Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Often Overlooked Odawara – Part One

Often Overlooked Odawara: Part One
A small Japanese Castle Town has a rich history

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Odawara Castle – once the seat of power for one of Japan’s greatest samurai families

Many tourists in Japan, whether foreign or Japanese, tend to zoom past the little city of Odawara on their way to and from Tokyo, paying it little or no mind. At one time Odawara commanded more attention as a castle town of no small importance. It was once the power base of a strong samurai family over 400 years ago who ruled a wide area of the Kanto region (the area around modern Tokyo) for nearly a century.

Odawara, located an hour southwest of Tokyo, was formerly the headquarters of the powerful Hojo family. In the 16th century, the Hojo clan was a force to be reckoned with during the war-torn period of Japanese history known as the Sengoku Period (“Warring States”). They controlled much of the Kanto region through a network of castles strung up to protect themselves from other powerful rivals.

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Reliving Odawara’s former glory

The Hojo fought against some of the most illustrious names on the list of famous Japanese warlords; the most prominent being the famed cunning warlord Takeda Shingen, his equally brilliant rival Uesugi Kenshin, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who succeeded in unifying Japan where many other warlords failed.

Today only scant reminders of the Hojo’s former glory remain in Odawara. On a hill overlooking the city is a reconstruction of the castle that once had been the seat of power for the whole Hojo domain. While not as impressive as other castles, such as the brilliantly white Himeji Castle near Kobe or the brooding dark Matsumoto Castle in Nagano, Odawara Castle has a history that few can match. Many castles rose and fell throughout those bloody warring times, but the fall of Odawara was a significant event that helped to set the course of Japanese history. For its place in Japanese history, Odawara is at least worthy of a brief visit, especially on May 3rd when the citizens don armor to relive their city’s former greatness.

At first and even second and third glance, Odawara does not exactly stand out as anything special. The appeal of Odawara lies in its history and its importance to Japan’s overall destiny. To fully appreciate unassuming Odawara, one has to understand the history that went into making this city one of the greatest of 16th Century Japan.

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Posing in Samurai armor in front of the castle for only $2

The Rise of the Hojo Clan
Hojo Soun, the founder of the Hojo family, arose out of obscurity in the late 15th Century to win his way with his sword and his wits. His earlier name at the time was Ise Shinkuro, but even this name is thought to be a pseudonym. He first served the powerful Imagawa clan of the Shizouka region. In the 1490s, Soun began to take parts of Izu Peninsula for himself. He supposedly captured the original Odawara castle through a ruse. Soun invited the young lord of the castle on a hunting trip where Soun’s men, disguised as hunters, murdered the lord. With Izu under his control, Soun changed his name to Hojo Soun.

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Castle Gate of Odawara Castle

By taking the name family name of Hojo, Soun showed his intention of taking all of the Kanto region. The name Hojo had historical significance because it belonged to an earlier powerful samurai family. The original Hojo clan ruled all of Japan from their headquarters in Kamakura from the 13th Century to the mid-14th Century. They were overthrown by a combined force of discontented samurai and loyal followers of the Emperor. These two groups fell out with each other shortly afterward, and the discontented samurai went on to establish a Shogunate government under the Ashikaga family. The Ashikaga placed one of their family members in the position of Governor of the Kanto Region.

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Hojo Soun, considered to be the first true Sengoku warlord

Soun chose the name Hojo, therefore, to suggest he would oust the Ashikaga from Kanto and restore the power of the Hojo. He did not however use the name officially in his lifetime. His son Ujitsuna would be the first to officially use the family name Hojo. Because there is little evidence of family connection with the former Hojo clan of the 13th Century, historians often refer to the Hojo clan established by Soun as the Go-Hojo or simply the Odawara Hojo.

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Samurai toting an old fashion gun of the type that were used considerably towards the end of the 16th Century

Some historians consider Soun’s rise to power to be the true beginning of the Sengoku Period — a time when Japan was divided by numerous independent territories ruled by daimyo (warlords). It was a turbulent time of incessant warfare, betrayals, scheming, and assassinations. The Ashikaga Shogunate crumbled in the mid-15th Century and Japan began to slowly slide into anarchy. Some of the older clans were destroyed and newer ones, like the Hojo, sprang up to replace them.

Before Soun’s conquests, warlords would often seek official permission from either the Emperor or Shogun in order to legitimize their actions. Such permission was just a mere formality as the two officials lacked any real power, but even the warlike samurai of the day did not want to break with tradition so readily. Soun, on the other hand, acted similarly as the warlords that would come to power in the next century by following his own course of action without the illusionary sanction of defunct officials.

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The gathered troops of the Hojo preparing to march to battle

The Hojo – a Sengoku Family
The Hojo of Odawara were a quintessential Sengoku clan. Rising from nothing, the Hojo attained both power and respect through bold ambition and clever strategy on and off the battlefield. For nearly 100 years, the Hojo fought almost continuously to increase their territory and power. They built a network of castle towns to effectively defend their land. But more effective than castles were the set of rules left by Soun and his son, Ujitsuna, to guide their clan for future generations.

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A colorful masked samurai

Another aspect of their strength was their ability to affect a relatively smooth transition of power as one generation succeeded the other. Many other contemporary clans often suffered internal conflict over successional disputes. Until their downfall, the Hojo could boast of five generations of undisputed leaders.

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Over 400 years ago samurai warriors passed along this bridge to fight in long ago battles

Ujitsuna made Odawara the capital of the steadily increasing Hojo domain. In 1533 he actually received official recognition from the Imperial Court as the legitimate lord of that domain. The upstart Hojo clan was now an established clan that older neighboring clans had to reckon with.

After Soun, Ujiyatsu, Soun’s grandson, was the clan’s most notable leader. His efforts both militarily and politically helped to put the Hojo clan in a strong dominant position. He was a well respected military commander amongst his warlike peers. In 1545, Ujiyatsu fought and won a desperate battle north of Tokyo against an overwhelming force, and he did so at night.

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Hojo Ujiyasu, a famed leader of the Hojo who successfully defended Odawara from Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin

Under Ujiyatsu’s rule, his capital came under attack by two of the most famous warlords of the Sengoku period: Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen. Both of them besieged Odawara castle eight years apart from each other, and both failed to capture it.

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Marching Musketmen

By the latter half of the 16th Century, the Hojo were in possession of a strong secure domain. Though they had many enemies, none were powerful enough to truly destroy them. Their numerous castles kept them relatively safe, but to the west a new order was rising. The old way of continuously warring back and forth for little gains was coming to an end. The Hojo would soon come to face their greatest challenge from a general unlike any that the Hojo had ever dealt with before.

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Gate tower reflecting in the castle moat

June 8, 2007 Posted by | Blogroll, castle, festival, hojo, japan, life, matsuri, odawara, samurai, sengoku, tokyo, travel | 5 Comments