SEKIGAHARA, Gifu Prefecture--The historic town of Sekigahara is basking in rediscovered glory, courtesy of out-of-towners eager to roam a medieval battlefield outfitted in samurai armor.
To get the most of their visit to the site of a decisive battle fought here in 1600, tourists can arrange to rent replica "kacchu" armor that gave warriors of old their fearsome look.
The sudden craze for donning kacchu in Sekigahara was unexpected. As word of its popularity spreads, more visitors are using costume rental services or turning up in armor they made themselves.
Invariably, visitors shun the traditional heavy armor that offered protection against spear and sword thrusts, opting instead for lightweight plastic or fabric attire provided by the Sasaoyama Exchange Center that allows for easier maneuverability.
The Battle of Sekigahara changed the course of Japanese history and is widely regarded as having ushered in the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867).
Dressed as an "ashigaru" foot soldier, Nagoya fitness instructor Chika Arai, 39, felt at one with a warrior who fought for the feudal warlord Ishida Mitsunari as she gazed over the town of Sekigahara from Mount Sasaoyama, where the ruins of his fortress stand.
"I always wanted to don kacchu if I were to go to Sekigahara," she said.
According to the city’s tourism association, 44 visitors rented free costumes, nine times more than normal, on Sept. 15, when the service was offered free in tribute to the 417th anniversary of the battle.
The number of rental service users rose to 889 in 2016 from 615 in 2015, and the figure is expected to increase further this year in light of the August release of the film "Sekigahara," which recounts the six-hour battle that brought an end to the Warring States era.
An event held each September to commemorate the Battle of Sekigahara offers visitors the chance to take part in a re-enactment of the famous conflict decked out as armor-clad samurai warlords.
This year, the annual "Sekigahara Kassen Emaki" event was flooded with applications for tickets allocated to the public, although organizers said that members of a local youth association were asked to make up numbers about 10 years ago due to insufficient interest.
The executive committee said it received record 175 applications for the 125 spots.
The popularity of kacchu seems to reflect a growing number of period dramas set in the Warring States era aired by Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) and satellite networks, as well as surging interest in old castles and swords, according to the Association for the Research and Preservation of Japanese Helmets and Armor based in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward.
Another reason may be the town's policy to allow visitors to potter around decked out in period costume, according to town officials.
While a number of tourism hotspots provide armor rental services, Sekigahara goes a step further since visitors can ride about on bicycles or enjoy a leisurely meal in kachhu.
"I think that gives them more leeway and offers more photo opportunities," said a regional development section official here.
Motoki Ota, 56, a civil servant from Nagoya, visits Sekigahara several times a month on his days off, wearing plastic armor he fashioned himself.
"I can’t get a feel for this period of Japanese history unless I go dressed up in kacchu," he said.
On occasion, a tourist decked out in period costume can get too caught up in the role. In early September, an incident came to light in which a man wearing self-made armor pointed a fake sword at a visitor to Mount Sasaoyama. The man later called the town’s tourism association to apologize.
"We hope that visitors will be well-behaved so that everybody enjoys themselves," said a tourism official.