Mito Plum Blossom Festival

Through the end of this month, Mito City is celebrating its 117th annual Ume Matsuri (Japanese plum festival).

Kairakuen was the first garden in Japan to be designed for public use.   Created by the ninth Lord of Mito, Nariaki Tokugawa, and site of his summer residence, Kairakuen offers some three thousand ume trees, a bamboo grove, sugi (Japanese cedar) grove, as well as tsutsuji (azaleas).   Kairakuen means "park to be enjoyed together" in English, and people have done so ever since.

The large, rambling, three storied house called Kobun-tei (literally "to like literature house"), with its sweeping view of Lake Senba and where Lord Tokugawa entertained guests with music and his poetry,  is also now open to the public.  Built in 1841, it was destroyed by bombing raids during World War II, but rebuilt in the late 1950s  down to the finest detail following the original plans, with shoji door artwork - each room themed to a tree, bird, or flower - being replicated by artists copying photos of the originals.  It was damaged in the Tohoku earthquake of 2011, but was repaired within a year.

The ume trees blossom at this time of year drawing throngs of visitors to enjoy their beautiful flowers and the heavenly scent which fills the air.   Plum related products - ume wines, sweets, tea, ice cream - are offered for sale.  One can even buy a potted ume tree to take home (the one we bought last year is a deep, rich, red color).   Even the rice in my bento lunch had bits of pickled ume added for flavor. 

This year there were more visitors than we had ever seen.  We even couldn't find parking below the park where we usually do, and ended up about half a kilometer behind it at the Ibaraki Prefectural Museum of History.  The upside to that location was that it was free rather than the usual ¥500 - a little over $5US -  (or even ¥1000 we saw at one private lot).   We might just choose the museum parking lot again next time.    Perhaps the crowd was because of the excellent weather, or maybe because those who had stayed away after the earthquake and nuclear disaster to the north in Fukushima, decided it was time to come back.   Japan Rail East opened its normally closed Kairakuen Station right below the park, so people in Tokyo can take a Joban Line express train from Ueno Station and be there in 80 minutes.   In fact, this festival owes its origins to that rail line which was completed in 1896 and brought people from Tokyo to the first Mito Ume Matsuri.

Since 1963, the city has selected ten young women to be Ume Taishi (Plum Ambassadors) during the festival.  They help to promote Mito businesses and products, greet visitors to the park, and pose for photos wearing kimono which are designed anew each year.   Long time readers know that Pandabonium always makes a point to have his picture taken with two or more Ume Taishi each year.

Saturday, the two Ume Taishi 'on duty' invited me to have my picture taken with them.  On the left is Risa (Lisa) and on the right is Mari.   After K took the picture I thanked them and was surprised when Mari said "Thank you very much.  Have a nice day.", in English.
After that, K wanted to seek out ume flavored soft cream. We tried a shop over by Kobuntei, but the small amount they had prepared was still in the process of freezing. On the other side of the park in the small commercial area of restaurants and shops, she found a stand selling ume soft cream at last, which she can be seen eating in one of the slides above. This is different from the similar product Americans are used to. It is creamier and not so sweet, being suited to Japanese tastes.

The pathways meander alongside groves of bamboo and Japanese cedars in addition to the ume trees, and hillsides overlooking Lake Senba and down to lower gardens, a natural spring, and some very old cedars - 800 years or more. There are thatched gates and of course, the house called Kobuntei. Even with the large number of visitors, the park offers a relaxing way to settle one's mind and reflect on the beauty that is life.



In Japan, the Spring and Autumnal Equinox, called "higan",  are celebrated by virtually all the Buddhist sects.     The practice started with Emperor Shomu in the 8th century CE.  A devout Buddhist, he was also the person responsible for the construction of the famous Daibutsu statue at Todai-ji temple in Nara.  Today, the two dates - one in Spring, the other in Fall - are national holidays. 

In Buddhism, higan - when the sun is directly overhead at noon at the equator, and day and night are of equal length - is viewed as analogous to crossing over from this life of ignorance and suffering to the "other shore" of enlightenment and peace.  Higan is a place on the mythical Sanzu river where people go after they die.  So celebration of this holiday consists of giving thanks to those who have "crossed over" before us - our ancestors.

People visit temples and offer prayers, incense, water, flowers and sometimes food at the graves of their ancestors.  It is a time of self-reflection and gratitude.   (Some time ago, the practice of leaving food was discontinued at our local Shingon Temple, as it was becoming food for crows.)

Most sects focus on the six paramitas, or spiritual perfections and a renewed determination to practice them.  This is mentioned in the local priest's chalkboard message.   These are: dana - generosity to others; shila - moral virtue and discipline;  kshanti - patience and forbearance; virya - effort, heroism;  dhyana - contemplation; and prajna - wisdom.   These being cultivated in order to attain enlightenment.

However, in Jodo Shinshu, the most popular sect in Japan, one's own efforts are not what determines enlightenment.  Rather, it is only the wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha, who has promised enlightenment to all sentient beings in the universe who entrust themselves to him, which provides the "ship" for crossing over to the Pure Land where enlightenment awaits. So the message is to aspire to practice the six paramitas, but entrust your enlightenment to Amida.

There is a bulletin at the entrance to our local temple, which as I have mentioned is of the Shingon tradition.   The priest wrote a message to remind everyone of the holiday and encourage them to pray and be thankful.   There is also a poster on the board which shows hands held together in "gasho" and describes the various reasons for doing this.  Faces have been added to indicate the emotions one feels in each instance.   Pretty cute, yeah?

The blue writing in the center says "hands together".  The red says "Namu daishi henjyou kongou"  which is a prayer of thanks for the founder of the Shingon sect. 

The left side's hands (top to bottom) say "arigatou" - thank you; "Namu daishi hen jyou kongo" - the Shingon prayer again;  "korekarawa..."  - from now on... ; and "yasurakani" - rest in peace.

The right column reads "itadakimasu" - literally, I receive this, said before eating a meal;  "okagesama" - thanks to you or thanks to Buddha (note the beads or onenju over the hands); "onegai!"  - please! (making a wish); "konnichiwa" - good day, hello.

Happy Ohigan!  Thanks to K for translating some of the kanji characters.  Thank you for reading Pacific Islander. 


New Bobsleigh from Japan

Japan's first bobsleigh.

Last year, a group of approximately forty businesses in Tokyo's Ota Ward launched a new project which they hope will bring new vitality to their economy.  They are manufacturing a bobsleigh which they hope will prove to be a winner at the next Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia next February.  Ambitious?  That's Japan.

Proposed by 36 year old Satoshi Kosugi of the Ota City Industrial Promotion Organization, the sleigh is hoped to draw world attention to Ota City's industrial capabilities.   Companies in the area signed on, combining their experiences of working with lightweight composite materials and making parts for everything from formula one racing cars to jet fighter planes.

A pair of women drove one of these bobsleighs to victory at the 2012 all-Japan championships held in Nagano Prefecture in December, so things are already looking up for the project.

Previously, Japanese teams have driven bobsleds built in other countries.

At the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, the Japanese women's team of  Manami Hino and Konomi Asazu  were a hit even though they did not win a medal, as their bobsled was painted with a woman in kimono, cherry blossoms, and Mt. Fuji.

I would like to see similar paint schemes become a tradition for Japanese bobsleigh teams.