Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Often Overlooked Odawara – Part Two

Often Overlooked Odawara Part 2
A Castle Town celebrates its former glory


Odawara Castle, now a modern reconstruction housing a museum

Towards the end of the 16th Century, the Hojo family of Odawara was one of the strongest clans in war-torn Japan. Through their military victories and adept political maneuvers they had risen from practically a band of highwaymen following a bandit leader to becoming a feared and respected honorable family. But their time was quickly coming to an end even while they were at the height of their prowess.

The Fall of the Hojo

Perhaps it was their victories coupled with their defensive strategies that made the Hojo complacent and arrogant. A new power and a new way of doing things was coming into being beyond their well-defended realm. To the west near modern day Nagoya, the ruthless warlord Oda Nobunaga was working towards the unification of Japan, which was split into many warring territories. Nobunaga was a new breed of warlord who had a vision of uniting Japan under his progressive policies. To achieve this dream, he innovated a number of new techniques that impacted both society and warfare.


Re-creating a scene from Odawara’s illustrious past

Although Nobunaga was assassinated before achieving his dreams, he was succeeded by one of his most brilliant generals, the very capable Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi continued Oda’s master plan and brought much of Japan under his control. All that remained was the northern area of the Tohoku region and the Kanto region. Hideyoshi had little to worry about from Tohoku, but the Kanto region of the Hojo was a vexing concern. The Hojo made very little attempt to acknowledge Hideyoshi’s power, which by now had been officially sanctioned by the Emperor.

The Hojo leader at the time, Ujimasa, failed to realize the times had changed. He failed to understand that Hideyoshi was different from Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin. When he set out to accomplish something, Hideyoshi rarely gave up. He did not fight battles for the sake of battle itself. In addition, Shingen and Kenshin had been hampered in their attempts to besiege Odawara castle because of their rivalry with each other. Hideyoshi had no rival to distract him in his quest to bring the Hojo under his thumb.

Hideyoshi was a clever man who utilized his innate creativity in a variety of ways to accomplish his goals. He successfully took a castle once by flooding it out with a massive damning project. He did this while keeping the news of Nobunaga’s death from both his enemies and his own men. After concluding this unusual siege, Hideyoshi promptly turned his army around, tracked down his master’s killers, and completely defeated them in battle. Truly, the Hojo had never faced such a resourceful and dedicated opponent before.


Mounted samurai with foot soldier attendant

None of this mattered to the Hojo under Ujimasa. They still saw Hideyoshi as simply the lowly servant to Nobunaga that he once had been and not the brilliant general that he had become. They spurned his offer to come to the capital to tender their respects.


A high-born lady of the Hojo

The Third and Final Siege of Odawara Castle

Hideyoshi, in response, raised one of the largest armies ever assembled in Japan. Over 100,000 soldiers were mobilized in 1590 and sent to besiege Odawara. Faced with such opposing numbers, the Hojo decided to remain in Odawara castle and wait Hideyoshi out, as they had done before with Shingen and Kenshin. They thought such a massive army would soon run out of supplies and starve itself. They had not considered Hideyoshi’s genius for large-scale planning. Hideyoshi’s army was more than well-supplied, and actually enjoyed itself outside the stout walls of Odawara Castle.


The leaders of the Hojo argue while a huge army awaits outside their walls

Normally castle sieges were unpleasant affairs for both besieger and the besieged, but the siege of Odawara resembled more of a town fair than a siege. Hideyoshi provided all manner of entertainment for his troops. He allowed officers to bring their wives and mistresses. Hideyoshi himself had his mistress join him. Vegetable gardens were set up, market stalls were established, and supplies were brought in by ship.


A samurai takes a picture of his lady

The soldiers in Hideyoshi’s army spent their time in poetry parties, tea ceremonies, gambling, cavorting with courtesans, buying, selling, and trading at the numerous shops that had sprung up in the besiegers’ camp. Only the occasional skirmish or raid serve to remind one that there was a war going on. Even these actions were more for relieving boredom than anything else.


A smiling samurai marches off to war

The outcome of the siege was a relatively bloodless event — another rarity in Sengoku siege warfare, where the besieged often starved to death, killed themselves, or mounted suicidal last-stand charges. The Hojo leadership reluctantly realized Hideyoshi was not going anywhere and that eventually their stocks would be depleted. They surrendered after three months.

Hideyoshi did not wish for a bloodbath, so the besieged were spared save for Ujimasa and his brother. Technically the fifth ruler of the Hojo was Ujimasa’s son Ujinao, but his retired father was the one who really ran the show and so Ujinao was surprisingly spared. His father and uncle were required to commit seppeku — ritual suicide.


Female samurai wearing horo, which was worn for protection and identification

Their deaths mark the closing chapter of the Sengoku Period. Hideyoshi had done the unimaginable and united Japan after more than a century of warfare. With the exception of a few finishing touches towards unification, the next time Japanese warriors would fight on Japanese soil would be in the great Sekigahara campaign in 1600, but they would do so in two great unified armies. The chaotic days of Hojo Soun with numerous clans fighting and vying for power were over.


Ladies of the Old Japan

Odawara Today

Odawara can be reached from Tokyo from both the Tokkaido Line and Odakyu Line. A short walk from the station leads to the old castle ground, the main attraction of Odawara. The castle is a modern reconstruction, like so many castles throughout Japan. Although it survived Hideyoshi’s siege, the castle did not survive the wave of destruction that many castles suffered in the late 19th Century as Japan moved forward towards modernization.

The castle was rebuilt in the 1960s with a modern interior which now houses a museum of samurai armor and other artifacts from the castle’s history. The top of the castle offers great views of the surrounding area and the ocean. On clear days one can spot Mount Fuji. Admission is just under US$4.

A small menagerie is located on the grounds in the shadow of the main keep. Various birds, monkeys, deer, and one small elephant comprise the inhabitants of this small zoo. The sight of the animals is small cages may depress more than delight, however. The grounds are free.


Hojo Dave and the Odawara Elephant

Odawara Celebrates Its Former Glory

Odawara, the once great city of the Kanto region, declined over the centuries. Yet on May 3rd every year, like ghosts summoned from across the void, armor-clad samurai, spear-toting footmen, mounted warriors, and elegant noble ladies appear to reclaim their lost glory. The Hojo Godai festival allows the citizens of Odawara to relive their city’s great past through an impressive historical procession.


A Mikoshi bearer stops to answer a phone call

The procession marches through the castle’s lower gate, across the moat, and through parts of the city’s street before coming together under the castle walls. There they hold a kind of rally that one might have seen over 400 years ago whenever the Hojo marched to war — which was fairly often. Some of the musket-bearing samurai fire off their old guns on the moat bridge.

Several mikoshi — portable shrines — are toted about by shouting sweaty men. When they reach the gathering spot the men gather up their energy and race forward with their heavy burden.


Grandfatherly Samurai wearing prescription shades

With the marching bands and the eyeglass-wearing samurai, the procession is a kind of mix of a hometown parade and a large procession of extras walking off the set of a Kurosawa film at the end of the day.


A little samurai marches off to battle admist the sighs and ‘aww’s of grandmothers

Odawara’s Legacy

Technically-speaking, Odawara did not impact Japan’s destiny directly. It was through the fall of the Hojo that a chain of events was set into motion that would affect not only Japan but also the world.

With the Hojo defeated, there was no one left in Japan to oppose Toyotomi Hideyoshi and so he cast his lusty eyes further afield. Within two years he launched a vainglorious and ultimately disastrous military campaign in Korea in a mad attempt to push through the country and conqueror China. His forces never made it out of Korea despite a second massive invasion a few years later. His actions sowed the seeds of animosity between the two countries, particularly in Korea, which suffered greatly from these destructive invasions.


Colorful samurai with halbred

Back in Japan, the invasions weakened loyalty to the Toyotomi clan and a crafty leader quickly exploited the situation following Hideyoshi’s death in 1598. This was Tokugawa Ieyasu who fought at the siege of Odawara. And here was the second major impact that Odawara’s fall had on Japan, and perhaps the most important.

As a reward for his services, Hideyoshi offered Ieyasu the Kanto domain of the Hojo in exchange for Ieyasu’s old lands, which were uncomfortably close to Hideyoshi’s powerbase. Ieyasu accepted the offer and chose for his capital a little old town of small value known as Edo. In 1603, he was named Shogun after defeating Toyotomi supporters three years earlier at Sekigahara. As a result, the city of Edo swiftly grew in size as the new seat of government. And in 1867, when the Emperor transfered his residence to Edo, the city was renamed Tokyo. So in short, without the rise of the Odawara Hojo and their subsequent fall, there would be no Tokyo as it is today.


A Hojo Warlord makes his entrance

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June 13, 2007 - Posted by | festival, matsuri, museum, odawara, samurai, sengoku, tokugawa ieyasu, tokyo, toyotomi hideyoshi, travel

6 Comments »

  1. Nice overview of ancient samurai history!
    The samurai were the most loyal, devoted and truthfull warriors ever!

    Greetings :)

    Comment by B. | January 22, 2008 | Reply

  2. Najs pics! I like the one with a little samurai kids,
    so cute with little samurai sword *lu* >D

    Comment by LuVinEm | February 26, 2008 | Reply

  3. nice pix and interesting read. we’re heading there this weekend with the kids for the Matsuri festival – any tips on best viewing places? or a decent map of Odawara? tx. Max

    Comment by Max | April 29, 2008 | Reply

  4. I would try to be right outside the lower gatehouse as they come marching out across the bridge. Get there early before noon. They fire muskets from the bridge. After they file out of the gate, they wind thru the town. You can move over to the area where they will assemble and see them as they come back.

    Comment by samuraidave | April 30, 2008 | Reply

  5. [...] Hojo Godai Matsuri, please read Samurai Dave’s two part blog post last year – Part 1 and Part 2. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Shinagawa Syukuba FestivalOften Overlooked [...]

    Pingback by Odawara Hojo Godai Matsuri « Konnichiwa | May 9, 2009 | Reply

  6. Dear All,
    Beautiful pictures o Odawara.
    I was there for some time back in early 1980 ~1981.
    I love the place – its freshness, its beauty and most of all the friendliness, hospitality and generousity of the people of Odawara. I intend to go there again.

    Comment by Tan | June 24, 2010 | Reply


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