When Swords Collide: Shiroishi Onikojuro Festival

SEPTEMBER 21, 2019


When Swords Collide: Shiroishi Onikojuro Festival

Note: this post was re-posted from my old website, originally published in August 2017.

Japan has a rich history as a nation, but many people from all around the world know one aspect of its history particularly well: the samurai — the sword-wielding warrior class that thrived from medieval through pre-modern Japan. Though in the modern days’ samurai have vanished from the face of the earth, some festivals related to samurai are still being held. This is one such festival.

Shiroishi is maybe a far-out place away from the hustle-bustle of power struggle that happened in central Japan during the warring period by the end 16th century. Still, even in the present day, it celebrates its connection to one of the most important historical events of Japan. Every year around October, Shiroishi holds one of the coolest festivals in Japan: Oni-Kojuro Festival. The festival is held in front of Shiroishi Castle, a small yet elegant castle, to commemorate the Siege of Osaka. This decisive battle marks the beginning of the Edo Period with the ascent of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

In a gist, Oni-Kojuro Festival immortalizes the participation of a local clan, the Katakura, lord of Shiroishi, and loyal retainer of famous Sendai lord Date Masamune, in the Siege of Osaka. Led by the clan head Katakura Kojuro, who holds the moniker of ‘oni’ (demon) due to his skill and prowess on the battlefield, the Katakura clan army played an important role in ensuring the victory of Tokugawa forces against its rival Toyotomi forces. As such, the reenactment of the said battle involves a lot of volunteers in intricate full-armors, telling the story from the perspective of the winning forces in the style of narrative drama.

Having an interest in Japanese history myself, I went to see the festival with some friends. When we reached the castle ground around ten in the morning, there were people everywhere. The whole compound was busy with activities. There were stalls here and there. Some sold festival food and some offered you a chance to wear samurai armor for a souvenir photograph.

Because the main event was scheduled to start after high noon and we came a bit too early, we decided to enter the castle first to view the hustle-bustle from the top of the castle (Pro tip: If you want to get the best spot to watch the festival you need to come a bit early, secure some space to seat then sit and wait. Otherwise, you won’t get the front row. The Japanese are notoriously patient — they sit and wait.)

After a quick visit to the castle, we took a walk around to the nearby shrine and samurai mansion. The shrine is just to the right of the castle’s main gate, but the samurai mansion requires you to walk a bit for around ten minutes. The mansion is small, but it offers you a good glimpse of the life of a middle-class samurai household at the time.

The Battle Begins

Just right after 12 PM, the event officially started. First, we were treated to a parade of all the participants of the battle. One by one, the players were entering the stage. Red armor-wearing warriors represent the forces of Sanada Yukimura, a general of the Toyotomi clan that defended Osaka Castle. In contrast, black armor-wearing warriors represent the forces of Katakura Kojuro of Tokugawa forces. It was an impressive sight as they lined up facing each other on each side of the castle ground.

The story started as the generals played their skits on the raised platform, followed by them going down and instructing tactics to their warriors. Then the sound of the horn was heard, and the battle began. All of a sudden was in disarray, for the combat between the red armors and the black armors was inevitable. Swords clashed. Warriors shouted. Such a thick atmosphere, as if the Grim Reaper is watching, waiting for souls to collect. Everything was by the script, yet it felt so real.

The glorified battle ended with the defeat of the Toyotomi clan’s forces. The ending unfolded when Toyotomi general Sanada Yukimura discussed the terms of surrender and entrusted his youngest daughter Oume to the Katakura clan. I was enthralled with the appearance of the said daughter when she appeared from the back of the warrior’s lineup, walking slowly down the surrender procession accompanied by her maidservant with such a sad yet firm face.

That very scene was in contrast with the previously chaotic battle and added a distinct flavor to the reenactment. In reality, though, he entrusted his daughter before the fall of Osaka Castle, not after his defeat, although this is a small detail I could get by.

More festivals to read…

With that, the festival ended around two in the afternoon. It was scorching hot, but I was glad I stayed until the end. Before leaving Shiroishi, I did a short walk towards the beautiful Kessanji Temple in the south. I found a cool-looking bamboo grove near the temple, though unfortunately, it leads to a graveyard, so I dared not to explore more.

Overall, I really enjoyed the festival in particular and the visit to Shiroishi in general. I think everyone would also enjoy it should you ever come to Shiroishi. So in October, try to visit Shiroishi if you get the chance. Oni-Kojuro welcomes you to his castle!

When to go: around early October each year

How to go: Take Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Koriyama Station, then change to JR Tohoku line to Nihonmatsu Station (115 minutes approx). From Nihonmatsu Station, take the bus towards Touwa (40 minutes approx, ¥500), then use a taxi to Kohata Festival ground (¥1200 one-way trip).

If from Sendai, take the Shinkansen from Sendai Station to Fukushima Station, then change to JR Tohoku line to Nihonmatsu Station (70 minutes approx). Follow the above instructions after that.

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About the Author

Jerfareza Daviano | Photographer in Sendai, Japan
Jerfareza Daviano

Jerfareza is a freelance photographer from Indonesia currently based in Sendai, Japan, offering wide range of photography service especially profile portraits, couple or family photos, and wedding photography. Should you wish to hire him you can check here for more details.

Visit his website for articles about travel in Japan especially Tohoku area and interesting bits about photography.

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