26 Sep 2019 in Discover Japan
Experience Honshu’s northern culture, visit a moving castle and discover sublime gardens!
Situated in the Tsugaru region of northern Honshu, the small town of Hirosaki is off many tourists’ radar – yet it has plenty to offer.
Most Japanese know it for the picture-postcard cherry trees surrounding its 17th-century castle. But there’s much more to Hirosaki.
Like the sublimely-landscaped Fujita Memorial Garden, the impressive complex of 33 temples, and an excellent hands-on museum where local craftsmen create original works in front of you.
The Tsugaru region covers the western peninsula of Honshu’s Aomori Prefecture. Within this remote part of Japan, Hirosaki is a major hub – and yet its population is less than 180,000. The town has a pleasantly laid-back feel and, as an Edo-era regional capital, it offers plenty of history and cultural riches.
If you’re staying at Hoshino Resorts KAI Tsugaru, Hirosaki is just a 10-minute train ride from nearby Owani station. And the ryokan is a great place to begin your discovery of the Tsugaru region.
As a guest, you’ll be able to experience the local shamisen through nightly concerts. You’ll sample the best of the region’s cuisine, including melt-in-your-mouth Oma tuna.
And you’ll learn all about the intricate art of kogin needlework, a regional tradition celebrated in the ryokan’s décor.
On arrival at Hirosaki station, make a beeline for the Castle Park. It’s best reached via a short bus ride or a 30-minute walk.
This large, leafy park is dotted with imposing wooden entrance gates, numerous traditional red arched bridges, and a network of deep moats. It is celebrated for its 2,600 sakura trees, which attract a staggering two million visitors during the springtime Cherry Blossom Festival.
For this 2-week period, that park is a photographer’s dream, famed for its “tunnel” of cherry trees on either side of the west moat. When blossom starts to fall, it covers every inch of the water with floating pink flowers.
Hirosaki Castle was originally built in 1611, but all that remains today is a three-storey keep perched atop the motte.
In 2015, the keep was moved some 70 metres from its original position for renovation on the supporting walls.
Moving the 400-ton tower took 3 months using hydraulic jacks and a dolly system. You can learn about this extraordinary feat of engineering in an exhibition inside the keep.
From here, you’ll have an excellent view of Mt. Iwaki, the local volcanic giant that looms majestically above the Tsugaru Plain.
On the south-west side of the park, the Fujita Memorial Garden is an exquisite example of a traditional Japanese garden.
Separated into an upper section with tatami-lined house and a lower garden around a pond, it boasts beautiful, aesthetic landscaping.
Trees lean at impossible angles, their lower branches supported by strategically-placed pillars. A waterfall cascades over an arched red bridge, and irises and azaleas spread dashes of colour around the immaculately-kept lawns.
Stop for lunch or coffee at the tearoom, built in grandiose Western style like many early 20th-century buildings in Hirosaki.
From the Fujita Memorial Garden, it’s a 10-minute walk to Hirosaski’s Zen temple area, a collection of 33 temples gathered here in the early 17th-century to form a spiritual hub for the town.
The most impressive is Chosho-ji, the temple of the Tsugaru family, with its 16-metre high main gate dominating the district.
If you have time, head back to the northern side of the Castle Park, where the former Samurai District offers an insight into life under feudal lords. You can visit the residences of 3 samurai who served the Tsugaru clan in the 17th century. The most grandiose is the Ito Residence, home to the clan’s doctor.
A couple of minutes’ walk away is Neputa-mura, an excellent museum celebrating all things local. The focus is the town’s famous Neputa festival. Held in early August, Neputa features immense intricately-painted lanterns made from washi paper in creative shapes and forms.
A dark high-ceilinged room presents an array of these illuminated lanterns – and you’ll have a chance to bang the traditional drums used during the festival.
Beyond the main hall, a former rice brewery has been transformed into a production studio and showcase for local crafts. Here, you can watch artisans creating traditional kokeshi dolls, kogin clothes, goldfish neputa and a range of children’s wooden toys, including the region’s unique zuguri spinning tops.
Where better to buy an original gift? Something unique to remember your day out in Hirosaki.