Hirosaki: Cherry Blossoms and Fugu

You’re probably wondering what happened in Hirosaki, here’s the story.

I should probably preface by telling you that when I mentioned Hirosaki to my Tokyo-native friends, none of them had ever heard of it. I should probably also mention that the day before my visit, Golden week ended, one of the two times of year that Hirosaki is actually flooded with visitors. 

Why Hirosaki in the first place? Well, maybe I got a bit too carried away on Pinterest, but I read that if I wanted a chance at seeing any Cherry Blossoms this late in the spring, I would have to head North. The Blog post mentioned the town of Hirosaki, which hosts a special Castle Park filled with over 2,000 kinds of Sakura. The photos looked beautiful, and Cherry Blossom lover that I am, I added it to the itinerary.

After a week in the city of Tokyo I got on the Shinkansen (Bullet train) to Hirosaki. The minute I sat down I remembered that all I know how to say in Japanese is "Water, please" and "So beautiful", and I immediately felt a wave of loneliness. I was suddenly grateful to have a chosen a hostel with a shared room.

After 4 hours on the train, and a nice chat with an 18 year old Canadian kid headed to Sapporo, I got off at Shin-Aomori and transferred to the Ou line for Hirosaki. The wind was brutal and the silence was thick. I was beginning to panic, and realized that maybe after this long trek I would miss the Cherry Blossoms all together. The train ride from Shin-Aomori to Hirosaki is about 40 minutes. The ride was dead silent, but I got a beautiful view of one of Japan’s classic snow capped mountains, Mt. Iwaki. 

I finally arrive to Hirosaki and pull out my phone map to find my way through this silent city by foot. When I say the city is quiet I mean, so quiet. All I hear is wind, the occasional hum of a car, or a group of kids in uniforms on their bicycles. 

The hostel is a traditional Japanese Ryokan with a shared Onsen (bathhouse) and a cute garden. I walk inside and am greeted by the owner’s wife who is very kind. I immediately ask her if I’ve missed the Cherry Blossoms, she says yes, they’re all gone, and takes me to my room.

I get to my room and notice one bed. “So it’s just me?” I ask. Turns out everyone just left because Golden Week ended. Normally I would relish the luck of paying a cheap fee for my own beautiful traditional Japanese style room with a cute tea corner and a view of trees, but I already felt so alone, the thought of even one night in this silence was terrifying to me. As much as I love nature, I suppose I am truly a city girl (how it never dawned on me before, I don’t know). Luckily there is Wifi here, but it’s too early in LA or NY to call anyone. Feeling claustrophobic, I decide to head out and see the park for a bit before the sun goes down.

When I get downstairs I meet the owner himself, he speaks English and gives me a little tour of the place, tells me that in fact there are some Cherry Blossoms left. Then he tells me,  “Every guest gets a free drink in our private bar, come I will show you.” So he takes me to a building next door, it looks like a regular condo. We go inside, around the corner, he presses his special badge to the door and it clicks open.

Inside of this random small town in this random small building he has built a very small speakeasy type place, a “special members only” bar. The walls are painted black and there are pictures of Marilyn Monroe on them. There is one older British lady sitting there drinking and the bartender brings me a shot of some Apple flavored liquor, a specialty of the district. Okay, I think to myself, at least there is a person here, I thought I was literally all alone in this fairly large Ryokan. So I say hello try to strike up conversation, and she responds, “Actually I am about to leave, enjoy your stay.” She leaves, and I drink my little Apple shot alone.

I get back to the main building to ask for dinner recommendations and the owner tells me, okay if you want, come back at 8 after my meeting I will take you to a restaurant with some of my friends who speak English. Okay let’s do it. So I go to the park, just five minutes away walking. The sun is setting, not in the golden glow kind of way, but the smoky gray kind of way, where you can almost see the darkness of the night melting into the sky. It’s so quiet, but I finally feel calm, because here before me are the Sakura that I have been waiting for, and even though the whole park is not in full bloom, they are beautiful.

After some time wandering, the sun fully sets and I head back to the residence. I go back to my room I call my friends and family and tell them to pray for me to survive this quiet city alone, they reassure me. I get a call from the owner, we’re ready for you.

Downstairs there is a cab waiting, and I’m thinking okay, where is this stranger taking me. We arrive to the place and turn into a small alley and I’m thinking, anywhere else in the world I would think I’m about to be murdered, and well, maybe I am. But alas, no one was waiting inside of the bar with a cleaver. Instead 5 men upwards of 40 are sitting at the sushi bar eating and drinking Sake—the chef's friends. Two of them speak English, the other three don’t, we say hello and I sit down. They ask me if I want a drink, I say no, I want to vibe out the situation first, make sure it’s safe.

It’s a pretty comical scene in this hole in the wall sushi bar. These men are all smoking and drinking, and the chef is chain smoking cigarettes with the greatest smile on his face as he prepares each course and laughs with his friends. Then, he places a bowl before me with two sea shells in it. Turns out this is an eat what I give you type deal, so I eat the snails. Not my favorite thing in the world, but this guy is a specialist--he fishes everything he cooks himself, and I really didn’t want to be offensive. 

The 6th guy shows up, he’s another middle aged guy from Texas who lived in Hirosaki for 15 years and visits for work often. We’re all making small talk, the next plate is served. I like Sashimi so all is good, until I ask what it is. Fugu he says. Fugu, in case you don’t know is Blowfish, and if not prepared correctly is highly poisonous. The poison freezes your nervous system and you literally just die within half an hour. No chance.

I’m not the most adventurous eater, I’m not picky, but I can do without eating things that might kill me, for a rush. I turn to the Ryokan owner and I say jokingly (but seriously), I don’t think I can eat this I’m too scared. Some time passes, I’m eating slowly, but I can feel the chef’s eyes on me, I’m not finishing my food.

The guy on the far left has eaten his Fugu so I asked him, okay I want to know, would you have died already? They’re all laughing, but I’m dead serious. I want to know if he’d be dead by now, because if he would be then it’s safe and I need reassurance. It seems like the answer is yes, so I say screw it, if they’re eating it this probably isn’t some grand scheme to murder me with Fugu poison. I eat it. Then, the chef informs him that it actually takes 30 minutes not 3 minutes, so I’m thinking, okay maybe we're both gonna die tonight. Playing it cool I take note of what time it is, this way I’ll know when I’ve survived. At this point I decide to order some sake because, well I might die right?

So I order some Sake, finish my Fugu, and my next plate is served. They look like little sacs of something white and creamy. I ask again what it is, they say taste it first. I ask, "is it poisonous?" They say no. So I eat one, it’s super hot and fishy, and they’re all laughing. It’s eye of Blowfish! And I’m thinking no way, this doesn’t have the consistency of an eye. No, the eye they say. Then I realize, it’s Blowfish testicles. As I mentioned, I’m really not an adventurous eater, but this night has been so weird anyways, I guess I’m eating Blowfish testicles now. And for whatever reason this is not as frightening to me as eating Eyeballs. 

I’m laughing now because here I am in a random sushi bar in a small city with 7 strange men eating poisonous foods and Blowfish testicles. Nothing about my experience in Hirosaki has been normal, but this takes the cake. After finishing the next two courses of Sea Urchin and some Tempura Mountain Weeds, I finish my Sake, tell the owner I’m tired, thank them for the evening and head home. They of course went out to party more, but my Hirosaki adventure had reached full capacity.

So I went home, and went to bed. In the morning I woke up early, visited the Onsen, drank some tea, packed my things and checked out. I left my luggage at the front desk and went to the park for a couple hours to see the Cherry Blossoms in the daylight. I took my photos, felt my resolution, and then, I headed back to Tokyo.

So I’ll say now, I’m glad it happened, but it was scary as hell. And maybe, if you’re a city person like me, wait to go to the countryside until you have a partner in crime to join you.