Sunday, November 16, 2014

Murakami Castle -Northern fortress-

Murakami Castle

-Northern fortress-



Name: Murakami castle (Murakami-jo)
Alias: Honjo castle
Place: Honmachi Murakami city, Niigata
Location: 38.22058510003456, 139.48320548008618
Type: Mountain Castle
Built: 16th century
Remaining remnants: Stone walls, clay walls and moats 
Title: 100 more famous Japanese castles

Brief History

Murakami castle (村上城) is located at Gagyusan mountain, an independent one of 135 meter height at the center of Murakami city. Murakami area places at the mouth of Miomotegawa river, and is the north edge of Niigata plain. 

It is 200 kilometer distant from Jyoetsu area, the center of Echigo province (Niigata prefecture) in medieval era, and also it was necessary to pass 50 kilometer mountainous road to Shonai region, the northwestern part of Dewa province (western part of Yamagata prefecture), or to Yonezawa basin (south part of Yamagata prefecture). Due to its remoteness from Joetsu area and secureness, Murakami castle had been an important border fortress.

Semi independent lords at Northern Echigo country

Precise year is unknown but Murakami castle was built by Honjo clan as their residence, and originally named as Honjo castle. Honjo clan was originally stem from descendant of Taira clan at Chichibu area (Saitama prefecture), and moved to Echigo province in 13th century. 

Honjo clan was the main stream of this house but there were other powerful branch families such as Irobe clan at Hirabayashi castle or Ayukawa clan. Along with other clans such as Nakajo clan, Kurokawa clan or Shibata clan, they kept independence at north half of Echigo province and were collectively called as “Agakitashu”.

Especially as  Honjo clan was located at the north edge of Echigo province, they related surrounding powers of Shonai area or Yonezawa area. Honjo clan had a relationship with Daihoji clan, a local lord at Shonai region at Oura castle (Yamagata prefecture), and also opposed the plan that Sadazane Uesugi (1479-1550), the governor of Echigo province, adopted his successor from Date clan, a warlord of Yonezawa basin. But in the former half of 16th century, the power of Honjo clan decreased by internal conflict.

Braveness and rebellion

At the middle of 16th century, Shigenaga Honjo (1540-1614) became the leader of Honjo clan. Shigenaga united Honjo clan again. At the same time Kenshin Uesugi (1530-1578), the leader of Nagao clan which was the house of deputy governor of Echigo province, united south half of Echigo province and made pressure to north area. At first Shigenaga resisted to Kenshin, but finally subordinated to Shingen with other lord such as Irobe clan or Nakajo clan, and worked for Kenshin.

Shigenaga bravely fought at many battles and made achievement, then he became famous as a brave general under Kenshin. At the battle of Kawanakajima against Shingen Takeda (1521-1573) in 1560, it is said that Shigenaga charged into Takeda army wielding the sword and made achievement. 

In 1563, during the campaign to Kanto region against Hojo clan, Shigenaga captured Sano castle (Tochigi prefecture) and was appointed as a commander. When generals celebrated Kenshin in 1559, Shigenaga was recorded as the second position among retainers.

But on the other hand, due to its braveness and pride Shigenaga sometimes revolted to Kenshin. In 1568, Shigenaga suddenly revolted to Kenshin at Honjo castle. Shigenaga was originally dissatisfied by small reward compared with his achievement, and seeing that Shingen Takeda (1521-1573), the warlord of Kai province (Yamanashi prefecture) and rival of Kenshin, urged rebellion. 

Furious Kenshin siege Honjo castle, but due to its security Kenshin could not fall it. However Shingen did not help Shigenaga and he also lost supply line, thus finally Shigenaga surrendered to Kenshin again under coordination of Ashina clan, the warlord of Aizu region, next year. 10 years later Shigenaga revolted to Kenshin again under the support of central ruler Nobunaga Oda (1534-1582), but Kenshin suppress it and forgave him again. 

Veteran general supported Uesugi clan

After the death of Kenshin in 1578, Shigenaga turned to support Kenshin's successor Kagekatsu Uesugi (1556-1623) as a veteran general. In 1588, Shigenaga defeated Mogami army at the battle of Jyugorihara with Daihoji clan and captured Shonai area, and recovered Shonai area as a territory of Uesugi clan. But in 1598, Kagekatsu Uesugi was transferred to Aizu Wakamatsu castle (Fukushima prefecture) by Toyotomi government, and Shigenega also moved to Aizu region.

After the death of ruler Hideyoshi Toyotomi in 1598, Kagekatsu Uopposed to the largest lord Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616), and started his campaign aiming at the hegemony of Tohoku region against Masamune Date (1567-1636) and Yoshiaki Mogami (1544-1614) both supported Ieyasu in 1600. 

Among whole Uesugi army attacked Mogami army, Masamune Date advanced to Uesugi territory and captured Shirakawa castle. Next Date army encircled Fukushima castle (Fukushima prefecture) protected by Shigenaga, but with small soldiers Shigenaga firmly kept Fukushima castle. 

Further, once Ieyasu Tokugawa made a victory against Mitsunari Ishida (1560-1600), former chief magistrate of Toyotomi government, at the decisive battle of Sekihara, Shigenaga persuaded Kagekatsu to subordinate to Ieyasu and negotiated with Edo Shogunate by himself. As a result, even thouth territory was decreased Uesugi clan could survive as a feudal lord under Edo Shogunate.

Change of holders

After the movement of Uesugi clan, Murakami clan became the commander of Honjo castle and renamed it to Murakami castle. Murakami clan reformed Murakami castle into a modern one equipped stone walls, but was extinguished in 1618. Next Hori clan moved from Fukushima castle (Joetsu city), but Hori clan also could not stay long. 

Subsequent to both clan, relative or hereditary retainer of Edo Shogunate served as a commander of Murakami castle. Especially in 1649 Matsudaira clan, a descendant of Ieyasu’s second son Hideyasu Yuki, became the lord of Murakami domain with large territory. Matsudaira clan expanded Murakami castle suitable to their position and territory.

Structure of Murakami castle

Gagyusan mountain is a long and narrow mountain spread north and south direction, and main areas of the castle spread along this long ridge. Central area is located at the top of the mountain, and at the southwest corner there was a three story main tower at the basement but this main tower was lost by fire. 

At the north of central area there was a beak shaped terrace utilizing terrain shape, and long and narrow secondary area runs down to the front gate. The stone wall of central area is winding in line with original terrain, and had a beautiful shape like a Great Wall in china. 

Main gate and main entrance into central area were magnificent Masugata gate, a secure complex style gate. At the north of main gate there is the saddle of the ridge, and this point is used as a crossing point of hilltop areas and climbing road from hillside area. 

Ahead of this crossing point there is third area, a large area used for the training of soldiers. The outer gate into the castle existed at the western hillside of the mountain, and the residence of lord was next to this outer gate.

These main areas were reformed into modern style, but on the eastern slope of the mountain structures of Honjyo era still well remain. At the halfway of the slope there is a huge vertical dry moat continued over 50 meter, to obstruct the movement enemy soldiers. Besides, huge clay gate and numerous terraces still remain on the Eastern slope. Total size of Murakami castle reached 500 meter square, and Murakami castle is the second largest castle next to Kasugayama castle (Jyoetsu city) in Niigata prefecture.

Afterward of the castle

At the end of Edo era, Murakami domain fought against New government in cooperation with other Tohoku domains, and Murakami castle lost all buildings at the battle. Now the site of the castle is used as a park, and its spectaclar clay walls and stone walls shows unchanged importance of this northern fortress.


20 minutes walk from JR East Uetsu-Honsen line Murakami station. 15 minutes drive from Nihonkai Tohoku Jidoshado Expressway Murakami-Sewa Onsen interchange. 30 minutes walk from hillside entrance to hilltop castle.

Related Castles

Hirabayashi Castle -Bloody citation-
Kasugayama Castle -Residence of "Dragon of Echigo"-
Oura Castle -Castle of too aggressive lord who lost its backer-

Pictures (click to enlarge)

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