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Friday, June 25, 2004


The heartbeat of Aomori

Special to The Japan Times

Remoteness is not without its attractions, especially in crowded Japan. And on the main island of Honshu, you would be hard pressed to find a place of human habitation further from the baying crowds than Aomori Prefecture. Curled like a pincer around Honshu's northern tip, Aomori, the capital, is a characterless town, without a great deal to recommend it -- except the road out of it to Hirosaki. Some places you find yourself liking from the outset, and Hirosaki falls, for me, into that happy category.

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The donjon of Hirosaki Castle (above); at Saisho-in the five-storied pagoda is the northernmost in Japan.
News photo

Hirosaki is a charming spot that seems agreeably out of sync with the rest of the country. Stepping off the bus in this city on the Tsugaru Plain is like stepping into a different age. Here you find yourself back in a place where the Japanese possess black hair. A place where the loose sock has yet to be invented. One time of year when sleepy Hirosaki does find itself a center of attention, however, comes when visitors descend in great numbers during the festival of Neputa. Similar to Aomori's Nebuta Festival, Neputa is distinguished by huge, illuminated, painted floats, which are paraded through the streets of town to the accompaniment of a strident drum beat.

Held in the first week of August, the festival certainly has all the jolly character you would expect, but there is a darker side to Neputa. Swords, combat scenes and grim faces are prominent in the figures depicted on the floats. The origins of the festival are obscure, but one story links it to the time when the Japanese were expanding into Tohoku some 1,300 years ago and assiduously clearing this northern region of its original inhabitants.

Whatever you may think of this story, you don't have to be a musicologist to recognize the obviously martial nature of the Neputa festival drum beat. Local music of a different kind can be heard in the pub called Yamauta. The region is famed for Tsugaru-jamisen, an instrument similar to the familiar banjolike shamisen, though with a thicker fingerboard and plucked with a bigger plectrum. Played in a distinct, percussive style, with the plectrum hammered into the strings, the vigorous music of Tsugaru-jamisen is as far removed from the genteel plinky sound of the normal shamisen as you could imagine.

At Yamauta, all the serving staff double as virtuoso musicians, taking turns to perform on stage. Admittedly, the bar is a bit of a tourist trap, with the audience mostly out-of-towners, but the music is played with infectious gusto. You enter Yamauta not knowing a thing about Tsugaru-jamisen and leave quite a convert.

Prominent in the stage backdrop at Yamauta are the two physical symbols of Hirosaki -- Iwaki-san and Hirosaki Castle. Iwaki-san is the volcano that drapes itself over Hirosaki's skyline -- serene, powerful and not a little majestic.

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Musicians play Tsugaru-jamisen at the Yamauta music pub (above); painted figures embelish the Neputa floats used in Hirosaki's most famous festival.
News photo

Built in 1611 (and again in 1810 after an earlier fire), Hirosaki Castle is one of Japan's more pleasing fortresses. The donjon is a diminutive three-storied affair and engagingly seems far too small for the vast park that surrounds it. That park is famed as a spectacular spot for cherry blossoms when spring finally drags itself this far north. Then, the number of cherry trees in bloom is more than 5,000, and the number of visitors is overwhelming.

Close by the castle is the quarter its samurai once called home. The tourist map directs you here, though if you miss out on it, you don't really miss much. There are several older houses, but this is largely suburban Japan, with the most prominent features in this "preserved historical area" being the SUVs in every driveway and satellite TV dishes on every roof.

Other sights around town do, however, offer more by way of historical interest. Near the castle's Otemon gate are a couple of buildings dating back a century to the Meiji Period, in that attractive East-meets-West style that's been thoroughly eradicated from most of Japan's urban landscape. Rather older is the handsome 31-meter-high pagoda in red, white and green at Saisho-in, completed in 1667 and the northernmost five-storied pagoda in the land. Also dating back to the seventeenth century is the temple of Chosho-ji, which was the final resting place of the Tsugaru lords. Not all of them, though, found it quite so restful in the hereafter. In 1954, excavations unearthed the mummified body of the 11th lord's son, Tsugutomi, who died under mysterious circumstances a century ago.

For some peculiar reason that you have to be born in Tsugaru to fathom, at one time they used to haul out Tsugutomi's mummified corpse and put it up for display during the cherry-blossom festival. These days, of course, the living residents make the strongest impression in Hirosaki. Perhaps there is something about the bitter, unrelenting winters in this part of the country that draws out the natural warmth in the people. At a shop that looked like it hadn't had a customer all day, I bought one of the apples for which Tsugaru is famed. Despite the price being well under 100 yen, the shopkeeper still offered me a discount. The people here are so spontaneously friendly that you feel like wrapping up a couple of them and taking them home with you.

Likable locals are not enough in themselves to propel anyone into a journey home, but if you find yourself with the chance of returning, the warmth of the people does make the decision to go there that bit easier.

Getting there, Hirosaki can be reached in about 5 1/2 hours from Tokyo Station -- by shinkansen to Morioka, by JR Tohoku Line from Morioka to Aomori, and then by JR Ou Line from Aomori to Hirosaki.

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