Tour of historic buildings of the Japanese Belle Epoque

It takes about thirty-five minutes to walk from the station to Hirosaki Park. But it is a walk that does not lack for interesting elements. Among the many possible routes, there is one that takes you through a lesser known but no less fascinating period of Japan: the Taisho period (1912-1926), also known as the “Roman Taisho” period. “Roman” refers to European Romanticism: Japan had been opening to the West for half a century, and the encounter was bearing fruit. The Taisho era roughly coincides with the end of the Belle Epoque and much of the Roaring Twenties. Roaring for Japan too, amid rapid economic growth, new individual freedoms, and artistic innovation. The Japanese sought to confront the West not by copying it, but by mixing and reinterpreting their own traditions with innovations from overseas. On this three-hour tour, we will discover the results.

The first stop is a 15–20-minute drive from Hirosaki station. From the central exit we take Ekimae Street, then after about five hundred metres we turn left at the large intersection to reach the beautiful Dotemachi Street. It is one of the main arteries of the city, full of shops. At the next intersection, we come to Yanagimachi Street, where we find the Aomori Bank Memorial Museum on the right.

The façade greets us with a strongly Western style influenced by the Italian Renaissance, but once inside, the brick structure and wrought-iron details are offset by wooden floors, while the symmetrical centrality is broken up by proportions more suited to oriental tastes, which prefer irregularity. The permanent exhibitions tell the story of the bank through documents and historical photographs, but there are also temporary exhibitions that change from time to time. Depending on the latter, a visit can take between 30 and 50 minutes.

The former Hirosaki City Library was built in 1906 as a public library and operated until 1950. It now houses a museum. It is certainly one of the most elegant examples of Taisho architecture, in which English neoclassicism in the Queen Anne style (1702-1714) is combined with Japanese elements with delicacy.  For this reason, it is the stop we will focus on for the longest time. The walk from the Aomori Bank Memorial Museum takes only 5-10 minutes, starting from Kamishiroganecho Street, along Chuo-dori Avenue (one of the city’s main streets) to Takaoka-machi Street.

The façade is striking in its neoclassical balance and delicate combination of red brick, white plaster, and typical English blue-green wooden details. But as soon as you enter, the importance of wood and the asymmetrical yet perfectly harmonious arrangement of spaces and volumes take you back to the East: a meeting of different sensibilities united by a taste for essentiality. The great simplicity and functionality of the interiors, capable of enhancing the natural beauty of materials and forms, undoubtedly goes beyond Anglo-Saxon austerity and proves to be profoundly Japanese.

On the other hand, the decoration of each room is undoubtedly English, according to a single chromatic dominant: the reading room, for example, immerses us in a deep, relaxing blue, while the student lounge is clad in a vibrant red. Meanwhile, we can observe the permanent exhibitions, which allow us to breathe in the atmosphere of those years through period photographs, historical documents, and artefacts. On the shelves we can also find some books of the period and others, more recently printed, but related to the literary tastes of the Taisho era. The editions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, one of the most popular Western literary works in Japan, are inevitable: a great success since its first translation, it has marked the Taisho imagination.

In the gardens, the final surprise is a display of detailed models of the most important buildings in Hirosaki during the Taisho period – including, of course, the library itself, in a maze-like game with a real Carrolian feel.

In short, without having to walk around the entire city, we get a comprehensive look at all the architecture of the period. For an exhaustive visit, you should allow about 50 or 60 minutes, which could be longer in the case of temporary exhibitions.

It only takes 5 or 10 minutes to reach the Starbucks Coffee Hirosaki Park Front Store by turning left again on Chuo-dori Avenue. Starbucks is a US coffee shop chain and may seem like a less picturesque stop, but the Hirosaki location is one of the most beautiful, housed in a historic Taisho-era building with a beautiful view of the park. For many Japanese, it is an obligatory stop on a trip to Aomori Prefecture.

For a more typical meal, however, we should visit the last stop on our walk, whose very name is emblematic: the Taisho Roman Tea Room. We reach it by walking along Omachi-dori Avenue for about 10-15 minutes. Here we can enjoy tea in a peaceful atmosphere, overlooking the (this time very Japanese) gardens of the building. The Taisho Roman Tea Room also has a small place in the world of Japanese pop culture: in the anime Flying Witch, set in Hirosaki, it is a magical place run by ghosts. But only those who know the secret tricks can access it: to everyone else, it looks like an old ruin. For us, however, it only takes about fifty minutes to enjoy tea, accompanied by traditional Japanese sweets such as wagashi.

We are now at the gates of the park.  We only need to walk about 10-15 minutes along Omachi-dori Avenue to get to the nearest entrance. Our exploration of Taisho-era Japan took us three to four hours, depending on how much detail we wanted to explore along the way.

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