Earlier today, L asked me what I thought the Quebec equivalent of Hirosaki would be. I was stumped – I figured it was closest to a town in the Okanagan, since its major industries are farming (specifically apples) and tourism, almost exclusively drawing visitors from within Japan. We finally agreed that Hirosaki is to Aomori (the Japanese prefecture in which it resides) as St. Jerome, perhaps, is to Quebec. But that’s a pretty lousy comparison, hardly worthy of the College Board. Hirosaki’s draws appear to be its abundant cherry blossoms, which bring in tourists in the springtime; the Neputa Matsuri festival in August, featuring long, somewhat rowdy parades in which locals create immense fan-shaped floats and line the streets with Japanese lanterns; and the gorgeous fall foliage that would fit in perfectly in the Laurentians.

I visited the city’s main draw, Hirosaki Koen (park) alone yesterday and again today with L, who ditched the first half of her conference day. The park is quite large, taking at least two hours to fully explore, and houses a botanical gardens, which I skipped, and the remains of a castle tower (Hirosaki-Jo) completed in 1611. The castle was burned down after it was struck by lightning (!) and this particular tower was rebuilt in 1810, nearly two hundred years later.

Hirosaki Castle

Inside the castle is a museum, though the lack of English-speaking guides or brochures (a common themse several hundred km north of Tokyo) made it virtually impossible to figure out what was for what and from when. Suffice it to say that Hirosaki-Jo is more appealing from the outside.

After meandering through the park, beginning opposite Hirosaki City Hall, I emerged at the north end and checked out the the Tsugaruhan Neputa-Mura, where the festival items are displayed year-round. As has happened almost all the time since we arrived, the language barrier proved to be both an immense divide and a negligible feature of our trip. The guide ushered me into a large, dark room in which the giant fan-floats were displayed and, knowing full well that I spoke no Japanese, enthusiastically lept into his Neputa shpiel, inviting a colleague to bang on the giant ceremonial drums while he provided melodic accompaniment on the flute. When they finished, I applauded, and accepted their invitation to join them on one of the drums (an invitation proffered in English, I might add). I then explored the exhibit solo, captivated by the intense colours and dramatic expressions of the Neputa cartoon beings: the heroic kagami-e on one side and the melancholy miokuri-e on the other.

Neputa Heroic

Neputa Melancholy

After that came the really fun part, as the museum also includes a visit to a top-maker (you know tops, goyish dreidels). He showed off his top-making and -playing skills, and then let me get in on the action. Finally, a Jewish education pays off. Here’s some Japanese dreidel-spinning action:

(These kinds of tops turn upside-down while spinning. Hours and hours and hours of fun, I swear it. Of course I didn’t buy any…)

Afterwards, I had a terrific lunch of something called Duck Hamburg Steak, which tasted like duck but looked like your classic deli burger sans-bun, covered in a tasty apple sauce, served with Miso soup, rice and some pickled veggies that I left aside. Combined with a wonderful apple ice cream, the food was delicious enough to warrant a return visit, this time with L, today.

After a short visit to a Japanese garden, built by a Mr. Fujita, later awarded to the city following foreclosure (how’s that for a story to put on a plaque?), I hopped on the greatest thing going in Northern Japan, the Happy Hundred Yen Bus and returned to our hotel in time to dump some pictures and meet L at the university for an evening soundwalk and dinner at a live music house. More on that later.

Happy Hundred Yen Bus Sign
But if you’ve read this far, you deserve to learn about the absolute coolest thing about Japan: the awesome vending machines, which serve fantastic hot coffee – many brands and varieties – all day long. Soooo good. I’m partial to the Georgia Cafe au Lait, but am seriously thinking about switching to the Tommy Lee Jones-endorsed Boss brand (Suntory, not Hugo) tomorrow. Then again, Georgia seems to make a beverage for melancholy folks, so they get props in my book for niche marketing. (And where else can you get Kirin in a kan out of a kan? And what’s with the UN-friendly cigarette brands?)

Deepresso… for the deepressed

Georgia Cafe au Lait

UN Cigarettes

Tommy Lee Jones Seal of Approval

Kirin Machine