Hirosaki City (弘前市)

One of our side trips while staying in Aomori city (青森市) was to Hirosaki city (弘前市). I had done some reading about other places to visit in Aomori prefecture and Hirosaki, with its castle, its cherry trees and its old samurai housing district, looked interesting.

The city has a long and important strategic history. During the Heian era, it was controlled by the northern branch of the Fujiwara family during the 12th century, until the Minamoto family, who ruled from Kamakura in the south, defeated them in battle. Control of the city and the region around it was passed to the Nanbu family, a branch of the ruling Minamoto family in 1189. The Nanbu family didn’t have it easy, though. A branch of their family, the Oura family, wanted more power, declaring their independence from the main family in 1571. Oura Tamenobu led the family in a series of attacks against Nanbu-held castles. Tamenobu was a canny leader. In 1590, he pledged allegiance to Toyotomi Hideyoshi and guaranteed his family’s position as rulers of the Hirosaki area. The family changed its name to Tsugaru, from the area in which it had traditionally held its lands. Ten years later, allegiance switched to Tokugawa Ieyasu and the Tsugaru family was on the winning side in the Battle of Sekigahara, which was instrumental in unifying Japan under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Tamenobu was rewarded with an increase in his lands, with Hirosaki castle its administrative centre.

I discovered all of this online in our hotel room immediately after our visit, because we saw this mystery statue on our travels around the city, and I wanted to know who he was. The statue didn’t appear in any of the literature we picked up from the tourist information office at the station, and there was very little information about Tamenobu other than that he was the first of the Tsugaru daimyo and he planned Hirosaki castle, which was built after his death by his successor Nobuhira.

Statue of Tsugaru Tamenobu in Hirosaki city

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our journey started in Aomori, with the purchase of a giant apple from a greengrocers on the station approach. Fuji apples are my favourite apples, but I also like Jonagold, and the shop sold both of them. It was a tense moment as I tried to decide and the man who ran the shop waited patiently but expectantly. I went for the Fuji apple, mainly because it had a sticker on it in the shape of Aomori prefecture!

The train journey from Aomori to Hirosaki was lovely, taking us through the countryside with its mix of rice paddies and apple orchards. I managed to take a couple of photographs through the window of the moving train.

Apple Orchard from the train

Rice paddies near Hirosaki city

As we drew closer to Hirosaki station, Mount Iwaki loomed into view. It’s a double volcano and very imposing with its snow-covered peaks. It forms an impressive backdrop to the city as you walk through it.

At the station, I added a couple more JR station stamps to my collection, and we picked up a guide map from the tourist office. It’s a well designed map with information about World Heritage sites, apple production and key sites in the city from temples and shrines to Hirosaki Castle Park via the selection of European-style buildings that are scattered throughout the city, a reminder of the Meiji era’s desire to emulate the West. The guide opens out to reveal a map of the city, including the City Loop Bus routes and an enlarged map of the Castle Park. As guide maps go, it’s one of the most user-friendly I’ve come across. There’s even an online version of it. Well done, Hirosaki City!

Leaving the tourist office, we emerged into the station’s central plaza and I couldn’t resist the temptation to be photographed next to the giant apple that sits in the middle of the concourse.

Ridiculously excited by a giant apple!

Outside the station there was more evidence of the city’s pride in its apple production.

Hirosaki, City of Apples

Rather than catch one of the loop buses, we decided to walk from the station to the Castle Park. We followed signs for the Otemon Gate, which took us through the city centre, past the Episcopal Anglican Ascension Church, past shops and public sculptures representing the produce of the area, from pottery to apples. The walk seemed to take forever! We paused to take photographs at the Aomori Bank Memorial Hall.

This bank was the first to be established in Aomori Prefecture and was designed in the Renaissance style by Horie Sakichi, mixing European and Japanese architectural elements. It’s possible to go inside and look at the original fixtures and fittings, such as its ceiling covered in imitation leather paper and the counter made from Aomori keyaki wood, but we didn’t make a visit, choosing instead to press on to the castle.

We entered via the Sannomaru Otemon Gate, next to Otemon Square.

 

As we passed through the gate, we could see there were still some blossoms on the late blooming cherry trees.

Hirosaki Castle Park is one of the best places in Japan to do hanami. Apparently, the cherry blossoms fall so thickly onto the moat surrounding the castle that it looks like the water has turned pink. The city holds an annual Cherry Blossom Festival during the peak blooming, which typically occurs between late April and early May. We were about a week late. In a way, I’m glad, because it was quiet and we were able to admire the late blossoms up close with some of the other visitors to the park.

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One of the two women in the first picture above was desperate for the wind to set off a blossom storm. We giggled together as she waved her arms to encourage the wind and mimed knocking the branches.

The main draw of the park for us was the Castle Precincts. The park itself is free to enter and walk around, but if you want to visit the Castle Precincts and the reconstructed Castle Keep, there is an entry fee of 310円 to pay.

On our way to the Castle Precincts, we paused by one section of the moat to eat our lunch of inari zusshi, egg sando and, of course, our giant apples.

As we sat and ate, a swan glided past on the moat, towards the vermilion bridge spanning the water that was as green as a cup of matcha tea.

 

Apples finished, for want of a bin nearby, we temporarily placed the cores on the uprights of the fence in front of the bench we were sitting on. Shortly afterwards my bug-fascinated husband leaned forwards to inspect his apple core. A caterpillar had climbed on board for a quick snack!

We left him to it, and headed towards the the castle, crossing the bridge over the moat with our fellow strollers.

 

Around the corner, we came upon a coach party of other tourists, lining up to take turns at photographing each other on the bridge in front of the Castle Keep. We waited our turn and did the same before heading for the ticket office, where there was another view of the keep.

 

Once inside the grounds, we went to look at the small museum housed inside the keep. This three-storey building was constructed in 1810, replacing the replacement for the original five-storey keep that burnt down in 1627, following a lightening strike. The upper floors are accessed by increasingly steep ladders, and each floor has displays of artefacts dating from the life of the castle, including swords, armour and pottery.

 

Going up and down the steep ladders was an adventure, and we both took care to heed the warning signs about banging our heads as we emerged at the top of each set. There were spectacular views of the castle grounds to be had from the narrow upper windows. I particularly enjoyed looking down on people having their photograph taken on the bridge beneath the keep.

Back outside the keep, we read some information about it being moved to a more central spot within the Honmaru as part of a ten year project to renovate the castle walls. The project is due to start in October 2014. The keep itself will be dismantled and it will take five years for it to be rebuilt. The moat around the castle precincts will also be covered up while the renovation work on the walls is carried out. We timed our visit just right!

We strolled through the remains of the castle precincts, enjoying more of the cherry blossom and pausing to admire a couple of the remaining corner turrets, known as yagura.

 

 

 

We exited the park through the northern Kamenokomon Gate and headed for the Nakacho Historical House Preservation Area. The area preserves five or six old buildings and houses from the samurai era, some of which are now shops, others are homes that are open to the public to look around.

The first pair of buildings are directly opposite the castle grounds as you exit the Kamenokomon.

 

The Ishiba House belonged to a family of wealthy merchants who originally sold straw products. The shop is now the Japanese equivalent of an off-licence, or liquor store if you’re reading in the US. It’s possible to go in and not buy anything, and the shop owner will talk to visitors about the history of the building. Next door is the Kawasaki Dye Works, which we did go into. The studio is the last remaining place in Hirosaki where natural indigo dyeing is still carried out. The studio offers workshops on hand dyeing handkerchiefs and scarves using original Edo era dyeing vats. The shop at the front sells an array of indigo dyed products, and the woman running the shop is very friendly. We bought quite a few souvenirs here.

Behind these two shops is a grid of residential streets. A lot of the houses are modern, and look very expensive. I imagine it costs a lot to live in a preservation area. One house in particular had some very attractive topiary at its gate.

Dotted among the modern houses are some of the remaining Edo era buildings. Once again, I hadn’t done my research properly, and we arrived too late to have a look around inside the former Umeda and Ito residences. I did try a guerilla shot over the fence of the former Umeda residence to see what we could have seen if only we’d been half an hour earlier.

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Back on the streets behind the Ishiba House and Kawasaki Dye Works, we found a gate that looked old to us, so I’ve decided it was a samurai gate. It probably isn’t, but a woman has to find comfort from disappointment somewhere!

 

We considered catching the loop bus back to the station, but decided to walk back instead. We passed some interesting shops, including a tattoo parlour with a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary gazing wistfully out of a window. Our route back was definitely through the non-touristy end of town, which made it more interesting for us.

 

When we arrived back at the train station platform, someone had helpfully laid down pieces of tape decorated with apples to show passengers where the train doors would be when the train came into the station.

As ever, there was much we didn’t see in Hirosaki, but it’s always good to leave yourself an excuse to go back somewhere. I’d like to visit Aomori Prefecture during August, so that we can experience the two main Nebuta festivals in Aomori City and Hirosaki City. The temperature was quite cool while we were in the area, in early May, so hopefully this region of Honshu is less humid than Tokyo or Kyoto seem to be during the summer months. I would definitely go back to Hirosaki to visit the places we missed out on this first trip.

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