Arriving in Japan too early for cherry blossoms? Don’t worry, Kairakuen’s plum blossoms bloom early, and they’re equally spectacular.
Every spring, travelers flock to Japan for cherry blossom viewing, but cherry blossoms (or sakura) aren’t the only flower worth viewing in Japan. Plum blossoms may be the national flower of China, revered for their ability to bloom even surrounded by the snow of early spring, but they bloom just as beautifully in Japan’s gardens, and they act as the true heralds of spring.
But plum blossom viewing just isn’t quite as widespread and everyday as with sakura, which means that gardens that maintain particularly large numbers of the trees are extra popular in the first week or two of March, when the plum blossoms burst into bloom. And one of those famous plum blossom destinations is a garden a few hours north of Tokyo: Kairakuen.
Hidden away two to three hours from Tokyo, in Mito, Ibaraki, is Kairakuen Garden. The name might be new to you, but it’s actually one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, alongside the famous gardens of Kenrokuen in Kanazawa and Korakuen in Okayama. The name Kairakuen (偕楽園) means “a garden to enjoy with people,” and after Nariaki Tokugawa completed the garden in the 1840s, he took the novel step of actually opening the private park so it could also be enjoyed by the general public―a major step towards the development of public parks. To this day, Kairakuen’s more than 3,000 plum trees draw of 100 different species draw crowds of people who arrive to enjoy the pink blossoms each spring, and thanks to the wide variety of plum blossoms, the park’s plum blossom season is especially long.
To celebrate the blooming of the plum blossoms every spring, the city of Mito has been hosting its yearly Plum Blossom Festival for over 120 years! Not only can attendees enjoy the flowers in a gradient of pinks throughout the park, but the festival also includes stalls laden with plum-based snacks, and places to sample different varieties of plum wine, or “umeshu” (梅酒).
One of the must-see spots of Kairakuen is the Kobuntei building, built by the ninth lord of the Mito Domain, Noriaki Tokugawa himself. The three-story building was once used to entertain the lord’s guests, but it too is now open to the public (for a small additional fee). Climb the steep stairs to the third floor, and you’ll find an impressive view of the plum groves and Lake Senba.
As a fan of Chinese history (and historical dramas), to me the name “Kobuntei” sounded like a phrase from ancient Chinese poetry. “Kobun” is actually a variety of plum blossom, but the characters mean (very loosely translated) “good writing,” and I can’t help but imagine that Noriaki Tokugawa must have been something of a poet himself.
Many other varieties of plum blossom have equally poetic names, like Harutsugegusa (春告草), loosely “plant that heralds spring” or Kazemachigusa (風待草), “plant that waits for the wind.” These plum blossoms names were sometimes used in Japanese traditional waka poetry, too, to convey feelings like homesickness.
In addition to the elegant plum blossoms, you’ll also find elegant plum blossom “ambassadors” wearing colorful kimono around Kairakuen on weekends and holidays during the festival, ready to take pictures and celebrate plum blossoms with the crowds! And this year, Kairakuen even has a special event going on in collaboration with the ever-popular artists at TeamLab, called “Digitized Kairakuen Garden.” Don’t miss these unique plum blossom festivities!
Kairakuen Garden (偕楽園)
1-2 Tokiwacho, Mito, Ibaraki
Mito Plum Blossom Festival: Early March
Access: 20min bus from Mito Station. (Or take the JR Joban line to Kairakuen Station, open only during the festival.)
Official Website (jp)