On my first night in apple pie town Hirosaki, the capital of the old kingdom of Tsugaru, I slept in a cubby-hole capsule above a bowling alley. The capsule hotel was cheap, convenient and comfortable. As well as dozens of bunk bed-like capsules, the 5th floor hotel also had a sauna, hot spring baths, a small bar and reclining chairs to relax, watch TV or read from the manga library. Air, women and conversation were the only things missing.
Early the next morning, leaving my luggage in a locker, I went for a walk around the castle grounds before the rain came.
The park was magical. Rows of cherry blossoms line its outer and inner moats. Along the wide path, locals were out jogging and walking; a kid on a mamachari (basket-bike) was rushing to tennis practice. The screech of semi (cicadas) from the pines sounded tired, like a tape recorder running out of battery. I walked over the photogenic, red Gejobashi (Get Off your horse) bridge; past the Old Crane, a 300 year old scaffold-supported, pirouette-turning pine tree; past the white-walled, 3 storey castle keep; and all the way to the sacred Nikko fir, where all eyes eventually turn to Mount Iwaki – `the perfect mountain,` a lone peak with no rival in total command of the Tsugaru plain.
When the rain came, I hid in a wooden rest house. On the wall were black and white photos of Tsugaru`s apple barons who got rich quick in Meiji Japan and filled the park with cherry blossoms. Victorious wars over China and Russia were celebrated with donations of military pink cherry blossoms.
A 1940s photo showed Tsugaru women wrapping apples on trees to protect them from insects. The caption claimed 30 oku (3 billion) wrappers were used each season. The change from a city of samurai to a city of apple pie must have been remarkable.
Tsugaru`s apples are especially famous right now. The recently released film, Kiseki no Ringo (Miracle Apples), advertised all over Hirosaki tells the true story of Akinori Kimura, a Tsugaru apple farmer whose wife suffers from an allergy to chemicals. Kimura dedicated his life to growing apples without the use of chemicals, undergoing serious hardship in the process – to the point of almost committing suicide. He eventually succeeded and is called ringo no kamisama (the God of apples).
AFTERNOON: Using the GPS app on my mobile phone to direct me, I walked 3 miles in baking sunshine along the muddy Iwaki river and a busy bypass to SuperFreaks, a manga cafe. Sadly the branch had closed down 6 months ago. I blame the mobile. 3 litres of sweat and 3 miles of chain-store and aircraft hangar-sized apple warehouse lined bypass later, I found another SuperFreaks, – a birhgtly-lit room of distractions – manga, sweet drink dispensers and computer terminals.
Cubicles in manga cafes make for poor accommodation. I would have got more sleep in the bowling alley.