A castle town turned small city, Hirosaki is bigger than the rural towns most frequent in outer Aomori, but smaller than the regional capital. You’ll have to go a fair way off the beaten track in northern Honshu to get here and if you go much further, you’ll be in Hokkaido.
I’d recommend taking stout clothing well into spring – the warmth of southern Japan can take a while to find its way this far north. Also, please bear in mind that communication can be an issue, as you’ll not find many Japanese who speak English (though if you’re in one of the larger hotels you might be ok).
Even if you can get along well enough normally in Japanese, you’ll encounter Zuzu-ben, the slippery Aomori dialect. If you can get them to slow their speech down a little you’ll find people throughout the region to be curious, friendly and welcoming – not so many foreigners find their way so far from central Japan.
Hirosaki is, of course, best known for the Sakura festival in mid-March, when nigh on a million Japanese pile through in a week, transforming a sleepy town into a bustling tourist destination. The city is one of the country’s leading producers of apples, which are typical “omiyage” (travel gifts) in the various tourist traps around the attractions (I passed one restaurant selling a typical soba set plus half a sliced apple as “traditional Hirosaki cuisine”).
As a remote castle town, it retains one of only twelve original Edo-era castles – though this is more of an expanded turret, following a lightning strike in the 17th century. A small Buke-Yashiki (traditional Samurai district) sits alongside, and temples of various ages and faiths are scattered around the area. A few Meiji-era buildings have also survived, including a townhouse showing an interesting collision of traditional Japanese and early 20th century European architecture within a very lovely ornamental garden, literally around the corner from the castle.
The town boasts a large Neputa festival in early August, in which brightly coloured and illuminated floats are paraded through the streets (out of season, an example is kept in the tourist centre). February brings a snow-lantern festival, with the castle grounds filled with gently illuminated snow carvings.
Hirosaki is hard to recommend for most of the year, especially given its remote location. Those of you traveling to Japan for a short holiday can find more efficient ways to spend your time and money – there are better castles and temples throughout central Japan. I saw the best of the town in two days, though it is also useful as a base should you wish to visit UNESCO natural heritage site Shirakami Sanchi, which can be easily reached from here by train.
However, you will find few better places to enjoy blossoming Sakura, a truly stunning and unique natural event.