Kikunomae was a woman who lived during the Sengoku period. She was the formal wife of Yamada Chikugo-no-kami Tokinari, a retainer of the Shionoya clan and lord of Yamada Castle in Shimotsuke Province.
Kikunomae’s place of origin is unknown.
On 3/25 of Tenshō 13 (1585), upon the outbreak of the Battle of Usubagahara between the Utsunomiya and Nasu clans, her husband, Tokinari, was killed in action while their residence at Yamada Castle fell in an assault by the Nasu forces. During the attack, Kikunomae, together with a chief retainer named Yamada Shinzaemon, initially escaped but Shinzaemon was cut-down while trying to protect Kikunomae. Kikunomae then sought refuge on a mountain known as Hanamidoya. After a continuing pursuit by the Nasu forces, Kikunomae and eleven female attendants jumped off the Taikoiwa cliff into the Hōki river flowing from the north below, claiming their lives.
Historical accounts of the Yamada family state as follows: “On 3/25 of Tenshō 13, during the Battle of Usubagahara, Kikunomae (the formal wife of Yamada Chikugo-no-kami Tokinari (the lord of Yamada Castle)) and her attendants fled to the site later known as jūni-gozen and, from atop a cliff, while twelve of them held hands together, leapt off into a ravine traversed by the Hōki River, taking their own lives in a little known story of the war.”
To the present day, the location where the twelve women met a tragic end is called jūni-gozen, or Twelve Madams.
After the battle, residents of the village of Sekine in the foothills of the mountain held memorial services for Kikunomae and her attendants. There is a story that Kikunomae took her own life on the Twelfth Night so she was called jūniya-gozen. Therefore, on the twelfth day of the first month, each year the residents would make straw sanctuaries and give rice and offerings. According to an account of the Yamada family, there was a cluster of seven to eight homes in the area, but by the end of the Edo period there were only two remaining. Presently, there are no homes remaining and the village of Sekine is gone so there are no more memorial services and many of the persons in the locale are unaware of the location known as jūni-gozen or the associated tragedy.
In Yamada, there used to be a site known as Yorakuzan-Senjuin at the Enman Temple, but this was abandoned. On the vestiges of the former temple there is a cemetery. At the center of these grounds stands an oval tombstone deemed to be for the abbot of the temple in addition to a gorintō, or five-part gravestone representing earth, water, fire, wind and heaven, believed to be for members of the Yamada family. One of these graves may be for Kikunomae but it is not certain.