Exploring Tabaruzaka’s idyllic but forgotten samurai battleground

by

Special To The Japan Times

The gray spring clouds have given way to a gentle drizzle by the time I pull my car into a spacious parking lot bordering the Tabaruzaka battlefield. It’s fitting weather, considering the massive battle that took place here in 1877 in this rural corner north of Kumamoto city was fought in similar conditions. Yet despite the 17-day conflict racking up enough casualties to mark it as one of the country’s most noted battles, Tabaruzaka sits all but forgotten in its idyllic rural setting.

In 1873, Saigo Takamori — a man who many believe to be the basis for Ken Watanabe’s character in the “Last Samurai” — resigned his position as a minister in the fledgling Imperial government that was formed following the collapse of the shogunate. Once a strong supporter of the country’s rapid modernization under the young Emperor Meiji, Saigo had grown increasingly disillusioned with what he considered the complete suppression of the samurai class. Upon his resignation, he returned to his home in Satsuma (current-day Kagoshima), a bastion of discontent. While initially determined to avoid any overt clashes with the government, he soon became one of the leaders of the anti-establishment movement.

Tensions between both parties boiled over in the winter of 1877, when Imperial forces were sent to Satsuma to impose a more centralized government rule. Saigo, with a contingent of Satsuma samurai, laid siege to Kumamoto Castle, sparking the start of the brief but brutal Seinan Civil War.

The Imperial Army, eager to reinforce their comrades in Kumamoto, rushed to bring aid from western Japan down to central Kyushu. To do so, however, meant passing through Taburazaka, a series of three hills lined with twisting, narrow thoroughfares. Former Kumamoto daimyo (feudal lord) and renowned medieval military strategist Kato Kiyomasa had overseen the creation of these passageways, many little more than trenches. Measuring barely 3-4 meters wide, they served as a space into which enemies could be funneled and easily picked off.

To the casual visitor, no trace seems to remain of these fatal trenches, though a series of small paths threads its way through Taburazaka’s numerous cherry trees. The pink-petaled sakura ring the park’s perimeter and reach full bloom at the end of March every year. Lacking an umbrella, I shelter under the bushy branches, darting from path marker to path marker much like the sparrows visiting the blossoms above my head.

I briefly wonder if this stunning floral display, seemingly incongruous with the carnage that these hills witnessed over a century ago, was planted as a natural memorial. My question is answered later, in the on-site museum, when historical maps reference the senbonzakura (1,000 cherry trees) of Tabaruzaka. The azalea bushes that carpet the hillsides of the former battlefield, however, are a much later — though no less colorful — addition.

Numerous monuments lie scattered about the grounds, the most notable being a tall obelisk backed by a wall of names. More than 14,000 troops are inscribed here, the site giving both sides equal dignity in death. On the government side, Tabaruzaka resulted in nearly 25 percent of their entire losses in the short, half-year war. A bit farther on, the Bishomon statue portrays a teenage samurai from the Satsuma forces, a testament to the age of some of the combatants.

I circle around the peak trail, stopping a few times to take in the hazy view. In the early Meiji Era, these hillsides were speckled with crops and small rice fields, in addition to the aforementioned cherry trees. Today, a few of the terraces remain but the surrounding land is surprisingly empty, devoid of most signs of human settlement. While Kumamoto’s boundaries have certainly crept further north over the centuries, civilization is mostly kept at bay here. A sign alludes to two graveyards in the distance, separate plots for the opposing factions, but either the hills or the weather impede my view.

Tabaruzaka’s old museum has recently given way to a new exhibit hall, opened in November 2015. The eye-catching exhibits are mostly in Japanese only, but a well-written English information sheet provides reams of knowledge about the battle and its major players. A flashy period film, complete with light and sound effects in a darkened viewing room, diverts me for a few mindless moments, but I’m more interested in the final exhibit, a series of bold ukiyo-e prints depicting the fight.

Outside, the rain has once more quickened its tempo, beating down on the stone path outside the museum. I’m mostly dressed for the occasion, but Saigo’s Satsuma soldiers were woefully unprepared. Their cotton kimono grew sodden in the downpours and the pervasive dampness turned their sandals into soggy piles of straw. The rain also rendered their outdated rifles practically unusable, and a fair portion of the troops ended up simply using their swords. The Imperial troops, on the other hand, had uniforms crafted from water-resistant “beaver cloth” and updated firearms that could be used in any climate. Hollywood had no need to exaggerate the mismatch in the armies; Mother Nature took care of that all on her own.

At the edge of the park, a white-washed building sits as silent memorial to the intensity of the fight. Meticulously reconstructed based on photos from the battle’s aftermath, the walls of the structure bear numerous pockmarks, evidence of the shelling and bullet rounds that tore into the original storehouse on this hill. Historians estimate that around 320,000 bullets were fired per day in the battle; it’s no wonder some of them came to rest in the mud walls of the original edifice.

From Tabaruzaka, I turn north on Route 3, an unattractive bit of outlying suburbia that eventually gives way to fields and farm stands. I can’t help but steer my car into a few parking lots, waylaid by the mountains of citrus fruit piled on tables and the ridiculously low prices scrawled on cardboard signs. Dekopon, tankan, banpeyu … Kumamoto’s temperate climate results in no shortage of citrus fruit and I relish this taste of my former home prefecture.

The route soon brings me to the town of Ueki, a hot-spring mecca for those in the know. While general tourist boards and out-of-towners tout the virtues of Kyushu hot springs such as Beppu, Yufuin and Kurokawa, Kumamoto residents simply steer towards this collection of farmhouses and bathing complexes just east of the island’s sole expressway. The alkaline springs have trace amounts of sulfur, reputedly beneficial to bathers’ skin.

Most of the hot springs in Ueki are clustered around the meandering Koshi River. My choice, Yu-an, is no different, and from the parking lot I can just see the fields of yellow rapeseed blossoms that cluster along the edge of the waterway.

While the majority of hot springs in Japan offer either gender-segregated or commingled bathing, Ueki is noted for its numerous family options.

At Yu-an, visitors select a private or family “unit” with either one or two rotemburo (outdoor baths) in individual gardens. Though the price clocks in a bit higher than most higaeri (day-trip) hot springs, I’m happy to pay ¥1,300 for 50 uninterrupted minutes of bliss in a gorgeous stone tub.

Suitably de-stressed, I decide to lunch in the hot spring’s onsite restaurant of Waraku. Despite my increasingly competent reading skills, the hand-written daily fish menu remains an enigma and I strike up a conversation with the couple next to me, after they laughingly notice me eyeing their appetizer.

Together we navigate the choices on offer, and despite my protestations, I end up with half of their meal, too. Talk inevitably turns to the question of our “hometowns,” and I learn that they make the drive every month from Shimonoseki, on Honshu’s southernmost tip, simply to eat and bathe at Yu-an.

I contemplate another soak before leaving, but the afternoon is waning and there’s still more to explore. Perhaps, like my new acquaintances from Shimonoseki, I’ll be back again before too long.

Tabaruzaka is located a 40-minute drive north of Kumamoto city, via either the Kyushu Expressway or Route 3. Visitors can also arrive by taxi from Tabaruzaka Station, a 10-minute drive away. In sakura season, the park stays open into the evening for a special cherry blossom illumination. Ueki Onsen is a 20-minute drive from Tabaruzaka. Yu-an is just one of at least a half dozen onsen in the area, with baths ranging from ¥1,300 to ¥2,800.