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

June 13, 2007 Posted by | festival, matsuri, museum, odawara, samurai, sengoku, tokugawa ieyasu, tokyo, toyotomi hideyoshi, travel | 6 Comments

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