Aomori's moving castle and other architectural tales

by Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writer

Once every century, Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture experiences an unusual event — the Hirosaki Moving Castle Project — when the city relocates an entire castle using manpower only.

This year is that 100th year, and from Sept. 20 to 27, more than 3,200 travelers gathered in the city’s central park to join in the event, where 100 participants at a time did something quite surreal: They pulled on ropes attached to the castle and bit by bit, shifted its location.

“I’ve worked in this field for 40 years — since I was 26 — so I have plenty of experience renovating traditional houses and shrines,” says Executive Director Satoru Tsushima of Nishimuragumi, the construction company that specializes in temple and shrine renovation and was commissioned to move the castle. “But this is a very special time for me. I feel greatly honored, since this is the first time I’ll work on an Important Cultural Property.”

After the Sea of Japan Earthquake in 1983, a bulge was found in one of the stone foundation walls beneath the castle. The deformation weakened and threatened to topple the entire structure, which is 14.4 meters tall and 400 tons in weight. To fix the foundation, the castle was being temporarily moved 70 meters, and according to Tsushima, this is twice the distance it was shifted 100 years ago. New technology, such as a jack, he says, helps them to move the structure further with minimal damage. The process, though, remains the same as it was a century ago.

“The tools are much better now,” Tsushima explains. “We use machines to pull large structures like castles. Back then, though, the workers had to pull the castle by hand — just like the visitors are doing today.”

Originally planned in 1603 by the first Hirosaki clan daimyo Tamenobu Tsugaru (1550-1608), Hirosaki Castle was completed in 1611, during Nobuhira Tsugaru’s (1586-1631) clan leadership, and the grounds became Hirosaki Park, a public domain, in 1895. Noted author and historian Ryotaro Shiba (1923-96) highlighted the castle in “Kaido wo Yuku (On the highways),” his popular travel essay series for the Shukan Asahi, as one of the top seven castles of Japan. Usually, the spring cherry blossom festival at Hirosaki Park is the main attraction for tourists, with its more than 2,600 cherry blossom trees, including Yoshino cherry, weeping cherry and double-flowered cherry. This autumn, however, it’s all been about Hirosaki Castle.

“I’ve known and visited Hirosaki Castle since I was little, but it’s a once in a lifetime experience to see it moved, and it’s the same for everyone who’s here today,” Tsushima says. “I’m glad this construction project is spotlighting a (historical) symbol of the city.”

The 1915 relocation was lead by Sakichi Horie (1845-1907), a local builder whose grandfather served the Hirosaki clan as an architect. Sakichi designed numerous Western-style houses in Hirosaki, which have now been preserved by the Horiegumi construction company, run by Sakichi’s great-grandson Satoshi Horie.

“(The relocation of Hirosaki Castle) is a rare event, but it doesn’t necessarily work as a way to promote the city’s traditional architecture,” Horie says. “The younger generation aren’t particularly interested, and they don’t understand its significance.”

To inspire interest, Horiegumi occasionally offers internships to students at local schools. The interns learn about the important architecture of the area, as well as the company’s activities.

“Usually, cities get rid of old buildings when they need space for something else,” says Horie, who believes it’s important to encourage young people to participate in architectural preservation. “In Hirosaki, it’s different. We look for ways of reusing them.”

Sakichi’s buildings, for example, appear as they originally did, including the Kyu Dai Gojuku Ginko Honten Honkan (former main branch of the 59th National Bank), the Kyu Hirosaki Shiritsu Toshokan (former Hirosaki City Library) and Hirosaki Gakuin Gaijin Senkyoshi Kan (Hirosaki Gakuin Foreign Missionary Hall), which were built more than a century ago. Kyu Dai Gojuku Ginko Honten Honkan, which was built by Sakichi when he was 59, is still used as an memorial museum for Aomori Bank. Registered as an Important Cultural Property, it is considered Sakichi’s masterpiece in its seamless combination of Japanese and the Western architectural styles.

The center of the Kyu Dai Gojuku Ginko Honten Honkan roof’s outer wall is pilastered with a dormer and windows are decorated with pediments, both standards of Renaissance architecture, while the outer walls (although painted with plaster) are covered with traditional Japanese kawara tiles. The rare fabric kinkara kawashi (Japanese leather paper) is also generously used for the building’s interiors.

Traditional buildings aside, Hirosaki is also home to modernist architecture by Kunio Maekawa (1905-86), which include the city’s ward office, the civic center and museum and other public facilities.

“If you live your entire life in Hirosaki, it means you would be born in Hirosaki Municipal Hospital, and end your life at the city’s crematory — both of which were designed by Maekawa,” Daigo Shiroto at Hirosaki Tourism and Convention Bureau says. “I grew up not knowing about that; but now, I feel that we’re very privileged.”

Maekawa, who graduated from Tokyo Imperial University in 1928 and then studied in Paris, was the first Japanese to apprentice with Le Corbusier (1887-1965), a pioneer of modern architecture. While in Paris, he also became friends with industrial researcher Ryuzo Kimura who, as they journeyed on the same ship back to Japan, asked Maekawa to design his Kimura Sangyo Kenkyujo (Kimura Industrial Institute).

The institute was the first building of Maekawa’s career, which would later involve him leading the country’s postwar modernist architecture movement and later mentoring Pritzker Prize winner Kenzo Tange (1913-2005) and Toshihiko Kimura (1926-2009) at his company, Mayekawa Associates, Architects & Engineers. Despite Maekawa’s contribution to Japan’s architecture, however, like traditional buildings, his work is at risk of being destroyed.

“Instead of renovating Hirosaki Chuo Senior High School, the government planned to rebuilt it,” says Sadaharu Narita, the president of crafts company Hirosaki Kogin Kenkyujo and member of Maekawa Kunio no Tatemono wo Taisetsu ni Suru Kai, an organization dedicated to preserving Maekawa’s work. “We felt very threatened by that idea. But with help from the students from the school, we cleaned the building by hand. Then, the prefectural assembly decided to offer us a budget.”

It was the school’s hall, designed by Maekawa in 1954, that was of interest to Narita who, like Horie, believes that important architecture is only valuable when it is being used. He himself rents the first floor of Maekawa’s Kimura Sangyo Kenkyujo for the Hirosaki Kogin Kenkyujo workshop, and the second floor is used as a small museum dedicated to Maekawa.

“Our workshop has been here for 73 years. There were other kinds of companies who have been and gone and used some parts of this building, but I try and prevent more from coming in,” he says.

“Citizens of Hirosaki are quite picky about architectural designs, since the city has been filled with outstanding buildings for a long time. The city is filled with Maekawa’s work, which were built at different times, so the shift of his style is quite noticeable,” he continues with a smile. “That’s maybe why we’d rather keep it than rebuild it.”

Getting there: Hirosaki Station is a three-hour train ride on the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin-Aomori Station, then 30 minutes on the Ou Main Line, which costs ¥20,960 (excluding seat charge) for a round trip. There is an English website with tourist information at

Correction, Nov. 8, 2015:

An earlier version of this article stated that Sakichi Horie’s buildings were completed more than a decade ago. They were completed more than a century ago.