As I write this, I’m currently sat in my favourite place in Yokohama’s Chinatown, enjoying an excellent chai latte. I’m here – instead of a more local café – because recently I’m trying to break out of my routine and be more spontaneous. It’s been more than a month since term started again and I quickly settled back into doing the same old thing. After spending a summer stuck in one place, I became determined to spoil myself during the autumn.
Due to that fact, on one September Sunday, I hopped on a train to Odawara without much deliberation. I’ve been through Odawara Station before in order to get to Hakone but I hadn’t actually visited the city itself. I wanted to change that, and I realised that I didn’t have to wait for an excuse.
It takes about an hour to get from Yokohama to Odawara, changing at Ofuna, so I set off around late morning to give myself a bit of a lie in. I arrived at lunchtime and walked towards Odawara Castle, which is actually extremely close to the station.
Because I hadn’t planned the day, I had no idea that there would be a yosakoi event on the castle grounds, including a parade on the road in front. I wouldn’t say I’m a yosakoi fanatic, but I have had a casual interest for a while so the timing was perfect.
Yosakoi (よさこい) is a style of Japanese dance that sets classic moves to more recent music, bringing together old and new in one art form. Dancers wear traditional costumes of happi and yukata, and the music is complemented by the wooden naruko they use.
Repurposed as musical instruments, these tools are small paddles that clap together when shaken and were originally supposed to scare birds away from crops. The naruko are crucial to the yosakoi style, creating a beat that’s in sync with the whole group. In that sense, I can see a similarity with tap dance, and maybe that’s why I like it so much…
Dance is something I’ve loved since I was small, and this is familiar enough to appeal to that fact, but it’s also distinctly Japanese.
There was a bench by the side of the road, so I sat down to eat lunch as I watched. 7-Eleven salad in hand, castle in the background, I got to see several yosakoi teams perform and I started to wish that I could be part of it.
The atmosphere was amazing; the upbeat music and the energetic moves of the dancers kept the audience hyped up. People of all ages participated, including a toddler who needed to be carried halfway through. He was adorable in his tiny yukata, waving his naruko in the air.
I finished my salad and the parade came to a close, but not before I took several photos. I made my way across the moat, briefly checking my phone to find out where to buy a ticket.
It wasn’t long before I found where the Samurai Museum was. Located by Tokiwagi-mon, the main gate leading to the castle, it’s not exactly hard to spot. Tokiwagi Gate was named after evergreen trees, so that maybe the castle will remain strong, just like trees that remain the same throughout the entire year. And in a way, it has.
Despite the destructive force of nature, it remains. It may not be the original, but thanks to restoration and reconstruction, it’s still here.
Tokiwagi Gate was last rebuilt in the early 1970s, so it’s not very old at all, but it certainly seems like its faithful to what it once was.
The Samurai Museum is one of the locations where you can buy tickets so I bought one with joint access to the museum and the castle itself. Its 600 yen for the combined ticket, and usually for an extra charge you can go to the History Museum too, but unfortunately it’s closed until April 2019.
Once I’d paid and entered, the stairs led to a room exhibiting suits of armour, and real weapons that were used during the Edo Period.
One cabinet tells the story of the Asada family. Asada Tadasuke was an Odawara retainer who was murdered by someone named Narutaki Mansuke in 1818. Mansuke was found guilty and imprisoned for his act, but he escaped from jail two years later. Tadasuke’s sons appealed to the shogunate and the Lord of Odawara to be given permission to take matters into their own hands… permission which they were granted. After a four year man-hunt, Mansuke was eventually found in what is known today as Ibaraki Prefecture. The Asada brothers killed him in revenge for their slain father, and the sword is now on display as part of the Samurai Museum.
After being in the atmospherically-lit museum for a while, I was hit with sunlight as I left the building. Immediately outside is an area where you can dress up as a samurai yourself, with armour in both adult and child sizes. It’s perfect for a photo opportunity in front of the castle, and if you don’t want to be a samurai they also have outfits for ninja and princesses.
I felt it would be a bit weird if I did it alone and it’s maybe a little too touristy for my tastes, but on that day I was playing tourist so I headed to the gift shop instead.
I decided to get my souvenirs early because clearly I can’t stop collecting mementos from places I visit (not that I want to, of course). I never get anything huge, but I have a feeling I’ll need a pretty big memory box when I eventually go back to England.
Next was the castle itself.
Due to the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, parts of it had been destroyed. The interior has now been converted into a museum, with exhibits on all five floors that spiral up to the top. Most things in the castle have some form of English on them, so even if the descriptions are in Japanese, you’ll be able to read their names. I feel like its accessible enough that it’s enjoyable with limited or no Japanese.
I reached the top floor and stepped out onto the balcony. It wraps around the whole building, so you can enjoy views of the entire area. From the west side you can see the mountain ridge that defines the Kanagawa-Shizuoka border and I realised that I’d been in those mountains just six months beforehand. Move a little further round and you can see Sagami Bay, home to cities like Kamakura, Fujisawa, and Oiso. Once you get to the east side, you can see all of Odawara.
Playing tourist again, I took a rare selfie at the top, looking over the sea and mountains. “Rare” might sound surprising to my friends and family because I used to take way more, but now I can count on one hand how many I’ve posted to Instagram since I moved here. It’s been a huge change from the Jenny back in England and maybe it’s because I rarely wear make-up or dress super nicely. I have a lot more control over what I wear to work than in my last job, so now I don’t feel like I have to compensate on my days off.
…Still doesn’t stop me every once in a while though.
I wish I could’ve stayed up there for longer, but the walkway is very narrow and doesn’t really allow you to stay in one place for too long. I made a few circuits of the balcony, appreciating the view as much as I could before heading inside again.
By the time I’d meandered back through the castle exhibits and left the building, the sun had begun to set – infusing the dusky blue with pinks and purples. I saw it as a sign that it was time to head home, stifling the thought in the back of my mind telling me to explore more.
I would’ve given in too, had my head not started pounding. Catching a cold on top of pre-existing allergies is not fun, but my day out certainly was. I really want to revisit Odawara someday so I can see more of the city itself and I live an hour away… it’s more than manageable.
One thing’s for sure though; I realised that I should be more impulsive sometimes because I could just surprise myself with something great.