In 1590 Japan was in turmoil. There had been civil wars raging intermittently for over a century as various warlords vied to take control and unify the country. Finally it had come down to three men: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. After Nobunaga’s death in 1582, Hideyoshi was best positioned to prevail and in April 1590, as he campaigned northward wreaking havoc and destruction, he was temporarily stopped by the castle at Odawara, the 100-year-old seat of the Odawara Hojo, a powerful warlord clan.
Hideyoshi laid siege to the castle, surrounding it and cutting it off from supplies and outside communication. After just three months, the last of the Hojo leaders, Ujinao, capitulated without a fight. Hideyoshi awarded the captured castle and its lands to his then-lieutenant, Tokugawa Ieyasu
After Hideyoshi’s death in 1598 it was Ieyasu who ultimately unified the country, establishing his family as shogun rulers in 1603, a dynasty that was to last until 1867. Odawara’s coastal position became important as a guardian of the southwestern approach to Edo (now known as Tokyo), the seat of the Tokugawa clan and the political capital of Japan throughout the Tokugawa shogunate.
The castle town of Odawara was also designated as one of 53 post towns on the Tokaido, the major coastal road linking Edo with Kyoto, home of the emperor in whose name the Tokugawa shoguns ruled. Most travelers on the Tokaido would have stopped in Odawara for a meal or an overnight stay. Thus the area thrived throughout the two and a half centuries of peaceful Tokugawa rule. During that time, the castle precincts were altered from time to time, often after some of the castle’s buildings were damaged or destroyed by major earthquakes. Since the castle was no longer needed for any military purpose, it became an administrative installation and about 2/3 of its original precincts were relinquished to civilian use.
In 1870, after imperial power had been restored and the emperor had moved to Edo, causing it to be renamed Tokyo (eastern capital), most of Japan’s medieval castles, including Odawara Castle, were destroyed by imperial edict. But the castle’s ramparts and the tall foundation of the donjon (keep) remained, the latter serving as home of a local shrine. An imperial villa was built in the lower bailey, nearest the sea.
In the 20th century, the tracks of the Tokaido train line (and later the Tokaido Shinkansen) were laid along the castle’s western boundary. The imperial villa was destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 when many of the castle’s walls were also badly damaged. Nonetheless, the castle site was listed as a National Historic Site in 1938, preserved as a public park.
In 1960, after extensive repairs to the foundations of the keep, which had also been damaged by the 1923 earthquake, a ferro-concrete replica keep was built, pleasingly visible to train passengers. From the outside, it looks like a medieval castle; inside it is a museum recounting the castle’s history, complete with displays on some of the archaeological digs conducted on the castle grounds.
Although from the outside the castle appears to have three tiers, in fact, it has five levels. At the top level there is an observation deck that allows tourists to enjoy expansive views, another chance to appreciate the guardian role this castle played in history.
The lower bailey, where the imperial villa once stood, is also now part of the castle park, surrounded by walls and moats. Some of the castle’s yagura turrets have also been restored.
It goes without saying that there are lots of cherry blossoms on the castle grounds in early spring. An early summer fun flower feature is the iris garden that is planted in the area that was once a moat between the lower bailey and the inner bailey. (Note: these are pre-pandemic photos of the event.)
Like most of Japan’s medieval castles, entry to the inner bailey requires navigating chicanes and massive gates. Some of these also remain or have been restored, contributing to a visitor’s understanding of how the castle’s defenses worked.
Just 80 km. from central Tokyo, a visit to Odawara Castle is a fun day trip, or a short stopover combined with a trip to Hakone. The castle grounds are always open; entry to the keep is 9:00 to 16:30 (JPY500).
© 2021 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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