Pretty in Pink ― Behind the scenes of Hirosaki's iconic cherry blossom site

Japan coverage and cherry blossoms often go hand in hand. But while famous cherry blossom sites and the culture of cherry blossom viewing have been covered extensively over the years, that’s not the full sakura story. In this article, we go behind the scenes at Hirosaki Castle Park to look at the work that goes into making Hirosaki one of Japan’s most iconic cherry blossom spots. Elsewhere in Aomori, we also take a quick look at a female-only horseback archery event turning on its head as the blossom blooms.

When Japan’s annual wave of cherry blossom reaches Aomori in late April, it triggers a pink-tinted celebration of spring. With the region’s long winter over, out come the picnic sheets, bento boxes and sake bottles, as cherry blossom viewing parties pop up wherever the sakura blooms.

Most famously that includes against the backdrop of Hirosaki Castle, one of the most photogenic cherry blossom sites in Japan. With food stalls, nighttime illuminations and - most importantly - thousands of cherry trees erupting into color, more than two million people visit the castle’s grounds (in normal years) to picnic under the castle’s blossoms.

But what people might not realize as they relax in the pink shade is just how much work goes on behind the scenes to keep the blossoms of Hirosaki Castle Park blooming. As tree doctor Makiko Hashiba explains, it’s a full-time job for a team of three tree doctors and close to 50 full-time gardeners, who together employ an array of innovative approaches to ensure the trees bloom bigger and live longer.

“According to traditional garden knowledge handed down from the Edo era (1603-1868), we shouldn’t trim cherry blossoms. They are too delicate, and pruning can lead to branch rot. But in the 1950s, Hirosaki gardeners found that pruning leads to an increase in the number of flowers per bud,” Ms. Hashiba says. “Elsewhere, two to four flowers per bud is common, but in Hirosaki the cherry trees usually have five to seven flowers per bud, which gives them a fuller look.”

Another innovation is individual care, with the team maintaining a medical record of each tree so care can be tailored for its specific needs. That’s quite a task considering Hirosaki Castle Park has 2,600 cherry trees, but the hard work pays off. Roughly 400 of the 1,700 Somei-Yoshino variety of cherry trees here are aged 100 or older. Ordinarily, they begin to die off after 60 years.

That individual care is especially important in a national heritage site like Hirosaki Castle Park, because of the protective restrictions that status brings. “In some areas, we aren’t allowed to dig very deeply, so we can’t remove dead trees or dig holes for new ones. If a tree died, we’d have to cut it down and leave the stamp in the ground,” Ms. Hashiba says.

To help prevent that, Ms. Hashiba and her colleagues carefully tend the trees year-round. When the flowers are in full bloom, they are busy recording the number of buds to gauge tree health. Then in June and July things get especially backbreaking, with the team boring roughly 20 to 30 small holes around each of the 2,600 trees to apply fertilizer. Much of summer and autumn is then spent pruning and removing diseased and damaged branches to help nurture healthy growth and leaves, before winter sees the team working to protect branches from snow damage. With annual snowfall of almost seven meters in Hirosaki, close to 30 centimeters can accumulate on the trees.

Once that has melted away and spring is beginning to emerge from its slumber, the team then begins forecasting when the flowers will be in bloom, so people can time their visit to coincide with the best viewing period. If you want a little advice on the best viewing spots from Ms. Hashiba, her favorite is at the old castle keep. “From here, you can see over the trees, like standing on a blossom carpet,” she says. “I hope that when the pandemic is over, many people will come to the park to enjoy that view.”

Sakura and Saddles

Because of Aomori’s cooler climate, the explosion of pink petals arrives roughly a month later than in Toyo, Kyoto, and other more southerly parts of Japan. And not just in Hirosaki. In Towada City, the annual Sakura Yabusame festival in late April sees displays of traditional horseback archery performed along a cherry blossom-lined street. With riders shooting arrows mid-gallop, it’s an incredible exhibition of skill. It’s also unusual, as most yabusame (horseback archery) events have religious connections that limit participants to men only. Aomori turns that on its head - this is just for female riders.