Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

The Japanese Aoba Festival of Sendai

The Japanese Aoba Festival of Sendai
Sendai citizens dance to show their appreciation for their city’s founder

Sendai residents performing Suzume Odori – Sparrow’s Dance

One of the things I have always liked about Japanese festivals is their inclusive nature. Many people from all walks of life participate in festival performances not just professional entertainers. Sometimes it seems as though nearly half a city is participating in these festivals.

Even foriegner residents are often invited to join in with their local community festivities. Participation can range from folk dancing, singing, demonstrating martial arts, or carrying portable shrines known as a mikoshi.

Shoppers get a special treat as fan dancers parade down the arcade

In the northern city of Sendai, the Aoba Festival celebrates the anniversary of the death of the founder of the city, Date Masamune (1567-1636). Date Masamune was a warlord who fought and survived during Japan’s Warring States Period. In the peace that followed he founded the city of Sendai.

Fan Dancers dance in front of a festival float

The Aoba Festival has all the trappings of typical Japanese festivals – decorative floats, armor-wearing samurai processions, shrine parades, taiko drumming, and dancing performances. Unfortunately, I only caught one day of this three-day festival but what caught my attention the most was the hundreds of locals performing fan dances in large groups.

People of all ages were participating from the very young to the very old. Even junior high and high school students took part which surprised me as back home that age group is generally “too cool” to be part of a community event.

High school students performing a traditional dance

The most commonly performed dance at the Aoba Festival is a fan dance which is a local Sendai tradition going back 400 years. Date Masamune ordained a castle to be built in Sendai in the Aoba district. His stone masons are said to have created a special dance known as the Suzume Odori. Suzume Odori means the Sparrow’s Dance. Dancers mimic the movements of sparrows with their fans. The Sparrow incidentally is also the Date Family crest.

Mohawk Drummer leading the pack

Group after group of Suzume Fan Dancers parade through Sendia’s shopping district giving shoppers a show. Children and grandparents alike show off their dancing skills. Granted, the timing of some of the younger ones is a bit off but no one in audience really minds.

Even the wee ones get in on the fun

Date Masamune was a warlord of the Sengoku Period. This was an age of warring provinces where lords great and small struggled to expand or defend their territories. In an age of fighters, Date Masamune was one of the toughest. He survived small pox when he was young at the cost of one of his eyes. His mother spurned him and lavished her affection on his younger brother whom he was later forced to kill to perserve peace. His father was betrayed and murdered.

In his lifetime of war, though, Date witnessed the unification of the country under three successful warlords from the middle area of Japan. Date was clever enough to see which way the wind was blowing and offer allienge to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the great unifiying lords, in 1590. This was when Toyotomi was mopping up the last resistance to his control. Still even with Toyotomi’s unquestionable control of the nation, Date dared to refuse the initial summons and later delayed again Toyotomi’s second summons to offer submission. Date expected death but his fearless candor impressed Toyotomi that nothing came of his disobedience. Date later served in Toyotomi’s disasterous Korean campaigns.

A spry elder struts his stuff

After Toyotomi’s death, Date sided with Tokogawa Ieyasu who eventually became Shogun and subsequently the ruler of all Japan. Date was awarded the lands around Sendai thus becoming one of Japan’s strongest lords. He quickly turned the fishing village of Sendai into a thriving capital.

Though a warrior, Date was farsighted and encouraged dealings with other nations far from Japan – Europe to be exact, sending an envoy to Italy. Unfortunately, his early attempts at globalization came at a time when the rulers of Japan were closing its doors. He was forced to curtail further attempts at international trade while banning Christianity which had made inroads into his domain. Still despite these setbacks, Date proved himself a capable administrator and a benevolent leader to his people. It’s small wonder that the descendents of his people still celebrate him to this day.


June 8, 2008 Posted by | Blogroll, culture, dance, festival, japan, japanese culture, japanese history, life, toyotomi hideyoshi, travel | , , , | 2 Comments

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