Hirosaki’s moving castle

Hirosaki is located in the southwest of Aomori prefecture at the foot of Mt. Iwaki and can be reached from Aomori in about an hour by car. Originally a castle town (jōkamachi 城下町), developping under the Tsugaru clan in the early 17th until the abolition of the feudal clan system, Hirosaki is still home to the Hirosaki castle (Hirosaki-jō 弘前城) with about 2600 cherry trees, some of which are older than a hundred years. The park is vast with three turrets, five gates, and three water moat systems surrounding the main keep. All of these structures are originals from the Edo-period and National Important Cultural Properties.
Hirosaki castle park is known throughout Japan as one of the most cherished hanami spots. Sakura trees in the northern Tohoku region are quite late and ususally have their blooming time during Golden Week in late April and early May. A famous sight are the moats densely covered with sakura petals after Hanafubuki (花吹雪) which can be referred to as snow flurry because of the many petals flying around resembling snow flakes. Of course there weren’t any cherry blossoms during late December and the dark and knobby tree trunks and gates were the only contrast in the whiteness of the snow and sky.

Hirosaki castle’s main keep – imagine how beautiful the sakura branch must look while blooming!

The first of the Tsugaru feudal lords established his rule over the Tsugaru area in the early 17th century. Completed in 1611 the castle had a five-story main keep (tenshukaku 天守閣), which however was struck by lightning shortly after and burned down. It was only in 1811 that the present three-story main tower was reconstructed on the southeast corner of the inner ward on the site of a turret (yagura 櫓), rather than on the base of the original main keep.
The second relocation took place in 2015 under the Ishigaki Repair Committee. Over a time span of three months the structure which is around 400 tons in weight and 14,4 meters in height, was moved in three steps about eighty meters towards the core of the castle (honmaru 本丸) so that the dry stone wall (ishigaki 石垣) under the main keep can be repaired. The tenshukaku is supposed to be placed back in 2021 but for the restoration to be complete it will probably take five additional years. There’s an impressive time laps video on youtube where you can see the castle moving: click

The Ōtemon south gate with frozen moat

When exiting through the south gate (Ōtemon 追手門 ) the former home and garden of the wealthy Fujita family lies outside the southeast corner of Hirosaki Park. The park was opened to the public in 1991 and is an example of Edo-style gardening. It is the second largest Japanese garden in the Tōhoku area and separated into a hill part, from where Mt. Iwaki is visible on clear days and a low land part with a pond. The garden is opened from mid April to late November so we only managed to get a glimpse of the hill part since the lower part was closed because of the heavy snow. I’m always in awe of how carefully the bushes and trees are covered or sustained by wooden installations.

New Year’s decoration (Kodamatsu 門松) at the Fujita memorial garden

While strolling outside the castle site we noticed posters of an anime called ふらいんぐうぃっち (Flying Witch). The name kind of says it all but the exciting part is that the story takes place in Hirosaki and that’s why there were son many posters around. The anime wasn’t out yet when we were there in late December but premiered a few months later in April 2016. I haven’t watched the full anime as the plot is rather dull and could very well be some kind of touristic commercial for Hirosaki but the few episodes I managed to see featured so many of the scenic views that it was still funny to watch.

The Ishiba family residence is from the Edo-period and part of it is still used today as a personal residence.

Despite the weather being gloomy and cold we didn’t mind it at all and I’m looking forward to seeing Hirosaki castle during hanami one day and have a boat ride on the water covered ins sakura petals! It’s dazzling how different a place can look and feel depending from the season but I’m happy to have seen the castle during winter as it still looked magical under all the snow.

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