Japan Travel Guide
The Yamasa Institute
Edited by: Declan Murphy
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Three story Yagura
Hirosaki castle is a good example of a hirayamajiro, ie a castle structure built in the middle of a large flat agriculturally valuable plain, designed to enable a daimyo to dominate the land around the fortress and deny its revenues to others. Although this is not a good defensive position in the way a mountaintop fortress can be, a hirayamajiro has many advantages, particularly during extended periods of peace as became characterized by that of the Tokugawa Shogunate. During this long period of peace Hirosaki Castle served as the main administrative point of the region, which it continued to do after the Meiji Restoration until the Tsugaru and Nambu regions were merged into a new and single prefecture.
This is not to say that such a castle was vulnerable. Hirosaki was founded in 1603 by Tsugaru Tamenobu and the entire town formed part of the defenses. As with many other Japanese castle towns, the streets were laid out in a maze of turns, making it as confusing to non-residents (ie invaders) as possible. The town itself is sandwiched between the two main rivers watering the area, the Iwaki and Tsuchibuchi. The castle is built on a raised plateau adjoining nearby Mount Kudoji, so the turrets and donjon would have permitted a fairly wide field of the surrounding battlefields, though fortunately this castle and town never experienced warfare. Many other castles that survived into the 20th century such as Nagoya Castle and Hiroshima Castle were not so lucky in 1945.
The main donjon was a 5 story structure completed in 1611, however this was destroyed by fires caused by lightning strike in 1627 and never reconstructed. Instead, a 3 story donjon was built in 1810 in the southeastern corner of the main compound above the stone walls of the inner moat, and this much photographed tenshukaku is the largest building in the castle grounds and the symbol of the city. It is the only Edo period donjon in the Tohoku region, and in fact the only one east of the much large and older donjon at Matsumoto Castle in Nagano Prefecture, about 2 days drive south. Apart from the three-storied tower, 5 castle gates, 3 yagura (corner turrets) and the triple moats remain. The relatively small size of the 19th century donjon, and the disappearance of the barracks and most other wooden structures that occupied the central compound makes the castle grounds seem large. The donjon used to be connected to other structures (yagura) further along the wall by a plaster coated wood and daub palisade fence designed to withstand musket shot, however this wall (and the turret) are long gone. As a result the donjon has become a stand alone structure that serves as a small museum. The museum has some interesting artifacts, including XXX and XXX. Explanations are in Japanese only.
Hirosaki castle was not heavily fortified. The moats are not as deep or wide as those of powerfully constructed Japanese castles such as Himeji, Osaka or Nagoya, or even Nijo Castle in Kyoto. The walls are not as high, lower than Matsumoto or Inuyama for instance, and less than half those of Iga Ueno Castle. The gates are almost symbolic, the Otemon gate for example lacking the XXX style defences required for effecting enfilade defensive fire lanes. Part of the reason was lack of necessity. A daimyo was required to have and maintain a castle, but for the Tsugaru the province did not generate the kind of revenue required to support the cost of construction. The lack of salvagable metals that could have been sold off as scrap to produce badly needed foreign currency may have been the reason why the Meiji Government spared Hirosaki Castle when so many other castles around Japan were demolished.
These days the castle grounds are a large public park. Entry to most sections is free. Hirosaki Castle has become one of the most famous cherry blossoms viewing places in Japan, attracting over a million people each year, mostly from the Tohoku area but some from Hokkaido and elsewhere. The relatively cooler climate of this area means that the prime season for sakura in Hirosaki is from the end of April into early May. Although there are cherry trees elsewhere in Hirosaki, during this time of year the castle becomes the venue for the city's sakura matsuri, and admission fees are charged for entry into the park (300 yen for adults, 100 yen for children). There are more than 2600 cherry trees of various types, and drinking parties vie for space with photographers for the best spots.
Hirosaki Castle is a 10 minute bus ride from JR Hirosaki Station. If you are fit it is walkable. If you start at the Otemon gate near the visitors center, then you can easily do a self guided walking tour of quite a few of the historic sites that are close by, including the former library, Aomori bank building, the local Catholic and Anglican churches and other structures such as the 5 story pagoda of XXX temple.
Tours - The Japan Discovery Tours visit Hirosaki Castle.
Click here for more information regarding when Discovery visits this destination.
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