Another year has come and gone and in soppy melodramatic fashion, it’s time to look back on all we’ve done and didn’t do. Instead of focusing on love or lack there of or personal growth, I’ve look back through the magic of film and video on all the places and things I saw in 2007.
I rang in the New Year between the traditional area of Asakusa and the sleazy area of Roppongi. Needlessly to say the 1st of January did not see me until much later in the day, in fact it was evening. My first activity of the New Year then was the following day after sleeping off an all-nighter in Roppongi. I went to the Imperial Palace on January 2nd to hear the Emperor’s New Year address. Didn’t understand a word he said (my New Year’s Resolution is to fix that problem by next year).
A week later I went to Meiji Shrine for Seijin-no-hi (Coming of Age Day) to see kimono-clad girls strut their stuff.
That weekend I went to Kanda Shrine to watch Shinto adherents prove their mettle by drenching themselves in freezing cold water. However given the unusual warmth that month, the normally chill-inducing spectactle looked rather refreshing.
The next week I went out to a temple in east part of Tokyo – Kameido. There they had a type of Noh performance. This was the first time for me to see Noh but by the end of the year while I would be no expert in Noh, I would at least know Noh much better than before.
The 3rd of February is one of my favorite times of the year. This is Setsubun which is like a mix of New Years, Groundhog Day, and Halloween rolled up togther. Every year I attend the mami-maki (bean-tossing) at different temples. This time I hit three temples – Senso-ji in Asakusa, Zojo-ji in Hammatscho, and Kichibojin in Ikebukuro. I always enjoy watching old ladies knocking people over for thrown washcloths, beans, and other trinkets.
I mainly stayed in Tokyo and when I wasn’t killing zombies and Nazis on my Playstation I was visiting gardens such as Hama-rikyu.
The end of February brings out the plum blossoms, the heralds of Spring. To see them I took daytrips to Kamakura which due to the warm winter had already shed its plum blossoms and I went to Mito in the Ibaraki Prefecture to see Kairaku-en Garden with its hundreds of plum blossoms.
February was a good month for armor. I got the chance to wear samurai armor twice. Once in Odawara in front of the castle for 200 Yen and another time in Ikebukuro at a store’s opening week for free. My inner geek was pleasantly sated.
I took another daytrip out to Chiba to watch another type of Shinto ritual where half-naked men wrestled in a cold muddy pond to ensure good fortune for all – its a Shinto thing.
The next day I embarked on an ardous journey into the heart of the urban jungle of Tokyo. Along with my comrade, Zen Master Jeff, I hiked around the Yamanote Line for five days. We stayed at an ryokan, an internet cafe, a karaoke box, and a capsule hotel. Our outfits were a mix of samurai, old style Yakuza, pilgrim, and backpacker. We met quite a few people and had several interesting adventures because of these costumes.
In March I went to Nagoya where the year before I had attended one of the most amusing festivals – the fertility festival of Tagata Shrine. Once again I saw that huge wooden phallus hove into sight admist the awes and chuckles of the spectators.
The next day I went to reconstructed castle whose original structure once belonged to warlord Oda Nobunaga.
Two days later I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day at an Irish Pub with some co-workers where we listened to a kickass Irish band who were all Japanese.
The next day I went to Asakusa’s Senso-ji Temple to watch the Kinryu-no-Mai – Golden Dragon Dance.
Showing the spirit of union solidarity I attended the annual March in March, a gathering of foriegn and japanese union members. It rained during the march but the sun came out at the end – The Man can now control the weather!
In April, I made my yearly Cherry Blossom pilgrimage to Kyoto where I enjoyed the Sakura both day and night thanks to nighttime illuminations.
On the second day of my trip, I went to Nara, the first official capital of Japan, to feed the semi-tame persistant deer and see the Diabutsu – Great Buddha.
The third day, I went to Yoshino which was an Imperial capital for some decades when there were two rival Imperial Courts for a time.
As it was there was a Geisha performance going on back in Kyoto at the same time in the Gion Quarter – the Miyako Odori. Luckily I was able to get a last minute ticket on my last day.
Though laden with controversy (and with good reason) Yasakuni Shrine hosts an outdoor sumo event in mid-April. While the blossoms fall, sumo wrestlers toss each other around for our free amusement.
A few days later I went to Kamakura to see Cherry Blossoms and watch a display of Yabusame – mounted archery. I injured my knee scrambling up a small tree for a better view. This injury would come back to haunt later in the summer when I was limping about.
Next Saturday, I went to Sumida Park in Asakusa to see another demonstration of Yabusame. It was here were I first saw it performed years ago and I go back to Sumida almost every year.
I went to Harajuku Park one Sunday to see the goth lolita anime folks. While I was there I was interviewed for a French cable TV channel called French Wave or something like that. It was suppose to air sometime in July but I had no way of seeing it.
That particularly Sunday in Harajuku I stumbled the remnants of the group that used to dominate Harajuku – the dancing rockabilly gangs. Don’t know why the cops drove them off 10 years ago.
Usually in May during Japan’s Golden Week, I stay put in Tokyo either working or killing people – on my Playstation, of course. Although I get 3-4 days off and sometimes more depending on my schedule, I don’t like to travel at this time because everyone is traveling. Prices are high and accomodations hard to come by. Still this year, I went up to Yonezawa in Yamagata Prefecture to see the re-enactment of Kawanakajima, one of the famous samurai battles of the Sengoku (Warring States) Period. The re-enactment was more like a high school play with a fair size budget but that was ok as it added a surreal element of watching smiling schoolgirl samurai swinging swords about.
I also try a bit of Yonezawa’s famous beef – which was a damn good (and expensive!) steak.
From Yonezawa I went north to Sendai and then to Hiraizumi where another festival was taking place. I watched Noh performed on a 300 year old outdoor Noh stage and drummers dressed in bizarre deer costumes. As for accomodations, I stayed for three nights in true backpacking style -at the Chateau de Internet Cafe.
The following week I was off again – back to Kyoto for 6 days. In Kyoto I went to the Silver Pavalion – Ginkakuji – named so even though it actually doesn’t have any silver. A grim jest of financial destitution or a tourist scam, you decide. Still, lovely building, silver or no.
I attended this year’s Kamogawa Odori geisha performance in Pontocho which had a story set during the civil war which burnt much of Kyoto and explained why Ginkakuji was silver-less.
That evening I went to Gion Corner to get a crash course in traditonal Japanese arts from Tea Ceremony, kodo playing (japanese harp), gagaku (court music and dance), geisha dancing, ikebana (flower-arranging), kyogen (the amusing plays inbetween the serious Noh dramas) finally to bunraku (puppet drama), All of this in under an hour.
I took the second part of the program and learned a bit on how to do make tea in the traditional tea ceremony way. My tea was a bit strong I’m afraid.
The following day I went outside of Nara to see the site of the oldest Buddhist temple – Horyuji. The current buildings do not date back to the 6th century, though.
In Nara for two nights I watched Noh by torchlight. There’s no Noh like torchlight Noh.
On Sunday I went to Iga-Ueno which was the hometown of some of Japan’s original Ninja. There I saw a short demonstration of Ninja fighting which basically means fighting dirty.
Monday I went to Ise famed for its shrines which are the number one shrines in the Shinto faith. However, instead of going to these cultural meccas since I had been culturing it up anyhow, I went to a samurai theme park. Ise has one of the Edo Wonderland themepark chains this one based on the later half of the Sengoku Period. I watched a samurai stage drama which I didn’t understand but the plot was simple enough to follow – bad samurai wants precious sword that good samurai guards. Good guy won. Dammit! Gave away the ending – sorry!
On Tuesday, I watched one of Japan’s oldest festivals, the Aoi Matsuri which was my main purpose for my trip.
My knee had troubled me a bit at first but by the end of the trip, I was fine. However my knee injury would re-surface during the rainy season next month. Before that occurred I still had some weeks with a trouble-free knee and so two days back from my Kyoto trip off I went to Nikko to catch the tail end of the festival procession honoring Tokugawa Ieyasu.
I caught a bit of Asakusa’s Sanja Matsuri as well. I was really still tired from my Kyoto trip to gave these last two as much time and energy. But I watched people carrying around Mikoshi -portable shrines – and had a good time. I aslo caught another bit of Noh (it was definately becoming a Noh year for me).
I was rested enough towards the end of the month to take in sumo. I was fortunate to be there the day Yokozuna (champion) Asashoryu lost a pivotal match which paved the way for a new Yokozuna. Well, fortunate for me not for him, I guess.
Two days later I was in an area known as Miura, a beach area 2 hours south of Tokyo, where I watched another form of Yabusame – Kasagake. Similar to Yabusame, kasagake has a more military practicality. The targets are placed in front and are lower down at the same height as a dismounted enemy.
June is the rainy season so I planned to take it easy for a change and just stay put but as luck would have it during the Sanja Matsuri I chanced upon a poster for a festival in some town I never of before. The festival was honoring a samurai family from long ago who fled to the village of Yunishigawa. I was intrigued so off I went. To my dismay I missed the procession of warriors in 12th century armor by a day but I caught something even better – women in colorful robes dancing in the street and an incredible performance on a biwa – a type of lute.
I injured my knee by putting too much stress on it running to work one day. I ended up limping into class. Through mid-June to mid-July I spent most of my days off at home but I did go to Harajuku park again one Sunday to see the inhabitants there.
In mid-July, I was back down in Kyoto once again. This time for the Gion Festival. Two-story floats filled with musicians and covered with old tapestries were pulled through the streets. Today the floats are dwarfed by tall modern buildings but back in the day, those floats must have really seemed gigantic.
I also went into the mountains behind Kyoto to Enryaku-ji which was once a huge temple compound with thousands of subtemples until the aforementioned Oda Nobunaga who apparently wasn’t much of a temple-going man burned many of the temples and killed a great number of priests. The priests, however, weren’t terribly temple-going types either has they maintained an army and used it to fight other temples and bully the capital.
There was a sumo tournament in Nagoya so I headed up there and spent the whole day at the sumo tournament where I watched the various ranks of sumo wrestlers from the lowest to the highest compete. I aslo got the chance to visit one of the sumo houses but it was after their dinner so I missed all the “big” sumo wrestlers. Only the “little” guys were there cleaning up.
I basically took it easy this trip though since the weather wasn’t all that great and my knee was bothering me. The last day I went on a type of fishing excursion known as ukai where cormorant birds are used to catch fish. It was dark and rainy and my camera kept fogging up.
Next week I was at it again – this time the Soma Nomaoi, a festival I went to 2 years ago. I saw again the armored samurai in the best historical procession I’ve seen. This time I stayed for the last day’s festivities of the 3-day festival. I watched pensioners round up semi-wild horses at a shrine.
August was a crazy month for me which made all the previous months pale in comparison. Starting Aug 2 I went on an 8-day 6-festival trip throughout Tohoku. I started with the drumming festival of Sansa Odori in Morioka.
Then I went to Akita City where I watched people balance huge bamboo poles with lanterns on their palms, hips, and heads.
South of Morioka, I spent two days at a festival where they had all kinds of dance performances but the best one and the one that brought me here in the first place was the Oni Kembai or devil dance.
I spent two refreshing nights in a business hotel during the Oni Kembai festival – this after two nights in two uncomfortable internet cafes – before going to Hirosaki to see Neputa.
then off to Aomori to see the last night of Nebuta in which they put some of the best floats in harbor while fireworks go off overhead.
The last festival was similar to Aomori’s Nebuta except that the floats were much taller – 3 of them clocked in at 22 meters high! This was Tachi Neputa, the tiny town of Goshogowara’s claim to fame. My knee bothered me so much at times I could barely walk.
A week later I was in Niigata on Sado Island to see once again the Kodo Taiko drum group’s 3-day concert. It was here I met with some sexy japanese belly dancers. I finally got myself a knee brace before going out to the island which helped me hobble about a bit better.
Near the end of the month, I was back in Asakusa to catch the Asakusa Samba Festival. Lots of cameras were clicking away as scantily-clad samba girls pranced about to a Latin beat.
The next evening I went to Kameido Temple to see another Noh performance this one by torchlight too.
September – typhoon season – I really did take easy though I still went to sumo on one of my days off.
In my neighborhood, I caught a festival. Though I missed the mikoshi, I saw a cool drum band.
During that time there was an Oktoberfest celebration going on near Tokyo station at Hibiya Park. I spent two nights there drinking German and Japanese beers eating sausages and watching German and Japanese girls prance about in leiderhosen – or whatever german girls wear – to German oompah music.
I had meant to go to a festival that month up in Aizu in Fukushima Prefecture but this time my laziness finally said no and I stayed home the whole time and killed zombies on Resident Evil/Biohazard 4.
October was another busy month as I took off to Europe to meet up with my parents, my sister and her husband, my cousin, and my uncle in a small family renunion in italy. I headed off first to catch the last two days of Oktoberfest in Munich. The last Saturday of Oktoberfest was so packed I was in mortal danger of going beerless at the world’s largest beer festival. Fortunately, the gods of beer smiled upn me and I was able to partake of the holy elixir.
Then I spent a week beer-guzzling while taking in the castles of Bavaria’s mad king, Ludwig II and listening to some really talented street musicians.
An overnight bus brought me to Zagreb where I spent the morning wandering around the old town admiring the rampant grafitti. At noon, I had my eardrums shattered by their noonday chime which is delivered by a WWII howitizer cannon.
From Zagreb I proceeded to Ljubjana, the capital of Slovenia, a country which tires of being mistaken for Slovakia.
I spent a night there then spent a day at beautiful Lake Bled.
An overnight train brought me into Venice – well not at first since in my exhaustion I got off at the first station before Venice and had to wait half-an-hour till the next one. I spent the day wandering about the city which was all I could afford to do as admission prices are stupidly high and the lines were stupidly long too. That night I arrived in Florence and spent much of the next day there.
I met my family at a villa that was part of a small castle complex outside of Florence. Wasn’t use to this luxury – I had slept in a locker for two nights in the train station in Munich during Oktoberfest. From then on it was smooth sailing – except when we got lost on the winding roads of the Tuscan Hills which was often.
I went to several medieval walled towns that week in Tuscany and Umbria. Ah, the bloodshed and paranioa of past centuries left some wonderful sites to see throughout the area. My favorite was Monteriggiono outside of Siena.
I returned home to Tokyo just in time to catch a ride on the notorious Yamanote Halloween Train. Little did I know till later of all the controversy that had been swarming around the event. As it was, the killjoys helped to kill one Halloween Train but they knew nothing about the Halloween Train I was on – the killjoys left some amusingly angry comments on the Youtube video I made about the event.
After the Halloween Train, I went into Roppongi for a bit fun and sleaze. I also went there on Weds, Halloween proper but it was dead and not int he Halloween sense. However, I did get a bit of grind action from a she-devil and her playboy playmate pal.
November was another quiet month. On Culture Day, Nov 3, I went to a small pocket in Tokyo’s urban sprawl to see a small demonstration of a Japanese lord’s procession from several centuries ago and to see one of my student’s samba group perform.
I went home for Thanksgiving where I got fat on some good southern grub such as fried catfish, mashed potatoes and gravy, and cornbread. Also got to pet my doggies.
December was also a quiet one for traveling. I went to Sengaku-ji Temple in Shinagawa to see the festival honoring the 47 Ronin who 300 years earlier arrived on a snowy morning with the head of the lord’s enemy to lay at their masters’ grave.
Then on the 23rd I went to the Imperial Palace again. This time to hear the Emperor give a birthday address. Since 2002, I’ve always gone to the Palace on the Emperor’s birthday. Last year I missed the address though I was still able to go inside. This year I got to see and hear some welldressed Japanese rightwingers (and possible yakuza) get really into wishing the Emperor a happy birthday.
And the last 5 minutes of 2007 were spent at Zojo-ji Temple where hundreds of balloons flew off.
Whew! Well that’s that for 2007! Look out 2008! Actually, I think might just take the year off.
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 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
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
Often Overlooked Odawara: Part One
A small Japanese Castle Town has a rich history
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Gate tower reflecting in the castle moat
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