Kofu: the mountain fortress of warlord Takeda Shingen
Fearsome face: A towering statue of Takeda Shingen stands in front of Kofu Station. | COURTESY OF KOFU TOURIST ASSOCIATION
In Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1980 film “Kagemusha” (“Shadow Warrior”), the 16th-century daimyo Takeda Shingen is mortally wounded by a sniper after being lured by the sound of a flute during a castle siege. Takeda’s clan know that rival warlords Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu will pounce on their domain once they realize he is dead, so a look-a-like is installed in his place to maintain the deception that he is alive. The domain they are desperately trying to protect was called Kai and its former capital is the city of Kofu in modern-day Yamanashi Prefecture.
The film, set in the Warring States Period (1482-1573), is fictional, but it captures the enduring aura of the real Takeda, a warlord who still holds considerable sway over Japan’s historical imagination.
Takeda is remembered as a master military tactician, a wise ruler and innovative administrator who laid down a criminal and civil code that was enacted fairly rather than arbitrarily. Innumerable books, films and television programs have been made about him, including the 1988 NHK taiga period drama “Takeda Shingen.” And his wisdom is often referenced in relation to Bushido, the way of the samurai. There’s one quote that stands out in particular: “Knowledge is not power, it is only potential; applying that knowledge is power.”
To get up close and personal with the legend of the warlord, head to the city of Kofu, just north of Mount Fuji and a 90-minute train ride away from Tokyo. Takeda made this spectacular location his base of power, with its wide plain surrounded by soaring mountains. From the moment the train rushes into this high plateau, you feel that you have entered another world. It was from here that the young Takeda — known as the “Tiger of Kai” — launched assaults on the neighboring province of Shinano.
Predictably, a huge statue of the old warlord rises up before you at the train station and Kofu Tourism Office, located at the center of the station, offers copious information on sites connected to the leader and his family, including the tomb where his remains were secretly buried for three years after his death — before his demise was revealed to his rivals. A few minutes’ walk from here is Enkoin Temple, containing the tomb of his wife, Lady Sanjo.
Enkoin is one of five temples in the city known as “Kofu Gozan” (the five mountains of Kofu) that belong to the Rinzai sect of Zen, which received special protection from Takeda. Though the warlord was a deeply religious man, he was not averse to meting out terrifying punishments, including boiling criminals alive.
The “Takeda Shingen trail” begins and ends at Kofu Station, culminating at the Takeda Shingen Shrine, around 2 kilometers away. The trail takes around 90 minutes by foot — past the tombs of Takeda and his wife — through suburban backstreets skirting the hills. I arrived at the Takeda Shingen Shrine at dusk and enjoyed the magical atmosphere of a shrine shrouded in darkness, with the glittering lights of the city below.
But before you entrust yourself fully to his aura and depart on the trail, you may wish to linger a little in central Kofu, where you can see the reconstructed ramparts and walls of the ruins of Maizuru Castle. This recently reconstructed castle was built in the late 16th century, after Takeda’s time, by order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, but was partially destroyed by fire in the Edo Period (1603-1868), then abandoned and dismantled in the Meiji Period (1868-1912). From here you can take in fine views of the wall of mountains around Kofu. Takeda himself, however, opposed the historical trend of building castles and entrusted his faith instead in fast-moving and flexible fighting forces.
Several factors have contributed to Takeda’s renown. One is his rivalry with another famous warlord of the period, Uesugi Kenshin (1530-78). The two fought five battles against one another — none of them conclusive. Legend has it that at the fourth and most significant battle they even engaged in single combat. Takeda and Uesugi were the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier of the mid-16th century, and when Takeda died, Uesugi is said to have mourned rather than celebrated the loss of his great adversary.
After Takeda’s death, the fortunes of his clan precipitously declined, in marked contrast to the fortunes of his rival Tokugawa whose descendants went on to rule Japan for more than 250 years. The fading of the Takeda clan places into romantic relief the ephemerality of power and success — a constant refrain in Japanese reflections on the world from the Heian Period (794-1185) onward.
Kofu’s other claim to fame — besides their warlord — is surprisingly good wine. Kofu was the first place in Japan to begin wine production, with a heritage stretching back to the 1870s, and autumn is the perfect time of year to sample its wares as on Nov. 3 each year the new wine is released. Sadoya Winery is only five minutes walk from Kofu Station, and Chateau Sakaori Winery is a 13-minute walk from Sakaori Station, a short ride from Kofu Station. Both wineries are excellent and offer tours of their cellars.
Also not to be missed near Sakaori is the impressive main hall of Kofuzenkoji Temple, soaring 27 meters high, with its beautiful dragon design on the ceiling — said to roar back at you if your clap hands. The temple, adorned with carp pond and beautiful gardens, is also famous for its kaidan meguri in which a visitor must struggle in the darkness of an underground tunnel to find a lock to make a dream come true.
Takeda may not have conquered large swaths of Japan, and his descendants’ power may have been obliterated, yet to this day he reigns over the city of Kofu, maintaining a strong connection with his home region in a way that few other figures in Japanese history can claim to do. The city hosts a Takeda Festival at the beginning of April every year with a horseback procession of Takeda’s famous “24 Generals.” Only Sendai, with its affection for one-eyed daimyo Date Masamune, has a similarly intense adoration for its bygone leader.
Takeda was particularly renowned for his fūrinkazan war banner, which depicted the four characters for “wind,” “forest,” “fire” and “mountain.” Inspired by Sun Tzu’s “Art of War,” the banner was meant to signify that Takeda’s forces were “as fast as the wind; as silent as a forest; as fierce as fire; as immovable as a mountain.” It is meant to have instilled fear in all who saw it.
At the end of Kurosawa’s film — after the clan’s disastrous defeat — the banner is seen floating in a stream, symbolizing the clan’s fortunes washing away.
Takeda is one of the great “what ifs” of Japanese history: If he had lived longer, could he have been the one to unify Japan? We certainly know that Tokugawa respected Takeda and adopted many of his administrative and military innovations.
Takeda is in some ways a footnote of history; he never ruled over more than a relatively small domain (though his army was reputed to be the strongest of the age); and his clan’s power was completely crushed shortly after his death in 1573 when his son led the clan’s army to calamitous defeat at the hands of Oda and Tokugawa. Yet to this day, Takeda remains as “immovable as a mountain” in the Japanese historical imagination — and nowhere is he more real than in the charming city of Kofu.