If your idea of a perfect escape entails exploring beaches, mountains, hot springs and temples – and tucking into delicious Japanese cuisine – then spending a few days in the picturesque port city of Odawara should make it to the top of your must-do-in-Japan list.
Located in the Ashigara Plains of Kanagawa Prefecture, the city is surrounded by breathtaking scenery, including the Hakone Mountains to the north and west, Sagami Bay to the south, and the Sakawa River to the east. It’s ideal for couples seeking some time out – especially if coming from packed Tokyo since, with a population of just under 200,000, Odawara has plenty more breathing space to offer. In addition, it’s easy to access and only takes 35 minutes on the shinkansen and just over one hour on a local train to get there from Tokyo Station.
Read on to discover the city’s seasonal attractions and festivals, then turn the page for our recommended 48-hour self-guided tour.
Spring Is for Sakura
Since Odawara Castle Park is one of the city’s main attractions, it makes sense that plenty of seasonal activities take place in its midst. Head here in late March to early April for the Odawara Cherry Blossom Festival. Marvel at 300 blossoming Yoshino cherry trees surrounding the historic building and dangling gracefully above the castle moat. At night, paper lanterns are lit to transform the area into something even more fantastical.
Other popular hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spots include Shiroyama Park, Tsujimura Botanical Garden, and the site of the famed 340-year-old weeping cherry tree on Chokozan Hill, which stands 13 meters in height.
Summer Is for Samurai
Whether you’re a history buff, culture nerd or just love ninjas, early summer is your perfect time for visiting Odawara. Why? This is when the city’s Hojo Godai Matsuri annual festival takes place.
Held in memory of the Hojo clan, who ruled the area from the late 15th century, the event features a lively street parade of performers dressed up to look like they’ve teleported from Japan’s feudal times. Expect samurai armor-clad warriors, kimono-wearing women, nimble ninjas, dancers, musicians and groups carrying mikoshi (portable shrine) on their shoulders. As with any traditional Japanese festival, there’s also plenty of tasty local snacks available from food stalls.
Other summer highlights include admiring the blooming hydrangeas and irises at Odawara Castle Park and having a picnic on one of the beaches, the main one being Miyukinohama.
Autumn 2020 Is for Chochin
While Japan’s vibrant fall foliage is usually the top reason to head out and about during autumn weekends, Odawara boasts another draw in 2020. Usually held in July, the Odawara Chochin (Lantern) Festival has been moved to October 3 and 4 this year due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Around 1,800 lanterns, created by local schoolchildren, light up the castle’s grounds and moat, and visitors are also treated to a Bon Odori dance, drum performance and mikoshi parade. Odawara lanterns boast a unique accordion-like shape and you can even attend a workshop to make your very own design. Classes are held at Nariwai Rest House every second and fourth Sunday from 10am to 4pm.
Winter Is for Ume
If your visit is planned for February, don’t miss the Odawara Plum Festival, held from early February to early March. With flowers as pretty as sakura, plum trees can be viewed at venues including the castle, Soga Plum Grove and Odawara Flower Garden. Soga Plum Grove is particularly awe-inspiring with 35,000 white-blossomed trees set against the magnificent backdrop of Mount Fuji.
Also in early February, the Umeshu Matsuri (Plum Wine Festival) gives visitors the chance to sip on the sweet and sour Japanese liqueur known as umeshu. Tastings are held in different locations including the castle, the plum fields of Shimosoga and Harune Market near Odawara Station.
Odawara: 48-Hour Itinerary
Right, so you’ve decided which season to visit Odawara? Here’s our recommended two-day sightseeing plan for the ultimate romantic escape.
Morning at Odawara Castle
This small city is easily traversed by bicycle so if you’re arriving by train at Odawara Station, we recommend renting a bike at the nearby Odawara Community Center UMECO before you begin exploring. To kick off your day’s itinerary, you’re going straight to the main attraction: Odawara Castle.
Although the fortress has had to be renovated multiple times since the Edo Period, the building that stands here today is still steeped in rich nostalgia. One of Japan’s most revered castles, Odawara Castle was once home to the powerful, ruling Hojo clan. To add to the mood, rent samurai armor and a kimono at the Tokiwagi gate – you can stroll around the grounds wearing these outfits and have your photo taken. Inside the castle, take time to read about the many different artifacts on display before enjoying a moment to remember on the observatory deck. The views over the city and Sagami Bay are spectacular.
Top tip: Download the Odawara Castle app for free from the App Store or Google Play. As you tour the exhibits inside the castle, it provides detailed explanations and an audio guide.
Japanese Cuisine for Lunch
Hungry? Take a short cycle into the city center and you’ll have your pick of specialty Japanese dishes. Ramen fans should hunt down Ajiichi Hojo, a popular ramen restaurant that serves its noodle soup topped with tender slices of pork and decorative steamed fish cake in small wooden barrels.
Those who enjoy fish should visit Kamaboko Street and, more specifically, Suzuhiro Kamaboko Village. Kamaboko is a steamed fish cake that’s a specialty of Odawara and you can take a workshop to learn how to make them at Suzuhiro Kamaboko Museum.
Also within the village is Soba Mikura. An excellent dining experience, this restaurant is housed in a renovated traditional Japanese house and serves quality soba (buckwheat noodles) made fresh every morning. To eat like you’re in the Edo Period, order a kamaboko starter followed by soba and local sake or beer.
Shop for Traditional Crafts
Walk off your lunch by browsing the shops in town to find souvenirs such as Odawara chochin (lanterns), yosegi zaiku (wood mosaic) and Odawara shikki (lacquerware). The local lacquerware stands out for its glossy finish that highlights the grain of the material. Look out for a cute shop called Wazaya, which sells all kinds of items from chopsticks to wallets.
Check in at the Brand-New Minaka Odawara
Opening in December 2020, Minaka Odawara is a sprawling development located at the east exit of Odawara Station. Featuring a delightful “shopping street” with Odawara Castle-inspired architecture, the center boasts a food court, souvenir stores, a footbath and a hotel – which is where you’ll be bedding down for the night. After dropping off your bicycles, check in to your well-appointed accommodation and enjoy a relaxed, cozy evening away from the crowds.
Brunch at the Fishing Port
The day swings into action early at Odawara’s harbor – 5:30am, to be exact. But there’s no reason you can’t enjoy a lazy lie-in before checking out of your hotel and wandering down to the port. This is a romantic getaway, after all.
Hop on the train to Hayakawa Station and walk five minutes to reach the famous fish market (nicknamed Little Tsukiji). Sagami Bay boasts one of Japan’s three biggest deep gulfs and as a result has an abundance of seasonal seafood. Take in the atmosphere of the bustling harbor before choosing where to eat brunch (or lunch if you really slept late).
There are plenty of restaurants serving up fish straight from the ocean. To experience grilling your own, look for Odawara Sakana Center’s inhouse barbecue corner. There’s also a Port Morning Market held every second and fourth Saturday from 7am to 10am.
Seaside Stroll Before Heading Home
Odawara is blessed with a scenic coastline that’s been admired by travelers since the city served as a post town along the old Tokaido Highway. Its sandy coastline attracts beachgoers and sun seekers in summer, but no matter what time of year you’re here, a seaside stroll is a must. Some of the best beaches include Miyukinohama, Kozu and Sakawa. Breathe in the reinvigorating salty ocean air until, finally, it’s time to head home.
3 More Things to Do
If you happen to have more time, here are a few more recommended Odawara attractions.
Built in the Sukiya style, which conveys the influence of the Japanese tea ceremony, this villa is registered as a national cultural property. It’s free to enter and offers lovely bay views. 1-5-73 Minamicho, Odawara
The New Ninja Museum
In April 2019, the historical Rekishi Kenbunkan Museum reopened as an interactive Ninja Museum where you can experience what life was like back in the days of ninja and samurai. odawaracastle.com
One for the adrenaline junkies, this forest leisure facility offers a thrilling zipline course that takes you through the lush hills of Odawara. foret-aventure.jp/eng
Download Odawara Sampo, the free official travel app for Odawara, and get a virtual history tour, more than 20 sample itineraries, and recommended spots.