Shiroyama bravely battles on


In matters of war, history is most often recounted from the perspective of the conqueror and rarely, if ever, passed down from the point of view of the defeated. So it’s not surprising that the historical significance of the remnants of 16th-century Hachioji Castle on western Tokyo’s Mount Fukazawa — more commonly known to locals as Shiroyama (castle mountain) — has been largely neglected for over 400 years.

Even as a tourist spot, Shiroyama, which is a short bus ride from JR Takao Station, has mostly been overshadowed by the huge popularity of nearby Mount Takao. But, as a simple one-day trek through the mountain’s forest trails and ancient ruins reveals, it is precisely this anonymity that is its greatest asset. From the wreckage of the castle to the numerous waterfalls that dot the mountain’s lush, stream-filled forests, you can find perfect solitude as well as a few surprises, for both the history buff and the nature lover — and it’s only an hour’s train ride from central Tokyo.

Hachioji Castle was constructed in the late 1570s by the feudal warlord Hojo Ujiteru, one of Japan’s last independent warlords. Ujiteru, who ruled a vast portion of the western Kanto area from present-day Saitama Prefecture to Yokohama, built his stronghold in the depths of Shiroyama’s forests in a desperate attempt to escape the mighty forces of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was on the verge of reunifying the nation. Ujiteru, of the powerful Hojo clan based in Odawara (currently Odawara City in Kanagawa Prefecture), was one of his final foes.

Though Shiroyama is only a modest 460.5-meters in height, Ujiteru believed the mountain’s deep forests, long ridges and narrow, twisting river valleys would provide the perfect defense against enemy troops — or so he hoped. On June 23, 1590, when close to 50,000 of Hideyoshi’s troops finally raided the castle, the warlord’s force, which numbered only 1,300, was defeated in a matter of hours. It was a brutally one-sided battle and so bloody that the Shiroyama River is said to have turned red.

Ujiteru, who was absent that day as he was defending his main castle in Odawara, escaped death, but not for long. When Odawara Castle surrendered to Hideyoshi’s army on July 5, both Ujiteru and his older brother Ujimasa were seized and ordered to commit seppuku.

For hundreds of years, most locals chose to stay away from Shiroyama, fearful of angry, lost spirits. Ancient scrolls depicting the fall of Hachioji Castle have recounted how the sound of hooves, gunshots and human wails could be heard throughout the mountain’s forests long after the battle had ended. Even to this day, every year on June 23, several households in the nearby Motohachioji hamlets continue to practice their somewhat macabre ritual of preparing blood-colored azukimeshi, or red beans cooked with rice — a traditional festive dish in Japan — to remember the 1,300 slain.

“This is probably one of the main reasons why the history of Hachioji Castle had been shelved for so long,” says Kunio Kunugi, 78, a local archaeologist and author who has been studying the castle’s history for 40 years. “People thought it was just too spooky.”

While the City of Tokyo, in 1951, eventually designated the remnants of Hachioji Castle a historical landmark, it took decades more research and excavations for the full cultural value of the castle to be revealed. Although the actual castle was basically obliterated in 1590, only in recent times have the remnants been discovered. In the mid-’80s a series of excavations unearthed a treasure trove of priceless earthenware from China and Italy inside the former castle’s grounds. Further digs also uncovered the battered remains of huge slabs of stone walls, as well as an eight-meter-wide road that led to a stone stairway below the castle’s main gate, the remains of which can still be seen and walked upon.

According to Kunugi, the castle grounds encompassed 500 hectares of land. “These findings showed that Hachioji Castle was actually one of the biggest structures ever built during Japan’s feudal period,” he says. “It was a beauty.”

During the fall and winter seasons, Kunugi and his colleagues conduct monthly guided tours to the castle. Major landmarks — including Hojo Ujiteru’s grave, the ancient castle roads built alongside the Shiroyama River, and the castle’s handsomely reconstructed hikibashi bridge, which leads to the stone foundations of the castle itself — can be seen. And just a short hike from the castle ruins are other picturesque attractions such as the Shinden waterfall and the Hachioji Shrine near the mountain’s summit.

Government attack

One of Kunugi’s goals in organizing these tours is to raise greater public awareness about Shiroyama’s latest battle. In 1999, a massive highway tunnel began to be drilled into the base of Shiroyama. It’s part of a new 300-km ring-road project called Ken-odo. Spearheaded by The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, the plan is that the road will one day encircle Tokyo and connect it with neighboring Ibaraki, Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa prefectures.

Although Kunugi and over a thousand local residents, activists and scholars across Japan have been actively involved in a legal battle against the government to halt construction, more than half of the tunnel’s estimated 2.4-km length has already been completed. This controversial highway project will also eventually require the drilling of two 10-meter-wide tunnels straight through Mount Takao — the historically sacred mountain directly south of Shiroyama.

Mount Takao — aside from being the most popular mountain destination in Japan, attracting roughly 2.5 million visitors each year — is home to one of Japan’s most diverse ecosystems. Over 1,300 varieties of trees and plants, 150 species of birds, 12 species of reptiles and 29 species of mammals — including the mountain’s emblem, the nocturnal flying squirrel — thrive in the forests on its flanks.

Many biologists fear the damage the tunnels may have on the mountain’s delicate underwater drainage system. Judging from the ecological damage that the drilling of tunnels has had upon Shiroyama, conservationists are now expecting the worst.

“Underground water levels in the area have been reported 12 meters below the norm and many of the mountain’s centuries-old wells have dried-up,” says Kiyoshi Koike, 60, a retired Hachioji counselor who now photographs wildlife. “Even the few remaining goshawks on the mountain’s northern flank have flown away due to the incessant noise pollution around the construction site.”

Although nearly 400 years have passed since the fall of Hachioji Castle, it seems the fate of Shiroyama and its environs could be heading toward another tragic loss. But Kunugi sees the current attack on Shiroyama as a small victory of sorts.

“Right now, this mountain is the only major obstacle preventing the highway from reaching Mount Takao,” he says. “It’s almost as if Shiroyama is providing a natural barricade to protect the mountain — that’s a noble sacrifice.”