Yamagata’s Ningen Shogi (Human Chess)
A grand battle of human-sized Japanese chess under 2,000 cherry blossoms — a unique event to see while traveling in Tohoku.
As the Sakura trees gracefully bloom in Tendo, Yamagata Prefecture, traditionally armored men and women get ready for a peaceful, yet enjoyable combat of wit and strategy.
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for Ningen Shogi, or human Japanese chess, a yearly spring tradition in this northern city in the Tohoku region.
Shogi (将棋) is a Japanese board game that is similar to chess but instead of having intricate shapes for its pieces, the shogi pieces (or koma) are wedge-shaped. However, they are then replaced by samurai-garbed people during the exciting event of Ningen Shogi.
This unique affair takes place on Mount Maizuru (also known as Tendo Park, but will show up on Google Maps as 天童公園), and it is usually held the last week of April. Furthermore, it is the most awaited event in Tendo City’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival.
Visitors can witness, under the picturesque sakura trees at Maizuru Park (aka Tendo Park), a “shogi battle” between two professional players, and how they command their life-sized koma to move around a 52-feet-long and 46-feet-wide shogi board. There are also commentators that keep the audience updated about the game.
Although it’s in Japanese, even those unfamiliar with the language and/or game can still enjoy it because it’s such a rare sight to watch a board game made to look like an epic Japanese battle.
So, why this city?Around 90 percent of Japan’s shogi pieces are produced in Tendo, and this city has been crafting it since the Edo period.
Around 90 percent of Japan’s shogi pieces are produced in Tendo, and this city has been crafting it since the Edo period.
It all started when Tendo became a feudal domain of the Oda clan (a powerful political family during Edo era) and faced financial difficulties. Growing rice wasn’t ideal for this city’s terrain, so its residents tried to find other ways to earn more money. As a result, the making of shogi pieces with local wood and lacquer became one of its additional livelihoods.
More than just a game
Aside from the Human Chess match, visitors can enjoy the exhilarating taiko (Japanese drum) performances, shop for souvenirs and savor delicious festival food like yakisoba, takoyaki, kakigori (flavored shaved ice) and many more!
There is also a “shogi corner” in the venue where you can test your skills in making your own koma or just have fun playing shogi with other Japanese chess aficionados.
Know before you go
Wannabe life-size shogi pieces (from high-school students and up) can send their application at the Tendo City’s website. If there are too many submissions, a lottery system is implemented. Visitors and non-residents are also welcomed to join, though Japanese and shogi skills are a big help since the program is in Japanese. For an updated schedule and for Ningen Shogi applications please visit its official site. (Japanese only)