Thursday, 16 May 2013

Travel report: Sengoku Basara tourism part 2 - Shiroishi Castle

The second part of my travel report is all about Shiroishi Castle. There are a lot of pictures this time. I'm delighted that I managed to get it finished in time to post it on 'Kojuurou Day' (2013/5/16 - a goroawase play on words).

The original reason for this particular trip was a shallow one: I'd bought the Sengoku Basara Travel Navi CD for the Oushuu area and the two seiyuu spoke so affectionately about their experiences in the city of Shiroishi that I became fascinated with the idea of going there myself. Travel Navi CDs are also available for Ueda, Osaka/Gifu and Sekigahara, if you're a fan who needs further convincing to pay one of those areas a visit.

I like historical sites anyway and the Sengoku Basara link added an interesting twist, so last summer I hopped on the Shinkansen to Miyagi prefecture and went to go and see the area for myself. Unfortunately the most prominent of Shiroishi's local attractions, Shiroishi Castle, had suffered significant damage from the terrible Touhoku earthquake which hit the region in 2011. I couldn't change the dates of my planned holiday even though the castle's website had explained the situation in advance.

The beautiful gate, in front of a building site
Due to the extensive repairs that were required visitors were only able to see the grounds; the castle building itself was covered in scaffolding and inaccessible. In spite of this problem I loved what I'd seen of the area and wanted to go back when the repairs had been finished.

It was impossible to see the structure of the walls
Not willing to be defeated, I decided to revisit the area as part of my trip in March 2013 to see what it was supposed to look like.

There are three main ways you can get to Shiroishi by train from central Tokyo. The first is to take one of the luxurious Hayabusa Shinkansen trains all the way to Sendai, then change for the JR Touhoku line to take you back a short way to JR Shiroishi station. This takes you closer to the centre of the city and the historical sites, and if you're planning on seeing Sendai first it's the route which makes the most sense.

Alternatively, you can take a slower Yamabiko Shinkansen and change to the JR Touhoku line at Fukushima station, avoiding going all the way into Sendai and then back out again.

My preferred route is to take the Yamabiko Shinkansen train to Shiroishi Zaou station, which is slightly farther away from the castle than JR Shiroishi. The advantage of this is threefold; it makes it easier to get to Shiroishi directly early in the day (which is important when the tourist attractions closer quite early in the afternoon), and it doesn't require any changes after getting on the Shinkansen so you can relax. It also gives you a chance to visit Shiroishi Zaou station.

Descending into Shiroishi Zaou station from the
Shinkansen platform
Shiroishi Zaou station is almost worthy of a sightseeing trip on its own. It contains a tiny 'Uumen Noodle and Kokeshi Doll Mini-Museum' on one side of the ticket hall, traditional handicrafts, replica armour pieces, Sengoku-themed beer, a mikoshi portable shrine shaped like Shiroishi Castle and an incredible gift shop decorated with Sengoku Basara imagery which sells goods from all over the Touhoku area.

Probably the best railway gift shop in Japan
I picked up plenty of zunda-flavoured Kit Kats and Kinoko No Yama chocolates as souvenirs. Zunda (green soybean paste) is one of two extremely popular specialities in the Miyagi area; the other is gyuutan, or beef tongue. There are plenty of other local delicacies to be found but these two seem dominant when it comes to gift shops. Zunda is especially notable for being included in Sengoku Basara 3, where zunda mochi (rice cakes covered in soybean paste) are a regional item you can acquire on Masamune's Oushuu stage.

The ubiquitous zunda flavoured goods
Speaking of regional specialities, Miyagi isn't just known for food. This oversized kokeshi doll which is on display inside the station is called Kojuurou-kun, and he's dressed in a kabuto helmet shaped like the one the real Katakura Kojuurou wore.

Kojuurou-kun watches over Shiroishi Zaou station
According to a tourism leaflet I picked up, Kojuurou-kun is one of Shiroishi's four mascot characters. The others are Ecojuurou, a bicycle rental mascot based on Katakura Kojuurou; Pochi Warrior Kojuurou, the dog-themed yuru kyara I met at TAF; and Kokechi (not pictured) - who is notable solely for having no obvious direct link to Katakura Kojuurou.

The tourist information centre at JR
Shiroishi has an Ecojuurou flag
In case it wasn't already clear, the people of Shiroishi are incredibly fond of Katakura Kojuurou. The city is said to be famous for three 'white' products: uumen noodles, Japanese arrowroot (kuzu) and washi paper. All of these things are certainly in plentiful supply, yet the locals take far more pride in their ties to one of the Sengoku era's finest. You cannot walk through the city for more than a few minutes without catching sight of some kind of Kojuurou-related imagery. It's not uncommon for heroes from the Sengoku period to enjoy popularity in their home regions, in the same way that, say, Nottingham keeps the legend of Robin Hood firmly at the forefront of its tourism campaigns. However, Shiroishi embraces the legacy of the Katakura clan more than any other area I have seen.

Replica Katakura family armour in the station building
Naturally, Kojuurou's master Date Masamune is also well-represented thanks to having founded the region's capital, Sendai. Here's a poster for a historically-themed tourism drive involving the Date Bushoutai group.

Armour makes people look cool, doesn't it?
Speaking of Sendai, the capital city of Miyagi prefecture is well known for its dazzling displays during the Tanabata festival. Shiroishi Zaou station shows off some of the traditional decorations in its main hall so that they can be enjoyed all year round. These ones feature Sengoku Basara designs at the top along with some other imagery which is associated with Masamune. The studio behind the anime adaptation of the series, Production I.G., produced special Sendai Tanabata illustrations to help promote the event. They have also been known to send representatives to sell exclusive merchandise in the area during the festivities.

They're enormous!
Here's a closer look at the decorations. I loved the mizutama peeking out between the pictures of the Date army and the crescent-moon pattern on the one in the centre.

I wonder what ordinary tourists think about the
Sengoku Basara pictures everywhere
Eventually it was time to leave Shiroishi Zaou station and go to the castle as planned. It's possible to take a bus to the castle from outside the station but there are no signs, so unless you already know the bus schedule you might have to wait a long time. If you're really lucky you might be able to catch the Castle-kun bus which is covered with Sengoku Basara illustrations - sadly, I completely failed to either ride on the Castle-kun bus or take a picture of it even though I visited the city twice.

Kojuurou Plaza
When I visited in August last year I took a taxi from Shiroishi Zaou to the castle in order to avoid too much exposure to the blazing heat. This time, I walked. It's not far and the atmosphere was peaceful as I passed a river and the main JR Shiroishi railway station.

A festival poster in a shop window
Right outside JR Shiroishi station is a special little shop called Kojuurou Plaza. It is packed from floor to ceiling with Sengoku-themed merchandise (including, of course, Sengoku Basara goods). It might have been easy to miss the tiny building completely without the eye-catching decorations lining the pavement in front.

After passing JR Shiroishi station and reaching the main street, flags and signs start to appear, beckoning you towards the castle. Several of the shops which line the high street sell traditional goods and Kojuurou-themed sweets.

There are also unique Sengoku Basara posters on display all year round for the annual Oni Kojuurou festival, an event which celebrates the achievements of the second generation Katakura Kojuurou (Katakura Shigenaga). Shigenaga was given the nickname Oni ('Demon') Kojuurou because of his legendary ferocity in battle at the Siege of Osaka.

It's worth noting that Shigenaga is honoured in the city too, but most of the references I make in this post are to the first Katakura Kojuurou (Katakura Kagetsuna), the historical figure who appears in Sengoku Basara. Shiroishi promotes both heroes at the Oni Kojuurou festival, as well as their descendants who inherited the Katakura Kojuurou name over the years. That's why Katakura Kagetsuna appears on posters for an event named after Katakura Shigenaga.

Another advertisement for the Oni Kojuurou festival
Thanks to the aforementioned signs and the straightforward layout of the city, it's very easy to find the castle. Once you've walked down the main street for a while you'll arrive at a trading estate; crossing that will put you right at the bottom of the sloping bamboo-lined path up to the castle's entrance. The first building you'll see is the small castle museum on the right of the path. This modern building also houses a souvenir shop, cafe and a 3D movie theatre which shows videos about the area's history.

The Shiroishi Castle History Exploration Museum
The original Sengoku-era Shiroishi Castle (Shiroishijou) was actually torn down during the turbulent political upheaval of the Meiji Restoration along with many other traditional Japanese castles. It was only relatively recently in 1995 that part of it was reconstructed. The locals are rightfully proud of the care that was taken to rebuild the three-floor tenshukaku donjon in a way that was historically accurate. If you want to see inside the keep (which I highly recommend), you'll need to buy a ticket from a vending machine or the counter at the museum. You can also buy tickets for the other attractions at the same time.

Entry ticket vending machines
Moving on from the museum area, you can go right up to the formidable castle walls. The garish scaffolding which covered them up the year before has completely disappeared. The tall building in the background is the keep.

Outside the castle
Turning left reveals the entrance, tucked neatly between the walls.

Heading towards the castle's main gate
At the time of my visit in March 2013, the Tokyo area was already full of sakura blossoms marking the coming of spring. Farther away in Shiroishi the sakura weren't yet ready to bloom so the deep pink splash of colour at the side comes from plum blossoms instead. This is the other side of the main gate, viewed from the original castle's honmaru area. The honmaru is now an idyllic park.

The gate, with the donjon in the background
The grey sky wasn't ideal for taking photographs of a white castle. Here's a closer shot showing the gate's roof decorations.

The top of the gate
Next it was time to head towards the castle keep to take a look inside.

Shiroishijou Tenshukaku
When I entered the castle itself a kind attendant stepped forwards and handed me some English-language information sheets that had been tucked away out of sight. The English-language material was very detailed, with a hand-drawn map of the area and stories about the history of the castle to give some context for what I was about to see. The staff were very friendly and wanted to know where we'd come from - from the experiences I've had so far I'd even go as far as saying that the locals in Shiroishi are the warmest people I have ever met.

Inside the castle donjon
I was surprised by how clean and airy the rooms inside the building were. Everything is constructed from glossy wood making it extremely pleasant, nothing like a dark, functional British castle keep. I tried to imagine what it was like to live and work at Shiroishijou back in feudal times. It's a shame the surrounding structures weren't preserved when the castle had to be demolished.

The wooden stairs are made without nails
or modern materials
Those brave enough to step out onto the balcony are rewarded with an amazing view over the castle grounds and the city of Shiroishi below. While three floors doesn't sound like much, it felt much higher than I'd expected - partly because the stairs are very, very steep, and partly because the castle is already situated on a hill in the first place.

The view over the honmaru and gate
Eventually I headed back down and took a last walk around the castle grounds. Right in the honmaru area is a huge monument dedicated to the memory of Katakura Kagetsuna (the first Katakura Kojuurou).

Kojuurou's memorial stone
The rest of the castle complex is gone, replaced by signposts describing what originally stood there.

The former Ninomaru, now a playground
In the playground area there's a Taishou-era 'Yokozuna' monument which pays respect to two different sumo wrestlers; a champion from the Shiroishi area and the official sumo wrestler of the Katakura clan.

The Yokozuna monument
There's also a small shrine nearby if you want to take some time out in pursuit of spirituality.

The shrine area was completely silent
The familiar silhouettes of Masamune, Kojuurou and Date Shigezane can be seen even here. On the flag below, their images are used to encourage prayers for the reconstruction efforts in East Japan.

It's an inspiring design
Finally, it was time to head back into the museum building for some shopping before continuing on my journey.

Promotion of The Last Party never ends
Cardboard standees of Kojuurou, Masamune and the pair together are on display in the museum too, just in case you need reminding of the link between the game characters and the real historical figures.

Sticker machines - highly addictive
It's plain to see that the city of Shiroishi has thoroughly embraced pop culture as a way to get more people interested in both history and travel, and this is one of the most interesting parts about visiting. The Shiroishi Castle gift shop is loaded with merchandise. Whether your taste is more traditional or inclined towards Sengoku Basara, One Piece, Pokemon or Musubimaru, you're sure to find something interesting to buy. The Sengoku Basara selection was particularly impressive, with Kojuurou-themed uumen noodles, soy sauce, instant curry, zunda daifuku rice cakes, cookies, gyuutan (beef tongue) jerky, clothing, home furnishings, stickers, badges, cloths, clear files, postcards, stationery and more. The combination of regional specialities and nerdy otaku goods was breathtaking - if it's historically-themed items you're looking for, the castle's shop is substantially better than any actual anime/game merchandise store.

Gyuutan jerky
The shop counter displays an autograph from Morikawa Toshiyuki, Katakura Kojuurou's seiyuu in Sengoku Basara. Morikawa first came to appreciate the area because of his role; now he often speaks proudly about the Shiroishi region and makes a special point of visiting whenever he can. He's even been spotted mingling with fans at the annual Oni Kojuurou festival, making it a popular pilgrimage destination for fans of the series.

There are also plenty of Sengoku Basara vending machines dotted around the museum corridors in case you have some spare ¥100 coins. I bought quite a lot again.

Various goods purchased in Shiroishi
Finally, there's a cafe which serves feudally-themed dishes and local specialities. If it hadn't been so cold that day I'd have tried the bushou shaved ice...

That wraps up my adventures in Shiroishi Castle and the surrounding area. My next stop was the city of Sendai, and that will be the topic of my final post about Sengoku Basara tourism.

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