Looking back at Sekigahara a short while after leaving the town, the strategic significance of this site can be fully appreciated. The extensive Mino plain is ringed by a chain of mountains broken, apparently, at only two places: the Pacific coast to the south, and the pass at Sekigahara to the west. Lying close to the very center of Japan, the pass seems the only route through which East can meet West Japan. It was, perhaps, the obvious site for the army of the East under Tokugawa and the army of the West under Ishida to clash in 1600 to determine who should be ruler of a unified Japan. It is also no surprise that the valley accommodates all the major transportation routes connecting East and West Japan, including the Shinkansen or (‘bullet’ train) super-express line, the Tokaido trunk line, the Meishin Expressway, National Highway Route 21, and the old Nakasendo (formerly Tosando) highway.
The town itself was founded on a site where three ancient routes converged to negotiate the pass: the Nakasendo (Tosando) from the west, the Hokkokudo from the north-west, and the Ise-kaido from the south-west. In the Edo period stewardship of Sekigahara post-town was, unusually, entrusted to a direct retainer (hatamoto) of the Tokugawa shogun, further reflecting the strategic importance of the site. The heavy volume of traffic through the pass meant Sekigahara was somewhat larger than the average post-town, with a population of 1389 according to a census in 1842, living in 351 households. Today Route 21 overlies the old Nakasendo as it passes through the town, and subsequent road widening has destroyed much of the traditional character of the place. The only exceptions are a small cluster of old inns near the rail station, including the original waki-honjin (a secondary inn for important dignitaries), and a number of important sites associated with the battlefield. Just to the south, an interchange with the Meishin Expressway has attracted some industrial development in recent years and this, together with tourism, has ensured Sekigahara continues to flourish today. This is a far cry from the months immediately after the Battle of Sekigahara when, houses destroyed and rice harvest ruined, the winter snows approaching, and unclaimed rotting bodies from among the 36,000 casualties to be disposed of, life for the inhabitants of Sekigahara was described as ‘hell on earth.’
Leaving Sekigahara the route follows Route 21 for a few hundred yards, until the site of ‘Tokugawa’s headquarters at the start of the battle’ is reached. Here the original Nakasendo turns left to follow a narrower, much quieter road through a mixture of suburban housing, small old villages, and some short stretches of open countryside. Along the way there are a few surviving namiki (trees which originally lined the highway), although each tree is now adorned with a large, brightly colored band to proclaim what they are, and to exhort everyone to protect the natural environment! An ichirizuka (‘mile post’) also survives. After just three and a half miles the next post-town, Tarui, is reached.