Lanterns on a Neputa float
Hirosaki (弘前; ) is a city in Aomori prefecture, in the northern Tohoku region of the main Japanese island Honshu.
Hirosaki was the capital of the Tsugaru clan that once ruled over much of Tohoku's northern parts. Occasionally called "the Kyoto of the North", this hyperbole is backed up mostly by an abundance of temples, a castle's remains, and a famous version of the Nebuta Festival, called the Neputa Festival in Hirosaki.
The closest airport is in Aomori, which has JAL service from Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Sapporo.
Hirosaki is on the JR Ōu Main Line (奥羽本線) connecting Aomori, Akita and Fukushima.
From Tokyo Station, it's a five-hour ride to Hirosaki by taking the Tohoku Shinkansen Hayate train to Hachinohe, then changing to the Tsugaru Limited Express train. At a cost of ¥17400, it will probably make sense to purchase a rail pass beforehand.
Local trains from Aomori depart once per hour and take about 50 minutes (¥650).
Hirosaki is also one of the final stops on the Akebono overnight train that runs from Tokyo's Ueno Station, and the Nihonkai overnight trains from Osaka and Kyoto.
Hirosaki is fairly spread out and you will need to figure out the bus system to get around affordably. Most lines radiate from JR Hirosaki station.
Tenshukaku, Hirosaki Castle
- Hirosaki Castle (弘前城 Hirosaki-jō). Hirosaki Castle was completed in 1611 and housed several generations of the Tsugaru Clan. The large 49.2-hectare grounds include three concentric moats and earthen fortifications that surround the remains of the inner castle area: five castle gates, three corner keeps and a castle tower. After the original five-storied tower was struck by lightning and burned down, the current three-storied Tenshukaku tower was built to replace it. The castle grounds are now a public park famous nationwide for its cherry blossoms. The castle tower houses a museum featuring samurai-era swords, suits of armor, helmets and other items related to the castle's history. Admission charged: 9:00-17:00 April 1-November 23, Adults ¥300, Children ¥100 (includes admission to Tenshukaku Castle Tower Museum). Nearest bus stop Shiyakusho-mae (15 min from station).
- Neputa Village (ねぷた村 Neputa-mura). Located at the park's northerneastern corner, this is where the festival's floats and memorabilia are held outside the Neputa festival season (see Do). The Village showcases a particularly large 8x10m specimen, and sheepishly notes that it's now too big to fit under the electric wires that crisscross Japanese streets. There are also several workshops preparing traditional Hirosaki handicrafts, which can be purchased by visitors. Admission ¥500.
- Otemon Square. On the other side of the park, this complex contains Hirosaki's tourist information center and showcases more beautiful Neputa stuff including Japan's largest drum, diameter 4.5m wide and big enough for 50 people to bang on at once. Free admission.
Five-story pagoda, Saishōin
- Zenringai (禅林街) is a collection of 33 Zen temples moved or built here to spiritually safeguard Hirosaki Castle. To get there, take a bus to Yonchuko and get off at Shigemori-cho Chosho-ji (20 min).
- Chōshō-ji Temple (長勝寺). Known for the Sanmon Gate (1629) and a hall filled with wooden statues of the 500 Disciples of Buddha. Admission ¥300, open daily 8 AM to 5 PM (but closed December through March).
- Shinteramachi (新寺町) is a slightly newer set of temples affiliated with the Nichiren sect. To get there, take a bus to Sakuragaoka and get off at Hirosaki High School (13 min).
- Saishō-in Monastery (最勝院). Known for its five-storied pagoda, completed in 1667, which stands 31.2 meters tall and took ten years to build on the order of Tsugaru clan leader Nobuyoshi.
Hirosaki's biggest event is the yearly Neputa Matsuri (ねぷた祭り), held in the first week of August and quite similar to Aomori's Nebuta Matsuri (note slight difference in spelling). The festival is famous for its extravagant and colouful illuminated floats and accompanying dancers, and accommodation in the area is booked tight in season.
In contrast with Aomori's huge Nebuta festival. Hirosaki's Neputa is known for being more low-key and accessible. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a vistor's opportunities for interaction with the parade activities and local participants is greater at Hirosaki's festival than at Aomori's.
The local cherry blossom festival is also a sight to see. With over 5,000 cherry trees in the park around the castle. The locals and tourists find it an enjoyable festival of laughing, singing, dancing and drinking.
The snow lantern festival is held during early February every year. During the festival, Hirosaki Castle Park is filled with snow lanterns and sculptures which are illuminated during the evenings.
Hirosaki is Japan's leading producer of apples, introduced to the city in 1875 by John Inge, an American teacher working at a local school.
- El Jalapeno, found a few blocks from the train station. An interesting night spot frequented by locals, this is the Hirosaki version of a Mexican Restaurant.
- BunPuku is the best ramen shop in Hirosaki. It's just down the street from the Hirosaki Daigaku Ministop Conbini. It's cheap, has many flavors of ramen, and the old lady waitress is famous for the best service in town. And you get ice cream after you're done. How cool is that?
If you happen to be near the expansive apple orchards, the local apple juice is also a delectable, tantalizing taste for the tongue.
If you're looking for alcoholic drinks. Look for a neighborhood called Nishihiro south of Hirosaki Daiguku and east of Hirosaki Gakuin Daigaku. There are a lot of cheap bars and izakayas there because of the nearby colleges.
If you're looking for more expensive drinks, check out a neighborhood called Kajimachi. It's the area around Asahi Bowl. If you can't find it, just look for the giant bowling pin downtown. If you're looking for an "American style" bar, try 'Ash', 'Gumbo', or 'Garcom de Bar'.
- Hirosaki Youth Hostel. Tel. 0172-33-7066, . Housed in a concrete cube, this is a dull but friendly base for exploring the city. The owner keeps a few cats and dogs in the hostel. A bed for the night costs ¥3045 for HI members. While it states breakfast can be included with an additional cost, chances are the owner will offer it for free. Coffee is free of charge, and there is no curfew.
Drop into the Hirosaki Tourist Information Center at Otemon Square (under See) for useful maps and information.