Splendor falls on castle walls

Snowcapped Fuji drops behind the humps of the Hakone range in central Honshu as a southwest-bound train approaches Odawara Station. With mountains on the west and the ocean on the south and east, Odawara was a natural fortress. The first to exploit this topography was the Kobayakawa clan, who built a castle in Odawara about 800 years ago.

Odawara was also a post station on the Tokaido Highway, the great artery joining Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto, and the synergy of castle town and post station made it the cultural and industrial center of east Japan by the 16th century. The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake shore the city of its Edo Period (1600-1868) and Meiji Period (1868-1912) architecture, but its traditional industries still thrive.

Many purveyors of traditional Odawara products belong to the Machikado (Street) Museum. Shops flying the museum’s blue banner educate visitors via displays and hands-on classes. An illustrated bilingual museum map guides visitors.

I followed the dotted line on the map to the Shiokara Museum, aka Odawara Minoya-Kichibee. Shiokara is a condiment consisting of part of a marine animal in a paste of its salted viscera.

Minoya-Kichibee has used squid for 450 years.

The shop’s history is a point of pride. As is founder Kichibee being the first to add steamed yeast to the salted viscera. Rounding out a trifecta of bragging points is the fact that Minoya-Kichibee has presented its products to the Emperor every January since 1981.

The map next led me to Ejima, a dealer in tea and Japanese paper. Here the blue banner is superfluous as the exterior exudes a museum atmosphere, with its latticed second-story windows and its bracket-supported horizontal timbers bearing the weight of the great eaves. The building dates from the 1920s, Ejima from 1661.

The shop began as a salt dealer, explains Setsuko Ejima, the 17th-generation proprietor’s wife of 60 years. “Profits from salt were invested in washi [hand-molded paper] and tea,” says Ejima.

Relocating from Tokyo to Odawara was not easy. “People were reclusive; Odawara is a castle town,” she says.

We are talking over a cup of Kakegawa tea, Ejima’s specialty. Condensed to a shade shy of dark green matcha, Kakegawa-cha is free of astringency.

Ejima stopped carrying fusuma paper; demand for the sliding vertical rectangles has declined. Sales of paper for boxes have spiked with purchases by hobbyists, mainly retired baby boomers. This demographic has also led a surge in sales of paper for copying sutras.

On to Matsuzakaya, which displays 48 kinds of Japanese sweets from local confectioners. Above a display case sit a miniature camellia sasanqua and a cage of canaries. You could eat them; they are made of the same ingredients as cakes.

Toshio Koshikawa, the proprietor of the shop founded in 1916, says similar works by the city’s confectioners are displayed at the annual Sweets Exhibition. He credits the tea ceremony with Odawara’s rich confectionery tradition. The city’s lords and merchants were tea aficionados, and master confectioners flocked to Odawara to satisfy the demand for the cakes that complement tea.

A morning spent traipsing between delectable-filled shops stimulates the appetite. I stood before Daruma, an imposing two-story building with tiled undulating bargeboard above the entrance, reflexively looked in my wallet, and took the plunge.

The interior, with coffered ceiling, linoleum floor, and scurrying kimono-clad waitresses, was, thankfully, more plebeian than anticipated. I ordered the ume teishoku — sashimi, tempura, rice, soup — for ¥1,370 and left sated.

Near Daruma was the lacquerware gallery Ishikawa Shikki. Odawara lacquerware is made of zelkova and produced by a technique that brings out the beauty of the grain under the lacquer. My informant was quick to add that urushi (lacquer) imported from China undergoes a strict purification process.

I had not seen the castle, but had felt its presence as the core of a town from which sprang traditional products. It was time to make its acquaintance.

Crossing the red bridge over the moat, I was greeted by Masako Takagi and Akihiro Takasugi, of the Odawara Guide Association.

The castle was destroyed and rebuilt several times, most recently in 1960. We passed through the Tokiwagi Gate to an expanse with a monkey cage and paddock for Umeko, a 60-year-old elephant who arrived in 1960 for a children’s expo.

The white donjon soared beautiful against the azure winter sky. My docents explained that the former pair of shachi (killer whale) statues atop the roof were bought by a German in 1870, when the castle was demolished by the Meiji government. The whereabouts of the statue remain a mystery.

The donjons of castles in Japan have the feel of an attic, a place for storing bric-a-brac, a sword here, Noh masks there, the jetsam of homeowners covetous of space. A gallery of portraits of successive dour castle lords is de rigueur.

Odawara Castle’s exhibits, on four floors, are better arranged than most. Suits of armor reveal the diminutive stature of the medieval warrior. Made of leather or lacquered paper, foot soldiers’ armor was pervious to the edged steel glinting in another display case. Of interest is a whalebone frame for the silk mantle a samurai wore at the back to blunt the impact of arrows.

A pair of Odawara chochin, one as tall as your torso, the other pancake flat, illustrate one reason for the popularity of this portable paper lantern. In addition to collapsing to fit inside the kimono bosom, its ribs are flat, increasing the adhesive surface and keeping the paper from peeling off in rain. Furthermore, because its ribs were of wood from sacred trees at Saijoji Temple, in Minamiashigara, near Odawara, the lantern was said to ward off spectral foxes and tanuki (raccoon dog).

We climbed to the observation deck with views of the Izu Peninsula, Hakone, the Tanzawa mountains to the north, Sagami Bay to the south, and Soga village to the northeast, which is noted for its 35,000 ume (Japanese apricot) trees whose fruit is dried and salted to make umeboshi, the lip-puckering pickle at the center of the rice in some bento (lunch-box) sets. Although not planted as ornamentals, the Soga ume, blossoming white against the backdrop of Mount Fuji, attract hordes of flower viewers.

Wanting to taste the fruit of the farmers’ labors, I dropped by the Pickled Plum Museum. Masatsugu Komine, the fifth-generation owner, asked if I had driven, then let me taste ume wines. I left with a pack of 3-year-old umeboshi and a flask of wine, Heisei 15 (2003) vintage.

I walked along the castle moat and revisited the castle park. The milk-white donjon, the foundation nearly invisible in the dark, seemed borne by its broad eaves.

A couple drifted away, and I was alone with my thoughts.

The donjon was a symbol of the lord’s authority. He lived high by the peasants’ sweat. The feudal system was cruel, but its castle town bequeathed traditional products and this park.

Umeko, the sexagenarian pachyderm, had retired. No foxes or tanuki were a-hauntin’. Only the monkeys chattered in their cage.

Call the Odawara Guide Association to arrange for a free English-speaking guide at (0465) 22-8800.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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