Shingen - Ko Matsuri Is Japan’s Largest Samurai Festival

Shingen-ko Matsuri is Japan’s largest samurai festivalThe battle cry of red-clad warriors filled the capital that once served as the heart of a legendary Japanese warlord’s domain, their powerful screams punctuated by the throbbing sound of taiko drums echoing in the background.

Instead of serving a feudal warlord, however, these guys dressed in samurai gear apparently have a corporate master.

“We’re actually with NEC,” said a bearded, middle-age man with the group, who motioned to his dressed-up allies after spying some kids in the crowd.

Held each year to commemorate Sengoku Period warlord Shingen Takeda, the Shingen-ko festival features the largest gathering in Japan of people in samurai garb. Jason Hidalgo

The samurai squad from the Japanese information technology company quickly ran and surrounded the young boy, who was handed one of their swords and encouraged to join in a hearty chant of “ey, ey, oh!”

Nearly five centuries ago, Kofu City in Japan’s Yamanashi prefecture was ruled by Shingen Takeda, a powerful warlord from the country’s Sengoku era whose keen mind and military prowess was admired by rivals from his era and history books alike. These days, his memory is honored at the tail end of cherry blossom-viewing season each spring during the “Shingen-ko Matsuri,” Japan’s largest gathering of people dressed in samurai gear, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Although the gathering now consists of regular folk of all shapes and sizes, with some even donning historically inaccurate eyeglasses, witnessing 1,500 people in samurai garb remains an impressive sight. Equally impressive are the costumes worn by the participants, with the armor worn by officers and Takeda’s legendary 24 generals especially looking awe-inspiring. These include intricate patterns woven into the suits with some also sporting impressive horns more worth of Viking gods. Takeda’s role himself is typically assumed by a popular actor, lending some gravitas to the touristy event.

The festival is a big deal for Kofu City and surrounding areas, which have been negatively impacted by the movement of people and business to larger urban areas such as Tokyo. Come the first week or so of April, the normally sleepy capital city of Yamanashi comes to life as throngs of people arrive to catch the Shingen-ko festival.

Scenes from the Shingen-ko Matsuri in Kofu City, Yamanashi,
Scenes from the Shingen-ko Matsuri in Kofu City, Yamanashi, which is Japan's largest samurai festival and parade. Jason Hidalgo

In addition to the samurai, the festival also features taiko drummers, maidens in traditional garb, shrine bearers and even random entertainers such as a guy with a trained monkey. The samurai, however, remain the stars of this particular show, which include warriors on horseback. Cavalry was a big part of Takeda’s army and a big reason for his military strength until firearms were introduced to the battlefield. Horses also add an unpredictable element to the festival. At one point, one of the horses got scared and galloped away with rider in tow, requiring helpers to give chase. This happened during the climax of the three-day festival, which has participants in formation parading around the city into the evening. Don’t be surprised as well to see some costumed samurai add some modern flavor to the festivities by doing choreographed dance moves as a group.

The parade itself is quite impressive just from the sheer numbers of people involved. Today’s battlefield might be made of concrete but it still gives you an idea of how things must have looked like all those hundreds of years ago when troops would march into war. One difference, of course, is that the Shingen-ko festival is more egalitarian, with women also included among the samurai warriors as well.

Given how Kofu City just a couple or so hours away by express train from Tokyo, travelers in the country during the first week or so of April can easily squeeze in a visit to what used to be the seat of power in the old Kai province to catch the Shingen-ko festival. While you’re there, I also heartily recommend trying native delicacies such as the sweet and powdery “shingenmochi,” the udon and miso soup based “hottou,” and — for you more adventurous types — a sweet chicken liver and gizzard dish called torimotsu.

After all, as the Japanese like to say, you can’t go to battle on an empty stomach.

Getting to Kofu City from Tokyo

From either Tokyo or Shinjuku station, take a train on JR East’s Chuo line to Kofu Station. I recommend using one of the limited express trains such as the Kaiji or Azusa, which are more pricey but also get you to your destination faster due to their fewer stops. The JR Pass or JR Tokyo Wide Pass also can be used on this line. Otherwise, you also can take the Yamanashi Kotsu bus straight from places such as Narita Airport or Shinjuku Station.For 2016, the festival will be held from April 8 to 10 according to the official Shingen-ko Matsuri page.