imitate what the camp would’ve looked like. From here there are also nice views over the town.
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10- Shimazu Yoshihiro and Yukinaga Konishi campgrounds
The scenery changes a bit here, from the bamboo forests to grass and rice fields and long empty roads. These are two minor warlords but they're on the way to the cedar forest which has more interesting sites.
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11- Ukita Hideie's campground
Ukita is one of my favourite lords in Sekigahara, won only by Otani Yoshitsugu nearby, so skipping this site wasn't an option for me. The path from the last site leaves the town behind and sets off into the forest, this site already being quite secluded, hidden next to a small shrine.
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12- Hiratsuka Tamehiro's campground
Next to the road, this is your chance to decide whether you want to continue the path throuhg the forest. If you don't want to go all the way up to Otani Yoshitsugu's camp, you can simply continue down the road and you'll be back in town a couple minutes later.
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13- Otani Yoshitsugu's grave
Otani Yoshitsugu’s grave which is 20min further along. Along the trail I crossed a bridge over a dam and saw many ropes in the trees. I don’t quite know what the ropes were for, but at one point they seemed to tie together all the trees in the area. My best guess is to avoid bear from crossing and into the town. Otani Yoshitsugu was the only warlord to commit seppuku at Sekigahara, you can read about his grave in the image above.
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14- Otani Yoshitsugu's campground
Continuing through the forest, some 5-10 minutes later you'll start to see Otani's blue feather banners and his camp's marker. Here you'll also be treated to some interesting views: one of the only places where you can see both the Tokaido and Nakasendo trails together thanks to a funny trick. The Nakasendo and Tokaido were two trails connecting Edo with Kyoto, one going along the coast and the other through the mountins inland. Sekigahara was a post town of the Nakasendo, but you can see the JR Tokaido Line next to the old road here!
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15- Fukushima Masanori's campground
Back in town after crossing the train tracks, I started making my way back to the station. He was also a very famous warlord, his marker is in a small shrine along the road.
Near here is also “Fuwa no seki ato”, used to be a gate where passerby had to show a certificate that told of their destination and mobile items, when using the old Nakasendo.
16- Takatora Todo's campground
Located just inside the school grounds, but you can go in to take a look at it!

17- Western head Burial Mound
Like the already mentioned Eastern Burial Mound, it marks the spot where the heads of those killed from the Western Army were burried after inspection.

18- Honda Tadakatsu's campground
The last campground within walking distance to the station. Where the itinerary officially ends!

There are other landmarks that I didn't visit, such as Kikkawa's campground, Kobayakawa on Mt.Matsuo or Tokugawa's initial camp, because they were all quite further away. However, if you look closely for it, you can see Tokugawa's camp from the local train heading in direction Ogaki/Gifu. If you will be going out to them, here's some information on both traitors!
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There is more to do in Sekigahara beyond just visiting the memorials. The shinkansen zips by quickly over a lake in the area, making for some good photos (if you're fast enough to catch it in teh frame!), there are tea fields further afield and, because I was there in June, I was lucky enough to see fireflies next to the river as well as a small festival they were doing! This is not the festival I saw, but the most important one in Sekigahara:

Battle of Sekigahara Festival (関ケ原合戦祭り)
Generally considered Japan's best event for history fans, the festival's main event is a historical reenactment of the battle, with the participants dressed in full armour! The dates of the festival change every year, but as the Battle of Sekigahara was fought on October 21st, 1600 CE, the Battle of Sekigahara Festival tends to fall on the weekend closest to that date. 
Even though I visited for just a small event, I was able to see many people in armours too, and they pulled me up onto the stage and gave me a mask so I could participate in a show.

Overall, it was a very long and busy (and very fun!) day for me in Sekigahara, but I'd say it's almost a must-see for anyone interested in that period of Japanese history. A small town, but so many stories behind it mixed in with the countryside charm! Have any of you been to Sekigahara?

Sam Lesmana