Japanese castle town invites travelers to experience a day in the life of a feudal lord

Odawara, Japan –

The careful placement of the traditional “kabuto” helmet and the adjustment of the drawstring chin strap complete the transformation.

Simon Celestine arrived at Odawara Castle as a tourist from France, but now he is lord of one of Japan’s most impressive feudal-era fortresses, if only for a day.

Just 80 kilometers (50 miles) from central Tokyo, Odawara is an attractive port city with a rich history rooted in the powerful Hojo clan, the loyal Fuma ninja, and the climactic battle that took place here in 1590 to shape modern Japan. .

All too often, however, foreign visitors tour the city on a bullet train as they head to the “golden route” destinations of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

With the number of foreign visitors surpassing the peaks seen in the months immediately preceding the pandemic, the Japanese government is keen to encourage tourists to explore some of the country’s lesser-known but equally impressive destinations.

Odawara has been selected as one of the first recipients of government assistance to tell its story and local tourism authorities have been busy coming up with initiatives that play to its strengths.

Given its history and a truly imposing castle, it made sense to give visitors a taste of Odawara by making them the lord (daimyo) of the domain, including costumes.

“We really hope that our campaign will put Odawara on the map and encourage more people to visit and stay overnight,” Naoya Asao, head of international promotion for the Odawara Tourism Association, told CNN Travel.

“Odawara is often considered the gateway to better-known destinations like Hakone or the Izu Peninsula, but there are plenty of things to see and do here. “We have a great history and we believe that making visitors ‘daimyo of the day’ is a unique way to share it.”

Celestine, 37, opted to join three friends for a curated experience that began when they took off their 21st-century outfits.

With the help of costume experts who typically dress actors appearing in Japanese period films and television series, visitors first donned long, white undershirts tied with a belt around their waists. They were then asked to put on leggings that were loose above the knees but cinched tightly over the shins before being fitted with the protections, traditionally made of iron splints connected to mail armor.

Individual armored sleeves covered with colorful designs were attached one at a time before the “do” or chest armor was attached. With the wide belt at the waist, each of the modern warriors received their weapons.

The long sword, or “katana,” is used to cut down enemies, they were told, while the shorter “wakizashi” must remain sheathed until its owner has committed a sin grave enough to require “seppuku,” or ritual self-disembowelment. with an L-shaped cut to the stomach.

The instructor added that he very much hoped that the visitors’ wakisazhi would remain in their covers during their stay.

With the addition of the elegantly curved, jet-black “kabuto” helmet, the four “daimyo” were ready to survey their kingdom.

Upon leaving the visitor center, the four foreigners attracted curious glances from local residents who may have contributed to an initial lack of “daimyo” arrogance. However, they soon discovered its nobility when they crossed the castle’s wide outer moat and were greeted by reenactors dressed in accurate recreations of warrior armor from Japan’s Warring States period, the civil war decades of the 15th and 16th centuries.

One of the most formidable castles in Japan.

Strategically located on the narrow plain between the waters of Sagami Bay and the mountains rising steeply toward the foothills of Mount Fuji, Odawara controlled virtually all road traffic between the ancient capital of Kyoto and Edo, which eventually became would become today’s Tokyo.

Rival clans fought for control of Odawara until the Hojo family made it the base for domains covering much of what is now the Kanto region of eastern Japan, with the castle being the supreme symbol of their authority and power during much of the 16th century. Five generations of the Hojo clan made Odawara Castle one of the most formidable in the country and it was never successfully stormed in battle.

However, its defenders were defeated when Toyotomi Hideyoshi besieged the city in 1590 with an army of around 250,000 men and starved the Hojo clan into submission. A vengeful Hideyoshi ordered the castle razed, while new structures later built on the same site were severely damaged by earthquakes until the Meiji government ordered the castle’s final demolition in 1870.

It was not until 1960 that the five-story keep was rebuilt in reinforced concrete, and other historic structures within the 106-hectare castle park were subsequently restored to their former splendor, including thick defensive walls, watchtowers and a series of gates. intelligently designed defenses. .

Past the cherry trees that are impressive in spring, Celestine and her fellow “daimyo” crossed another defensive moat and passed through a gate to find themselves in a gravel courtyard in front of the impressive main gate.

Greeted by a group of musicians playing the traditional taiko drum, shamisen lute and shinobue flute, visitors witnessed a performance highlighting the skills of the legendary Japanese ninja, with re-enactors telling an illustrated story of loyalty and revenge. with sword fights, wall jumps and acrobatic spins.

Odawara is the traditional home of the Fuma clan of ninjas, who were devout supporters of the Hojo family. A museum dedicated to ninjas opened on the castle grounds in 2019, and visitors are encouraged to try their hand at wielding a traditional curved sword or improvised weapons, even something as harmless as chopsticks.

The museum also attempts to dispel some of the myths surrounding ninja, who were as much spies and healers as mercenaries.

The innermost courtyard is reached across another bridge over a moat, up a flight of steep steps and through a door embedded in a two-meter-thick wall. At night, the bright white keep is illuminated and is only accessed by another flight of steep stairs; The castle’s defenders obviously wanted to keep their enemies at bay.

The keep houses a small museum of local treasures, including beautifully preserved scrolls, kimonos and swords, and the “daimyo” is led to a reception on the fifth floor. Presented with scrolls bearing the official seal of the Hojo clan, they admired their lands with glasses of champagne from the balcony that runs along the top of the castle.

The highest level of the castle is also where the “Flying Monk” teaches mindfulness classes. Tomomi Iwayama has taken her Zen meditation and mindfulness sessions online during the pandemic, working with large corporations around the world, but she’s happy to be teaching in-person again.

Participants are invited to sit cross-legged and straight on square cushions on the floor to better focus on inhaling and exhaling from deep within their bodies. Iwayama says that with daily practice, even people with minds inclined to wander should be able to focus simply on inhaling and exhaling to achieve relaxed mindfulness for up to 30 minutes.

The day ends with a feast fit for a daimyo at a nearby restaurant, reached through a traditional moss garden, manicured trees and stone lanterns. The gentlemen are welcomed by a kneeling geisha and can warm themselves next to a sunken “irori” hearth. The “kaiseki” meal has multiple dishes featuring local delicacies, including sashimi caught from local boats and “sansai” mountain vegetables.

And while the gentlemen eat and toast with local sake, the impeccably dressed geishas dance, play the shamisen and make sure their charges’ glasses are constantly filled.

Satisfied, the “daimyo” return to the castle, where they spend the night on the upper floor, just as their predecessors would have done. It is important to take advantage of the time they have left because tomorrow they will be commoners again.

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