By Tetsuo Ukai / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterMISHIMA, Shizuoka — The ruins of Yamanaka Castle look like an ornate garden. Even more beautiful under a clear blue sky, the site benefits from the scenic backdrop of the nation’s highest peak, Mt. Fuji. In warm weather, the grass turns green and azaleas on the slope bloom red and white. Visitors often marvel at the waffle-shaped squares that fill the sunken basin around the former castle.
The Sengoku (warring) period (1493-1573) castle once stood 580 meters above sea level, halfway up Mt. Hakone. There, a battle was fought in 1590 that claimed more than a thousand lives, when a battalion sent by warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was trying to unify the country, besieged the Hojo clan. The battalion then traveled through the mountains to assault the Hojo clan’s base in Odawara in present-day Kanagawa Prefecture.
Steep earthen walls for fortifications and now-dry moats cut through the remnants at the site, which stretches 1.7 kilometers from east to west, and 2.6 kilometers from north to south. The tall earthen walls blocked my view as I hiked toward the remains of the Honmaru main keep, treading the paths of those feudal-era assailants. It took my breath away when I imagined the many occasions warriors lost their lives on these slopes.
The waffle-shaped squares at the site are located in an area that would have been the castle’s moat. Using a highly effective defensive feature that the Hojo clan implemented in its castle construction, each square measures 8 to 9 meters square. The moat is now referred to as shoji-bori, as the 1.8-meter-high ridges look like the frame of a shoji traditional screen. During battle, it was a useful feature as enemies crossing the moat were targeted by matchlock fire or arrows when they exposed themselves on the raised ridges.
Top 100 in nation
Now preserved, covered with grass and other plants, the red loam soil layer would have been exposed when the castle existed. The moat was said to be like an ant lion’s pit, with the slippery soil swallowing up the heavily armored warriors that fell in.
On that day in 1590, the castle easily fell facing the overwhelming strength of about 70,000 soldiers under the command of Toyotomi’s nephew Hidetsugu. The 4,000 Hojo troops tasked with defending the castle mainly consisted of farmers. Only half a day after the siege began, with soldiers on both sides perishing in the surrounding moat, the castle fell that same day, March 29, 1590.
If you imagine an elegant tower-like structure when picturing a castle, you may not be satisfied with most of the castles built on mountains during the Sengoku period, such as Yamanaka Castle. Rakugo storyteller and castle fanatic Shunputei Shota has visited Yamanaka Castle many times and in his book “Shiroaruki no Susume” (Suggestions for castle walks), published by Shogakukan Inc., he explains that the kanji character for “castle” comes from a combination of the kanji for “earth” and “grow or make.” Thus the vast majority of Sengoku castles were located in mountainous areas and made full use of the rugged terrain.
Yamanaka Castle has been selected as one of the nation’s top 100 castles and the ruins are indeed a sight to behold.
After its fall to Toyotomi’s troops, the castle was abandoned. Until an excavation that started in 1973, the Honmaru and other sections were leveled and used as farmland, while other parts of the site became play areas with bushes where children captured rhinoceros beetles. The castle was so steep that it kept away not only enemies but also large-scale development, leading to the preservation of the fierce battleground.
One major development the site couldn’t avoid was the creation of the Tokaido road in the Edo period (1603-1867), which linked post stations, including Odawara, Hakone and Mishima, and passed through the location of the castle. During wet weather, the loam soil layer, which had caused the enemy no end of trouble in the days of the castle, became treacherous to pass. Having to wade knee-deep through mud when it rained, travelers must have been relieved when in 1680 the hilly road in Hakone was repaired and paved with stone.
The sky remained clear blue on the day of my visit. During a hike, frost columns formed on the ground and the road became muddy. As the route became more difficult to traverse, I whispered to the photographer accompanying me in a shivering voice, “We’ll definitely die if we fall into the moat.”
Mt. Fuji seen from bridge
If you take a bus bound for Mishima Station from Yamanaka Castle and get off at the second stop, there is a spot from which you can enjoy a magnificent view of Mt. Fuji. It is Mishima Skywalk, the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the country. Opened in December 2015, it is 400 meters long and visitors can stand on a point that is 70.6 meters above the ground at its highest. Admission for adults is ¥1,000. From the bridge, visitors can also see Suruga Bay.
It takes about 45 minutes from Tokyo Station to Mishima Station on the Hikari Shinkansen bullet train, and about 30 minutes from Mishima Station to Yamanaka Castle by bus.
Email the Mishima Tourist Association (email@example.com) for details.
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