Hirosaki (pop. 175,000) is a very new city by Japanese standards. It was founded in the early 17th century as a castle town, and the old district retains all its Edo-era charm.
The two best times of the year to visit Hirosaki are the cherry blossom season mid-April (note that they blossom later here in Northern Japan than in Tokyo or Kansai), and the first week of August, when the Neputa Matsuri is held.
|Hirosaki Neputa Festival 弘前ねぷた祭り|
The Neputa Matsuri is famous all over Japan for its extravagant and colouful illuminated floats and accompanying dancers. The city of Aomori, some 30km north, holds its sister festival, named Nebuta Matsuri (note the "b" instead of "p") during the exact same period. Whichever you go does not really matter, but this is defnitely something to see, as it is one of the most spectacular festivals in Japan.
At the Northeast corner of the castle's park is the Neputa-mura Museum, displaying various floats used during the festival. It is presented as a village and also exhibits Japanese crafts, kites, toys, and has taiko drum sessions every 10 minutes.
Hirosaki Castle 弘前城
Hirosaki-jō is not impressive by its size, but it has the merit of being of the 12 authentic castles left in Japan. Its construction dates back to 1627, apart from a turret rebuilt in 1810.
What makes Hirosaki Castle so attractive are the 5,000 cherry trees in the park surrounding it. This makes for an exceptional spectacle of cherry blossoms in April, which is definitely the best time to visit Hirosaki if you are not coming for the Neputa Festival. Cherry blossoms being such an important part of Japanese culture and the tourist industry, the Japanese media (e.g. NHK News) have daily cherry blossom reports showing the status of the blossoming progressing from Kyushu to Hokkaido.
Just north of Neputa-mura is the old Tsugaru domain samurai quarter (津軽藩の武家屋敷). The district was once reserved exclusively to samurai families, and some are still inhabited by their descendants. Occasionally, some houses are open to the public, although just strolling around gives a good impression of the atmosphere.
Saishō-ji & Chōshō-ji Temples
Hirosaki has two noteworthy temples. First, the Saishō-ji (最勝寺), south-west of the Chūō-Hirosaki station and Nakasan department store, has a remarkable 5-tiered pagoda built in 1667.
Further west (about 1km), you will find an entrance gate leading to the Chōshō-ji Temple (長勝寺) and its subtemples. The San-mon Gate was built 1629 and was clearly influenced by Nikko's Tōshōgu. The bell and bell tower are said to date back to the 14th century.
How to get there
Hirosaki is best accesed from Aomori city. It is just 35 minutes by limited express on the JR Ou line (￥650).
From Tokyo, shinkansen only go as far as Hachinohe (also in Aomori prefecture). After the 3-hour ride to Hachinohe (￥9,350), the JR Limited Express Tsugaru to Hirosaki takes another 1 hour 40 minutes (￥2,200).
Express buses from Morioka take 140 minutes and cost about ￥3000.
Alternatively, Aomori Airport is a bit less than 1 hour away by train.