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Wednesday, March 29, 2000

Samurai, silk and soba in a classic castle town


By ANNE PEPPER

Like many castle towns, the identity of Ueda, in Nagano Prefecture, is closely intertwined with its castle.

A visitor to Ueda is reminded of this before even leaving the sleek new Shinkansen train station. Walking out to the street, I spotted the distinctive crest of the Sanada clan on souvenirs, advertisements and tourist brochures, a sign that there's more to this city of 122,000 than the modern streets and shops that meet the eye.

To visit Ueda without knowing about Sanada Yukimura is a bit like visiting Versailles without knowing about Louis XIV. The best place to learn about Yukimura is at the castle, which was built by his father, Masayuki. I rented a bike at the station, and was at the castle in about 10 minutes.

Most of the original castle is gone, but the few remaining structures, and the imposing site atop a bluff, hint that the Sanada were a force to reckon with. In the small, two-story city museum on the castle grounds, I learned that Masayuki and his troops repelled a force of 8,000 men sent by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1585.

By the time of the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, the Sanada were less certain that Ieyasu could be stopped. The family decided to hedge their bets: Yukimura and Masayuki opposed Ieyasu, but Yukimura's elder brother Nobuyuki joined the Tokugawa. This way, no matter who prevailed, part of the Sanada clan would be affiliated with the winner.

Yukimura's reputation as a strategist began to grow after Sekigahara, because his defense of Ueda had kept Ieyasu's son Hidetada and his troops from reaching the battlefield. But the battle for which Yukimura will always be remembered took place 15 years later at Osaka Castle, the stronghold of the Toyotomi clan.

This clash of titans, which stretched on for several months, was to determine whether or not Ieyasu would rule all of Japan. Yukimura, a supporter of Toyotomi Hideyori, fought valiantly and brilliantly, but was ultimately cut down in a fierce battle on June 3. The following day Hideyori committed suicide.

Nobuyuki, meanwhile, stuck with the Tokugawa, and he and his descendants ruled their family territory until the Meiji Restoration, when they received the title of count in the new Western-style nobility.

A large standing screen in the museum depicts the Battle of Osaka Castle. Suits of armor and other objects are on display, but the main Sanada collection is a few kilometers away in the town of Matsushiro.

Upstairs on the second floor is a small but interesting display chronicling other periods in the city's history. Silk production was an important part of the economy for many years; Ueda tsumugi (silk fabric) can still be purchased locally. Nagano Prefecture has always placed strong emphasis on education, and that is evident in some of the other exhibits, as well as in the Kanae Yamamoto Memorial Hall, next door to the museum.

It's also evident if you visit the tourist information counter in Ueda Station. Staff members speak English, French, or Italian, depending who is on duty. The counter is open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, and has a good English map of the city.

Among Ueda's other sights is the Tsuruzo Ishii Museum of Art (sculpture and painting), just outside the main entrance to the castle grounds, in a Western-style wood building constructed in 1915. Ishii's sumo sculptures are quite well known.

The Ueda Tourist Hall, which sells local souvenirs, is directly opposite the entrance to the castle grounds. The city's most famous edible omiyage is a soft, clear candy called mizu-ame. Iijima is the leading maker of mizu-ame, and their main shop, a four-minute walk from Ueda Station, contains some nice antiques.

An attractive new museum in the center of town is devoted to Shotaro Ikenami, a popular author who wrote the historical novel "Sanada Taiheiki," celebrating the family's exploits.

The old Hokkoku Kaido road ran through Ueda, and if you visit the Yanagimachi district, you can still see a stretch of old shops and buildings with an Edo Period flavor. Ueda also has some old shrines and temples, including Shinano Kokubunji, which dates back to the 8th century.

The city's biggest festival is the Sanada Matsuri, which takes place every year on April 29. The highlight is a samurai gyoretsu parade through town with a descendant of the Sanada clan on horseback surrounded by samurai and attendants in period costume.

For overnight accommodations, most tourists prefer to stay at Bessho Onsen, 30 minutes away by train, but the tourist information counter can provide names of hotels and inns in Ueda in all price ranges.

Don't leave Ueda without trying a bowl of the soba (buckwheat noodles) for which this region is famous. Of Ueda's many soba restaurants, a popular shop is Katana, which means "sword" -- another reminder of this city's proud heritage.

For more information, contact Ueda City Shoko Kanko-ka at (0268) 22-4100; Bessho Onsen Kanko Kumiai at (0268) 38-2020.


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