Sumo wrestlers, ninjas, geishas, emperors, and monks – these are just some of the many historical figures immediately associated with Japan. Backed with tons of moral principles, cultural importance, and purpose, these things are often the reasons why tourists want to take a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun. Some may prefer one over the other, but a certain iconic Japanese figure stands out from all the rest – the samurai.
History of the Samurai
Samurais initially served as Japan’s warriors during the pre-modern times and eventually became the highest ranked military class and caste by the Edo Period. They lived by the principles and beliefs of bushido, or the way of the warrior, which was strongly based on Confucianism. Bushido’s vital concepts included self-discipline, respect, loyalty to the master, and moral behavior.
The origins of the samurai can be traced back to the Heian Period when campaigns were made to suppress the Tohoku region’s native community. During this time, the elites also hired warriors, and even created armies, to protect themselves from any repercussions brought about by their separation from the central government.
These groups of elites were mostly wealthy landowners, the Taira and Minamoto clans being the most powerful. Eventually, they both actively protested against the government then went on to battle each other for dominion over the country. The victory was given to Minamoto Yoritomo, who became the shogun, or commander-in-chief, of the Kamakura Bakufu, a military government he established in 1192. For the next 700 years, samurais ruled all of Japan.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, Japan was split into different states and was in a constant state of war. The demand for warriors increased, shedding some light on shinobis, feudal Japan’s group of mercenaries better known as ninjas.
By the late 1500s, the independent states reunited and created a caste system that went into full effect come the Edo Period. This social stratification put samurais at the very top, with farmers, craftsmen, and merchants grouped below, in that very same order. Samurais were paid by daimyos, or feudal lords, with rice and were required to live in castle towns.
Swords could only be owned and carried by samurais. During the 1600s, the increase of ronins, or masterless samurais, caused quite a few problems in the streets of Japan. Nonetheless, samurais played a big role in achieving peace in the country. As such, they became respected artists, teachers, and bureaucrats until a few years after the feudal era of Japan ended in 1868.
The Samurai Armor and Sword
The samurais were, no doubt, incredible warriors and have become one of the most popular historical figures of Japan. They lived fighting evil, and sometimes each other, and are often depicted as simple Japanese men in robe-like dresses with a sword secured around their waist left hanging by their side, as in the popular animations – Samurai X and Samurai Jack. In truth, however, there is so much more to the samurai’s armor and sword than the popularized notion.
Although samurais did eventually wear the outfits often seen in movies and cartoons by the Edo Period, they initially wore suits of armor in the battlefield. These armors were quite ornate and walked the thin line between looking formidable and looking weird. Regardless, each part of the samurai armor had its own function.
Mobility was one of the key factors behind the design of the samurai armor. It had to, of course, be sturdy but still allow the samurai to move freely while wearing it. Most armors consisted of leather or metal lacquered plates, sewn together using silk or leather.
To protect the samurai’s arms, a pair of massive shoulder shields complete with armored sleeves often accompanied the main body of the armor. The sleeve for the right hand was often designed differently from the left to help the samurai efficiently use his weapon.
To avoid any injuries to the head, samurais often wore kabuto helmets made of metal plates. This helmet was worn with two other pieces of armor that were tied behind and under it to protect all sides of the samurai’s head. Some helmets also had extra ornaments and accessories, such as the popular demon mask, that served to further protect the wearer and frighten enemies. Samurais often wore a leather cap as padding for the helmet.
Their weapons of choice included bows, guns, and spears but their primary instrument, which doubled as their symbol, was the sword. Originally, samurais used a small and slim straight sword called chokuto. However, as techniques in sword-making improved, samurais preferred using curved swords, known as katanas.
According to bushido, the katana carried with it the soul of its bearer, making it more than just a weapon for many samurais. Some warriors preferred to only go into battle with nothing else but their sword, while others carried with them a yumi (a longbow). Katanas were also often accompanied by a pair of smaller blades, known as daisho, which served more as a status symbol for those of the samurai class than as a weapon.
Similar to the Spartan warriors, samurais were pretty open-minded when it came to same-sex relations and even encouraged it in their culture. Many samurais had this kind of relationship with the younger ones they were training; a practice referred to as wakashudo (the way of the youth). This practice was very common among samurais, so much so that not engaging in it could be considered embarrassing.
- Female Samurais
The term samurai is strictly used to refer to men, but there were women who trained as they did to participate in battles. They were referred to as onna-bugeisha and used spears that came with a curved blade, known as naginatas, instead of katanas.
- Western Samurais
Given special situations, people from outside of Japan could participate in battles alongside samurais or even be granted the samurai title by the daimyos or shogun. Eugene Collache, Edward Schnell, Jan Joosten van Lodensteijn, and William Adams are four examples of Western men who have been given the honor of fighting with and becoming one of the samurais.
It is wrong to think that samurai warriors were full of brawns and no brains. As they were considered noblemen of Japan’s feudal era, a lot of samurais were actually quite well-educated. Their level of literacy was higher compared to Europeans and they excelled in math. Furthermore, samurais actively participated in artistic and cultural activities such as painting, poetry, flower arranging, calligraphy, and tea ceremonies. Samurais strived for personal growth in areas outside of combat because of bushido’s principles about continuously improving oneself.
- Suicide Rituals
The life of a samurai is often surrounded by terrifying things, one of the most gruesome being seppuku. This is a suicide ritual done by a samurai when he is about to be held captive by the enemy or when he violates bushido. Seppuku can be done in two ways – one being a quick and bloody process the other being a bit more lengthy and elaborate.
The first version is often done at the battlefield and requires the samurai to pierce himself in the stomach using a short blade and moving this from side to side. Afterward, another person decapitates the samurai to save him from experiencing a long and painful death.
The second version is considered as a formal ritual. The samurai is given a ceremonial bath then dressed in white. He will be served his favorite meal and will be provided with a blade on top of his empty plate, afterward. The samurai will be given time to write down his last words in the form of a death poem before letting him stab himself in the stomach with the blade. An attendant will cut off the samurai’s head, leaving a strip of flesh in front uncut to make the head settle in a forward bowing position.
Appreciating the Samurai
Japan is filled with many attractions for tourists to learn about samurai warriors and actually experience their lifestyle and culture. Visitors can pick from museums, theme parks, castles, residences, and dress-up tours.
Almost all of Japan’s history museums carry a few samurai armors and swords for public viewing. However, tourists should note that there are several museums that exclusively showcase samurai relics. Some of the must-visit museums include:
- The Japanese Sword Museum
The Japanese Sword Museum is located in Tokyo, just a 20-minute walk away from the Shinjuku Station. They showcase an endless number of blades and have exhibits about sword making and maintenance. They are open daily from 10:00 AM to 4:30 PM, except on Mondays and holidays. Entrance fee is priced at 600 yen.
- Maeda Tosanokami-ke Shiryokan
The Maeda Tosanokami-ke Shiryokan is a museum located in the Nagamachi District of Kanazawa. It is a tribute to the Maeda family who previously ruled over the Ishikawa Prefecture. Samurai armors, weaponry and other items from the Maeda clan are on display here. The museum is open every day from 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM, with an admission fee of 100 yen.
- Honda Museum
The Honda Museum is located in Kenrokuen, Kanawaza and is dedicated to the Honda family. Back in the Edo Period, the Honda family was among the most powerful families of Kanazawa, being the second, overall. The museum carries several of the family’s treasures including calligraphy, paintings, weaponry, and armors. Visitors need to pay a fee of 400 yen to enter.
- Tokugawa Art Museum
The Tokugawa Art Museum is located in Nagoya, conveniently situated along the Meguru bus line loop that many tourists take. It houses several treasures of the Tokugawa family such as tea utensils, costumes, scrolls, samurai swords, samurai armors, and maps. A wonderful garden featuring a large pond can be found next to the museum. Admission is 1,200 yen for the museum, 300 yen for the garden, and 1,350 yen for both.
Given that Japan has such a rich history, there are a lot of theme parks across Japan that provide tourists with a variety of shows, restaurants, and shops within a recreated town. Many of these parks are filled with staff members in period costumes to add to the experience. Some of the best samurai-themed parks are:
- Ise Azuchi-Momoyama Bunka Mura
The Ise Azuchi-Momoyama Bunka Mura theme park is located in Isa, Shima Peninsula. It is based on the Azuchi-Momoyama Period and features replicas of castle towns and even the Azuchi Castle. Tourists can enjoy the day going through their many attractions such as a trick maze, a ghost temple, a samurai show, and a small ninja museum. There are also several restaurants and novelty stores within the vicinity. Admission is priced at 2,500-3,900 yen.
- Toei Uzumasa Eigamura
The Toei Uzumasa Eigamura theme park is located in Kyoto. It features streets from the Edo period, a traditional courthouse, a film set replica based on the Meiji Period, and a Nihonbashi Bridge replica, among many other attractions. The park is closed from December 27 – 31, every year. Tourists can roam about the park for a fee of 2,200 yen.
- Nikko Edomura
The Nikko Edomura theme park is located in Kinugawa, Nikko. It is one of Japan’s best theme parks and majorly consists of recreated towns from the Edo Period. The park’s staff members are dressed as ninjas, samurais, and townspeople, as well. Tourists can enjoy several stage performances, museums, restaurants, shops, comedy shows, and ninja shows throughout the day for the price of 4,700 yen per person.
- Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura
The Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura is located in Hokkaido and follows an Edo Period theme. It is a bit smaller compared to the other theme parks but offers many of the same attractions. It is open every day of the year, with admission priced at 2,900 yen.
Castles originally served as Japan’s small forts of defense. Over time, it developed to become a symbol of status and a form of residence for daimyos. Samurais often lived in nearby towns or in the castle itself, depending on their rank. Today, Japan is home to more than 100 castles, twelve of which completely survived the country’s feudal era, while others had to undergo several restorations and reconstructions. Many of these castles have exhibits about samurais while some have been entirely turned into museums.
Must-Visit Original Castles
- Himeji Castle – located in Shiga, Kansai
- Matsumoto Castle – located in Nagano, Chubu
- Matsuyama Castle or Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle – located in Okayama, Chugoku
- Matsue Castle – located in Shimane, Chugoku
- Hikone Castle – located in Shiga, Kansai
Must-Visit Restored / Reconstructed Castles
- Shuri Castle – located in Okinawa Island, Okinawa
- Kumamoto Castle – located in Kumamoto, Kyushu
- Osaka Castle – located in Osaka, Kansai
- Tsuruga Castle – located in Fukushima, Tohoku
- Nagoya Castle – located in Aichi, Chubu
- Ueno Castle – located in Mie, Kansai
- Ozu Castle – located in Ehime, Shikoku
- Odawara Castle – located in Kanagawa, Kanto
- Shimabara Castle – located in Nagasaki, Kyushu
- Hiroshima Castle – located in Hiroshima, Chugoku
Samurai Districts Residences
As previously mentioned, samurais were required to love nearby the castles of their daimyos. They often resided in certain districts of castle towns, which have been preserved up to this day. These places still feature the earthen walls, narrow streets, and historic ambiance to provide tourists with an overview of how the warriors lived. The best districts and residences to visit include:
- Hagi Castle Town
This former castle town located in Hagi still has most of its streets intact, lined with the wooden gates and white walls of several samurai mansions. Tourists can enter some of the residences.
- Kakunodate Samurai District
The Kakunodate Samurai District is one of Japan’s best samurai districts to visit. The area is quite pleasant, especially during the months of February, March, April and May when the cherry blossom season is in full swing.
- Bitchu-Takahashi Old Town
The Bitchu-Takahashi Old Town is located at the bottom of the Matsuyama Castle. Many of its old structures and samurai mansions are well-preserved and open to the public.
- Former Hosokawa Residence
The former Hosokawa Residence was the home of a family from the powerful Hosokawa clan. Tourists who want to see how a high ranking samurai lived should make it a point to visit this mansion.
- Aizu Bukeyashiki
The Aizu Bukeyashiki previously served as the home of a high-ranking samurai family. It has several scenes on display that show different parts of the samurai’s daily life.
Dress-up tours are often offered to tourists by many travel agencies. This tour allows tourists to wear costumes and armors while learning about the samurai’s weapons and training. Some tours even arrange mock battles for willing participants.