Thursday, 16 April 2015


Odawara is a coastal city of around 200,000 people and the main urban centre in the west of Kanagawa Prefecture, about an hour from Tokyo by train. Like Kawagoe up in Saitama, it is a historic and attractive part of the Kantō Region whose out-of-the-way feel belies its importance in the story of how Japan became what it is today. For people in or near Tokyo it makes an excellent day trip, not least in spring when the grounds of its castle are fantastic for cherry blossoms (sakura).

Odawara's location relative to Tokyo, in the Odakyu Railway Access Map.

Odawara has been settled for thousands of years, but really grew up and flourished in two capacities: as a massively fortified castle town during the ~1467-~1603 Warring States (sengoku) period, and as a post station on the Tōkaidō road during the 1603-1868 Edo period. Both roles reflected its geography, which as in many places has had a major hand in its destiny. Odawara occupies the low ground between the Tanzawa mountains to the north and Sagami Bay to the south, and for anyone travelling west towards the imperial capital Kyoto, it would have been the last place to rest before entering the Hakone caldera, considered the most difficult section of the journey. Odawara's strategic power over the entire Kantō plain was therefore immense.

As these pictures suggest, the castle is a popular site nowadays, not least because of its beautiful sakura and great views of the surrounding mountains, towns and sea from atop the castle keep. Do not think to enjoy these however without some appreciation for Odawara's story, in which many people suffered.

Any visitor to Odawara will notice this crest all over the place. You might recognise it as the Triforce from The Legend of Zelda video game series, and you would be correct. Its symbolism in Japan mostly relates to the Hōjō clan (北条氏), for whom its “triple dragonscales” were the family emblem (kamon, 家紋) and thought to be the Triforce's inspiration.

There were actually two Hōjō families. The original rose to power during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), for most of which their military government controlled Japan from Kamakura and most famously fended off the two Mongol invasions of Kublai Khan. They were eventually bloodily defeated by the emperor's loyalists in 1333.

The later Hōjō clan was unrelated to this first one, but its founder, from the Ise family, changed his name to draw on the earlier Hōjōs' illustriousness, creating what would become one of the most powerful warrior clans of the Japanese warring states period. This founder, now answering to the name of Hōjō Sōun, took control of Odawara Castle around 1495.

Portrait of Hōjō Sōun. This portrait is designated as an Important Cultural Property and is on display in the castle today, along with those of the four successive Hōjō leaders.

Following Hōjō Sōun (1432-1519) came Hōjō Ujitsuna (1487-1541), Hōjō Ujiyasu (1515-1571), Hōjō Ujimasa (1538-1590) and Hōjō Ujinao (1562-1591), and it was these five, along with all their companions, siblings, warriors and staff, who put Odawara on the map. They steadily developed the castle and its defensive perimeter into one of the mightiest fortifications in Japan, and expanded its sphere of influence to dominate the entire Kantō region. This was no small accomplishment in this chaotic and violent period, not least because Odawara had to withstand major attacks from two of the most formidable warlords of the era located nearby: Uesugi Kenshin of Echigo (now Niigata) in 1561, and Takeda Shingen of Kai (now Yamanashi) in 1569.

To the west, Sagami Bay and the Izu Peninsula, as seen from atop the castle keep. The mountains of Hakone rise to the right.
The other direction: east across Odawara city.

A third and final siege in 1590 was to be the Hōjōs' last. It was directed by the merciless Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who by then was on the verge of reunifying Japan and had gained control over most of its warlords and their territories (such as this one). Only the Hōjōs remained independent, and their negotiations with Hideyoshi failed. Thus, after laying waste to Hōjō forces in the exceptionally brutal siege of Hachiōji Castle, Hideyoshi and his warlords converged on Odawara from all directions by land and sea. Recognising the strength of the Odawara garrison, they decided to wait, bluff, and starve the Hōjōs out rather than risk an assault. The three-month “siege” became one of the strangest in military history, with the lines of assault becoming something of a festival of tea ceremonies and circus performances.

Eventually the Hōjōs surrendered, and Hideyoshi took the castle with little bloodshed. Hōjō Ujimasa and his brother were forced to commit suicide by seppuku, while the last of the Hōjōs, Ujinao and his wife, were exiled to Mount Kōya south of Osaka, where he died a year later.

The Hōtokuninomiya Shrine, in the castle grounds.

Hideyoshi then entrusted Odawara Castle to one of his allies, a certain Tokugawa Ieyasu. With it came control over the former Hōjō holdings across the Kantō region. Ieyasu then took the decision to shift all his armies and supporters into Kantō, basing himself at a relatively unknown little castle town and former fishing village called Edo.

It looked a reckless gamble. In fact it would win him the country. Ieyasu gained the loyalty of the Hōjō samurai, developed the Edo area's economy and infrastructure, and consolidated his power there while taking advantage of its remoteness to stay out of Hideyoshi's scrutiny. After Hideyoshi's death in 1598, Ieyasu's position was strong enough, given a few more clever alliances and manoeuvres, to drive all remaining opposition to their final defeat at Sekigahara in 1600, whereafter Edo grew up as the new capital of a unified Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Thus, Odawara proved the key to the entire Kantō region, and could be considered the pivot on which Edo, now Tokyo, began its journey to its national and indeed global status of today.

This is the other crest in common sight in Odawara: that of the Ōkubo family, to whom Ieyasu delegated control of the castle and who managed it for most of the Edo period (1603-1868). The castle itself and its militarised surroundings were greatly reduced so as not to be a threat to the Tokugawa rulers. However, Odawara gained new importance for its location on the heavily-travelled Tōkaidō Road, largely due to the sankin kōtai system by which the Tokugawas maintained their power, as it was the last chance for travellers to get some good rest before dealing with the tough passage across Hakone. Merchants, innkeepers and businesspeople flocked to establish themselves in Odawara and offer their services in this regard, transforming Odawara into a bustling post station town.

The Tōkaidō Road has since evolved into the Tōkaidō Expressway, which along with the Tōkaidō Main Line and Shinkansen railways remains the most heavily travelled route in Japan today. Here the Seisho Bypass, one of its many offshoots, runs along Odawara's coast.
The original Odawara Castle did not survive – it collapsed in the Genroku Earthquake of 1703, was rebuilt three years later, then was torn down after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when the new government (among them Ōkubo Toshimichi, an indirect relative of the Ōkubo family that had managed Odawara) dismantled many feudal-era fortifications. They replaced it with an imperial villa, which itself fell down in the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake. The present castle keep is thus a 1970s reconstruction with an observation deck added for tourists, and archaeological research continues to this day along with restoration work on other parts of the castle complex.

The Akagane Gate, with its distinctive copper gildings, reconstructed in 1997.

All this can be appreciated from just a few hours' exploration of the castle site, which is well laid out and has an informative and interactive history museum. The castle itself holds several floors of impressive historic artefacts, and there is also a smaller local culture museum near the shrine offering a wider flavour of the Odawara area's heritage.

The town itself has lost prominence since its Edo period grandeur, battered by a series of earthquakes, fires, floods, poor harvests and epidemics. The feel nowadays is of an urban centre modestly getting on with its affairs, vastly overshadowed by the greater Tokyo-Yokohama conurbation on whose outer edge it now sits. But it still holds a relatively pleasant atmosphere, on account perhaps of Sagami Bay and the nearby Tanzawa and Hakone mountains, and it would very much like you to hear its stories of more exciting days gone by, if only you will stop to listen.

Finally, the coast is only a ten-minute walk from the castle grounds. Its potential as a pleasant place to walk is somewhat ruined by the Seisho Bypass, but there is a nice little projection where you can get away from people and surround yourself in the sound of the sea in the evening light. It gets windy out there, so be careful of high waves.

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