Plum Blossoms: Harbingers of Spring

One of the many things I love about winter in Japan is that it is the season when plum trees bloom (at least in the coastal areas).  I admire the tenacity of those little flowers, which open themselves in the dead of winter and continue to bloom–and send their pretty fragrance into the cold winter air–for several weeks.  They truly herald the coming of spring.

Plum trees often grace the gardens of private homes and the grounds of shrines and temples.  They are particularly popular on the grounds of any shrine dedicated to the scholar-god Sugawara no Michizane, as I have written elsewhere.

As much as we might enjoy the plum blossoms in these contexts, my favorite way to view plum blossoms is in a plum garden, where the entire park is dedicated to plum trees.

The plum blossom is the official flower of Tokyo’s Ota Ward, which maintains a plum garden in the Ikegami neighborhood.  Known in English as Ikegami Baien Park, it is a hillside park located behind Ikegami Honmonji temple.  The park contains 370 plum trees and 800 azalea bushes, as well as three historical tea houses, making it a very pleasant place for a stroll any time of year, but especially this time of year.

Stairs and a catwalk allow visitors to ascend the hill to enjoy a panoramic view of the trees, which are of 30 different varieties.  On a very clear day it is possible to see Mt. Fuji from the top of the hill, too.

The catwalk also enables visitors to get close enough to the blossoms to enjoy both their detail and their fragrance.  As you will see, different trees have different colored blossoms, ranging from pure white to pale pink to a pink so dark that it is almost red.

As the blossoms are at their best in February, the neighborhood association is currently selling snacks and hot drinks on weekends, contributing to the festive “flower viewing” atmosphere and encouraging visitors to linger, even in the cold.

Later this month, the park will be host to a number of special events as well.

  • On February 25 from 12:45 to 16:00, the Ota Tourist Association is offering a guided walking tour that commences from the east exit of Nishi-magome subway station with stops at the Ota Folk Museum (interesting displays on the history and industry of Ota Ward), the former homes of 4 famous Japanese authors of the early 20th century, and Ikegami Honmonji Temple, and concluding at the Ikegami Baien Park.  Although the tour is advertised only in Japanese, most of the tourist association’s volunteer guides speak enough English that even someone with limited Japanese skill could enjoy the tour.  However, you might need a Japanese speaking friend to help you reserve your place on the tour using these instructions.  There is a participation fee of JPY500.
  • On February 26 from 11:00 to 14:00, the park will host “Japan Day”, an event to encourage Japanese and foreign visitors to mingle and enjoy the park together.  One hundred visitors (first come, first served) will have the chance to participate in tea ceremony in one of the tea houses or to help pound mochi (rice cakes), another traditional winter activity.  On the same day, Minami-no-in (just around the corner from the park) will be the site of a “Plum Festival” from 10:00 to 15:00, a small fair featuring local handicrafts and various kinds of food and drink, including a special “Ike-meshi” bento box lunch for just JPY800.

While you’re at Ikegami Baien Park, be sure to check out the three tea houses, all historic buildings from the early 20th century that have been moved here to preserve them.  Although advance reservations are required to use the interiors, many people still enjoy the houses from the outside.

The grounds of the park offer many pleasant features besides the plum trees and the tea houses.  These include water features as well as various boulders and stone lanterns.

One of the most interesting water features is suikinkutsu (lit. “water harp cave”), a small fountain which gurgles musically when additional water is poured into its drain.  The sound is enhanced when listened to through a bamboo tube.  Now that is something you don’t see every day, even in Japan!

Access:

  • 10 minute walk from Nishi-magome subway station
  • 20 minute walk from Ikegami Station on the Tokyu Ikegami Line
  • 2 minute walk from “Honmonji-ura” bus stop when taking the 森06 or 森07 bus from Omori Station (these two buses run in a loop, one clockwise and one counterclockwise and also pass Magome subway station)

Admission: Adults, JPY100; Children, JPY20

Hours:  9 am to 4:30 pm (closed Mondays, April through January)

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