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.