Walking around in cultural and historical Kamakura, one of Japan’s once capitals, I spotted an interesting building that looked to fit in a little better than most of the new builds you see recently. The architect must have anticipated the interest as he had fitted an explanation sheet on the side of the building for interested viewers. This little act alone makes me believe there is quite a lot of love invested in this building, which one vital ingredient in sustainable architecture. Kamakura isn’t exactly starved of interesting buildings, a stone’s throw away from this little house near Hase Station I found a couple of handsome old fashioned black wooden buildings. I love how Japanese cities (at least the best ones) are so eminently walkable! To be a walkable city, it is not enough to focus on good sidewalks and street crossings, it is also important to make the buildings so interesting that you actually want to walk there, just to explore!
Located exactly 80km from Nihonbashi (the central point of modern Tokyo and old Edo) lies Odawara town. This and the surround mountains and rivers make this one of the most difficult sections to travel on the old Tokaido road that connected all the major cities in old Japan. Hence, Odawara became known as Odawarajuku, or Odawara Lodging Inn Town and a very popular spot for spending a night on the way to or from Edo. Naturally local artisans and merchants took full advantage of this and for hundreds of year they did a roaring trade in souvenirs, trinkets, travel goods, local specialities and food especially prepared for travelers. There were 90 regular inns and 8 larger inns reserved for the samurai class and their lords, these 8 inns were the grandest inns on the entire Tokaido route. These days not many of these old inns have survived wars, earthquakes and tsunami, but a few of the original shops, many of the local specialities and at least one (that I could find) inn remains standing. The day I visited was blazing hot and I was hindered in my exploration of all the traditional shops and houses by the looming threat of sun stroke and rather than spend a couple of days in a local hospital I actually called it quits after merely sampling a fourth of all this wonderful sea side town has to offer. The next time I visit I will be better prepared and make sure I see it all!
Here’s a few of the buildings I managed to photograph. Usually I do not care much for these sorts of scenes as the ugly concrete buildings, roads and tarmac makes me sad. I wish there were more of these older buildings left, or at least that local people took more pride in their history and heritage.
The last two photos are from the Matsuhara Shrine, a shinto shrine that is famous for the giant turtle that is said to have crawled up and blessed the town in the late 16th century. It is said to have visited regularly and due to its blessing the town garrison of a mere 8000 men is said to have successfully defended the town from an invading army of 80 000 men. In honor of the giant turtle there is now a turtle statue on the grounds of the shrine, but by this point of my exploration, I had almost expired so I didn’t investigate further. Always leave something to discover for the next time you visit, I think!!
Yesterday I wrote about the Ninomiya Shrine in Odawara City, a shrine that is named after Odawara’s most famous son, Sontoku Ninomiya (二宮 尊徳, 1787-1856). Ninomiya was born in a poor peasant family and lost both his parents while still a teenager. Despite being of low rank and having to raise siblings by himself he grew up to become a respected philosopher, thinker, administrator and agriculturalist. In his twenties his own personal farming enterprise was thriving due to his diligence and ground breaking ideas about agriculture and his local fame led him to be recruited to administer the agriculture of Japan’s elite, starting with the most run down fiefdoms in Japan and turning one after the other into successful enterprises. As a result of his dedication and honest, down to earth had work he is now enshrined in the shrine that bears his name and worshiped. He has also given his name to the town of Ninomiya in Kanagawa Prefecture and to Ninomiya City in Tochigi prefecture.
In addition to agriculture he also taught the ruling classes about the importance of rewarding hard work and successful immigrants, about basic economy, money and lending. He started Japan’s first credit union (basically banks that without the use of leverage lend money only using existing funds at low interest rates and risks shared by all existing members, in essence the only ethical banking system the world has ever seen).
Ninomiyas legacy is most commonly seen, at least to the casual traveler, in the many statues of him all around the country and especially in school grounds. Almost every school in Japan has a statue of him as young, carrying fire wood to support his family while reading a book to make up for his lost school time. The next time you pass a Japanese school, see if you can spot this statue! The statues themselves had a tragic story too, during World War 2 most schools had to give up their statues for the war effort to use the metal in arms manufacturing. Despite most school fighting tooth and nail to avoid giving up their statues most were confiscated even though a few schools managed to hide their statues. These stories are reflected in the greatest book about growing up as a child in war time Japan ever written, the classic autobiography by Kappa Senou, “A Boy Called H”. This was the first book I read in Japanese and it is a young adult book but suitable for anyone, from young to old. It’s an easy read even in the original Japanese. I’d say it is one of the must read books if you ever want to aspire to understand Japan and the Japanese. It’s available at Amazon here.
But back to Sontoku Ninomiya. In essence, Ninomiya life works serves as the essential role model for all Japanese. Utterly humble, utterly hard working his life form the basis of all moral and ethical education in Japanese schools even today, and in all forms of media his successors are highlighted, daily, across Japan. There are countless books, magazines, articles, television programs published or aired daily telling the stories of people who through common sense, hard work and humility turns a school, a family, a friendship or even a multinational business around, and the people who succeed in these things, whether they are carpenters or prime ministers are hailed as heroes here. A far cry from the worshiping of pseudo-celebrities and so called “stars” of the west. People in Japan, since a young age are just fascinated by success stories. When I first came to Japan one of my favorite TV shows was a series reenacting successful small businesses: every episode they would look at one shop, corporation or school that had managed to turn themselves and their activities around by hard work, common sense and high morals. The episode I remember most vividly was one about a hot dog stand and how the owner went from daily losses to a profitable business in a few simple steps that can be copied by everyone. I also have a few personal heroes in Japanese business, for example the founder of Oriental Land, the company that invented and runs the only non-Disney owned Disney theme park in the world (Tokyo Disney Sea). Him and his company turned their business around completely by adhering to a few simple ideas, pioneered by this boy who did a lot of thinking back in the 18th century, Sontoku Ninomiya (other famous examples are the Odakyu line real estate company here in Tokyo, The Nissan corporation, etc). Ninomiya was not a genious, he dind’t have any patents or brilliant solutions or advisors or markets. He succeeded because of his common sense and virtue alone.
Last month I finally got to do my belayed trip to the city of Odawara in Kanagawa prefecture to the south-west of Tokyo. Getting there from Tokyo is not difficult at all but it’s a couple of hours by train unless you go by the high speed Shinkansen bullet trains (fast but expensive). Traveling inside and out of Japan is very expensive compared to many other countries, real low cost airlines and bus companies have so far avoided the country and many times a decent domestic vacation can cost many times as much as a comparative domestic vacation in any European or Asian country. This has resulted in a situation where many Japanese avoid domestic tourism due to costs and it isn’t very rare meet people who have never traveled outside of their home prefecture or even home town. For some Japanese the only real chance they have to see the rest of the country is during one of the obligatory school trips during junior and senior high school, usually to Hiroshima, Tokyo or Kyoto. For this reason, Odawara is a pretty good place to visit if you’re based in Tokyo. It is easy to get there, lot’s of history and a few nice beaches! It also feels much more like a southern ocean resort town than other towns in Kanagawa, Chiba or Tokyo.
The main draw of the city’s tourism is the Odawara Castle (). Located on slightly higher ground than the town it was a good defensive spot and fortified by bigger and bigger castles until 1870 when the castle was ordered destroyed like all feudal fortifications as the new imperial era started with emperor Meiji. In the 1950s, after a civil war, a world war and quite a few major earthquakes the castle was finally revived but not much of what we can see today is original. In a country mostly spared the ravages of gunpowder artillery, most castles were originally built in wood, but these days most of the castles are unfortunately built out of concrete, which is one of the reasons I never bother to go inside. There are a couple of original wooden castles left and they are a joy to see from the inside!
However, from the outside the castles look fantastic, Odawara castle is no exception. Looking at the photos, it struck me that it really looks more like a toy than a real building!
Parts of the castle grounds and the many defensive gates have been restored more or less realistically (there is a “cut through” wall section on the grounds where you can see how these castles were actually built, lath and plaster, very much like the old English Tudor style mansions), and if you have the stamina it’s nice to walk around the castle and imagine how it once must have looked.
And I am not sure why I know this, but it seems that the official day for Castles here in Japan is April 6th. Just like the official world day for mathematics is March 14th. Let’s remember this for next year!
If you spend any more than a couple of weeks in Tokyo, Odawara is a must-see. More on this great little city later! If you want to read about other castles I have blogged about, please check out the beautiful Matsumoto Castle, the cute Kakegawa Castle, Shuri Castle in Okinawa, the ruins of Hachioji castle, and of course the papercraft castle!