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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Restoring Hirosaki Castle

Dec. 15, 2015

Japanese castles are a popular destination for foreign visitors, and an important cultural resource. There are many castles across the country. But few remain in the condition they were in several hundred years ago. Most have had their towers renovated.

One of them is Himeji Castle, known as the White Heron Castle because of its shape. Crowds of visitors flock to see it every year.

Inuyama Castle, built during a period of civil war in the 16th century, has one of the oldest existing towers.

Hirosaki Castle, located in the north, is well-known for the beauty of its cherry blossoms. Built over 200 years ago, its tower is designated as one of Japan's important cultural properties.

Workers recently undertook an extraordinary project to relocate the 400-ton structure temporarily while its foundations are repaired. It had to be moved in one piece using a rare technique.

Crowds of tourists descend on Hirosaki Castle in Aomori Prefecture every spring when the cherry trees are in bloom. Kentaro Ishikawa is the craftsman entrusted with relocating the main attraction.

The stone walls on which the tower was built haven't weathered the years well. To repair them, the tower has to be moved temporarily.

Ishikawa's new project is a major challenge. It involves lifting the 400-ton structure and moving it to a temporary platform 70 meters away.

"Hikiya" is a Japanese engineering technique that dates back 500 years. It allows workers to move a building without dismantling it. A storied hotel in Tokyo was relocated 2 years ago using the technique.

Ishikawa has handled more than 30 projects, moving buildings like temples, old farm houses and schools.

"The building holds memories of the people who lived there. That's why I'm very careful when I work. It's like I'm also moving those memories."
Kentaro Ishikawa

The biggest problem is that the tower has sunk as much as 27 centimeters. If it is lifted as is, the tower could topple over. So it has to be made level first.

And then there's the front entrance. Moisture from outdoors has damaged it, particularly the foundation. And the enormous doors weigh more than 200 kilograms.

Lifting the doorway posed a challenge. Ishikawa came up with the idea of inserting pieces of wood to support the walls around it. This would reduce the risk of the doorway crumbling.

Ishikawa brings in L-shaped jacks and the workers place them under the walls. Twenty-seven jacks are placed there, and another 10 beneath the pillars. They have to be operated simultaneously. If any of one of them is raised too much, the walls could crack.

"Things don't just happen the way you want. I just think you have to make adjustments as you go. Just don't give up no matter what happens."
Kentaro Ishikawa

It's the end of July, and the day to make the tower level has arrived. It’s the most technically challenging part of the project. Workers are gathered in front of the pillars, waiting for the process to begin, and to report on how it unfolds.

Ishikawa adds pressure little by little, keeping his eye on the meters. The jacks lift, and the wood creaks. The pillars sound like they're screaming. The workers carefully measure the pillars to see how many millimeters each has risen.

Ishikawa makes a spur-of-the-moment decision about which jack to put pressure on to make the structure level. He runs to the entrance to make sure the door has lifted properly. Everything has gone as planned. They continue their delicate work, and the distortion is gradually corrected. It took a week to raise the tower 27 centimeters to level it.

It's mid-August, and time for the next step in the process.

"Let the work begin!" the Hirosaki Mayor announces.

The gap below the tower gradually widens. The structure is eventually lifted 60 centimeters. It can finally be moved.

They work carefully to avoid the valuable cherry trees and guide the tower toward its new platform. The structure has to be rotated twice along the way.

An event is organized to give people an opportunity to experience "hikiya" and to pique their interest in Hirosaki Castle. It draws almost 4,000 participants over the course of a week.

Participants pull on ropes attached to the castle and gradually shift its location. "It was tiring," says a male participant. "I was really happy that it moved," says another.

At the end of October, the tower arrives at its temporary home 70 meters from its foundations. It's taken 2 months of work to get here.

"Now the work is done, I want to thank the Hirosaki Castle. I want it to relax on the temporary platform."
Kentaro Ishikawa

The tower will be returned to its original foundation once the repairs are complete. The next move is planned for 6 years from now.


NEWSROOM TOKYO anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya comment on the renovation.

Beppu: That whole process must have taken incredible team work.

Shibuya: Yes, I heard Ishikawa spent 4 months living near the castle. He spent all his time with his staff, eating and sleeping in the same quarters. That helped boost cooperation and maximize their chances of success.