Kairaku-en, Ume Matsuri and the Return of the Volunteer Tour Guides!
Located in Mito City in Ibaraki Prefecture, Kairakuen (偕楽園) has been designated as one of the three most beautiful parks in Japan. And lucky me, I only live about 40 minutes drive south! In general, Kairakuen is a pretty park, but I’ve seen much more breathtaking places in my Japan Journies. I do like to go and walk there on sunny days; Senba Lake is right across a small bridge and is full of swans and ducks eager to be fed, swan paddle boats to explore the different fountains, and locals of all ages out for some exercise on the path around the lake that tells you how far you’ve gone. It’s a nice place to go and chill out.
The real reason this park holds the title as one of the most beautiful is evident in early spring, when the weather is thinking about warming but it’s still cold enough to wonder if spring is a thing that actually exists. In late February and all through March, Kairakuen hosts the 梅祭り (うめまつり), the Plum Blossom Festival! With about 100 different kinds of plum trees on the grounds, blossoming in vibrant colors ranging from snow white to blushing pink to a deep red, and over 3,000 individual trees the park is a riot of color and the air all over the city is fragrant and sweet.
Kairakuen was originally thought up and constructed by Tokugawa Nariaki, a prominent daimyo (feudal lord) of Japan in the 1800’s, for the relaxation and enjoyment of both nobility and the common people. His favorite tree was a plum tree in spring, and this park showcases that love quite well!
And where did I acquire all these facts? The internet? A tourist office? You’d think so wouldn’t you? No… I’ve apparently been blessed with an air of extreme approachability. Something that screams, “come and talk to me! I’m a nice person!” As a result, almost every place I’ve visited, at at least one tourist hot spot, I’ve been approached and guided around by passionate volunteer tour guides! I’ve seen closed up research labs in Tsukuba’s botanical gardens, been led through the servant’s quarters and princess’s room in the outer wall of Himeji Castle, received prayers for my continuing health and beauty at the correct shrines at a complex in Kyoto, been taken around archaeological digs and told stories about the original Imperial Palace site in Nara and now I got a narrated tour of a park I’ve been to a dozen times, but never have I had so many of my random questions answered!
The bamboo in the large grove is great for making bows (the weapon, not the accessory!), there are also types of cute mini-bamboo, the cedars and large bamboo are about 170 years old but the large cedar near the natural spring is close to 800! And don’t drink the spring water. (Too bad I already broke that rule before I knew any better. As in last week… Ah well. I’m alive, it’s all good!)
Anyway, he left when I did eventually locate the friends I was (originally late, but now very late in) meeting but not before pointing out the best tent for umeshu (梅酒), Japanese Plum Wine. At the festival, you pay a set price and taste as many different kinds of umeshu as you please! The cups are tiny but you can go back to your favorites as much as you want!
Along with umeshu, plum pervades every single product at this festival, though that makes sense right? Plum ice cream, plum soda, pickled plums, plum flavor filled pastries, plum cartoon characters, plum sauce on fish and vegetables and mochi; and yet nowhere did I actually see a whole natural plum. Go figure, they were plum out! (Sorry, not sorry.)
After stuffing our faces with ice cream, pastries, and soda (all plum flavor of course!) as well as okonomiyaki and yakisoba, we strolled among the trees and tried not to hit too many people with our umbrellas. Along the way we encountered a traditional Shinto-style wedding! Spring is a popular time for weddings here because your photos can be taken in front of ume and sakura (cherry blossoms)! Both are representative of new beginnings (ever wonder why the school year starts with the blooming of sakura in April? You’re welcome.)
The diagnosis: If you’re in Japan in the spring Mito and Kairakuen are definitely worth a trip, especially the day with the night lighting and fireworks that usually takes place on a Saturday in the middle of the festival. Other times of the year it’s still a very pretty destination if you’re already in the area and it makes a good place to meet locals out for a run or a power walk!