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

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

Simon Celestine arrived at Odawara castle as a tourist from France but he is now lord of one of the most impressive feudal-era fortresses in Japan – if only for a day.

Just 50 miles (80 kilometers) from central Tokyo, Odawara is an attractive port town 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.

Yet all too often, foreign visitors zip through the town on a bullet train as they stick to the “golden route” destinations of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

With overseas visitor numbers now surpassing the peaks seen in the months immediately prior to the pandemic, the Japanese government is keen to encourage tourists to explore some of the country’s less-known but equally impressive destinations.

Tourists ditch their 21st century attire as part of the "daimyo for a day" experience in Odawara. - Odawara Tourism Association
Tourists ditch their 21st century attire as part of the "daimyo for a day" experience in Odawara. - Odawara Tourism Association

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

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

“We are really hoping 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 usually seen as the gateway to more well-known destinations, such as Hakone or the Izu Peninsula, but there are lots of things to see and do here. We have great history and we think that making visitors ‘daimyo for the day’ is a unique way of sharing that.”

Celestine, 37, opted to join three friends for the curated experience that started with them stripping off their 21st-century attire.

Aided by costume experts who typically clothe actors who appear in period movies and Japanese television dramas, the visitors first slipped on long, white undershirts that were tied with a belt around the waist. They were next required to step into leggings that were baggy above the knees but cinched tightly over the shins before guards, traditionally made of iron splints connected with chain armor, were attached.

Individual armored sleeves covered with colorful designs were tied into place one at a time before the “do,” or chest armor was attached. With the broad belt at the waist, each of the modern-day warriors was given their weapons.

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

Located 50 miles from Tokyo, Odawara is an attractive port town with a rich history. - Odawara Tourism Association
Located 50 miles from Tokyo, Odawara is an attractive port town with a rich history. - Odawara Tourism Association

The instructor added that he very much hoped that the visitors’ “wakisazhi” would stay in their sheaths for the duration of their stay.

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

Emerging from the visitors’ center, the four foreigners attracted curious glances from local residents that may have contributed to an initial lack of “daimyo” swagger. They soon discovered their nobility, however, as they crossed the castle’s broad outer moat and were greeted by re-enactors dressed in accurate recreations of warriors’ armor from Japan’s Warring States period, the decades of civil war in the 15th and 16th centuries.

One of Japan’s most formidable castles

Strategically located on the narrow plain between the waters of Sagami Bay and mountains that rise steeply into the foothills of Mount Fuji, Odawara controlled virtually all the road traffic between the ancient capital of Kyoto and Edo, which would eventually become modern-day Tokyo.

Rival clans fought for control of Odawara until the Hojo family made it the base of domains that covered much of what is today the Kanto region of eastern Japan, with the castle the ultimate symbol of their authority and power through much of the 1500s. 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.

As part of the daimyo experience, visitors are given a private musical performance. - Odawara Tourism Association
As part of the daimyo experience, visitors are given a private musical performance. - Odawara Tourism Association

Its defenders were defeated, however, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi laid siege to the city in 1590 with an army of around 250,000 men and starved the Hojo clan into surrender. A vengeful Hideyoshi ordered the castle razed to the ground, while new structures built later on the same site were badly damaged in earthquakes until the Meiji government ordered the final demolition of the castle in 1870.

It was not until 1960 that the five-storied donjon was rebuilt in reinforced concrete, with other historic structures within the 106-hectare castle park subsequently restored to their former glory, including thick defensive walls, guard towers and a series of cleverly designed defensive gates.

Beyond cherry trees that are stunning in the spring, Celestine and his fellow “daimyo” crossed another defensive moat and passed through a gate to find themselves in a gravel courtyard facing the impressive main gate.

Greeted by a group of musicians on traditional “taiko” drum, “shamisen” lute and “shinobue” flute,” the visitors watched a performance highlighting the skills of Japan’s legendary ninja, with re-enactors telling a tale of loyalty and revenge illustrated with sword fights, leaps from the walls and acrobatic rolls.

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

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

Visitors are taken out for a traditional kaiseki meal before they spend the night inside the castle. - Odawara Tourism Association
Visitors are taken out for a traditional kaiseki meal before they spend the night inside the castle. - Odawara Tourism Association

The innermost courtyard is across another bridge over a moat, up a flight of steep steps and through a gate set into a two-meter-thick wall. At night, the bright white donjon is illuminated and only reached by another flight of steep steps – the castle’s defenders were obviously keen to keep their enemies at bay.

The donjon houses a small museum of local treasures, including beautifully preserved scrolls, kimono and swords, with the “daimyo” ushered 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 around the top of the castle.

The uppermost level of the castle is also where the “Flying Monk” gives classes in mindfulness. Tomomi Iwayama took his Zen meditation and mindfulness sessions online during the pandemic, working with major corporations around the world, but he is happy to be back instructing in person.

Participants are invited to sit cross-legged and straight-backed on square cushions on the floor to best focus on breathing in and out from the very depths of their bodies. Iwayama says that with daily practice, even people with minds inclined to roam should be able to simply focus on inhaling and exhaling to achieve relaxed mindfulness for as long as 30 minutes.

The day ends with a feast fit for a “daimyo” at a nearby restaurant, reached through a traditional garden of moss, manicured trees and stone lanterns. The lords are greeted by kneeling geisha and can warm themselves alongside an “irori” sunken hearth. The “kaiseki” meal has multiple courses that include local delicacies, including sashimi caught by local boats and “sansai” mountain vegetables.

And while the lords eat and toast each other with a local sake, the immaculately attired geisha dance, play “shamisen” and ensure their charges’ glasses are constantly topped up.

Replete, the “daimyo” make their way back to the castle where they spend the night on the upper-most floor, just as their predecessors would have done. It is important to make the most of the time that is left to them as tomorrow they revert to being commoners.

The “Lord of the Castle” experience can be booked through the official Odawara Tourism Association website.

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