In 1561 two great samurai armies clashed at a place known as Kawanakajima. Although nothing was decided in a historical sense (hence why stuffy academics tend to overlook the battle in lieu of those which were more decisive), this battle has become the stuff of legends over the centuries.
It was a battle between two great rivals who were alike and yet unlike like yin and yang. They were destined to fight but not destined to destroy one another. One was Takeda Shingen, lord of the Kai province. Takeda rose to power by usurping his father and following an aggressive policy of expansion. Kai was a landlocked domain and Takeda desired to have access to the sea. The Pacific was originally out of the question as it was controlled by the powerful warlord Imagawa so Takeda looked northward to the Sea of Japan. He subsequently increased his territory in the Shinano region driving toward that goal. The lords of Shinano who did not submit to Takeda fled into Echigo and took service with Uesugi Kenshin.
Uesugi Kenshin was lord of Echigo but he did not start out as Uesugi. His family was the Nagoa who were originally retainers of the Uesugi clan. When his Uesugi overlord came seeking refuge from a crushing defeat by another clan, Kenshin seized his chance and had his lord declare him the heir of the Uesugi clan.
Both Takeda and Uesugi were products of their age - the Sengoku, the age of warring states. Central authority had basically collapsed as a result of the Onin War (1467-1476) which had ravaged the capital of Kyoto. The ruling government of the Ashikaga shogunate had become an empty shell. Meanwhile local warlords seized power for themselves carving out their own little kingdoms. Technically there was still the Shogun and the Emperor whom the Shogun professed to rule in his name but basically it was a free-for-all for over a hundred years.
Kawanakajima was the general area where these two warlords tussled a number of times. Though called "THE BATTLE" of Kawanakajima, it was really a series of battles over the years. The most famous battle which is thought of as the proverbial battle is the fourth one where both sides had a chance to annihilate the other unlike the other conflicts that occurred in the area.
The fourth Battle of Kawanakajima and the one that all the drama hangs on occurred in 1561. Uesugi left his mountain fortress of Kasugayama (near modern day Joetsu) with a mighty force and took up position on Mt. Saijo thus threatening a Takeda outpost - Kaizu Castle. The commander of the castle, Kosaka Masanobu sent a warning to Takeda who responded by mobilizing his forces. This is what Uesugi had hoped for.
At Kaizu Castle, Takeda's chief strategist, Yamamoto Kansuke devised a cunning plan to wipe out Uesugi once and for all. He proposed that Kosaka lead 8000-12000 men to Saijoyama and attack Uesugi. Figuring that Uesugi whether winning or losing this engagement would retreat down the mountain the rest of Takeda's forces would spring upon his army and destroy it.
It was a perfect plan. Maybe too perfect. Uesugi was the consummate warrior so perhaps he guessed the intentions of the Takeda or he had help from his spies who informed him of Takeda's movements. Either way, Uesugi left his mountaintop position and quietly snuck down into the field in front of the other wing of the Takeda army.
At dawn, Uesugi launched his attack on the unsuspecting Takeda. They rushed in taking Takeda by surprise. Takeda Nobushige, the brother of Takeda Shingen, was killed early in the battle.
Yamamoto Kansuke seeing his plan brought to ruin went out in true samurai fashion. He took the blame for the failure of the plan and rushed into Uesugi's ranks. After suffering scores of wounds, he committed seppeku - ritual suicide.
The celebrated highlight of the battle was the moment when (supposedly) Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen met face to face. At one point during the battle a group of mounted soldiers burst upon Takeda's camp. One whom many believe was Uesugi himself rushed at Takeda with his sword held high. Takeda had only time enough to defend himself with his iron-wrought war-fan. Uesugi struck three times and although allegedly wounding Takeda did not and could not kill him.
Meanwhile Kosaka Masanobu finding himself on a lonely mountaintop quickly rushed down to join the battle. He smashed Uesugi's rear guard and fell upon the main army. Uesugi was forced to retreat and thus ended the fabled Battle of Kawanakajima.
Casualties were high on both sides with Takeda losing around 4000 including his brother, uncle, and his strategist Yamamoto Kansuke. Uesugi lost about 3000 and had been forced to retreat. These loses didn't stop either from claiming victory though. Even today Japanese will make different claims who won especially if their hometowns are related to one of the two warlords.
Kawanakajima has long been a popular subject for dramas in any form including festivals. I've been to at least three different Kawanakajima festivals in Niigata, Yamagata, and Yamanashi. Contrast this to one of the most significant battles in Japanese history - Sekigahara - which has only one festival and a small at that comparatively.
The Niigata town of Joetsu puts on a Kawanakajima festival in the district of Kasugayama. Kasugayama was once the headquarters of Uesugi Kenshin so it's a hometown festival for a hometown hero. The festival has been going on for nearly 100 years. Since 2007, the role of Uesugi Kenshin has been played by popular musician Gackt Camui. Gackt played Uesugi in the NHK drama Furin Kazan. He has helped to bring more attention to this festival which shows by all the screaming Gackt fans who attend.
Joetsu's Kawanakajima festival takes place the third weekend of August with Sunday being the day of the re-enactment of the battle.
Gackt Camui as 16th Century warlord Uesugi Kenshin
Takeda Shingen - Daimyo (warlord) of Kai
Uesugi Kenshin's rival
Yamamoto Kansuke - chief strategist of the Takeda clan
A Gackt Fan
Another Gackt Fan
They had a demonstration of 16th Century guns which were used at the original battle
Some screenshots from the video as it was hard to get any photos with the lighting and all movement:
Takeda Nobushige fights for his life
Death of Takeda Nobushige
A blurry Uesugi Kenshin attacks Takeda Shingen
Naginata Women Warrior Battle!!!