In Japan, plum blossoms mark the end of winter and the beginning of spring. There are many famous spots to view the beautiful red, pink and white plum blossoms. One of the best places to go during this season is Kairakuen in Mito City, the capital of Ibaraki Prefecture.
Kairakuen is ranked as one of the three most beautifully landscaped gardens in Japan. It was made by the ninth feudal lord of Mito, Tokugawa Nariaki, over a hundred years ago during the glorious Edo period. “Kairakuen” means “park to be enjoyed together.” The park was named as such because it was made not only for the ruling lord to enjoy, but also for the common people. Moreover, the idea of the park was inspired from a Confucian phrase “tension and relaxation”. It was meant to be a place for people to relax the mind and body after an intense literary and military training in the Kodokan. The Kodokan used to be a school for the children of feudal lords and warriors.
The garden is very accessible to tourists. It is a two-hour regular railway ride from Ueno Station to Mito Station on the Joban Line, or an hour and a half on Fresh Hitachi Express.
To get to the park, you can either hop on the bus and ride for about 15mins, or take a 30minute scenic stroll along Sakura River lined with budding cherry blossom trees, and on towards Senba Lake. On weekends and holidays during the festival period, Joban Line makes a stop at Kairakuen Station which is just next to the garden to serve more visitors. But if you have time and do not mind the extra leg work, I would personally recommend walking on the way back. The beautiful and serene view is worth the effort. I guarantee you will be compelled to take a few short breaks to enjoy the cool breeze and the scenery as you go along. You might even like to spend more time aboard the swan boat for a little joy ride on the lake.
What to See and Do
Mito Plum Blossom Festival is held every year in Kairakuen from February 20th to March 31st. During this period, more than 3,000 plum trees of about a hundred varieties will bloom and give the garden that distinct plum blossom scent. Kodokan Hall Park also has 60 different types of plums and 800 trees in total.
Hundreds of people visit the garden not only to view the blossoms day and night, but also to take part in several cultural events held within the garden or at nearby facilities. Some of these events include calligraphy, tea ceremonies, Japanese drum performances, Japanese traditional dance, Doll Festival display, the Annual Photo Shoot and Photo Contest, and the Annual Haiku (Japanese poem) Contest. These are usually scheduled on weekends for a larger captive audience.
If itʼs impossible for you to visit during the day, you still have a chance to view the blossoms at night. The garden will be illuminated from sunset to 9 oʼclock in the evening on March 6-22. Also, the Night Plum Festival will be held on March 14th. It is one special night when visitors can take a walk and view the blossoms with candles on display and watch fireworks.
Another interesting event held during the plum season is the Plum Wine Festival. There will be 150 kinds of plum wine from different parts of Japan that you can taste! And if you donʼt know just yet, Mitoʼs delicacy is natto (fermented soy beans). So there will be a Natto Speed-Eating International Contest, too! Challengers, anyone?
The road along the parkʼs entrances is lined with food shops and souvenir stores. Pickled plums and a plethora of other plum goodies are available for purchase, and sometimes for a free taste, at these shops. Plum blossom scents/perfumes are also sold here. And of course, the usual Japanese festival favorites also pitch their tents in the area. So there is always something to satisfy a hungry stomach and an active child.
Part of the Japanese flower viewing culture is having a picnic in the gardens with family, friends, or colleagues. Local tourists usually bring packed meals (bento) and find a spot to eat, relax and enjoy the blossoms. Other seasonal flowers also bloom in the garden such as cherry blossoms, azaleas, wisteria and bush clover. Apart from the flowers, there are also cedar trees, a bamboo grove, wooden gates and lawns.
A visit to Kairakuen wonʼt be complete without entering the Kobuntei. It is a traditional Japanese style building that holds educational and recreational activities throughout the year. Visitors will have to pay a fee to enter the facility. But it will be worth it as the building offers a magnificent view of the park and Senba Lake from its top floor (Rakujyuro). According to history, Lord Tokugawa Nariaki used to invite writers and artists to this pavilion. They would have parties there and compose traditional Japanese verses. Also, the annex of the building used to house the lordʼs wife and entourage.
If youʼve got nothing planned yet for the Hanami season, consider heading up to Mito and have some cultural fun against the backdrop of its beautiful garden Kairakuen.
Website (in English): http://koen.pref.ibaraki.jp/foreign_language/en/kairakuen/