Kairakuen's Plum Blossom Festival (+ Japan's 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 a 40 minute drive south! In general, Kairakuen is a pretty park, but I’ve seen much more breathtaking places during my travels around Japan. I do like to go and walk there on sunny days--Senba Lake is just across the road and is full of swans and ducks eager to be fed, swan paddle boats to go explore the different fountains in the lake, and locals of all ages out for some exercise on the distance-marked path around the lake. It’s a great place for a local experience to go chill out and enjoy a beautiful day.
The real reason though that this park holds the title as one of the most beautiful is evident in late February through March, when the weather is thinking about warming but it’s still cold enough to wonder if spring is a thing that actually exists. During these two months Kairakuen hosts the 梅祭り (ume matsuri), the Plum Blossom Festival! With about 100 different kinds of plum trees on the grounds, blossoming in vibrant colors ranging from snow white all the way through to deep red, and with over 3,000 individual trees planted, the park is a riot of color and the air all over the city is fragrant and sweet (it seriously smells like candy for miles around).
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. For some reason (probably having to do with me usually being a solo female traveler) in 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 over a dozen times, but never had any of my random questions answered. I love how passionate all these locals are about their region's history, and it's really been working to my advantage! Nowhere else in the world have I encountered so many unpaid, amateur historians hanging out near major landmarks with the sole purpose of sharing their knowledge with tourists. These are my kind of people!
I learned that 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 (though 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 (gotta love that festival food), we strolled among the trees and tried not to hit too many people with our umbrellas. Along the way we also 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 and financial year in Japan starts with the blooming of sakura in April? You’re welcome.).
The conclusion: If you’re in Japan in the spring Mito and Kairakuen are definitely worth a trip, especially the weekend with the night lighting and fireworks (usually takes place on a Saturday in the middle of the festival). At 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 get some exercise in a historical park and meet the locals out for a run or a power walk while you're at it!