Every year from late February through March, the ume trees in Japan come into bloom. Due to the long winter they were a bit late this year. Happily for residents of Ibaraki Prefecture, there is a park in our capital city of Mito with a thousand ume trees of over 100 varieties, as part of one of the three most highly praised landscape gardens in all Japan.
The park is called Kairakuen which means “garden to enjoy with people” and is so named because it was the first such park to be open to the public. Built in 1841 by the 9th Lord of Mito, Nariaki Tokugawa, Kairakuen covers 13 hectares (31.4 acres), about half of which is covered in ume trees. There are also cedar (sugi) and bamboo groves to enjoy. It is perched at the top of a rise overlooking Lake Senba.
He also built a villa on the hill, with superb views of landscaping and the lake (which is itself surrounded with cherry trees that bloom in April). The lines of the villa and the flow and openness of its interior space would certainly have pleased even Frank Lloyd Wright.
An aside here: Wright spent a lot of time in Japan. Japanese architecture and construction greatly influenced his work. He designed one of the two train stations in Nikko, which is still in use, as well as the Imperial Hotel, which was in Tokyo. When the hotel was replaced by a larger building, the lobby and entrance were moved to an outdoor architectural museum in Nagoya called Meiji Mura (which I highly recommend visiting).
Lord Nariaki Tokugawa was a poet and people would visit the villa to share poetry, play music, and have tea ceremonies. The villa’s name is Kobuntei, which comes from an old word for plum. I have also read – at an information table in the villa – that the kanji characters used to spell it mean “love of literature”. I am not literate in Japanese, so I don’t know which or perhaps both are correct, but either way the name is appropriate. There is a tea house, annex and main house, which is three stories. This house was destroyed near the end of World War Two, but rebuilt in the late 1950’s to the original plans. The elaborately painted sliding doors – each room has a tree or flower theme – were carefully reproduced using photos of the originals.
We had waited to see the blossoms until more than 60% of the trees were in bloom, we had a free day, and the weather looked like it might cooperate. The day we went, the weather was beautiful with totally clear skies and a temperature around 16C (61F) or so.
Parking at the base of the hill near the west end of Lake Senba, we walked through a newer section landscaped with ponds, ume, weeping willows, and pines, then up steps to the main gate of the park. The blossoms fill the air with their gentle sweet scent. There are several hues of blossoms and varieties have with single, double or triple layers of petals.
After wandering around the paths of the ume gardens, we took a lunch break, buying bento lunches. I had one like K had last year, and she had one which came as three trays stacked in an oversized plastic replica of a traditional Japanese medicine box. We found a spot on the lawn, still dry from winter, with a nice view of an ume tree and Lake Senba. We shared of course, so K had the meat portions of my lunch (except for the seafood) and I had some of her veggies.
There are shops and booths next to and within the park selling souvenirs and food items, many ume related of course. One popular product is “umeshu”, a wine made by putting green ume into shochu, a clear liquer. The most common use for ume that one sees is umeboshi, a small pickled ume, colored red, which often decorates the rice portion of a bento lunch (see the photo in this post). I like the smaller ones which tend to be less sour. Syruped ume are delicious and are used in miyabi-no-ume – sweetened ume inside of mochi rice cake. There are ume teas for sale too and one can buy postage stamps commemorating umematsuri, Kairakuen, and other Ibaraki sights.
After that nice picnic, we headed for another attraction – at least for Pandabonium - the Ume Ambassadors. Each year a number of young women are chosen as greeters to welcome people to the festival and pose in kimono for photographs. K didn’t think the two girls we saw this year were quite as pretty as the three we saw last, but I disagreed. We did agree that this year’s kimono was better, but now that compare the photos I'm not so sure. Seemed so at the time. You decide.
And for those Kuching Kayakers who recently have displayed a keen interest in (ahem) esthetics, I am posting a photo of all ten Ume Abassadors for 2006 (they take turns on duty, two or three at a time).
We walked the paths along the bamboo and through the cedars on the way out. We've made several visits here over the last year, and never tire of it.
One cedar there is 700 years old and the one next to it must be close. Next to them is a spring pouring forth prodigious amounts of water that is said to be good for one's eyes. Even with all the people at the park, and there were hundreds, there was a sense of peace, beauty and balance.
K has business in Mito City one day next week and I’ll tag along so we can take another look. More trees will have bloomed and others will have begun to lose their blossoms. I’ll also spend some time at Lake Senba and take in one of the current art exhibits nearby (Mito has some very nice museums).