Sekigahara (関ヶ原町 Sekigahara-chō) is a rural town at the western edge of Gifu Prefecture in the Chubu region of Japan. It is most famous for the October 1600 Battle of Sekigahara, but its picturesque location nestled in a small valley between mountains, combined with its complete lack of large tour buses, makes it a nice day trip from the larger nearby cities of Kyoto, Nagoya, and Kanazawa. The small size of the town and the well-marked paths between historic sites makes Sekigahara even more appealing, as a visitor can traverse the entire battlefield in about a day.
You will need a solid understanding of Japanese, or a good translator, if you wish to interact with the town on a deeper level, but English-language material is available in the museums and on historical signs by the sites.
Sekigahara was the site of the epic Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原合戦 Sekigahara gassen) between Tokugawa Ieyasu and Ishida Mitsunari, representing Toyotomi Hideyoshi's son and designated successor Toyotomi Hideyori. Tokugawa's victory on October 21, 1600 heralded the beginning of the Edo Period, and with it the rise of the Shogunate. The destruction of most of the forces of the Western Alliance (those loyal to the previous Toyotomi government and led by Ishida Mitsunari) allowed Tokugawa to rapidly consolidate control of Japan within the following four months, as previously-Western or neutral daimyos (regional warlords) either joined with Tokugawa or were crushed by him. Consequently, the town is filled with ruins, memorials and shrines to the dead. (There is a river called Kurochigawa (黒血川, "Black Blood River"), where the Tokugawa armies washed the cut-off heads of those fallen in battle, but the name had originated in the Jinshin War in the 7th century under similar circumstances.)
Today's Sekigahara is a rural town with a population under 9,000. Due to its historical significance, Sekigahara is sister cities with both Waterloo in Belgium and Gettysburg in the US. It can also be inundated with Japanese tourists (particularly schoolchildren) because of its importance in Japanese history during certain parts of the Japanese school year.
James Clavell's Shogun (ISBN 0440178002) is a fictionalized account of the rise to power of Tokugawa Ieyasu, thinly disguised as "Toranaga", culminating the Battle of Sekigahara and the gruesome but historically accurate death of his enemy Ishida ("Ishido"), who is captured as he runs away from the field of battle and is executed by having his head slowly cut off by a wooden saw.
The classic samurai novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa (ISBN 156836427X), about the real exploits of the eponymous famous swordsman, starts with him fighting on the losing side at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600.
The closest Shinkansen train station is in Maibara. One of two hourly Hikari services from Tokyo stop here, and you can transfer to the Tokaido Line local for the run to Sekigahara (3 hours, ¥12,070, no charge with JR Pass).
If coming from Kyoto (as most Western tourists tend to do), take the Shinkansen to Maibara, and then change to the Tokaido Line. The Shinkansen leg takes 19 minutes and the Tokaido leg takes 21 minutes, so the trip can be done in about an hour or even quicker if you time it right with trains. Make sure to take the Hikari or Kodama Shinkansen, as that will stop at every station (the other Shinkansen do not stop at Maibara). Maibara is the first stop going east from Kyoto on the Hikari or Kodama Shinkansen. If traveling on a Seishun 18 ticket or other pass that does not permit use of the Shinkansen, take the Special Rapid (新快速) to Maibara and change to the JR Central portion of the Tokaido line. When using the Special Rapid train, the JR West leg takes 1 hour 7 minutes.
Sekigahara Station is a small rural station, with two platforms (four trains) and one entrance/exit on the south side of the tracks. Within the building there are a few vending machines, restrooms, and an office where an attendant will sell tickets and help you determine which platform your train will be at. Other than that, there's nothing else in the station (no restaurants, shops, etc.).
Driving wise, Sekigahara is at the intersection between Routes 365 (N-S) and 21 (E-W). To the south of the town lies the E1 (Meishin) expressway that runs between Komaki (outside of Nagoya) and Nishinomiya. Both roads meander through narrow(ish) mountain valleys in the heart of rural Japan, and while they are in good condition (as of March 2023), they are quite far from the major tourist sites (about 1.5 hours from Kyoto and 45 minutes from Nagoya). Unless you are already staying in the Lake Biwa area or around Ogaki, it's faster to buy a train ticket and take the trains.
As of March 2023, there are no public buses that transport people into or through the town. The only buses that bring people in are Japanese tour coaches, so non-Japanese tourists will probably not utilize buses to visit the town at all (unless they have a really solid grasp of Japanese and have decided to book one of those tours).
Unless you drive in (or are bused in), everyone enters (and leaves) Sekigahara via the Sekigahara Station, which is conveniently located in the center of the town. The entire town can be walked within a few hours, and it's probably well within reason to state that any part of the town is within a 20-30 minute walk from the Station.
Some historic sites are located on the top of hills or small mountains. While everything is easily walked, some trails are stepped (thus bicycles are not allowed) and can be quite steep.
Bicycles can be rented at the Tourist Center opposite the Station entrance, or at the Memorial Museum to the north of the Station. Some of the more distant sites are best accessed by bicycle, but there are occasional parts of the trails where bicycles must be walked and not ridden (such as over some small dams). The bicycles use pedals that don't require snap-in shoes.
As of March 2023, there are no public buses that transport tourists between sites, so all touring must be done by foot, bicycle, or private vehicle.
Fireflies (蛍 hotaru) can be spotted throughout the Japanese countryside in summer. Small insects less than a centimeter long, with light organs located near their rear, they are generally unafraid of humans and can easily be 'captured', after which they will obligingly walk about on your hand for a while before flying off. Both the male and female firefly glow, but the male has two light organs and is consequently clearly brighter, while the female has only one. According to folk tradition, fireflies represent the souls of the dead, but are generally viewed in a positive light as they are thought to have the power to ward off evil.
While the Battle of Sekigahara is of major significance to Japanese history buffs and school groups, foreign visitors are rare and information in English is generally minimal. A solid grasp of Japanese and/or a local guide will come in handy here. Memorial posts (陣跡 jin-ato) have been set up at most major battle sites in the area, but information is in Japanese. Historic markers are set up next to the posts, which explains in Japanese and English both the significance of said post and how the battle unfolded for the person that the post commemorates (for example, the post marking Shimadzu Yoshihiro's encampment details how his forces acted in the battle).
- 1 Gifu Sekigahara Battlefield Memorial Museum (岐阜関ケ原古戦場記念館, Gifu Sekigahara Kosenjō Kinenkan) (Just north of the Station, about a 3-5 minute walk up a slight hill). This new museum (built 2020) offers a good introduction to the battle itself. It is especially helpful because the first two exhibits (both visual media - a bird's eye view of the battle and an anime-like 4D theater movie depicting what it was like in the fray) provide the necessary background to understand how the 6-hour battle went and why Tokugawa won. The upper floors contain mainly replicas (although some original artifacts and documents are displayed) of writings relating to the battle or Tokugawa's rise to power, and then goes in depth of the aftermath of the battle and the consolidation of his rule. Kids and the young at heart will enjoy the third floor, which offers a hands-on exhibit where you can play around with different types of weapons used during the battle (such as katanas, matchlock rifles, and battle fans). The fifth floor is an observation deck that gives a panorama of the battlefield and town, and has signs (in Japanese) that indicate where each important thing is/was. The staff don't speak English and about 85% of the exhibits have English translations, but the movies have English subtitles. ¥500 for adults, ¥400 for students, and ¥300 for kids.
- 2 Sekigahara Town History and Folklore Museum (歴史民俗学習館 Rekishi minzoku gakushukan) (A 5-minute walk from the station). Renewed in 2020, this museum focuses on topics other than the famous battle, from archaeological times to today. Free.
- 1 Eastern and Western Head Mounds (Higashi and Nishi Kubizuka). On opposite sides of the train tracks, two shrines commemorate the sites where two large mounds of the severed heads of fallen soldiers were buried. As per traditional Japanese concepts of reverence for the dead, these shrines are dedicated to all who fell in the battle, not solely forces of one side.
- 2 Ishida Mitsunari's Encampment (笹尾山 Sasao yama). To the north of the town on a small hill that offers a commanding view of both the town and the battlefield. This is where Ishida Mitsunari, Tokugawa Ieyasu's main opponent and leader of the Western Alliance at the battle, based his camp. Two rows of wooden palisades flank the base of the hill, and a stairpath allows visitors to walk up to the memorial at the top. Can easily be seen from the observation deck of the Gifu Sekigahara Battlefield Memorial Museum, as well as from most of the town.
- 3 Okayama Signaling Hill (岡山烽火場 Okayama noroshi-ba). To the northeast of the town, this was from where the flare was fired that signaled that the Western Alliance needed reinforcements. The signal sent a message to Tokugawa that enabled him to move his camp closer to the battlefield, boosting troop morale among the Eastern Alliance forces. Like Ishida's Encampment, this can easily be seen from most of the town.
- 4 Ōtani Yoshitsugu's Grave (大谷吉継の墓 Ōtaniyoshitsugu no haka). One of the westernmost memorial markers in the town, this spot marks both the encampment and final burial site of Ōtani Yoshitsugu, one of the Western Alliance's main commanders. When he realized the defections of Kobayakawa Hideaki and others and the increasingly small likelihood of Western victory, he committed seppuku, or ritual suicide. Best reached by bicycle (although it is within walking distance, it just takes longer to get to than most other sites), but the final stretch up the mountain must be walked.
- 3 Field Camp Ground (床几場 Shōgiba) (Across the road from the museum). Also called "Tokugawa's Final Encampment", this is the spot where Tokugawa Ieyasu held a council meeting after the end of the battle and was presented with the decapitated heads of the enemy's leaders. A small shrine marks the spot.
- 4 Site of Sekigahara Battleground (関ケ原古戦場 Sekigahara kosenjō). This marks the site of the bloodiest clash between the Eastern and Western armies in the Battle of Sekigahara. The monument here is flanked by the flags of the leaders of both armies, Ishida and Tokugawa.
- Other Memorial Markers. There are plenty of other markers and memorials scattered throughout the town, too numerous to list. The maps on the bridge over the train tracks list them with their relevant commanders.
Explore the town and soak in the history and significance of the battle!
Along the path from the Station to the Gifu Sekigahara Battlefield Memorial Museum are posters that display information about each of the major commanders, as well as a map of the ideal path for visiting the sites related to that commander. These maps list in both English and Japanese what the site itself is (although not the significance of it), how far the walk is in km, and how long it takes (most are within 120-140 minutes, but one is 90 minutes).
In October, the Battle of Sekigahara Festival occurs, which includes a reenactment of the battle plus extra activities such as demonstrations of matchlock guns in action. It is similar in nature to the Civil War reenactments in the United States, and is recommended for anyone who loves military history or samurai/feudal Japan.
- Sekigahara Station Tourist Information Center (関ヶ原駅前観光交流館 Sekigahara ekimae kankō kōryū-kan), 598-4, Sekigahara. 09:00-17:00, closed Tu and the day after holiday. The main tourist information center in town. Directly across from the square when you exit Sekigahara Station. Inside is a gift shop (very similar content to the one in the Museum) and free maps of the town and the battle. The maps provide information and suggested routes for the different Commanders' hikes, but they are almost entirely in Japanese (the hiking trail is marked on the map though so you can at least follow along the route, even if you cannot read what it is you're seeing).
Fans of shogi (Japanese chess), can buy chessboards set up like the Sekigahara battlefield from souvenir shops around town (¥800). Gift shops in town (especially in the museums) sell products that either have the different daimyo family crests on them (so you can pick your favorite clan) or are otherwise related to the Shogun, samurai, or Japan in general.
Because the town receives a lot of Japanese schoolkids on tours, there are plenty of souvenirs that are designed for children (such as plastic katanas, wooden samurai puzzles, and kids' shirts) and might be an interesting gift for a young relative. More "adult" related souvenirs usually revolve around local sake or clothing/towels, but there are also items that will appeal to all ages.
The Gifu Sekigahara Battlefield Memorial Museum has an annex that includes a gift shop and a small cafeteria-style cafe. The food is good and relatively cheap, and will suffice if you want to stay around the Museum area.
Aside from the café at the Museum, pretty much every restaurant in town is located on the south side of the station, away from most (but not all) of the historical sites. There aren't really any major "sit-down" style restaurants in the town; the ones that exist are more like snack or dessert bars.
There are no bars in Sekigahara, and the restaurant in the Gifu Sekigahara Battlefield Memorial Museum does not sell alcohol. If you wish to drink alcohol the closest bars are in Ogaki.
As mentioned above, you can purchase bottles of sake from the Museum gift shop, although you probably won't be able to consume it in the town.
As Sekigahara is a very small rural town, there are no real hotels within the town's borders. The closest hotels are in Ogaki to the east or Maibara to the west (both cities can easily access Sekigahara within 20-30 minutes by train). There is one ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) in town.
Other forms of stay (hostels, homestays, camping) are - as of March 2023 - unknown in the town, but since most visitors visit Sekigahara as a day trip from a larger city, they will most likely return to their origin city to spend the night.
- Masuya Ryokan (ますや旅館). Check-in: 16:00, check-out: 10:00. An inn located at the former Sekigahara Post Town (Sekigahara-juku) on the old Nakasendo Route. ¥8500.
Most of the paths are in reality small roads, and while painted lines indicate a 'sidewalk', you'll be sharing the road with the rare car. Some of the paths (particularly the one between the Battlefield Memorial post and Okayama Signaling Hill post) go through forests where bears are present. Also, insects can be a nuisance, particularly in the forest areas and around the fields.
Some signs are not clearly marked or have faded, and the maps mentioned in the Do section do not display every intersection. That being said, the maps do stay true to the bends and turns of the correct path, so if you can match up the turn you just did with the turn on the map, you should be good.
- Maibara — Nearby Lake Mishima is a great place to see fireflies; most travelers stop here to switch trains on the way to/from Kyoto.
- Ogaki — The next settlement that could reasonably called a "city" when heading east. The closest town with hotels and bars to Sekigahara.
- Tarui — The first settlement entered when traveling east from Sekigahara.
- Gifu — The capital of Gifu Prefecture, a moderately-sized city east of Ogaki.
- Hikone — On Lake Biwa and southwest of Maibara, this city contains one of the 12 original Japanese castles.
- Nagahama — Also on Lake Biwa to the immediate west of Maibara.
|Routes through Sekigahara
|Kyoto ← Maibara ←
|→ Gifu → Nagoya
|Kyoto ← Maibara ←
|→ Gifu-Hashima → Nagoya