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.