When people think of Japanese castles, castles like Himeji spring to mind. Usually, these places are far from Tokyo, accessible by Shinkansen, and require an overnight stay. However, there are lovely, more accessible castles that are equally full of history and tradition. Located in Kanagawa, Odawara Castle and the nearby Hotoku Ninomiya Shrine are such spots worth checking out.
Odawara Castle was the home of the Hojo family, rulers of the Kanto region during the Sengoku period, yet the castle’s history dates way back. During the Nara period, Odawara was used as an outpost. Its prominence was strongly featured in the Genpei War, and it was at this time that it was secured by the Hojo clan.
The Hojo was defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590 and fell under the control of Tokugawa Ieyasu. At this stage, the castle was expanded, as Odawara City started to flourish, becoming a key posting station on the Tokaido Highway connecting Edo to Kyoto.
After the Meiji Restoration, the center of economic and political life in Kanagawa shifted to Yokohama and Odawara, and the castle suffered a decline. Fortunately, thanks to recent tourism efforts, more and more people are discovering the beauty of the newly restored castle and its surrounding area.
The interior of Odawara Castle contains an excellent museum with samurai armor, swords, and scrolls that tell the history of Odawara. You can walk around the interior and up to the turret where you get a great, uninterrupted view of the city, Sagami Bay, and even Chiba’s Boso Peninsula.
The castle grounds are known for cherry blossom viewing, and the castle has a cute children’s amusement park and zoo attached to it. There is even a family of Japanese monkeys that greet you before you reach the castle proper. The current grounds, known as the “castle ruins,” was developed in the 1970s and forms part of Odawara’s cultural heritage.
However, Odawara’s wonderful castle isn’t the only great feature of this city. The nearby Hotoku Ninomiya Shrine is also an amazing landmark. Established in 1894, the shrine is dedicated to Ninomiya Sontoku (1787 to 1856), one of the most famous Japanese agricultural leader, philosopher, and economist. Ninomiya’s statue can be seen in many Japanese elementary schools, depicted as a young child, carrying a bag of sticks on his back and reading a book.
So who was Ninomiya? During the Edo period, Ninomiya became famous for his works in agriculture – rebuilding villages and saving peasants from starvation by distributing rice. He grew up in a poor farming family and while he worked the land to feed his brothers, he also studied hard.
Full of new initiatives to increase land productivity, Ninomiya was recruited by the local government. He started to introduce ideas about financial and agricultural reform, instilling economic vitality in the rural areas. He was opposed by his fellow bureaucrats yet successfully argued for commoners to have access to structures that allowed them to increase their wealth and agricultural production.
Ninomiya was also a philosopher who upheld the concept of “hotoku” or “repaying virtue with virtue.” His philosophy became simply known as “Sontoku.” Ninomiya’s ideas combined teachings from Buddhism (harnessing the mind), Shintoism (underpinning the country), and Confucianism (guiding good governance). Hotoku Ninomiya Shrine is a wonderful example of such philosophy –combining Japanese gardens, a coffee shop, shrine structures, and natural pathways into one.
The main hall and shrine complex can be accessed via a pathway from the castle. Within the hall are various dedications to agriculture, as well as a small museum dedicated to Ninomiya. The coffee shop next to the main hall is excellent and offers a lovely, relaxing outdoor courtyard where you can enjoy a drink and take in the peace and serenity.
Odawara Castle and Hotoku Ninomiya Shrine are a 10-minute walk from Odawara Station (East Exit) along an interesting omotesando street. A limited express train from Shinjuku can take you there within an hour.
With such easy access, the sometimes-forgotten town of Odawara makes for a great day trip into Japan’s past. Off the main tourist path, it is a perfect example of historical Japan and one that many locals have yet to experience.