Kairakuen: Plum Perfect Pleasure

In 1842, Tokugawa Nariaki (1800-1860), ninth lord of the Mito Domain (north and central part of modern day Ibaraki Prefecture) created a pleasure garden for the enjoyment of his people. His garden, situated on a hillside above Lake Senba, a natural lake forming a defensive boundary on one side of his capital city, was dubbed Kairakuen, which literally means “garden to be enjoyed together”.

Today Nariaki’s garden is regarded as one of the three great gardens of Japan, yet it is distinctive in its design and layout with a large plum orchard, a grassy area dotted with pine trees and seasonal plants, and a large area of natural woodland. Strolling paths meander through it all.

The garden is perhaps best known for its plum orchard, with over 3,000 trees of more than 100 varieties. Ordinarily the trees bloom from early to mid-February until mid to late-March, finishing before the cherry blossom season begins. The unusually cold winter of 2022 caused the plum blossoms to be a bit late, so they are still in bloom now, at the end of March, with their delicate perfume filling the air (apologies; this blog site is not equipped with scratch-and-sniff).

The plum orchard is carefully tended, with the location and variety of each tree duly recorded. At the same time, different varieties are planted next to each other to create a more colorful visual effect during the blossom season. There are so many varieties that new trees coming up from seed must be removed; it is impossible to know what variety the new tree is.

Watch especially for the trees surrounded by six-sided bamboo fencing (see photo above). There are six such trees, the “Six Famous Trees of Mito”, so designated for their rarity, as well as the shape, scent and color of their blossoms.

During June, the plums are picked and sold. Many people regard the chance to buy Kairakuen’s plums as a very special opportunity. The Mito area has long been known for its ume-boshi (pickled plums) and recently has also started to produce tasty ume-shu (plum liqueur).

Some of the trees in the orchard are quite old. Apparently trees over 100 years old are particularly easy to spot. By the time plum trees reach that venerable age, their trunks have begun to weaken (just as the bones of humans do). In order to support themselves, the trees slowly twist their trunks into a screw-like shape. Any twisted tree is more than 100 years old and the more twisted the tree, the older it is.

As with many traditional gardens, Kairakuen also has a villa. In typical fashion, Kairakuen’s villa, known as Kobuntei, is like no other. It is designed with both entertainment and residential space. In an era when buildings of more than two stories were prohibited, Nariaki built a three story structure with the middle floor invisible from the outside. He did this to gain height and provide a better view from rooms at the top.

Nariaki particularly wanted to be able to entertain guests over a meal from the high vantage of his top floor. So he had a hand-operated dumbwaiter installed to bring meals up from the kitchen below. His guests could look out the front windows in the direction of Mito City for views of the garden and Lake Senba but it is said that they could also look in the opposite direction through the circular window for views of Mt. Fuji, far in the distance, some 200 kilometers away. The latter view is now blocked by tall trees.

The residential section of the house, most famously occupied by Nariaki’s widow from 1869 to 1873, contains rooms with fusuma screens in a variety of decorative motifs. Long after Nariaki and his widow, both the Taisho and Showa emperors stayed at Kobuntei during their time as Crown Prince. Alas, the building these historical figures stayed in was destroyed during World War II and today’s Kobuntei is a post-war reproduction, albeit faithful to the original.

Some of Kobuntei’s ground floor rooms were also designed with pretty garden views. These were also rooms in which guests gathered for meals or poetry-writing parties. One room was used for a time as a classroom and had a specially-designed door handle that could be used as a peep hole to allow the teacher to observe the behavior of unattended students without the students being aware that they were being watched.

Although March 31 is the final day of the exhibition for 2022, I can’t resist telling you about the TeamLab illumination of the garden during the blossom season. Hopefully it will take place again next year, giving more people a chance to see the clever displays. In true TeamLab style, colored lights that change colors over time feature heavily.

Lighting to show off particular features of trees is another TeamLab specialty.

Enormous illuminated eggs dotted the cedar forest, many positioned close to the path where they would change colors rapidly if touched by those passing by. Even without being touched, a kaleidoscope of colors cycled through.

Farther along, a procession of animal (and human) characters made their way through the forest, not far from the path followed by visitors.

Even after the TeamLab exhibition is gone, Kairakuen is a delightful garden in which to relax and enjoy the great outdoors. When the plum blossoms have finished, there will be cherry blossoms, followed by azaleas and, later in the summer, other flowering and decorative plants. In autumn, there is bush clover and Japan’s famous maples to delight visitors.

Kairakuen is open daily from 9:00 to 19:00 (18:00 from October 1 to February 19). Admission is JPY300. Entry in the early morning from 6:00 (7:00 during the winter period noted above) until 9:00 is free of charge, perfect for tai chi or yoga (although local residents prefer strolling in the pleasant early morning air and do more rigorous exercising near the shores of Lake Senba). Kobuntei requires a separate entry ticket: JPY200.

© 2022 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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