“Mine has been a life of much shame” –Dazai Osamu, 1948 (From his book No Longer Human, or Ningen Shikkaku)
Hardly a quote with which to launch a thousand ships, and nor did it. It was these words however that inspired me to take an interest in Honshu’s northernmost prefecture, Aomori—the land of blue forests.
A quick search resulted in an image of an area unkempt and wild, much like its native son, Dazai.
Aomori is bordered by Akita and Iwate prefectures to its south, and faces Hokkaido to the north across the Tsurugu Strait. Tsuguru is also the name of one of the two ben (dialects) spoken in the area, with the other being nambu–ben.
The dialects are both unique to northern Japan, with a majority of Japanese not having a clue what is being said. The unusual language adds to the feeling of isolation, but its lyrical sound makes it pleasurable hear.
It was a treat to sit in a hot bath and listen to the locals chat and enjoy it for nothing more than the sound.
For most of its prolific history, Aomori was little more than forests and coastline. Apart from the few hearty farmers and hunters who inhabited the area, it was a place to escape the populaces in the southwest part of Japan.
In 1871 the Meiji government took an interest in the locale and changed it from its former name of Mutsu Province to what we know it as today. Fishing, farming and forestry drive the local economy, with Aomori apples enjoying a claim to fame as some of Japan’s best.
After 1945, Japan went through a “lost” period, as she tried to come to terms with her post-war place. It was interesting that two prominent figures who played key roles in redefining the nation should both come from such a remote area.
Dazai Osamu, the pseudonym of Tsushima Shuji, was born the 10th child of 11 in Kanagi, Goshogawara, in the northwestern part of Aomori. Master novelist and storyteller Dazai was a literary hero and voice to millions. His novels and short stories, often biographical, were gritty, depressing and caught the mood of many at the time.
Farther south another figure to affect Japan’s post-war period was born in the castle town of Hirosaki. Ishizaka Youjiro, born in 1900. A veteran correspondent of the war, Ishizaka took a different approach to Dazai and showed the nation how it could be, rather than how it was. His novel, Aoi Sanmyaku or Blue Mountain Range, was hugely popular, and it played an influential role in introducing the idea of a new Japan. Unfortunately, few of Ishizaka’s novels have been translated into English, but they inspired a frenzy of movies that helped Japan climb out of its slump.
Given it was early May, and the cherry blossoms had yet to shed their petals, I decided to visit the town that spawned a post-war hero, and take in the famous cherry blossoms of Hirosaki Castle.
Hirosaki is Japan’s northernmost castle town, located on the Tsugaru Plains, a short distance from Akita’s northern border.
The town sprang to life in 1571 after local warlord Oura Tamenobu declared himself independent of the Nambu clan and seized power in the area.
In 1590, after assisting Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the battle of Odawara, Tamenobu was rewarded with large parcels of land in the area and confirmed as the local daimyo. At that time he changed his name to Tsugaru.
In 1603, Tsugaru began construction on Hirosaki Castle, only to stop a year later after his death in Kyoto. Construction resumed in 1609, under Tsugaru Nobuhira, and it was completed in 1611.
From all accounts it was an impressive structure before nature rendered splendor moot by means of a lightning strike on a stormy eve in 1627. The ensuing fire quickly engulfed the powder magazine, with the resulting explosion destroying the original six-story, five-roof structure.
The three-story structure that stands today was built in 1810, by the ninth daimyo, Tsugaru Yasuchika.
In 1871, the castle was handed over to the new Meiji government and, after being garrisoned by the Imperial Japanese Army, it was largely dismantled with a number of buildings and most of the walls being taken down. In 1894, the site was donated by the Tsugaru clan to the government for use as a park.
A total of 2,600 cherry blossom trees breathe life and vitality into the grounds each year at the end of April and early May, and they give canvas to one of Japan’s most picturesque scenes.
The view is enjoyed by more than a million visitors, from when the grounds open at 9 a.m. to closing time at 5 p.m. The admission fee of ¥300 (¥500 for both the castle and botanical gardens) is well worth it, as you get to feast your eyes on one of Japan’s finest displays of pink petals.
During the cherry blossom festival which runs from April 23 to May 5, the grounds stay open as late as 10 p.m. to give one plenty of time to enjoy the spectacular light-up. Stick around after the lights dim, and you are treated to the sight of dozens of locals pitching in to clean up the rubbish for the next day. Stalls provide ample opportunities to sample local fare.
Hirosaki is more than just its cherry blossom festival; being home to some fine example of Renaissance-style architecture Japan has to offer. Hirosaki is also the hometown of popular manga artist Nara Yoshitomo, noted for his drawings of moody and sometimes evil-looking “cute” kids.
Hirosaki is but the tip of a tourist iceberg, showing just a glimpse of what Aomori has to offer. What a stylish glimpse it provides.
The Shinkansen now runs up to Aomori City and, once you are there, just jump on the limited express train, Tsugaru, and it will see you in Hirosaki around 30 minutes later. All in all, Hirosaki is a five-hour train ride from Tokyo, thanks to bullet train access. From Hirosaki Station, take the Dotemachi Loop Bus for 15 minutes and get off at Shiyakusho-mae bus stop.
Accommodation can be pretty scarce during the cherry blossom season, so it may be worth looking at places to stay in either Aomori City or Akita. There is plenty of bus or train access from both places.