Tali woke up this morning not feeling well, so we took some extra time at our hotel in Aomori to get ready for our sightseeing day in the very pretty town of Hirosaki. We walked over to the JR Train Station, and caught the next train bound for Hirosaki, less than an hour south and a bit west of us. The TIC at the Train Station when we arrived was very helpful in providing us with an excellent sightseeing map, and also advising us to take the 100 yen, hop on-hop off bus that stopped conveniently right outside the terminal, in order to start our wanderings at Hirosaki’s most famous attraction, its feudal castle, which is the symbol of the city.
Hirosaki Castle’s history dates back to the early 17th century, though not much of it remains today. The first of the Tsugaru feudal lords established his rule over this area in the early 17th century, and the second lord, Tsugaru Nobuhira, completed the castle in 1611. Remaining on the grounds are a castle tower, three turrets, five gates, and three beautiful moats; there are numerous red bridges crossing these moats, and some areas have thousands of water lilies, while some have carp swimming merrily.
After the original five-story castle tower was struck by lightning and burned down, the current three-story Tenshukaku tower was built to replace it, and now houses a small museum with a few feudal era artifacts. The castle grounds are a lovely public park famous nationwide for its cherry blossoms, because there are about 2,600 cherry trees planted along all of its many paths – perfect for strolling in Sakura blossom season, although we could only imagine what that must look like! Even now, in the middle of summer, there were many senior citizens (including one wheeling his oxygen tank!) and families strolling the park and enjoying the cool breezes and beautiful views of Mt. Iwaki, not far away.
After we had strolled through the park, we came to the Neputa Village, at the park’s northeastern corner, which is where the festival’s floats and memorabilia are held outside of the Neputa festival season. The Village showcases a particularly large 8×10 meter float (!!!) that is now too big to fit under the electric wires along the Festival’s path through the town’s streets! This festival is a bit different than the one in Aomori, I learned – first, it’s called the Neputa festival, rather than Nebuta, as in Aomori. Also it is much more of a locals’ festival, attracting nothing close to the 3 million people who flock to Aomori. Also, all the floats here are in the traditional shape of fans, rather than the giant 3-D creations we saw in Aomori. We got the feeling of more personal involvement in the Festival of Hirosaki right at the beginning of our visit to the Neputa Village, when we were both invited to play the huge Taiko drums, to accompany our host, who played the Shakuhachi (traditional Japanese wooden flute)! What fun!!!
We had a great visit to the Neputa Village, but we had one more place to visit before we took the train back to Aomori…and, as Tali and I agreed, we needed to walk the long distance it was to get there, as a sign of devotion and respect…because we were going to see the Zenringai, a collection of 33 Zen temples and Shinto shrines moved or built here in 1610 to spiritually safeguard Hirosaki Castle, by the second feudal lord, Tsugaru Nobuhira.
The two streets which these temples line, along with houses for various monks and students, stretch out quite a distance from the Castle grounds. This has been a protected area for about four hundred years, and so the streets are lined with huge, very old evergreen trees, giving us an extremely quiet, magical feeling as we walked. Unlike in the West, where such beauty might be behind high fences, with locking gates and alarms sounding directly in the police station, here in Zenringai everything was open to our wandering, even to our picture taking.
We slowly walked and absorbed the blessed atmosphere until it was almost dark, and then a taxi appeared out of nowhere (divinely-inspired, without a doubt – Thank you, Buddha!) to take us back to the JR station, so we could return to Aomori and our comfortable hotel room – two very tired, and now apparently sick children of God, needing a hot shower and a good night’s sleep.