About a kilometer south of Matsumoto Station, just past where the Tagawa and Susukigawa Rivers meet, there’s a vacant lot with a small hill near the southwest corner. From a distance you can barely see it what with the trees standing there in a clump, seemingly conspiring to hide this bump in the ground.
Along with the scrubby grass and the rutted dirt of the land, this is all that is left of the fantastic story of Igawa Castle, stronghold of the Ogasawara Clan, long-ago rulers of Shinano.
For years the only Ogasawaras I knew were the small group of islands a thousand kilometers south of Tokyo and Michihiro the baseball player.
It’s possible I heard the name Ogasawara from time to time in the historical context, but if I did I’m guessing my mind just veered south toward those islands and the idea of visiting them and, well, so much for broadening my intellectual horizons.
Then I came to Matsumoto and visited the castle, and learned (by accident, I’m sure) that for a time the Ogasawara Clan were the lords of the castle and the region. Only when I began to venture into the hills and the outskirts of town did I finally realize how much more a part of Japan’s history the Ogasawara family has played (not to minimize Michihiro’s batting titles).
The Ogasawaras were a samurai clan of impressive descent. Originating in Koshu (present-day Yamanashi Prefecture), they were a branch of the Seiwa-Genji bloodline, an extensive family tree that included the Minamoto Clan, shoguns of the Kamakura Era; the Ashikaga Clan, shoguns of the Muromachi Era; and the Tokugawa Clan, ruling shogunate over Japan for more than 250 years. With all of them claiming descent from the 9th Century Emperor Seiwa, they collectively form one of the most, perhaps the most, powerful lineages in Japanese history.
Through the latter half of the 12th Century the Minamoto and the Taira clans were vying for influence in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. The power struggle led to the five-year Genpei War which saw the Minamoto clan oust and exile the Tairas. Emperor Go-Shirakawa awarded Yoritomo Minamoto extensive administrative powers, and when Go-Shirakawa died in 1192 the feudal system took hold in Japan with Yoritomo becoming the first shogun, establishing his headquarters in Kamakura and reducing the Imperial Court to figurehead status.
At the dawn of the Kamakura Shogunate a man named Nagakiyo, archery and martial arts instructor to Yoritomo, was given the Shinano (Nagano) region to control. Nagakiyo was the son of Kagami Tohmitsu, a direct descendant of one of the many virile and consort-rich Minamoto warriors (it is unclear exactly who). He assumed the name Ogasawara and began the family’s rule from two houses, one in Matsuo (Iida) in the south and one here in Shinano, in the town of Fukashi (Matsumoto), in an area called Igawa.
A century and a half later, in the 1333 Siege of Kamakura, Emperor Go-Daigo succeeded (on his second attempt) in overthrowing the Kamakura Shogunate with the help of Kamakura defector Ashikaga Takauji. With this victory power of rule was restored to the emperor, but Go-Daigo’s policies would get him nowhere and in 1336 Ashikaga would assume power as the new shogun, ushering in the Muromachi Era and the Northern and Southern Courts Period where the Ashikaga Shogunate ruled over the northern regions while the emperor maintained control of the south.
The protector of Shinano at the time, Sadamune Ogasawara, had been carrying on Nagakiyo’s methods of archery and martial arts, and for a while was instructing Go-Daigo in the ways of ‘Ogasawara-ryu’. But when the Ashikage shogunate was established Sadamune sided with Takauji.
By this time Igawa Castle was standing in its spot on the Shinano-Fuchu Plains. It is actually not clear when Igawa-jo was built, but Sadamune’s son Masanaga was, as far as records indicate, the first Ogasawara to be born in this Shinano stronghold, The year was 1319.
The Ogasawara Clan would remain in control of the Shinano region until the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate. But Igawa Castle would not survive that long. Igawa (‘river well’) Castle was situated near the confluence of the Susukigawa and the Tagawa rivers, with other minor headless rivers adding to the strategic defensive location. Yet this would not be the place to stay.
The combination of occasional flooding, growing violence across Japan, and a spat with the Matsuo side of the clan in the first half of the 15th Century compelled then-protector Kiyomune Ogasawara to build a new fortress in the hills to the east. This new stronghold would become known as Hayashi-jo, the hilltop ‘Forest Castle’. It is said that his son Nagaasa was born there in 1443, as the first Ogasawara of the Hayashi Castle Era.
Remnants of Hayashi-jo can still be seen there today. On the hillside below sits Kotakuji, the Ogasawara family temple.
And somewhere, perhaps not far from this temple, the descendants of the Ogasawara Clan, members of the most powerful bloodline in Japan’s storied history, still live, their generations marching toward a thousand years of family history, right here in Matsumoto.
Meanwhile, back in Igawa, we are left with that unassuming little hill in one corner of an unused if not abandoned lot. To be honest, from a visual perspective it’s a bit of a letdown. But if you go, know as you are walking along the dirt and stone paths leading across that field of scrubby grass that long before the first stone was set over at Matsumoto Castle, Igawa-jo stood tall here on Fuchu Plains, the original center of power of Shinano.