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Mom in Japan: Odawara & Samurai

Odawara City's mascots
Odawara City's mascots

So, last time I wrote about my mom’s trip we had spent a very exhausting day trekking around Hakone. So, after getting a good night’s sleep (my first time sleeping in a real bed in about five months) and being able to sleep in, we woke up and got breakfast at a local family restaurant and took our time taking advantage of the all you can drink coffee and juice bar. Around noon we headed towards Odawara Castle where a festival was being held. The original castle was actually destroyed by the Meiji government probably as a means to “purge” Japan of the old ways to pave way for a constitutional monarchy encompassing a pro-forma representative democracy. In summary, the castle was not a symbol of the new government, so it had to go. The current castle, aka the one that we visited, was rebuilt in 1960 and serves as a museum and is designated as an important historical document.

When we arrived at the castle, we still had some time to kill before the samurai march’s opening ceremony started, so we wandered around a massive flea market. There were not just people selling old junk junk things, but there were people making lanterns and lots of delicious festival foods. But, the best part of the entire place was that there were people in costume all over the place. The name of the festival we were attending was called the Houjiou Godai Matsuri and it is a festival that held every year on May 3rd to commemorate the historical, yearly march of the daimyo to Tokyo to pay tribute and show loyalty to the Tokugawa ruler. Most people flock to the area for the parade where hundreds (maybe thousands?) of Odawa locals dress up in traditional Tokugawa period clothing and march around the town.

Before the parade started though, there was a sort of opening ceremony that was more of a history lesson. However, it took forever for the main ceremony to actually start. I got really excited at first because they had a taiko performance with a large group of people. Once that finished though, I began to lose interest in what was going on. First they had a band, perhaps they were even a marching band, do several performances of old American songs and girls waving flags around and twirling. My mom even fell asleep a little during this bit and I don’t blame her. Here I was thinking this was going to be all about traditional Japan and more period oriented, and I get a marching band playing “Wild Thing.” I half expected them to bust out with the Star Spangled Banner – they didn’t, thank God. When the band was finally finished and with very unenthusiastic applause from the audience, it was time for what all Japanese ceremonies would not be complete without: speeches. This would have been OK and over painlessly if it were not for the first speaker. She was an elderly lady who either could not read, had never seen her speech before, suffered from short-term memory loss, or all of the above. Her speech I swear was about 20 minutes and I could not understand a thing she was saying. This was not because of my Japanese ability, my boyfriend and his family could not understand a word she said either. Think of George Bush trying to describe what a sovereign nation is or him trying to quote the infamous “fool me once” line, times that by 50, and think of him speaking in squeaky-shaky Japanese and you have about the same image as what I had to listen to. There were a few other speeches and then it was finally time for the main event to start! I wish I could go into more detail about what the historical part of the ceremony was about, but all I could really get was the presentation of the daimyo (there were seven, so I kept thinking Seven Samurai while I watched) and then the presentation of their troops. A letter was received and one of the daimyo (who appeared to be the most influential of all the daimyo present) and he read the letter and then, for some reason…maybe to start their pilgrimage, they all set out on their march. The reason I could not really understand what was being said was that they were using more traditional forms of Japanese that samurai and the upper class used during the Tokugawa period. As anyone knows, language is something that changes very quickly and Japanese is no exception. I was going to ask my boyfriend to explain what was going on, but he apparently fell asleep during a portion of the event and doesn’t remember. Anyway, the historical reenactment ended and the parade started and we took off to a different part of the town so we could catch the beginning of the parade.

the daimyo
the daimyo

En route to our new location, we came across a large group of men dressed in white robes with blue accents carrying a kind of float. I use the term float very loosely here because the men are actually carrying a shrine that is supposed to house a local “god.” Furthermore, these men or not your average Joe, but they represent Shinto which means “believers.” The shrines are incredibly heavy and carrying them around the town is not an easy feat, but I guess it is all to pay homage to the local god. This Shinto procession is technically a separate event, although it starts just as the parade is ending and follows part of the parade route. While I was stopping to take pictures of the scene, one of the Japanese men spotted me and insisted on taking a group picture for us. I think my mom and I were some of the first foreigners he had ever seen, or at least the first ones he had seen at the festival recently, so he was not going to let the opportunity to leave his mark in digital history.
We continued towards our next destination and found ourselves in a more Japanese festival setting. There were racks of plastic masks of children’s favorite cartoon characters and best of all festival food. We bought “sugar water” candies (three strawberries covered in a sweet-hard syrup) and buttered potato. My personal favorite festival food is takoyaki, but I refrained from getting it that day as I did not think my mom could handle the whole eating boiled octopus. When we finally arrived at the parade route, we watched all the costumed people walk by and mom gawked in horror at the horses who paraded by because “they look terrified.” One of the marching samurai spotted me and made a b-line in my direction just to shake my hand. I was a little startled. I guess this area does not see many foreigners.

posing with the Shinto shrine pullers
posing with the Shinto shrine pullers

After the parade finished we made our way one of the Fuji Five Lakes called Kawaguchiko located in Kawaguchiko City (Yamanashi Prefecture) to check out the other side of Mt. Fuji and to get some dinner at a restaurant that, once again, Jun’s family goes to often. The best part about the restaurant was that they had a massive selection of soft-served ice cream. I ended up getting sweet potato ice cream while Jun got a almond tofu flavored ice cream. I do not remember exactly what my mom got, but hers was a swirled type cone and I want to say it was a coffee based taste. Caramel Latte maybe?

the parade is really a family event
the parade is really a family event

While it may seem like we did less than the previous day, by the time we sat down to dinner we were all dead tired – minus Jun’s dad who seems like the Energizer Bunny – we drove to our hotel and once again did some unwinding and sleeping before our final day of sightseeing.

Coming next on “Mom in Japan”: monkeys, kitty artwork, and a music box museum.

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