Location: Hirosaki, Japan
As I am getting ready to set off on another adventure, I wanted to introduce one of the local cities in the area that I feel is sometimes overlooked.
Hirosaki, Japan, sits at the foot of the Hakkoda Mountains on the west side of Aomori Prefecture. During the Edo period, this city was the capitol of the Tsugaru Region. Because of this, there is an amazing castle with extensive grounds at the heart of the city. And who wouldn't want a location where you can get a cup of Starbucks before crossing the street to photography moats and a castle that are over 400 years old.
Hirosaki Castle Park is my favorite spot in spring when the cherry blossoms bloom. Regardless of how many people are about, there always seems to be a corner of the park that one can lay a blanket and enjoy a picnic.
Gear tip: A telephoto lens is helpful in picking out intimate landscapes and details among the trees.
With over 2500 cherry trees, 300 of which are over 100 years old, the grounds around the castle are just bursting with photography opportunities.
Location note: Currently the castle is under historic renovations and has been moved off its original foundation as the government makes repairs to ensure it continues to survive another 400 years. That being said, at this time, the iconic shot of the castle on the corner of the moat is not obtainable.
I was so very disappointed when I found the above information out. It is not scheduled to be re-positioned until 2020, a year after I leave. Just one more reason for me to already start planning another trip to Japan, even after we move again.
But, regardless, the area is beautiful. On clear days, Mt. Iwaki is visible from the park - a lone cone volcano interrupts the flat lands stretching to the west of the city.
Location note: The cherry blossoms very year to year and for optimal viewing, the timing has to be just right as well. A few days makes a difference with this subject. If you are visiting for the cherry blossoms, make sure to plan for about three days during what is expected to be the peak week of the season.
Last year I made the 2.5hr drive several times during that week and it paid off. I was able to create one of my favorite shots of cherry blossoms. It was taken along the exterior moats on the southern edge of the park (walking distance from the Starbucks).
So spring is by far my favorite season here, but there is always something to do and see in Hirosaki through out the year. Summer is mostly green and I tend to be traveling elsewhere. When autumn rolls around though, those same 2500+ cherry trees put on an entirely new show.
When the weather starts turning cold, the cherry trees start turning as well. Bright orange-red leaves start highlighting the same features that the cherry blossoms surrounded.
Rain or shine, the park becomes a brilliant nature-painted landscape in fall as the maple trees and other deciduous trees and shrubs get in one it and turn all sorts of colors.
Again, at the whim of the elements, this show can come to an end quickly if the weather turns nasty with strong winds or heavy rains.
Another favorite element of fall in this area is the changing colors of the rice. On the outskirts of Hirosaki City, there are three large rice fields planted in early spring with precision. Each year, these fields are host to slow growing, edible art. Using five varieties of rice, the creators "illustrate" the fields with a unique image. The image below is of two of the fields and is taken from a special viewing deck installed across the street.
With the rice turning to a golden color in all but the most artsy varieties, the country becomes blanketed with golden fields ready for harvest.
Driving around, there is distinct traditional harvest methods still in use throughout the country. In Hirosaki, the drying method I have witnessed the most has been the lacing of bundles onto poles in the field. The size of the field delegates how many poles there are.
As quickly as the leaves drop, so comes the snow in these parts. One of the snowiest locations on Earth, Aomori Prefecture records an average of over 300 inches (762cm+) of snow every season. Hirosaki sees much of that snowfall. Come early February, in the heart of winter, the city holds a lantern festival on the castle grounds.
All sorts of snow lanterns are created and lit throughout the park. There are snow figures as well, shaped and sculpted for public viewing. Candles are used to light the lanterns, which are primarily made of snow with painted paper shades.
One area is electrified. Two long walls house a multitude of detailed, paper lantern panels. Each an original piece of art lit from behind.
Gear tip: Make sure to have a tripod with you for this festival. Shooting after dark will challenge your camera's abilities and the cold can make it harder to handhold as fingers go numb.
The castle itself looks regal in its coat of snow, as if it was built for this season.
More snow lanterns guard the castle as festival-goers enjoy the crisp, frosty evening.
Gear tip: Carry hand warmers not just for yourself, but for your camera batteries as well. The cold drains them quickly, but if heated, it will restore power for additional use.
Overall, Hirosaki is an amazing place to visit if you are in Aomori Prefecture. There is something to see and enjoy during all seasons!
Until next time, cheers!
PS - Hirosaki also has an Owl Cafe!