A Trip on the Samurai Train ・ Part 3 ・ Yonezawa, Yamagata
Day 3: Joining the Samurai of Yonezawa
Yamagata Prefecture’s Yonezawa was once a castle town crawling with samurai, much like Aizu-Wakamatsu, but you won’t find any big, bold castles still standing in this city. The Yonezawa domain was ruled by the Uesugi clan ー the same samurai receiving top-class sake from the brewers at Kojima Sohonten ー and when the Boshin War began, the Uesugi clan found itself siding with Aizu and other northern domains, facing off against the pro-imperial forces. In the end, the other side won, and Yonezawa’s little castle was sadly demolished shortly after, but the bright side is that Yonezawa still holds on strongly to its cultural traditions and samurai history, even to this day!
Samurai Bands and Japanese Drums at Denkoku-no-Mori
The last day of our samurai-themed trip was all about Yonezawa, and we spent it just about entirely on the grounds where Yonezawa Castle once stood. Constructed on a patch of land just outside the old castle moat, our first stop was Denkoku no Mori, a facility dedicated to cultural performances and a historical Uesugi Museum. On this trip, we were treated to a set of special performances on the patio area out front, starting with Japanese drum specialists Uesugi Daiko. This unique family band has been performing since the year 1948, and now involves three generations, who come together to play all kinds of Japanese music, from pieces strummed out on the shamisen, to folk songs using traditional vocal techniques, and of course performances on taiko drums of all shapes and sizes. Once the family gets started beating out a rhythm on the drums, the beat reverberates through your body, and it’s just about impossible to look away!
After they finish playing, Uesugi Daiko lets audience members try their own hand on the biggest drum they have, an enormous taiko drum that towers overhead. When asked about drumming technique for the enormous drum, they’ll tell you not to worry about it, “just imagine someone you’re mad at and go at it!”
The second performance of the morning was by the Yamagata Ai no Bushotai, who took us back in time to long before even the Boshin War. This group of professional samurai reenactors brings the Sengoku period to life, an era also called the Warring States period, which lasted from 1467 to about 1615. Joining us in the shade outside Denkoku no Mori were three famed military figures, Suibara Chikanori (born 1616), Naoe Kanetsugu (born 1560), and Uesugi Kagekatsu (born 1556), who showed off their fantastic suits of armor as they fought each other to the death in dramatic sword-waving duels, telling stories of real feuds and battles that took place in the final years of the Sengoku period.
After the main show came to an end, audience members were again invited to join in, this time holding swords and winning our own dramatic sword fights against the reenactors, as they fell to the ground “in defeat.” Even when the whole thing is entirely faked, we highly recommend (pretend) sword-fighting, especially when you know from the start that you’ll be winning ー it’s extremely satisfying to achieve such a dramatic victory!
*Outside of these tour performances, both Uesugi Daiko and Yamagata Ai no Bushotai have varying schedules. Check their respective websites/social media to see what they’re up to!
Uesugi Daiko: Official Website (jp)
Yamagata Ai no Bushotai: Official Website (jp) / Twitter
A Kimono-Clad Trip to Uesugi Shrine
Even though the members of the Yamagata Ai no Bushotai had been so shockingly defeated at the hands of their own audience, we hadn’t seen the last of them! Next on our itinerary, we headed next door to the cafe and kimono rental shop Nagomitei for some quick, skillful help getting changed into kimono, before heading out for a lovely stroll on the old castle grounds together with our trio of samurai chaperones.
Our destination was Uesugi Shrine, a Shinto shrine on the old Yonezawa Castle grounds dedicated to Uesugi Kenshin, who was famed for his military prowess and his skilled leadership, and who was also the adopted father of our own Uesugi Kagekatsu. The path into the shrine is marked with a pair of battle flags used by Kenshin during his famous fighting years, one of which symbolizes Bishamonten, a Buddhist figure that the leader strongly believed in, and the other of which reads “dragon,” which was used to signal the enemy’s position when Kenshin planned to rush in and attack.
The main hall of the shrine is small and elegantly crafted, but the nearby Keishoden (treasure hall) holds the real helmet of our other samurai companion, Kanetsugu Naoe, which is worth a look if you have the time. The samurai helmet is adorned with an enormous metal decoration that spells out one word: LOVE (愛).
A Lunch of Yonezawa Beef at Abcys
After the Japankuru team bade our farewells to our samurai friends from the Yamagata Ai no Bushotai, and got back into our regular clothes, we headed to a last lunch that had a lot more to do with local Yonezawa specialties than samurai history. Yonezawa is perhaps even better known for its unique cuisine than its samurai-filled past, and local recipes make use of high-end ingredients and some rather unusual items as well.
Stopping into a building with a little collection of shops and restaurants called Uesugi Joshien, next to the old Yonezawa Castle grounds, we had a rather decadent lunch at Abcys, where the star of the show was a hotpot made with delicately thin, tender slices of Yonezawa beef. Yonezawa is known for its high-quality beef, a famous brand of wagyu that is sometimes considered on par with Kobe beef! One other Yonezawa delicacy made it onto the menu, too, and that was koi fish, which is rarely eaten in Japan outside of this area. Together, these dishes made up a uniquely Yonezawa-style meal.
If you’re hoping for some great souvenirs, the shopping area in Uesugi Joshien is the best place to grab them before the end of this trip! Local recommendations include a wide variety of snacks and foods, from packaged koi meat to flavorful konyaku balls, and a whole selection of drinks made with Yamagata’s famously delicious fruit. For those looking for a nice gift to bring home from Yonezawa, there’s a little something for every palate!
Coming to the End of the Tour
Before we knew it, Japankuru’s whirlwind tour of three cities and endless samurai tales had come to an end. Traveling from Tokyo through Nikko, Aizu, and all the way north to Yonezawa, this trip made us feel as if we’d seen a new side of samurai history. Not only did this our route follow dramatic military campaigns and era-changing battles, but it also took us to the schools where samurai grew from children to great warriors, led us along garden paths where the daimyo relaxed on warm summer days (or told secrets to his most loyal vassals), and brought us to old castle grounds, of course, where samurai once tread on tranquil days of peace and busy battle days alike. Tokyo has plenty of history and beauty, but when it comes to seeing the places where these samurai stories took place, there’s no replacement for a path following the conflicts that spelled the end of the Edo era, and venturing north to meet the samurai on their way.
As mentioned above, this time the Japankuru team went on a tour conveniently set up for us by travel agent Tobu Top Tours. The company may or may not be offering the same itinerary in the future, but if you’d like to arrange something similar, you can contact Tobu Top Tours and ask.